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, April 8, 2010

Education Matters: Rigor sends the message

Amherst Bulletin
Published on April 09, 2010

In 2007, the Massachusetts Board of Education unanimously approved a recommended high school program of studies (MassCore), which was intended to help students become college and career ready.

The MassCore program of studies includes four years of English, four years of math (including completing algebra II or the equivalent), three years of a lab-based science (including courses in both physical and natural science), three years of history (including U.S. and world history), two years of the same foreign language, one year of an arts program, and five additional courses (such as business education, health and/or technology). These requirements were developed based on research indicating that taking a rigorous set of academic classes helps students both prepare for and succeed in college and the workplace.

These requirements are significantly more rigorous than the current requirements at Amherst Regional High School.

Although our high school does require four years of English and three years of social studies, we require only two years of math (the minimum state requirement and the level required by only 16.4 percent of Massachusetts high schools), two years of science (also the minimum state requirement and the level required by only 27 percent of Massachusetts high schools), one year of physical education and one year of health.

In contrast, most other local districts, including Northampton, Hadley and East Longmeadow, require at least three years of high school math and science.

Similarly, most districts that are part of the Minority Student Achievement Network require at least three years of math and science, including Arlington, Va., Brookline, Cambridge, Chapel Hill N.C., Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Columbia, Mo., Montclair N.J., Princeton, N.J., Shaker Heights, Ohio, South Orange, N.J., and Windsor, Conn.

Although increasing graduation requirements may lead to concerns that students will simply drop out of high school, research indicates that most students do not drop out because they have a more rigorous curriculum and/or are asked to work harder.

In fact, studies demonstrate that students of all abilities benefit from taking a rigorous and comprehensive high school curriculum: students with this type of preparation are more likely to graduate from high school, get better grades, succeed in college without requiring remedial classes, are better prepared for the workforce and earn higher wages.

Research also demonstrates that the rigor of high school curriculum is a stronger predictor of whether a student graduates from college than standardized test scores, high school class rank or high school grades.

The benefits of completing a rigorous high school curriculum are particularly clear for students of color. Both African-American and Latino students who complete an academically challenging high school curriculum are more likely to successfully receive a college degree, and the rigor of one's high school curriculum is a stronger predictor of completing college than any other precollege indicator of academic resources.

In fact, taking a rigorous high school curriculum that includes at least completing algebra II cuts in half the gap in college completion rates between white students on the one hand and African-American and Latino students on the other.

Similarly, the Education Trust, an organization whose goal is to close the gaps in opportunity and achievement that particularly hurt those from low-income families or who are black, Latino or American Indian, states that "students rise to the rigor of the work they are assigned."

They, too, recommend a rigorous program of high school studies for all students, including four years of English, at least three years of science, including two lab courses, four years of math up to algebra II, four years of social studies and two years of a foreign language.

As they eloquently describe, "The Education Trust seeks to ensure that all students have access to an intellectually demanding curriculum and assignments/ prerequisites for a productive life after high school, be it in the classroom or on the job."

Perhaps more importantly, requiring that all students complete a comprehensive and rigorous high school curriculum sends a clear message that we believe all students can succeed at the very highest levels.

Catherine A. Sanderson is a professor at Amherst College, and a member of the Amherst and Regional School Committees. This views expressed in this column are hers alone, and not those of the School Committees.


ARHS Parent said...

I could not agree more with your article! Neither would our President who wants to expand and increase what all American kids learn.

Just to clarify, it is not one year of phys ed and one year of health in the high school. It is one TRIMESTER of each. Three months each, not a year.

Anonymous said...

Are there any reasons anyone can give for having lower graduation requirements than most other districts?

Janet McGowan

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

ARHS - thanks for pointing out this error ... and I agree that increasing the rigor of our requirements would be in line with the education initiatives promoted by Obama!

Janet - I haven't heard a reason for our low requirements.

Anonymous said...

I'm starting to wonder whether certain Eastern elite colleges have latched on to this about ARHS. Check out some of the fine schools where members of the Class of '10 are getting rejected.

Anonymous said...

My friend's high-achieving son in Berkeley, CA as well as his multiple AP-taking, high GPA and SAT scoring friend did not get into their schools of choice either. They were told "this was one of the most competitive years in a very long time."

I would not pin the blame on ARHS.

Anonymous said...

I don't think phys ed at the high school level is meaningful. (Though I believe it's a state requirement - ?) It's run more like a health class, the kids think it's a joke and waste of time. Most kids who are going to be physically active have got that pattern established already, and for those who aren't but should be, phys ed doesn't make it happen. I'd be glad to see it eliminated.
Different story for middle schoolers though ...

Anonymous said...

I know of kids who have gotten into Brown, Middlebury, Yale, Wesleyan, Amherst, Dartmouth ...
It is a tough year. Applications to 'elite' schools have soared, and a higher rejection rate may not reflect ARHS' educational quality.
The better test is how the grads do once they're AT a top school.

Anonymous said...

Janet & Catherine,

Graduation requirements are created primarily to give students who are NOT college bound an opportunity to complete a high school education and go directly into the work force OR work in a non-four year post high school study program (eg. community college, technical school.) Raising graduation requirements slams the door in the face of students who need a high school diploma to be considered for a job or an alternative education situation.

ARHS has the programs in place to support students who move onto 4 year academic programs - just look at the % who have moved onto college AND the experiential qualitative data that area college professors can supply regarding the success of ARHS graduates.

Raising academic requirements raises dropout rates. It gives students who don't quite fit in a strictly academic world one more hurdle, one more reason to quit and hit the streets.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 3:45 - again, that is your belief, and I'm sure it is the belief of those who put these requirements in place. Let's just be clear -- this is NOT the experience promoted by the Education Trust, by the state of MA, or other surrounding districts -- and all of these entities presumably care about such students. This strikes me as another uniquely Amherst approach, which may or may not be beneficial. Your statement is directly contradicted by the research gathered by the state in developing the MASS Core requirements.

Anonymous said...

Just putting it out there that I definitely agree with Anon 3:45.

Anonymous said...

Students who go to community college have an advantage if they have had more science and math in HS. Many students who want to pursue programs in the health professions (a growth field with good salaries) struggle at the community college level if they haven't had enough science and math at the HS level.

It is unfortunate that past decision-makers in Amherst believed that some students were not capable - so they just kept lowering the bar.

Anonymous said...

CS: "Your statement is directly contradicted by the research gathered by the state in developing the MASS Core requirements."

The question is: does the statement contradict the EXPERIENCE OF AMHERST STUDENTS.

Anonymous said...

11:41am - what list of "fine schools where members of the Class of '10 are getting rejected" are you referring to????

Nina Koch said...


Can you provide some links to the studies that you read to prepare this column? I'm curious to see how the researchers established the causation that your column suggests.

Or perhaps the studies established only an association, and the suggestion of a causal link is introduced by your choice of words in describing the studies.

As it turns out, our requirements are very similar to those in Newton. But I agree it is time to take another look at them, particularly as we go through the self-study for re-accreditation. I am fine with increasing graduation requirements, provided we look at the requirements in the context of an entire high school experience. We should at the same time consider whether we want to add a technology and/or an arts requirement.

I would also support looking at requiring students to demonstrate certain competencies rather than just completing courses and acquiring credits. Since a majority of our students already exceed our requirements, I don't believe that changing the requirements will change the experience for most students. Asking for exhibition of competency, on the other hand, would in fact change their experience.

Here is a link to Abbie's school in Nebraska, where they do ask for exhibition of competency. I think it's pretty interesting:

graduation requirements

Anonymous said...

You are RIGHT. What the people against making our high school more rigorous don't say is that it's being done to make things easier for teachers. You won't see Mr. Jackson advocating for a change in requirements unless teachers want it. Ms. Gerrick won't do it if Mr. Jackson doesn't want it. Our kids from low income houses will not get the rigorous curriuclum because it's better for the district to have them graduate under-prepared than offer them the good teaching they are entitled to by our constitution.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 4:39 - many careers require some additional math/science, as you well note. More math and science can also help kids compete for scholarships that help pay for college. Again, I can't see why telling our students "two years of math/science is enough" is fair to students -- it really reduces options.

Anonymous 4:56 - so, here is my belief. I believe that Amherst students are THE SAME as students in other districts ... they are as capable of learning as students in other districts ... and thus, when people make the case (as you have) that Amherst students benefit from things that are totally different from things that are standard in other districts (and recommended by the state), I don't find it very convincing. Can you provide any evidence (other than "every year a kid goes to Harvard" and "teachers I know think we are better") that it is BETTER for kids to have 2 years of math/science than 3? Again, this is a case in which the experience of other local districts, MSAN districts, and state recommendations just don't mean anything, because Amherst is always better? I find that really hard to believe.

Nina (6 pm) - I'll post the entire Mass Core report -- which was of course correlational (since kids aren't randomly assigned to different high schools). However, this report also describes regression analyses that control for a number of variables and show the high school curriculum matters above and beyond other effects. I'm glad you believe looking at other high schools is relevant -- I notice, for example, that Newton offers Physics First to all 9th graders, and offers AP Chemistry and AP Statistics!

Anonymous 7 pm - I would think that given our district's commitment to social justice, setting high expectations would be a very good step in the right direction. I note that the Springfield Public Schools, which surely have more struggling students than the Amherst schools, require 3 years of math and 3 years of science.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the previous poster who wanted to know what elite schools '10 students haven't been accepted in???I'm a parent of a graduating senior who was accepted in the honors programs of all 5 schools she applied to. her friends have been accepted by Smith and Mt. Holyoke.

Not my perception said...

My understanding is that Amherst students already get into good schools and once there, perform well and succeed. Is that not the case? I am asking for evidence and data.

I would also like to know the ARHS drop-out rate as an indicator of student engagement.

Also, what percentage of students at ARHS take more than 2 years of math and science despite the requirement? In other words does the lack of a requirement translate to students doing less? I do not want to assume that that is the case, unless it is. I understand that the role of a requirement is to make expectations about the student experience consistent. But I would like to know more about the student experience as it stands now.

Challenging the rigor of the high school is making me think... this has not been my perception.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Not my perception - Amherst Regional High has a drop out rate of 4.1%, although this is higher in more at risk populations (10.8% low income students). These numbers are virtually identical to those in Northampton (which has higher graduation requirements) - 4.2% overall drop-out rate, 10.5% low income. So, I don't see evidence that lower graduation requirements is helping more of our students stay in school (and this isn't the finding reported by the state board which created the MASS Core requirements).

In terms of HS graduation requirements, Principal Jackson presented some data on this at a SC meeting last June. Here is what I described in my blog posting at the time: "We then discussed graduation requirements (which are lower, at least in math/science, in our high school than in many of our comparison districts). Some preliminary data on this issue has been gathered, and there is good news and bad news. The good news is that most students seem to be taking more than the minimum required (which is two years of math and two years of science). However, there are exceptions to this trend for students in some sub-groups (race, free/reduced lunch, gender, special ed), and Mark will do a report on this in the fall for the SC. Farshid noted that even if most students are taking more than the required, it still sends a message to students about our expectations. Mark also noted that taking more years of math/science opens doors for students in terms of future opportunities, and thus is important."

No such report was ever given to the SC, so I don't have these numbers, but I think it is clear that students whose families understand what colleges expect are more likely to require their own children to take 4 years of math/science than those without such familiarity. Again, this strikes me as contrary to our own commitment to social justice -- having lower graduation requirements in math than 86% of the districts in the state?!?

Which is it? said...

CS from "Education Matters: Rigor sends the message"

"the minimum state requirement and the level required by only 16.4 percent of Massachusetts high schools."

CS posting on 4/10 at 9:44 AM

"having lower graduation requirements in math than 86% of the districts in the state?!?"

100% - 16.4% = 83.6%? ≠ 86%

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 7:41 - I'm really sorry I didn't check the initial number. You are right -- our graduation requirements are only lower then 83.6% of districts in MA, not 86%. That extra 2.4% that we just jumped in front of doesn't make me feel better, however.

Ed said...

I'm starting to wonder whether certain Eastern elite colleges have latched on to this about ARHS. Check out some of the fine schools where members of the Class of '10 are getting rejected.

The reason why I truly hate spring in a college community is that it is the time of year when I have to counsel (read: "lie to") young men and women whom I really don't want to see listed on our suicide stats.

And the same thing here - we don't tell kids why they didn't get into college, we tell them that it was a very competitive year even though the baby boomlet is OVER and the number of potential students is plummeting...

Heaven forbid we tell kids how much of a buyer's market this all is......

Anonymous said...

I am truly dissappointed that our school committee is focusing so much of its attention on the issue of requirements vs the root causes of our high dropout rate. The over 10% dropout rate among students from low income homes is where I would love our school committe to be focusing our limited resources. Our "elite" kids are getting into the "elite" colleges of their choices. I am concerned about those students for whom choice is not even an option. I doubt focusing our attention on our graduation requirements furthers this cause one way or the other.

Curious observer said...

Are the teachers and adminstrators at the high school looking at this 10% drop out rate? I'd be interested in their experience and thoughts since they are on the front lines.

Also, maybe a working group of parents, teachers and adminstrators can be set up to work on this problem.