By CATHERINE A. SANDERSON
Published on March 12, 2010
Author's note: After considerable reflection and discussion with Amherst citizens, I have decided that it is important to continue writing this column for the Bulletin, although I will now write it alone.
Over much of the last decade, Amherst and Regional School Committees have supported programs and policies proposed by the superintendent and district administrators without requiring any objective evidence of their merit.
This lack of oversight and participation has resulted in some unfortunate decisions: purchasing two portable classrooms for Mark's Meadow while elementary enrollment numbers were dropping; investing further in an elementary school math curriculum with no evidence about its effectiveness; hiring three full-time administrators to oversee special education and not a single full-time administrator to oversee curriculum; and choosing trimester scheduling, which leads to long breaks in instruction, and, in tight budget times, less instructional time.
Perhaps as a reflection of dissatisfaction with the consequences of this laissez-faire approach, in the last two years the community has elected School Committee members who expect more communication, justification and transparency around school policy decisions.
This more activist School Committee has worked collaboratively with the administration to make decisions based on data and commitment to core community values. We closed an elementary school to focus our limited resources on preserving small class sizes and the music program. We redistricted the elementary schools to achieve equity among low-income students, because research shows this approach enhances children's educational success. We adopted a new policy that requires the district to send all families who choose to leave our schools an exit survey to better understand if our schools are meeting community needs. We adopted another new policy that directs the superintendent to conduct a regular evaluation - based on objective data and comparison to a set of benchmark districts - of all curricula and programs. We created an ambitious set of goals for the new superintendent, including conducting an evaluation of the middle school, initiating a review of the special education program, and evaluating the elementary math curriculum. These changes, which were endorsed unanimously by all School Committee members, will have real and lasting benefits for children in our schools.
Throughout the implementation of these changes, some people have worked hard to defend the status quo and resisted such evaluation or even consideration of changes in current practice. Much of this defense has relied on anecdotal evidence - teachers' beliefs about a program's effectiveness, emotional appeals from parents about their own child's experience and testimony from current and former students. But to best serve all students, we need to make decisions based on what actually works, not on what we think, feel or hope works. In the end, such evaluation may not change what we do today; however, it will show the community that our educational and fiscal decisions are based on data and best practices, and thus enhance the community's confidence in all of our schools.
On March 23, Amherst voters will select two candidates for three-year terms on the School Committees. I hope all voters will learn about each of the five candidates and carefully consider how they vote. Some people believe we should help struggling students by relying on strategies that feel good, whereas others believe we should use programs that have been objectively shown to raise achievement. Some people believe we should allow teachers to develop innovative curricula and practices to teach core academic subjects, whereas others believe we should adopt approaches with demonstrated success in other districts. Some people believe we should support all budget recommendations proposed by the administration, whereas others believe we need to carefully evaluate our spending practices to make sure that our limited resources are used in the best possible way.
Your decision will have a profound impact on our policies - and our children - going forward, and we need people in place who can make those decisions wisely, using the data at hand, with a clear sense of their implications.
Catherine A. Sanderson is a professor at Amherst College, and a member of the Amherst and Regional School Committees. This column reflects her own views, and not those of the School Committees.
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.