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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who finds it disturbing that there isn't an absolute understanding that the children are simply OFF LIMITS and that everyone leaves them ALONE!

Now I know that Amherst is too big for this, but I come from a culture where there is an absolute rule that if a child is hungry, you must feed the child. If the child is wet, you must put dry clothes on the child. And if the child is going to do something stupid (there are a lot of ways to get hurt around the ocean) you are supposed to stop it from happening. By any reasonable means, including corporal punishment.

This is an absolute rule and there are no exceptions - you do it for the children of your worst enemy and your worst enemy does it for your children.

And this in a community where police officers are not allowed to be after dark - the island where the lobstermen shoot at each other.

Can't we all just say that we will leave the children out of our fights?

Anonymous said...

I am at once extremely pleased with your work, what the SC has accomplished, and its decision-making throughout the last two years and where its headed.

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.

I could not agree with you more about this and I truly wish Stephanie had decided differently about structuring the override so that I could vote to not allocate $176,000 + $1.1 million dollars to the schools and fully fund the town and library override.

And just so you are clear, when the SC comes back with a budget for the changes they want to implement, I will vote yes to fund them.

This decision however makes me very concerned.

Finally, we have decided not to continue writing this column. ... We intend to double our efforts on the School Committee... We believe strongly that the health of our schools and community depends on the willingness of many to speak and write freely

Unless you and Steve and others continue to provide leadership by communicating to the public what issues are being addressed and what factors drive your decision-making on the issue, you cannot hope to garner the support you need to make the changes with public approval. I hope you and Steve find a way to address the concerns so that you can continue to communicate to the full Amherst town audience in on these important issues.

Anonymous said...

"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."

Don't let the vipers win.

Crush them.

Anonymous said...

"Don't let the vipers win.

Crush them."

Oh yea, this is conducive to a good climate in the community as we discuss many topics related to the schools that reasonable people can disagree on. Catherine, will you at least call this person out? Are only people who disagree with you guilty of bad behavior?

Personally I think that there has been bad behavior on both sides...and both sides need to be called out for their bad behavior.

LarryK4 said...

She's not a net Nanny.

Anonymous said...

she has been a net nanny towards those who disagree with her.

Joe said...

“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.”


Average class size as a relative measure across different grades is a data point, but maybe not the only data point to consider when comparing different structures. A 4th grade teacher needs to cover four different curriculum areas (Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies), whereas an 7th grade teacher likely just covers one subject area. However, a 7th grade teacher likely teaches 100 (5 classes X 20 students per class) or more unique students per day compared to the 23 to 24 unique students for the elementary teacher.

My understanding is that both 4th and 7th grade teachers have approximately the same amount of prep time during a school day. It make sense to me that an 7th grade teacher may have a greater volume of home work to correct than a 4th grade teacher, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that a 4th grade teacher has a greater volume of parent involvement than an 7th grade parent.

Obviously the daily workload is very different (I’m not suggesting more or less) for a 4th grade teacher compared to a 7th grade teacher. My point is that we should consider the overall workload on a teacher and the impacts that may have on the quality of their instruction. I think to focus on average class size and comparing across very different environments (4th and 7th grade) is too narrow a view for making decisions based on facts/data.

Anonymous said...

And so, in closing....

This is all so dramatic! Poor us, nasty them, he said that she said that I said, you bashed first, no she bashed first......

We are unique indeed.

Anonymous said...

Oh yea, this is conducive to a good climate in the community as we discuss many topics related to the schools that reasonable people can disagree on.

You have no obligation to be anything other than openly hostile to anyone who goes after your children. And for those of you who learned to read via the whole language method, note that the dependant clause modifies the entire sentence...

Anonymous said...

actually it's "dependent"--if you're going to be snide about grammar you have to check that kind of thing

Ed said...

A 4th grade teacher needs to cover four different curriculum areas (Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies)

And the issue I raise is in terms of curriculum and staff development -- the 4th grade teacher needs to stay current not in just one area, but in four using both sides of her brain - while she may only really be competent in one in the first place. So what are we doing to help her develop competencies in the other three?

The simple fact is that about 3/4 of the teacher candidates flunked the math test last spring. Absent some evidence that math skills declined dramatically just that year, one can presume a similar skill level would have been measurable in preceeding exams.

Or, in other words, the math skills of the existing K-6 (K-8?) cadre are likely equally embarassing. And what are we doing about this?

Likewise with Social Studies and you likely have teachers whose sole skill area is
Social Justice, with no knowledge of history, geography, economics, demographics, sociology/psychology, etc. And we address this by????

Science - particularly the non-living sciences (physics/chemistry/etc) -- a lot of teachers are truly terrified of these subjects. (Is *this* the reason for the teaching of Ecology in the HS?) I tell the joke about Al Gore wanting to drop the PH all the way down to 1 and elementary teachers don't get it.

Language Arts (and Reading, which really is a different subject) I feel better with - this is sorta covered. But as to everything else, well...

What are we doing for staff development? Curriculum development? And this is why I go off the deep end on these social justice teachers' workshops - we badly need to use that time for the above.

Of course, we would also have to admit that our teachers are not perfect and that will be pouring gasoline on a flamewar....

Anonymous said...

I have an idea.

Let's talk 1) specifically about what CS and SR say in their column and 2) how that might affect the work the SC is doing.

And leave the rest of the blame laying and culture war arguments for another post on another blog.

In other words, lets stay focused on the topics presented in their column and what that means.

Anonymous said...

It is a sad day when devoted public servants like CS and SR cannot voice balanced opinions in a town like Amherst without personal recriminations.

What has happened to our town ?

Are we really that crude ?

Catherine, Steve, I hope you guys continue to collaborate and share the thoughtful insights so necessary to our District. Without you we would be in worse trouble than we currently are.

Anonymous said...

That's a shame, CS and SR, but I understand.

I'd love to share some of my war stories about working in the Amherst schools (while stating that I really like and admire most of my colleagues), but really, what's the point. It's all been said here already: the misinterpreting of questions and suggestions for change as an assault from behind enemy lines; the smugness; the lack of accountability in myriad ways; the inability of staff to "have the hard discussions," as a principal in another district described the problem. The culture of schools (and other organizations) where denial becomes a knee-jerk response to anything and everything (for lots of reasons,including a kind of battle fatigue that sets in -- when people know it's going to be like moving a mountain to change something, they stop trying and start denying).

I've worked elsewhere as well. Every district has its good and bad points.

Anonymous said...

Maybe now you both can devote some time riding herd over A-Rod. Have you read his latest memo re. vacation and sick leave on Larry's site? Bad for morale when employees have to produce a written doctor's excuse when in excess of 3 days and the "leader" can flaunt not having to. Very sad.

Ken said...

Anonymous 11:52--Our experiences in the "Amherst schools" were apparently a bit different. Maybe it was the school you worked in. At the school I worked at for 20 years, your description did not match my reality. As a teacher trainer now, I've trained teachers in over 30 districts in MA and into NH, and you're right, there's good and bad everywhere. MOST districts can't have "the hard discussions," but of course, it also matters what someone means by "hard discussions." But I will say that while there are great teachers everywhere, I appreciate the overall quality of most Amherst teachers more now than before.

The discussion all along has been about philosophical differences, just dressed up as conflict over specific things. Until that is openly acknowledged, it's just an elaborate dance. ACE, and then SC and SR specifically, began this snowball-rolling-downhill as describing a very stereotyped picture of social justice versus achievement, as if they were opposing points of view. As someone who worked with some of the district's most struggling learners and helped many become Proficient on the MCAS, I know that distinction to be misleading at best, in spite of what people like Ed and some others believe, since i hold a very strong social justice perspective about the work I did/do. Do some people misunderstand what it means on both sides? Sure. Can reasonable people disagree? Sure. But because this fundamental issue has been swept under the rug since it was first raised, there will never be a bridge built between those standing on the 2 sides of this canyon until the rug is pulled back.

When I first went on on this blog last winter, posters were unanimously screaming how broken the schools were. CS wasn't saying, well, let's put this in perspective, or that the large % of families in our district are not posting, so we need to fact find for real. She stroked the "schools are broken" stories and turned her howitzers on anyone who asked for a bit of perspective
--like me in my first (anonymous) post, which was actually very mild as I was feeling my way onto this blog. It's disingenuous to say the tone wasn't remarkably negative--and encouraged to be that--from the get-go. Disagreement with SC's positions was often perceived as "proof" of a lack of interest in improving the schools.

But since this has really been about philosophical beliefs, what was really being said (and certainly heard) was "the philosophy guiding our schools and work with kids" is broken. People should not be surprised if many educators who sincerely devoted their professional life to acting on that belief system felt assaulted. Whether they are right or wrong, and time will tell, they felt that proposed changes would disproportionately impact struggling learners the most.

Finally, a dialog about what can be improved in this school system is quite possible and always has been, but only if both sides back away, take a deep breath, and come together discussing their beliefs about education in a civil way first. Most likely this blog is NOT the place for that to happen.

Anonymous said...

Well put, Ken.

Anonymous said...

Well put, Ken, but really still only a tiny part of the story.

I read this blog, I have kids in the schools, and I talk to people in nearby towns. Here's the difference between Amherst and every other place I've ever lived or heard about:

Amherst truly sees itself as unique, although no one can ever show this. Amherst's schools were for a long time collectively thought of as much better than they are in fact. Amherst is a place where people take your head off if you criticize the schools.

I guess I'm wrong. Amherst is unique. Uniquely unwilling to have an honest conversation about itself.

Ken, I have no problem coming up with a list of 10 terrific and truly awful things about our schools.

You, Mark Jackson, Andy Churchill, Nina Koch, Rick Hood, and all the other cheerleaders spend a lot of time telling us everything is swell. I have no doubt you could come up with half that list -- the terrific things.

With all your experience, Ken, what would you say are the 10 really problematic things about our schools policy wise -- not we need more money?

Let's hear what an ardent supporter, former teacher, etc. of our schools thinks needs fixing. Maybe that's how we can start to have a real dialog and move forward if the critics admit what's good (which CS often does, btw) and the supporters admit what's really wrong.

Anonymous said...

9:27- I have lived in Amherst for 15 years. I do not now nor did I ever think that Amherst is unique in any way. Nor can I say with some certainty do my neighbors. This is such a red herring. It serves to minimize the reasonable arguments that folks like Ken put out there and is truly meant as a way to avoid having a rational discussion.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Ken, for that thoughtful analysis. I've felt for a long time that Catherine has been unwilling to entertain the conversation about the conflict in values (perceived or otherwise) inherent in the changes she wants to put forth. Whether it's semester vs. trimester, integrated vs. core science in 9th grade, Investigations vs. basal math, preserving vs. breaking up language clusters, breadth in elective options vs. AP offerings, etc., conclusions seem to get drawn before conversations take place. She talks about being only interested in good process, but then behaves in a kind of all knowing way that attempts to bulldoze her way through that process. And now that she's holding the purse strings, in terms of the influence she's exerting over money getting to the schools through an override, that bulldozer is moving with increasing momentum.

The only thing missing from her and Steve's editorial swan song was the soundtrack of Frank Sinatra's, "My Way", playing in the background. isn't it that same, "my way" perspective that she's objecting to from the school personnel's side of things? We need the kind of dialog you're proposing to get past the many different versions of that song being played out within the community. And I agree that we're not going to get there unless we're willing to hit the collective pause button.

Ken said...

Anonymous 9:27--Let me say, I have never been shy about criticizing policies in the Amherst schools, and any building adminsitrator I worked for, and any superintendant I worked under, will verify that. I still have my head (woozy though it may be). So I will be happy to respond to your request. However, three caveats:

First, I do not know our secondary schools well, and I am always reluctant to try to sound knowledgable about something I know little about. Most of what I have blogged about has been realted to elementary. Second, the misperception on this blog is that if you try to put things in persopective, you are cheerleading for the schools. All my posts have been either to question unsubstantiated claims of weakness, or to give a wider perspective on an issue that I felt was missing. Third, I have not worked in our schools for 2 years and there may be issues I would put on, or take off, the list were I still there.

Now, my 10, in no particular order:
1) the graduation rate of kids of color and low income students--especially latino students--is not high enough
2) not enough kids-of-color and low income students are in higher level courses at the HS
3) there's not nearly enough consistancy across district "breaks" (6 to 7, and it seems, 8 to 9).
4) there's not enough consistancy across the elementary schools
5) teachers are trained once or twice in something, and then it's dropped or teachers are left to put things together for themselves
6) overall, teachers have not been trained well enough in differentiating instruction
7) central Administration has increasingly marginalized teacher voices since the last superintendant began his tenure
8) overall, teachers have not been trained well enough in working successfully with low income learners
9) the district has not proactively sought out the input/perspective of parents from less empowered communities
10) the direction of the district now seems to be magnifying issue #9.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Ken, this blog IS a place for discussion to happen. (Granted it's a problem slaloming around the silly/nasty posts, but I just try to ignore them). It certainly wasn't going to happen for me at work.

I worked in your school. Different experience. I didn't have 20 years -- my perspective was of a newbie. You may say, "Well then, your opinions were unfounded, having come from a naive and uninformed place."

But another way to look at my experience would be to say that I came in with a fresh eye and high hopes. Many of my hopes were met. The passion to help children learn, the personal high standards and skill level of most staff -- very impressive. The resources -- library, computer lab, phys ed, sped materials -- great stuff.

But there was something wrong with leadership. Something wrong with aspects of the curriculum. Something wrong with teacher support. Something wrong with management (a better word would be deployment) of human resources.

And a distinct attitude of refusal to hear, see and talk about it publicly. An atmosphere of fear, even. People were afraid of the prior principal. Yes, afraid.

Anonymous said...

Ken, to continue. I started typing my response before your next post came in, so I am now responding.

I agree 100% with your Top Ten list.

Perhaps the difference between us is that I had no agency, or was perceived as having none. This was horribly frustrating to me, and disappointing.

Also, as anywhere, there are a few very poor teachers at that school, and I had the misfortune to work with one of them. All the problems you mention re:teacher supports were magnified a thousand-fold in this classroom. It was painful, and ended badly with my falling on my sword in defense of the children.


Anonymous said...

From Anon 9:27

Ken, thanks. A thoughtful list and one that I think could serve as a basis for a really good discussion.

For example, while I agree with #9, my experience has been people (some teachers, administrators, people in the community, esp. some in TM) speaking for those folks. I don't know how many times I've heard we that can't do anything on the net because low income folks don't have internet access. Well, my kids have friends in the apartments who are very low income and they all have cable TV and internet service. That's a choice those families make and I am in no position to critique it. My point is that the lower income families in town rarely live lives similar to the caricatures I hear about them from their supporters.

Rather, I hear that the poor in Amherst don't have cars, don't speak English or don't have any English speakers in their households, and don't have cell phones or internet. That may describe some very small number of people, but mostly I heard those descriptions given as reasons why we couldn't discuss closing MM or redistricting or the Cambodian heritage program because even that discussion would exclude those folks.

I know there are real needs for ELL and language support for parents. I just feel as though the existence of real issues became a club to use against reform of our schools.

Also, as much as I appreciate the honesty of your list, I cannot find any evidence for #10 in the district. The only curricular changes I've seen are in the opposite direction-- esp. the 9th grade science requirement. In other word, #10 is more perception, I believe, than reality.

Indeed, can you name a curricular change since the founding of ACE that supports what you say in #10? What policies support what you say?

Also, what evidence do you have that the parents from less empowered backgrounds don't fully support the ideals of ACE? Immigrant and poor communities have traditionally seen education as a tool for social and economic advancement. Our governor grew up in the Chicago projects. He ended up at Harvard. Social and economic mobility have been enabled through excellent educations made available to all.

Ghettoizing lower income kids at Crocker, while speaking to one very narrow version of cultural cohesion, etc., did those kids a disservice. Most educators and the federal courts oppose that sort of deliberate concentration of lower income kids in one school in the midst of a middle-class district.

So, let's debate these things openly and honesty and with reference to what's going on. All sides have some of this right and some of it wrong and some questions don't have answers, only partial solutions.

Still, I sincerely thank you for taking this seriously.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 1:18 - I agree that the children should be left out of it. And I don't know that they haven't been ... but the personal nature of the attacks became very hard for our families, and we both worried about the impact on our kids.

Anonymous 7:03 - thanks for your kind words. And to be clear -- we are certainly going to continue our work. I'm going to continue this blog, and we will continue pushing on these issues in our school district as part of our work on SC. But I agree that it is unfortunate that voices are often silenced in Amherst - seems like honest debate just doesn't happen without personal attacks.

Anonymous 8:09 - remember, we've trying to focus on the ISSUES here!

Anonymous 8:19 - I think it is odd for someone to anonymously ask me to do something ... if you want to call the person out, do so using your name. You are also not contributing to the dialogue about the issues in your post.

Larry AND Anonymous 10:04 - I'm not the Net nanny. Let's focus on the issues.

Joe - I agree that the jobs of 4th grade and 7th grade teacher are different ... and that also means that the 7th grade teacher almost definitely have fewer course preps (e.g., a 7th grade math teacher likely has one class that he/she teachers to five groups of kids, whereas a 4th grade teacher has to prep 5 different things -- math, social studies, English, science, health, etc.). But if you look at the research, virtually all points to the benefits of small classes in K to 3, but nothing much beyond that. So, I still think it is odd that we as a community prioritize smaller classes in 7th to 12th than in 4th to 6th -- not even the SAME size, but smaller? I can't find a research basis for that at all.

Anonymous 10:18 - can we focus on the issues? Do you have something to say about the content of our ideas? And we don't choice the headline.

Anonymous 11:30/11:39 - I'm really hoping we can focus on the issues. And have an honest discussion, even among anonymous posters.

Ed (at 11:46) - this is why I really think we need to devote MORE resources K to 6 -- these teachers actually have to know a ton of different stuff, whereas 7th to 12th grade teachers all focus on one area. Yet the proposed override gives many more resources 7 to 12 than K to 6.

Anonymous 11:55 - THANK YOU! I love this creative idea. And agree whole-heartedly.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Anonymous 11:15 - thanks for the support. And as I noted above, we are certainly going to keep working hard to try to make real changes in how we do education and talk about education in Amherst.

Anonymous 11:52 - I've heard similar stories in person from those who have worked in the Amherst schools, and I'm sorry that this continues to be the pattern in so many ways. Changing a culture is really hard--and I have no idea whether our efforts will be successful. But I at least want to know that we tried.

Anonymous 6:26 - I can't talk about contract issues -- violation of SC-superintendent relationship.

Ken (at 8:37) - I agree with much of what you said -- obviously there are differences within schools in terms of how much honest dialogue an occur, and I agree that there are many great teachers in Amherst. I also fully agree that there are philosophical differences at the root -- although I don't think they "dressed up" or not acknowledged (a point I've made repeatedly).

But what I totally disagree with is that there is a conflict in ACE between social justice and achievement -- in fact, as the co-founder of ACE, I can say with great certainty that the view of ACE is that our district's lack of focus on rigor and challenge (and thus achievement) denies social justice. We have a system in Amherst in which there are hidden doors and access to achievement that are entirely based on wealth and education and status -- things like knowledge that having your kid play the cello gets him/her onto the right middle school team, requiring your kid to do extensions lets your kid take algebra in 8th grade, and having your kid take 8th grade algebra lets your kid take biology in 9th grade. That has been the BASIS of the Amherst education -- it is a secret tracking system that is completely in opposition to principles of social justice. Here's the irony, Ken: I'm really, really good at this game. My 6th grader plays the cello (I heard this advice at a Stanford University welcome party when he was in 1st grade), my 6th grader will do extensions next year because I'll require it, and I'll pay for a math tutor if I need to. I'm good at this game because I have a PhD and went to elite colleges and now work at an elite college. So, I have little personally to gain from making the schools work better for all kids, since frankly, I can make these schools work well for my kids. And that is NOT social justice.

You are so critical of ACE and its goals and believe (and I'm quoting you here) that "proposed changes would disproportionately impact struggling learners the most." And here is (ironically) where we agree the most: yes, it is absolutely true that the ACE goals would help the struggling learners the most. As noted on the ACE website, here's one of the first ACE priorities: Conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the policies focused on raising the achievement of children who do not reach proficient levels on MCAS or in their course-work. Yes, that certainly WOULD disproportionately impact struggling learners by definition. And for the record, my kids are all at proficient on MCAS, so this goal doesn't help my kids at all. But it speaks to what TRUE social justice is -- trying to raise academic achievement for those who struggle.

One final thing: I've attempted to create dialogue about education in our schools more than anyone I know. I started an organization, I ran for SC and have focused on increasing transparency (e.g., proposed on on-line suggestion box and more stuff posted on the web), I run this blog which takes a huge amount of time and lets ALL people post (pro or con me/ACE), and I write a column for the local paper. I've been continually civil and respectful. Can you say that the responses I received (posts on this blog, comments in meetings, letters in the paper) have been similarly civil and supportive of real dialogue?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Anonymous 9:10 - see my response to Ken.

Anonymous 9:27 - I really agree with what you said. Especially this: "Amherst is unique. Uniquely unwilling to have an honest conversation about itself."

Anonymous 9:43 - if Amherst is not unique, than why are we so unwilling to look to the experience of other districts? Why do we create a new required 9th grade science class that no one else is doing? Why do we have a trimester system that very, very few districts use? Why do we alone in MSAN not offer AP Chemistry? These seem like examples of things in which our schools are very different from other schools that are similar, and I think points to a real problem in terms of how we make decisions about curriculum/programs/policies, which seems to be in isolation.

Anonymous 9:52 - two key things here. First, as I've said repeatedly, I don't have any interest in a specific issue: what I have is an interest in how decisions are MADE which then impacts all issues. I'd like to see decisions being made based on evidence (e.g., not anecdote and intuition) and through comparison (e.g., what are other districts doing). That isn't happening. And if we did BOTH of those things and wound up doing exactly what we are doing now, I'd be totally satisifed. Can you give a single example of a time in which I've attempted to "bulldoze her way through that process"? I've asked for data and I've asked for comparison. That isn't bulldozing, but your description of it that way is a great example of how resistant you, and others, are to actually looking at data and comparisons. If you believe strongly that everything we are doing right now is great, then why aren't you pushing loudly for data and comparisons which will shut me up? I look forward to receiving an email from you to the School Committee pushing for data and comparisons so we can demonstrate our programs/curricula are in fact the best, and then I will be totally quiet.

Second, in terms of the "purse strings" remark: I guess you understand that the SC is a body that acts together -- if I'm alone in my views about allocating resources, it won't matter at all, since my views will be voted down. And I guess you aren't aware that I voted to give MORE money to the elementary schools than the superintendent OR principals had asked for? Or is that easy to omit because it doesn't fit with your easy description of me as trying to deprive the schools of resources?

Anonymous said...

Catherine- you talk about increasing rigor and challenge in the schools. And I may have missed something, but what does that mean in real terms? Both are incredibly subjective concepts, my kids' challenge and rigor could be some other child's peice of cake. I'm all for raisinng the bar for all students but how do YOU (CS)measure that? Increasing MCAS scores? Increaing HS grauadtion rates? Average SAT scores? ANd how do we decide on a measure that is truly valid and reliable?

Anonymous said...

CS said:
"We have a system in Amherst in which there are hidden doors and access to achievement that are entirely based on wealth and education and status -- "

And if that isn't the ultimate classism, then I don't know the meaning of the word.

Love the way you said this. People talk out of both sides of their mouths: liberal pieties on one hand, gaming the system without reservation on the other.

Why not try to fix it so it works for all? You go!

And yes, having worked with Amherst's children who are considered to come from the most deprived households, it's true that SOME have internet and functional computers, which are not used for educational purposes.

All the more reason to fund the tech teacher positions at the elementary level.

You don't punish the kids because of the parents' issues.

Anonymous said...

Catherine- Do you really think the trained, professional science educators at the HS adopted the current 9th grade curriclum because they were invested in Amherst being unique? Do you believe that all of the underlying rationale for adopting this curriculum is just a cover? Don't you think, that just maybe, the district believed that there were some sound educational reasons to go to the trimester system?

Look, I am neither supporting or condemning the 9th grade science curriculum or the trimester system. If you have problems with the process fine- you've made that clear. Disagree with the choice of curriculum- fine you made that clear. Using an argument that those who disagree with you are invested in being unique just undermines what may be valid criticism and it trivializes the work and motives of others.

Ken said...

Catherine, I think your response to my post reflects the problems some of us have trying to communicate on this blog. First, I don't see where I referenced ACE at all in my list of issues, or as "the problem," yet most of what you responded to was about how I'm so opposed to ACE. Second, you and Steve brought up the social justice vs. achievement issue yourselves in the very first column you wrote for the Advocate, hinting aloud (as it were) that there might not be some contradiction between them, at least as practiced in Amherst. Third, because the issue is really philosophical difference, my #10 issue is my philosophical perception, which I'm allowed to have, and which I gave as an opinion because I was asked--and I've identified as such (as an opinion). But I'm made to feel by having honestly stated my opinion, my views have somehow crossed a line into illegitimacy, rather than simply being disagreed with--which illustrates one point I've been trying to make.

I do have my reasons for #10, though, as you know. One example is the moving of low income students from Crocker around the district, from the school that in large part seems to have served them best based on MCAS growth analysis. You accused me at one point in a communication we had around this of somehow not being for equity--merely because I differed from your perspective. Not for the first (or last) time, a difference of philosophy/opinion from yours was turned into some kind of flaw. Another example of where I believe #10 is true is the dismantling of the culture cluster ELL programs, but I'm sure this is not a suprise to you.

However, you neglected to note that I'd also said "time will tell" as to whether my concerns are valid or not. I'm willing to admit I'm wrong if data and results show otherwise.

Overall, your reponse examplifies what I'm talking about relative to there having been no opportunity for people to come together in the right forum to discuss what drives them philosophically about education, when clearly this discussion is really about changing how our schools view the most appropriate ways to educate a very diverse population. Thus, we are left stereotyping eachother's points of view, accusing eachother of bad faith, and fingerpointing.

There simply HAS to be space for a discussion, and maybe respectful disagreement at times, leading to a meeting of the minds which is in the best interests of all students. This blog is not a condusive place for this kind of discussion because it can be a place for too much venom and axe-grinding, and the discussion needs respect, back-and-forths and time. And also because only a minority of parents participate, while we are talking about educating an entire community.

Actually, it's not this blog per se, but probably any blog by nature is not right for it.

Ken said...

I should add, when I refer to venom, etc, I'm talking about the blog as whole (from "both sides"), and not you personally-- tho I have stated I think it can be too black and white for you at times. I'm talking about the "vipers" post in this thread, or the teacher bashing (and some pro-teacher posts), the snide posts I asked you to comment on in a previous column about "minority" parents and the shortcomings of "other culures, " etc.

Anonymous said...

"Can you give a single example of a time in which I've attempted to "bulldoze her way through that process?"

Intimating that you would have been more likely to support an override now if we switched from trimesters to semesters.... before any full conversation has taken place about the pros and cons.

"And I guess you aren't aware that I voted to give MORE money to the elementary schools than the superintendent OR principals had asked for? Or is that easy to omit because it doesn't fit with your easy description of me as trying to deprive the schools of resources?"

I am aware of that fact and I'm also aware that it was accompanied by a remark by Steve (at a prior meeting) that the elementary schools deserved to be "rewarded" because of certain openness to change. I extrapolated from that the regional schools deserved to be punished because of a lack of that openness. Maybe it was wrong of me to extrapolate in that way but that's how the posturing regarding the various budgets has appeared.

I think if good process is what you really want than you need to expect it from yourself as well as others. That's all I'm saying.

Joe said...

Catherine, you said:

"So, I still think it is odd that we as a community prioritize smaller classes in 7th to 12th than in 4th to 6th -- not even the SAME size, but smaller? I can't find a research basis for that at all."

Why do you believe that as a community we prioritize smaller class sizes in 7th to 12th compared to 4th to 6th? Where has this been stated? The current numbers may show that that 4th-6th have higher class sizes, but I think it is a stretch to believe that how we currently allocate dollars and resources across different budgets (Amherst vs. Regional) is consistent with the communities priorities. It would be nice if that were the state of our budgets, but we are not there!

Please don't suggest that the discussion about the override at the SC meetings and the outcome of those meetings had anything to do the communities priorities. The vote at the SC on the override issue may have been based on the SC priorities, maybe individual members of the SC priorities, but not the entire community’s priorities. Just because members of the SC may represent the public, their decisions aren’t always consistent with the community’s priorities.

I'm not surprised you can't find research to support lower class averages in 7-12 compared to 4th-6th. My guess is there isn't research supporting higher averages in 7-12 either because it just isn't relevant to make decisions across these grades on a relative basis.

So let's focus on getting smaller class sizes in grades 4th-6th. Maybe the town should allocate more dollars to the elementary school (from today's budget independent of any override, maybe we could eliminate some of the administrative structure (Asst. Principals and central office) and hire more teachers in these grades (other towns use this model). Maybe we should start with a set of priorities for our elementary schools instead of just discussing cuts from the status quo...

Ed said...

I've felt for a long time that Catherine has been unwilling to entertain the conversation about the conflict in values (perceived or otherwise) inherent in the changes she wants to put forth

And I've felt for a long time that Amherst makes Joe McCarthy look both sober and rational.

Why bother dealing with her arguments when you can just lynch her as a racist/sexist/homophobic bigot? Why bother?

This is the inherent problem with your arguments...

Anonymous said...

Joe said;
Maybe the town should allocate more dollars to the elementary school (from today's budget independent of any override, maybe we could eliminate some of the administrative structure (Asst. Principals and central office) and hire more teachers in these grades (other towns use this model).

Obviously the district doesn't do a good job of explaining to the public what Ass't Principals do. I'm sure any of them would be glad to give you a list of what they do all day, or send you a job description.

It's flat out not possible for the elementary schools to function without someone doing the tasks of the Ass't Principal. They handle most of the discipline and school culture/safety issues (the majority of their day is spent on this).

They are also in charge of MCAS.

W/o someone in that role all hell would break loose. The schools could not function. There is just too much going on outside of academics that needs constant attention.

Sorry if you don't like hearing that, but it's the way it is.

I can't comment on Central Office, but as far as building staff goes, if anything FR, WW and CF need more, not fewer, staff -- specifically in the areas of curriculum and SPED administration.

Ed said...

I am really tired of hearing about how poor children don't have computers. I have been in the homes of some of the poorest children in town and here is what I found.

No computers - but also no books. Really expensive home entertainment systems - television sets which cost 3/4 times what a computer costs, CATV packages that are no more expensive than internet access.

There are computers in the Jones library and they are widey used. The parents who work at UMass have access to computers through UM.

As Catherine so clearly pointed out, the bigotry is elsewhere and if we want to talk about social justice, lets talk about how social unjust the current system is....

Anonymous said...

Or we can continue to foster an environment in which it's ok for a girl in my son's 8th grade English class to speak out on the "injustice" of having to be in a classroom with kids who are dumber than she; and to criticize her classmates and teachers for their perceived incompetence. Her parents, I might add,are both ardent supporters of ACE.

Ken said...

Ed, you're in some sort of metaphysical angst that looks impenetrable. You set up stereotypical straw men and then triumphantly whack them down--whether it's teachers, teacher unions, people who don't agree with you, or now, poor people. But I will correct the record. No one said "poor people" didn't have computers. In response to something I wrote about the need to proactively engage more disempowered communities in town, someone presumed I meant that poor people didn't have computers, but that is actually not what I meant. But I won't take the conversation any further because stoking up a diatribe against those pesky poor people and if only they would live the way we want them to, they--and we--would be better off is not something I want to be party to.

I appreciate your helping me prove the point that a blog is not the place to have a MEANINGFUL dialog about school change.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah Ken, maybe the schools need to hire you to facilitate that "meaningful dialogue."

Ed said...

In response to something I wrote about the need to proactively engage more disempowered communities in town, someone presumed I meant that poor people didn't have computers, but that is actually not what I meant.

OK, then what did you "meant"?

Last fall it was argued that Catherine's blog was discriminatory because the low income families in North Village didn't have access to computers. Well there is a public computer lab there that I helped build - it is not much but it is there and does have internet access. Likewise there is the UM library and the Jones library and other free-to-use computer resources.

I am so tired of this "the poor don't have" and "the poor can't access" stuff. I have seen so many televisions bigger than my CAR that it is quite clear that the poor have the ability to get things if they want them.

And unless we are going to start taking children away from their parents for the greater good of the children (and this is why I get nervious with some of this pre-K stuff) there are limits to what we can do OTHER THAN CONDEMN CERTAIN BEHAVIORS ON THE PART OF CERTAIN SEGMENTS OF OUR SOCIETY.

The absolute best thing for children is to have mommy & daddy married to each other - we have documented this (repeatedly) for a half century now but heaven forbid we say that.

And in Amherst, any parent who speaks English well enough to carry on a basic conversation can access the internet and can get help doing so. The public libraries are now becoming computer cafes. And I am so sick and tired of hearing what the low income parents can't do -- at some point they have to be responsible for their own lives and their own children.

Unless, of course, we want to start taking the children away from them. And I don't want that!

Anonymous said...

Obviously there is frustration with parents who don't [seem] to help their kids achieve academically, yet [seem] like they are capable of doing so, a conclusion drawn to by noting their ability to access other types of resources. I believe this is a false conclusion.

Some years ago I wrote a research paper on nutrition on Native American reservations (dreadful). The problem was multifaceted, but a big part of it was quite easy to demonstrate: lack of access to produce. When you live 70 miles from a supermarket, fresh produce is not going to be part of your diet.

I think, in a way, some parents suffer from lack of access. It's invisible and hard to understand, but it's just as insurmountable, without supports, as a 70 minute ride to a supermarket when you don't have a car, the roads are lousy and the weather is often bad.

While doing literacy volunteering in Holyoke about ten years ago, I went over to the main library to pick up library use information in Spanish. THEY DIDN'T HAVE ANY. THEY WERE SURPRISED (AND FLUSTERED) WHEN I ASKED. I had a friend write some up in Spanish for me.

Ed, please, give people a break.

The library is free, North Amherst has free computers (that's cool BTW), etc. Yes, that's true.

But I don't waste time blaming the parents or trying to figure out why the kids are always on Club Penguin (boo) instead of looking at National Geographic (yay), I just try to support the kids. It is what is is. Experienced educators don't waste time on that because it's a constant, a given. Rather, we applaud the parents who do make the effort and work around those who don't.

Privately I'm trying to get more involved in very early literacy activities.

And I understand that the language clustering was an effort to create culturally comfortable "home bases" from which to create upward academic momentum from within the communities served.

Ken said...

Ed, maybe the best way for the schools to develop this dialog is to just tell those unresponsive and negligent poor folks what's best for them, and if they don't fall on their knees and thank us for helping them see the light, and mend their ways, we can just say, "Screw their kids, then." Certainly cheaper and less of a hassle that way.

But what's interesting is that by being respectful with the Cambodian parents, for example, and building strong relationships with that community, we got an amazing amount of parent buy-in. But then again, we probably went about it all wrong.

Catherine, I wonder yet again, will you address THIS issue at all? You never addressed the other issues I asked if you would comment on (other than, peripheral to the discussion about Amherst teachers, you noted that some of them agreed with you about things). Over 30% of the elementary community that you represent are low income families, most of whom are not UMASS-affiliated. Our philosophy and agenda are defined as much by what we choose not to address as by what we spend a lot of time discussing. What is the responsibility of the SC and central office administration about the necessity--or not--of actively bringing more marginalized communities in our town into the discussion about the education of their (and everyone's) children?

Anonymous said...

CS and Sr think they have been unfairly attacked, that their presentation of the situations is fair and that others have been unbalanced.

What a surprise.

So, balanced is comparing the school personnel to the Bush administration, which started war against a country that did not attack us.

Balanced is these two crying foul when they don't get to ride roughshod over whomever disagrees with them.

Your column is going away in the newspaper. Great. You guys are way too full of yourselves to begin with.

Enough with the dramatics. Do the job or resign. Quit whining because you got some blow back.

How do you think the Amherst schools got the reputation for being strong in the first place. It had to do with the MANY people in town committing together to a vision and making it happen. It had nothing to do with pushy, loud mouths trying to over step their boundaries and take over every aspect of the schools. You've started to hear from the masses on this.

If you want to run the schools, then get your supt. certification. Then, if we hire you, you too can start your job by taking all the time off you get. You can even plan your sick days.

Anonymous said...

CS and SR are about as fair and balanced as Fox News.

why isn't this us? said...

Hadley's Hopkins Academy ranked by U.S. magazine
By Nick Grabbe
Staff Writer
Published on February 12, 2010
HADLEY - Hopkins Academy is one of the top 37 high schools in Massachusetts, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Hadley's public high school received a bronze medal in the magazine's third annual ratings. More than 21,000 high schools in 48 states were analyzed, including 345 in Massachusetts, and 1,750 received awards.

"I'm not terribly surprised we're getting that kind of award," said Superintendent Nicholas Young. "In the last 10 years, we've built a very strong district. Test scores illustrate that, but also the school climate is very positive, with strong working relationships. We're a district on the move, and we're moving up."

The only other school in western Massachusetts to receive an award was Greenfield High School, which also received a bronze medal.

The first step in determining which schools receive awards is to identify districts that perform better than statistically expected for the average student in the state, factoring in the percentage of economically disadvantaged students, according to the magazine. The next step looks at whether the least-advantaged students perform better than average.

The criteria for the awards also look at college readiness, using advanced placement and International Baccalaureate test data, according to the magazine.

The top 100 high schools received gold medals, the next 461 top-performing high schools earned silver medals, and an additional 1,189 received bronze medals.

Hopkins Academy achieves its success with per-pupil expenditures that are much lower than in Amherst or Northampton, Young said. "We're a bargain," he said.

Anonymous said...

Why isn't this us?

Take a look at each school's program of studies and then see if you're still asking that question. No comparison in terms of richness and breadth. I'm not doubting that they do a good job with what they offer. It's just that what they're offering is much narrower in scope.

Anonymous said...

I worked in your school too and I found such hostility between staff members that I was frightened to sit in on the staff meetings. Unbelievable to me that this kind of discord could be going on between adults who are left with one of the most important jobs there is; educating our children... And I've lived in Amherst for over 26 years and say this from observation and experience--#9 on your list is a direct result of the classist society it is and always has been... To this very day--the children recruited for special education represent a disproportionate number of 'low-income', a phrase I despise, and 'children of color' that I find it surprisingly stunning the saying 'same sh**..different day'...fits so well here. It was the exact same case in special ed 26 years ago! Closing Marks Meadow is another result of this classist society we live in.
The superintendent's time off--I did some math here; let's say 10 months in office, 40 days off--comes to 4 days a month--comes to 1 day a week--doesn't sound like a committed worker to me no matter what his descent...Worried

Angry Parent said...

Worried, my kids attended Ken's school and received a distinctly second-rate education. They did have some very excellent teachers while there (almost all retired now), but only about 25% of their time was spent in classrooms with excellent teachers. Some years were simply horrible and I had to teach them basic skills at home. In many cases, I don't even think it was the teachers' fault; it was the leadership and the focus of the school. The former principal was so racist (anti-white students) that it was shocking. There were some real behavioral issues in that school but whenever I tried to bring it up, I was basically told that "we needed to be more accepting of children of color." I never cared what color the children were--if they were hitting my kids and throwing furniture around the classroom, I wanted them dealt with! Many times, I think the teachers didn't know what to do--I'm sure the principal told them the same thing.

I'm glad you had a good experience working there, Ken, but my family did not have a good experience as students there. My kids came out without basic skills and with a profound belief that in school, their needs will not be heard because their skin is white. This is a real shame. I hope the new principal has a more balanced focus.

Anonymous said...

Re: Angry Parent Said..., my experience at that elementary school was exactly as yours. Really soured our family on the public schools in Amherst. It was a very frustrating experience and has jaded us towards the schools and administration.

Laurel Dickey said...

I am shocked by the things that parents are writing about “Ken’s School”. A school is a community organization and it is not run by “them”, rather it belongs to us all and functions as it does because of us all. I would have to assume that people who are dissatisfied with the experience their children are having at any school become active participants in the functioning of the school; that they regularly communicate with school staff, that they offer support to school staff in whatever ways possible, from volunteering in classrooms, to helping prepare materials outside of school hours, to serving on committees and councils. I would also have to assume that if they feel dissatisfied with the school they have spent time observing the day-to-day functioning of many classrooms in the school before making statements about what goes on inside the school. We are fortunate that the Amherst schools have such an open policy concerning visitation. We should also consider ourselves fortunate to live in a part of the world where public education is available to ALL children. I truly believe in the proverb that says “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

My children attended (and still attend) Fort River School. Furthermore, in my role as an educational consultant, I have worked in nearly all of the elementary schools in the region over the past 18 years and have a broad basis for comparison. Overall, the quality of education at Fort River School, as compared to other schools, is excellent. This is true of all the schools in Amherst. We all know that across the country, decisions about where to live, for families with children, are often made with respect to the perceived quality of the schools. Certainly families who are dissatisfied with the schools can choose to move to a different town in order to have their children attend a different school. Not every teacher at Fort River School is prepared to handle every situation with every kid (mine included) but it would be unrealistic to think that this would be possible. The education of our children must be a joint venture between home and school, parents and teachers.

I find it unfortunate that people do not feel able to take ownership of their concerns by using their names instead of “anonymous” when they make posts to this blog. Again, we must all be committed to working towards solutions for our schools, and this cannot happen unless we are brave enough to own the problems we perceive and to participate in working towards their solutions.

Anonymous said...


Thank you so very very much for all of your hard work. I will miss your column.

I am realtively new to the area and when we were house hunting we heard about how great the Amherst schools are, but now I question our decision on a daily basis. My son attends Crocker Farm and at times my husband and I feek it is akin to a Spanish immersion school. Even the soap dispenser in the bathroom is labeled with the Spanish word for soap. I'm glad that things will be changing, and I am sorry that your family has been treated so poorly by some people in this community. Again, thank you for your hardwork and dedication.

Anonymous said...

Laurel- Don't you know- wait long enough and every thread will eventually come back to how RVJ hated white kids and wasn't concerned about their education.

Anonymous said...

Russ said as much. No one put words in his mouth.

Anonymous said...

Yea- I'm sure just like a kid can go ALLLLL the way through the schools and never have to read a whole book.