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, April 12, 2010

The Importance of Thoughtful Trade-Offs

The biggest thing I've learned through serving on School Committee over the last two years (other than that I have really thick skin) is that our biggest job is making trade-offs ... and that no matter what we choose, some people aren't going to be happy. The key thing that I keep in mind is that reasonable people can disagree about what the right trade-offs are ... and the job of the SC should be to listen to all voices (parent, teacher, staff, community, student, superintendent) and then vote (on a budget, on a policy) that seems to be the best of the available options. Sometimes all members of the SC agree on what the best option is. Other times we don't. But again, that's the power of the democratic process -- voters get to elect people who share their views and will enact policies/priorities that reflect those views, which is how the community influences the direction of the schools.

Here are a few examples of tough trade-offs we've made over the last two years:

  • In February of 2009, the superintendents brought forth a motion to eliminate all elementary instrumental music and to eliminate all world language for 7th graders. These cuts were designed to save other things (such as keeping Marks Meadow open and maintaining small team sizes at the MS and small class sizes at the HS). The SC discussed these choices, and heard from the community, and decided that it wasn't a good idea to cut instrumental music and 7th grade world language, which we then conveyed to the superintendent. We therefore chose to maintain these programs, with the understanding that other cuts would have to be made instead.
  • In May of 2009, the Amherst School Committee voted to close Marks Meadow -- with the understanding that this choice would save $500,000 (or more). Some people opposed this decision (and still do), because they believe that keeping this school open was more important than more temporary choices (such as increasing class sizes and eliminating instrumental music).
  • In December of 2009, Mark Jackson recommended to the SC that we move to three study halls a year in the HS, so that we could maintain small class sizes. However, the SC decided that having HS kids spend 20% of their time in a study hall was not a good idea, which we conveyed to the administration (which then moved to two study halls a year).
So, those are three examples of times in which the SC weighed in -- either in line with or opposing the community/administration view, depending on the issue and one's perspective -- and made a decision that involved a trade-off. And had different people been on the SC, perhaps different decisions would have been made.

We are now facing other such decisions.
  • At the elementary level, we are choosing whether to add K to 6 Spanish in all schools, or to adopt other programs (the current administration proposal is to add 1 Spanish teacher for the whole district, plus a computer teacher -- increasing our computer instruction in the district from 2 to 3, plus an intervention teacher -- increasing our intervention support from 11.8 to 12.8). Thus, the SC will have to decide whether K to 6 world language is in fact important, or whether these resources should be spent in other ways. In addition, we have to decide whether time spent learning Spanish would be BETTER spent learning something else (e.g., more time on instrumental music or math or science). Those are trade-offs of both time and money.
  • At the high school level, we are choosing between more required study halls versus larger class sizes. Currently at ARHS, average class sizes are 21 to 22 in the core academic disciplines, and very few classes are over 25 students (14% in English, 13% in Social Studies, 15% in Science, 26% in Math), but we have all students in two required study halls. In contrast, other districts have made a choice to have larger class sizes, but no required study halls. For example, in Newton, MA, there are two high schools, and here is the % of classes over 25 students by discipline in each high school: Newton South - 2% of English, 33% of science, 29% of social studies, 36% of math; Newton North - 6% of English, 42% of Science, 35% of social studies, 32% of Math. So, they have fewer large classes than we do in English (by far, and at both high schools), but more large class sizes in social studies (twice as many), science (more than twice as many), and math. But they have no required study halls, meaning that each year, students spend 14% more time in class learning in Newton than in Amherst.
The thing I keep in mind about all these decisions is that there are distinct trade-offs ... and that on the whole, I believe most people agree more than they disagree. I think we can all agree that it would be great for kids to have some exposure to Spanish in elementary school, but some people think the trade-offs aren't worth it (e.g., that we could spend the money/time in a better way). Similarly, I think we could all agree that in an ideal world, kids would have small classes in high school AND no study halls (but we do in fact have to make this choice and different people come down on different sides regarding the relative priority of smaller classes versus more study halls). That is the tough job facing the SC (which does vote on issues of both budget and policy), and I believe we do our best when parents, teachers, and community members share their views on these trade-offs so that we at least have as much information as possible and as many viewpoints as possible. And that is one of the reasons I have this blog - to allow for such information and dialogue from many voices.


Anonymous said...

The saddest thing of all is that we have to have trade-offs at all. I remember a time when the SC did not spend the majority of their meetings struggling with an ever diminishing pot of money. A time when we did not have to make so many trade-off decisions.

I am thankful to everyone sitting on the SC - its a thankless job because no matter what they do, someone will be unhappy. I do not always agree with all the SC's decisions but I am always thankful there are thoughtful, hard-working people willing to volunteer their time to make those hard decisions.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 1:49 - I agree it is sad we have so many trade-offs due to lack of resources. I think it is also important to remember that some trade-offs are about TIME ... so doing Spanish is to me more about time than money (and yes, adding world language means less time for something else). Similarly, the debate about trimesters/semesters is sort of about money (it is cheaper to have no study halls on the semester system than the trimester system) but is more to me about time - even with more $$, it is a choice between more time in a given class (e.g., continuous math all year) versus more different class options with less time in each (e.g., getting to take 15 classes versus 14 classes). And thank you for your kind words about the tough job of SC members!

Anonymous said...

I still struggle to understand the trade off in the decision to close Marks Meadow. It doesn't make sense and never has. This is a building donated to the town. A building that was virtually free--as far as heat, electricity and all other building costs. Yes, I do understand the so claimed "savings"--can you show us these savings in a line-by-line document (or whatever they call it??) in this closure, but the trade off is one that will never add up. It really feels like a voice, one with money, overruled the voice, one without money, in this case...I mean seriously--Marks Meadow is just a neighborhood school--with small classrooms serving a vast population of children in UMass housing or nearby apartment complexes... And Ms. Catherine--data proves this is the best way to educate kids... SMALL CLASSROOMS...
I beg to differ with you in regards to your belief that a small portion of the community agrees with this decision... A voiceless population has been devastated...and sadly, as usual, by hands of those with more $$ aka power!

Anonymous said...

Data does not show that the small classes are the most important factor in school success (especially in the middle and high school grades).

Small class size has been shown to have a small beneficial effect on elementary reading achievement.

However, the peer group, child's absentee rate, quality of teaching and the socio-economic status of the school district are far stronger predictors of classroom achievement.

MM was a nice place but a luxury for the community at large. Amherst is out of the luxury business for now.

Ed said...

The problem with the Mark's Meadow argument is at what point do you stop? Why not have a teacher for each and every student -- why not have three? At what point do you balance ability to pay with benefit?

Do we have a police officer standing watch on all four corners of your property and a fire truck idling (24/7) in your driveway?

There is a balance between what we would like to fund and that which we can support. And while we can disagree where the line is, I like to think that everyone can agree that there is a line.

Anonymous said...

Required reading in this area:

"The Triumph of Politics" by David Stockman, Ronald Reagan's Budget Director starting in 1981.

The book featured so much candor about politics that Stockman ended up taking a much publicized "trip to the woodshed" with Daddy Reagan after the book came out.

Stockman watched with some horror and dismay as he realized that the Reagan Revolution that celebrated the easy tax cuts couldn't THEN muster the political will to do the corresponding, much-tougher- to-get-done spending cuts. It's all set down in excruciating confessional detail, as deficits spiraled out of control and Stockman naively thought that he could talk truth to power about budgetary realities.

The experience was so devastating for Stockman that he hasn't been seen anywhere near government for decades, despite his initial status as the young superstar. So the book is an ironic legacy: as relevant today as ever, and a bracing reminder of the crazy aspects of a presidency that has picked up some sepia tones in the popular mind with time. But the general political lesson is that we all much prefer to be lied to.

Catherine's review of the choices facing the SC going forward pre-Mark's Meadow closing is instructive and a valuable refresher as to what was saved from the chopping block, amidst the still lingering anger and recrimination as a much-loved school closes.

Rich Morse

Rick said...

The part of this trade off thing that is not working for me is that I don’t think we have the right forum for hearing all ideas on the trade offs. Pretty much we have this:

• SC meetings: too formal; not enough of a conversation and open discussion.
• Blogs: OK, but not as good as face to face, back and forth
• One on one: hearing directly from people; OK but not broad enough discussion.

What would be better? Perhaps more forums? Why do we only have forums on the super-major stuff, like closing MM, or the budget? How many budget presentations have you been to this year, compared with a real presentation and discussion on K-6 WL versus something else?

The little snippets of discussion we have at SC meetings on this is nowhere near good enough to really get an understanding of the pros and cons of topics such as this (K-6 WL).

Anonymous said...

Rick, good idea! What about a public forum one Tuesday evening every month on the "topic of the day." It could be trimester/semester issues, world languages in the elementary schools, the study hall issue, the math curriculum, etc. If the School Committee committed to being there and you had research and handouts ready for the public and it was a real opportunity for discussion, I think people would come.

Rick said...

At last night’s meeting we talked about creating a communication “task force”, which I had proposed (in an email to the SC) would do these four things:

1. Investigate forms of communication (web, email, print, etc.) and whether we are missing out on some methods and/or could be using them more effectively.

2. Help gather and create content for distribution via the methods above (#1). This would include everything from information requested about ARPS that may be missing from the web site, to news stories and events from all schools.

3. Help solicit feedback from parents, teachers and students. Give those with complaints or ideas a place to come to have them listened to.

4. At some point engage in marketing activities. We compete against private and charter schools that market their product. A side benefit of this effort would be to get ARPS to think of itself as competing for customers. This would also have the effect of boosting moral as positive things are talked about in developing marketing communications.

Forums would be a way to deal with #3. I will discuss this with the Superintendent as we get going with this task force.

LarryK4 said...

Yes Rick, that was a HUGE (Chinese style) red flag when previous interim Superintendent Alton Sprague vilified an Internet suggestion box by saying in his 40 years of education experience nothing good had ever come from such a concept.


Anonymous said...

This talk of creating a new forum for discussions about school decisions scares me because I picture an unwieldy, town meeting-like entity. Although we have 240 members giving input to decisions, some would argue that the 240 people who volunteer for town meeting are not a truly representative sample of the town. I think the same thing would happen if we tried to come up with some new way of discussing school decisions.

There are many different channels for voicing one's opinion: AB, this blog, SC meetings, school council, parent council, SC email...It seems as if this talk of creating new avenues will just make more work for people who are already working hard enough and giving enough of their time to volunteer boards.

There are ALWAYS trade-offs -- and Catherine's post shows some great examples of the trade-offs that we have made.

I think the problem is that we tend to want everything - and that is not a realistic way to run a school system when health insurance costs and special education costs continue to rise at unsustainable rates.

In the 80s health insurance costs were less than 1% of the tax levy -- now they are over 10% and pushing their way toward 20%. The same goes for special ed. This is forcing us to make difficult choices.

Anonymous said...

Please--What on earth does having a police officer on four corners of my property have to do with giving up a high preforming elementary school that is virtually free to maintain thanks to UMass??? The savings--which have grown and grown depending on who is reporting, have never been proved. I have not seen anywhere, at any time, proof that $$ will be saved by its closure or used for anything else in the schools.
This school is not a luxury but a necessity to the continued success of our children.
Families are in crisis over this decision and voices pleaded with the school committee members to leave it alone--all unheard!! As a matter of fact, the only person who got any coverage for being upset was the chairman over his tears at making the decision final!
Small classrooms are proven--in data, research, to be of great benefit to children's ability to learn, yet the only school building in town that fits this mode is being closed...go figure....because I can't.

Curious Parent said...

So what are current Marks Meadows parents doing about this change next year? Are they moving out of town? Choicing their kids into schools that are smaller? Sending their kids to private schools? Or just sending their children to wherever in Amherst they are being redistricted to? I am genuinely curious. Our neighborhood was unaffected by the closure/redistricing so I am a little out-of-touch with how parents who are affected are making decisions for their kids next year.

TomG said...

Looking at two decisions ahead in the context of three similar decisions made in the past is instructive. Describing a process that includes gathering opinions about the issue is instructive too. What is not clear is the role of research in driving a SC member's decision-making. I'm sure its there somewhere, I just don't see it drawn clearly.

By the way, I loved RM's rich description of "The Triumph of Politics" by David Stockman. Thank you RM.

Anonymous said...

Curious Parent,
MM parents, best I can tell, are celebrating their union with Wildwood next year by visiting via skype, shadowing their school with a classmate of the same age in the same grade and other ways--all of which do not unfortunately involve all the children attending there. Some, as rumor has it, have decided to homeschool, or those who can afford it, are private school bound. This is simply a tragedy, that has been forced on a community into thinking that if this school were to remain open then children in other schools would be made to suffer with cuts to music and the arts. Such utter nonsense. It's pretty sad that MM has been 'bullied' out of existence...pretty sad... A thoughtful trade-off not!