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.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Report urges middle school improvement

Hampshire Gazette
Friday, March 12, 2010

AMHERST - The Regional Middle School does not exhibit many of the characteristics of highly effective schools, according to a consultant who did an on-site evaluation from October to January.

"It needs consistent leadership," Barry Beers told the Regional School Committee Tuesday. "A lot of what I saw is the result of a lack of it. When you don't have that, you regress to the norm, the old teacher-directed way."

The long-awaited report came as applications for a new middle school principal are being screened, and amid the turmoil caused by Monday's sudden departure of Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez.

Despite its pointed comments, the report got a positive response from School Committee members and the middle school's parent-teacher group, the Family School Partnership.

Highly effective schools have data-driven improvement plans, teachers who develop daily lesson plans, and administrators who visit classrooms frequently and later have conversations to promote professional growth, Beers said. They have departments with common assessments, and the characteristics of effective instruction are clearly defined and communicated in writing, he said.

Beers - a national expert who was a middle and high school administrator for 21 years - reviewed data, met with teachers, parents and curriculum leaders, and briefly observed 37 classrooms on Nov. 6 and Jan. 11 and 12, he said.

"The teachers are competent and dedicated professionals who care about students," he said. "But instruction is teacher-driven, not learner-driven."

He noted that the School Council is working on a data-driven improvement plan and classroom observations by administrators have increased. He recommended written policies for grading and homework, establishment of clear expectations for "delivery of instruction and checking for understanding," and the provision of ongoing feedback to teachers.

"The right people are on the bus, assuming an instructional leader is hired as principal," he said. "It is now time for everyone to get on the same bus even though their seats are different."

Beers also suggested that Amherst consider having three grades in the middle school instead of two, which he said is a more typical configuration because of greater rigor and communication among teachers. Rodriguez had recommended moving the sixth grades of all six elementary schools in the region to the middle school.

He also questioned why the most common course selection of pre-algebra in the seventh grade wasn't offered.

Change won't come to the middle school overnight, Beers said. "If the faculty are defensive, you won't see progress," he said, adding that the school needs a "transformational leader."

The consultant said he saw a lot of watching and copying in his classroom visits, and not enough stopping to talk or differentiated instruction.

The school improvement plan must not sit on a shelf but should drive change, he said.

Mark Jackson, the principal of the high and middle schools, said the review has been taken seriously and by the end of the year there will be a detailed update on what concrete steps are being taken. "The commitment is there," he said.

The Regional School Committee was "energized" by the report, said Chairman Farshid Hajir.

"It was a good conversation about the next steps for the middle school, and it was particularly important that it was a discussion about education, because so much of our attention has been focused on the budget," he said.

It's also been focused on the departure of Rodriguez this week, which Hajir called "trying times." The educators have held the district together even though the leader has left, he said.

"There's some level of impatience to harness energy into a collaborative effort to work together to improve the schools," Hajir said. "We'll come out of this turbulence into calmer waters, heading in a good direction."

Bad rap

The middle school has gotten a bad rap, in part because there hasn't been a consistent leader to counter complaints, said Cathy Cullen, a middle school parent and chairwoman of the Family School Partnership. She supported Beers' evaluation and said she hopes the district will be able to continue working with him. He has been working with the partnership on the new school improvement plan, which is due out in May, she said.

"I don't think he meant to be inflammatory, though some of his comments were pointed," she said. "He was upbeat in his presentation. It wasn't all doom and gloom."

She called Jackson and Senior Assistant Principal Michael Hayes "receptive and cooperative."

"My kids have experienced many excellent student-driven lessons," Cullen said. "Is it happening every moment of every day? Of course not."

Math teacher Nina Koch was impressed with the presentation.

"Dr. Beers pointed out that we may have different ideas of what it means for students to be engaged learners, and different definitions of rigor and challenge," she said. "I found myself nodding in agreement when he asserted that the most important element of rigor is the kind of thinking that students are asked to do. The name of the course is not so important."

When Beers spoke on his report at Tuesday's Regional School Committee meeting, there was an overflow crowd waiting anxiously for a discussion of Rodriguez's departure and whether the committee would undertake an immediate search for his replacement.

He brightened the atmosphere by starting with a tongue-in-cheek remark that elicited some laughter: "I appreciate everyone coming out tonight to hear me."

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