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, February 28, 2010

What Makes a Great Teacher?

Note from Catherine: This is a long, but very interesting article, on effective teaching -- largely through an examination of the Teach for America program. Given the interest in teaching among many readers of my blog, I thought it would be of interest.

The Atlantic Monthly
January/February 2010
By Amanda Ripley

On August 25, 2008, two little boys walked into public elementary schools in Southeast Washington, D.C. Both boys were African American fifth-graders. The previous spring, both had tested below grade level in math.

One walked into Kimball Elementary School and climbed the stairs to Mr. William Taylor’s math classroom, a tidy, powder-blue space in which neither the clocks nor most of the electrical outlets worked.

The other walked into a very similar classroom a mile away at Plummer Elementary School. In both schools, more than 80 percent of the children received free or reduced-price lunches. At night, all the children went home to the same urban ecosystem, a zip code in which almost a quarter of the families lived below the poverty line and a police district in which somebody was murdered every week or so.

At the end of the school year, both little boys took the same standardized test given at all D.C. public schools—not a perfect test of their learning, to be sure, but a relatively objective one (and, it’s worth noting, not a very hard one).

After a year in Mr. Taylor’s class, the first little boy’s scores went up—way up. He had started below grade level and finished above. On average, his classmates’ scores rose about 13 points—which is almost 10 points more than fifth-graders with similar incoming test scores achieved in other low-income D.C. schools that year. On that first day of school, only 40 percent of Mr. Taylor’s students were doing math at grade level. By the end of the year, 90 percent were at or above grade level.

As for the other boy? Well, he ended the year the same way he’d started it—below grade level. In fact, only a quarter of the fifth-graders at Plummer finished the year at grade level in math—despite having started off at about the same level as Mr. Taylor’s class down the road.

This tale of two boys, and of the millions of kids just like them, embodies the most stunning finding to come out of education research in the past decade: more than any other variable in education—more than schools or curriculum—teachers matter. Put concretely, if Mr. Taylor’s student continued to learn at the same level for a few more years, his test scores would be no different from those of his more affluent peers in Northwest D.C. And if these two boys were to keep their respective teachers for three years, their lives would likely diverge forever. By high school, the compounded effects of the strong teacher—or the weak one—would become too great.

Parents have always worried about where to send their children to school; but the school, statistically speaking, does not matter as much as which adult stands in front of their children. Teacher quality tends to vary more within schools—even supposedly good schools—than among schools.

But we have never identified excellent teachers in any reliable, objective way. Instead, we tend to ascribe their gifts to some mystical quality that we can recognize and revere—but not replicate. The great teacher serves as a hero but never, ironically, as a lesson.

At last, though, the research about teachers’ impact has become too overwhelming to ignore. Over the past year, President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have started talking quite a lot about great teaching. They have shifted the conversation from school accountability— the rather worn theme of No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s landmark educational reform—to teacher accountability. And they have done it using one very effective conversational gambit: billions of dollars.

Thanks to the stimulus bonanza, Duncan has lucked into a budget that is more than double what a normal education secretary gets to spend. As a result, he has been able to dedicate $4.3 billion to a program he calls Race to the Top. To be fair, that’s still just a tiny fraction of the roughly $100 billion in his budget (much of which the government direct-deposits into the bank accounts of schools, whether they deserve the money or not). But especially in a year when states are projecting $16 billion in school-budget shortfalls, $4.3 billion is real money. “This is the big bang of teacher-effectiveness reform,” says Timothy Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that helps schools recruit good teachers. “It’s huge.”

Despite the perky name, Race to the Top is a marathon—and a potentially grueling one; to win, states must take a series of steps that are considered radical in the see-no-evil world of education, where teachers unions have long fought efforts to measure teacher performance based on student test scores and link the data to teacher pay. States must try to identify great teachers, figure out how they got that way, and then create more of them. “This is the wave of the future. This is where we have to go—to look at what’s working and what’s not,” Duncan told me. “It sounds like common sense, but it’s revolutionary.”

Based on his students’ test scores, Mr. Taylor ranks among the top 5 percent of all D.C. math teachers. He’s entertaining, but he’s not a born performer. He’s well prepared, but he’s been a teacher for only three years. He cares about his kids, but so do a lot of his underperforming peers. What’s he doing differently?

One outfit in America has been systematically pursuing this mystery for more than a decade—tracking hundreds of thousands of kids, and analyzing why some teachers can move those kids three grade levels ahead in one year and others can’t. That organization, interestingly, is not a school district.

Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to spend two years teaching in low-income schools, began outside the educational establishment and has largely remained there. For years, it has been whittling away at its own assumptions, testing its hypotheses, and refining its hiring and training. Over time, it has built an unusual laboratory: almost half a million American children are being taught by Teach for America teachers this year, and the organization tracks test-score data, linked to each teacher, for 85 percent to 90 percent of those kids. Almost all of those students are poor and African American or Latino. And Teach for America keeps an unusual amount of data about its 7,300 teachers—a pool almost twice the size of the D.C. system’s teacher corps.

Until now, Teach for America has kept its investigation largely to itself. But for this story, the organization allowed me access to 20 years of experimentation, studded by trial and error. The results are specific and surprising. Things that you might think would help a new teacher achieve success in a poor school—like prior experience working in a low-income neighborhood—don’t seem to matter. Other things that may sound trifling—like a teacher’s extracurricular accomplishments in college—tend to predict greatness.

Steven Farr is a tall man with a deep, quiet voice. He is Teach for America’s in-house professor, so to speak. His job is to find and study excellent teachers, and train others to get similar results. He takes his work very seriously, mostly because he has seen what the status quo looks like up close.

Farr grew up in a family of teachers in central Texas. When he graduated from the University of Texas, in 1993, he had a philosophy degree and an acceptance letter to Yale Law School, neither of which felt quite right. So he deferred law school and joined a new, floundering outfit, Teach for America.

After a little more than a month of somewhat uneven training, Farr walked into Donna High School in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas—a place he’d never been. Many of the three dozen kids in his classroom were the children of migrant workers; they would disappear for weeks at a time as their families followed the harvests.
Talking to Farr about those two years feels a little like talking to a war veteran. You and he both know that you can never understand what it was like, and the clich├ęs come marching in. “It was the hardest, proudest, all of that,” he says, his voice drifting away. Then: “I was not the teacher I want our teachers to be.”

Farr lived with three other Teach for America teachers, in a house that had been confiscated by U.S. Marshals in a drug raid. He taught English and English as a Second Language. Texas required that students pass a standardized test before they graduate, and as test day approached, Farr felt a mixture of anxiety and resentment.

About a month afterward, he got the news: 76 percent of his students had passed; 24 percent were told they didn’t yet have the skills to graduate. Even though many were only sophomores, some of them dropped out as a result. The principal congratulated him on his scores, but Farr cried into his pillow that night. “Some of those kids did not pass because I was not as effective as I needed to be.”

After his two years were up, Farr went to law school, as planned. He came back to Teach for America in 2001—this time in charge of training and support. By then, the organization’s founder, Wendy Kopp, had begun to notice something puzzling when she visited classrooms: many Teach for America teachers were doing good work. But a small number were getting phenomenal results—and it was not clear why.

Farr was tasked with finding out. Starting in 2002, Teach for America began using student test-score progress data to put teachers into one of three categories: those who move their students one and a half or more years ahead in one year; those who achieve one to one and a half years of growth; and those who yield less than one year of gains. In the beginning, reliable data was hard to come by, and many teachers could not be put into any category. Moreover, the data could never capture the entire story of a teacher’s impact, Farr acknowledges. But in desperately failing schools, where most kids lack basic skills, the only way to bushwhack a path out of the darkness is with a good, solid measuring stick.

As Teach for America began to identify exceptional teachers using this data, Farr began to watch them. He observed their classes, read their lesson plans, and talked to them about their teaching methods and beliefs. He and his colleagues surveyed Teach for America teachers at least four times a year to find out what they were doing and what kinds of training had helped them the most.

Right away, certain patterns emerged. First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

But when Farr took his findings to teachers, they wanted more. “They’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah. Give me the concrete actions. What does this mean for a lesson plan?’” So Farr and his colleagues made lists of specific teacher actions that fell under the high-level principles they had identified. For example, one way that great teachers ensure that kids are learning is to frequently check for understanding: Are the kids—all of the kids—following what you are saying? Asking “Does anyone have any questions?” does not work, and it’s a classic rookie mistake. Students are not always the best judges of their own learning. They might understand a line read aloud from a Shakespeare play, but have no idea what happened in the last act.

“Strong teachers insist that effective teaching is neither mysterious nor magical. It is neither a function of dynamic personality nor dramatic performance,” Farr writes in Teaching as Leadership, a book coming out in February from Farr and his colleagues. The model the book lays out, Farr is careful to say, is not the only path to success. But he is convinced it can improve teaching—and already has. In 2007, 24 percent of Teach for America teachers moved their students one and a half or more years ahead, according to the organization’s internal reports. In 2009, that number was up to 44 percent. That data relies largely on school tests, which vary in quality from state to state. When tests aren’t available or sufficiently rigorous, Teach for America helps teachers find or design other reliable diagnostics.

So far, only one independent, random-assignment study of Teach for America’s effectiveness has been conducted. That report, published by Mathematica Policy Research in 2004, looked at the organization’s teachers and found that, in math, their students significantly outperformed those of their more experienced counterparts. (In reading, though, the teachers’ students did the same as other teachers’ students.) Another study is due out in 2012 or 2013.

Mr. Taylor, the fifth-grade math teacher in Washington, D.C., is not a member of Teach for America. He grew up attending D.C. public schools and then joined the profession the traditional way: he majored in education in college and then was certified. But Mr. Taylor has a lot in common with the teachers Farr has found to be most effective.

On a typical Monday, Mr. Taylor’s kids come to class and begin silently working on the Problem of the Day written on the blackboard. They sit in four clusters of desks. Each group has a team leader, who is selected by Mr. Taylor each month.

Mr. Taylor walks in and says good morning. “Good morning!” they answer in kid unison. He is wearing a scarf, a black-and-white pinstripe cardigan, and small, oval Dolce & Gabbana glasses, and he looks tired. He is taking classes on the weekends to get his master’s in education administration. He has a Bluetooth headset in one ear and an earring in the other.

After a few minutes, Mr. Taylor announces that it’s time for Mental Math. The kids put down their pencils and grab the orange index cards and markers on their desks. Mr. Taylor begins to walk around the class, reading problems aloud. “How many 5’s are in 45?” The kids have to do the math in their heads. All of them write their answers on their cards and thrust them up in the air. With a quick scan, Mr. Taylor can see if every child has written the right answer. Then he says, “What’s the answer?” And all the kids call out, “Nine!” When they get an answer right, they whisper-shout “Yes!” and pump their fists. If some kids get it wrong, they have not embarrassed themselves by individually raising their hand and announcing their mistake. But Mr. Taylor knows he needs to give them more attention—or, more likely, have their team leader work with them. Children, he has learned, speak to each other in a language they can better understand.

“Now I’m going to trick you,” Mr. Taylor says. “What’s 3 times 120?” The orange cards go down—and back up. “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” says one little girl, unable to contain herself. “‘Ooh’? Is that the answer?” Mr. Taylor says, silencing her.

Next, Mr. Taylor goes to the board to teach a new way to do long division. It’s a clever method that takes a little longer but is much easier than most other methods, and I’ve never seen it before. “You want to work smart, not hard,” he tells me later. “If you just show them the traditional method, not everyone understands.” He actually learned the method last year—from one of his students.

Mr. Taylor follows a very basic lesson plan often referred to by educators as “I do, we do, you do.” He does a problem on the board. Then the whole class does another one the same way. Then all the kids do a problem on their own. During the “we” portion of the lesson, Mr. Taylor calls on students to help solve the problem. But he does this using the “equity sticks”—a can of clothespins, each of which has a student’s name on it. That way, he ensures a random sample. The shy ones don’t get lost.

As the kids move into group work, there is a low buzz in the room. I try, but I can’t find a child who isn’t talking about math. One little boy leans across his desk to help another with a problem. “What do you add to 8 to get 16?” he says, and then he waits. “Eight,” the other boy says. “Then,” says the first, “you subtract that and what do you get?”

The activities come in brisk sequence, following a routine the kids know by heart, so no time is lost in transition. In Teaching as Leadership, Farr describes seeing such choreography in other high-performance classrooms. “We see routines so strong that they run virtually without any involvement from the teacher. In fact, for many highly effective teachers, the measure of a well-executed routine is that it continues in the teacher’s absence.”

On the front wall, Mr. Taylor has posted different hand signals—if you need to go to the bathroom, you raise a closed hand. To ask or answer a question, you raise an open hand. “This way, I have the information before I even call on you,” Mr. Taylor explains. There is even a signal for when you are having a terrible day and don’t feel up to participating: you just put your head down on your desk. I ask Mr. Taylor how often kids exploit that option. “I’ve never had anybody put their head down,” he says, matter-of-factly. “In three years?” I ask. “No.”

Next, Mr. Taylor announces it’s time for Multiplication Bingo. As Mr. Taylor reads off a problem (“20 divided by 5”), the kids scour their boards, chips in hand, looking for 4’s. One girl is literally shaking with excitement. Another has her hands clasped in a prayer position. I find myself wanting to play. You know you’re in a good classroom if you have to stop yourself from raising your hand.

Finally, after a dozen problems go by, a small voice from an even smaller boy pronounces, “Bingo!” Kids wail in despair as the tiny boy walks up to collect his prize (a pencil) from Mr. Taylor. “Dang!” one girl says. “Okay, relax,” Mr. Taylor says, smiling. “It’s just a game.” Before they leave, all the kids fill out an “exit slip,” which is usually in the form of a problem—one more chance for Mr. Taylor to see how they, and he, are doing.

When I talk to Mr. Taylor after class, I notice that he tends to redirect questions so that they reflect his own performance. When I ask him if his first year on the job was hard, he says, “I found that the kids were not hard. It was explaining the information to them that was hard. You paint this picture in your head about how you will teach this lesson, and you can teach the whole lesson and no one gets it.”

Like all the teachers I talked to in Washington, Mr. Taylor laments the lack of parental involvement. “On back-to-school night, if you have 28 or 30 kids in your class, you’re lucky to see six or seven parents,” he says. But when I ask him how that affects his teaching, he says, “Actually, it doesn’t. I make it my business to call the parents—and not just for bad things.” The first week of class, Mr. Taylor calls all his students’ parents and gives them his cell-phone number.

Other teachers I interviewed spent most of our time complaining. “With the testing and the responsibility and keeping up with the behavior reports and the data, it has gotten so much harder over the years,” said one fourth-grade teacher at Kimball, the same school where Mr. Taylor teaches. “It’s more work than it should be. They don’t give us the time to be creative.”

A 23-year veteran who earns more than $80,000 a year, this teacher has a warm manner, and her classroom is bright and neat. She paid for the kids’ whiteboards, the clock, and the DVD player herself. But she seems to have given up on the kids’ prospects in a way that Mr. Taylor has not. “The kids in Northwest [D.C.] go on trips to France, on cruises. They go places and their parents talk to them and take them to the library,” she says one fall afternoon between classes. “Our parents on this side don’t have the know-how to raise their children. They’re not sure what it takes for their child to make it.”

When her fourth-grade students entered her class last school year, 66 percent were scoring at or above grade level in reading. After a year in her class, only 44 percent scored at grade level, and none scored above. Her students performed worse than fourth-graders with similar incoming scores in other low-income D.C. schools. For decades, education researchers blamed kids and their home life for their failure to learn. Now, given the data coming out of classrooms like Mr. Taylor’s, those arguments are harder to take. Poverty matters enormously. But teachers all over the country are moving poor kids forward anyway, even as the class next door stagnates. “At the end of the day,” says Timothy Daly at the New Teacher Project, “it’s the mind-set that teachers need—a kind of relentless approach to the problem.”

Once teachers have been in the classroom for a year or two, who is very good—and very bad—becomes much clearer. But teachers are almost never dismissed. Principals almost never give teachers poor performance evaluations—even when they know the teachers are failing.

Ideally, schools would hire better teachers to begin with. But this is notoriously difficult. How do you screen for a relentless mind-set?

When Teach for America began, applicants were evaluated on 12 criteria (such as persistence and communication skills), chosen based on conversations with educators. Recruits answered open-ended questions like “What is wind?” Starting in 2000, the organization began to retroactively critique its own judgments. What did the best teachers have in common when they applied for the job?

Once a model for outcomes-based hiring was built, it started churning out some humbling results. “I came into this with a bunch of theories,” says Monique Ayotte-Hoeltzel, who was then head of admissions. “I was proven wrong at least as many times as I was validated.”

Based on her own experience teaching in the Mississippi Delta, Ayotte-Hoeltzel was convinced, for example, that teachers with earlier experience working in poor neighborhoods were more effective. Wrong. An analysis of the data found no correlation.

For years, Teach for America also selected for something called “constant learning.” As Farr and others had noticed, great teachers tended to reflect on their performance and adapt accordingly. So people who tend to be self-aware might be a good bet. “It’s a perfectly reasonable hypothesis,” Ayotte-Hoeltzel says.

But in 2003, the admissions staff looked at the data and discovered that reflectiveness did not seem to matter either. Or more accurately, trying to predict reflectiveness in the hiring process did not work.

What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance—not just an attitude, but a track record. In the interview process, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about overcoming challenges in their lives—and ranks their perseverance based on their answers. Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues have actually quantified the value of perseverance. In a study published in TheJournal of Positive Psychology in November 2009, they evaluated 390 Teach for America instructors before and after a year of teaching. Those who initially scored high for “grit”—defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, and measured using a short multiple-choice test—were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer. (Grit also predicts retention of cadets at West Point, Duckworth has found.)

But another trait seemed to matter even more. Teachers who scored high in “life satisfaction”—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. These teachers “may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students,” the study suggested.

In general, though, Teach for America’s staffers have discovered that past performance—especially the kind you can measure—is the best predictor of future performance. Recruits who have achieved big, measurable goals in college tend to do so as teachers. And the two best metrics of previous success tend to be grade-point average and “leadership achievement”—a record of running something and showing tangible results. If you not only led a tutoring program but doubled its size, that’s promising.

Knowledge matters, but not in every case. In studies of high-school math teachers, majoring in the subject seems to predict better results in the classroom. And more generally, people who attended a selective college are more likely to excel as teachers (although graduating from an Ivy League school does not unto itself predict significant gains in a Teach for America classroom). Meanwhile, a master’s degree in education seems to have no impact on classroom effectiveness.

The most valuable educational credentials may be the ones that circle back to squishier traits like perseverance. Last summer, an internal Teach for America analysis found that an applicant’s college GPA alone is not as good a predictor as the GPA in the final two years of college. If an applicant starts out with mediocre grades and improves, in other words, that curve appears to be more revealing than getting straight A’s all along.

Last year, Teach for America churned through 35,000 candidates to choose 4,100 new teachers. Staff members select new hires by deferring almost entirely to the model: they enter more than 30 data points about a given candidate (about twice the number of inputs they considered a decade ago), and then the model spits out a hiring recommendation. Every year, the model changes, depending on what the new batch of student data shows.

This year, Teach for America allowed me to sit in on the part of the interview process that it calls the “sample teach,” in which applicants teach a lesson to the other applicants for exactly five minutes. Only about half of the candidates make it to this stage. On this day, the group includes three men and two women, all college seniors or very recent graduates.

One young woman—I’ll call her Abigail—stands up to teach her lesson. She has curly blond hair and wears a navy-blue suit. She tells us she will be teaching a fifth-grade Spanish class. She tapes up a preprepared poster. (Female applicants are more likely to bring props, which is not a bad thing. In fact, women are more likely to be effective in Teach for America, Duckworth found.) Then she writes her objective on the room’s whiteboard: to teach the days of the week. Krzysztof Kosmicki, a Teach for America program director, starts the clock.

To me, Abigail’s objective seems a little dull (especially compared with that of another applicant, who taught “the five fluids that transmit HIV”). She asks the class to repeat each of the days of the week. “I know it’s confusing,” she says. So she teaches them a song to help keep them straight, and then has the applicants sing it—twice. “If I don’t hear everyone’s voice, we’re going to sing it again until I do.” When she asks what day it is, Kosmicki volunteers the wrong answer. She asks another applicant to help correct him, which he does, and then her time is up.

The last applicant to teach is a young man I’ll call Michael. He has been very quiet, but he becomes much more animated when he starts teaching. His objective is to teach the order of operations in a math problem. “Good morning, class!” he says. When someone gets something right, he says, “Correctomundo!” He seems confident. He asks if he can get a volunteer to answer part of the problem on the board, and one of the other applicants steps up. Kosmicki asks him to explain exponents again, which he does. Time’s up.

Later, I talk with Kosmicki about his impressions. He liked Abigail’s sample teach—but not Michael’s. Kosmicki is not very interested in the things I noticed most: charisma, ambitious lesson objectives, extroversion. What matters more, at least according to Teach for America’s research, is less flashy: Were you prepared? Did you achieve your objective in five minutes?

“Abigail’s sample teach was exceptional,” says Kosmicki, who taught for Teach for America in the South Bronx before starting a charter school in Newark, New Jersey. “It was abundantly clear to me that she had practiced.” The students successfully learned the days of the week “somewhere between the third and fourth minute,” Kosmicki says. He was interested in what Abigail was doing, but he had been more focused on the other applicants, acting as her class.

This summer, those who have been accepted will go to a Teach for America training institute. That’s when Steven Farr, the in-house professor, and his colleagues take over. For them, the challenge is not to pick the perfect teacher but to diagnose strengths and weaknesses early and provide intense, customized training to correct them. Farr is more hopeful each year. “When I see not a handful, not dozens, but hundreds of people being successful in a world where most people think success is not possible, I know it can be done,” he told me.

Of course, thanks to its mission and brand, Teach for America has been able to draw from a strong recruiting pool. (During the 2008–09 school year, 11 percent of Ivy League seniors applied.) Large, low-income school districts do not get nearly as many candidates per open position, and most of the candidates they do get aren’t nearly as high-caliber. Plus, the extreme hours that Teach for America teachers put in—for two years—are not sustainable for most people over the long term.

But if school systems hired, trained, and rewarded teachers according to the principles Teach for America has identified, then teachers would not need to work so hard. They would be operating in a system designed in a radically different way—designed, that is, for success.

This year, D.C. public schools have begun using a new evaluation system for all faculty and staff, from teachers to custodians. Each will receive a score, just like the students, at the end of the year. For teachers whose students take standardized tests, like Mr. Taylor, half their score will be based on how much their students improved. The rest will be based largely on five observation sessions conducted throughout the year by their principal, assistant principal, and a group of master educators. Throughout the year, teachers will receive customized training. At year’s end, teachers who score below a certain threshold could be fired.

The handbook for the new system looks eerily similar to the Teach for America model, which is not a coincidence. The man who designed it, Jason Kamras, is a former Teach for America teacher who taught in a low-income D.C. school for eight years before being chosen by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee to help fix the schools. Rhee is herself a Teach for America alumna, who went on to run the New Teacher Project.

Washington, D.C., is also applying for Race to the Top money from the Obama administration, along with many states. To qualify, states must first remove any legal barriers to linking student test scores to teachers—something California and Wisconsin are already doing. To win money, states must also begin distinguishing between effective and ineffective teachers—and consider that information when deciding whether to grant tenure, give raises, or fire a teacher or principal (a linkage that the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, has criticized as “inappropriate” federal interference in local prerogatives). And each year, states must publish which of their education and other prep programs produced the most effective (and ineffective) teachers and principals. If state and local school officials, along with teachers unions, step up to the challenge, Race to the Top could begin to rationalize America’s schools.

By the time the Obama administration begins handing out awards this spring, Mr. Taylor will be finishing up another year at Kimball Elementary. On the mornings his students take their standardized tests, he will cook a hot breakfast of sausage, eggs, and toast for them, as he always does. But this tradition may be coming to an end. He’s thinking about quitting in the next few years.

Mr. Taylor wants to become a principal. In just three years as a teacher, he feels that he has already run up against the limits of his classroom. He wants to bring what he has learned to scale. That way, he says, “it won’t just stay with me, bundled in Room 204.” He is, like many great teachers, well aware that he is not one in a million—or at least, that he should not be.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Teacher contract negotiations near an end

by Nick Grabbe
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

AMHERST - Negotiations over teacher contract givebacks, which could play a role in the March 23 override vote, are nearing a turning point.

The Amherst Pelham Education Association, the union representing the teachers offered the School Committee a proposal, to which the committee made a counter-proposal, said president Timothy Sheehan.

A meeting set for Thursday will "continue the discussion," he said.

The union represents 550 school employees. The fiscal year beginning July 1 is the final one of the current contract, and union members are due to receive 3 percent cost-of-living raises. Some are also due to receive "step" increases.

Combining these two increases, the raises average 5 percent for the regional schools and 4 percent for the elementary schools. The cost to next year's budget is $1.3 million.

The current average teacher salaries in Amherst are $57,877 in the elementary schools and $56,603 on the regional level, according to Kathryn Mazur, the human resources director.

Assorted Comments from Catherine

So, I've had a busy week and haven't had the time to respond individually to various blog threads ... and am heading out of town on work for two days tomorrow AM, but wanted to clear up various thing before I leave. This is in no particular order:

1. As posted on the ARPS website, there is an executive session of the Regional-Union 26 (Amherst-Pelham) School Committee meeting tonight. There will also be a joint Amherst-Regional School Committee meeting on Monday, March 1st (6:30 pm, High School library).

2. The calendar options for next year will be posted on the ARPS website tomorrow. I've seen two versions and frankly, I thought they both had problems. My recollection (they are not in front of me now) is that in one, school started REALLY early (e.g., August 26th, I believe, which is more than a week before Labor Day) and got out in the first two weeks of June, and the other school started at a better time (September 2nd, I think, which is the Thursday before Labor Day) but then got out potentially the LAST week of June. So, check the website for those official calendars -- and send emails to the superintendent/SC with your thoughts.

3. I think the issue of the copier (and who/how many people copy) is not about the copier -- it is about how we use limited resources. I don't see anyone attempting to micromanage -- I see people with reasonable questions about how decisions are made to spend limited resources. The recommendation from the HS administrative team is to restore a copying position ABOVE other positions (e.g., 2.4 special education positions at the HS, .6 world language at the MS to decrease language class sizes, a MS clerical position, etc.). I believe it is appropriate for people to ask questions about how resources are used -- obviously it would be great to have someone available to copy things for the HS teachers/district. Obviously it would also be great to have class sizes of 15, and 6 world languages, and no study halls, etc. -- but districts have to make choices about how to spend money, just as families have to make choices about how to spend money. I believe it is appropriate for voters to discuss how they believe money should be spent -- on blogs, in the paper, at meetings, etc.

4. I do NOT believe the problems in the Amherst schools are due to bad teaching ... in my experience with 12 different Fort River teachers my kids have had, and the teachers my friends' kids have had in ALL of the schools, we have a lot of great teachers. That's a good thing. I also hear from principals that we have LOTS of good candidates for teaching positions, because Amherst is generally seen as a good place to work. I've never said that we have bad teachers, or that the problems in our district are due to bad teaching (and thus that we need to focus extensively on eliminating bad teachers, etc.).

However, we, like all districts, have teachers with a range of experience, and my impression from talking to TEACHERS is that this is a hard district to be a new teacher in -- we give people a lot of freedom to do whatever they want, and that can be especially hard for new teachers (who don't have the time experience to "re-invent the wheel" all the time). So, I've heard from teachers who say they really want to differentiate instruction in elementary school, but aren't given the time or resources to do so (mentoring, etc.). That is a flaw of the SYSTEM, not of the teachers. Similarly, I don't know how possible it is to differentiate math to 20+ kids in a 7th grade class who come from 7+ elementary schools and are clearly at different math levels. But that doesn't speak to problems of teachers, it speaks to problems in the SYSTEM.

And that is why I think we need good, strong curricula that are teacher-friendly in all schools -- and we haven't had that, because our district hasn't focused on horizontal/vertical alignment (that is clearly identified in the Hamer Report issued last July by the superintendent).

So, I see our district as basically a lot of very talented and dedicated musicians all playing different songs in different tunes -- they sound great individually, but they don't work as an orchestra. Now, there are exceptions to this -- there are grades and schools that are really working very well at this type of consistency and alignment. I hear this was/is a real strength of Marks Meadow AND of Pelham (it is easier to have horizontal alignment when there is only one class per grade). I hear this was also a strength at Fort River a few years ago in 4th grade, for example (and I'm sure there are other examples). But I don't think we have the level of consistency that we should, and that is the fault of the school leadership - superintendent and school committee and principals (not pointing fingers at current people, but just in general that this is where responsibility lies for creating alignment).

5. I have really hesitated deleting any posts on this blog, because I frankly hoped people would use some discretion in what they post ... and not post ANYTHING they wouldn't post using their own names. But here's my new rule: if you have a specific complaint about any teacher/administrator/SC member/superintendent, email the whole SC ( or email me if you want to remain anonymous ( But this blog isn't the place to lodge formal complaints about hiring decisions or sick leave requests, etc., and I'm going to start deleting those. The benefit of this blog is to have open discussion and debate, and posts that are personal and at times inappropriate detract from my goals in doing this blog, so I'm going to start deleting them (so I'd really prefer if people could just not write them).

6. Finally, the override: a lot of people have strong feelings about this topic, and I can understand why. But I believe there are thoughtful and reasonable people who are on each side of this decision, and are still undecided. And those on each side of the issue will do the best job of convincing others to join "their side" by showing respect. I've presented information already on what the override would and would not mean in terms of regional school cuts, and I'm going to post similar information this weekend in terms of the elementary schools. People can and will disagree about the impact of these cuts--but I hope will be able to do so in a respectful way. And if you have thoughts about the prioritization of the cuts, you can certainly communicate those thoughts to the SC as a whole (via email or by attending the March 1st meeting). The budget is still clearly a 'work in progress' and I look forward to getting more input from all stakeholders.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Meeting Updates

The Amherst School Committee Meeting for Tuesday, February 23rd, has been cancelled.

There will be a joint Amherst-Regional School Committee Meeting on Monday, March 1st, at the high school at 6:30 pm. This meeting will NOT be shown live, but will be available later on ACTV.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Impact of an Override on the Middle and High School: Just the Facts

We've had a lot of debate on this blog about whether the cuts to the schools are too severe, or not that bad. I therefore have taken a considerable amount of time to just list each of the cuts to each of the schools in detail -- but without any commentary. Thus, readers can read for themselves what the cuts will be, and how they feel about them -- and I've taken all these numbers from documents currently on the ARPS website so you can check my math/explanations yourself. (This blog posting just focuses on the middle and high school cuts, but I will do another posting later on the elementary cuts).

The Cuts
There are the cuts that an override in the amount requested ($1,100,000) would save (I've listed the amount as 1.1 million although the regional will only be allocated $950,000 because the cuts list is in flux and thus the order of various things could change):

  • .5 HS performing arts position (increases class size from 17 to 26 in all performing arts classes)

  • .5 HS arts position (increases class size from 17 to 23 in all art classes)

  • .8 HS PE/health position (increases class sizes in PE to 28; reduces PE electives)

  • .2 HS Chinese (consolidation of levels 4, 5 and AP Chinese due to lower enrollments)

  • .5 HS English department - individualized reading program (replace an English teacher now teaching this support course with support in the Academic Achievement Center)

  • 4.1 cuts to academic departments (leads to class sizes of 24 in English from 22 now, 22 in science from 21 now, 24 in math from 21 now, 25 in social studies from 22 now; no change in world language; NOTE: in 2003-2004, class sizes were 21.8 in English, 23.7 in social studies, 24.3 in science, and 23.2 in math - so even without an override, class sizes will be smaller next year in science than they were in 2003, and less than 1 student more per class in math compared to 2003)

  • 1.0 MS PE cut (PE will be taught one block during 7th grade with health and then as an elective, instead of every other day for both years as it is now)

  • .4 MS library cut (the librarian will teach the Reading Writing Workshop class to provide academic support)

  • .4 MS math plus cut (math intervention class sizes will rise from 4 to 8)

  • 1.3 HS tech/business/consumer department (eliminate classes in wood technology, wood carving, consumer auto, computer repair; increase class sizes from 15 to 20 in remaining electives; plus $4,000 in supplies to this department)

  • 2.8 HS family/consumer science department (eliminate courses in foods, culinary arts, clothing, and childhood development, plus $7,582 in supplies to this department)

  • 1.2 HS elective section are ADDED (so that kids have classes to attend)

  • 1 HS copy service personnel (eliminates a paraprofessional who photocopies)

  • 1 MS custodian (a night-time custodian will be eliminated)

  • 1 MS clerical position (1 of the four clerical positions will be eliminated)

  • 1 MS QLC coordinator (the Quiet Learning Center position will be staffed by a paraprofessional instead of a staff member)

  • the GCC counselor (eliminate funding for the counselor who coordinates the Greenfield Community College program)

  • consolidation of HS department heads (decreases by .1 FTE the release time given to teachers who serve as department heads, meaning more teaching for department heads)

  • 2.4 HS SPED positions (reduce special education liaisons and academic skills classes; increase caseloads and class sizes for remaining liaisons)

  • .2 HS librarian (reduce librarian to 4 days a week -- staff library with paraprofessionals on the other day)

  • .2 Dean of students (reduce one of the two Dean positions to school-year only)

  • .2 Prep Academy (eliminate teacher staffing of this program and replace with support in the Academic Achievement Center)

  • $6,000 in professional development for the high school (eliminate out of district professional support for HS teachers)

The HS with/without these cuts
Here is what the HS will look like next year IF an override passes and IF it doesn't pass:

Administration - 1 principal, 1 assistant principal, a school year only assistant principal and a school year only athletic director (the override has no impact on any of these positions)

Department Heads - 2.3 department head positions (3.6 IF an override passes, meaning less teaching for department heads if an override passes)

Guidance - 3.9 caseload counselors (it is 4.9 now -- meaning counselors will see 282 versus 226, but this is NOT on the "add" list if an override passes so an override has no impact), 1 Academic Achievement Counselor (same as now, no impact from override), .8 Student Achievement Counselor (no impact from override), .9 outreach worker (no impact from override), and 1 college counselor (no impact from override)

Student Management - 1.8 deans (one dean will go to school year only IF the override doesn't pass), 2.0 campus monitors (not impacted by the override)

Regular Education Teachers - 65.3 now (would decrease by 9.7 teachers -- 4.7 in elective departments, 32 in academic departments -- IF the override doesn't pass, resulting in the increases in class size as noted above)

Intervention Teachers - 1.6 English language education, .1 Project Challenge, .2 Prep Academy, 1 Math Academic Achievement Center Paraprofessional, 1.4 ELL paraprofessional (the only change here that is impacted by an override is the .2 cut to the Prep Academy)

Library - 1 librarian (will go to 4 days a week if the override doesn't pass), 2 library paraprofessionals (not impacted by an override)

SPED teachers/paraprofessionals - 3 academic skills, 5.6 specialized programs, 1.6 psychologist, 1.2 education team leader, 1.1 therapist (occupational, speech), 33.6 paraprofessionals - as noted previously, 2.4 of these 48.5 positions would be cut if the override doesn't pass (depending on student needs)

Paraprofessionals (non-SPED) - current 3.6 (2 for copy service, 1 for computer lab, .6 for science lab) would move to 1.6 if the override doesn't pass (both copy service paraprofessionals would be cut), and 2.6 if it does (meaning we'd still have one paraprofessional to handle photocopying)

Nurse - 2 (not impacted by the override)

Clerical - 9.7 now, will go to 8.7 next year (not impacted by the override)

Custodial - 7.8 now, will go to 6.8 next year (not impacted by the override)

Preschool - 2 now (1 teacher, 1 paraprofessional) - not impacted by the override

Note: Students will still take 13 classes a year and have two study halls in a trimester system (typically 10 academic classes a year and three electives of some type) regardless of whether an override passes.

The MS with/without these cuts:
2 principals (1 regular, 1 assistant) - not impacted by an override

3 guidance counselors - an increase from 2.8 currently, and not impacted by an override

1 dean - same as now, not impacted by an override

1 quiet learning center staff member - position now covered by a full-time faculty member; to be covered by paraprofessional IF an override fails

1 nurse - same as now, not impacted by an override

4 clerical (3 full year, 1 school year) - if an override passes, no change; if an override fails, one of these positions is eliminated

6.3 custodians - if an override passes, no change; if an override fails, one of the night-time positions is eliminated

19.2 team teachers - this is an increase of 1.2 team teachers from current staffing and will not be impacted by an override

3.4 intervention teachers - this is a cut of 1.2 positions from current staffing; if an override fails, a .4 position will be cut (meaning Math Plus sizes will increase)

1 librarian - if an override passes, no change; if an override fails, this position is cut by .4 (the librarian will then teach reading intervention)

5.0 exploratories/PE teachers - this is a decrease of 1.0 PE teacher from current staffing; if an override fails, an additional PE teacher will be cut (and PE will no longer be taught as an elective, but will be combined with health and taught only as a one-semester course in one grade).

1.6 music - this is an increase from 1.4 of current staffing, and means that kids can have music every day (this is not impacted by an override)

3.4 world language teachers - this is a decrease from 4.4 in current staffing, and means that we will no longer offer Russian and German at the middle school AND that class sizes in the other four languages will increase to 25 (this is not impacted by an override)

special education - 37.1 current teachers/paraprofessionals will go next year to between 30.1 and 36.1 (none of these cuts are impacted by an override)

regular education paraprofessionals - current staffing is 1.5, and will go next year to 2.5 to 3.0 positions (regardless of whether an override is passed)

Note: Regardless of whether an override passes, students in the middle school will have no change in class sizes (academic classes will be about 20 students, which is the same as current class size at 7th grade and a decrease in class size for 8th graders), and will have seven periods a day: math, English, social studies, science, world language, music (band, orchestra, or chorus), and an elective (health/PE, drama, art, computer).

So, these are the cuts as currently on the table, and I've presented them in as objective a way as I can. I know that different people will see these cuts in different ways--but I hope that all readers/posters can try to respond in a thoughtful and respectful way, even when there is disagreement. I believe that people who care deeply about the schools may ultimately come to different opinions about whether they should support an override -- and I hope that all posters (even the anonymous ones) will think carefully about what they post, and whether you would post the same thing if you had to identify yourself. I'd like to have a fruitful discussion, but that can only happen if people on both sides of the override battle, as well as the undecideds, are respectful in their comments.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Easthampton 4th-graders lead the way on statewide math test

Note: Given the interest in elementary school math on this blog, I'm posting this article about MCAS success in the Easthampton schools. And I checked already to see what math curriculum they use: Everyday Math, which, interestingly, has been identified as effective by the "What Works Clearinghouse" (

Hampshire Gazette
By Owen Boss
Monday, February 15, 2010

EASTHAMPTON - According to the latest results of a new study measuring academic growth based on MCAS scores, math teachers in Easthampton's elementary schools must be doing something right.

In an attempt to draw from more than just overall scores, education officials have begun taking measurements based on a growth model, which compares each student's progress on the MCAS test to that of other students with similar past performance.

The idea behind the new approach, according to Kenneth Rocke, director of the Pioneer Valley District and School Assistance Center, is to track which teaching methods are producing the best results and implement them at schools statewide.

Addressing the School Committee last Thursday night, Rocke explained that as new director of the local assistance center, one of six regional centers being created across the commonwealth, he has been charged with providing technical and leadership support to Level 3 district schools across the Pioneer Valley, of which there are 22.

"We are still in the process of hiring our staff and getting things together," Rocke said. "We will be adding full-time English, math, and literacy specialists soon and we will be working with districts to improve overall performance."

Intrigued by Easthampton

In the process of getting the new center rolling, Rocke and others have begun making 90-minute visits to schools across the Valley to get to know students, faculty and staff. Rocke said he was especially excited to get to Easthampton, where an analysis of fourth-grade math students produced encouraging results.

"When I looked at Easthampton's report before I came by to meet with the superintendent and the curriculum director, I wanted to know if they had been doing anything unusual with fourth-grade math students," Rocke said.

The reason he was excited to ask, Rocke said, was that, when compared with others with similar academic success, local students had outscored almost every other group statewide, and stood alone among schools with a far lower percentage of students from low-income families. An estimated 41 to 50 percent of students in Easthampton schools are considered low-income.

"When we see that the data is saying one thing, and we can confirm that teachers there have been focusing on that subject, that is at least a preliminary indication that those efforts are really causing that increase," Rocke said.

Superintendent Deborah Carter called the growth model's findings "absolutely fascinating."

"This means that of the districts that performed better than students in Easthampton, of which there is a very small number, they are all schools with 20 percent or fewer of their students who come from low-income families."

Rocke said the results show that teachers here are succeeding, and that he has to find out how to take whatever it is that is working in Easthampton and re-create it in schools across Massachusetts.

"Our theory of action is to find things that are working well in schools, analyze what the conditions are that caused that increase in achievement, and advise schools statewide to do more of the same," Rocke said.

The growth model is based on only two years of data. The 2008 growth percentiles were calculated for students in grades 4 through 8 who took MCAS test in the same subject in 2007.

Owen Boss can be reached at

Saturday, February 13, 2010

And so, in closing ...

Amherst Bulletin
February 12, 2010
By Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson

Particularly in times of economic stress, school budget forums resonate with impassioned pleas for beloved programs, and the Regional School Committee meeting of Feb. 2 was certainly no exception, as many students, parents, and community members argued for an override to avoid difficult choices about how to allocate limited resources.

Between the two of us, we have five children in the schools and thus have much to gain personally from additional school funding. Yet as School Committee members, we have a fiduciary responsibility to “watch the money” and ensure that resources are used wisely. Moreover, we share the belief that scrutiny of spending and programmatic decisions enhances the quality of our schools.

At this point, we have not had enough time to fulfill our fiduciary responsibility and therefore are not comfortable projecting a budget shortfall for next year. More specifically, we believe several key issues remain unresolved in addition to the ongoing concerns regarding spending on administrators and the rapid growth of resources devoted to special education.

First, the proposed average academic class sizes indicate we will have larger class sizes in 3rd to 6th grade (23 to 24) than we do in 7th to 12th grade (20 to 22). Having lower class sizes in middle and high school than in elementary grades is unusual, costly and at odds with research on the benefits of smaller classes.

Second, our high school trimester schedule costs more than $300,000 per year more than a standard seven-period semester schedule for virtually the same instruction time and same average class size. This suggests the potential desirability of raising academic class sizes and either reallocating money to other programs or reducing the number of study halls, given the roughly 20 minutes of additional teacher preparation time per day under our trimester schedule.

Third, the override proposal discussed last week would allocate $1.1 million dollars to the regional schools but only $176,000 to the Amherst schools. This large imbalance suggests that the vigilant cost cutting at the elementary level -- including the closure of Mark's Meadow and excellent work by the elementary schools principals in developing new research-based models of service provision – will largely be used to maintain existing programs and structures in the middle and high schools. We find this especially concerning given the considerable research highlighting the early grades as the key period for addressing academic and social difficulties, as well as the significantly higher percentage of low income students at the elementary, as compared to the regional, level.

Fourth, the override-driven budget process has focused on restoring cuts rather than taking a broader and more critical view of how we should allocate our always-limited resources. We feel strongly that it would be a missed opportunity to ask the community to pay higher taxes simply to restore current services rather than consider a more comprehensive vision of the future of our schools. What would it take in terms of program reorganization and additional resources to eliminate mandatory study halls? To maintain or even expand our current programs in the arts? To provide elementary school world language instruction? To provide universal preschool and summer programs for all those with economic disadvantages and educational needs?

Finally, we have decided not to continue writing this column. Our decision was prompted by concerns of family members who have become increasingly disturbed by the personal nature of many responses to our writings, particularly given the fact that our families have a combined five children in the schools.

We intend to double our efforts on the School Committee, and we want to thank the many parents, teachers, and community members who have offered their support and appreciation in private and offer particular thanks to the few who have stood beside us in print. We believe strongly that the health of our schools and community depends on the willingness of many to speak and write freely in spite of the discomfort that may bring.

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

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tax override wording, details set by Amherst officials

Hampshire Gazette
Saturday, February 13, 2010

AMHERST - A $1.68 million override that would add $264 to the average tax bill, and retain jeopardized programs and positions, will come before voters at the March 23 town elections.

The Select Board Friday formalized the ballot question, which will only have one number for residents to vote up or down, but with specific allotments for the elementary and regional schools, town government and public libraries.

The unanimous vote in favor of the override came after the board voted 3-2 for a single ballot question, rather than providing a menu that would allow voters to approve or vote against specific budgets.

All members of the board said they supported the need for an override, which would preserve a portion of what would otherwise total $4.3 million in reductions from this year's budgets.

Board member Diana Stein said the town, schools and libraries have removed $7 million from budgets over the last two years. "I do not want the fabric of our community to be eroded by further cuts," Stein said.

At a cost of $264 for a person living in a $334,600 home, the average homeowner, Stein said, would be asked to pay less than a dollar per day in new property taxes. "Which is much less than a cup of coffee these days," Stein said.

Selectman Gerry Weiss said the override request is for a modest amount. "It's not like we're asking for thousands of dollars," Weiss said.

It is necessitated, in part, by continued contract provisions with employee unions that offer more than 2.5 percent a year, Weiss said.

Board member Alisa Brewer said she was satisfied with the overall size, but voters should recognize that the school numbers, in which $400,000 would be allotted to the elementary schools and $739,195 to the regional schools, are soft, though reasonable.

"I feel like it's quite crystal clear on the municipal side, not so much on the other sides," Brewer said.

Maintaining the services offered in the community is important, said board member Aaron Hayden, who thanked the firefighters and police officers for forgoing their cost of living adjustments this year to help support the community.

With approval of a new contract for firefighters Wednesday, featuring a 6.5 percent wage increase over four years, for an average of 1.6 percent a year, officials were able to reduce the override request by $85,000.

On the town side, the override would ensure preservation of one laborer position at the Department of Public Works, one emergency dispatcher, a customer assistant at Leisure Services and Supplemental Education, and maintaining all streetlights. At the library, potential staff reductions in several departments would be averted, while school officials are continuing to finalize what staff would be kept.

Lump sum vs. menu

Brewer joined Weiss in supporting a menu override. "I believe it does put more emphasis on individual areas to speak about why theirs is so important," Brewer said.

Stein said she strongly supported the lump sum so that there would not be both winners and losers when the override vote takes place.

Weiss, though, said he likes residents to have a choice. "I think it's the most respectful way to treat the voters and taxpayers," Weiss said.

Weiss argued unity doesn't exist and said he is concerned about the override when library trustees have not yet shown full support and the teachers union has not given up any of its cost-of-living adjustments.

A lump sum override means town officials will have to demonstrate the validity of the school and library numbers. "That puts added pressure on the Select Board to do that," Weiss said.

With just one figure, the override values all segments of the town, Hayden said. "Lump sum allows me to appreciate everybody's contribution equally," Hayden said.

Though approval of the override gives authority for the town to tax beyond the 2.5 percent increase, Brewer said it is not a given that the town will have to tax to the new maximum capacity in the first year or subsequent years.

Town Manager Larry Shaffer agreed, saying "The true gatekeeper on any budget is Town Meeting."

Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O'Keeffe said she appreciated all input from the Budget Coordinating Group, which includes representation from the schools and libraries. "This has just been a grueling process. We've been thinking about this all the time," O'Keeffe said.

After the meeting, Stan Gawle, spokesman for the anti-override group Amherst Taxpayers for Responsible Change, said he was disappointed that the Select Board didn't make any effort to use more money from reserves to reduce the amount of the override. But he did appreciate Weiss' bringing up salary issues.

Kevin Collins, a member of the pro-override group Yes for Amherst, said the town has been living off its reserves for too long. Collins said the override is a down payment for the town's future.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Amherst Regional school board IDs $950,000 shortfall

Hampshire Gazette
Friday, February 12, 2010

AMHERST - In a compromise, the Regional School Committee voted Tuesday to recommend that a $950,000 budget gap in the secondary schools be filled by the four member towns through overrides or other sources of money.

Amherst's share of that amount would be about $741,000, and Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham would have to pay about $70,000 each. These calculations assume that state aid will decline by 5 percent.

On Monday, the Amherst School Committee voted to request that the elementary schools be allocated $400,000 on the March 23 Proposition 2½ override. The Select Board is meeting today to decide the amount of the override and whether to make it a lump sum, or give voters a choice of programs to support with higher taxes.

Member Steve Rivkin estimated a regional schools' budget shortfall of $800,000. He said that more cuts were possible because of declining enrollment, asserting that the high school could save money by adopting a semester schedule.

"We need to be as frugal as possible," he said.

Committee member Catherine Sanderson agreed, saying that the Select Board had imposed an "artificial deadline" that does not provide enough time for consideration of cuts or changes in basic assumptions.

Member Irv Rhodes said the committee can't be confident that state aid cuts won't be more than 5 percent. "I detest making a decision based on financial quicksand," he said.

Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez said the $800,000 number was too low, noting that the regional schools have borne the greatest burden of cuts. He said it is "dangerous" to start "penny-pinching."

Member Andy Churchill said he favored recommending the filling of a $1.1 million budget shortfall. He said such a figure is not extravagent, and some of the money could come from reserves as well as the override.

"Investing in education is part of the Amherst brand," he said. If cuts are too severe, Amherst could be at a "tipping point," he said.

Rivkin's motion for a $800,000 figure failed on a 6-3 vote. A compromise of $950,000 passed 8-0, with Sanderson abstaining.

There is a long list of possible cuts at the regional middle and high schools, ranked by priority for restoration if more money is available. Principal Mark Jackson said that over the past week, cuts in elective courses have moved to a greater priority and academics have moved to a lower priority.

Monday, February 8, 2010

February 8, 2010 Amherst School Committee Meeting

We had a pretty quick meeting (two hours), so this will be pretty short.

First, we had an updated budget presentation by the superintendent and Mike Morris -- this presentation just walked us through the latest budget projections. The highlights (I think this is already posted on the ARPS budget site) are that we've been able to ADD (due to the change in state aid projections) a .6 ELL teacher (to WW, based on school needs), 3 intervention teachers (one EXTRA to each school), .20 classroom music (so that all kids can have music on Wednesday/opportunities for dramatic performance/chorus), .3 SE therapeutic ( to create equity in such staffing across the schools), .5 library para (so all schools have a .5 library para PLUS a librarian), 1 therapeutic para (so 2 at CF, 3 at WW and FR), a 1.0 intervention para (so each school has 1), and a .40 psychologist (districtwide). This is in addition to the things already in each of the schools -- which you can see at:

Next, we heard what was on the "add list" if an override was passed. This includes a total of $305,000 -- .6 intervention, .7 SE academic, 1 SE clerical, .20 PE (CF preschool), .50 ELL, 1 SE para, .5 psychologist, 2.5 SE para, .40 SE related services, 1 maintenance person, and 2 central office staff going from full-year to school-year. Dr. Rodriguez has also proposed adding a month-long summer program for 100 kids who are struggling (this is largely funded through grants -- a total of $17,000).

We had a relatively brief discussion of these cuts/adds, which basically the SC agreed with and commended the superintendent and principals for doing such a thoughtful budget review.

Steve Rivkin then made a motion, which Irv seconded. The motion was as follows:

As members of the Amherst and Regional School Committees, we believe that asking voters to support an override should be taken very seriously and that it should follow a comprehensive review of programs and costs and in-depth discussion of whether our current programs and level of funding enable us to meet our many objectives as school systems. Unfortunately, we do not feel that we have had the opportunity to engage in either of these exercises and therefore do not believe that today is the appropriate day to come forward with an estimate of our expected funding shortfall.

Over the last 10 months, the Amherst School Committee has voted to close a school, has welcomed a new superintendent, and has voted to implement the first redistricting plan in over 30 years. We have not had time to engage ourselves and the broader community in discussions regarding the successes and drawbacks of current programs and the desirability of changes and expansions including elementary school world language, summer and pre-school programs to serve disadvantaged children, and an expansion of the arts but to name a few. Moreover, our budget oversight process is quite time intensive, and the current budget is by no means a finished product, as many questions remain unresolved.

We believe the best course of action would involve two parallel efforts. The first would be to continue our work on the budget over the next few months, satisfy ourselves that we were using our resources effectively, and then inform the community and select board of the amount of our funding shortfall and the desire to have other funds fill the gap. The second would be to undertake a broader planning process with input from stakeholders throughout the community. We would expect the process to be completed by the end of the calendar year and to provide substantial input on the future course of the districts.

However, if the Select Board is determined to maintain the March 23rd override deadline, as well as a commitment to not seek an additional override in the near future to fund any programmatic changes in our schools, we feel compelled to make sure that this override, if successful, would give our elementary schools the opportunity to maintain current programs that are effective and undertake new programs deemed desirable by the schools and community. We therefore request that if an override is placed on the March 23rd ballot, the elementary schools be allocated $400,000.

We then discussed this motion for a while, and I would encourage people to watch the ACTV broadcast to get a sense of all of the comments from various board members (which are too extensive for me to appropriately detail). Ultimately, this motion passed unanimously.

We then had a brief discussion of policy IL (evaluation of instructional programs) - which passed unanimously at the last regional SC meeting. It also passed at the Amherst meeting.

We had a brief discussion of topics for future meetings, including the evaluation of teaching (Steve), the world language report (Catherine), and the current elementary math curriculum (Andy offered this suggestion from a teacher).

The meeting then adjorned.

Important Meeting Reminders

Just wanted to remind blog readers that there is an Amherst School Committee meeting tonight, Monday February 8th, at 6:30 pm in the High School Library (this meeting will be shown later on ACTV, but will not be shown live). This meeting will focus on the budget. Then, for those who love meetings, there is a joint Amherst and Regional School Committee meeting tomorrow, Tuesday February 9th, at 6:30 in Town Hall (this meeting will be shown live). This meeting will also focus on the budget. I will do blog updates after each meeting.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Amherst selectmen seek public's opinion on Prop. 2.5 override ballot question

Springfield Republican
By Diane Lederman
February 06, 2010

AMHERST – On Monday night, the Select Board wants to hear from residents about a proposed Proposition 2½ override question the board will place on the March 23 annual town election ballot.

The board will be discussing the language for the question, but will likely not set the dollar amount until Friday morning. The amount being discussed is $1.9 million.

Proposition 2½ overrides allow communities to raise property taxes above the annual 2.5 percent limit set by state law. The current budget is about $62 million.

Town officials say they need the override to restore deep budget cuts.

Last year, officials made drastic cuts with the idea they would ask for an override this year. “Fiscal year ’10 was all about paring back,” Finance Director and Assistant Town Manager John P. Musante said last fall. The plan was to cut as much as possible before bringing the Proposition 2½ override request to voters.

But others have concerns. The Jones Library Board of Trustees, which would like an additional $69,000 in revenue should an override pass, is not likely to take an official position, said trustee Patricia G. Holland. Some trustees feel that an override would “be an economic hardship for many of our patrons,” she said.

Some School Committee members have asked that the date of the override vote be postponed until April, when more budget information is available.

The committee is talking to school unions about possible cost-of-living concessions.

The police union has agreed to forgo cost-of-living raises, which has helped save two positions in the department. The schools, town and libraries have prepared lists of budget restorations should the override pass.

A successful override would allow the town to restore about $489,000 to its budget. The Select Board this week voted to cut $48,000 for streetlights from the restoration list, reducing the town’s need by the same amount.

The regional schools would receive $1.1 million for the town’s regional assessment and the elementary schools would receive $176,000.

The proposed budget was prepared based on a 5 percent reduction in state aid. The cuts come from a level-funded budget. Should the town not need to raise the full $1.9 million, officials would recommend not raising the levy limit as much.

Town Meeting member Nancy M. Gordon conducted a survey, polling voters on whether they would support an override. Based on the data, she told the Select Board on Monday that she believes voters would support a $2 million override.

She previously conducted override polls in 2007 and 2009. In her 2007 survey, 41 percent of respondents opposed the $2.5 million override request, which was about 10 percent below the number that ultimately defeated the measure.

Gordon said the most recent poll shows 35 percent oppose an override while 17 percent said they would support a $1 million override request. She did not specifically ask about a $2 million override, but 26 percent said they would support a $3 million override and 10 percent would approve a $6 million override.

In 2004, voters approved a $2 million override request, but rejected a $2.5 million override on the same ballot.

In June 2009, voters in Northampton approved a $2 million Proposition 2½ override.

David R. Coulombe is one resident who will not be supporting an override. He said he was appalled that his taxes rose by nearly 12 percent this year, $3,009 more than the last year – and that was before an override was considered.

“The economy is a bust,” he said. “One in 10 are out of work. I think there are hard choices. There are programs that have to be cut. How long before the pockets of people in town are empty?”

Musante has said a property owner with an average home price of $332,600 would see a tax increase of $298 should a $1.9 million override pass. The impact could be less, depending on whether people itemize their taxes.

The impact would be much greater for Coulombe, whose house is valued at $678,000.

The Select Board meeting Monday is at 7 p.m. in Town Hall. It will begin with an overview and status report, followed by public comment.

Use of money
If voters were to approve a $1.9 million override, this is how the money would be distributed:

Town: $489,000
Elementary schools: $176,000
Regional schools: $1.1 million
Libraries: $69,000
The cost to a homeowner with a house valued at $334,600 would be $298; the current tax bill for that home is $5,671.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Regional School Committee Meeting, February 2, 2010

This meeting was another really long one -- 6:30 pm to 11:45 pm, I believe -- so this is going to be briefer than the meeting (and I do encourage people to watch the whole meeting -- perhaps in spurts) to get a sense of all of the business that transpired.

Basically three things happened.

First, the SC reviewed a policy on "exit surveys" which would just mean the district would ask families who are leaving the district to complete a brief survey saying where their child will now be attending school and why they made this move. I think this is a really good idea so that we have a sense of the number of kids who are leaving, where they will now be attending school, and what factors influenced their decision.

Second, there was a budget hearing in which many ARHS students (and some parents/community members) discussed budget priorities. This session largely consisted of students asking us to save programs -- music ensembles and wood technology, largely. Some people spoke specifically in favor of the override, and asked us/others to support it. Others focused on changes in priority, such as increasing class sizes would be better than reducing electives/music ensembles (obviously this view validates my own belief about priorities as well as what other members of the SC have been saying over the last few meetings).

Third, there was a discussion about a recommendation from the Budget Coordinating Group (BCG) which followed a presentation by Stephanie O'Keeffe (Select Board Chair, and BCG Co-Chair) and John Musante (Assistant Town Manager) about the current budget. The BCG has asked each of the town committees (library, schools, town - fire/police/DPW/LSSE) to provide a number representing the amount of budget short-fall they anticipate having for next year, and for each of these committees to formally vote on and request an override to cover those expenses.

After this presentation, and some discussion by the SC, I made a motion to delay giving the BCG/SB a recommendation about an override until April 13th (I chose this date because it would allow us to put an override on the ballot in late May or early June). I've thought about this override issue a lot over the past few months (and have had NUMEROUS conversations with pro-override supporters, anti-override supporters, and undecideds), and ultimately, I've come to the decision that I will support an override when the schools have a demonstrated financial need that can't be met through projected revenue (that could be this year, or next year, etc.). (Note: this motion was seconded by Steve Rivkin, but no vote was taken -- I believe it will be discussed again next week).

For me, I feel that the override vote on March 23rd is too early -- we just won't know enough about either projected revenues (e.g., what is the state aid going to be -- we were estimating a 10% cut in Chapter 70 aid, and now the governor says there will be NO cut in aid, but we are conservatively estimating a 5% cut in aid; will there be some unions give-backs; etc.) or projected expenses (e.g., we are still working through a number of issues on both the Amherst and Regional levels, including the list of prioritized cuts but also contemplation of other programs/services). I know that the SB intends to have an override on the March 23rd ballot, but for me, I don't feel comfortable endorsing an override at this point because I don't have any sense of either what level cuts the schools could comfortably maintain (e.g., it is OK to cut Russian and German from our MS and HS; is it OK to have class sizes of X in the HS; is it OK to cut the .2 PE teacher for preschool kids at CF; is it OK to have the projected intervention/SE support in both budgets) or what additional revenue might become available. When we initially ran through budget projections, we were estimating a 10% cut in Chapter 70 aid, but in the last two weeks, we've added about $400,000 at the regional level and $300,000 at the Amherst level -- meaning the cuts are already less bad than we anticipated. But lots could change over the next few weeks/months -- maybe state aid DOES drop to a 10% cut, in which case we need more funds. Or maybe state aid, as the governor has promised (and it is an election year!), won't have any cut, in which case we gain about $400,000 at regional and $300,000 at elementary.

Another factor that leads me to want more time is that I don't believe either SC has really thought through in detail what we want our schools to look like -- and those discussions NEED to occur so that we can plan for the budget. For example, the Hamer report last summer emphasized the need for preschool for all kids, and I really agree with this priority (as does the superintendent). Yet there is only a single preschool class added in the proposed elementary budget, which would serve only 15 kids. Maybe we should seriously consider adding 3 or 4 preschool classrooms to really make sure that all kids in Amherst have the opportunity to begin kindergarten with more equal skills. Here's another issue -- every year the SC threatens to cut Russian and German, and then backs down. I think we need to bite the bullet and have this discussion. Either we believe it is important to offer six world languages in 7th grade, and are willing to commit to these programs long-term, or we need to decide to cut one/both of these and thus eliminate this budget line (EVEN if revenue permits). After all, it makes no sense to keep these (or other) programs for one year if we won't be able to maintain them after that, given budget priorities. I don't have an answer about either of these issues -- but I think they are important questions that should be addressed by the SC, and the administration, and the community, and we need time to have such discussions.

Here's another issue -- the current projections are that the elementary schools are short in their budget needs by less than $200,000 (largely because of closing MM) whereas the regional schools are short in their budget needs by about 1.4 million (and about 1.1 million of this is Amhert's share - with about $100,000 coming from each of the other towns). But given what we know about the importance of early education, I'm not sure if this split makes sense -- we seem to be spending a huge amount on the MS and HS, and maybe a more equitable distribution of these funds would make sense (e.g., should we offer free afterschool care at the ES level? or free summer school for struggling students? or world language K to 6? or return instrumental music to one grade earlier -- 3rd for strings, 4th for band, as it was prior to this year?). Again, these are big discussions, but they certainly could well impact what type of funding needed at both levels. And I'd like to have the time to discuss these, and other, programs BEFORE asking the voters to support a particular budget number on an override ballot.

Now, obviously the SCs have had time to discuss these issues already, but let's remember what we've been through this year (which I believe led to less than ideal circumstances for having these big discussions): a new superintendent (who understandably needed some time to get to learn our districts' programs and people), a major focus on redistricting/closing a school (which occupied a huge amount of superintendent/staff/SC time in September and October), and a sudden departure of a MS principal on the third day of school (which again led to a major change in job responsibilities in central office/administration at the MS and HS). We've all been busy, and although I wish we had had time to fully engage in all of these discussions, we just haven't. And thus I don't feel comfortable asking voters at this time to support an override until we have a better sense of both what our expenses are (e.g., what amount of budget support do we need next year to have the schools we want) and what the revenues will be (e.g., how much revenue do the schools/town have -- which will get clearer later this spring).

So, my hope is that the SB will choose to give the SC a bit more time to learn both about our revenue projections and our projected expenses -- especially since it costs only $12,000 to put an override on the ballot (this seems like money well spent to me, if it would allow us to give voters a better sense of how much money the schools need and why). We could easily vote to support an override in April, and still have an override in May or June (as Northampton did last year, successfully).

One final thing - I asked Stephanie O'Keeffe at the meeting last night three questions:

1. Whether it would be possible from the BCG/SB's perspective for the SC to vote simply to put an override on the ballot to let the voters decide (without the SC taking a specific stand supporting the override). She said no -- that the SB would not include the schools on an override ballot if the SC didn't take a position supporting an override.

2. Whether it would be possible for the SC to give the BCG/SB a number that represented the amout of money we believed we needed to provide the type of education our kids deserve (without the SC specifically stating that we believed an override would be necessary to provide this, and instead leaving it up to the SB to choose whether these funds could be raised through more local/state aid or union give-backs or reserves, etc.). She again said no -- that if the SB were to stick their necks out to support an override, they wanted to know that other town entities also supported an override.

I would have been comfortable with either of these options. However, what Stephanie indicated was that the only way the SB would put an override on the ballot that included the schools would be if the SC voted (a majority) to specifically endorse an override BY FEBRUARY 9th (since the SB has to put an override question on the ballot by February 12th to get it on the March 23rd ballot). As I've noted previously, and as I said last night, I'm not there yet -- and I don't think I can be there in less than a week. I therefore believe that we need to reconsider this question of an override (whether, and how much) in April when we have much more information about local/state aid and when the SCs have really had a chance to engage in important questions (with the community) about what we want our schools to be.

Monday, February 1, 2010


I'm doing a short blog post tonight largely to remind readers that there will be a public hearing on the 2011 proposed budget starting at 7 pm on Tuesday, February 2nd in town hall -- NOT in the high school (the meeting will start at 6:30 pm, but the budget hearing will start at 7 pm). After the public comments, the School Committee will discuss priorities and changes to the budget, so this is a really important meeting to attend if you can. Also, it will be televised live - so you can watch it live, if you can't attend (and can send in comments we can read later, before voting the final budget next week).

As I've prepared for tomorrow night's meeting -- by reading budget priorities -- it strikes me that what the SC (and the principals, and the superintendent, and other administrators) needs to do is make choices (hence the title of this post). We have a certain amount of money (and time in the school day), and thus really what we are tasked with is choosing different priorities - and for me, it would be very helpful to have feedback from the community about these choices. We often get comments (at meetings, via email) that are simply about saving a particular program -- save wind ensemble, or Russian, or wood technology, or whatever. But what we are required to do is to make choices -- so, if you want to save wind ensemble (for example), you need to pay for that somehow, which means cutting something else. So while I'm interested in hearing what people want SAVED, I'm also very interested in hearing what choices people would make to pay for those priority programs.

Here's one example the SC has discussed a lot over the past few weeks: should we increase class sizes in core academic departments IN ORDER to save electives (e.g., wood technology, wind ensemble, etc.)? My view on this is that increasing class sizes is the right way to go, for several reasons:

First, it is MUCH easier to later decrease class sizes as we climb out of these tough economic times than it is to re-start a program that we've cut. In other words, you can add some extra math/English classes much easier than you can re-start a wood technology program or wind ensemble once those staff members have been fired. So, one of cuts seems easier to "take back" in a year or two than the other.

Second, in terms of the educational experience for HS kids, I think it is much more of a big deal to not be able to take a class/participate in a music ensemble at all than it is to sit in a class room with 1 or 2 extra kids. I just don't think it changes the learning experience for kids that much to sit in, say a social studies class of 25 kids versus 23 kids, whereas I think it is a huge deal to tell a student they can't take ANY wood technology class or participate in the jazz ensemble.

Third, although teachers would clearly prefer smaller class sizes, we are not talking about HUGE increases in class size in terms of what these sizes have historically been. For example, in 2003-04, the average class size in English was 21.8, math was 23.2, science was 24.3, and social studies was 23.7. As of RIGHT now, all of those class sizes (except English) are lower -- English and social studies are now 22, and math and science are now 21. So, our class sizes right now are actually lower in most cases than they were 6 years ago. Even under the worst case budgets, class sizes only climb to 24 (in science) to 26 (in social studies). Now, obviously parents, kids, and teachers would rather have class size averages of 21/22 like we have now than class sizes of 25, but again, this is the WORST case projection (which clearly we aren't facing, with the increases in local aid now projected).

Now, some people might disagree with me and say it is BETTER to cut whole programs/departments than to increase class sizes so much -- and if so, let me know! But the key thing I'm looking for in terms of voting a budget is understanding what types of trade-offs people think we should make -- so if you want me to push to save "your" program, I'd also really like to know what else you think we could cut to save it.

One more thing: discussions of budgets these days invariably lead to discussions of overrides. I haven't made a decision about whether I'll support an override, or whether I'll even take a position on an override. But I believe asking voters in a tough financial time to pay additional taxes is a very, very serious request, and I'm not willing/able to make this request unless (a) I believe that the schools really, truly need these additional resources, and (b) we are not going to be able to find adequate resources through other ways (e.g., more local aid), and (c) passing an override this year is good for not just the short-term (e.g., next year) viability of the schools but also the longer-term good (e.g., if we pass an override now, how does it impact our budget for 2012, 2013, etc.)? I'm still giving those questions a lot of thought, and gathering as much information as I can.