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.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The public is watching

Amherst Bulletin
Published on January 22, 2010

In response to the Jan. 8 commentary by Catherine Sanderson and Steve Rivkin, I assert that the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001 and the Bush administration's subsequent repression of civil liberties are events to which there are no comparisons in the history of the United States. Comparing dialogue about the goals of the Amherst area schools to the Bush administration's covert and frequently illegal suppression of information does not warrant School Committee members Rivkin's and Sanderson's inflated metaphor. Moreover, they toss around the notion of ideology as though their own views have no ideological basis.

However, my disagreement with their views is not the point of my letter. Rather, my point is that the assertions made in a series of Amherst Bulletin commentaries by Rivkin and Sanderson appear as though they are the statements of a collective School Committee as they have ignored the School Committee ethics policy that reads: "Clarify when outside of a School Committee meeting and expressing his/her opinion concerning any committee business, that he/she is speaking only for himself/herself and not for the entire School Committee. Accept the office as a committee member as a means of unselfish service with no intent to 'play politics,' in any sense of the word, or to benefit personally from his committee activities."

The moral and legal danger of their violation of this policy is that since their assertions as elected officials are accusatory of citizens who disagree with them, they run a high risk of suppressing democratic dialogue. The ironic twist is that they purport to feeling their opinions have been suppressed.

As democratically elected officials who are bound by law to conduct business in open meetings, their accusations could suppress the democratic, public participation that the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law is designed to protect: "The requirements of the Open Meeting Law grow out of the idea that the democratic process depends on the public having knowledge about the considerations underlying governmental action, for without that knowledge people are not able to judge the merits of action taken by their representatives. The overriding intent of the Open Meeting Law is therefore to foster and indeed require open discussion of governmental action at public meetings."

Catherine Sanderson's blog also raises questions about violations of School Committee policy and the state's Open Meeting Law. While the activity of blogging is an exciting electronic mode of democratic dialog for people who have access to computers, Sanderson's specific blog raises several questions about conflict in her role as an elected public official. Regarding electronic communication, School Committee policy states: "School Committee members must use it carefully in order to avoid conflicts with the Open Meeting Law and the Public Records Law. A School Committee member's use of electronic messaging must insure that the public and the other members of the School Committee can trust that any deliberative discussions about School Committee business always will occur at public meetings."

Since there are a high number of anonymous postings on her blog, when Sanderson is conversing/blogging with anonymous participants on her blog about items such as which curriculum to adopt, teaching methods and closing a school, how can she be certain she is not communicating with a quorum of School Committee members? Some of Sanderson's practices could easily appear to violate, or inadvertently violate the portion of the policy that states that, "Electronic messaging should not be used to discuss committee business that requires public discussion under the Open Meeting Law."

Furthermore, certain postings on her blog have been disrespectful and slanderous to school personnel. Why would a public official want to establish a forum that tolerates disrespectful communication? Rivkin and Sanderson should be put on notice that the public to which they owe service is watching, and expects more of them.

Patty Bode is a former Amherst teacher and is a faculty member in the Tufts University Department of Education.

Note from Catherine: Given that this piece is entirely a criticism, not of my/our ideas, but of our voicing those ideas (precisely the point we made in the now infamous column in which we dared to compare residents of Amherst to members of the Bush administration), I want to clarify two important points.

First, Ms. Bode is entirely correct that our column should include a disclaimer that this represents entirely our own views, and not the views of the School Committee (though I'm not really sure anyone was confused about this issue). Interestingly, this should also apply to Andy Churchill's In the Center of Amherst column, which he writes with two other members of the public -- a point Ms. Bode fails to note in her piece.

Second, my blog is entirely legal according to federal and state law, and indeed is in compliance fully with the Open Meeting Law. This blog is public, meaning anyone could read it and post on it, and anyone can see these postings. It would be entirely legal for other members of the School Committee to post on it (using their names or anonymously) since their thoughts could then be read by all members of the public. What would NOT be legal would be for members of the School Committee to communicate on a private listserve in which members of the public could not read our thoughts (and potential deliberations). In fact, before beginning my blog, I called the head of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) to confirm that this blog would be legal (and Steve and I again called before starting our column). As one might expect, First Amendment rights extend even to School Committee members in Amherst.


Rick said...

I didn’t agree at all with Ms. Bode’s column which was mainly an attempt to limit speech, not to be critical of the content of the speech itself. Sure, we have to be careful not to violate open meeting laws, but it was a stretch to say this was such a violation. It was very clear to me that Catherine and Steve’s article was their opinion, not school committee opinion – but sure, a disclaimer would be wise.

FYI: if I am not mistake, here’s the law on open meetings:

Of last week’s letters, I thought Bruce Penniman’s was quite thoughtful and would a good one for discussion:

Among other things he asks: “Is traditional practice always good, then?” and “Is experimentation always bad?” Answering these questions for ourselves is a good thing to do.

He also makes thoughtful comments about “grouping” versus “tracking”. Also an area were we really need to come to some agreement on policy. I am interested in discussing what he said here:

“All students have access to the most challenging curricula; discussions are richer because students bring more diverse viewpoints; social barriers are broken down; and high-achieving students still do well on AP tests, attend competitive colleges, and report feeling well prepared. Is the system flawless? Hardly. But the teachers work continually to improve it, learning new and better approaches to differentiating without dividing.”

What do people think about this?

LarryK4 said...

Yes indeed Catherine, "First Amendment rights extend even to School Committee members in Amherst."

As long as you don't question or criticize our Sacred Cows.

now a really curious observer said...

Ms. Bode's piece was the least sensible. Claiming a possible violation of the Open Meeting Law because other school board members might be posting anonymously on a blog and discussing issues currently in front of the School Committee? Any facts to substantiate this?

Does she think Catherine Sanderson knows ahead of time who the anonymous posters/school board members are so it's a secret meeting hiding out in the open on a blog? (Why not just talk to one another on a secret phone conference call?) How many anonymous school board posters would have to be involved? Do they all have to be on-line at the same time to be having a meeting?

What if school board members were posting and Catherine Sanderson didn't know? Is it a meeting if she doesn't know she's having one?

Does Catherine Sanderson seem like someone who would do this -- and not just say what she thinks in a school board meeting? Are the other school board members afraid to state their ideas publicly and using her blog to have a meeting with her that she actually doesn't know she's having?

What the heck!

Please, Ms. Bode do a little more homework (facts, data) before writing your next piece. You can check in with the district attorney or the state attorney general's since they administer the Open Meeting Law statute. The Commonwealth's website has an entire section devoted to the Open Meeting Law in easy to read language. Then think it through a bit.

Or you can just launch some more infammatory, half-thought out ideas into the public sphere.

curious observer said...

Rick, you're running for the school board so my question to you is: do you see any problem with Mr. Penniman's comments? I break out a few here:

"discussions are richer because students bring more diverse viewpoints"

"social barriers are broken down"

"high-achieving students still do well on AP tests, attend competitive colleges, and report feeling well prepared."

If you were on the school board and required a program evaluation, what would an evaluation look like? Would this be enough?

Caren Rotello said...

"Is experimentation always bad?"

If you're going to succeed in your bid for School Committee, you'll have to learn to challenge people (Penniman, in this case) when they say dumb things or ask ill-formed questions.

What the Amherst Schools do is NOT experimentation. Running an experiment requires that you have a control condition (say, the standard curriculum) and an experimental condition (the new curriculum). You randomly assign kids and teachers to one of those conditions, and you keep as many other variables as constant as possible (e.g., amount of time spent on topic). Then, you actually have an outcome measure (or set thereof) that both groups of kids take -- that means that all kids are assessed on the very same test or outcome measures. If the experimental curriculum leads to statistically better performance than the standard curriculum, then -- and only then -- it should be adopted. Experiments are great because they let you assess causality (better performance was caused by the curriculum, because everything else was held constant across the groups).

What Amherst does isn't anything like that, as far as I can tell. Instead, we assume that our methods are better, and we implement them for all kids from the get-go. Then we don't bother to assess changes in performance on any standardized tests. (You can compare past and prior performance on the content in question, although the results are harder to interpret than those from a real experiment.) In Amherst, we just assume that the new methods are better because "we" like them and they're innovative.

That's a problem, and knowing that it's a problem doesn't require that I think "traditional practice is always good." I'm all for REAL experimentation, because it would be likely to yield real improvements in our schools. In contrast, I'm totally against the current "it's good because I say it's good" attitude in the school system now.

TomG said...

Bode's Bid: A Bid too Far

Having your full name and Rivkin's full name on the op-ed(s), "by CS and SR" and at the same time not having the name "by Amherst School Committee" puts you in complete compliance with the ethics rule Bode cites. I had not one scintilla of confusion about who wrote the op-ed(s) and in what capacity.

It crossed my mind that you and Steve have published dozens of op-eds and Bode has not levied the charge of 'ethical violation with implications of moral and legal jeopardy' before now when you and Steve published the op-ed with the metaphor about suppressing dissent.

It seems to me Bode's fundamental concerns are more about the metaphor and perhaps also what you're trying to accomplish for students and the administration (or have accomplished) rather than any alleged ethical violations.

Because people always like their elected officials to be responsive to their concerns, add the disclaimer "BY CS and SR, Amherst SC officials jointly speaking in an unofficial capacity"

I'd like to hear Bode make her case on the substance of reforms as opposed to a meta debate about how the debate is being engaged and her laughably absurd claims about ethical, moral and legal implications.

If you choose to acknowledge that the metaphor could be taken as inflammatory although that was not your intent, you could also ask Bode publicly to dial back her rhetoric impugning your ethical and moral character, as well as present it in the context of getting the debate on track. If you want the debate to be about the reforms and obstacles to the debate, own the metaphor and redirect the debate.

The metaphor, while calling attention to a phenomenon that you and Steve chose to raise as a concern, also compared people to universally loathed dissent suppressors Bush and Cheney. While academics seize apt metaphors where they find them, politicians review them further for unintended consequences. .

Bode cites a "...moral and legal danger of their violation of this policy is that since their assertions as elected officials are accusatory of citizens who disagree with them"

Bode’s attempt to construct a moral and legal framework is so laughable, it’s not worth discussing. And while it is laughable, you must resist the temptation to reasonably compare Bode to the most loathsome debater who invokes ad hominem as their method of operation impugning the character of their honorable debate partner as unethical, immoral and criminal.

Anonymous said...

Bode's career in education as an academic with an advanced degree and a teacher of art in the context of social justice, formerly at the middle school, makes her op-ed all the more surprising to me.

Rather than engaging in confrontational debate about ethics, morals and legal jeopardy, why not got to pedagogy and curriculum? has some information about Ms Patty Bode here:

"She has published and lectured on

- critical art pedagogy based in public schools,
- re-theorizing identity and curriculum, and
- redefining multicultural education.

Years of experience as
- an activist public school art teacher and
- teacher educator inform Patty Bode’s art making, research and teaching.

Patty is the
-recipient of National Multicultural Educator Award of 2005 from National Association for Multicultural Education for efforts in anti-racist curriculum reform in art education and bridging theory and practice in multicultural education. She
-delivered keynote addresses at the 2006 conference of the Massachusetts Art Education Association, the 2007 conference of the National Association for Multicultural Education (co-delivered, with Sonia Nieto), the 2008 conference of Institute for Learning Partnership at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay and the 2009 Boston Public Schools Professional Development Arts Institute."

The importance of teaching art in its social and cultural context.

A letter from Kaeli

Nina Koch said...


I think you would have to agree that the word "experiment" has multiple connotations, one of which refers to the laboratory setting that you describe. Another connotation is "a venture at something new or different", like when I decide to make a cilantro sauce to drizzle over my chili.

In the realm of education, my definition of experiment would be "departure from traditional practice." Typically, these departures occur because of some observed need, something that the current practice appears not to accomplish satisfactorily.

You have to keep in mind that these practices are happening with real kids in a school. It is not going to be possible to set up the kind of experiment that you describe. For example, suppose we have the hypothesis that learning statistics will be more important than learning Calculus, when held in the light of what one needs for adult life. Should we then start randomly assigning students, okay you take a Calculus track and you take an integrated sequence that emphasizes statistics? People would object to that random assignment. And we are certainly not going to have placebo classes. Educational research is different and is typically done on a larger scale than a single school can manage.

Of course, practice should be evaluated and I would argue that traditional practice should be subjected to the same skepticism as departures from traditional practice. For example, is there any evidence to suggest that people, on average, learn best from lecture? No. Yet it is a widespread practice. Adults tend not to question the practice because it is so familiar to them, even though they have forgotten most of the information that was delivered to them in that form.

I would like to see you point to an example of someone saying "It's good because I say it's good." If you believe people have that attitude, then I think you may have misunderstood some of what has been said. When teachers say something like "Please ask me about what I do" they are saying "I want to be sure you understand what the practice is." We are reacting to people attempting to characterize the practice when they don't have full information about it. That's very different than the attitude you describe.

And finally, I don't believe I have ever seen the word "dumb" in the same sentence with the name "Bruce Penniman." You may not share his beliefs, but his statements about education are not dumb. He was selected as Massachusetts Teacher of the Year (and a finalist for National Teacher of the Year). He has served on multiple national boards and his book about teaching English was recently published by the National Council of Teachers of English. They evidently considered his ideas not so dumb.

Anonymous said...

Curious Observer-
How are the quotes you provide problems? These all seem like great things to me.

Or maybe I just don't understand your comment.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah Nina, but Mr. Penniman was also very quick to come to the defense of rookie ARHS Principal Steven Myers eight years ago when word first leaked via a School Committee public comment period that Myers had hit on a 15-year-old boy.

Over 100 students and teachers rallied to Myers defense and signed a petition (that I believe was penned my Mr. Penniman).

Of course a few days later the crusty Gazette discovered a 100 page official report from authorities in Santa Cruz, California (where Myers had worked as an educator), that outlined the principal's confession to being attracted to 14- to 16-year-old-males, and his admission to having had sexual relations with boys.

End of public support for Mr. Myers! And jumping to his defense, without researching the facts, was indeed pretty dumb.

Caren Rotello said...

You wrote that "You have to keep in mind that these practices are happening with real kids in a school. It is not going to be possible to set up the kind of experiment that you describe." While I would agree that nobody would set up the experiment you followed with (calculus v. stats and test for life outcome), I strongly disagree with your claim that "it is not ... possible" to do real experiments in a school setting. Indeed, an excellent randomized-design study of the Investigation math curriculum now in place in our elementary schools (and 3 other curricula) was done on a large scale. It clearly showed that Investigations was a weaker curriculum than the others tested, and that using Investigations cost the children about 10 percentile points on the standardized test. (I am not including a link here because this study has been talked about a lot on this blog. But, yes, I've read the original study myself.) Despite the poor showing of Investigations in that experiment, that's what we subject our children to! That's why I say that people in Amherst seem to think things are good just because they like them -- I can't see any reason why administrators would choose Investigations Math based on data, so there must be something else that drives the decision. *That's* the problem, the "something else" that must be subjective (or financial, though I haven't seen that argument to date).

Even if you think we can't do a randomized design in our district, that does not rule out other objective comparisons. As I noted in my earlier post, one could compare scores on a standard outcome measure both before and after some change has been implemented. Or you could implement the change in some classrooms but not others. Doing so would allow some quantitative, objective evaluation of the consequence of that change. I don't see that happening in Amherst. For example, my child was exposed to the Chinese curriculum at Wildwood, which teachers seemed to love but to my knowledge was never evaluated. (My own subjective view, based on one child, is that the time spent on learning Chinese would have been better spent on something else.)

Bottom line: I like objective evidence, and I see precious little of it in the Amherst school system's decision making.

Rick said...

Curious observer:

"discussions are richer because students bring more diverse viewpoints" – I agree with this, but whether this is important or not depends on the class. For a social studies class, I can see it being important, for a math class, a lot less so.

"social barriers are broken down" – I would say this is more likely to be true with grouped classes than not, when you have the situation that lower income and/or non-white students are not represented in higher level classes. On the other hand, grouping does not at all ensure that "social barriers are broken down". Not sure what the answer is; this is a problem to be worked on.

"high-achieving students still do well on AP tests, attend competitive colleges, and report feeling well prepared." – well this is literally true, but I think the question is not this, but whether the % of students who “do well on AP tests, attend competitive colleges, and report feeling well prepared" is high enough or not. The AP test and “attend competitive colleges” are certainly two items that could be compared with other schools.

“If you were on the school board and required a program evaluation, what would an evaluation look like? Would this be enough?” The short answer is ‘I don’t know’ as I am not an expert in evaluating courses. When you say “Would this be enough?”, I’m not sure what you mean. If you mean is Penniman’s opinion enough, of course not.

Anonymous said...

It was disappointing to read the Bulletin this week. Except for a very few good points, most of the critiques of Steve and Catherine concerned their STYLE rather than their SUBSTANCE.

Most troubling was the critique that this blog is somehow unethical or inappropriate. This blog makes the School Committee more transparent and accessible than it has ever been.

And I have to disagree with Rick about Mr Penniman's column. I don't think Mr Penniman characterizes their position accurately when he says, "Rivkin and Sanderson's main critique of the Amherst school system seems to be that some of its programs differ from conventional practices."

That couldn't be further from the truth. If all of our unique programs were examined and the results showed that how we do things really does improve outcomes, I think SC & SR would be the first to advocate for continuing to use those programs. But simply asking for an examination has landed them on the wrong side of Amherst social politics.

Unfortunately, this week's Bulletin does little to move us forward in coming together to solve real problems - and keeps us stuck in finger pointing and name calling.

Rick said...

I agree with Caren about the need to evaluate, and about what defines the ideal “experiment”. I agree with Nina that the ideal experiment cannot always be accomplished. But what should be the case is that if a change is made, you measure something before that change, and measure the same thing after that change and see what happens to the measurement. Often that will be far from perfect but it’s better than nothing and needs to be done (if it isn’t already).

I’m sure both Caren and Nina would agree with this. I see the much harder part of this being what exactly it is you measure. In Caren’s example of Chinese curriculum at Wildwood, what is it one would measure (before and after) to determine if adding Chinese to the curriculum had a good outcome? This is tough. By “tough” I don’t mean we shouldn’t do it, I mean that’s where we should be spending our time – figuring out what to measure, not talking about whether measuring is good or bad. Of course it’s good.

There is a problem that I think is highlighted by this statement by Penniman:

”…to imply that they have been adopted without sufficient research and consideration of alternatives, or maintained without adequate evaluation, is disrespectful of the hard work that Amherst's teachers and administrators do on behalf of students.”

The fact is that some people have the impression that ”adequate evaluation” does not occur, and it’s a lot more than one or two parents. The fault of this lies squarely with ARPS. They need to do a much better job of communicating how exactly they do evaluation and share the results with us. Either they do it well and are not communicating that information well, or they are not doing it well and need to start. Either way we need to know.

There is no “disrespect” in asking about this. Where one treads into disrespect is when motives start to get attached to why ARPS may not communicate this well. We are much better off when we stay away from motives, which one can never really know, and stick to the facts about what it is we need and don’t have.

Caren Rotello said...

My understanding is that the Chinese program was funded by a grant. Grant money isn't awarded for nothing, there had to be a grant application in which the program itself was described. More importantly for present purposes, the program must have been justified or motivated in some way. In other words, the application must have said something like "here's our proposed program and here's why we think it's a good idea." The justification may have been about some expected educational gain, and if it was, then that tells you what to measure! If it was about some cultural experience, then that presents a harder task, but it's still possible to measure the impact of the program. You could give some sort of cultural sensitivity test before and after the program. On the academic side, I would look at what Chinese lessons replaced in the regular curriculum. Perhaps it was 10 minutes of math and 10 minutes of language arts each week (I'm clearly making those things up -- I don't know what it replaced or how much time was involved). In that case, you would want to know whether math and/or language arts skills were affected. One might expect a negative effect, but it's possible that a positive effect could appear (maybe learning Chinese helps kids understand English, for example). You could, of course, measure how much Chinese the kids actually learned and assess whether that did or didn't meet program expectations.

Again, to my knowledge none of these evaluations were conducted. I don't think the kids were even asked if they liked the program.

Ed said...

There is a classic line in "The Untouchables" about how "you aren't from Chicago." And a while back I mentioned to Catherine that she "wasn't from UMass."

I will leave that alone other than to say that (a) I know why Bailey Jackson was removed from the deanship, (b) I know why Mark's Meadow was dropped by the UM SOE, and (c) I know who Sonia Nieto is.

I cry when I read editorials like this one, I ask who on earth cheated Patty Bode out of her own education. Do we neither teach logic nor history anymore?

First, does she not know history? There have LONG been times when ethical guidelines were used for nefarious purposes. Racism comes to mind. Dorathia Dix and her work to improve the care of the mentally ill as well -- what was she doing with "those" people.....

The board is attempting to censor the minority into silence. OK, what if GW Bush and his buddies were the majority - would you folk honor it then?

Second, there is a really big distinction between a meeting and a public record. There is a really big distinction between when a bunch of people physically are in a venue and talk, and when the same people reduce their thoughts to written correspondence.

A blog is written correspondence. It is publicly posted - as it might have been a century ago on the church bulletin board - but IT IS WRITTEN CORRESPONDENCE!!!!!!

Unless folk wish to allege that the rest of the board is climbing onto Catherine's lap to concurrently type on her computer terminal, it is clearly apparent that they aren't there. Hence no meeting, no public meeting, no public meeting law applicability.

They are sending letters to each other. And they already are published and public (although Catherine could charge you a dollar a page and print them out if you wished).

So (a) what exactly is the issue and (b) how is this different from people writing stuff that gets published in the _Bulletin_?

They are reducing their thoughts to writing and giving anyone who wants to read them the ability to do so. What exactly is wrong with this? What am I missing here?

Ken said...

This thread is not about math, yet here again the claim about how "weak" our math program has popped up. This claim is based on a study of Investigations math done somewhere else. But the question is whether OUR math program is weak or not. I have posted MCAS data on OUR math program a couple of times on the blog, usually to almost no response at all. I will summarize it yet again here.

First, I should also note that I train teachers throughout MA (not in math), and my experience is that about half of the ones I work with use Investigations.

Based on data readily available on the dept of ed webiste (using the CPI, a figure the state uses to represent a group's overall level of MCAS performance), the following can be seen:
FACT: I traced our 6th graders' MCAS growth last year from their 3rd grade scores (first MCAS year for them, in 2006) and in the aggregate as well as in ALL 8 subgroups (SPED, ESL, African-American, Low Income, Non-Low-Income, White, Hispanic and Asian), we outgrew the state average, in many cases quite dramatically
FACT: I traced our graduating 6th graders in 2008 from their 4th grade scores (3rd grade scores in 2005 were not disaggregated by subgroups by the state), we outgrew the state average in 7 of the 8 subgroups (our African-American students were 1.8 points lower); in contrast, for example, our SPED subgroup grew 21.2 points to the state's negative growth of -7.9 for this subgroup, our Low Income subgroup grew 22.7 to the state's Low Income students' -1.8, our ESL students outgrew the state's 15.3 to -5, our Non-Low-Income students outgrew the state's 11.1 to 0.3...
FACT: I also looked at last year's SGP (student growth percentile, comparing the MCAS growth of a group in one grade to their performance in their previous grade to the state average) at each grade, 4th-6th (there is no SGP for 3rd since it's the first MCAS year); not all subgroups had SGP's listed, but here's the comparison--in 4th, 7 of 8 subgroups ours were higher, in 5th, 5 of 7 were higher, and in 6th, 5 of 5 were higher
NEED FOR IMPROVEMENT FACTS: our Hispanic subgroup SGP was lower than the state average in both 4th and 5th grade; teachers need to be trained to help realize more equitable growth among all subgroups

Other FACT: Massachusetts' scores on the 3 grades the NAEP testing at (4, 8 and 12) are very near or at the top of the nation, so strong results within Massachusetts are not weak

FACT: While we can do better achieving more equitable growth in math among all subgroups, by any valid data measure, OUR math program overall is NOT weak

But I'm quite sure I will continue to read on this blog and in Catherine and Steve's columns that it is.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Rick - I (obviously) believe that Ms. Bode's column was inappropriate, and it will be interesting to me to see if she is called out on that in next week's Bulletin (I doubt it, however).

I am less enthusiastic than you are about the letters published both this week and last -- I think I'm now up to counting 7 critiques coming from a single column (which is kind of sad, when we've written about many things related to education -- universal preschool, summer reading, identifying great teachers/class size, etc. -- that have received not a single response). But I may do a separate blog entry on the points raised by other letters so I'm going to hold off on my responses for now -- other than to say that the two long pieces (other than Ms. Bode's) were from long-time educators in Amherst who clearly prefer our current approach to evaluation and innovation.

Larry - Ms. Bode's letter reminded me of a letter in last year's Bulletin from a Marks Meadow teacher who also objected to my blog. I think it is very clear that the objection is not to my blog itself -- it is what I write in it. Similarly, Andy has had a column for years, and no one has been bothered (including during times in which he published statements in his column that he had also spoken at an SC meeting). The issue is what I'm saying, not the format in which I'm saying it.

Now a Really Curious Observer - good points -- and I'm glad some people recognized the ludicrous nature of her accusations.

Curious Observer - good questions for Rick, and I believe fair for him (and other candidates) to answer.

Caren (at 1:05) - well said. Our programs are certainly innovative and unique. And they certainly aren't evaluated. And those who ask for such evaluation are almost invariably accused of teacher-bashing (a point that Steve and I made in the column that generated so much heat).

Tom G - well said. And I especially liked your point that this is our 7th or 8th oped ... and the first one in which she's raised a concern about not having a disclaimer. I've had my blog for nearly two years -- again, no concerns until now?

Anonymous 1:46 - two key things about Ms. Bode. First, her dissertation advisor was Sonia Nieto, who opposed the redistricting which I supported. Second, she taught in middle school for a number of years, and I have been vocal about the concerns I hear from parents and students in terms of rigor. I believe her concerns about our column/my blog may have been based in other feelings of animosity towards me/Steve.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Ken for the DATA and COMPARISON! It has been spoken that that is ALL that is being asked for. Lets see if that is truly the case.

Caren Rotello said...

Wow. Just think how well our students would score if they were using a demonstrably stronger curriculum, then.

The study that included Investigations was a real experiment, with randomized assignment of classrooms to curricula. That means we can conclude that the differences in the scores were caused by differences in curriculum. It's true that we now use the second edition of Investigations, whereas the study was on the first edition, but it also true that there are no published studies that demonstrate the second edition is any better than the first.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Nina (at 1:47) - I think there is a real difference between saying "this might work, let's try it" and saying "this has been shown to work, let's try it." I see in the Amherst schools lots of focus on the first of these types of "experimentation" -- they include heterogeneous AP english, the use of extensions in 7th grade, and requiring ecology in 9th grade. We then do these things, and we pretty much hope they work and/or believe they work because the people who created them tell us they worked (a less than ideal scientific practice).

In contrast, in many districts there are efforts at something that people like me and Caren Rotello would see as closer to actual experimentation. In Framingham, MA, a few years ago, there were concerns about the elementary school curriculum they used (Investigations), so they had teachers in 4 schools use that curriculum and teachers in 4 schools use a different curriculum. Then they examined teacher ratings and math scores over the year, and found that the other curriculum (NOT Investigations) was better. That's a pretty good experiment with some pretty objective data as an outcome.

There are lots of way to do real evaluation in districts without doing total random assignment. I begged the superintendent and several SC members to pilot the ecology/environmental science class for one year and let kids choose which to take -- and we could then have equalized for MCAS and other measures prior to the class and after to see if there were benefits. They said no. Other parents have asked whether there are differences in math achievement in HS for kids who do IMP versus traditional math -- and at least year's parent orientation, the presenter said we just didn't know the impact (that is also something that we could examine statistically, even without random assignment). There are many ways in which we could do more objective analysis and evaluation if there was interest -- I don't see the interest in doing so, however, by many in our district.

Anonymous 1:58 - those quotes are from a column by Bruce Penniman. They reflect his opinion -- they are not data, which I think was the point the poster was making.

Larry - thank you for making me feel so much better about what I'm NOT having to deal with on the SC! There is indeed a silver lining in every cloud.

Caren (at 2:39) - there are indeed good examples of experiments on curriculum (the elementary school math curriculum was one), and it is highly possible to do statistical comparisons of students pre-post some new program and/or to compare students in different classrooms/schools. And I share your belief that this type of objective analysis just doesn't occur in Amherst -- which is almost like a point of pride. I've asked for evaluations of many things -- the trimester system, 9th grade ecology/environmental science, heterogenerous AP English in high school, Chinese at Wildwood, investigations in 7th grade, etc. And there has not been a single real evaluation of any of those programs/curriculum.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Rick - I see these quotes as based on opinion entirely, and many reasonable people could agree or disagree with each.

1. "Do richer discussions happen in a room in which students bring diverse viewpoints?" For me, I think there are many ways of considering diversity -- you can have very diverse viewpoints among all high achiving students (e.g., they still vary by race/gender/life experience/religion, family make-up, etc.). This seems to imply that students in a given level of proficiency in a discipline all have the same viewpoint, which I don't think is true. I hear great things about the social studies department at the high school, and this department groups students by ability/interest to do honors from 9th grade on. I'm not sure why the English department feels these "diverse viewpoints" are only created by having heterogeneous classes?

2. "social barriers are broken down" - again, I have no idea whether this is true. Most classes at Amherst College are heterogeneous (obviously within the group that gets into Amherst College), and I still see some social barriers! I also am not sure if the goal of high school English classes should be more about breaking down social barriers or about teaching writing/reading/thinking.

3. "high-achieving students still do well on AP tests and get into college" - I don't think this is due to the way we teach English in our high school at all. I hear from kids and parents that kids learn to WRITE in social studies classes, not in English classes. I hear from kids that only a small number of kids seem to talk about the reading in English classes. I certainly see no evidence that the presence of non-grouped English classes improves AP scores and college admission, which this quote seems to imply.

In sum, I think the question for you from this poster was about what type of evaluation would you want to see, and would teachers in our system telling you their approach was right be enough to convince you it was? Because that is pretty much how evaluation in our system currently works.

Tuning In said...

"...two key things about Ms. Bode. First, her dissertation advisor was Sonia Nieto, who opposed the redistricting which I supported. Second, she taught in middle school for a number of years, and I have been vocal about the concerns I hear from parents and students in terms of rigor. I believe her concerns about our column/my blog may have been based in other feelings of animosity towards me/Steve."

With that post, I just lost all respect for you, which I consider unfortunate. Because, though I often disagree with you and find your tone abrasive, I have, until now, valued the degree to which you insist on questioning the status quo; requiring us all to think more critically in the process. But you've become WAY too much of a cry baby in all of this. You are the proverbial someone who wants to be able to dish it out without being able to take it back in return. This whole drama you've created has become way too much about you and way too little about the kids and their education. So, I'm officially tuning out.

And, for clarification sake: I agreed with about zero of Ms. Bode's points in her letter to the editor. I do, however, have great respect for Ms. Nieto and her work, which you have disparaged and for Ms. Bode's contribution to our educational system, which you have also disparaged. I would also like to note that the letter to the editor that you chose to highlight in your blog was the one most likely to bring the outcry of "poor, poor Catherine"; a response which you seem to crave. Like Rick, I would have much preferred to see you offering a venue for discussion of the more substantive questions that Mr. Penniman had to offer in his letter to the editor. But, it doesn't appear that that is what you would, really, like this blog to be about.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Anonymous 2:49 - I agree that this week's Bulletin (and hey, last week's) was discouraging. There seems like a lot of focus on tone (say things nicer and be more positive about our schools), some focus on restricting speech (just don't have a blog or a column), and a lot of emphasis on defending the status quo. And I certainly agree that Mr. Penniman's assertion that our problem was with our unique programs was a deliberate misread -- our concern is that our programs are unique AND have not been shown to be effective. Here's an example -- if the HS teachers had said "let's go to physics first", they wouldn't have needed to do an evaluation of this program, because there have been evaluations of the physics first approach in our districts. If we changed to an elementary math curriculum that has been shown to work in other districts, then we don't need to redo that work in our district. But when we do entirely innovative programs/curriculum, we have the burden of proof to show that they are effective.

If someone finds out they have cancer, most hospitals won't say "we have this new idea, and we are going to experiment on you to see if it works" (or if they want to do that, they have to tell you they don't know if it works and you have the option to do it or not -- in the case of a clinical trial). The hospital would not necessarily do their own research on their own patients, but would rather read the research about what treatments were effective done in other hospitals to let you know your options but those options would be based on RESEARCH, and not on an innovative idea that a given doctor had where you were being treated.

Rick (at 3:42) - there are lots of ways of doing evaluation that don't involve actual experimentation. You can compare MCAS scores of kids in one program to another (e.g., do WW kids do better than FR kids in some area AFTER the implementation of chinese, controlling for other factors?), you can compare MCAS or AP or SAT II or grades or attitudes in kids who've gone through one program to those who've gone through another one (e.g., do kids who've had ecology show more interest in science and/or higher science MCAS scores than kids who do biology in 9th grade, controlling for other factors?), you can compare kids in our district to those in other districts (e.g., do kids in ARHS do better or worse on AP tests in English than those in other districts, controlling for other factors?). Again, there are lots of ways of doing real and objective evaluation, and I have seen exactly ZERO evidence that this type of evaluation is done in Amherst. It is NOT the case that ARPS does evaluation and doesn't share those results -- it is that we don't do it. I was told two years ago that there was going to be an evaluation of the trimester system -- and this evaluation consisted entirely of a short summary by Mark Jackson of teachers' attitudes towards it (no data, no numbers, no reports of grades or SATs, or drop-out rates, or anything). I was told last year that the science teachers were doing an evaluation of the ecology class - and this evaluation consisted of some data showing how lab reports were graded and that most parents and kids thought the class was challenging (nothing about whether it was more or less challenging compared to biology, which is of course the natural comparison). I asked for data on the effectiveness of the Chinese program at Wildwood (which I thought was a requirement of that grant), and was told that that would be done at some point (thought it is now ending and I have no sense that data has been collected or that anyone intends to examine this question).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And me, again:

Rick (continued) - In sum, this type of evaluation doesn't occur in Amherst -- and the thing that strikes me as most problematic is that when you ask for this type of evaluation (which of course I do a lot), you are told "we don't have the capacity do to this evaluation" (and this statement is even on the science department website right now). OK, so if we don't have the capacity to do evaluation, why are we doing really innovative and unique programs? Since we can't evaluate the effectiveness of our unique and innovative programs, perhaps it would make more sense to go with programs/curricula that have already been found to be effective in other districts?

Caren (at 4:13) - those are exactly the ways you'd measure the effectiveness of the Chinese program, and I do not believe anyone has collected such data or intends to examine it.

Ed (at 8:19) - great points about the inappropriate attack on my blog from Ms. Bode. Her concern is clearly not about my blog -- it is about what I say on my blog. And I'm concerned that the immediate response from some people in Amherst is that when someone says something you disagree with, you tell them to "shut up."

Ken - I appreciate your use of numbers, so thanks for that! In terms of your points, I have three responses:

First, I think a key thing to remember is that we don't test the kids on math until the end of 3rd grade, and that means they've had four years of Investigations. So, whatever score they get in 3rd grade reflects four years of Investigations. Then, they only have this curriculum for two more years -- the 6th grade curriculum is NOT Investigations (so any calculations post-5th grade may well reflect the new curriculum).

Second, I hear from teachers that they've learned to supplement Investigations in various ways. I was struck by the sheet distributed by my own 3rd grader's teacher (who is excellent) showing how much she had to supplement Investigations with material she had found to prepare kids. So, kids in her class may score better BECAUSE she's found a way to supplement it, not because Investigations prepares kids well.

Third, it is clear that many kids in our district come from educated families, and those families may well be supplementing in other ways (e.g., I know many families who do math practive at home, pay for Kumon or other tutoring services, or participate in the AIMS math program for African American kids). Thus, these kids may all do well on MCAS for reasons that don't have anything to do with Investigations.

Now, it may well be that Investigations is a great curriculum -- but I don't think the growth curve data you show demonstrate that by itself.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 9:15 - I like Ken's use of data, but for the reasons I've stated above, I don't think the data he provides demonstrates that the Investigations curriculum is effective.

Caren (at 9:19) - you raise precisely the key point -- our kids are doing well in terms of growth even with a curriculum that hasn't been shown to be effective. It would be amazing to see what our kids could potentially do with a great curriculum (and perhaps one that would require less work on supplementing for teachers).

Tuning In - I'm sorry that a single post of mine that you disagree with would lead you to "lose all respect for me" but that is of course your option. I am very capable of having a debate with anyone in the substance involved in my issues -- but the tenor of the letters in the Bulletin have not been about the issues, but have been about my "tone" and my "style" and now my blog. That isn't about the issues (much as you throw in that I'm abrasive and a crybaby -- though you say those things anonymously).

And to be perfectly clear, read what I wrote -- I stated that I believe Ms. Bode's piece was likely motivated by something else, GIVEN THAT IT WAS NOT BASED IN FACT REGARDING THE OPEN MEETING LAW, and I proposed two factors -- one that she agreed with her dissertation advisor/co-author that the redistricting idea was a bad one and one that she felt inclined to criticize me given her allegiance to the MS. Neither of those points criticizes Ms. Neito nor the middle school teachers or staff, yet you state I "disparaged" both of them.

Finally, I posted Ms. Bode's piece because it directly called into question the legality of my blog, which I felt was important to clarify for my blog readers. I didn't post the other pieces, as I haven't typically chosen to post other editorials. I certainly was willing to discuss any points made in these pieces (and in fact, stated my intention to possibly do a blog post later on discussing these points earlier today), as I clearly have now discussed the points raised by Rick from Mr. Penniman's piece.

And if you believe that there is anything fun or rewarding about being attacked in the Bulletin week after week (so I can get the "poor, poor Catherine" feelings), I suggest you consider for 10 seconds how you think you would feel reading 3 or 4 pieces attacking you by name in the paper each week. And then imagine how you would feel if your spouse and kids and colleagues and neighbors and children's teachers all read those same critiques. And then ask yourself whether you would also then be willing to host a blog in which anonymous posters could call you a "cry baby" and "abrasive".

Anonymous said...

I'm with tuning out- get a grip Catherine- if you run for public office, dish out a lot of crap under the guise of "asking for data"- tarnish other people's reputations like current and former school committee members, past superintendents and teachers and then take every bit of disagreement with your positions as a personal attack- all I can say is develop a thicker skin or get out of politics. I'm sorry but the only thing Ms. Bode was attacking was your very overblown metaphor ( which, in my opinion, is completely justified).

Abbie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I think Ken's point is that even when we have objective data that show that we have improving Math scores we still get responses like Caren Rotello's and Catherine's. So what data do you want if the data that the state uses to measure success isn't good enough?

and Catherine- you've made that really silly assertion about educated parents somehow skewing the data before and I ask what evidence do you have to support that assertion. Do you think, then, that all MCAS data from all districts that have a lot of highly-educated parents should be questioned and discounted.

Anonymous said...

And Abbie- so logically you too would have NO way of knowing how kids would perform with a different math curriculum.

Abbie said...


as Amherst seems to lie outside the laws of physics in some folks reality, your statement "This claim is based on a study of Investigations math done somewhere else. But the question is whether OUR math program is weak or not." might actually agree with them. Since I believe we AREN"T different and our children aren't all above average, I am more inclined to believe a comparative study of different math curricula instead of your opinion, which as you state you aren't even a math teacher (as opposed to the math experts studying alternative math curricula). Your logic is flawed. You have NO way of knowing how kids would perform with an alternative math curriculum. In addition some of the data you put forward either includes kids that NEVER had Investigations or had a mixture.

In addition, I did query your last post about the use of "growth" or AYP as a measure of success. I questioned what is the raw scores. For example, say Mary gets a 98% on her tests in 2008 and Bob gets a 55% in 2008. In 2009 Mary gets a 98.5% (a minimal improvement of 0.5%) and Bob gets a 60% (a whopping 10% improvement). I think everyone would agree, however, that Mary is doing much better even though she improved less. Am I misrepresenting what "growth" and AYP represent?

Abbie said...

To anon@1047:

you are wrong. I would have logic to tell me that since it is unlikely that our kids brains are different than those that participated in the LARGE and COMPARATIVE study of 4 different math curricula, I could PREDICT our kids would do about one standard deviation better (if my memory serves correctly).

Ken said...

Catherine, I guess your "data answer" to my numbers is to explain away what they show by saying that "many" families are well-educated, and presumably supplement math at home or use KUMON, etc. Or teachers supplement it. (Ah, Catherine, guess what--all good teachers supplement what they teach in any subject.) In other words, all you can do is guess away the nunmbers. Well, my "guess"--more likely true than yours, I'll wager, but I'm labeling it strictly as a guess--is that MOST families in town don't even know what KUMON is. Moreover, the numbers I showed were for EVERY subgroup and until you can show me what % of students in EACH subgroup category come from "well educated" families (which, if significant, I agree would distort MCAS scores), then you're not really using data at all. I note you also got in the obligatory anecdotal "data" to explain away the numbers too. In sum, data is REALLY REALLY important to use--that is, until it doesn't demonstrate a conclusion you like.

I realize that investigations is K-5. I went to grade 6 because it includes K-5 learning. But if you want, look at 2006-2008 (grade 5) growth. Of the 8 subgroups, our growth went up in 7, down in 1; in the state, it was up in 1, down in 7. Our growth results are more dramtic increase-wise if we include grade 6, but the results of all subgroups went up across the state from grade 5 to 6, so one conclusion is that it was an easier test for the grade. But I will not try to explain away that difference, and suggest it may be fruitful to look into that more deeply. It still can't be denied, however, that we went up in 7 of 8 subgroups, while the state average went down in 7 of 8 in that 3-year time span--in the state that scores as one of the highest on NAEP math testing.

Caren, I'm guessing you don't really know much about the Investigations program you talk so authoritatively about. The second edition is MUCH BETTER than the first, and specifically addressed many of the objections that many people--maybe like Fitchburg, and certainly educators like me--had. Just for kicks, I ran the numbers of Amherst versus Fitchburg, and guess what--using the same MCAS growth model, Amherst was higher than Fitchburg in 6 of the 8 subgroups, and their 3rd grade scores started much lower than ours in most cases, meaning that by grade 6, they should have increased much more to get to the same place as us.

I note that you, like Catherine, when faced with uncomfortable data, immediately retreat into conjecture to guess it away. "Think how much better we'd be if we used a better program..." Excuse me, but you think that's data?!?

Well, damn the numbers--let's just do what Fitchburg does!

Caren Rotello said...

Finding that math scores are improving in Amherst is not the same as evaluating the Investigations curriculum. There are lots of reasons that scores might improve by an apparently large percentage, including the one that Abbie identified. (Saying that Investigations 2 is better than the first edition, in the absence of any published studies to support that claim, is exactly the kind of "it's good because we say so" reasoning that I object to in Amherst.)

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Ken and Catherine: Ken's approach to looking at math scores is at least an attempt to quantify and evaluate things. Although my kids had a dismal experience with the investigations approach (and I was one of the ones who supplemented at home with flash cards beginning in the fourth grade when I realized how bad their basic skills were), I am willing to be open to the thought "perhaps it was just my kids."

What Ken really needs is access to the individual-level MCAS scores in math (with no personal identifiers, of course). Is there any way you can help him get those? Comparing aggegregate data like that, especially when you are assuming that the Group in Year 1 is the same as the Group in Year 2, is a slippery slope. We know those aren't the exact same kids in each year being compared. But on the individual level, Ken's idea is a good one. Then you could also look at the point raised by Abbie--where on the score continuum do kids show the largest improvements and where do they not--by showing each child's individual MCAS trajectory between Grades 3 and 6.

Abbie said...


I'm it just improvement or is it the actual scores?

funny observation said...

11:35 - This may be the first and only time we'll hear someone from Amherst say:
"let's just do what Fitchburg does!"

Voter with Expectations said...

to CS 10:13 PM - "And then ask yourself whether you would also then be willing to host a blog in which anonymous posters could call you a "cry baby" and "abrasive"."

Brava! Tho I do not always support your opinion or your tone or your process, Catherine, I, as an Amherst resident and voter, I will always support your right and ability to question, prod and instigate.

My one request (plea): please always keep a space open for others to question, inform and affect your opinions.

When we have elected officials who stop questioning, stop trying to get the systems they are charged with to be better and more accountable... then it really is time to vote the bums out.

Good job.

PS I am an override supporter.

Anonymous said...

"And to be perfectly clear, read what I wrote -- I stated that I believe Ms. Bode's piece was likely motivated by something else, GIVEN THAT IT WAS NOT BASED IN FACT REGARDING THE OPEN MEETING LAW, and I proposed two factors -- one that she agreed with her dissertation advisor/co-author that the redistricting idea was a bad one and one that she felt inclined to criticize me given her allegiance to the MS. Neither of those points criticizes Ms. Neito nor the middle school teachers or staff, yet you state I "disparaged" both of them."

Can it NOT be, that people just disagree with you Catherine--without an ulterior motive? You disagree with plenty of people but seem to want to be held above suspicion of any kind of underlying agenda. You also can't stand anyone criticizing your "tone or style" and yet it's the first thing you attack others on. Make up your mind. Which way do want it?

Ken said...

Allsion, I appreciate your willingness to step back from your "own" personal experience and evaluate the program. And what you suggest about individual student data is exactly what the Dept. of Ed expects districts to do anyway, and many already do. I shouldn't be the one to do this, and I've already spent too much energy on it! I've just been trying to get people who drone on about how "weak" our program is based on Fitchburg's experience years ago with a different version of Investigations to look at how our district actually does. (I should say, I'm not the world's biggest proponent of Investigations, and had no idea what the numbers would show when I looked. What I did was have the results inform my perspective instead of the other way 'round.)

Caren, your premise seems to be that no matter what our data shows, Investigations is not a good program. Fine. But you are incorrect in your conclusion that our numbers are not evaluation of Investigations as taught in our district. What else would it be measuring?

What is the most pressing need for a district to evaluate a program? Dissatisfaction with results. For good or for ill, in this day and age, MCAS is the data tool the Dept. of Ed wants districts to use. Using that measure, are our results cause for dissatisfaction? (Unless you think our MCAS numbers are measuring the effectiveness of Hadley's math program.) So what is driving this need to evaluate math, of all things? Why not reading? Social studies? Science?
All programs need periodic evaluation, and the first thing that is looked at to see if more investigation (pardon the pun) of program effectiveness needs to be done is...if MCAS scores are not good. It's not the other way around--especially when such experimentation (I thought you didn't like that much in schools) will cost money to buy materials, and $$ and time to train teachers to use it. Is this the "season" for spending money that way, when our math program effectiveness is overall quite good? It just seems to me like this is an ideological issue for you and others.

Your right, my opinion of Inevstigations 2 is not science. I confess. But you've strongly implied your opinion, so don't I get a crack at one too? And I do think my experience over 30 years as a successful educator, one who is now hired by districts to train their teachers in working with underachieving learners, and with actually having taught both versions myself--maybe my opinion is just as valid as yours in this discussion.

Anonymous said...


You ride into town and trash the history of the schools and many people along with it, and now you act surprised when people give you some of that same medicine.

Go ahead and deny, but if you had taken a very different tone in your investigation of the schools, maybe people would have reacted differently to you.

When is your term up anyway? I think you'll see much different results if you decide to run again.

Note: When Larry Kelly is regularly coming to your defense, you are in trouble.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

I'm going to make three quick points here:

1. I think looking at data, including growth curves, is very important. It seems obvious that a review of elementary math in Amherst would include the type of data Ken is pointing out. It also seems obvious that one can't just look at schools with good math growth and then say "that curriculum must be working" -- or else we should just find the district with the highest math growth and adopt that curriculum. As Abbie and Caren have pointed out, there are many reasons for a particular growth curve in Amherst, and a positive growth curve in Amherst does not in and of itself reveal that the Investigations math curriculum is an effective curriculum.

2. Ms. Bode's piece was factually inaccurate -- it stated that my column with Steve and my blog violated open meeting law. They don't, which is my point in posting her piece. She can certainly dislike me and/or the things I say, as can anyone in Amherst (or elsewhere) -- but I believe critiques should be based in fact. So, she can state she opposes my idea of evaluating math curriculum, or the trimester system, or 9th grade required ecology, and those are legitimate critiques (since those are all points I've made). She really shouldn't say I'm a serial killer (since I'm not).

3. I'm up for re-election in 2011 -- one more year left on my term. I may or may not run again. But I think the idea that I've "trashed" the schools points to exactly what I've been saying -- if you dare in Amherst to suggest that everything we are doing isn't perfect, or that we should look to other districts to see what they are doing, or that we should evaluate what we are doing instead of just assuming if we do it, it's great, you are accused of "trashing the schools." That's a sad statement for many reasons. But if people believe that our schools are now living up to their potential, and are truly meeting the needs of every child, every day, then you should certainly vote for SC members who are focused on maintaining the status quo. That is the great thing about elections. I certainly agree that my focus on raising questions about what we do and why has made some people really uncomfortable, and thus it would be much easier to get me out of office (which would also have the extra benefit of getting rid of my blog).

Anonymous said...

"I hear from kids and parents that kids learn to WRITE in social studies classes, not in English classes. I hear from kids that only a small number of kids seem to talk about the reading in English classes."
If you want data, Catherine, I think you really need to refrain from anecdotal "evidence." Imagine if someone wrote,
"I hear from some Amherst College students that the professors there are mired in old pedagogy and only lecture AT their students. Discussion and inquiry are discouraged by both professors and their peers. Students who are neither white or wealthy feel particularly alienated on a campus that caters largely to the elite."
I have heard this complaint about Amherst College from a number of sources over the past few years. Indeed, I heard it as recently as this weekend, but clearly this is not true. However, if you rely too much on anecdotes, and you repeat them over and over, then people begin to believe them.

Anonymous said...

The abstract of Patti Bode's thesis. Presented without comment because none is needed...


This dissertation examines current multicultural art teacher practices and their student perspectives, to make implications for art teacher preparation in the postmodern era. The study addresses four interrelated challenges in art education: the postmodern framework on knowledge and learning, disagreements in higher education about future directions, the construction of the theory-practice gap, and the absence of teacher and student voices, especially from urban and marginalized communities. A review of the literature of modern and postmodern art historical contexts points to a web of tensions in the multiple worlds of art and art education. Those tensions guide a theoretical framework rooted in the dynamic intersection of postmodernism and multicultural education which is explored in a review of the literature regarding visual culture art education (Duncum, 2001, 2002). These frameworks led the Arts-Based Educational Research (Barone & Eisner, in press) to be presented in a series of "collages" (Bode, 2005) with an a/r/tographer's perspective (Irwin, 2004) into how teachers' roles and student participation might reinscribe (Derrida, 1994; Lather, 2003) the direction of art education programs. From four art classrooms, in settings where the participants indexed race, ethnicity, language and poverty in discourses of multiple identities, the voices of art teachers and their students highlight the role of visual culture in resistance to hegemony and in pursuit of academic achievement. Art teacher preparation may include such studies as a vehicle for in change art education communities that reconsider the role of art and art teachers.

Ed said...

Second, my blog is entirely legal according to federal and state law, and indeed is in compliance fully with the Open Meeting Law.

It probably also is in compliance with the Lead Paint Law as well...

HOW CAN ANYONE - WITH A STRAIGHT FACE - ALLEGE A VIOLATION OF THE PUBLIC MEETING LAW??? Blog postings are written documents, by law defined as such.

And didn't (doesn't) the Town Manager have a blog? How exactly is that different -- Oh, I know, people like what is written there....

Anonymous said...

To Anon 12:30- And your point is what? That you disgree with her choice of dissertation topic? What?

Anonymous said...

please people.... let's stay on this side of the civility fence. no need to "investigate" people who disagree - privately or publicly with Catherine - like Pat Bode. Are we going to use the same tools that are used against Catherine? We disagree and we question her credentials. her right? shouldn't we support dissent in all of its forms including when they dissent from the views of this blog? leadership in this area would be welcome. And THAT's why people comment anonymously, like me.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your sentiments, Anon 1:53. Its really getting rough and nasty on this blog, which is really unfortunate. We need alot of good minds contributing to the discussion of how to make our schools better and I fear that many will be turned off from reading and contributing to this blog if we don't all try to keep to the topic and make our posts constructive and true additions to the conversation and debate.

add me said...

2:14 another voice of agreement!

Abbie said...


here is the link to the study that I believe Caren and CS refer and which I posted previously (I think)


Are you aware of this study? This is not the first version of Investigations (as the publication date is 2006)?

Anonymous said...

Regarding investigations. I think that type of math instruction is really geared towards kids who have a good handle on math. My other point is, are we seeing improvement in the math because it is being taught well, or because parents (like me) are taking their kids to outside tutors, and heavily supplementing their kids' math at home during the school year, and during the summer vacation. Ali

Anonymous said...

Said here before about Investigations: teacher training and support are key for it to be a successful curriculum. Does the district have those supports in place AT THE BUILDING LEVEL?

Anonymous said...

So this is the new mantra- that any time students show improvement it's because parents are supplementing. I'll say it again: YOU HAVE NO EVIDENCE THAT THIS IS THE CASE. So much for data driven analysis.

Ken said...

Abbie, I am aware of that study--and other studies showing a positive effect for Investigations. However, if you go to the What Work's Clearing House--the government data warehouse for all published educational studies, you will see that as far as Investigations goes (, they draw no conclusions as NONE of the 40-odd studies that have been done fully meet their criteria for validity. (By the way, I think 2006 is still the first edition, but I might be wrong.)

Frankly, no offense to Fitchburg, but we live in Amherst and I assume are able to measure the effectiveness of our own programs. It's possible to do "dueling studies" in education until the cows come home. Proponents of one simply reject or devalue the conclusions of the other, and vice versa. The question is, what does the data show about the effectiveness of OUR math program?

I find Catherine's (and Caren's) protestations that the MCAS data doesn't measure program success EXTREMELY disingenuous. Let's be honest--if we had low MCAS scores, who doesn't think they would be swinging MCAS numbers around like a cudgel to "prove" how awful Investigations is?! In fact, I read (I forget which posting about the math program, there have been so many) where Catherine stated that our math scores were low (a poor reading of the data) to prove that our math program is weak. Now suddenly, that same data is useless because it proves a conclusion she doesn't like.

Catherine can't tell you how it is that our low income cohort performs so well even though most of our low income students are not affiliated with the university, do not hire tutors and do not pay for Kumon. So she avoids it. She can't tell you what % of ANY of the various subgroups is actually composed of students from communities that tend to do pretty well no matter what at school. But don't hold your breath for anything to change.

The fact is that MCAS data measures a number of things, INCLUDING program success. If the program truly stunk, results would not be good, no matter how exceptional Catherine (in this case anyway) thinks we all are here in Amherst. By measuring MCAS growth (what the Dept of Ed WANTS districts to do), you get a fuller impact of the cumulative effect of both teacher effectiveness and programs.

All that matters to me is, are our students learning math well? That answer appears to be a pretty significant "yes." I wouldn't care if it was investigations, or something else--and no one else should either, as long as our students are getting a broad and deep understanding of math.

Allison, I meant to add in my reply to you earlier that while tracing individuals' scores is important, subgroup performance is an essential component of AYP, and cannot be disregarded. Even when the counterproductive elements of AYP are reformed, subgroup achievement will still be important as long as achievement gaps by groups remains.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response: it is the first day of the semester, and I'm swamped, so this will be quick. But here is my point, to Ken: why in the world would I, or Abbie, or Caren want to show our district is using a bad curriculum if it isn't? I mean, I'm just trying to see what we would have to gain by doing that, since you seem to state clearly that you think no matter what the data show, I will hate Investigations. Do I have stock in another math curriculum? Do I secretly hope people will leave the Amherst schools so my kids will have smaller classes? Is there something that is really rewarding about being attacked in the paper and in my blog for raising questions? Seriously, I am really interested in learning why I apparently am just painting a great curriculum as bad.

Here is why I'm concerned:

1. A review of all teachers in the district in 2007 showed that TEACHERS had concerns about Investigations. Those are teachers in Amherst.

2. There is a randomized study that some of us find compelling showing that Investigations isn't as good as others (and you are right -- this was the first version of Investigations).

3. I haven't read a single scientific study showing it is good -- do you know of one?

4. Of our four elementary schools, kids in three of them didn't make AYP in the aggregate in math (all but MM).

I'm on the SC, and I think it would be irresponsible for me to look at all of that data and conclude that our math program is working well.

The growth data is interesting and new -- and that is something we need to look into. But let's remember that kids have 4 years (K, 1, 2, 3) of Investigations before they take the first MCAS. And a lot of kids at 3rd grade aren't doing well on MCAS: at CF, 41% of 3rd graders are in warning/needs improvement, as are 39% of those at WW, 42% of those at MM, and 34% of those at FR. The state average for 3rd grade is 40%. Thus, we are about at the state average (a bit higher in some schools, a bit lower in some) in 3rd grade math, and that is concerning to me, given that we are a town in which education is highly valued and we are in theory hiring some of the best teachers around.

So, I want to understand this -- I'm not criticizing you for pointing out the growth curve analyses, but I think you are really critical of me and others who point out other findings that seem problematic. I'm also mindful of the question asked by an anonymous poster about support for Investigations -- and whether we have enough (and my thought is that we probably don't have enough, but that may mean we need to re-think whether we can afford this curriculum if it means we need a lot of extra support to teach it well). Again, I appreciate when people use their names (Ken, Caren, Abbie), and let's just all be mindful that we surely want the same goal -- excellent education for all kids. I think the personal attacks don't move us in that direction at all.

Anonymous said...

Ali, I thought your kids had been withdrawn from the Amherst schools and were in private school. You are hiring math tutors for them in private school?!

Anonymous said...

5:21- Darn, you beat me to it! LOL

Anonymous said...

Cahterine said:

"....I'm also mindful of the question asked by an anonymous poster about support for Investigations -- and whether we have enough (and my thought is that we probably don't have enough, but that may mean we need to re-think whether we can afford this curriculum if it means we need a lot of extra support to teach it well).

Surely the SC can ask concrete questions, eg:

Given that Investigations is not easy to teach, what exactly are the supports for teachers using this curriculum AT THE BUILDING LEVEL?

Please identify staff by building.

I'm talking about what does a teacher do if a child (not SPED/on an IEP) isn't grasping the material in Investigations, after repeated reteachings? Who is the go-to person to help solve that problem IN THE BUILDING? Another busy teacher?

For that matter, who is the Investigations go-to person IN THE DISTRICT?

And I don't mean occasional in-service trainings. I mean in the here and now. Dylan cannot grasp repeat addition (precursor to multiplication). Now what?

And I second Ken's pointing out about the What Works Clearinghouse.

I don't hate Investigations either. But I do think it's hard to teach.

Unfortunately now is not the time to switch curricula either, because anything new would require training and support as well. But a more traditional program would probably require less training and support.

As for Ms Bode -- "The Public is Watching?". Positively Stalinist!

Ken said...

Catherine, to answer your first point, there are many people who are opposed to Investigations on philosophical grounds--Steve Rifkin being one of them. During a pincipal search meeting for the new FR principal a couple of years ago, he brought this very point up out of the blue, describing other parents who agreed with him (I assumed ACE parents) on this issue (the previous principal was a big proponent of Investigations, and Steve and the parent view he represented wanted to know whether a similar philosophical position of the new principal on this and other things would a foregone conclusion). I naturally connected you to him in my mind around this, and if you have no such perspective, I stand corrected. But I assume you see why I thought as I did.

My frustration with the discussion of many of the issues you bring up has been that when data is brought forward to yield a different conclusion, you've often just shrugged it off, or diminished it by your response. Maybe I sounded more irritated than I'd have liked, but this type of thing has been going on a while, whether about ELL issues or now math, and frustration mounted. Today you put out numbers, which I'm sure everyone is grateful for, as they can be discussed. To your other points:

The teachers may have a different perspective on Investigations 2nd edition now than they did when interviewed in 2007, when their experience had been with the first. I had many complaints about it myself relative to culturally and linguistically diverse populations, including ELLs (even though in retrospect looking at the MCAS data now, it wasn't as bad as I'd thought for certain groups of students). So you might want to re-survey teachers to see if anything has changed.

About your data: AYP numbers must be understood in the context of NCLB. The present definition of AYP is simply movement at a predetermined rate (based on a level of performance by groups of students in the past) towards that magical day in 2014 when all students are testing "proficient." It also compares clusters of 3 grades (in elementary, 3rd-5th) together as an average, which means that each year roughly 30% of a given grade span is changing. It's a statistical mess, with unreachable aims. Right now, over 55% of Massachusetts schools have some level of AYP citation, and next year it is expected to be well over 60% not meeting AYP in some group(s) or other. Many states (including this one) are trying to get NCLB rewritten around AYP.

That is why Massachusetts instituted the "SGP," or student growth percentile. Growth in MCAS over time (both in the aggregate as well as by subgroups) is the most desirable outcome. Not all groups have SGPs, however, and they only show year by year growth, so another way to gain a growth perspective is looking at MCAS scores over time (using the CPI). In this way, what matters most is not where students start, but where they end. Note: One invalid way to use MCAS data is measuring scores in a static way, such as 4th grade, which, only compare this year's 4th grade to last year's--different students altogether. Another is comparing aggregate scores between demographically dissimilar compare districts--which the ESE has pledged to stop doing with this year's MCAS results.

Part 2 of post to follow...

Ken said...


So while beefing up 3rd grade scores will satisfy AYP concerns, it is a red herring in the scheme of things if those same students with lower scores end up ahead of the pack in 6th--which they seem to have been doing. Many districts get higher 3rd grade scores, but don't make good growth, and have lower 6th grade scores. They are less well off than our students in the end.

Finally, I'm not going to get into a "studies war." The clearinghouse I mentioned found NO published study (that would include Fitchburg) met their validity criteria. That kind of discussion is just a diversion away from a genuine analysis of our actual data and what the best sense is that can be made of it. I recall you previously referenced a study of ELL programs in California that somehow "proved" that our ELL program models here were poor--even while MCAS data shows they are, in fact, strong (and so too bad they're being dismantled).

I appreciate your answering my data-related posts with data of your own. Readers can decide for themselves which side they come down on.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Anonymous 5:21/5:28 - I would really appreciate comments that further the discussion in a constructive way.

Anonymous 5:46 - I am assuming you are a teacher in our district ... and in all honesty, I don't know WHO is the "go to person" in our district for Investigations, nor do I believe we have adequate math support in general (at the K to 6 level). However, with budget cuts, it becomes harder and harder to provide this type of teacher training -- without larger class sizes, or less music, or less intervention, etc. So, I think one thing we'd have to seriously think about is whether Investigations takes more time to bring teachers up to speed on than a more traditional curriculum. I don't know to the answer to that -- but I do know that my now 6th grader had teachers in 3rd/4th/5th who were all in their first three years of teaching, and my 3rd grader had a teachers in 1st who was in her first two years of teaching -- meaning, we do have a lot of newish teachers, and if Investigations, or any curriculum, is hard to get teachers up to speed on (or requires a lot of support from math coaches), that is something that we need to seriously consider in determining which curriculum to adopt.

Ken - I am just beginning to review the growth curve data -- it is a new way of understanding MCAS data, and I think a good one. But I haven't spent enough time yet examining it to form an opinion about what it means about Amherst. I'm glad you believe it is important to look at data, and this is certainly new data to examine.

But here's my big point: I don't care about Investigations, or ecology in 9th grade, or semesters versus trimesters, or how we teach ELL, and so on. I care about how we make decisions -- and I believe that those decisions should be based on data and evidence. That's it.

In terms of the ELL issue, as you and I communicated about privately, that is NOT the SC's decision ... we eliminated open enrollment, but that had nothing to do with ELL (just as kids with autism will still attend WW, and kids who are in Building Blocks will still attend FR). The superintendent decides how programs are implemented, and it is up to him to decide how ELL education occurs in Amherst -- it is NOT up to the SC. Our decision to end open enrollment was a decision about maintaining schools with proportionate numbers of low income students, but it doesn't require the superintendent to provide ELL education in any particular way (e.g., clustered or not clustered). Again, I'm willing to get blamed for anything I've said/done -- but ending ELL clustering is not a SC decision so anyone who has problems with the superintendent's decision about how to provide ELL education should talk to him!

looking for information said...

please tell me is there a regional school committee tomorrow night? thanks. the website says it's a special meeting between the regional school committee and the union.

Anonymous said...

Do you think that calling someone a Stalinist is ad vancing the discussion?

Mike Jacques said...

Ken I enjoyed seeing someone using some numbers to support a point. I wish I had the time to do these things. It appears that the current curriculum is good enough to meet the goals of MCAS.

My child’s math experience currently seems to be drastically different that what I learned at the same level, and in comparison seems drastically different and perhaps even weaker. As a child I had to learn basic addition, subtraction, and some multiplication by the end of 2nd grade (10’s tables). We learnt basic multiplication, division, advanced addition and subtraction by the end of 3rd grade. During 4th grade we expanded on all 4 of these fundamental principles and learned a bit of geometry. In fifth grade Mr. Murray drove in fraction, decimals, measuring systems, and many many others things. It is hard to forget an ex-marine teacher who did pull ups in the classroom doorway on his fingertips. In 6th grade we advanced in all of the previously mentioned subjects in order to prepare for Pre-Algebra in the 7th grade.

While the numbers from MCAS lend credence to our curriculum my personal experience tells me we can and should reach for much higher goals. My child spent 2nd & 3rd grade frequently adding and subtracting by drawing blocks. My child’s multiplication was weak until the 5th grade and division is still weak. I will say that geometry seems to be strong in the program but basic math facts are at least 2 years off the mark. My child is described by teachers as being in the middle to upper middle development when compared to classmates. As parents we expect our children to exceed our learning experience and education. It is lacking in the current math curriculum.

Having spoken to the teachers about the curriculum I have a better understanding that they want to reach a broader range of learning speeds. While this approach may work out well in the long term and the kids may all get to the same place eventually, I worry that it won’t for my child.

On a positive note math is really my only issue with my elementary school. The teachers are all very good. Their care and devotion to all of the students is stellar. The art, music, gym, and computer specials are also just amazing and I really can’t stress that point enough. The administration and support staff makes you feel like part of the school. I would not choose to live or raise my children anywhere else. I just want a better math curriculum for them.

Anonymous said...

Nope. No need for extra help at the private schools. The extra help was when they were still in public schools here. That was one of the reasons we pulled them out. Thanks for asking. Ali

Anonymous said...

Mike Jacques's post captures the spirit of a lot of us who read this blog: we love the schools, we value the experience of our child there, but we see things that could be better. And we don't think that improvements need to occur at a glacial pace, because each kid's education is precious. So this is why Catherine's impatience speaks to us.

That's it. There's nothing sinister about it.

And, of course, the resulting pushback against the reformist impulse is fascinating.

Rich Morse

Ken said...

Catherine, I well understand the SC's role vs-a-vis the ELL changes. What I was referring to was the trend to use studies about someone else's program somewhere else as "proof" that our programs are weak, and when data to the contrary is brought forward, it is ignored, or disregarded, and there's the intimation that many of us want to maintain the status quo even though it's failing. That is a discussion whose parameters you've had the largest say in defining.

Rich, when you refer to pushback, one reason it gets so fierce is for the reasons I just wrote. As Catherine complains of people mischaracterizing her stands, those of us on "our" side feel EXACTLY the same way. I appreciate this blog since Catherine's attempts to clean it up, because now it's often a dialog. Character assassination and racist comments, just to name two things, had been allowed to pass uncommented on--yet if you dared to say, "Gee, maybe things aren't as bad as you're making them out to be," the howitzers were turned on you.

So the pushback you find fascinating (and is only happening recently after having been pretty silent for a long time, MM issue aside) is mostly not to the possibility of different ideas, but rather the perceived agenda and tone of many "reformers."

Hopefully, the dialog can increase in he future, and the rest of it fall away--that is in everone's, especially the kids', best interests.

Anonymous said...

Rich- I don't have any problem with reform. I do have a problem with painting the schools as failing when they are clearly not, as characterizing any questioning of the "reformer" as a personal attack,or somehow that one is not concerned about academic rigor or challenge if you happen to have a differing view, the disregard of evidence that the schools just might not be as bad as they're often made out to be on this blog, this whole idea that if you disagree on some points that you are caught up in the whole mystique of the uniqueness of Amherst (which I find utterly ridiculous). And the on-going use of anecdotal evidence about the state of the schools by those who claim to looking for hard data- case in point that improving math scores are somehow related to parents supplementing with tutors etc.

listening and thinking said...

7:am - completely agree. I would add that sometimes the tone CS uses may be one I would not choose, but I'm right with her on the content piece and I respect her determination.

7:37am I also see your perspective, maybe the schools are not as bad as sometimes they're "made out to be". And the "on-going use of anecdotal evidence" is frustrating. But doesn't this mean that we need more evaluation of the programs -- the results would either confirm or dispute the "stories". Without evaluation (not summarization), we are only left to share "what we've heard".

Anonymous said...

7:51- I agree evaluation is important and I'm all for it. I'm also for holding the schools, administrators and teachers accountable. I don't think that what I said my post and these positions are mutually exclusive. bhome

Abbie said...

Hi Ken,

I am disturbed by what you "seem" to be saying. Can I give you an analogy.

Say 4 new vaccines come on the market for a childhood pneumonia. Our town picks vaccine A (for whatever reason) and this vaccine requires a lot of training for the health care providers for immunization and a lot of continued training to spot side-effects.

Now say the CDC does a comparative study of the four vaccines and finds that vaccine A provides only 70% immunity (say there is 40% natural immunity in country), while the other 3 vaccines offer better immunity and don't require the added training for health care providers.

What I hear you saying is that we would be justified in staying with vaccine A because it improved our kids immunity. Furthermore, you can't even trust the study because it wasn't performed using OUR kids.

You say you aren't even invested in keeping Investigations but it doesn't sound that way. What it sounds like to me is "shut up and be happy with what you've got, you big whiner".

I share CS experience, in all the grades we have experienced, there were new teachers. What do YOU think happens to kids who happen, by chance, to get either new teachers just learning the difficult Investigations curriculum or teachers who just can't/won't "get" it. You seem very quick to discount the real experience that our kids have every day.

You still haven't replied to my question about growth and what it means. BTW my biggest concern is that I see the Investigations curriculum actually turning kids off of math, whether that comes from the curriculum itself or from the teachers who don't like teaching it is, in a way, irrelevant.

It IS a problem and you can't just say we are doing fine. Anyone out there satisfied with 70% immunity when you could have 80-90% with fewer training costs? Again, you don't know how our kids would do with a different curriculum.

Ed said...

Back in the '80s/90s, there was the "low stakes" approach to the teaching of writing which literally was described as "write like you talk."

And if you had children who had grown up in households with parents who had advanced degrees and whose grammar had been corrected from the first time they started speaking, if you had a teacher who also spoke in complete grammatically correct sentences, then you can have great success teaching this way.

But when you have children (or even college students) who don't know the language (and I am not even talking ESL here), the results are not so encouraging. It is one thing to say that a certain word that isn't "Fire Truck" can be used for all parts of speech, it is another thing to actually see this done.

And you think it is hard to explain how "the wind blows" but you "wind a clock" to an ESL student, try explaining parts of speech when a student has (correctly) used one word for all...

And maybe Amherst's teachers are exceptional, but they come from a teaching cadre where 3/4 failed a basic math competency test....

And perhaps a certain math curriculum works really well when you have students with an aptitude for math (perhaps influenced by parental role modeling) and teachers particularly strong in the field. And perhaps when you don't, then......

And if we can't have tracking and have to have one collective uniform curriculum, then.....

It is like the whole language v. phonics war -- every competent teacher I have ever spoken to clearly says that she uses some of both. (Yes, I do know that is a value laden statement, it also implies where I was/am on this dispute.)

Ed said...

Character assassination and racist comments, just to name two things, had been allowed to pass


... think calm thoughts. Summer meadows with the breeze waving through the wildflowers. Birds singing and other calm images....


This is the new McCarthyism. Why bother confuse ourselves with facts or even intent when we can simply destroy another by calling him/her/it a "racist"? Why not destroy people's reputations much like was done a half century ago?

Yes, racism exists. Yes, the Soviets had spies in our government (much as we had spies in their government). And never forget where McCarthism went -- it wasn't long before people were proud to be called "commie" and the Soviet flag was tacked up on dorm walls.

So, my Social Justice friends, if you keep calling everyone who disagrees with you a racist, it won't be long before racism itself becomes hip. It won't be long before people are PROUD to be called a racist. And is that the world you want to live in????

I see the world composed of unique individuals crafted in God's image. You see the world consisting of tribal collectives. Whatever. It isn't that we aren't trying to accomplish the same things. And if I am willing to presume your good intent and not just outright label *you* a racist, why can't you do likewise?

Anonymous said...

I believe it is a blogmaster strategy to minimize nasty postings & resulting flame wars by ignoring the original post unless it is really out of line in which case they are deleted.

The problem with responding to a digressive nasty post is that the thread then becomes a thread about the nasty digressive post.

My favorite blog is run by a hardcase who boots people off who persisently violate blog norms. I'm all for that.

Ed said...

I believe it is a blogmaster strategy to minimize nasty postings & resulting flame wars by ignoring the original post unless it is really out of line in which case they are deleted.

So you are trying to get Google to censor Catherine? On what basis?

The problem with responding to a digressive nasty post is that the thread then becomes a thread about the nasty digressive post.

Yep, others might have different thoughts than you (perish the thought) and might be prepared to defend their thoughts in the marketplace of ideas. Heaven forbid!

My favorite blog is run by a hardcase who boots people off who persisently violate blog norms. I'm all for that.

You know, of all things, that might actually be illegal. Public meeting my ***, but if one wanted to argue legalities and push it, one might be able to argue that this is a public forum and that there are rules relative to content neutrality.

It would be an interesting legal question - I could see both sides having merit and have no idea which way it would go.

But go back to the initial point - what is it that she says that so scares you????

Anonymous said...


Why do you think Anon 2:15 is scared of Catherine. I don't know how you made that interpretive leap!!!

Ken said...

I did not start the discussion about math. Our math program has been characterized on multiple occasions as "weak," with no data to back the claim up--only the results of a study done in another town which, by the way, performs less well than us in math in nearly all subgroups in spite of the "strong" program they're using versus our "weak" one. I repeat again, many educational studies are suspect. There are some on both sides of this (as every) educational debate. The clearinghouse found NONE of the published studies (including Fitchburg, apparently) on this math program meet their standards of statistical validity. What we are left with is our students' performance.

For that, the state expects us to use, in large part, MCAS data, and that data says, yes the program is effective in our district. If I can take your position and run with it for a second, we should never accept any program we have, every year testing it our against some other program. And it wouldn't just be math, it would be reading, writing, science... Is that what you advocate, because any program in any subject could be the vaccine analogy? And if not, then why this one, and why now?

You imply that it's a fact that large numbers of students hate Investigations. What is your data? Probably some do. I know that some do because their parents give them the message that it's crap--I have had this experience firsthand, and not just on one occasion. Some do because the teacher doesn't do a good job teaching it, which may happen with ANY program in ANY subject. No school would have any program for very long if that were the cause for program change. If you could show me data where students, themselves, report being turned off by the program in droves, and so hating math, that would be very compelling evidence to change the program. So tell me, what % is it? If you can't tell me, then I ask that you leave that out of the conversation, and avoid superimposing your personal feelings, or the feelings of your own children, from what all, or even many, chldren "must" feel.

In sum, this whole discussion sprung from tha charge that our prgram is "weak," and I simply used data to show that it is a mischaracterization to say so. I posted the same data in 2 other threads, and never really got much response at all from Catherine--other than the continuing charge of a weak program. So I "virtually screamed" here to get attention, and the dialog has been productive.

Anonymous said...

Ed- I actually think that poster was saying that Catherine should be booting people.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

I'm off to an SC meeting, so this will be brief, but two quick things:

1. Ken, I have a full-time job and three young kids ... I do my best to respond to each and every post, but in busy times, I sometimes don't reply to each post.

However, I believe Abbie's point, which I agree with, is that data is useful in making decisions, and that includes data on the effectiveness of different curriculum. The What Works Clearinghouse finds that Everyday Math is effective. The randomized study found that Investigations was NOT effective, and that two other curriculum were more effective. It is hard to believe that kids in Amherst learn differently then kids in other districts, so even if our kids are doing better on the MCAS growth than other districts, that doesn't mean they are doing better with Investigations than they would with another curriculum that has demonstrated effectiveness. I've looked at a lot of math studies, and I can't find one -- I mean, even one -- that shows Investigations works. Now, you say it does, or you say it might, or you say that our math scores are good so it must work -- but again, we have a lot of kids getting into good colleges -- does that mean our district is in great shape? Some would think it does. Others would think it doesn't.

2. I have never deleted a comment from this blog ... and perhaps I should revisit that policy. I don't like the idea of having to censor, or having to decide what is relevant/not, what is respectful/not, so I've allowed all posts to remain, and I've hoped that people would be respectful. I think they mostly are, and that is good. I wish 100% of them were, and if people have suggestions for ensuring that, feel free to post them!

Ken said...

Here is one link that is about the research base of NCTM standard math programs, which Invesitgations is the leading program:

You refer to the Clearinghouse stating no studies about Investigations have been found that they call statistically valid, and in the next breath refer to the Fitchburg study as proving something. NO statistically valid research exists either proving or DIS proving the efficacy of the program according to the Clearinghouse.

Everyday Math has, indeed, been found to be a positive math program under those rigrous validity standards. If you say we should use that program because there is accepted proof of its efficacy, I'd say, well, I don't see our kids doing badly or have no other hard evidence that a change is warranted. But if the move is to a program whose research claims meet high standards of validity, I'd read the study/-ies, make sure the research includes diverse populations, and if that was all in there, I'd be ok with that change. That would not be proof Investigations is "weak," however.

Again, I find you sliding around the important point that ALL subgroups of our elementary students outgrew the state average. NOT just the highest achievers, NOT just students from well-educated homes, NOT just dominant culture middle class/affluent students. Go to the ESE website and look at the math SGP (student growth percentiles) in Fitchburg with their "superior" math program--they are abysmal! That's abysmal as in ALL subgroups. (The state average is around 50, 40-50 is lower average, 50-60 is higher average: Fitchburg's are ALL in the 20s and 30s.) Their great research has led them down a dead end street!

Finally, it's a teacher's job to make it work well for all learners, whether they are at the high end and need challenge, or the low end needing support. I read once where you said some teachers reported to you that students are bored using Investigations. A teacher who says, "The students in my math class are bored" is making a comment about him/herself as a math teacher, not the program.

Abbie said...

Hi Ken,

I am going to end my side of the debate here with three thoughts;

1) good thing you aren't a scientist because your reasoning is distinctly unscientific.

2) If I were to follow your position, then Amherst schools chose a math curriculum that had ABSOLUTELY NO data to demonstrate that it was ANY better than the alternatives.

3) One last attempt to get a scientific point across: you cannot attribute any gain in math scores to Investigations without knowing what other things were going on at the same time (ie increase in intervention, increase in math teacher aids, etc). You cannot conclude one way or the other.

Anonymous said...

Clarification about my comments on blog managing:

CS can either set very firm rules and delete posts/banish people who violate them (causing an uproar because she "censored"),


CS can ignore rude, digressive posts in order to avoid turning this blog into a series of digressive thread wars (causing an uproar because she allowed racist/right wing/left wing/privileged/etc posts to go unremarked).

CS is a busy woman. I think she's doing what she can without playing Net Nanny.

Anonymous said...

Well I'm happy to know that Amherst did better than Fitchburg. That's why we moved here, to keep ahead of Fitchburg.

"If you keep your expectations tiny you will be less whiney." Roz Chatz

Anonymous said...

7:39 So instead of trying to understand the discussion you respond with snark. Yours is really the type of nuanced comment that keeps me coming back to this blog.

Ed said...

Let's say I am the swim team coach for two different high schools, named Alpha and Bravo.

At Alpha High, none of the kids know how to swim. The school/town never had a pool before, it is 100 miles from the ocean and most of the girls don't even want to get their hair wet.

Bravo High is located in a coastal beachfront community. Half the high school spent the summer working as a lifeguard and all the elementary schools have a pool.

At the end of the season, each of my teams has a terrible record, say 1-15 win/loss. Bravo fires me while Alpha worships the ground upon which I walk -- does anyone not see why?

Right, you took a school where no one could swim and actually won *a* meet. And that was significant - much like the "B" I once earned from a notoriously hard grading professor.

Amherst *is* exceptional - three colleges, eight libraries (that I know of) that the public has access to, large percentage of parents with terminal degrees, etc.

If Amherst has an educational outcome only equal to other less-advantaged communities, then it becomes like Bravo High where everyone is already an accomplished swimmer.

So why isn't Amherst coming out a couple standard deviation points from the median, not just at it?

Anonymous said...

"but Mr. Penniman was also very quick to come to the defense of rookie ARHS Principal Steven Myers"

Here Larry wants to fry Mr. Penniman for defending Mr. Meyers. But you are mistaken, again, Larry. Mr. Penniman and all of the other teachers involved were actually defending Mr. Meyers' right to be innocent until proven guilty. Remember the good old usa, Larry. When it suits your cause you defend it, but when it doesn't you leave it.

And the police report was not official at all because Mr. Meyers was never actually prosecuted in Calif. The police leaked word to Amherst that they had Meyers but the family refused to press charges so he was a free man.

We found out, illegally I might add, that Meyers was a molestor and he left.

Get your facts staight if you want to grow up to be a cub reporter, like Jimmy Olson.

At this stage, your work doesn't warrant the Graphic.

Abbie said...


I can't help myself to reply again. I looked at "mathematically sane" which you claimed provided "research" supporting Investigations. I could provide many "sites" of "research" that claim Investigations is bad. Again, there is NO "experimental" evidence provided that Investigations is better. Although, its clear that a lot of folks have invested great sums of $$ and a lot of hope that it will be better than other math curricula.

Since the Department of Education seems incapable of doing such comparative studies of curricula (like randomized assignment, etc), maybe the Bill Gates foundation would be interested as they seem have picked up the ball in this critical area of comparative evaluation of education programs.

Ed said...

Mr. Penniman and all of the other teachers involved were actually defending Mr. Meyers' right to be innocent until proven guilty.

I was too, until I found out about the stuff in Colorado. And I found that by doing basic internet research on a 9600KB line.....

The police leaked word to Amherst that they had Meyers but the family refused to press charges so he was a free man.

I have (had) a real problem with this. In this case they were telling the truth - in others people often aren't. I have had the latter done to me, something completely fabricated (punched a cop while dancing on a table in a bar) when I wasn't even in the same town (and could prove it with receipts, witnesses, etc.).

This is why we have courts and such. And let us not forget the Ameralt case, this time the perp was guilty but a whole lot others weren't....

Ken said...

Abbie, I will end also by saying that 1) Catherine asked me for a site so I sent her one even though 2) I already wrote--how many times--that there is very little valid research data on any math program, including Investigations. And 3) once again, I started this conversation to respond to the unsubstantiated charge that our math program is "weak," and asked for data that proves it, of which none has yet been forthcoming (while conjecture, guesswork and wondering is still rampant). There is FAR more data available that would prove OUR math program is strong rather than weak--but I didn't start this conversation to prove our math program strength, just to question the blanket assertion that it is "weak." Tho I guess I am the unscientific one.

Ed, many communities in Amherst have NO connection to the colleges, or the libraries, or any of what you wrote about. As long as you and others (Catherine seems to keep alluding to it) keep thinking we ALL have these advantages in Amherst, we will never be able to connect in a discussion, because ALL of us in Amherst don't. The whole point of comparing subgroups with MCAS data, and not aggregate scores, is to deal with this very issue. We do "deviate from the mean" when the MCAS math results of EVERY one of our subgroups is ahead of the same subgroups statewide. Or when our MCAS math growth for low income students, for example, is +20 as opposed to 0 for the state average for low income learners.

Anonymous said...

It should read: The Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools has an outstanding opportunity for a leader with a strong mission to begin July 1, 2010. We are seeking a leader who can articulate a vision for the Amherst Regional Middle School – an individual whose leadership style will enable an excellent school to move to the next level of achievement and success for every student. We are seeking a leader who will maintain high expectations for all students, create and maintain excitement for teaching and learning, and enhance a strong learning community.

Anonymous said...

One more edit: The Amherst-Pelham Regional School District

LarryK4 said...

Hey Anon 1:10 PM

So you're comfortable with the statement, "We found out, illegally I might add, that Meyers was a molestor and he left."???!!!

You sir, with all due respect (actually disdain), are the poster child for Cowardly, Anon, Nitwits!

Anonymous said...

Ed, many communities in Amherst have NO connection to the colleges, or the libraries, or any of what you wrote about.

With the exception of the UM Tower Library, which requires a valid UM (5col?) ID to enter *after midnight*, anyone can walk into any of the libraries, as desired.

As long as you and others (Catherine seems to keep alluding to it) keep thinking we ALL have these advantages in Amherst,

Anyone who wants to benefit can do so. If "the cultures" don't value education, the issue is with the cultures and not what was available to them.

If the very-expensive Amherst School System is not able to encourage them to do so, then the issue is what are we paying for???

Rick said...

Mike Jacques' excellent post (way above here) combined with Ken’s posts about data and all the back and forth on that prompts me to note the following:

1. Where there is valid data, we should use it, as Catherine has been saying all along. It’s too bad there is such a dispute about what data is valid and what isn’t, but where we can sort that out, we should use the data.

2. But data isn’t everything, and equally important is simply learning to “listen to the customers”.

I think what Mike is essentially saying is that “well, that’s nice that the data shows we are doing the right thing, but the fact is I am not a satisfied customer.”

That is not to say the math program is “weak” – it’s simply a customer saying he has some problems with the product.

We can use data to try to pick the best curriculum from studies that have been done. Then we can use data to see if the school’s customers are satisfied, via surveys and such. And of course we can use data to see if students are doing better on standardized tests.

But what may be missing in the culture of this (and many) school systems is a lack of emphasis on making the customer happy.

This is understandable to some extent, as one can see how a school system would be focused on doing what they think is best to educate its students. But that’s a bit like an engineer of a product being totally focused on engineering the product, and not on whether the customers like the product or not.

I’d like our public schools to start thinking of themselves as private schools, meaning that they try to attract and please their customers – with a focus on sales and service, not just on engineering the “product”.

Many, if not most of the people in the school system already do this, but to state “customer satisfaction” as a goal might help align the culture of the schools to focus more on that.

Anonymous said...


I think that your suggestion of an alteration in emphasis is a good one. What I have been trying to say is that there has been a culture of customer dissatisfaction that predates Catherine and Steve, that has heretofore had nowhere to go. And I would suspect that all the complaints about civility and tone and lack of respect for teachers means little to these folks in comparison to the fact that at longlast the substance of their unhappiness is finally being aired.

It's not going to go away simply with the implication that it's elitist in origin, or with the repeated claim that parents cynically want to get a free private education for their kids, or with Catherine and Steve going back to private life. I think that this is one part of an excellent platform on which to run for SC.

There's a dissatisfaction out there and it's getting candidates elected, albeit by secret ballot. I still say that the admittedly charged analogy with the Bush Administration's past ability to quell dissent is apt. Most folks don't want to risk being called racist, or elitist, or mean to teachers. Which is why they usually don't sign their names.

Rich Morse

Nina Koch said...

Part of the problem stems from the fact that different customers want different things. Someone who wants a traditional math education for his or her child is not going to be any happier with Everyday Math. There are plenty of parent forums, including one in Newton, making exactly the same complaints about Everyday Math (my kid has to go to Kumon, why should they have to explain their thoughts, why do we need math coaches, etc.). I'm sure there are parents who are also happy with Everyday Math where it's being used. But it's not like adopting that curriculum would suddenly solve the problem. Given how many people would remain unhappy, it would be an unconscionable expenditure at this time. We would still need math coaches; we would still need to educate the community about the NCTM standards; all we would succeed in doing is importing somebody else's math war.

So, this is why it is important to talk about goals before attempting to assess something or compare things. What are we trying to do? Are we attempting to maximize scores on standardized tests? Which ones? (They, too, differ in emphasis. MCAS asks kids to be able to write about math. Other tests don't.) Are we attempting to build reasoning capacity? Do we want students to become independent problem-solvers? Are we concerned about long-term retention of major concepts? Is communication important?

Depending on your goals, Saxon can be great or terrible. That's one of the reasons why different research studies show different things. (And, by the way, there is data supporting Investigations. The NSF never would have funded them again without data. I think the NSF knows something about research. I can point you to some of that in a separate post but I need to get to school.)

Abbie, I find your argument about the vaccine unconvincing because it presupposes that we will be measuring a single, well-ordered quantity. Such quantities are hard enough to identify in the realm of medicine. Once you introduce multiple dimensions, some of which trade off against each other, any kind of policy decision is very complicated. Look at the controversy over frequency of mammograms. Shouldn't there be just one answer to that?

We are not at the point of being able to look at data until we identify our goals. I don't feel that we have done that adequately. Toward that end, I would propose that the school committee formally adopt the NCTM standards as district goals. That is just a starting point. There would be a lot of work left to do after that.

*NCTM stands for National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

Rick said...

“Part of the problem stems from the fact that different customers want different things.”

What I have in mind are not parents that are coming forward and saying “I want you to use this curriculum”. I am more talking about what Mike Jacques said above, which is simply “my kid doesn’t seem to be learning math well enough”. That’s a simpler thing to talk about than the nightmare of figuring out who is right in the “math wars”.

It should be possible for parents to explain what it is they think their kid is not getting math-wise. Likewise it should be possible for teachers and administrators to listen carefully and be open to “re-engineering” the way they teach, as necessary to address the problems the customers are having. The re-engineering may involve getting a different curriculum, or it may involve using the one they have better.

One problem in communication may be that parents jump too quickly to what they think the solution is – a curriculum to use or whatever – rather than focusing on the specific of the problem they are seeing with what their kids are not learning. If you are an engineer building a product, you can and should listen to the problems that customers have with your product, but you are a lot less likely to listen to a customer who tells you how to re-engineer your product instead of telling you exactly what problems they are having with the product.

More on data versus “culture”:

You can measure customer satisfaction via surveys. But let’s say 10% of customers are not satisfied and let’s say that’s a “good” number compared to other schools. OK that’s nice, but it’s very important how that 10% is being listened too.

Yes there will be some percentage that are not going to be happy no matter what you do, but really that’s a small number – maybe 1% of the 10%. It’s in that 9% where you can really get input about how you might be able to improve the product.

I used to run a business that built products; with some customers, we would screw up big time and they were still happy. With others we would do a fantastic job and they were never satisfied. Most were in-between. The “always-happy” customers are great to have, and you can learn something from them if they are specific about what it is they like. But you learn more from the unsatisfied customers – at least from the 9% (not so much the 1%).

For that to work, management has to make it a priority – setting the tone, mission and culture. It’s not so much a culture of “the customer is always right”; it’s more a culture of “hey, this is where we can learn how to be the best”.

Ken said...

Catherine, I will be curious as to whether you respond to anonymous 10:17, who seems to be saying that there are some inferior cultures in our town/schools, and those families just don't seem to give a hoot about education or the marvelous resources available to them, etc. As a School Committee member that represents the whole town, which includes those communities also, I am curious as to whether you deem this comment worth a response.

I wonder, because this is not the first time these types of comments have appeared uncommented on in your blog. In the thread about the elementary schools survey results, for example, you never reponded to this post (which got an 'amen' response from another brave anonymous poster):

"So I assume that it was some form of oppression that resulted in minorities under-responding to the survey.
The minority parents were not welcomed by the majority oppressors sufficiently to fill it out?
No need to respond to this, Catherine. I know that it's the journey rather than the destination that's most important in being able to beat us over the head about our failings in Becoming a Multi-Cultural School System: the raison d'etre of the Kathleen Anderson tour of duty on School Committee."

Well, it's interesting that you didn't respond even if the poster suggested you didn't have to. I'm curious as to what your reasoning is to allow comments like this, which associate themselves with your ideas, to stand unaddressed, either agreeing or taking a stand against them. As a school committee member, isn't this an important issue for your comments, since in the elementary school community you represent, over 30% of students are low income, and around 50% kids of color?

So, please declare where you stand personally relative to these kinds of posts on your blog.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Ken, for asking this question. When I read the post from Anon 10:17 I was so offended by the implications of it but I could not think how to respond. As I read your post, what came to mind was the phrase "Let them eat cake."

Ken said...


Which customers get to decide: the majority? the noisiest? the ones with the most connection or access? the ones that "know best?" The problem for any public school district--especially one with as many constituencies as this--is to make decisions that try to balance out the customer satisfaction of all groups, and not just the noisiest, or most powerful, or even the majority.

Math, as reading, should be approached in a balanced way. The reality in this day and age is that MCAS success requires conceptual understanding, number fluency, and problem solving ability. Teachers need to balance how they teach, regardless of the program. If I see a car veering towards a ditch on the right side of the road, I say, "Go left!" If I see a car veering off to a ditch on the left, I'll say, "Go right!" A valid criticism of Investigations is that it sometimes overbalances on the concept-building side. But no teacher is prohibited from having students practice number fluency until they are automatic with it--in fact, it's essential in order to give a structure to math concepts! But the oppostite holds true in other programs. There is no such thing as the perfect program 'as is' for all groups of students. It is less the program than the teacher's deep understanding of a) the math at their grade level, and more important, b) their students. The program should always be subservient to those 2 things, not vice versa.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

This has been an interesting discussion, and I really appreciate the thoughtful posts from assorted people, especially those who are signing their names -- Rick, Rich, Mike, Nina, Ken, Abbie, Caren, Ali, Ed, etc. Thank you (including the assorted anonymous posters with a respectful and constructive tone).

Ken - this is the first week of my semester. I have 80 kids in one class (with a limit of 40), and 26 kids in another class (with a limit of 15). And I have three kids (ages 11, 8, and 5), and I'm attending long SC meetings at least one night a week and having other SC meetings at least once a week. And I'm getting on a plane in 6 hours to go to a conference to present my research. I'm doing the best job I can to respond to each and every post but at busy times -- such as this week -- I just don't do it. But I haven't responded to ANY posts specifically this week, not just those with a particular bent/slant, and thus I think your accusation that I ignore certain posts is unfair.

Rick said...

“Which customers get to decide”

None of them gets to decide – but they all get listened to. ARPS decides.

In the “company-that-makes-a-product” analogy, the company decides what it's going to do, if anything, to re-engineer the product. If they listen well, and continually improve based on feedback, they will have a better product and a higher percentage of happy customers; if they don’t they won’t.

In my view there is an easy part to this and a hard part. The listening part is easy. Even with the most difficult person you can listen well, pull out what the real problems are and write them down (and if there aren’t any, then they are in that 1% category).

The hard part is: given a list of problems to fix, how do you do that? That’s the job of education experts and that’s what we hire them to do.

Anonymous said...

Ken, I read 10:17's comment differently. I though they were saying we are leading the horse to water, but are not encouraging them to drink. I saw it as saying the schools aren't doing enough to do this even though we are spending so much money per student.

Anonymous said...

"and thus I think your accusation that I ignore certain posts is unfair."

I don't see where or how Ken is accusing you of ignoring certain posts. His language is careful to articulate his questions pointedly but not accusingly.

Are you reading too much into his questions?

Anonymous said...

I think he clearly made that accusation. "I wonder, because this is not the first time these types of comments have appeared uncommented on in your blog."

Frustrated Parent said...

My advice? Ignore Ken's inflammatory statements. I, for one, appreciate Catherine's attempts to address any of our comments; I know she is a busy person. I wish more of our School Committee members were willing to discuss things with us in this type of forum. I wonder if any of the School Committee candidates are going to be blogging if they are elected. Does anyone know?

Rick said...

I will be blogging here: (whether or not I get elected). Hoping to attract “guest authors” to blog there as well.

Nina Koch said...

Hi Rick,

I agree with this statement:

"It should be possible for parents to explain what it is they think their kid is not getting math-wise."

This is a conversation we need to have.

However, I disagree with your assertion that it is "a simpler thing to talk about." People have fundamental differences in what they believe constitutes essential mathematical knowledge. For example, one person might believe that it is important for students to be able to use number sense to estimate computations while another person might believe that is not an important thing to learn, and time would be better spent on developing a different skill. So, it is not just question of "how", which is what I believe you are saying. It is a question of "what."

We don't have widespread agreement on what kids should know and be able to do. That's why I am urging the school committee to adopt the NCTM standards as district policy, because I feel the standards give a good picture of "how" and "what." It would give us a structure to use in assessing curricular effectiveness.

Anonymous said...

What would be the use TO THIS BLOG of Catherine's taking on posts that imply (or from which we infer) "groupist" sentiments, eg, a statement that the town's Venutian community has been given every opportunity to improve itself but it hasn't, and it's costing us too much money to try to educate those Venutians who don't even try to help themselves...blah blah blah.

I think hitting the IGNORE button is so, so much more effective than honoring the original post by addressing it.

Surely we've all participated in online blogs & discussion groups and seen them completely fall apart as the flame wars become the subject rather than the original subject.

As long as no one is using openly offensive language, I give the appropriate time & energy these posts deserve: none.

Rise Above.

Nina Koch said...

woah, I missed a bunch of things in the middle of this thread and I just saw this statement from Catherine:

"I don't think this is due to the way we teach English in our high school at all. I hear from kids and parents that kids learn to WRITE in social studies classes, not in English classes. I hear from kids that only a small number of kids seem to talk about the reading in English classes."

So much for the kinder, gentler blog. Catherine, that is just plain libelous. It's malicious and untrue. You have no basis for saying it. You don't even know how we teach English because you have never attempted to come find out. Due to lack of knowledge, you are unable to characterize the program at all. Nor does your statement come from the data-based approach you claim to use. "I hear" is not data. Your sample size is small and furthermore it suffers from a significant selection effect. The people who bring things to you are the ones who believe you will share their concerns. It's not a random sample by any means.

This is conduct unbecoming. I refer you to Policy BBAA, where the duties of a school committee member are enumerated, including:

# To represent the Committee and the schools to the public in a way that promotes interest and support.

# To refer questions and complaints to the proper school authorities.

If you have a concern about how students are learning to write, there is a procedure for you to follow. Making that kind of a public statement about the English department is not part of the procedure.

For blog-followers who want to "I hear" some other comments about learning to write at ARHS, go here:

ARHS Alumni Voices

You will see students thanking many different teachers, including members of the English department, for how well prepared they were when they went to college.

Ken said...

Anonymous 1:50--I didn't accuse Catherine of not responding to this post--I just wondered if she was going to, and asked for her opinion if and when she was going to. As far as ignoring other similar posts, it's not an accusation but a statement of fact and I specifically pasted an example of one of the comments I referred to into my blog.

Anonymous 7:45, Catherine very appropriately asked us all to be respectful on the blog, and addresses people directly about it when she feels that we're not being that way--case in point, to me in her response. It would be quite easy to say, once, "I disassociate myself from such comments, and do not want them to appear on this blog." If you think I'm being inflamatory by wondering if these comments will now be addressed based on the new "blog rules," then I guess guilty as charged.

Anonymous said...


CS has already asked people to be civil on the blog.

a blog is like a bathroom wall. anyone can write on it. that doesn't mean we have to pay attention to whatever drivel people put there.

I don't see the problem here in terms of CS's behavior. SHE isn't posting inflammatory "groupist" stuff (except maybe throwing around unsubstantiated opinions about the quality of Amherst education).

are you leading up to suggesting that if she isn't willing to censor her blog, she shouldn't have one?
Rise Above

ARHS Parent said...

Nina, I also have never experienced an ARHS English classroom but my children (and their friends) have. Recently, one of them described their English class as "a joke." Few kids apparently do the reading, there is little feedback from the teacher on writing assignments, and a general attitude from the teacher of "whatever." Not exactly what a parent wants to hear. But I did want to let you know that Catherine is not the only one who has heard this. Now feel free to flame away as usual. Which is why I am not signing my name.

Anonymous said...

I think what underlies Rick's message about customer satisfaction has to do primarily with communication. I appreciate Nina's attempt to point out the importance of objectives in her analysis of how a program should be chosen/evaluated. That appears to be one thing that parents aren't tuned in to--in which case communication could help. In other words... perhaps kids aren't progressing in factual math knowledge at the pace Mike Jacques expects or experienced himself as a child. And, perhaps, that is not the objective of the particular math program being used. Critical thinking about math and a deep base of conceptual understanding related to the basis of those facts may be more of the focus, prior to focusing on more rote kinds of learning. Understanding that objective and how it may lead to more meaningful math growth over time may allay some people's concerns... or maybe not. But being clear about what we're shooting for can at least help clarify whether or not we're missing the target. At this stage, people seem to be all over the place in terms of what the target should be. So, thank you to Nina and Ken for helping to focus the debate. It's an important one.

Anonymous said...

to 6:22 AM- So if your child doesn't do the assigned reading it's the teacher's fault? My kids ( in MS and HS) have had numerous reading and writing assignments which they take seriously, turn in on time and get feedback on. They complain to me often about other students ( not the teacher) who don't do the work. SO how about parents stepping up and taking some responsibility instead of, once again, blaming the teachers

jm said...

The claim has been made that having academically mixed English classes helps all the kids. Weaker students are pushed, academically strong kids are challenged, and the discussions in class are richer. Everyone does better by mixing it up.

Some parents have questioned this practice since most other schools divide classes by level, just the way all the other academic departments at ARHS do with their regular, honors and AP classes. As far as I know, there is no proof of the claim that all kids do better under the mixed English classes.

Now we have parents and students saying there are English classes at ARHS where not much is happening.

One approach would be to find out if this is true and fix any problems that might exist -- and maybe even look at whether or not the mixed English classes actually deliver for all levels of students.

Another approach would be to wave the School Committee manual at Catherine Sanderson and accuse her of violating her duties just for saying that she's heard complaints from parents (and then weirdly claim she is directly accusating the English Deptment of incompetence.)

A third approach would be to blame the parents of kids not doing the reading for the problems in the classroom.

Which approach actually helps educate our kids? Which approach helps understanding of what is going on in our classrooms?

Anonymous said...



What type of English class were you in, in High School?

Sorry, but I couldn't resist.

ARHS Parent said...

Thank you jm. I never said that my kids weren't doing the readings or taking the class seriously. What they (and their friends) have reported to me is that the teacher doesn't seem to take the course requirements seriously (for example, there are no negative repercussions for coming to class with having the reading done). In addition, when they are supposed to be learning to write, they are also told they have to peer-review rather than getting written feedback from the teacher on drafts. Most of the students I have talked to feel as if this peer review is, at best, not helpful (some find it damaging) and wish they had more direction from the teacher. Those that are doing the work wish that the teacher was more strict with those who are not doing the work. But yes, anon 7:40AM, this must somehow be my fault and the fault of all parents. In a way, you are right. It is my fault for sticking with the public school system instead of seeking a private school alternative for my children. So since it is partially my fault, perhaps I should just shut up.

jm said...

Typo, sorry. It's an interesting sounding word though.

Rick said...

Anon 7:03 said: “I think what underlies Rick's message about customer satisfaction has to do primarily with communication.” Yes, that is mainly what I was getting at, but not entirely.


Mike Jacques does not think his kid is not progressing in math for no reason. And a parent who may think their kid’s English class is “a joke” generally has reason for thinking so, just as a customer I built a boat for had a reason when they didn’t think the paint job was good enough – even though it may have looked good to me.

Customers need to be really listened to, and then either:

1. It’s explained to the customer (parent) what’s going on; what the curriculum is trying to do. Perhaps that they are learning something other than just 2+2=4 that is also important, who knows… whatever it is should be explained.

2. Or the customer input is taken back to some group that discusses problems and tries to solve them.

I am sure this happens a lot, but not always. It needs to happen always (or close to it).

If #1 is the solution for that particular customer, then that is strictly a communication problem. It does take time, but it’s not difficult to do.

If #2 is the case, where the customer has brought a real problem to the attention of the teacher, then that’s partly a communication situation, but it’s mainly a “what do we do to fix the problem” situation. This to me is MUCH harder to do. It involves teachers and admins coming together and:

a. Agreeing there is a problem to fix

b. Agreeing on the fix, which could mean anything from a different curriculum, to training on how to use the curriculum, etc…

Teachers can be opinionated, like the rest of us, and as we see with the “math wars” it’s hard for people to agree on the right thing to do. But there needs leadership from top management (Super and Principals) that where a problem exists, it HAS to be fixed. It’s no good if they get stuck on “a” and/or “b” – management needs to get them unstuck.

Catherine often talks about the need for process. What the answer is for a #2 situation I have no idea, but I at least want to know that a process is there to handle these things. Surely the people who are peeved on this blog are peeved mainly because they do not perceive there is such a process. Either that means there really isn’t one, or if there is it is not being communicated well.

What I keep trying to say here is that the problem is not as general as “the school system sucks”. That is both not true and counter productive. Where there is a problem, there is a specific solution to that problem, and we should focus on coming up with whatever that solution is, and implementing it.

Rick said...

My suggestion is that each subject area (Math, English, etc..) should have a committee consisting of teachers and parents that review customer complaints and try to figure out solutions.

I don’t think this should be done school-by-school but rather is school system wide, to help promote coordination across all schools. I also think it should be K-12 to promote coordination across grades. Perhaps the committees would have around 12 people: 7 teachers and 5 parents.

These committees should be assigned real power to change things by the School Committee. Teachers would outnumber parents so that it’s always teachers who have the main vote. If we ever have a full time Curriculum Director, that person would oversee all groups and lead each group meeting. The groups would probably meet once a month.

Rick said...

“These committees should be assigned real power to change things by the School Committee.”

Legally this may not be possible – I don’t know. But you get the idea. If not possible at least the advice of such committees would be made public and so would have to be seriously considered. Kind of like the FCCC was.

Anonymous said...

Rick -- Or you vote in school board members who listen and respond to parents -- and bring these problems up in public again and again -- despite the defensive, resistence from almost every part of the school system .

Anonymous said...

"Recently, one of them described their English class as "a joke." Few kids apparently do the reading, there is little feedback from the teacher on writing assignments, and a general attitude from the teacher of "whatever."

And you are taking this to be the truth of how all, most or many English classes are taught because you heard this from "one" of you kid's friends? And then you state that "Few kids apparently do the reading." Your research wouldn’t make the grade in any high school class. We need more than “one” and “apparently.”

How many kids would it take to change your mind about what you have already decided is fact? Have you bothered to call your child's English teacher, or email him/her to actually learn what your kid's teacher requires, how they assess whether a student is doing the work, how the teacher comments on the kid's writing? Or any other aspect of that English class? Or are you just going to rely on this friend of your child? Does this kid also tell you how to invest your money, where to shop and when to floss?

This is where this blog goes south in a hurry, when someone like you makes a statement based on hearsay.

Do your homework and then come to this blog with some factual basis.

Yours is an appalling, shallow, libelous attack on a group of people who work hard and spend hours and hours pouring over your children’s writing.

Hey CS, what do you think about this writer’s approach to evaluating programs at the hs? Is this how you think it should go? Let’s just all stand back and throw poisonous darts at the teachers. Or do you think this person is not teacher bashing and that her approach is acceptable?

ARHS Parent said...

Ah, the flames!! Like many others on this blog (and as mentioned by SC candidate Rick Hood as something that should be paid attention to), I thought I would share my family's personal experience with ARHS English classes. It was not meant to be a thorough data-driven analysis of the entire ARHS English department!! That is the job, as Rick points out, of the administration and the School Committee. Listen respectfully to customer complaints, ask questions, and figure out if there really is a problem and then, if there is, what the teachers/administration/SC is going to do to fix it. Excuse me for sharing my personal experiences! I love to hear the experiences of other families, whether or not they are in line with what our family has experienced. Listening to others without attacking or demeaning is a good way to learn.

Anonymous said...

The problem facing the ARHS Parent's child is that talking to the teacher isn't a solution. What would result from a conversation that is basically saying to the teacher: "Ahem, but you aren't doing your job"?

I am sure many parents have tried, like I have, to talk to not-so-good teachers where learning isn't happening in the classroom or where their child has a problem. Nothing happens. On the other hand, when the teacher is excellent, the discussion about problems is productive and a solution is found.

I have completely given up going to the principal since that has never worked. Even if the principal understands that a teacher is under-performing, what can they do about it? Maybe others have found this route helpful but I am 0 for 2.

Also, I didn't take ARHS's posting as an attack on all the ARHS english teachers. What worries me is the remarkably defensive counterattack when a parent writes in about their child's experience. Is there any concern about the kids in that classroom where little learning is taking place?

Amherst has lots of great teachers but they all aren't great. Is every criticism of an individual teacher an attack on all Amherst teachers?

Rick said...

The problem facing the ARHS Parent's child is that talking to the teacher isn't a solution. What would result from a conversation that is basically saying to the teacher: "Ahem, but you aren't doing your job"?

Ideally there would be more of a culture where teachers and parents work together to do what’s best for the kids, and that comments from parents don’t need to be taken as ” you aren't doing your job” at all. That’s ideal. But if not that, then there is no other way than for the parent to go to “the boss”.

Going back to my boat paint job analogy:

The customer would usually first talk to the paint department foreman to express disappointment with the paint job. If the foreman did not agree, the customer would usually come to me. I would have to discuss it with both of them by looking at the boat together and trying to understand what the customer didn’t like with the foreman right there.

(With paint jobs it’s almost always dust or orange peel that is the issue. It’s close to impossible to eliminate all dust from a paint job on a 60 foot boat, but you can come very close.)

I would say that virtually every time I would side with the customer, as it was never the case that you could not see the problem they were referring to – as small as it might be. This did not make the foreman happy. I would have to have a talk with him and his painters about how we sold ourselves as being the absolute best, so we just had to do it (repaint the boat). Sometimes they got on board with that, sometimes they just did it because I told them to. It’s interesting that whether they got on board or not depended a lot on the personality of the customer. If the customer was a creep they were less likely to get on board and just did it because I told them to.

In this case I guess “the boss” would be the principal of the school. If we feel they are not doing a good job of being “the boss” then we’d have to do something else, such as institute a procedure that each complaint brought to the boss had to be also forward to the committees I mention above.

But it’s way better if the principals are good bosses to begin with.


An aside: I feel that top management of schools (the Super and the Principals) need to be good managers first, educators second. As the boss of the boat company, I didn’t really need to know the details of how boats were painted. It’s nice if I did (and I did), but it was much more important that I knew how to manage. I was not the greatest manager – I would give myself a B. I knew it was important to be that but I didn’t have quite the right personality for it.

If you have ever worked for a tough but inspiring boss, or perhaps had a coach like that, you know what I mean about what a difference a good boss makes.

Anonymous said...

" thought I would share my family's personal experience with ARHS English classes. It was not meant to be a thorough data-driven analysis of the entire ARHS English department!! "

You may not have intended your torching of the English dept to be so hot, but it was. Maybe you should have taken the time to write a more detailed, thorough explanation.

If you are only speaking of 1 teacher on one occasion, then say so.

I would be shocked if you had spoken to the current hs principal, Mark Jackson, about such poor teaching and got a negative response from him.

Work your way through the chain of command when you are not happy. Obviously, you are unhappy with your kids' experience with the entire english dept since you had nothing at all positive to say about it. And the negative things you did say are fairly easily construed to be targeting the whole dept.

And you're unhappy enough to engage your ideas here. What do you possibly hope will happen to improve your child's English class by writing to this blog that would not happen by talking with the principal? Why wouldn't you talk with your child's principal and ask that the teacher be brought to a meeting to discuss this?

I can guarantee you the principal would not put your complaint off and ignore you.

There are many kinds of principals in the public schools in the usa. Mark Jackson is a person of integrity and fairness. He will listen to you and will bring teachers to task.

Anonymous said...

Wow!!! With that warm and welcoming invitation from someone who is undoubtedly employed at ARHS, I am sure ARHS Parent will be calling up for an appointment with the English Department right away!

Anonymous said...

What goes around comes around.

Anonymous said...

Just curious as to how much play the column in the Bulletin quoting ARHS grads is going to get on this blog.

Anonymous said...

That column says only positive things about the schools so my guess is that it will get no comment here.

Nina Koch said...

to ARHS parent,

I would encourage you to speak to your child's teacher when you have a concern. As Rick has suggested, it's a way for both parties to get more information. For example, you might learn more about the rationale for peer-editing as well as some of the structure that is provided for it. Some of that can get lost in the translation when the student describes the experience. In the same way, the teacher could get some information about the picture that your child has of the process. I am sometimes surprised to learn what a student has inferred from something I have said or done.

Often, we need to be more explicit about our expectations to insure that teacher and students are on the same page. For example, today I handed out a set of practice problems for a test. The last time I did this, only about half the kids did the problems, probably because they knew I was not collecting them. So this time when I handed them out, I tried to be more explicit about it and I said "To practice for the test, you need to try the problems, write down work on paper and bring it to class on Monday along with any clarifying questions. It's not enough just to read the problems over." I realized that the word "review" might mean something different in their minds than it does in mine. I've been teaching for thirty years and I am still coming to realizations like that.

I have had parent/teacher conferences where both parties have at some point during the discussion said "oh I didn't realize that." So it's worth a try. We are people, after all, and so are you.

For me, I would want the opportunity to describe what students are being asked to do in class and to present the reasoning behind it. I would prefer that to someone just being unhappy and never saying anything, or telling other people that my class was a joke.

Now it's possible that it would not lead to a resolution that you considered satisfactory. But I don't think it would be a waste of time. And it could potentially lead to a good result.

Ken said...

Anonymous/Rise Above--I'm not suggesting anything of the sort as you phrase it. What I am suggesting is that a school committee representative represents the entire community, and even though this is not a "school committee blog," the reality is that it is a school committee member's blog. I just find it interesting which kinds of inflammatory comments get addressed, and which don't.

Myself, I'd be quite quick to make any negative comments about whole communities in this town unwanted on my blog, especially when I, myself, am also charged with upholding their interests equally as a school committee member. It does give the appearance--fairly or unfairly--that some communities matter to a School Committe member a lot more than others, and indeed, that has been a criticism of this blog all along. I wonder if a distorted "groupist" criticism of ACE parents, for example, would be left unremarked on by Catherine in this space...

Maybe it's the difference between a "social justice" perspective which incorporates both social justice and achievement issues equally (and feels that for some students, the latter is not possible without the former), versus an "achievement" perspective, which thinks mainly about just one.

I'm just raising a question that I do believe is a quite valid one in a blog that purports to discuss issues pertaining to OUR schools--that is, the schools that serve ALL our town's children.

Anon for my Family said...

I wanted to comment on the Amherst Center article using Rick's boatyard analogy. First of all, I believe all those comments in the article and have seen some of the same things during the many years my children have been in the Amherst Schools. There is a great deal about our schools that is terrific. There are also things, however, which are not so terrific.

In Rick's boatyard, if he (as an owner) only listened to the compliments his boats and employees received, he would probably feel really good about himself but he would not be challenged to grow. In addition, he would be ignoring the very real complaints that some customers (even if it was just 10% of the customers) have. By ignoring customer complaints, he risks losing their business and, through word of mouth, the business of their friends, neighbors, etc. And for every customer willing to complain, there may be 2 others too intimidated (or too busy, or too tired, etc) to complain. Those customers you cannot even learn from but they still might leave.

What if, instead of focusing on just the compliments in his boatyard, Rick chose to take each and every customer complaint seriously. He listened carefully to each customer complaint and tried to fix the problem, whether it was something individual to that customer or more general. Either way, he improves his business. In addition, what if he were to solicit feedback from his employees about what worked and did not work in the boatyard? If they knew they were safe with him, they would probably feel free to speak their mind and tell him things like "this new paint you are buying might be cheaper but it takes longer to dry so it takes us longer to process a boat" which he can then use to improve his business.

I agree with Rick that any business (whether it be educating our kids or building boats) needs to pay attention to customer service and be respectful of customer complaints. I suspect the reason that customers of the Amherst public schools get perhaps more angry than Rick's boatyard customers is that most of them do not have any recourse but to stay. Rick's customers can probably find someone else to paint their boat for roughly the same price. Most residents of Amherst, however, are unable to remove their kids from the schools. There are few school choice slots available in other districts (just read the Gazette article on Hadley this week!), many of the kids/parents are not interested in the particular offerings of the nearby charter schools, vocational high school might not be of interest, they might be unable to move (especially in this market), and they might not be able to afford private school. So they are stuck, whether or not they like the service they/their kids are receiving. Please, please don't let this be an excuse to ignore the criticisms of these customers. I beg the teachers, the administration, and the School Committee to sit down and discuss in detail all the complaints you have heard recently (and solicit more like Rick suggests) and make some changes.

Much of what we have in our schools is great, but it is what isn't great and how we deal with it that truly sets us apart from other districts.

Rick said...

Anon for my Family: that's perfect.

We need to do both at the same time: be positive about the schools, but listen to and deal with problems at the same time.

A way to do that is for ARPS to have the attitude that "we deal with complaints not because we suck and need to get better, but because we are the best and know that the only way to stay that way is continual improvement".

Anonymous said...

My problem is that, especially on this blog, all you get is unrelenting negativity about the schools. I have had three kids go through the schools over the last 12 years. We've had 3 superintendents, many different school committee members and a very good sampling of teachers in multiple schools and disciplines. We've had our share of crappy teachers and ineffective administrators as well as great teachers and wonderfully caring administrators who went that extra mile for us when we had a kid who might be struggling. One of the hard lessons that we have learned over that time is that all kids are different, they experience school in very different ways and our expectations of them, of the schools and of their teachers really influence how they experience the classroom especially at younger ages. Much of the commentary on this blog is an over generalization of personal experiences to the entire universe of children. Just because your kid had a so-so time doesn't mean that all kids are in the same boat. And vice versa of course.

Columns like Joel Wolfe's, replete with shallow analysis and inflammatory language get posted here and anything that actually might suggest that the schools are doing well- which using a lot of OBJECTIVE standards they are,get ignored, ridiculed and minimized. Or worse- responded to with comments like well that wasn't the way it was for my kid as if that settles the matter. I am not saying that the schools couldn't work harder to be better. I am not saying that we shouldn't look more closely at the budget, I am not saying that we shouldn't evaluate programs to see if they are working and to make them better. I am saying that we need to have a more balanced picture about the schools.

And finally- to ARHS parent- I would challenge you and anyone else on this board to find one person who,when they were in HS, did not think that at least one class or teacher in high school was a "joke" . Kind of the nature of the beast IMO.

LarryK4 said...

And gee there Anon 8:14 AM, you just solved your problem with nothing but "unrelenting negativity about the schools" on this blog.

You just published something that was nothing but positive.

And so it goes. Behold the power...

Anonymous said...

ummm actually Larry, I believe anon 814 didn't really say anything positive or negative about the schools! He/she only commentated on some of the commentary found on this blog.

So please stop fueling the flame of narrow minded individuals who think everyone that doesn't agree with him/herself is ignorant has no good ideas.

Anonymous said...

This blog, whatever the intention of its host, has devolved into an endless series of negative postings about the schools. Yes, there are many things that can be improved upon. But there are also alot of good things going on in the schools each and every day.

The skewed picture of the schools on this blog is not at all helpful. I am moving on to a more productive use of my time.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:27:

I appreciate your sentiment. May I suggest that one such productive use of your time would be to show up at the next Regional School Committee meeting, Tues. Feb. 2 at 6:30 in the Town Room of Town Hall to voice your opinion about the positive things worth preserving in our schools. We need voices such as yours to be heard loud and clear or else we're going to lose a lot of things that add depth and breadth to our kids' education. We need to ask ourselves, whose definition of excellence (and how to get there) are we going to allow to prevail? Good questions are being asked of our school system. But lets not hold the quality and richness of our own and future children's schooling hostage because of the immediacy of a few people's need for particular kinds of answers and/or change. Our new superintendent has only been on the job since June. Lets give him and the process time and resist doing away with opportunities and offerings that we are likely NEVER to get back. We can't afford to be silent or shortsighted about this as it will be the kids that get shortchanged.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

FYI: If anyone happens to notice:-) that very few Mark's Meadow parents come to the Regional School Committee meeting/public hearing on February 2, 2010, please don't think it's because we don't care; the kids first 2009-2010 band/orchestra concert is at the exact same time:-(

curious observer said...

I find it funny how many people responded to Rivkin and Sanderson's column on personal attacks -- with personal attacks. Notably many of the critics are the teachers who authored the programs being closely questioned -- and school board members who agreeably and passively served. It would be refreshing to see these people call for rigorous program reviews, if only to show they are right.