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.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Let's talk about the schools

By Joel Wolfe

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.


Anonymous said...

Isn't the new Sup doing that? Where's his data?

He's already closed a school, put an end to the language-based school groupings, and eliminated Reading Recovery from the elementary schools. He's having the SPED program evaluated, too.

What else has he done USING OUTSIDE research?

Will this end up like the Hadley Police Dept outside review, though -- dismissed as "he didn't get it, he came predisposed to dislike us, he's not one of US."

I hope not.

Nina Koch said...

the line item budget is actually posted at (It's called "detailed budget.")

Anonymous said...

Catherine- are you going to post the Town Center column? You know the one that had all the positive things to say about the HS?

Joel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joel said...

Hi Nina,

I've stopped posting on this blog for a variety of reasons, but I'll respond to reasonable questions about the piece that I wrote for the Bulletin.

The Amherst and Amherst Regional budgets conflate quite a few numbers. The Northampton budget is in fact line by line.

For example, I know that that principal of Northampton HS earns $89,166 and is slated to earn $92,800 next year.

Where in the Amherst HS budget is the HS principal's salary or the salary of any principal? I see a line for HS administration that is $899,627 for 2009 and $965,792. That obviously conflates everything for this category and thus gives the public (the taxpayer) no useful information.

There is a pretty big difference in the level of transparency between how Northampton and Amherst are reporting administrative salaries. The residents of Northampton know what their HS principal makes, we do not. In Northampton, every salary is detailed. They don't include the teachers' names, but each teacher is listed as Math Teacher 1, Math Teacher 2, etc.

All expenses are detailed for each building. These budgets obviously exist in Amherst, but the public hasn't been allowed to see them. I've been told, and this may not be correct, that the School Committee has requested these budgets and been denied access to them, which is very troubling if true.

Nina Koch said...

Hi Joel,

I am seeing $128,663 for the hs principal on page 58 of 71 in the pdf file. Are you looking at the same file as I am?

There are two different budget files. One is a summary and the other is detailed. The detailed one is really really long. Here is a URL directly to the file (as opposed to the budget page of the arps site, where it is housed):

Region Budget

Anonymous said...

Joel why did you remove your original response and replace it with one that has much more accusatory and immflamotry language?

Joel said...

To the Anon, I don't think my language is at all inappropriate. I removed the post because I was looking at the wrong numbers and wanted to be accurate. One of the reasons I've stopped posting is that I am not comfortable having debates with anonymous posters.

Nina, thanks. I hadn't been able to find that.

Look, the point I tried to make in the Bulletin is that opening the budget to scrutiny could very well increase support for an override. Let me give you an example:

In the Northampton budget there are details about SPED and other specials teachers who are partial FTEs. In Amherst there is a lot of talk about the huge number of SPED and other specials teachers. Maybe that's more talk than reality. Maybe when a parent sees 10 of these teachers, they're looking at 5 FTE. Northampton's budget makes it a lot easier for people to see what the schools are spending money on.

Having a detailed budget with every expense easy to locate will help Amherst residents make up their minds about school spending.

Thanks again for pointing that out. I couldn't find it before.

Nina Koch said...

I don't think that Joel's post is inflammatory and accusatory.

I guess I am not sure why it would be helpful to know what each individual math teacher's salary is. I don't think it tells you that much. You would see a list of fifty something, sixty something, etc. but then what? There's a certain number of teachers and the salaries total a certain amount. I think it's the total FTE that matters, because that is related to the number of available class sections. Yeah, they could break it out person by person but then the document would be even huger.

Individual salaries like the principal might be of greater interest.

Now that you can see the nitty gritty, Joel, I would be curious to know if you feel like it answers a particular question you had before. Like "I was wondering how much goes to ______"

Joel said...


It's a massive document and harder to follow than Noho's. I'll give it a look. Thanks again for helping me get started on it.

TomG said...

I'm with you Joel. Let's talk about the schools.

If you have child in Amherst Schools, you want their schools to be the best they can be. Whether you have a child in the Amherst schools or not, you want your tax money spent in a way that delivers the best value.

We live in a community with so many well educated adults. Let's put that resource to work for us in maknig the schools better, not against us.

Let's put our heads together, identify our strengths, study our weaknesses, discuss our common objectives and priorities, set some objective goals and plan our course of action.

Your essay makes me think that more teacher engagement with SC members could benefit both groups.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Joel and TomG for your comments.

TomG's comment
We live in a community with so many well educated adults. Let's put that resource to work for us in maknig the schools better, not against us. "

provides one reason why anon 7:32's comment makes little sense. In a community like Amherst, more kids are coming from homes with parents who are educational professionals who will do whatever it takes to put their kids on an elite track.

The point of making public schools strong is not only for the kids going to Harvard, Dartmouth, Tufts, and Bowdoin but for the vast majority of our kids who need a solid HS education for those "lesser" institutions. The fallacy in Churchill and Terkel's argument in "AMHERST CENTER" is that it relies on a biased self selected sample of kids who have "made it."

It is precisely this kind of thinking that has compromised the Amherst schools. To understand the school system one needs random data.

Looking only at data one wants to see will generate a prescribed result. Such "data" analysis when used to create policy leads to crises (or the denial of them).

My view - let a bright light shine on a detailed budget and deal with reality. That is the way forward.


Anonymous said...

I think the problem is that one group of folks in Amherst look at the schools and see only good things and another group of folks look at the schools and only see bad things. These two groups need to come together and realize that nothing in life is either black or white...but many many varying shades of gray. They must come together and acknowledge all that is good with our schools and also acknowledge that there are things that could be improved. And then start to work to make improvements that will make our schools the best they can be for all.

For heaven's sake, lets stop this bickering and just agree to come together and work together. Maybe we in Amherst need to have a session like President Obama had with the Republicans yesterday. Get the different factions in one room and let them have at it.

I for one am as disgusted with the bickering here in Amherst as I am with the bickering in Washington. Nothing is getting done in Washington and this bickering in Amherst is preventing improving our schools from being done. Enough already!

Rick said...

“the School Committee has requested these budgets and been denied access to them” - Joel

I just don’t understand this. About 3 months ago I just walked in and asked for a copy of the 2010 detailed budget from Rob and he gave it to me. Surely if I can do that an SC member can do the same? But it’s nice that it’s on the website now.

“I guess I am not sure why it would be helpful to know what each individual math teacher's salary is.” - Nina

It’s not that the public will really do that much with such detailed information. It’s simply that having every item detailed makes everyone think that nothing is being hidden. That is really important. For me personally I would scan the list of salaries and that would give me a feel for what’s going on, but I wouldn’t necessarily do anything with that info (as a citizen; as an SC member I would).

”It's a massive document and harder to follow than Noho's.” - Joel

Yes it is, and it’s not as good as Nohos. From everything I have heard working on the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, ARPS knows this and wants to make it better. They just don’t have the time to do it for 2011 budget. They are absolutely committed to having a much better detailed budget format for 2012 budget, or later in the year for 2011. Trust me, it’s not an easy thing to do. I REALLY wish we could we could have it faster but the people in ARPS financial department are overloaded now producing all the cuts information and creating the 2011 budget.

”…one group of folks in Amherst look at the schools and see only good things and another group of folks look at the schools and only see bad things. These two groups need to come together…” - Anon 7:52


Abbie said...

Is there such a detailed budget for the Amherst Elementary Schools?

Rick said...

Yes, you can find it here: - the “FY10 Amherst Budget – Final Approved Budget - Detailed” link.

Ed said...

I can give a better example of experts and leaving things to what the "committee of experts" decided:

Every UMass student received this in today's email:

Staff at the Central Heating Plant are monitoring a potential problem,
which could disrupt the delivery of steam and heat to campus buildings.

Enough said?

just a few questions said...

Here's what I don't get:

1) Why won't the high school English department evauate it own program? More than one parent and student has said classes aren't challenging to advanced students and it's not a strong department. Why are these voices ignored in favor of students who come back and say they felt well-prepared? Don't former students visit the teachers they like? Does anyone expect former students to visit the teachers they felt taught poorly and say tell them they weren't prepared? Are either of these perspectives enough to evaluate a program?

2) In a high school rife with choices of electives, why aren't students given choices of what 9th grade science or English classes to take? If a student wants to take 9th grade biology so s/he can take more advanced science classes later, why stop that student? Why not give students the choice about what level of rigor to take in English classes? They have this choice in all other departments, including music. This is simply illogical. Is there something unique about English classes?

3) Has anyone realized that the fact that Amherst high school gradutes go onto top schools can be -- and is -- used to justify any and every practice or program? This seems to be the rationale for any and everything ARHS does. It even can be used as a rationale for more budget cuts: since Amherst students continue to get into top colleges despite years of cuts, apparently budget cuts don't affect our students.

4) Does ARHS have a unusually large amount of students from minority, poor and non-college families going onto top schools? Wouldn't this be a true marker of the success of our social justice goals and the quality of our schools?

5) What criticism of the schools is not considered teacher-bashing?

Ed said...

Does ARHS have a unusually large amount of students from minority, poor and non-college families going onto top schools?

Wow... This is it in a nutshell.

Be careful with the "minority" as there are two wild cards -- first Amherst is unique in having a significant population of well-educated (and well paid) minorities. For example, one woman I know had kids in the school system (now graduated), she and her husband both UM faculty (pay a matter of public record if you know how to look) and a family income in excess of $300K. There is no way to compare their kids to kids (equally black) growing up in Southpoint....

Second, when looking at minority kids, you do NOT want to look at acceptance rates. You want to look at 1-year retention rates (were they still there at the start of their sophomore year) and 6-year graduation rates.

Lots of colleges accept minority students who simply are not qualified for college (to make people feel good about social justice) and then flunk them all out in the spring. This is a reality and calling me names won't end it - and hence you need to look at statistics that tell you something.

Overall, for all kids, it doesn't really matter if they are accepted at a college, it matters if they GRADUATE from college -- and UMass has something like a 54% rate for that. Other places vary.

And yes, about half of the kids who enter UM each fall will NEVER graduate from here, but I digress...

I would like to see a statistic of ARSD graduates who do not have a family member employed in the higher education industry -- take just those kids who don't have a father, mother, uncle, aunt or grandparent employed by (or retired from) UMass, Amherst College, etc -- and how many of them are going to college?

And then flip it the other way: even though you won't have statistical accuracy, of the kids in Hopkin's Academy who have a family member in higher ed, how are they doing? Include the Academy at Charlemont and other places where parents who could send kids to ARSD instead send them.

Be interesting to see how these statistics came out, wouldn't it?

And then do a relationship between dollars spent per student and educational outcome (MCAS and/or college acceptance) and you likely will find what someone in the statehouse told me a decade ago: B'Town High outperforms Amherst in dollars/per/outcome -- dramatically so.

Any idiot can teach bright motivated students who learn largely at home from their parents -- the true challenge is in teaching everyone else...