Published on January 29, 2010 in The Amherst Bulletin
The election to the School Committee of Catherine Sanderson, Steve Rivkin and Irv Rhodes has caused a great deal of sturm und drang in town. There has been a lot debate but little agreement on issues such as per student spending, trimesters, the new ninth-grade science requirement, the two forced study halls per year that other districts avoid, and a possible override.
Let's be brutally honest, teaching is hard work for which teachers are underpaid. Let's further stipulate that the best teachers are those who react openly and honestly to suggestions and even criticism. But, contrary to everything you would assume about a progressive college town, folks who have offered even the mildest criticism or constructive suggestion are shut down with accusations of "teacher bashing" by some defenders of the status quo. Nothing should be beyond criticism. I am a teacher. Criticizing me or this column is not teacher bashing, so let's get beyond that sort of defensiveness.
It's time we evaluate what we're doing in Amherst. I've read in the Bulletin that every controversial aspect of our system was created by a committee of dedicated and thoughtful educators. The implication is that it's all good and we should just let the education professionals do what they think is best. Lots of committees of thoughtful and intelligent people have made bad decisions. The first and second U.S. constitutions were written by largely the same folks. That first one lasted about eight years. The second is still in use. Am I "Founding Fathers bashing" or just making a rather obvious point?
If what we're doing in Amherst is really the best way to go, shouldn't our administrators want open discussions about our practices? Northampton publishes its budget with every expense detailed down to the cost of copy paper in the middle school. If we have cut budgets "to the bone," shouldn't someone want to show us that with a detailed, line by line budget? We are also practically alone in Massachusetts in using trimesters, so shouldn't we be able to show it's better than semesters? The same can be said of our new ninth-grade science requirement. Is it good or better than what just about every other district in the country does? The best measure would be to see if our district's program appeals to others. But, many high schools are opting for physics in the ninth grade, and no one seems to be doing what we do now. If our models are so good, why aren't other high schools adopting them? I would have a lot more confidence in this new curriculum if an outside group of high school science educators, chosen by our superintendent, reviewed it. A lot of people would also like to hear from other districts about how they have avoided the forced study halls kids at ARHS have despite the fact that we have such high per pupil spending.
We do a lot of things that practically no other district does. Our education establishment should engage in an open and honest debate about how we differ from the rest of Massachusetts and the country. What's truly worrisome is the vitriol and defensiveness from some current and former teachers to fair and reasonable questions. If everything is so good, wouldn't they welcome the opportunity for outsiders to examine curricula, the forced study halls, the budget and trimester system?
How can a parent get honest answers to these sorts of questions if members of the School Committee are attacked when they pose them? Shouting down people undermines support for our schools. We want excellent schools for all the kids, and we can only achieve that by having real analyses of our programs by outsiders without a stake in the status quo. After all, if we're doing such a great job, those evaluations will convince more people to support the schools and a possible override.
Joel Wolfe is a University of Massachusetts professor of history.