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.

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.


TomG said...

I'm with you on class sizes for precisely the reasons you mention.

That is to say if class sizes can be increased manageably, and no electives eliminated then I vote 'yea'. It's a "buy time" strategy (assuming an ongoing budget crisis next year) and I think its a prudent way to preserve value as you mention.

In previous posts, you've treated us to substantial financial information about costs per student for Amherst in comparison to state averages and in comparison to Northampton, as well as other relevant key school performance statistics that help us gauge the value students get for the money we spend.

Until costs are reconciled to the value delivered (and they may be but we have no way of knowing it because we cannot account for the disparity between our high costs and comparable results with schools that cost far less), I don't see how ANYONE can RECOMMEND the override.

This is a call for transparency and if the elected officials and hired administrators do not yet understand what this means - realize Scott Brown beat Martha Coakley principally because he reaffirmed that it is taxpayers who have the right to make demands for transparency. (I'm not saying he can deliver on that, I'm saying it got him elected.) But we can deliver on that and we must. People on the left and right want accountability and transparency. Let's figure out why Amherst schools are so expensive ... before we cast a "yea" vote for an tax override. If you cannot get the data that we know exists or can be compiled, then the people who are responsible for providing it must leave their jobs and be replaced by someone who can.

Restated, let's make a decision about a tax override based on evidence and the principle that we should not increase tax revenue until the schools financial house is in order, or at least we have a strategy to correct the financial issues within a 2 or 3 year period.

Based on the evidence we have now, my vote would be "no" ... and at the same time I'm not fully up to speed on an evaluation of costs and value delivered or why our costs are inflated. But believe me, I do want to know before I vote. If I don't know, I will vote 'no'.

Do you agree CS? Do you mind offering a few words on that issue when you've considered it further, even if you choose to not articulate your conclusion.

Frustrated Parent said...

Tom, I agree with you. There are many things that are great about our schools and many students I think they serve particularly well (I think, for example, of the parents whose kids attend one of our specialized special education programs rather than having to seek education out of town). Other students, however, they are not serving so well.

What I ask myself again and again is "are our schools worth the extra money we spend on them?" For example, are our schools better than those in Hadley or Deerfield or Belchertown or Northampton (or anywhere with a lower tax rate)? Amherst residents pay MUCH higher taxes than those towns; it would be nice if we got extra services and/or better services for that extra money. I just don't see it.

You mention how much more per pupil the Amherst schools spend to educate our kids than do the Northampton schools and you are right. I just wanted to expand the conversation to remind everyone how much more we pay in property taxes than the majority of the surrounding towns. Yes, the "well, we have lower taxes overall compared to past history due to federal and state cuts" folks will bring that up, but the people living in Belchertown or Hadley have also benefitted from those lower state and federal taxes too and are also enjoying lower property taxes and schools that don't seem significantly worse than ours (and in the case of Hadley, seem better).

So I cannot support an override until our town (and specifically the School Committee) can show me how I am getting more and better services for my larger taxes than people who live in our surrounding towns.

Ken said...

Every resident of Amherst deserves to know whether their money is being well spent. But please understand things are rarely as black and white as they seem. Take Northampton. I have posted previously about this. Smith Voc syphons off many lower achieving students. It IS a Northampton school; the following is pasted off their website: "It is a public high school for those students who reside in Northampton." The Voc Ed school is perfect for those students, and I'm gald they have that opportunity. BUT--regarding the academic measures we are comparing, based on Catherine's own initial comparisons--those students achieve on the MCAS at lower levels, attend college at lower rates, have lower SAT scores for those who take them, and cost more per pupil--over $18,000 compared to our $15,000+/- and Noho HS's $11,000. Unless you compared ARHS students MINUS a similar percentage of lower achieving students, or compared ARHS to ALL Noho students including those at Smith Voc, the data is slanted. And factor in that Noho HS was recently cited by the state for not having enough SPED or ESL staff. Combining both groups of Noho students yeilds roughly the SAME per pupil cost with clearly lower MCAS scores, etc.

I'm not saying Noho is lousy--they have fine schools--and I'm not citing these facts to tout Amherst. But the Noho comparison has been raised frequently by others, so I'm just relaying relevant data I am aware of. It's open for anyone to see on the ESE website.

Other towns around here are FAR less diverse than Amherst, culturally, linguistically and socioeconimically. By definition, they will not be spending as much--fewer programs, less need for support services. Please understand that I am NOT saying don't compare towns, just find the right ones to compare--us to demographically similar towns.

Brookline is a good comparison, because we are pretty similar demographically and we spend roughly a similar amount per pupil. The question is, because salaries in eastern MA are higher than here, how come they spend roughly what we do? They should be spending more, so we have to be spending more in some other areas. Great question. I've sent Catherine a breakdown of where we don't line up with them based on what the Dept. of Ed website shows.

Again, please understand that what may seem simple in comparing educational data--usually isn't.

Anonymous said...

But Ken, Amherst is also "syphoning off" what you call "low achieving" kids to Smith Voc! Not to mention those who go to Franklin Tech! (I take issue with you categorizing them as "low achieving, though; some of them may be high achieving but wish to pursue a vocational path.)

I understand that Smith Voc does reside in Northampton and the majority of the kids there are from Northampton, but you have to understand that our vocationally-minded kids also have the same opportunity to leave the traditional high school as do the kids in Northampton High.

Anonymous said...


But, we pay out of OUR tax dollars to have those kids go to Noho or Franklin Tech. Those dollars are reflected in our expenditures and their revenue.

Anonymous said...

So what? We should start our own vocational school here in Amherst so we don't send school choice money out to Smith and Franklin?

For those who really believe that we cannot compare Northampton's schools and expenditures to ours because of the existence of Smith there (which I don't believe), then let's instead compare ourselves to Frontier or Deerfield elementary or Hadley or Belchertown. Oh, wait! Those towns don't have our diversity! Seems like there is always a justificiation for why we cannot compare our schools to other schools. But I still think that if our schools are doing the social justice work that they claim to be doing, it wouldn't matter how much diversity we have (racial or economic) compared to other districts...isn't that the point of an aggressive social justice curriculum? To eliminate the differences among groups with respect to access and achievement?? So either we are doing the work correctly (and thus it shouldn't matter how diverse our schools are in comparison to Hadley or Belchertown) or we are not (in which case, can we please stop all the lip service and money spent on social justice and instead concentrate on academics for all?).

Gavin Andresen said...

I agree, Catherine: I'd keep electives at the expense of increased class sizes for "core" classes.

As you know, I did some research trying to figure out if class size matters to student achievement, and it looks like the consensus of education research is that class size matters in grades K-3 but doesn't have a measurable effect on student performance beyond grade 3.

Anonymous said...

So if we continue to have diversity in the schools that impacts how we educate our kids, for whatever reason,that means we are not doing "social justice work correctly?" And so we should just stop doing social justice work?

Sheesh, what planet to you live on?What an incredibly ignorant thing to say. I am not saying you are an ignorant person...but your comment displays an amazing amount of ignorance about the race and class issues in our town and how they play themselves out in our schools.

Additionally, Hadley residents pay less property taxes in large part because of the much higher amount of commercial development in town. If we had the same level of commercial development in Amherst our taxes would be much lower.

TC said...

Thank you for the very clear post about choices. Ever since the economic crisis started to hit hard, we all have had to make choices in our personal lives. The same happens with our public institutions. When times are tough, unfortunatelly we have to choose what to cut and what to save. I agree with you that increasing class numbers, although far from ideal, is a less worse option then eliminate programs.
Thank you for your hard work at the School Committee and for keeping us informed through your blog.

Anonymous said...

Comparing Amherst to a district that has 2 schools,1/10th the number of students, has a relatvely homogeneous population, has mostly the same cohort of kids traveling from K-12 is just ridiculous. Not because I think that AMherst is some how special but Hadley is just not a good comparison district.

concerned parent said...

I agree with much of what has been said here and by Catherine. Raising class sizes by a few students will preserve much of what students treasure about the high school. And let's face it, many elementary classes have been well above 20 students for years and the 8th graders are at 25 kids now (but strangely will have smaller classes next year with greater cuts -- go figure.) It's hard to claim that greaterhigh school class sizes are a hardship or untenable.

It will be hard for me to vote for an override when the schools cannot (or will not) provide clear numbers to explain their spending and why it appears so much higher than other districts.

It may be hard to make comparisions ibut that doesn't mean they can't be made. (I appreciate Ken's thoughtful efforts but it would be better to get an explanation from the school administration.) The claimed inabiliity to provide a line by line budget in a month or two defies belief.

Also, if the SPED review due in March shows that significant savings can be found, the override may not be needed. Why put a burden of greater taxes on low-income homeowners unless they are badly needed?

Finally, an override that only patches this year's budget gap makes no sense to me. What happens the year after and the year after? Any override needs to fix the funding problem for more than one year.

Anonymous said...

So if And so we should just stop doing social justice work?

Yes! What is more just: telling a bunch of kids that they are losers and will be for life, or teaching them basic skills so they won't be?

Additionally, Hadley residents pay less property taxes in large part because of the much higher amount of commercial development in town. If we had the same level of commercial development in Amherst our taxes would be much lower.

And if the town hadn't fought it, all of the Hadley commercial development could have been built along University Drive.

Decisions have consequences...

Anonymous said...

CS, good post.

I was wondering though where you found information to support your claim that it would cost more/be more difficult to restore electives such as woodshop or woodwind ensemble later than to preserve them by adding a few kids to core classes now.

I can see that dismantling and then trying to put a wood working shop back together could be costly because of the equipment & physical plant involved, but woodwind ensemble -- honestly, good music teachers are not hard to find in the Valley. And music ensembles are not facility intensive.

But my point is, is this your opinion or a fact? Because you're asking people to support making core classes larger (which DOES stress teachers) to preserve electives.

And yes people, remember that you have high property taxes in part because of the paucity of commercial tax revenues.

And SPED students are not sent out of district because parents ask for that. You don't ask. You sue for that.

Anonymous said...

"Yes! What is more just: telling a bunch of kids that they are losers and will be for life, or teaching them basic skills so they won't be?"

And your view of social justice work is that the schools tell the kids they are losers and will be for life??????

Are you kidding me? I am even more dumbfounded by your comments then I was before!!! These comments have got to be far and away the most ludicrous I have read yet on this blog.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

If anyone is interested in the detail of current class sizes at the high school, I would recommend the excellent Master Schedule document available in the FY11 Budget section of The URL is:

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Tom et al - the lack of transparency of why our district spends more but seemingly delivers less is a reason for me to vote NO on the override. I seriously have not seen any evidence that the district is spending wisely - and I'd be happy to vote YES if I could see the evidence that they will use my money wisely.

And if they include the Jones Library in the override, my vote will definitely be NO, if they can't use their endowment to help keep the library open to the public on Fridays or whenever they were thinking of cutting if the override does not pass.

If the school needs more time to get their budget & "evidence" together to show how the high outcomes match the high spending - then we can vote on the override next year.

It really doesn't matter how diverse our student population is (or how special it is in any other way) - we still need to be fiscally responsible. Deliver a good education at a decent price, something that other schools can achieve.

Anonymous said...

Or the override can be scheduled for later this spring. The state's local aid numbers always come in late so it's not clear how much is needed. Patrick is running for re-election and he will protect local aid to keep votes.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Alison, thanks so much for pointing me at the High School Class Size/Master Schedule Document... what I think I know about how many kids are in the many classes we offer is not always spot on.

Although I do think something went kablooey on page 8 re: Music ensembles, since each of those only have one section -- you're in it or you aren't -- rather than trying to apply some sort of "class size/trimester/3 day week" formula to them to come up with an un-comparable class size to say, Dance, or a particular English?

jm said...


If each high school teacher teaches an extra course a year, could that save small class sizes, electives and/or reduce a study hall? (Wouldn't it be better if the teacher was teaching students instead of sitting in front of them in a study hall?) The middle school teachers are teaching 5 classes per trimester which adds up to 15 classes a year (although maybe meeting for shorter times). The high school teachers teach 10 classes a year -- 3 or 4 classes a trimester. Teachers at each school do study halls.

Also, how many classes do high school teachers teach each year at Amherst comparison schools?

Ed said...

The high school teachers teach 10 classes a year -- 3 or 4 classes a trimester.


Everything I have ever seen is that a high school teacher has one "free" period (technically "prep" period but we always called it the "free" one), one "supervisory" period (lunchroom, study hall, bathroom smoking detail, etc), and a class EVERY OTHER PERIOD.

Hence 5-1-1 for the 7-period schedule, 6-1-1 for the older 8-period schedule. A department chair would be relieved of supervisory duties, and might have one less class.

So if you have teachers teaching half as many classes, OF COURSE IT COSTS MORE!!!!!

Teachers at each school do study halls.

Which is not only a total waste of money but also demeaning to teachers AND one thing the research says we should end so as to improve education overall.

You can hire study hall monitors for $10/hour. You can have the SPED aides also cover study halls to give them a full day's pay. You can UMass students either there on WorkStudy (where you only pay part of their salary) or as internships (where you just have to write a letter saying nice things about them to their professor).

During WW-II, there was a campaign to encourage women to work in shipyards with the slogan "send a man to war." Well, why not now "send a teacher back to teaching"?

Research shows that being required to stand in a bathroom to keep kids from smoking is one of the primary reasons that good teachers leave the profession. You need a cop in that bathroom (actually, that is not a bad idea), you do not need someone who knows advanced pedagogy -- someone with a very expensive knowledge of that which you are paying for.

It is like having a MD drive the ambulance. Way too expensive and a waste of human resources....

Also, how many classes do high school teachers teach each year at Amherst comparison schools?

This is like saying that since my neighbor is 40 lbs overweight, it is ok for me to be 50 lbs overweight as I really technically am only 10 lbs heavier than my comparison person....

One free period (or equivilent, and sometimes I would have none and sometimes two - it was the average and me expected to be "flexible" to meet the scheduling needs of the school) is justified, the move is to shift the one supervisory period into student remedial work.

There is a lot to be said for relieving the supervisory period and replacing it with a fixed mandated remedial period -- it helps with SPED, ESL and (in one school I taught, single mothers).


Reducing the number of classes taught by each teacher creates jobs for more teachers - as does reducing class size. The move to reduce class size came in the 1980s as more of an effort to preserve teacher's jobs than anything else and I suspect it will be that now, too.

The teachers should teach. And if they want to take the hardline of how many courses they are willing to teach a day, then you simply use your right to increase the number of students in the classroom. You will teach (and be responsible for teaching well) 125 students each trimester -- five classes of 25 or however else you would like to do it....

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:51.

I agree that CS's vision is appropriate.

Regarding suing to get your child placed out of district, that is a fallacy. The way to be placed out of district is if you can show that the system cannot provide your child a free and appropriate education ("FAPE"). The tragedy of this District is that the SPED dept has the resources to provide FAPE but fails to use them effectively in many cases. As a cover they do whatever they can to attack families making reasonable requests for a collaborative result to a dispute.

I am aware of a number of families in this district that have been abused by SPED administrators. One was sued by the school, another was subject to filings where administrators claimed to the Mass Dept. of Social Services that they were abusing their child. These are traumatic events that disrupt families for years. Yet, administrators in our town's SPED department perpetrate these actions with impunity and under the cover of privacy.

Imagine if the resources and creativity used in such venal pursuits were actually put to use to work with families.

Imagine that instead of paying lawyers to fight parents, the district hired mediators to work toward acceptable compromises.

Time to change the culture of this department radically. Keep the providers working with the children, fire the lawyers, re-train the administrators who are willing to learn something new.

Further - I'm with TomG (though not at 4:38 AM). Without transparency in the budget my vote is an emphatic no. Opacity is what got us into this mess. Data will allow us to see the path to turn it around.

Amherst Advocate

Ken said...

Anonymous 7:49--Maybe you didn't read my post carefully. I said we should compare our schools to others, but comparisons need to be statistically appropriate or the comparison is USELESS. I'm sorry that bothers you so much, but maybe that's symbolic of the problems communicating on this blog at times.

The reality is that responsible school systems need to identify and weigh factors that affect data. Data interpretation is getting more sophisticated all the time in the field of education. For example, the Department of Education will only be comparing MCAS scores of demographically similar districts starting next year.

It DOES cost more to support the learning of those who come from communities of less advantage--whether you like it or not. You can say there's no extra cost to a district that has 13+/-% ESL students and 32+% low income students like our elementary system versus a town like Hadley that is 16% low income and 1.5% ESL--but you'd be absolutely wrong. It feels like you're just "loaded for bear" about "proving" what a crappy job we do wasting so much money. That's easy to say, but ultimately COMPLETELY unhelpful, both to this conversation, as well as the School Committee who have to make informed decisions.

Ken said...

Anonymous 7:27--you can take issue with my characterization all you want, but MCAS scores show what they show. I think voc ed schools are extremely important and I'm glad that they exist for the students who prefer them. But Catherine set the terms for comparison as academically-related ones, not me. Comparatively speaking, few Amherst students go to either voc ed school you mentioned compared to the numbers of Northampton students who go to Smith Voc. Or better yet, rather than guessing, do some leg work and actually find out what % of Noho students go to Smith Voc and what % of Amherst students go to Smith Voc or Frontier, and then make your point with numbers to back it up. But when people just guess, or write all this stuff off as unimportant, or explain it away with no data to back up your argument, it just complicates our ability to get a REAL, VALID answer to the very legitimate question of whether our budget and results are out of whack compared to other districts.

Nina Koch said...


You completely misunderstand the schedule. There are only five total periods in the day. Teachers are not going to teach five out of five. They teach either four out of five, with one prep, or three out of five, with one prep and one duty. It's a total of ten (3 + 3 +4) course blocks over the year, which is exactly equivalent to the 2 semesters of 5 you find with a traditional schedule.

The only system under which teachers go beyond that load is with a block schedule, where teachers teach the equivalent of 12 course blocks instead of 10. That is why block schedules save money. Northampton and Frontier both have block schedules.

Anonymous said...

Ken said, "Smith Voc syphons off many lower achieving students."

I can't believe you said this AGAIN! You must not have learned from the comments left the last time you insulted these students. Very demeaning. Really Ken, I still expect better from you.

Ken said...

Anonymous 5:31--No, I confess, I didn't learn from the one person (was it you?) that misinterpreted my statements of fact about levels of academic achievement (and only achievement in the academic sense) as measured by the MCAS (look up the scores if you think I'm lying) as an insult--a school's overall level of academic achievement in relation to per pupil expenditure were the factors that Catherine, not me, introduced as the parameters of the cross district comparison). I explained this all before, so apparently you didn't "learn" from my response last time.

Parent Considering Override said...

Ken, you are in the schools and it seems as if you are following the budget issues very closely. What is your opinion of the teachers pitching in to close the deficit gap by lowering either their COLA or STEP raises (or both) this year? I notice that Longmeadow teachers have agreed to a 0% COLA for the next two years and a 1% STEP raise for the same period. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

My children did not leave our elementary schools (where they each spent 7 years) knowing how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. They could do some of each of those, but not enough of all of the four operations to be able to perform these operations quickly and effectively once in the regional schools. Yet they earned mostly As in math with some Bs so the teachers clearly thought they had mastered what they needed to.

anon 9:10's link is to... said...

Playing to Learn
THE Obama administration is planning some big changes to how we measure the success or failure of schools and how we apportion federal money based on those assessments. It’s great that the administration is trying to undertake reforms, but if we want to make sure all children learn, we will need to overhaul the curriculum itself. Our current educational approach — and the testing that is driving it — is completely at odds with what scientists understand about how children develop during the elementary school years and has led to a curriculum that is strangling children and teachers alike.
In order to design a curriculum that teaches what truly matters, educators should remember a basic precept of modern developmental science: developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. But having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does. Simply put, what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college, but to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on.

Ed said...

developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. But having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does.


"Write like you talk" is only effective if you have parents who themselves know proper grammar, usage (and yes, the alphabet) themselves! Education along the "write like you talk" model thus becomes inherently classist (and racist) because the parents' (or often parent's) knowledge of the language becomes the upper limit of what the child will ever be able to learn.

We need to be halfway in this - memorizing letters and phonics towards no visible (to the child) goal is equally unproductive. But you simply are not going to have a child developing significant writing (or, frankly, speaking) skills without an understanding of the alphabet and how the letters tend to be arranged in words.

You kinda gotta know what a vowel is...

Anonymous said...

this is just an excerpt of the op ed piece which talks about a lot more.

Ed said...

You completely misunderstand the schedule.

No, Nina, I don't. Not really...

There are only five total periods in the day.

As opposed to the really-old-fashioned 8-block schedule of the 1970's & '80s.

Teachers are not going to teach five out of five. They teach either four out of five, with one prep, or three out of five, with one prep and one duty.

As opposed to teaching six or seven out of eight. And we are dealing with fractions here and 1/5 is a bigger number than 1/8.

In other words, the teacher's free period under the ARSD system constitutes 20% of the teaching day, while it is only 12.5% under the traditional 8-block system.

Throw in a supervisory period and you go to 40% in ARHS versus 25% under the old system.

And thus you have your teachers only actually teaching 60% of the day while in years past they would have been teaching 75% of the instructional day.

And I say "instructional day" because we are not talking a full 8-hour day here. If you want to consider teachers to be the professionals they are (and the salaries they now enjoy) then you base your calculations on the 50+/hour week that most professionals work and the concept of the free period becomes less of a legitimate entitlement.

Let me, however, put the percentages in terms that everyone can understand: I have a dark room and a light fixture. I can put two 75 watt bulbs in and have 150 watts of light and am happy.

When I go to 60 watt light bulbs, I only have 120 watts which isn't enough, so I have to go put a third bulb in which gives me 180 watts - more than I need but I have no choice.

And when light bulbs go for $50K or more each, per year, you can see how this starts getting expensive....


When the Baby Boom ended in 1980 with the student cadre dropping dramatically and "RIF" being the three most feared letters of the NEA, two things happened.

First, we decided that we needed to have smaller class sizes -- in part so that we would need to hire more teachers. Second, we came up with all kinds of creative scheduling that divided up the school day so as to have the teachers actually teaching fewer minutes each day -- thus also requiring the hiring of more teachers.

These two things directly resulted in more teachers being hired and thus higher costs. The exact same thing happened in higher education when faculty loads went from 4-4 to 2-3, to the 2-2 which is increasingly common now.

Ed understands. And hopefully everyone else does now too...

Anonymous said...

While you were talking, the deadline passed. As published in the Bulletin:

Jan 28 - Budget Coordinating Group reaches a consensus and submits a draft of its recommendations.

Last night was February 2, did anyone check the calendar before they scheduled the meeting?

And this continues --

Feb 8 – Select Board hears feedback from residents, reviews BCG recommendations and discusses the override question.

The next meeting of the AR School Committee is on February 9th. In what space/time continuum does 9th come before 8th?

If this is true, I want to be the one to call the New York Times.

Reality check, anyone?

Kevin Collins

Ken said...

Parent Considering Override--I understand this is a very important question for some people considering an override. But I apologize that I am going to try to wheedle my way out of answering your question directly, even as I try to answer it indirectly. I am not a teacher in the Amherst schools anymore, so I am loathe to say what teachers now should or shouldn't do. However, I served on the negotiating committee 4 times. So I have an outside-in as well as inside-out perspective, and realize that renegotiating contracts, issues that impact teacher salaries and retirement, etc., is very complicated.

I will say EVERY teacher bleeds for every loss to our schools, and every learner who may be impacted by cuts. That said, teachers also are aware that they are being compensated as highly skilled professionals in a district that has very high expectations for them, which will not go down (and may even go up!) even if salaries do. (The average Amherst teachers' average is not out-of-whack for the area--I think around %50,000 but I could be wrong.) Teachers are aware that salary ground lost now will likely never be made up even when times get good (which they will eventually); for example, if a contract is negotiated for a 1% COLA one year and suddenly the state sends a huge chunk of money Amherst's way or something, teachers won't be asked to open negotiations for a higher COLA. With no commissions, bonuses, promotions, overtime to possibly get, and given the way schools are funded, teachers take a long term perspective on how the negotiations in any one year will affect their families long term, all the way to retirement.

I do know that teachers are seriously talking about all kinds of options, both amongst themselves and formally with School Committee/Administration, and I don't want to call from the sidelines what I think they should do, because I'm not in the middle of the discussions that are taking place.

I hope this generally gives you some more perspective on this issue, and I apologize again that I avoided answering your question directly.

Ken said...


W-ll, th- tr-th -s, y-- d-n't n--d v-w-ls t- r--d -s m-ch -s y-- s--m t- th-nk! Or eevn raeindg ltteer by ltteer for taht mttear!

Overall, I find much of what you write pretty out-of-touch with the reality of what public school teachers understand to be true every day of their teaching life in this day and age.

In your day and age, things might have been different. But this happens to be the day and age we live in now, for better or for worse.

Nina Koch said...

here is a clickable link to the Engel piece. It's actually very interesting:

Playing to Learn

Nina Koch said...


Under the 8 period day, we taught five periods not six. Five classes is the norm. Not the rule, necessarily, but the norm.

Here's a quote from a 1964 article about schools in New York state:

"The majority of schools reported eight 45-49 minute periods per day with teachers responsible for five classes and the supervision of certain school activities."

Five classes is a long standing practice.

comparisons said...

Certainly there isn't going to be a perfect comparison school district. Comparing to Northampton can be a starting point. Amherst is better-educated, wealthier and more expensive than Northampton, but Northampton probably comes is second in the area.

Ken's objection about the high school comparison is off-base (never mind insulting to the Smith Voke students). Sure the NHS student population would be different if all the Smith Voke kids attended(for one thing it would be bigger) - it would be much FARTHER from ARHS in terms of F/RL and SPED numbers, parental education, etc. NHS is a lot closer comparison to ARHS as is.

That's not to say that Amherst shouldn't be willing to put more money into education. It's an education town! But everyone should know what they are getting for the money (a nationally ranked orchestra, trips around the globe, more PhD alums...well, maybe not the last).

question on per pupil $$ said...

How is the difference in the Amherst per pupil expenses vs other districts divided between the elementary, the middle and the high schools? In other words, is the difference the same for all grade levels or is it more so for the elementary years or for the older years?

Ken said...


I'm glad you are so supportive and positive about Smith Voke (sic) kids--more SPED, less parent education, etc. Just don't say they generally achieve at lower levels academically: now THAT would really be insulting!

Don't infer how much % of SPED, etc, would differ from Amherst until you figure out what combining the 2 school populations in Noho would yield. (I thought data mattered.) But it is true undeniably that on measures of academic achievement (oh Ken, there you go again!) Noho would be quite clearly lower putting the 2 schools together, and per pupil cost would end up roughly what ours is. Northampton taxes pay for both schools, so that is the full per pupil cost taxpayers fund, and only comparing some of their achievement-related data (ouch!!) and per pupil cost to all of ours distorts the comparison.

Just to be on the safe side, I will say again: Northampton schools are good, Smith Voc is the perfect situation for lots of kids, and I didn't pick the towns to compare or the paramaters of the comparison--Catherine did.

Brookline is a great town to compare with Amherst, as I wrote already. But I'll admit, it is much easier to insinuate that I (or anyone else) would find objections to any town's comparison to Amherst (I guess to avoid the ugly truth--already known to some before a good comparison is even made--that we way overpay per student for a crappy education) than actually trying to sift through what data really shows, so we can form a truly informed opinion. So goes life on this blog.

comparisons said...

Data from the Mass DOE (you could have just looked it up):

NHS (08/09)896 students
8% ESL (<1%ELL)
20% F/RL
14% SPED

ARHS (08/09) 1201 students
12% ESL (3%ELL)
16% F/RL
17% SPED

If add 460 students from Northampton-Smith Vocational Agricultural HS to NHS: Combined group 1356 students
7% ESL (<1% ELL)
25% F/RL
23% SPED

So my point was that the actual demographics (with some of the selected populations required by NCLB)at NHS actually make it a BETTER (although not perfect) comparison group to ARHS.

I had looked at the data before saying anything.

Anonymous said...

And how about data showing where all of the Smith kids come from? I couldn't find it.

Anonymous said...

Smith Voke students are not all from Northampton! Never have been! Many come from Williamsburg, Easthampton, Conway, etc. to study the trades. I know this anecdotally, unfortunately and I couldn't find the info on line either.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of choices -- Wed's Gazette article about computer teacher Joan Gallinaro at FR School --

What a loss. Had the privilege of working with her for several years. A patient, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, thoroughly professional educator & a wonderful, giving colleague.

Amherst's loss will definitely be another district's gain.

But after much discussion my spouse & I agreed that if it comes down to cutting music, art, gym or computer specials, we too would chose to cut computers. The other three teach critical cognitive & developmental skills; computers are an applied skill and can be learned later.

On the other hand, kids who "have resources" at home will learn anyway. It's the kids who don't have computers at home and/or parents who know how to use them (well) who will suffer.

Ken said...

Comparisons--thank you for supplying the data to support what you say. I agree, it's a good comparison with Amherst when BOTH schools are included. (That's been my point all along...) Now, we actually have a very similar per pupil cost. There are demographic factors at play on both sides, with Northampton having more SPED and low income students, Amherst an overall more diverse population, and more ELLs.

What about achievement, tho, that's the second part of it. I only have the time and energy to look up MCAS rankings. Maybe someone else wants to find others. But here it is. In Language Arts, our 10th graders rank 97th, Noho High is tied at 97, and Smith Voc is 241st. In math, we are 94th, Noho High is 141st and Smith Voc is 276th. Add Noho High and Smith Voc together and achievement results would be much stronger in Amherst--for the same per pupil expenditure. Factor in that Northampton has been cited for understaffing SPEd and ESL, which will add to their per pupil cost.

People can draw their own conclusions from this data. (I also saw an MCAS ranking of the top schools in MA, which normed MCAS results for various factors, and Amherst was 53rd, Noho was 144th and Smith Voc was too far down to show up on the list.)

Anonymous said...

Why are people so angry in Amherst?