My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Education Matters: Deep probing of schools needed

Amherst Bulletin
By STEVE RIVKIN and CATHERINE SANDERSON
Published on January 08, 2010

Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, President George Bush brought the nation together in a shared sense of grief and patriotism. Yet over time the meaning of patriotism appeared to devolve into one of unfettered support for the policies of an ideologically driven administration that insisted it knew the right answers. Those who criticized political or military decisions were providing aid and comfort to the enemy; those who questioned claims about weapons of mass destruction were unpatriotic; those who highlighted inconsistencies in administration arguments or the sordid histories of some Iraqi ex-patriots were deemed anti-American.

It appears that this aggressive approach to quell dissent led to far less questioning on the part of politicians and reporters, even some from our most esteemed newspapers. And though we surely do not all share a common perspective on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is little doubt that people around the world have borne substantial human and material costs from major errors in U.S. policy following 9/11 that may have been avoided with a more unfettered debate and the type of hard questions most likely to lead to good decision-making.

Although the consequences of any problems in the Amherst schools surely pale in comparison to the human and financial costs to the U.S. of more than 4,000 killed, 10 times that many seriously wounded, and over $1 trillion spent on the two conflicts, we find unfortunate similarities in the attitude toward dissent and criticism from many in our schools who adhere to strong beliefs, often grounded in ideology, about education. Those who question the merits of an unprecedented required ninth-grade science curriculum, our unique approach to differentiated instruction, or the lack of challenge in particular subjects and grades are branded elitist; those who question the grouping of children into elementary schools on the basis of language spoken at home or ethnicity are called racist; those who question the merits of the trimester system, the desirability of reform mathematics in the elementary school, or the intellectual content of the middle school curriculum are deemed anti-teacher. This hostility to dissent seems entirely out of place in an academic community in which critical thinking should be particularly valued.

Rigorous questioning and criticism of current school policies, practices and curricula is uncomfortable for both the questioned and the questioner, and this discomfort is surely magnified in a small community in which teachers, administrators and elected School Committee members are often neighbors, colleagues, our children's coaches and friends. And the desire to come together in support of our schools and other public institutions - particularly during very difficult economic times - provides a powerful force against rocking the boat.

Yet it seems inexplicable to us that evidence on the Massachusetts Department of Education Web site showing we spend far more than the state average and surrounding districts can be dismissed so easily as merely a reporting anomaly. It seems inexplicable to us that there has been so little investigation of our decision-making processes, particularly given the uniqueness of many of our programs and the poor performance of many of our students most at risk. It seems inexplicable to us that the $1.5 million our regional schools pay each year to vocational and charter schools for students living in Amherst who chose not to attend our schools has not prompted an investigation. It seems inexplicable to us that so few questions have been raised about the recent School Committee practice of not reviewing detailed, line item budgets.

As uncomfortable as it is to raise these tough questions about our school system, we strongly believe that a lack of public scrutiny by parents, community members and particularly elected officials and reporters has real and lasting consequences for our children and our community. We feel this failure to ask probing, uncomfortable questions about the unique ways we do education in Amherst damages the quality of our schools and strength of our public institutions.

Catherine Sanderson and Steve Rivkin are Amherst College professors and members of the Amherst School Committee.

80 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great article!
Ali

LarryK4 said...

Now if I were your editor I would have nixed the first 2.5 paragraphs as a very delayed lead. Otherwise, good stuff.

As was Stan Gawle's cruise missile that hit dead center, on target, without a delayed lead.

Anonymous said...

Larrey Kelly doesn't like using the touchstone of the Bush Administration's penchant for demonizing dissent as anti-American or pro-terrorist (I.E. "with us or with the terrorists") but he has no issue, apparently, using military weapons of destruction as metaphor to make his point. Well done Larrey.

There probably is no metaphor that is more clearly apparent to so many people or more clearly unifying than the one CS and SR chose for this Amherst audience (except for, of course, the GOP faithful who never identified that characteristic in the Bush administration.) Metaphors are not perfect, one's audience is not uniform and Larrey Kelly is not your journalism professor.

Now if I were your editor, I'd suggest night school .. but this isn't really about journalism is it? It's about education and I hope we can return to that topic promptly without any further interruption.

jm said...

No one likes to be questioned but is ironic that the resistence is so fierce when the schools are supposed to be teaching students critical thinking skills. Taxpayers just write the checks, parents just pretend that you aren't seeing what you are seeing, and teachers who disagree time to sit down and stay in your seats. Keep asking these questions, Catherine and Steve. We need the answers.

Anonymous said...

Long time coming...

Anonymous said...

So you are using the tragedy of war to compare to our little town and your inability to get everyone to jump in line behind you.

Your shallow, trite nature continues to evlove and show itself to the community.

Obviously, you have never known anyone who has fought in a real war, anyone who has killed in a war or died in a war. War is not a small town school committee dispute.

What's next Hiroshima?

When a writer, and I use the term loosely, goes to such extremes, it is a sign of insecurity and ignorance.

Please leave the war, the soldiers and all of that tragdey out of this little issue.

Your kid will get into Princeton. She is a legacy, after all.

Anonymous said...

Once again, CS doesn't use "the war" as a metaphor but the Bush Administration as a metaphor for quelling descent.

Larry Kelly also does not use "the war" but does use war imagery; "cruise missile that hit dead center, on target, without a delayed lead." referring to a point Stan made.

I'm curious, if you think CS's metaphor means her kid will go to Princeton, where do you think Larry's kid go to college? See what I did there? I twisted what you said just as you twisted what CS said. Thank you. Come Again, Anon @ 10:35 AM

Anonymous said...

10:35 a.m.: The writers were not in any way comparing our town's situation with war. That's a willful misreading.
Also, it's hard to follow the logic leap that this CO-written column could get her child into college. I don't believe colleges collect parent essays.
(And I don't know Ms. Sanderson's story, but how do you know she hasn't been touched by war?)

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Anonymous 12:47 p.m. for using the phrase "willful misreading".

That seems to happen a lot around here.

Perhaps the war and 9/11 imagery was a distraction, but I see a lot of interesting issues being raised here. I'm not afraid to disagree with Catherine, but I like the provocative quality of this piece as opposed to the pap we usually get on the Commentary page.

And yes, there is a tendency in town to tag various lines of inquiry with some odious label like "racist" and then to dismiss them.

I think that there are some frayed feelings about Mark's Meadow showing here.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

The op ed makes precisely the right point.

In Amherst if you do not agree with school administrators you are subject to personal criticism - and perhaps harassment. Just ask SPED parents.

Thank you for your op ed. We need to pay more attention to reality in Amherst. We are now in a real fight to recover the opportunities the SC of Brighty and Churchill wasted.

We now see clearly what ten years of blithe disregard of school committee responsibility does to a district. Today is what happens when the SC is asleep at the wheel. You have my support (anonymous as it may be) in cleaning house.

Perhaps a clean administrative slate that uses data rather than political calculations to inform decisions is REQUIRED to begin to rebuild our system.

Anonymous said...

In a town that is as wedded to the current status quo in almost all of its details as any conservative cow-town would be, I think that a little provocation of the type that Rivkin and Sanderson are doing is required. That doesn't mean that they should win every argument. It doesn't mean they should get their whole agenda.

But these are two rather formidable intellects who seem to be working hard for our schools. We've had the very occasional slacker on SC who did not work hard. Keeping that in mind, do you want this quality of thought, ultimately right or ultimately wrong, of these two professors on or off the Committee?

What I see in the Tierkel screed is exclusively a criticism of Catherine's attitude, tone, and political style. I've had a similar criticism directed at me, too, as if we all need lessons in proper political presentation and tone from "Amherst Center" before we can be heard.

But what about the laundry list of undiscussed issues in their column? No engaging on that stuff to be found. And so he oddly and immediately demonstrates vividly the point that Rivkin and Sanderson were making: we never get to the substance because we're too busy "being offended".

But I was pleased to see that I'm not the only one who can push Baer's buttons. The "collateral damage" he mentioned, however, is primarily to him.

Rich Morse

LarryK4 said...

The "Amherst Center" folks want Catherine to fall into lockstep while chanting the Override mantra OR, failing that, try to destroy her credibility.

I think they will miss the mark on both counts.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Ali - thanks! We've gotten a lot of positive feedback (and then some very strong criticism as well).

Larry - I agree with the lead-in (my spouse said the same thing last weekend) ... we just wanted to make sure we were setting up the point and the parallel, and yes, it should have been shorter!

Anonymous 2:29 - I too hope we can focus on education ... and the role of thoughtful questions in making good educational decisions.

JM - thanks for the support. I really do not understand the resistance to questions, and I do believe that tax payers and parents have a right to question the decisions that are made about education in Amherst (particularly since so many of them are so unique).

Anonymous 8:22 - not sure if I understand your point ... can you clarify?

Anonymous 10:35 - if you read the piece carefully, you will see that we are not comparing our schools to war ... we are comparing the hostility to dissent in Amherst to what happened post-9/11 with the Bush administration. I think the analogy is apt. I don't need, want, or expect anyone to jump in line behind me -- what I have hoped, and continue to hope, is that people engage with the substance of the questions -- and not engage in personal attacks (as you do in your anonymous post). Although you clearly don't know me (or you would know that I come from a military family), you feel comfortable making a personal attack again, about me and my writing, and not about the substance of the questions I'm raising about the Amherst schools. Finally, I know my kids will be OK -- hey, I went to Stanford and Princeton so I'm doing really well in terms of the legacy advantage. But this isn't just about me or my kids and it isn't just about getting my kids into a great college (I am pretty sure I could do that without spending 20+ hours a week on the School Committee) -- it is about making sure that all kids in the Amherst schools (even those without parents with PhDs and Ivy League degrees) experience school as a rich, challenging, and engaging place. I'm sorry if you disagree with that agenda.

Anonymous 11:40 - thank you for clarifying the nature of the methaphor ... to the lack of dissent post-9/11 and not 9/11 or the war itself.

Anonymous 12:47 - I agree that it is willful misreading ... and unfortunately, this seems to be yet another tool to quell dissent and cling to the status quo (let's kill the messenger/questioner).

Rich - I agree that willful misreading is an apt description, and that dissent is too often quelled with personal attacks ... as I believe has happened with this column already -- I see few engaging with the substance of the piece ("isn't questioning good?") and many engaging with the lead in in what seems to be a deliberate misreading ("what is happening in our schools is exactly what occurred on 9/11").

Anonymous 7:26 - I certainly agree that we did not get to where we are overnight ... and that ultimately, the SC evaluates the superintendent and sets expectations to make sure that the schools are on the right track. I hope all Amherst residents will think carefully about who they elect to SC this spring and make sure that they are voting for those who share their vision of what the Amherst schools should be, and how to get there.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Rich - I believe curious blog readers will want to check out Larry Kelly's blog (Only in the Republic of Amherst) to see the letter you are referring to! And thank you for your thoughtful comments about the questions we raise and the effort we are bringing forth. I believe the attacks on my tone and style are really attempts to maintain the status quo ... I just haven't seen evidence that major change can occur in an entirely positive and friendly way. Those who are committed to the status quo obviously aren't in favor of change ... so there isn't a way to bring about change in a way that makes everyone feel good. I share Baer Tierkel's belief that it would be super if change could occur in a really positive and support and friendly way ... but I don't see that happening, and I see efforts to make change in that way as entirely ineffective (and meanwhile, kids are going through our schools and won't get another chance). I definitely offended some people by my open advocacy for closing Marks Meadow ... and people were concerned about my tone. But closing Marks Meadow was the right decision for all kids, and for our town, and I do not believe that decision would have been made without someone (that would be me, in this case) being the "bad guy" (and thus accused of using a bad tone, having a bad style, etc.). And I share your view that focusing on style/personality/tone is much less useful than focusing on the substance of what I'm saying.

Larry - I agree that there is anger from some in the Amherst Center about my reluctance to support an override at this time (I haven't made up my mind whether I will support one, oppose one, or stay neutral), and that may indeed be leading to the type of criticism I'm receiving. I believe that all voters will have to weigh the evidence that is out there to decide whether to support an override this spring, and that reasonable people who care deeply about our town (and our schools) will reach different opinions about whether to support an override and why. I would hope that we could understand these different views and respect them, even if they are different from our own.

Rick said...

My take on this:

It was not the best analogy to use; comparing the critics of the Bush war(s) (“those who questioned claims about weapons of mass destruction”) with critics of the Amherst Schools. By their own admission “…the consequences of any problems in the Amherst schools surely pale in comparison to the human and financial costs to the U.S. of more than 4,000 killed…”. The analogy was made to attract attention, and it did.

But the main problem I have with the article is that it doesn’t inform the community with facts or data, which is what we are supposed to be driven by.

Here is a list of the issues mentioned by the authors:

1. “an unprecedented required ninth-grade science curriculum”
2. “unique approach to differentiated instruction”
3. “the lack of challenge in particular subjects and grades”
4. “those who question the grouping of children into elementary schools on the basis of language spoken at home or ethnicity”
5. “those who question the merits of the trimester system”
6. “reform mathematics in the elementary school”
7. “the intellectual content of the middle school curriculum”
8. “evidence on the Massachusetts Department of Education Web site showing we spend far more than the state average”
9. “little investigation of our decision-making processes”
10. “the uniqueness of many of our programs”
11. “the poor performance of many of our students most at risk”
12. “the $1.5 million our regional schools pay each year to vocational and charter schools”
13. “School Committee practice of not reviewing detailed, line item budgets.”

Rather than inform the public in a newspaper article that bringing any of these things up gets you branded as “elitist”, “anti-teacher” or “racist”, wouldn’t it be better to give some facts about each of these? Yes that is done on this blog, but WAY more people see the Bulletin than see this blog. This article has given the vast majority of the Amherst public the impression that the entire school system is a monolithic wall that is against change of any kind, and probably will have the effect not of changing it for the better, but of running away from it.

So for example, take “reform mathematics in the elementary school”. What’s the recommendation here? What the status? Is that being reviewed by ARPS? Has a motion been made by the SC to do so? What is it they are not doing that they should be doing on that issue? Ditto for all of the above.

Continued below…

Rick said...

Then there are items mentioned in the above list that actually ARE happening, such as trying to correct this one: “School Committee practice of not reviewing detailed, line item budgets.” That’s one of the first things called for by the Budget Advisory Committee when it first met on December 21. We asked for a line item budget in the same (or similar) format as Northampton’s. (See bottom of this for status) We had a fantastic meeting yesterday, where all were pleased in the direction things were moving. It’s a group with a very “let’s-get-the-public-what-it-wants” attitude. And SC members who have attended have likewise shown a great attitude.

BTW Alison Donta-Venman is doing a fantastic job as chairperson. Also, we hope to have information about the group on the ARPS site soon, but need permission to post there since the group is obviously not part of ARPS administration. It sounds like we will get such permission, but worse case is we will just create a separate site and link to that.

--

Status of line-item budget: ARPS has a line item budget and I believe it was given to the SC yesterday for FY2011 budget (2010/2011 school year). It’s also going to be on the website soon . However, it is not as detailed as Northampton’s and it is not as easy to understand. For example, while it is broken out by department (e.g. English Department) it lumps all salaries together instead of having individual position salaries shown. Also, it doesn’t currently show FTEs, but they are in the process of adding that. Unfortunately we are not going to get a Northampton style budget for 2011 (which means less than a month from now). It’s just too much work on top of the other work ARPS financial people already are doing – who are busting their butts to do a good job of documenting 2011 cuts and doing it way sooner than we have gotten that info in the past.

To be clear ARPS definitely wants such a budget and it was agreed that the committee would work on what it thinks the ideal format would be (probably close to Northampton’s) and present that to ARPS, asking that they do that as soon as they can.

Rick said...

"But closing Marks Meadow was the right decision for all kids, and for our town, and I do not believe that decision would have been made without someone (that would be me, in this case) being the "bad guy" (and thus accused of using a bad tone, having a bad style, etc.)."

I totally agree with that and that. You should be commended for your leadership on that – we have at least $700,000 more to work in 2011 because of it.

But “bad guy” and “bad tone” are two different things.

Pushing for what is unpopular, but the right thing to do – which you did for MM – you did as far as I can tell with a “good tone”. You made a rational argument in a rational tone.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Rick - thank you for your thoughtful post. I believe that the analogy is indeed apt -- the Bush administration quelled dissent through certain labels, and many in Amherst use a very similar strategy to quell dissent here. The point of our piece was that we think open questioning is good and healthy -- regardless of whether all sides agree, this type of debate should be valued, and it isn't. I continue to believe that is true, and I frankly see the attacks on this piece as largely making our point (e.g., lets attack the analogy to Bush and not engage with the substance).

But since you have in your post debated the substance, which I do appreciate (!), let me respond. In almost all of the cases we list, and you list in your post, Steve and I have attempted to get information/data and have failed.

1. “an unprecedented required ninth-grade science curriculum”

WE HAVE ASKED ON REPEATED OCCASIONS IN PUBLIC AND IN PRIVATE FOR AN EVALUATION OF THIS CURRICULUM. THAT HAS NEVER OCCURRED.

2. “unique approach to differentiated instruction”

WE HAVE ASKED IN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE FOR AN EVALUATION OF EXTENSIONS. THAT HAS NEVER OCCURRED.

3. “the lack of challenge in particular subjects and grades”

WE HAVE ASKED IN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE FOR AN EVALUATION OF THE MIDDLE SCHOOL -- THAT REPORT IS BEING DONE NOW (I BELIEVE), BUT WE EXPERIENCED CONSIDERABLE CRITICISM FOR HAVING MADE THIS REQUEST -- INCLUDING IN THE AMHERST BULLETIN.

4. “those who question the grouping of children into elementary schools on the basis of language spoken at home or ethnicity”

THIS CHANGE HAS BEEN MADE, BUT AGAIN, WE BOTH TOOK CONSIDERABLE HEAT FOR EVEN RAISING THIS QUESTION AND WERE CALLED RACISTS.

5. “those who question the merits of the trimester system”

WE HAVE ASKED REPEATEDLY IN PUBLIC AND IN PRIVATE FOR A REVIEW OF THE TRIMESTER SYSTEM. THIS HAS NEVER HAPPENED.

6. “reform mathematics in the elementary school”

WE HAVE ASKED REPEATEDLY IN PUBLIC AND IN PRIVATE FOR A REVIEW OF ELEMENTARY SCHOOL MATH. THAT MAY BE HAPPENING -- BUT I DON'T KNOW THAT IT IS (AND WE STARTED ASKING PRIVATELY AND NICELY IN 2006).

7. “the intellectual content of the middle school curriculum”

AS NOTED ABOVE, WE ASKED FOR AN EVALUATION OF THE MS CURRICULUM AND THAT REPORT MAY BE COMING -- WE HAVEN'T SEEN IT YET.

8. “evidence on the Massachusetts Department of Education Web site showing we spend far more than the state average”

WE RAISED THIS ISSUE AND WERE TOLD THAT THESE NUMBERS WERE OLD, THAT THESE NUMBERS WEREN'T ACCURATE, AND THAT WE SPEND THE SAME AS BROOKLINE SO THAT IS ALL GOOD. THERE HAS TO THE BEST OF OUR KNOWLEDGE BEEN ZERO CONCERN WITH UNDERSTANDING WHY WE SPEND SO MUCH MORE THAN OTHER LOCAL DISTRICTS.

9. “little investigation of our decision-making processes”

WE SEE NO EVIDENCE THAT THERE IS A DESIRE TO USE DATA-DRIVEN DECISION-MAKING OUR COMPARISON WITH OTHER DISTRICTS. OUR DECISION-MAKING PROCESS IS DRIVEN BY INTUITION AND ANECDOTE.

10. “the uniqueness of many of our programs”

AGAIN, WE HAVE MANY UNIQUE PROGRAMS AND WE HAVE ZERO EVIDENCE THAT DATA HAS BEEN USED TO EVALUATE ANY OF THEM.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me, continued:

11. “the poor performance of many of our students most at risk”

MANY OF OUR STUDENTS ARE NOT DOING WELL -- ESPECIALLY IN MATH, BUT ALSO IN OTHER AREAS. WE SEE NO CONCERN WITH EXAMINING THE WHY IN TERMS OF LOOKING TO OTHER DISTRICTS OR LOOKING TO DATA.

12. “the $1.5 million our regional schools pay each year to vocational and charter schools”

I'VE ASKED FOR EXIT SURVEYS TO BE DONE IN PUBLIC AND IN PRIVATE. AND I'VE BEEN TOLD THIS ISN'T A PRIORITY FOR OUR DISTRICT.

13. “School Committee practice of not reviewing detailed, line item budgets.”

THE SC CHANGED THE PRACTICE OF REVIEWING AND VOTING ON LINE BY LINE ITEMS SEVERAL YEARS AGO, AND IN FACT REQUESTED NOT TO RECEIVE A LINE BY LINE BUDGET. WE HAVE YET TO RECEIVE ANY LINE BY LINE BUDGET FOR THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS, AND THE REGIONAL BUDGET IS PRODUCED IN A WAY THAT MAKES IT IMPOSSIBLE TO TELL HOW MANY TEACHERS/STAFF ARE EMPLOYED. THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT THE SC WILL BE REVIEWING LINE BY LINE AMOUNTS, AS WAS PREVIOUSLY THE PRACTICE.


in addition, we've made MANY of these points in prior OpEds in the Bulletin -- we've discussed the extensions model, the unique approach to differentiation, the unprecedented required ecology course in 9th grade, and the trimester/semester issue. We have engaged in extensive debate about challenge and homework and differentiation in many columns -- the point of this column was to illustrate the attempt to silence such debate about these important issues (as has occurred each time we discuss these issues).


You ask specifically about the state of "reform mathematics". So, let me be clear about how we handled our concerns about this area:

1. In the fall of 2006, we met with parents (including parents of color and math/engineering professors) who were concerned about the Investigations curriculum. We wrote a thoughtful letter to Jere Hochman, Andy Churchill and Elaine Brighty, and we met with them to share our concerns.

2. Jere appointed a math council in 2007, and I was appointed to this council. This council met for a year, and did nothing -- reviewed some data (showing that a lot of kids in elementary and middle school were bored and not challenged at all, and that a lot of teachers had concerns about Investigations), and then did nothing. In fact, the latest version of Investigations was bought at a cost of $75,000.

3. In 2008, as a member of the math curriculum council and a member of SC, I asked for a review of elementary school math. I was told that this was not a priority.

4. In 2009, Steve joined the SC, and we both asked for elementary school math to be reviewed. Finally, this year, it is on the goals list for the superintendent - which is 3+ years since we first asked for this review. I don't know when the review will be completed, or what (if any) data will be used.

In sum, we have tried -- and it has taken 3+ years for a review of our elementary mathematics curriculum to even be on the goals list -- and in the meantime, many kids (especially low income kids and kids of color) are failing to make AYP on math MCAS in elementary schools. That strikes me as a LONG time for any change to even begin to be made.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Rick - Steve and I raised the issue that the SC does NOT currently review line by line amounts in the budget -- which in fact was past practice. Simply receiving that information (if it was given in a more useful form) is not the same as reviewing it in a public meeting and discussing each line, as used to happen in Amherst under prior SCs. That practice has not in fact changed, and although I do agree that the budget advisory group is a good idea (and that Alison is a fabulous chair), I remain highly concerned that the SC is not reviewing each line to understand each part of the budget and how it impacts education.

Finally, although you commend the MM decision and my leadership on that (thank you!), let's remember that I was accused publicly repeatedly (on this blog, on other blogs, at meetings, in the press, on listserves, etc.) of being racist, ignoring data, being against children, etc. (and that continues in the Bulletin with some regularity). There was not an objective and honest discussion of the merits of keeping MM open -- there was a deliberate attempt to paint me in a negative light (including aspects of my personality, where I live, my tone, my education, my style, etc.). The same thing happened in terms of the redistricting debate and the ending of the language clusters.

The point of this column was that people can and should disagree with each and every position I take. And then they should debate the merits of that position. What I find offensive, and reminiscent of the post-9/11 Bush administration, is the focus on personal attacks (including about tone and style) and not about the pros and cons of a position.

I believe you see the MM decision as the right one, and thus you think I was the "bad guy" but not with a "bad tone." But if you look through accounts at that time, I was often accused (including on this blog) of using a "bad tone" by those who disagreed with WHAT I was saying. Again, I think "bad tone" is often a cover for "I disagree with what you are saying."

Anonymous said...

The problem is that most of us are skimming, and Catherine and Steve are going deep into the educational issues.

What's our defense mechanism for the fact that most of us cannot bring this much white-hot intensity and energy to the inquiry? To get defensive and lash out at the folks calling for inquiry and self-examination. And then the various "-ist" words come out, and the dialogue races to the bottom.

Rick, I don't know how much space that you think that the Bulletin was going to give Steve and Catherine to explore these issues. (See earlier Morse bashing of the Bulletin.) But you've been reading and commenting on here, more alert to the particulars than I've been. You're not saying that you were blind-sided by any of this, are you?

I would note that the great unreported story of 2009 (at least in any comprehensive way) was the great push toward more effective oversight by the dual quintets of Select Board and School Committee. I'm not sure that it's ultimately a losing battle, given how skilled our appointed head honchos are.

Of course, this is fundamentally boring stuff for the news media , but potentially (if not a losing battle)deeply meaningful for the future of our community. Before we go too far into tearing each other up this year, I would note that it's as good as it's ever been on those two boards, in terms of the quality of the complete membership. And, yes, that includes the Bryan Harvey era of Select Board.

Rich Morse

Rick said...

Lot’s of good info there, especially on the “the state of "’reform mathematics’" (which is probably posted previously on this blog somewhere). So on that issue, it’s not that nothing is being done – today – it’s that it should not have taken such a long and difficult effort by you to get it done. I totally agree with that, but that is not what the Bulletin article said, so the general public won’t have any of this info. The Bulletin article leaves people thinking that nothing is still being done on everything. Suggestion: write a letter to the editor on your own article throwing the ‘reform mathematics’ explanation in as an example.

Rick said...

“You're not saying that you were blind-sided by any of this, are you?”

No not me, and not anyone reading this blog. I am talking about the much larger number of people who read the Bulletin but don’t read this blog. There was enough space to get rid of the first two paragraphs – as Larry suggested – and put at least one detailed example in.

But listen – they took the effort to write an article, I didn’t. I am just suggesting my opinion of how it could have been more effective.

And yes, without commenting on the quality of past board members, I think we have very good ones today. Also, without commenting on past Superintendents, ditto.

I think this cannot be over emphasized:

The most important job the SC can do is hire the Superintendent – that one job has more effect than everything else they do combined. Show me a great Superintendent and I will show you a great school system. Ditto for CEOs of companies, right? It’s no different for school systems. They did that job and apparently did it well.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Rich - I agree with all you said, and just to be clear to Rick and others readers -- the point of this column was to shed light on the resistance to dissent. The other points were simply examples of areas in which dissent has been ignored (at best -- e.g., the trimester/semester debate, the reform math debate) or followed by personal attacks and criticsm (at worst -- e.g., the 9th grade science debate, the use of extenstions). I think this is an issue worthy of a column because it does indeed impact how educational decisions are made in Amherst. Moreover, as you point out, these issues have largely been discussed in detail in prior columns (and on TV, and covered in the paper, and were issues that both Steve and I campaigned on).

And yes, I think oversight by the SC (and SB) is really crucial -- because this is the ONLY way in which residents get to express their views. For a long time on the SC, the focus has been on supporting and encouraging the superintendent to do whatever he (and it has always been a he) wants. There are some who believe this view is correct. I don't. I believe the SC should evaluate the superintendent based on how well he/she fulfills the goals of the district, and that those goals should be formed by the residents. So, the SC matters a lot because it is the ONLY way in which residents get to impact education. Thus, I would strongly encourage voters to learn as much as they can about the SC candidates running (two seats are open this spring!) and vote for the person/people who best agree with their vision of what our schools should be and how to get there.

Rick (at 11:48) - I have no idea if anything is happening on the elementary school math front. I know it is on the superintendent's goal for this year, but I do not know of any concrete steps that have been taken in this regard to evaluate what we are doing -- I don't know of surveys that have gone out or focus groups that have formed or other curriculum that have been examined and so on. Again, I know it is on the goal list. I do not know (a) whether it will be evaluated, (b) whether that evaluation will be comprehensive, and/or (c) whether a new recommendation will emerge that gives us a better math program. I've been working on this issue as a parent, as a member of the Math Curriculum Council, and as a member of the School Committee for over three years, and still, I have no idea if/when there will be any change recommended or adopted. So, I'm not sure what a letter to the Bulletin would accomplish on this end? This to me is a perfect example of how long things take to move in Amherst UNLESS a highly aggressive approach is taken (e.g., a motion to close Marks Meadow), which invariably will be accompanied by accusations of having a bad personal style/tone!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And finally (?):

Rick (at 12:01) - I have no idea whether most people in town think we have pretty good SC members now or not ... I'm pretty certain some people think getting rid of me and Steve would be a step in the right direction! But I also think that we have no idea whether we have a good superintendent or not. I like Dr. Rodriguez and I believe I've worked well with him, but let's remember, he is in his first 6 months on the job, and we have yet to see any official recommendation on a major curricular area or initiative (with the possible exception of his proposal to move the 6th grade, which while I agreed with, others did not). I'd like to see more intellectual/academic leadership in terms of areas of the curriculum BEFORE I pronounce that we have an excellent superintendent (and I hope to see this in the weeks/months to come -- it is just too early to see how effective he will be in making what I see as much needed changes in Amherst). In addition, I think we can't ignore the power the SC has to set the goals of the district -- even the best superintendent is at the mercy of the SC for setting goals. So, an SC in Texas could set a goal for decreasing the emphasis on evolution in the science curriculum and increasing the emphasis on creationism, and a great superintendent would thus need to carry out that goal ... even if he/she personally didn't agree with it. Thus, I still think we need to really think about who we are electing to the SC to make sure that the goals set for the district are in fact ones the community supports. And then I think we need to hope that members of the SC are willing to have the spine and courage to implement those goals, even in the face of criticism (which can include the "ism" labels).

Anonymous said...

Is there a corporation in America that doesn't have a line item budget -- and hasn't been scrutinizing it for the past year?

How hard is it for each department at ARPS to punch in their salaries numbers, then the salaries of the administrative staff, and so on? I find it hard to believe that this cannot be done in a month's time.

Without this level of detail from our schools, I will find it hard to support an override.

Anonymous said...

Once again, the big question:

Is meaningful and thorough oversight going on, in either School Committee or Select Board?

I sense that there are members in both places who conscientiously have some doubts about it, who feel overmatched by the paid honchos.

If that's the case, then it's a fair question to ask why the stockholders in this system, i.e. the taxpayers, should pour more money into the operation as it's currently being governed.

It does seem that there have been too many things taken on faith to date. But it's also appropriate to wonder whether the volunteer bosses can ever catch up with the employees in this cockamamie approach to governance.

We need a mayor, folks.

Rich Morse

Here we go again said...

There are plenty of towns and school systems with similar problems and tight finances that have mayors. Sometimes mayors wind up in prison or having their towns taken over by the state. Many, many mayor-led towns are having financial problems, in fact, isn't the whole country?

Let's stop the endless, tiresome town meeting versus mayor debate. Let's focus on the government we have now and how it runs.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, one championed by Anons and NIMBYs everywhere.

Anonymous said...

Dear "Here We Go Again"

I'm just getting started on the mayor thing. And, when more and more people realize that this town government is essentially an airliner without a pilot, the debate in full flower is coming back.

So go ahead and wish it away. But those of us who want this system to die before we do are waiting for the right moment.

Rich Morse

LarryK4 said...

Sometimes you gotta destroy the village in order to save it.

Ed said...

the Bush administration quelled dissent through certain labels, and many in Amherst use a very similar strategy to quell dissent here

No, it is worse because opposing Bush was politically popular while opposing the School Department is not. Further, short of being called mentally ill, being called racist is the absolute unquestioned character destroying slur of modern society.

And never forget that a lot of Republicans have quit the GOP because of the fascist "our way or leave" mentality of party leader on the state and federal levels.

However, there is a larger point here: by simply ignoring all criticism, we wound up with policies that simply were WRONG and would have been corrected if Team Bush hadn't been so pig headed about everything.

And as the ARSD obscurs everything, they to do not benefit from the open light of pubic inquiry...

Nina Koch said...

This column is too funny. You want to talk about people being labeled when they question something? That's exactly what you do, Catherine. As soon as someone questions your tactics, points out misleading/untrue statements, or disagrees with some part of what you say, you respond by characterizing their position as not caring about rigor and challenge.

Here's a quote from someone a few weeks ago. I have no idea who it is, but he or she captured the phenomenon exactly:

"Not every child wants to go to college nor does every child, even if they have the ability want to take AP classes.I AM NOT SAYING THAT WE SHOULD NOT BE CHALLENGING EVERY CHILD OR THAT OUR REQUIREMENTS SHOULDN'T BE MORE RIGOROUS. ( Sorry for the CAPS but so often when one says that on this blog you're immediately accused of not wanting rigor and challenge))."

Abbie said...

Nina,

Please point out EXACTLY how Catherine is wrong about something cuz I'm getting kinda tired of hearing from some folks that "misinformation" is being spread about the schools and yet NOT one of those folks has actually bothered to provide the detailed correction (just say its wrong). This leaves me thinking that really it isn't misinformation and attempts to call it that are simply a diversion...

Please specifically correct those errors. As you might know I listed some operational choices I think were/are poor ones. I was accused of adding to the misinformation. Funny, no one actually bothered to say how it was misinformed, even though invited to do so. This leaves me to me to conclude that, indeed, I am not misinformed. Very much like attack the messenger not the message...

BTW: THIS IS NOT TEACHER BASHING

Anonymous said...

Closing Marks Meadow was a huge mistake--one that will be realized one day, but sadly not soon enough, not a decision to be praised--I beg to differ with you Rick. The amount you quote--$700,000 is once again inflated--too close to a lie for me... No one deserves the needless worry and countless hours of stress caused by the closing of an elementary school--no one--not the children, the teachers, the staff...the community as a whole...It's a shame and an act I find quite unbelievable in a town where if education is truly valued as much it appears to be preached here within than such an act would never have even be thought of... =(

Nina Koch said...

Hi Abbie,

I still want to know more about the schedule in Omaha. I really like the idea of teachers and kids being able to meet during the day, and also having time for independent projects.

As for misinformation, well, for one, Catherine has stated that the school is refusing to evaluate the ninth grade science course. It's not true. They are evaluating the course.

She has stated that we are the only school in the entire country ("and likely the world") to require environmental science for 9th grade. I can't imagine why she would think she could make a statement like that about thousands of high schools when there is no master database or way to check, but in any case, it's also not true. Hampshire Regional's 9th grade science course is Environmental Science. Biology is in tenth grade. Lexington High School has a required ninth grade course before tenth grade biology. I don't know how many schools there are with this type of sequence. Now if you want to say it's uncommon, fine. But to say "none"-- Just not true.

Catherine has described the high school as not being rigorous in math and science. Yet the parent survey data show that not to be a common perception at all, at least among those who responded.

Then we have the middle school. Catherine reports "The perception in this town is largely that the middle school does not consistently provide a challenging and rigorous education for all kids...". Now "largely" to me means a majority. But it wasn't a majority in the middle school parent survey data. It was probably higher than it should be in certain areas, but not a majority. Turns out the soccer game/birthday party method of data collection is not such a good sampling technique. Catherine did not have the basis to state what the perception in the community largely is. So she shouldn't speculate about it.

I could go on, but I need to get a test written for tomorrow. And it will be rigorous.

Anonymous said...

8:08 "Sometimes you gotta destroy the village in order to save it."

As someone who has a child in the public schools in Amherst, I obviously would rather avoid the destruction of the village. I assume this person doesn't have kids in the system, or they might be more protective of their child's experience.

Anonymous said...

Nina, sorry, you're just off-base here. Your quote: "Catherine has described the high school as not being rigorous in math and science. Yet the parent survey data show that not to be a common perception at all, at least among those who responded."
The accuracy of the parent 'perception' is useless, don't you think? Why don't you ask some recent h.s. grads how they're faring in math and science at college?! Amherst students are not as prepared as they should be (for lack of specific course offerings) for competitive math and science programs at college. This is the experience of a top student at an elite college. NO slam on the ARHS teachers, who are great. The courses just aren't offered.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Nina - the goal of this blog is to increase dialogue about education ... and the point of your post seems to be entirely to criticize me. If that feels good, OK. But I don't think it furthers dialogue about our schools -- what they are, or what they could be.

Abbie - Thank you for pointing out that the misinformation I am apparently spreading is not so easy to correct. I've been trying for two years to get answers to these questions ... and the answers are not forth-coming, yet accusations about my tone and my misinformation continue.

Anonymous 7:36 - the Marks Meadow debate is over -- it is closing, and I'm sorry you don't support that decision. I have every confidence the teachers and students will continue to excel in their new schools.

Nina - I totally stand corrected -- apparently there is another high school in America that requires Environmental Studies -- Hampshire Regional. As I've pointed out repeatedly, many other high schools require biology or physics first, and I think there are real advantages to both of these approaches. And while Lexington (and a few other districts) require Earth Science first, I think this would also be a better approach because it provide an introduction to the physical sciences, which then means kids can go into AP chemistry or AP biology (junior and sophomore year), and then still be able to take physics. Earth Science sounds like a great option to me!

In terms of evaluation -- the high school science teachers presented an "evaluation" a year ago at a SC meeting (March 2008). That evaluation consisted of showing that people liked the course. It was not a scientific evaluation, meaning they did NOT do any sorts of comparisons between kids who were in the new course and those who could have taken biology in the old system and those who did take biology in the old system -- if they are doing that now, that is really super, and I look forward to seeing this type of a rigorous, data-based comparison. Do you know when they expect to present the findings?

In terms of rigor -- I believe that rigor is measured in terms of what we offer and what we require. As I've noted repeatedly, we have the lowest math/science requirements in Massachusetts -- just two years of each. That doesn't seem rigorous to me. We don't offer AP chemistry, which virtually all other high schools in our comparison group do. That seems like a limitation in terms of rigor. I have never said on my blog or elsewhere that the science courses we currently offer aren't rigorous or challenging -- I've said I don't think we are holding high expectations for kids in terms of how much science they should take and what types of science classes we offer at the AP level. I have also said that the new 9th grade class restricts kids' options to take advanced science, and I think that is bad.

Finally, do you feel it is OK to have as many as 20 to 30% of parents saying the MS isn't challenging? Maybe you think that is OK ... I don't. And the irony is you know who I've heard the MS isn't challenging from the most -- current teachers, your colleagues, at ARHS, who don't see kids coming to the high school as prepared as they used to be. I am really glad that some kids are having a good experience -- but I'm really concerned that others aren't.

Anonymous said...

Nina
I've quietly followed this blog for a while now and I have to say that you strike me as being at the root of the problems in the Amherst Schools. You seem so threatened by Catherine (or the idea of change) that you respond in a sarcastic cynical tone and seem to make no effort to even open your mind to some of the concerns presented.

Neither you or Catherine is all right or all wrong but its clear that the schools are not providing what they should be for our kids. We need to take our personal feelings out of this take a step back and look objectively at these issues. You may believe that ARHS offers challenge and a rigorous curriculum, but it really pales in comparison to other school system around the country and this troubles me. I guess what really troubles me the most is that you are so out to prove Catherine wrong that you seem to refuse to take these concerns seriously.

Anonymous said...

9:49 "you strike me as being at the root of the problems in the Amherst Schools."

ouch! cant we participate in face-to-face or blog dialogues without insulting, name calling or bullying one another?? Amherst discourse is less and less respectful and productive. It's very disconcerting.

Anonymous said...

Let me put it this way:

If I had to do it all over again, I would have taken my daughter out of ARMS for those two years and gone somewhere else with her. She was miserable in 7th grade, because several teachers simply had her sit there waiting for the class to move on. She would read or do homework from other classes.

What would she have missed if we had gone elsewhere?

1) She would have gotten a late start on some wonderful friendships that she has now.
2) She would have missed a fabulous 8th grade science teacher who spent extra time with kids getting them ready for regional and state science fairs.
3) She would have missed the Middle School's terrific instrumental music program.

But the frustration with the lack of challenge will not be forgotten in this household; mainly, because that frustration ended when she got to the High School, and we hear no such complaints now.

My daughter was fortunate enough to have Noel Kurtz for her sixth grade year at Crocker, a teacher who knew how to teach to all of the kids in the class.

When we got to seventh grade, I ran into Noel at the gas station one evening and mentioned that my daughter was academically "stuck in park" at ARMS. Noel said to me that he had anticipated the same problem for his now grown children going into the Middle School at an earlier time and simply advised them "to get through it" to get to the good stuff at ARHS.

This problem of academic rigor at ARMS is not some figment of our imagination. It's something that has been talked about for years. But, once again, our experience can be dismissed by the professionals as merely "anecdotal evidence".

So, deny away, Nina, if you like, but we've been there and seen it the hard way. And we'd like to ensure that things are better for future children.

And now for the required disclaimer: I'm not bashing teachers. I was one, and I know how hard the work is. It was exhausting.

Rich Morse

Nina Koch said...

Rich,

I didn't deny that the perception exists. I pointed out that the perception is not the majority, as we had been led to believe.

It's important not to try to separate these issues into camps. I didn't read your comment as teacher bashing. I don't question the experience that you had. I also mentioned originally that I thought the level of dissatisfaction expressed in the survey was a matter of concern. But that is different than saying it's the majority. That's my point.

By the way, I am interested to know more about how you feel a mayoral system would help us deal with our problems.

Anonymous said...

And the relevance of the difference between a majority and, say, 20-30% is......what?

Let's try to think clearly. And let's try to remember that that percentage does NOT include the parents who have left already (some of whom we know personally).

I think that we're taking about an institutional dynamic here, a willingness to submit to public oversight and self-criticism. It doesn't mean to me that Catherine and Steve win every argument.

And we're talking about the willingness of taxpayers to throw money at schools that seem resistant to this process.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

I think that we need to put a name to something else that Catherine and ACE are up against, other than the usual status quo pushback:

Amherst exceptionalism

I don't know when it started, but there's a strong tendency both in our schools and in Town to think that Amherst has a special role or destiny in the Valley (and even in the country and the world), that Amherst is different. Therefore, we need not pay any attention to what other communities are doing, and, most importantly, we need not learn from them.

Like I said, I don't know when it started but this attitude extends to disparate aspects of life in Amherst, from our high school curriculum to the governmental structures we insist work best for us.

Don't bother us with what other communities do: we're Amherst.

Just putting that out on the table.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Can you explain comment about charter schools? Doesn't Amherst actually come out ahead when kids go to PVPA since 100 percent goes back to the districts the first year, 60 percent the second and 40 percent the third. So, districts get two-thirds of their money back over a three year period. So for 3 years the district gets money for students it doesn't have and then the 4th year it doesn't get money, but it doesn't pay out money either (like it does in school choice).

Ed said...

As soon as someone questions your tactics, points out misleading/untrue statements, or disagrees with some part of what you say, you respond by characterizing THEIR POSITION AS not caring about rigor and challenge.. (emphasis added.)

There is a BIG difference between attacking someone's POSITION and attacking someone PERSONALLY. I am sick and tired of Catherine being called a racist - you want to argue that her POSITIONS are, fine (they aren't, but this is a free country and you have the right to be wrong).

What you do NOT have the right to do is to attack her personally. What you do not have the right to do is use the word to describe her (and not her positions), not without a whole bunch of evidence that you ain't got. Not unless you want her to respond in kind, which she has been mature enough not to do.

Remember too that there are a lot of school districts in this country where teachers would never be permitted to publicly criticize board members in the manner they do here. It is called "moral turputide" and grounds for termination, tenure notwithstanding.

As one who taught in such a district - where teachers had to worry about what family members said in casual conversations - I think the teachers in Amherst need to (a) start realizing how good they have it, (b) stop calling all well-meant criticism (regardless of its merit) as "teacherbashing" and (c) start acting like adults.

If you want people to respect the merits of your position, you have got to be civil in your presentation of it. And this includes not making personal attacks on those presenting it.

People of good will can disagree on the means by which a shared end shall be gained. People of good will can disagree in which order desired ends ought to be ranked.

==
Ed Cutting, MEd, CAGS, Certified 7-12 Social Studies & English, Provisionally Certified 7-12 Math & K-12 Information Technology.

Yes, I do kinda know what it is like to be a teacher, members of my family have been such since the Civil War....

Alice Morse said...

"...you strike me as being at the root of the problems in the Amherst Schools."

This annoymous comment was directed at Nina Koch. While we do not agree with Nina in this particular discussion, we appreciate her participation and respect her for taking ownership of her position by signing her posts.

The unknown author of the aforementioned comment also wrote that he/she has been quietly following this blog for awhile. I would suggest that unless he/she has something productive to contribute that he/she return to "quietly" following this blog.

Posting such remarks anonymously is pretty low and more importantly, takes away from the intelligent and constructive discussion most people are trying to have here.

Thank you,
Alice and Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

For all of the hoo hah about what is going on in hs classes, I'm very surprised to see that not one person has commented on the parent survey data that is published in this bog.

Curious isn't it?

Anonymous said...

11:50, I'm glad someone else noticed that!

Alice said...

I don't usually have time to blog but felt the need to make a short entry earlier (sorry, I added an extra "N" to anonymous).

Perhaps there is no feedback on the survey because there are others who also have limited time and have simply chosen to prioritize and respond to other blog issues?

The two previous bloggers have noticed the absence of comments about the survey but neglected to make any of their own. Don't be shy. Feel free to get the ball rolling if you have something to say.

After all, this is Amherst where only the "H" is supposed to be silent!

Anonymous said...

Alice,

I did get the ball rolling by noting a distinct silence regarding the hs parent survey data.

This blog pushed hard to get parents surveyed, like it pushes hard for everything else it wants, and the surveys were completed.

Apparently, the hs parent survey data speaks for itself because none of the moaning, whining and pseudo-outrage is coming forth, like it is in the comments regarding the elementary survey parents data.

So maybe the silence on the parents data from the hs survey tells the town what it needs to know about the hs.

I don't hear any hs parents fearing their kids' lives are ruined because of the current curriculum, as this blog intends to have people believe.

Now, now. Don't go freak deaky on me. I'm not accusing you (blog woman) of anything except fear mongering. That's your specialty. (Not you Alice, relax. She knows who I'm talking about)

Yes, Ms. Sanderson, you are Ms. Fear Monger, 2009.

All of those evil people at the hs, (maybe that's where Cheney was hiding all this time); they want all the hs curriculum to themsleves. Don't want to share with you.

But you can overpower them because you have fear on your side.

Yes, Amherst be afraid for your children. God knows they may be subjected to that same curriculum that all of those other kids, now exceedingly successful, had to endure as well. Be afraid. There might be an HS teacher lurking nearby hpoing to teach kids of different ability levels at the same time, gasp, in the same classroom.

They must be barbarians who think such ignorant thoughts.

Fear, Fear, Fear
All you need is Fear.

Everybody now.

Fear, Fear, Fear
All you need is fear.

LarryK4 said...

Damn, can I have a hit of some of your meds?

Abbie said...

Nina,

thanks for replying (I mean it).

I don't know if you want me to explain the modular school system of Westside HS, District 66, cuz I can't except the link I provided before (I could again). I mean I experienced it as a student (a long time ago) and I think everyone liked it. But for more information as to how it works you should contact the school. I guess that modular system contributes to why I don't quite get the issue with study halls here (except they appear mandatory). While I was a student we seemed to have several and we'd spend it doing school work (best case scenerio). I find it an odd feeling that my HS in Omaha NE seems progressive compared to Amherst's! Yikes... Who'd have thought? But now I am VERY grateful for what I had and is just one way to think about how other schools do things and successfully.


For example its my understanding that some of the AP science courses here are NOT additional courses to the core but substitute. Is that correct? How common is that? My HS (and looking at their handbook it is still the case), there was a year of Biology, Physics, Chem (that nearly everyone took). After that there was an additional, more advanced Physics course (Advanced Physics) and Biochemistry. Both of these courses required having the previous courses.

I hear that the science courses that are offered here are rigorous, I guess my dismay is that only 2 years Math and Science are required. In this day and age and in Massachusetts, which arguably is either #1 or #2 in Life Sciences in the country, that we require so little. Science literacy is needed more than ever. Biotech and Pharma are HUGE here and offer some great career opportunities (and no, you don't have to go to the IVY's for them).

So some people call me elitist here or say that I just want X, Y or Z for my kid who is 8yo (and appears destined for the theatre, if bedtime is any indication) BUT that ain't the case.

I think our kids today (big net here (USA kids)) need to be prepared to be able to contribute to solving the problems our and previous generations created. This means we need lots of science/technology-able individuals. Our citizenry needs to be science literate, whether or not they become scientists. For example, they need the basics to decided whether the bulk of facts supports global warming or not so they can behave and vote accordingly. Obama just put an additional $250 million towards STEM education (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/06/AR2010010602063.html). It really is that important. In my opinion, I think Amherst schools minimize the importance of Math and Science and that is irresponsible. I think there is too much emphasis on Culture and the Arts at the expense of Math and Science (my opinion). I will get flamed here, but I consider the "Arts" to be like "Athletics". I think Amherst tax payers ought to demand the education for the coming generations that will prepare them to face and solve REALLY REALLY big problems and make educated choices. If we settle for something less, then we are all screwed. I have heard that if we could afford it we would offer Adv Chem. But we have the money to offer 6 world languages, for example. This reflects the priorities of the HS. Its not my priority and I wonder how other people would prioritize.

My experience so far is that Amherst schools do an excellent job in Literacy and Composition and I wish the same could be achieved with Math and Science. A point for discussion wrt to HS might be to have Math and Science requirements more on par with English, for example.

Abbie said...

To Anon@310:

I think a lot of folks think the HS is great and without experiencing it yet (well not me, of course) I can only go along with that belief.

But if one were to include in the survey different kinds of questions you might find different answers:

1) Would you prefer trimesters or semesters?

2) would you prefer a requirement of 2 years or 3 years of Math and Science?

3) Do you think the environmental science course impacts your child's later choices and options in the Sciences?

This push for an improvement in the Amherst Math and Sciences is hardly unique to a few trouble makers. Its a national priority! FYI http://www.aaas.org/programs/education/

PS. to Anon@949:
I hope that your personal insult has not put off Nina's willing participation in this dialog.

Alice said...

I don't think Catherine is fear mongering at all.

She's taking a long hard look at how we do things, where we are going and the changes needed to get there. It's a process that can raise all sorts of issues that maybe scary to look at and deal with.

Who amongst us embraces change without being a little fearful?

Anonymous said...

Strange 3:10 Anon -- If you look at the high school parent responses a lot of parents thought their kids weren't challenged enough. About a third. That's a lot, just like in the other schools. I'm sorry that no one thought to say that on the thread and I am sorry it set you off into such an odd state.

Sometimes things just speak for themselves and sometimes people don't speak. That doesn't change the results.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in the info stated here today that Amherst is not, in fact, the only district in the state that doesn't require 9th grade Bio.

So now it turns out that we don't actually know how many MA districts don't require 9th grade Bio? That maybe it's not that unusual? Hmph.

On the other hand, I'm still all for a hard look at Investigations (discovery/constructivist math) and quality evidence re:its efficacy for ALL learners. There is plenty of info about districts and states all over the US dumping it, and why.

I know (from experience) that it's hard to teach; teachers need significant training and support to do it a) well and b) with a strong personal/professional comfort level(see a). Discovery math runs so counter to common sense that stifling the urge to revert to other ways to teach math often feels like suppressing a sneeze.

Remember, they have Investigations in Northampton too, but each elementary school has a group of trained math coaches on staff, who are paid a bit extra to provide support to their peers. I'm still not convinced that Investigations is a good choice, but at least over the river they've got a school-based teacher support network set up to try to make it work.

Amherst is unable to provide much in the way of teacher training/support right now. The math specialists are gone -- cut.

It doesn't seem like a good idea to expect great results under those circumstances.

And those of us who've taught know that when you don't feel comfortable with a curriculum, how can you teach it well?

Anonymous said...

from CS's high school survey summary:


"Of those who responded, the majority of parents (49 to 70%) felt that the level of challenge and expectations for their child’s learning was adequate across all five of the core academic disciplines. However, there were substantially differences in responses to different disciplines. Fewer parents reported expectations were somewhat low or much too low in social studies (8%), science (10.25%), or math (10.75%), than in English (20.5%) or world language (17.25%). In contrast, more parents reported that expectations were somewhat high or much too high in social studies (34.25%), math (27.5%), and science (26.75%) than in English (15.75%) and world language (21%). "

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:10

So, you're a Beatle fan! And, someone who doesn't realize that by attacking CS in such mean-spirited ways while defending the HS staff that your efforts are counter-productive. If I was a HS staff member, I would be appalled to think you represent my defense. If I was a cynical person, I'd think you are someone who is throwing out trash that makes teachers and their supporters look like fools.

Anonymous said...

It seems that every blog eventually evolves into an echo chamber. The dissenting voices slowly wander away. And then you're left with these disaffected anonymous folks with their fractured expletives and personal attacks, and the ditto-heads slobbering with admiration all over the blogmistress.

So don't go anywhere, Nina: you're needed here to engage on the issues. I recognize that the personal stuff about Catherine is at least partially a function of the passion that some folks bring to these issues.

As I've said to Catherine directly, I just don't understand why she's become such a target. She's simply raising the questions and trying to find answers. I don't see the potential threat that she poses. But, obviously, if you think that she's loaded the inquiry, I believe that you have to call her out on it. I don't think that she intended this, but she has become the biggest lightning rod in Amherst politics since Anne Awad.

I believe that I'm eventually going to part company with Catherine on the override, but I have no reason to use words like "tactics" to describe her activities or her opinions. I'm deeply convinced by her sincerity and her energy on behalf of the children in our schools. I don't think that she is guilty of being a "fearmongerer", but perhaps only some overreaching impatience. She has probably raised more questions than any one community can engage intelligently in a single SC term.

I am very intrigued by her continuing skepticism about an override and her analysis to get there. It's an analysis that those of us who are override supporters will have to confront squarely in order to meet our burden of proof with voters.

Rich Morse

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, good luck on that!

Especially considering she was solidly a part of your Inner Circle three years ago (and remember how well that Override turned out.)

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My assorted responses:

I've read all the comments, and am just going to make a few responses for what that is worth.

1. In terms of what other districts do in 9th grade -- I've posted considerable information on these comparisons (see November 2009 for a long and detailed list of what other districts require when), but the gist is that districts typically EITHER give students an option (e.g., biology or earth science) or require a core science (most typically biology, but increasingly physics, and in some district earth science). ARHS is STILL the only HS I've found that requires environmental science AND ecology (even Hampshire Regional High teaches ecology as part of their biology course and doesn't have a separate course on ecology). I remain concerned about our tendency (as illustrated in this choice as well as many others) to believe that what works well in other districts couldn't possibly be relevant in Amherst.

2. In terms of the fear-mongering accusation ... there are two sides here. First, I can totally see why people are afraid of change and evaluation and comparison -- it might point out that we've made some bad decisions, it might point out that we should do some things differently, it might require extra work, it might make people feel bad that their idea wasn't ultimately proven to be a good one. So, I get that people (like Nina, like Anonymous 3:10, like others who sincerely like the status quo and think things are great) find my pushing on asking questions annoying and hence are trying to get me to shut up. Change is hard, and questioning what we do and why in our schools is really not part of our culture. So, I understand the resistance to questions (though perhaps not the personal hostility).

However, and this is a serious question, why should I be motivated, as a mother of three little kids who lives in Amherst and is on the SC, to deliberately create fear about our schools? I mean, I'm just trying to see what I have to gain in doing this (e.g., if the assumption is that I'm not genuinely trying to improve education for all kids). Do I have plans to start a rival school district and want to get early school choice enrollees? Do I get some kind of pay-off from PVPA or the Chinese Charter for recruiting? Do I want my own kids to have smaller classes by driving out other kids? Again, help me understand why you think my questioning is motivated by anything other than a desire to engage in careful reflection about how we educate all kids in Amherst -- which surely should leave to better outcomes.

3. The override issue is a giant one ... and I honestly haven't decided where I am going to be on this issue. But here is what I do know -- I am not going to make a decision lightly, and I'm not going to support one unless I can look people in the eye and tell them with complete honesty that I believe not having an override will severely hamper our ability to provide the type of education we should have in Amherst. If I reach the point that I believe this is true, I will support an override - this year, next year, any year. I believe that asking tax payers to pay higher taxes in this economic climate is a big decision, and I am not yet ready to say that I think we need to pass an override to maintain the type of education we need to have in Amherst. I may get there -- by March 23rd -- or I may not ... but I will certainly not make a decision until I've fully understood the financial choices we are making about education in our district (and yes, that is going to include serious comparison to how other districts spend money), and until I feel that having an override this year is in the best short- AND long-term interest of our district. Stay tuned -- I will certainly share my reasoning (and my numbers) on this blog!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Two final thoughts:

1. Abbie - our approach to having AP classes as a student's first introduction to the discipline in science is in fact unique. In most other districts, kids take a year of bio/chem/physics (in some order) and then choose an AP/advanced class in one of those areas (as I believe you thought was the norm). Our approach is indeed unique -- and it certainly isn't clear to me whether our kids are better prepared on APs/SAT IIs by virture of being in their first year of a class when they take these tests when other students are in their second year.

2. I think there were fewer comments on the HS data because it was harder to interpret -- this is the ONLY survey in which you see a sizeable % of parents saying courses are too hard ... which is interesting (in light of this comment basically never appearing in the MS and ES). That to me suggests the HS is indeed striking a better balance (e.g., if teachers are hitting for the average student, some will find it too hard and some will find it too easy) -- these results suggest to me that the HS is hitting the challenge level in the classes offered at about the right level, whereas the MS and ES seem to be hitting to a lower common denominator (e.g., make sure no one finds it too hard, which means a lot more people find it too easy). Interestingly, these results mirror what the math survey of parents and kids found 2 or 3 years ago -- kids in ES and MS (and their parents) tended to report that math was too easy and not a challenge, whereas kids (and parents) in HS complained that math varied from "too easy" to "too hard" (depending on honors level, teacher, etc.). I am glad these surveys were done as I think it is good to have this data - -and I think it will provide a useful data point that we can track over time.

Alice said...

Catherine:

For what it's worth....I have had a high school history teacher admit to me that his honors history course is not as rigorous as it used to be. He has had to modify his approach to better align with the abilities of the kids he now sees coming into his class.

Anonymous said...

I think it's pretty reasonable for taxpayers to want to know how their money is being spent. Before deciding on whether an override is needed, Amherst taxpayers need to know if and why Amherst is spending more on its schools than nearby and comparable schools.

If Amherst schools are the most expensive, the next question is how is this money being spent and is it well spent. The schools are by far the biggest chunk of the budget and they should open their books and practices to public scrutiny.

Why wouldn't answering these questions be the first of proponents of an override? The answers could make their case.

Anonymous said...

It looks like things are heating up at the high school, did you see the school newspaper today? (see page 3)

Anonymous said...

The HS website hasnt updated with the current issue. I guess we'll have to wait.

Anonymous said...

Before we continue to hold up Northampton's budget and level of spending as the benchmark. please read the article in today's Gazette about Northampton being cited by the state for not meeting state requirements in SPED and ELL support. They are now looking to adding staff in those areas in order to meet requirements.

Anonymous said...

And could someone please post a link to the most recent Graphic article? I hear two students wrote something from their perspective.

LarryK4 said...

"And the children shall lead"

Anonymous said...

No need to look for the Graphic. It's in today's Gazette, on the op-ed page. Certainly not an editorial that is complimentary to Catherine and Steve. It IS good, however, to see how these students (notice, I didn't say ALL students) view what is important in ARHS. And how quickly will their views be marginalized on this blog?

Anonymous said...

I think I've finally found something I might agree with you on here....faer of evalutaiona nd change...might point out that we've done something wrong...Oh yes! Please have someone evalute the decision to close Marks meadow...and have that someone point out to you that something very, very wrong has been done...Thanks! =)
No debate is ever done!

Anonymous said...

Northampton has plenty of problems in the area of equity, no doubt about it.

It doesn't surprise me that a district that is so AP-mad has issues with services to non-AP level kids. They've put all their eggs in one basket, and to hell with the others.

A lesson for ARPS?

I still stand by my small point, though -- that at least they provide support for teachers working with challenging curriculum at the building level.

There is almost no curriculum support at the building level in Amherst elementary schools...correct me if I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

I highly recommend everyone reads the latest issue of the Graphic, the high school's student newspaper. It has two editorials, written by students, both about the goings on of school committee. I feel they do an excellent job of portraying the opinions of actual ARPS students, an opinion that is seldom listened too it seems. The newspaper can be picked up easily at the high school or, the online copy can be viewed at
http://www.arps.org/hs/News/Graphic/
the new edition hasn't been added yet, but should be in the next couple days. I encourage all the readers of this blog to check it out.

LarryK4 said...

Or they can come to my blog where I quickly marginalized their views.

Anybody remember 'West Side Story' was canceled because of the efforts of a 17-year-old senior who managed to get 158 signatures on a stupid petition in one day?

Bart Hollander said...

Anon 4:29pm and 8:44am: I'd be happy to marginalize the marginal opinion piece of the two ARHS seniors in today's Gazette. They could use some basic fact-checking skills before advancing too far along in their journalistic careers. In their first two paragraphs they suggest that CS wants to add an Advanced Placement course in her push for an emphasis on academic excellence at the expense of cutting wordworking, foods, dance, etc. I'm pretty sure that's not what transpired at the most recent SC meeting. But hey, combining unfair criticism of CS with the circling-of-the-wagons mantra about what's great about our schools (Churchill's 'the beatings will continue' criticism comes to mind; Tierkel's 'i'm-aghast-with-my-miliary-roots-that-911-imagery-was-utilized-in-a-piece-about-our-schools' criticism is just as good ... i mean pitiful; check that one out on LK's blog) is all the vogue here in Amherst, where, after all, only the "h" is silent, wink, wink. The best example is probably not yet as widely known: this week's ARHS school-paper story entitled "School Committee Member's blog creates controversy in Amherst." Let's at least give that one an apt title like, say, ARHS educator Nina Koch criticizes CS's blog as 1)not a forum for debate, 2)with an unwelcoming tone "where the hosts (CS-bashing, anyone?, anyone? Bueller?) just repeat the same message over and over in the belief that if you state something often enough it becomes true," 3)that it's rife with "incorrect or misleading" information that "could be avoided if the publisher of the blog (CS-bashing, anyone?, anyone?, Bueller?) doubled-checked her information" and 4) that "the blog involves adults behaving badly." Ms. Koch's view that CS is behaving badly notwithstanding, I think that some people appreciate the fact that CS is working so hard on behalf of our schools. Through her blog (and in responses to private emails and phone calls), CS has demonstrated an (unnatural, really, and I've told her so) unbelievable willingness to try to answer all criticisms, questions and requests for information regarding our schools and what her views are about the issues. And for doing so, just for opening up the flow of information about our schools and for clearly and publicly stating her (single) opinion about where we are and where we should be trying to go, she repeatedly takes it on the chin. She is brave to do what she does. I am proud of her for her efforts. And, as her husband, I can't wait until she stops. Her supporters (both the ones brave enough to identify themselves as such and the others who don't want to publicly take it on the chin alongside of her) are going to miss her tireless work and her intelligence when she's gone. And one more thing while I'm making my little foray into a semi-public realm. Dick Teresi: the critiques you've written about my wife are obnoxious, and your parents named you appropriately. Bart Hollander

LarryK4 said...

And last I looked CS set up her blog as a two-way street allowing Comments from folks like Nina (with a vested interest) as well as those from Cowardly, Anon, Nitwits (all of whom I assume also have a vested interest but simply don't want us readers to discover it by leaving their names.)

jm said...

The high school student paper, The Graphic, does an excellent job of presenting the opinions of two high school students--with the big problem that most of the facts the opinion rests on are wrong. Time for a published correction in that paper and the Gazette if the piece also appeared there.

We can all disagree on what to think about a situation we are looking at. But the job of a journalist is to try very, very hard, to accurately describe the situation itself.

A teachable moment on journalism -- unless the students are heading off to Fox News.

LarryK4 said...

Or Air America.

I have no problem with an editorial or column screwing things up as the reader clearly knows they are getting opinion.

What I resent is when the media (and in the case of The Graphic or Daily Collegian for that matter I use the term loosely)runs a NEWS article and clearly slants it as the kiddies at The Graphic did with a Front Page article ("School Committee Member's blog creates conroversy in Amherst") slamming Catherine's blog.