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.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Analysis Ties 4th Grade Reading Failure to Poverty

Note: This is a very interesting article on the importance of early reading proficiency -- with some real implications for the Amherst schools (e.g., it suggests that concentrations of low income kids in one school hurt achievement and describes the hazards of summer fall back and the benefits of preschool education).

Education Week
By Debra Viadero
May 17, 2010

Eighty-five percent of poor 4th graders in predominantly low-income schools are failing to reach “proficient” levels in reading on federal tests, according to a new study by a national foundation that is gearing up to lead a 10-year effort to raise 3rd graders’ reading proficiency.

“The evidence is clear that those students who do not read well have a very tough time succeeding in school and graduating from high schools and going on to successful careers and lives,” Ralph R. Smith, the executive vice president of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, said in an interview. “The Casey Foundation is putting a stake in the ground on grade-level reading by the end of the 3rd grade.”

The report, which is due to be released this morning, lays out the statistical case for the foundation’s soon-to-be-announced, 10-year initiative to ensure that more children become proficient readers by the time they leave 3rd grade.

As part of the new campaign, the report says, the foundation plans to join with other philanthropies to finance reading-improvement efforts in a dozen states representing different geographic regions in the country. But Mr. Smith said details of that new venture will not be available for another two months.

The report, “EARLY WARNING!: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,” is the 21st in a series of statistics-laden Kids Count special reports by the foundation. While some of the foundation’s previous studies have emphasized its “two-generation” approach to improving the well-being of disadvantaged young children and their parents, the new report shifts the focus to getting children on the path to reading proficiency from birth through 3rd grade.

Context Matters

Nationwide, the report notes that 68 percent of all 4th grade public school students scored below proficient levels on 2009 reading tests administered through the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated testing program. But on a state-by-state basis, the percentages ranged from a high of 82 percent in Louisiana to 53 percent in Massachusetts.

National results for the 2009 NAEP reading tests were released in March, and the U.S. Department of Education on Thursday is scheduled to release results in reading from the Trial Urban District Assessment, which compares the performance of 4th and 8th grade students in 18 of the largest U.S. school districts.

The foundation adds a new wrinkle to those analyses, though, by breaking out passage rates for disadvantaged students in the nation’s neediest schools.

The figures show how poverty and different school contexts can exacerbate the proportion of students having trouble mastering reading. While 83 percent of poor black students in schools with moderate to low levels of poverty failed to hit the grade-level reading target, for example, the corresponding percentage for low-income African-American students in schools with high concentrations of poor students was 90 percent. For economically disadvantaged Hispanic students, the percentage of students falling short of proficiency drops from 88 percent in the schools with the most poor children to 82 percent in better-off schools.

The nation’s reading problem is also worse than it seems, the foundation says, because many states, facing pressure to boost students’ scores on state exams, have lowered the “cut scores,” which are the number of items that students must answer correctly. To underscore that point, the report cites an earlier study by the National Center for Education Statistics, which showed that only 16 states set their proficiency standards at levels that met or exceeded NAEP’s lower “basic” standard.

It’s crucial that children master grade-level reading by 3rd grade, the report says, because that’s when instruction moves from a focus on learning to read to reading to learn.

Room for Improvement

The report also offers several recommendations for improving children’s reading, including targeting absenteeism—an aspect of schooling that is often overlooked. Nationwide, the report says, an average of one in 10 kindergartners and 1st graders miss 10 percent or more of the school year because of excused or unexcused absences. In some districts, the ratio is as high as one in four for children in grades K-3.

“Because we generally thought about it in terms of truancy, we haven’t really done the math,” Mr. Smith said. “When you do that, you find that for many reasons we have not completely built a culture of attendance.”

The report also targets the disproportionate learning losses experienced by poor children over the summer as another area ripe for improvement.

To underscore that point, the report cites research showing that low-income children fall behind during the summer by as much as two months in reading achievement, while middle-income students tend to make slight gains in that subject over the same period. That’s because more-affluent parents can better afford books, computers, summer camps, and other learning opportunities that keep students learning when school is out, the report says.

The report also makes a pitch for developing a coherent system of early care and education that “aligns, integrates, and coordinates what happens from birth through 3rd grade,” so that children enter 4th grade healthy and better able to understand the more-complex reading tests they encounter at that level.

The Case for Common Educational Standards

Note: This article was sent to me by one of my blog readers, and I thought was really interesting (and timely).

Wall Street Journal
April 6, 2010

Recently, the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a group of 48 states organized by the nation's governors and chief state school officers, released draft K-12 education standards in English and mathematics.

As a former CEO of a Fortune 500 company, I know that common education standards are essential for producing the educated work force America needs to remain globally competitive. Good standards alone are not enough, but without them decisions about such things as curricula, instructional materials and tests are haphazard. It is no wonder that educational quality varies so widely among states.

English and math standards have so far mostly been set without empirical evidence or attention as to whether students were learning what they needed for college and the workplace. College educators and employers were hardly ever part of the discussion, even though they knew best what the real world would demand of high school graduates. Luckily, about five years ago, states began to raise the bar so that their standards would reflect college- and career-ready expectations.

The draft common core state standards build on this effort and are a significant improvement over most current state standards. The reaction to them has been positive from across the political spectrum, from teachers unions (the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers) to conservative governors such as Georgia's Sonny Perdue and Indiana's Mitch Daniels. They provide a grade-by-grade progression from kindergarten to high school graduation and rely heavily on well-regarded state standards, such as those from Massachusetts, Minnesota and California.

Fifty different sets of standards make no sense. It is much more efficient and less costly for states to mutually develop standards and then work together on the tools needed, such as tests and textbooks, to ensure the standards reach classrooms, teachers and students.

I realize that some critics worry that common state standards will lead to federal standards and a big government encroachment on matters traditionally the domain of states and localities. But as a conservative businessman, I can't agree with these arguments. The common core effort has been 100% voluntary. And while the federal government hopes to incentivize states to adopt common standards, the effort has been entirely state-led, with no federal funding or exertion of influence over their content.

The world has changed considerably in the past century, and our education system must keep pace. In 1950, 60% of all jobs were classified as "unskilled" and available to those with high-school diplomas or less, according to research published by the Education Testing Services. Now more than 80% of jobs are skilled, requiring education and training beyond high school, according to research published by the Brookings Institution. For example, to work on the manufacturing floor at Intel today, an employee must have an associate's degree or higher.

Of course, education reform is not merely about creating future workers. Making sense of retirement options, health-care plans and mortgages—not to mention bills pending in Congress—requires a sophisticated level of knowledge and skills. We have an obligation to prepare our students to be capable adult citizens.

State education standards evolve over time, and the Common Core State Standards Initiative is an important step forward. I hope final standards soon will be issued and that states begin to adopt and implement them. This will help ensure that all students can receive the college- and career-ready, world-class education they deserve, no matter where they live.

Mr. Barrett, a former CEO of Intel Corp., serves as co-chair of Achieve, a nonprofit, bipartisan
education reform organization.

Special Meeting of the Amherst School Committee - Wednesday, June 2, 2010

AGENDA (ARHS Library, 7 pm)
1. Review of Attorney’s Report on Options for Union 26
2. Discuss Possible Interviews with Legal Firms on Selected Dates

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Local school advocates ready to fight any regionalization efforts

Hampshire Gazette
By Ben Storrow
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

This is a very interesting article about how some Western MA districts are fighting the push coming from the state for reigonalization (and includes specific reference to how Union 28, which includes Leverett and Shutesbury). You can find the full article at:

Concern over 'official' bloggers spurs query to DA

Hampshire Gazette
By Ben Storrow

Beth Graham Appointed Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

Interim Superintendent Maria Geryk has made an appointment for the position of Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. Geryk issued this statement on Tuesday, May 25:

I am pleased to announce that I have appointed Ms. Beth Graham as Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. Ms. Graham will begin her work in the district on July 1. Ms. Graham’s most recent position is that of Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School, a position she has held for two years. Prior to this, Ms. Graham was Director of New Teachers Collaborative, F.W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, MA, Dean of Curriculum and Program at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, and Director of Unified Arts (K-12) in Danvers, MA. Her educational leadership career began in the Watertown Public Schools as K-12 Director of Music. Ms. Graham’s teaching career began in 1978 in the North Andover Public School District as Choral and Band Director for elementary and secondary students.

Ms. Graham’s background also includes significant experience in a variety of School Coaching experiences. She is a National Facilitator for the School Reform Initiative training Critical Friends coaches. Ms. Graham has served as a Coach for the Connecticut Center for School Change, as Facilitator and Professional Development Coach for the Education Alliance at Brown University, and others. Ms. Graham has been a presenter at a variety of workshops over a 15-year period for the Coalition of Essential Schools, the United Stated Department of Education, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and numerous others. The full resume of Ms. Graham is attached below. Ms. Graham has Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education certification as Superintendent/Assistant Superintendent (All Levels), Supervisor/Director (All Levels), Principal/Assistant Principal (PK-12), and Vocal and Instrumental Music (PK-12).

I expect to have the opportunity to formally introduce Ms. Graham to you at one of the School Committee meetings that will be scheduled next September. Ms. Graham will be able to outline her work to date as she entered our district and describe to the community her plans as our new Director. I hope you will join me in warmly welcoming Ms. Graham to our school community.

You can find Ms. Graham's resume at:

Monday, May 24, 2010

Small-town school board puts opt-out stamp on state ed reform - TAKE 2

Note: Given all the interest that the Amherst School Committee's decision to seek information on options regarding Union 26 has generated, I decided to post the link to the story that really started it all -- which appeared in March in the Gazette. As you can read in this story, the change in the law was a direct result of action on the part of the Chair of the Shutesbury School Committee, and in fact occurred because Shutesbury was interested in studying its options to get out of Union 28. I am surprised that there wasn't considerable turmoil about the School Committee in Shutesbury's interest in studying this issue, JUST LIKE THE SCHOOL COMMITTEE IN AMHERST. I first put up this link on Friday, but it wasn't working -- it is now available, and I encourage you to read it.

One more note -- I'm now going to be posting links to stories in the Gazette, and if you click on the link, you will get to the full story. The Gazette has moved to make their stories on education (that might be of interest to my readers) available without a subscription. Please let me know if you have problems accessing the full story (now or at any time) and I will then check into that.

Hampshire Gazette
Thursday, March 11, 2010

Second-Class Science: Education Research Gets an F

by Sharon Begley
Published Apr 29, 2010
From the magazine issue dated May 10, 2010

Since holding teachers responsible for student performance is now all the rage, from the White House to the political right, let us do a simple thought experiment. Imagine an amateur baseball league in which team owners dictate which bats players use. The owners try to choose the best, but the research on bats is so poor, they have to rely on anecdotes—"Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs with maple!"—and on manufacturers' claims. As a result, some teams wind up using bats that are too heavy, too fragile, or no better than a broomstick. Does it make sense to cut players who were forced to use ineffective equipment?

It goes without saying that effective teaching has many components, from dedication to handling a classroom and understanding how individual students learn. But a major ingredient is the curriculum the school requires them to use. Yet in one of those you've-got-to-be-kidding situations, the scientific basis for specific curricular materials, and even for general approaches such as how science should be taught, is so flimsy as to be a national scandal. As pay-for-performance spreads, we will therefore be punishing teachers for, in some cases, using the pedagogic equivalent of foam bats. "There is a dearth of carefully crafted, quantitative studies on what works," says William Cobern of Western Michigan University. "It's a crazy situation."

Cobern tried to fix that in a study comparing direct instruction with inquiry learning, competing ways to teach science. The smart money has been on the latter, in which students explore a question on their own by, say, growing some seedlings in a closet and others on a windowsill to discover photosynthesis rather than being given the concept by the teacher. Cobern's team randomly assigned 180 eighth graders (randomization is the gold standard for research, as in trials for new drugs) to one or the other form of instruction, they report in a study published in Research in Science & Technological Education in April. Contrary to received wisdom, "as long as students are actively engaged, direct instruction does just as well as inquiry-based teaching" in how well kids learn science concepts, he told me. Yet national and state standards push inquiry learning. As Cobern's team diplomatically put it, "Some claims for inquiry methods regarding understanding the nature of science are not sufficiently supported by evidence."

Indeed, an exhaustive analysis of 138 studies of inquiry-based science instruction in K–12 found that most of them had highly problematic designs: 53 percent did not randomly assign students to one kind of instruction or failed to include a control group. Not only did most studies have "marginal methodological rigor," the analysts found, but the trend was "toward a decrease" in rigor.

When it comes to specific curricula, the scientific vacuity of education research is even more exasperating. In 2002 Congress established the Institute of Education Sciences in the Department of Education to conduct peer-reviewed studies of everything from math software to rewarding kids for academic performance. If you have a child in K–12, peruse IES's What Works Clearinghouse. It is an ugly picture. Only one of five studies of Saxon Math (a home-schooling program for grades 6 to 8) met the standards for scientific rigor, IES found. For Web-based Odyssey Math, a K–8 curriculum, no studies out of 20 did so. Of 12 studies of Singapore Math, modeled on that city's supposedly superior math program, not a single one was methodologically rigorous (in many cases, there was no comparison group). Of 23 studies of Bridges in Mathematics, not a single one met evidence standards, and 16 were so sloppy that it was "impossible to attribute the observed effect" to the program. None of the 40 studies of Investigations in Number, Data, and Space met the standards.

And where the studies were rigorous, the curriculum often flunked. None of four LeapTrack math programs "demonstrated significant effects on student achievement." For Plato Achieve Now, which runs on a PlayStation Portable and emphasizes learning at one's own pace, there was "no discernible effect on math achievement." Ready, Set, Leap!, a preschool reading curriculum, "was found to have no discernible effects on oral language, print knowledge, phonological processing, early reading/writing skills, and math," based on two good studies. And so on.

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote that when one compares the importance of education with "the frivolous inertia with which it is treated," it is "difficult to restrain within oneself a savage rage." That was 80 years ago.

Sharon Begley is NEWSWEEK's science editor and author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Impact (or NOT) of Professional Development

There has been a lot of discussion on my blog (and in meetings) about choices we make in education, and that includes the type of interventions we use. One type of intervention used is for professional development for teachers (including both work outside of school and in-school work such as "coaching). Two recent review of the research on the effectiveness of such professional development (one on reading, one on math) unfortunately suggest that this approach has no impact on student achievement. I've posted the Executive Summaries of both reports below (as well as the links to the full reports for those who want the whole story).

Executive Summary: Impact of Two Professional Development Interventions on Early Reading Instruction and Achievement—NCEE 2008-4030, September 2008

Professional development (PD) of teachers is viewed as a vital tool in school improvement efforts (Hill 2007). The importance of professional development (PD) for teachers is underscored in several major federal education initiatives, including the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) statute. For example, Title II of NCLB provided $585 million to states and districts for PD activities during the 2002-2003 school year alone in order to meet the goal of having a highly qualified teacher in every classroom (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). Two years later, Title II funding for PD remained at over $500 million (U.S. Department of Education 2007).

Are teachers receiving the PD that they need? A recent national study of state and local NCLB implementation indicated that 80 percent of elementary teachers reported participating in 24 hours of PD on reading instruction or less during the 2003–2004 school year and summer (U.S. Department of Education 2007). Reading and PD experts have raised a concern that this level of PD is not intensive enough to be effective, and that it does not focus enough on subject-matter knowledge (Cohen and Hill 2001; Fletcher and Lyon 1998; Foorman and Moats 2004; Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, and Yoon 2001).

To help states and districts make informed decisions about the PD they implement to improve reading instruction, the U.S. Department of Education commissioned the Early Reading PD Interventions Study to examine the impact of two research-based PD interventions for reading instruction: (1) a content-focused teacher institute series that began in the summer and continued through much of the school year (treatment A) and (2) the same institute series plus in-school coaching (treatment B). The study team consists of AIR, MDRC, and REDA International, Inc., who conducted the research activities, and Sopris West and the Consortium on Reading Excellence (CORE), who delivered the teacher and coach PD.

The Early Reading PD Interventions Study used an experimental design to test the effectiveness of the two PD interventions in improving the knowledge and practice of teachers and the reading achievement of their students in high-poverty schools. It focused specifically on second grade reading because (1) this is the earliest grade in which enough districts collect the standardized reading assessment data needed for the study; and (2) later grades involve supplementary (pull out) instruction, which was outside the scope of the study. The study was implemented in 90 schools in six districts (a total of 270 teachers), with equal numbers of schools randomly assigned in each district to treatment A, treatment B, or the control group, which participated only in the usual PD offered by the district. This design allowed the study team to determine the impact of each of the two PD interventions by comparing each treatment group’s outcomes with those of the control group, and also to determine the impact of the coaching above and beyond the institute series by comparing treatment group B with treatment group A.

This report describes the implementation of the PD interventions tested, and examines their impacts at the end of the year the PD was delivered. In addition, we investigate the possible lagged effect of the interventions, based on outcomes data collected the year after the PD interventions concluded.

The study produced the following results:

* Although there were positive impacts on teacher’s knowledge of scientifically based reading instruction and on one of the three instructional practices promoted by the study PD, neither PD intervention resulted in significantly higher student test scores at the end of the one-year treatment. Teachers in schools that were randomly assigned to receive the study’s PD scored significantly higher on the teacher knowledge test than did teachers in control schools, with standardized mean difference effect sizes (hereafter referred to as “effect sizes”) of 0.37 for the institute series alone (treatment A) and 0.38 for the institute series plus coaching (treatment B). Teachers in both treatment A and treatment B used explicit instruction to a significantly greater extent during their reading instruction blocks than teachers in control schools (effect size of 0.33 for treatment A and 0.53 for treatment B). However, there were no statistically significant differences in achievement between students in the treatment and control schools.

* The added effect of the coaching intervention on teacher practices in the implementation year was not statistically significant. The effect sizes for the added impact of coaching were 0.21 for using explicit instruction, 0.17 for encouraging independent student activity, and 0.03 for differentiating instruction, but these effects may be due to chance.

* There were no statistically significant impacts on measured teacher or student outcomes in the year following the treatment.

Executive Summary: Middle School Mathematics Professional Development Impact Study

This report presents interim results from the Middle School Mathematics Professional Development Impact Study, which is sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). The report presents results immediately following one year of the study’s professional development. A future report will present results following two years of professional development.

Student achievement in mathematics has been a focal concern in the United States for many years. The National Research Council’s 2001 report and the recent report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (2008) both called attention to student achievement in mathematics, and both called for all students to learn algebra by the end of eighth grade. Reports have argued, further, that achieving this goal requires that students first successfully learn several topics in rational numbers — fractions, decimals, ratio, rate, proportion, and percent. These topics are typically covered in grades 4 through 7, yet many students continue to struggle with them beyond the seventh grade. The National Mathematics Advisory Panel wrote that “difficulty with fractions (including decimals and percent) is pervasive and is a major obstacle to further progress in mathematics, including algebra” (p. xix). The panel also specified that by the end of seventh grade, “students should be able to solve problems involving percent, ratio, and rate, and extend this work to proportionality” (p. 20).

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) — within the Institute of Education Sciences — initiated the Middle School Mathematics Professional Development Impact Study to test the impact of a professional development (PD) program for teachers that was designed to address the problem of low student achievement in topics in rational numbers. The study focuses on seventh grade, the culminating year for teaching those topics. The study is being conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and MDRC together with their evaluation partners REDA International and Westat.

Currently, through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government provides significant resources for PD, but little rigorous evidence is available on the impact of PD on teacher and student outcomes. Hundreds of studies have addressed the topic of teacher learning and PD (for reviews, see Borko 2004; Clewell, Campbell, and Perlman 2004; Kennedy 1998; Richardson and Placier 2001; Supovitz 2001; Yoon, Duncan, Lee, Scarloss, and Shapley 2007). The most recent review of studies of the impact of teacher PD on student achievement revealed a total of nine studies that have rigorous designs — randomized control trials (RCTs) or certain quasi-experimental designs (QEDs) — that allow causal inferences to be made (Yoon et al. 2007). Four of the nine studies focused on the effect of a PD program on mathematics achievement, and none focused on mathematics at the middle school level.

The Middle School Mathematics PD Impact Study is the first rigorous test of the impact of a PD program focused on teachers of middle school mathematics. Within 12 participating school districts, the study randomly assigned 77 mid- and high-poverty schools to treatment and control conditions and collected outcome data on teachers and students. The PD was delivered by two provider organizations, each of which served the treatment schools in six of the 12 participating districts. Seventh-grade teachers in the treatment schools had the opportunity to receive the PD program offered by the study and could also continue to participate in the PD activities that they would have received in the absence of the study. Seventh-grade teachers in the control schools received only the PD that they would have received in the absence of the study.

The study has three central research questions:

  1. What impact did the PD program provided in this study have on teacher knowledge of rational number topics?

  2. What impact did the PD program provided in this study have on teacher instructional practices?

  3. What impact did the PD program provided in this study have on student achievement in rational number topics?
The study produced the following results:
  • The study’s PD program was implemented as intended. The PD providers delivered an average of 67.6 hours of PD per site, compared to 68 hours intended, and the treatment group teachers attended an average of 83 percent of the PD that was delivered. In surveys given to treatment and control group teachers, treatment group teachers reported participating in 55.4 hours more mathematics-related PD than the control group teachers.

  • The PD program did not produce a statistically significant impact on teacher knowledge of rational numbers (effect size = 0.19, p-value = 0.15). On average, 54.7 percent of teachers in the treatment group answered test items of average difficulty correctly, compared with 50.1 percent for teachers in the control group.

  • The PD program had a statistically significant impact on the frequency with which teachers engaged in activities that elicited student thinking, one of the three measures of instructional practice used in the study (effect size = 0.48). This measure encompasses such behaviors as asking other students whether they agree or disagree with a particular student’s response and also includes behaviors elicited from the students such as offering additional justifications or strategies. Treatment teachers on average engaged in 1.03 more activities per hour that elicited student thinking. The PD program did not produce a statistically significant impact on the other two measures of instructional practice: Teacher uses representations (effect size = 0.30; p-value = 0.0539) and Teacher focuses on mathematical reasoning (effect size = 0.19; p-value = 0.32).

  • The PD program did not produce a statistically significant impact on student achievement (effect size = 0.04, p-value = 0.37).
You can read the full reports at: and

Small-town school board puts opt-out stamp on state ed reform

Note: Given all the interest that the Amherst School Committee's decision to seek information on options regarding Union 26 has generated, I decided to post the link to the story that really started it all -- which appeared in March in the Gazette. As you can read in this story, the change in the law was a direct result of action on the part of the Chair of the Shutesbury School Committee, and in fact occurred because Shutesbury was interested in studying its options to get out of Union 28. I am surprised that there wasn't considerable turmoil about the School Committee in Shutesbury's interest in studying this issue, JUST LIKE THE SCHOOL COMMITTEE IN AMHERST.

One more note -- I'm now going to be posting links to stories in the Gazette, and if you click on the link, you will get to the full story. The Gazette has moved to make their stories on education (that might be of interest to my readers) available without a subscription. Please let me know if you have problems accessing the full story (now or at any time) and I will then check into that.

Hampshire Gazette
Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Amherst Meeting, May 18, 2010

So, I want to start with a quick update: I heard from a number of people that there was a problem with the live feed from ACTV last night of this meeting, so I've looked into that situation and here is the key relevant news. First, the meeting is now available to watch on demand (, so you can watch it now if you missed some/all of it. Second, they are broadcasting last night's school committee meeting tomorrow (May 20th) three times: 9:00 AM, 1:00 PM, and 5:00 PM. Additionally, they have let me know if in the future you notice a problem with the live feed (there was a glitch last night that apparently could have been fixed if they knew at the time), please call the station at 413-259-3300 immediately (the voice mail prompt will ask you to press #5 and leave a message that is received by our staff immediately).

So, now to the meeting itself (which, for the record, was a really great one).

First, we had public comments from a number of people. Joel Wolfe expressed support for both the elementary Spanish program and for looking into the Union 26 agreement. Abbie Jensen expressed support for looking into the Union 26 agreement as well as her enthusiasm for the world language program (and a desire that the impact of this program be evaluated). Mike Jacques expressed his support for looking into the Union 26 agreement as well as his concern about the increasing % of the budget over the last 10 years that is going to SPED/intervention coupled with a decreasing % that is going to regular education (and 80% of the students). Sue Borden expressed support for the new world language program, support for looking into the Union 26 agreement, and support for placing on the regional agenda making the 9th grade environmental science class optional as opposed to required. Then Farshid Hajir, Chair of the Regional Committee, delivered a critique of the Amherst School Committee's handling of the Union 26 agreement.

Irv then responded to this critique at some length (clarifying the nature of the communication between the various chairs), as did Maria (more briefly).

I then read aloud an email that was sent to the entire Amherst School Committee by Irv Rhodes after last week's meeting (with Irv's permission). I am pasting the statement in its entirety:

I want to make the following pledge to the Amherst School Committee: Irv Rhodes


  • To be open, honest and transparent about any and all matters that come before the Amherst School Committee and keep you informed about any events that directly or indirectly involve the work of the Amherst School Committee
  • Seek your input on all meeting agendas
  • Work collaboratively with the School Administration
  • Provide leadership and guidance on all critical issues facing the committee
  • Manage all school committee meetings effectively and efficiently so that the members time is respected
  • Seek guidance and advice from School committee members as appropriate
  • Represent the will of the committee to the administration, school community and the Amherst Community
  • Keep a clear focus on how to advance student learning
  • Working with the School Committee in identifying strategies to promote organizational effectiveness of the school district through the policies and decisions of the school committee*
  • Working with the School Committee on establishing a process of periodic goal setting and assessment to promote the work of the district and guide the superintendent as the administrator of district policy*
  • Working with the School Committee by guiding its work in fulfilling its mission as the guardian of the public treasury by establishing a budget that fulfills the district's goals and monitoring the financial operation during the year to ensure the integrity and clarity of fiscal management.*
  • Working with the School Committee on establishing and clarifying the purpose of the school district through its mission and vision statement, policies and actions at the meeting table.*

I expressed my appreciation for Irv's statement, in that I believe it really shows respect for all members of the Amherst SC and his desire to serve and represent all of us. I also noted that although as Vice Chair of the Regional School Committee I participate in meetings at which the agenda is set, the decision by the Chair of the Regional School Committee to add an item (the discussion of the Union 26 agreement) at the request of the Chair of Union 26 was not discussed with me at all, which I thought was unfortunate. There was then some brief discussion by Rick and Rob about the process the Amherst SC went through involving the Union 26 agreement.

Next, we turned to a report by Sean Smith, head of world languages, on the planning for the elementary world language program. He reviewed the 2008 World Language Report (he co-chaired this committee), and its recommendations and discussed next steps (this report will be posted on the ARPS website soon and I've already posted it on my blog earlier this month). These next steps include forming a "steering committee" (including parents/teachers/staff) that will meet starting in June to plan the specifics (e.g., how will this program be implemented next year, in which grades, etc.). There will be an announcement on the ARPS website later this month/early next month about how to express interest in participating in this committee. I thought Sean did a great job reviewing the relevant literature, and I'm looking forward to hearing updates on the planning of this new program later this year.

We then turned to the "first read" of the policy on world language, which I've pasted below. The process of approving policies is that we have a first read at a School Committee meeting, and then get comments from SC members (as well as parents/teachers/staff/administration), and then the policy subcommittee meets to discuss revisions, and brings a revised policy back to the SC for a "second read" and then approval. So, if you have comments on this policy, send them to Irv Rhodes (chair of policy subcommittee) at:

Policy X (number to be determined) on Elementary World Language

Evidence finds substantial benefits from the study of a foreign language in the early elementary grades. These include better cognitive acquisition and pronunciation, more rapid acquisition of vocabulary, an understanding of the structure of language that fosters learning in English language arts, and the acquisition of knowledge about other cultures which should help our students develop a better understanding of themselves as members of a global community.

Given the evidence, the long-standing desire for an elementary school world language program in Amherst that is summarized in the 2008 World Language Report, and the fact that Spanish is by far the most often non-English language spoken at home by our elementary school children, a Kindergarten through sixth grade Spanish language program will become part of the Amherst Elementary School curriculum. The program will adhere to principles consistent with the Massachusetts Frameworks and National Standards and will be integrated into the elementary classroom curriculum. Instruction will be differentiated in order to engage and meet the needs of all native and non-native Spanish speakers.

The overarching program objectives are

1. To develop a level of oral proficiency in Spanish that enables children to enter middle school language study at an advanced level;

2. To gain an understanding of the diverse cultures and traditions in Spanish speaking countries; and

3. To increase the school participation and involvement of families in which English is a second language.

We then had a brief discussion about some issues related to this program (e.g., staffing, budget, etc.). Rick raised some concerns about whether we would have the funding available for the full implementation of this program (that would be 5 or 6 teachers, compared to the 1.5 dedicated for this fall). Steve then noted that he felt we actually had much more funding than is often portrayed. In particular, he went through a list of items that are being described as "cuts" that don't actually impact the education we provide at all. These included saving $30,000 by moving the science coordinator position from the budget to a grant, $81,000 saved due to a decrease in actual health insurance premiums below expected increase (with no effect on coverage), $43,300 saved due to a decrease in health insurance costs due to lower employee enrollment, $30,000 saved due to no teachers taking sabbaticals ($30,000 budgeted), $24,000 saved due to a reduction in cost of utilities, $18,000 saved because the school bus no longer stops at all houses (children must walk to corners), $15,500 saved due to the elimination of busing to maintain language and ethnic clusters, and $18,000 saved because the substitute teacher coordinator has been replaced by new software). The superintendent stated that she disagreed that we aren't doing a lot of cutting.

Next, we turned to the superintendent's update. This update included a lot of really useful information, including the status of the K to 12 math review (Dr. Chen has been hired, will start now and submit a report in September), the equity/social justice initiative (Dr. Ray Taylor will visit and create an action plan on student achievement), the end-of-year surveys (Debbie Westmoreland and I are working on drafts of these), Response-to-Intervention efforts (IDEA funds - grant - will be used to increase our use of RTI to reduce behavioral issues and increase achievement), afterschool programming (there is a desire to have LSSE run the afterschool programs at all schools to provide a more consistent approach for students at all of the schools), and the curriculum director search (finalists will come this week, hopes to have an announcement next week).

We then had a few questions from the SC. Steve asked about whether we should require summer math of all students, as we require summer reading, to reduce the achievement drop that occurs over the summer for some kids. I noted that a number of 6th grade parents had questions about math placement issues for the middle school, and I wondered whether the superintendent could discuss whether there was a plan in place, or when there might be a plan in place, regarding this issue. The superintendent asked Mike Hayes to speak to this issue. He noted that he has heard from some parents that they are concerned with how to get their child to be able to skip 7th grade math and move into honors algebra in 7th grade, and that there seemed to be a lot of anxiety about this issue. He stated that a letter will go out to all 6th grade parents in May describing the different math options and how kids get into the different levels.

I raised three topics regarding this issue. First, I noted that there was anxiety about getting students into honors algebra because this placement both eliminated the year spent doing extensions (since these kids move directly into honors algebra as 7th graders) and resulted in these kids having a very small math class (about 10 kids in geometry) during their 8th grade year. I therefore wondered if thought was being given to eliminating extensions, given that this approach has concerned some parents and is unusual (as was noted in the Beers report). Second, I noted that in my review of other districts as part of my work on the Math Curriculum Council, I couldn't find any other districts in which only "honors algebra" was taught and not "regular algebra." I therefore wondered whether some students might be ready for "algebra" in 7th grade but not "honors algebra." Finally, I wondered why the decision has been made to give the math placement test in the fall as opposed to the spring, when what research shows is that many kids lose math skills over the summer (per Steve's earlier point) and therefore more kids might place into math in the spring than in the fall.

Mike stated that he was interested in hearing the outside consultant's report on extensions, and noted that extensions had been successful in increasing the number of kids in honors algebra. He also noted that only 2 to 3% of kids are "gifted and talented" and therefore able to handle honors algebra as 7th graders. He also stated that the placement test was really two parts, and the second part was quite difficult and was only given to a small number of kids, and that giving this test in the spring would be demoralizing.

I will finish updating the rest of the meeting tomorrow -- it was a long one!

Schism widens between Amherst, Pelham, Regional school boards

School committee members from Amherst, Pelham and the regional board are at odds over the process followed to determine the future of their shared superintendent.

At issue is whether and how one of the towns within Union 26, which includes Amherst and Pelham, can withdraw from the 109-year-old union, according to emails circulating among committee members and subsequent interviews.

But what seems to be at the root of the brouhaha is trust.

Regional School Committee Chairman Farshid Hajir was scathing in his criticism of members of the Amherst School Committee attitudes.

"I am critical because I see the fabric of collaboration between the four towns that has existed for decades ... being frayed by unilateral action on the part of the Amherst School Committee."

Amherst School Committee Chairman Irv Rhodes said, for him, the biggest issue was the scheduling of the May 11 Union 26 without his input. He said the time and place of the meeting, as well as the agenda, should have been worked out together.

"You just don't go on and have a formless meeting on a topic like this of a sensitive nature without discussing procedure, process and format," Rhodes said. "All and all, the bottom line for me is that I was totally disrespected by the chair of Union 26, Tracy, the chair of the region, Farshid, and the superintendent, Maria (Geryk). It was if I was invisible, that I didn't exist, that I didn't count, like I was no one."

Testy, testy

Meanwhile, in a string of testy emails discussing the scheduling issue, at least one participant urged people to tone down the rhetoric.

The exchanges, which circulated among Rhodes, Union 26 and Pelham School Committee Chairwoman Tracy Farnham, as well as other members of the Regional School Committee, highlighted the stakes involved in the talks surrounding the fate of Union 26, a collaboration between towns sharing board and a superintendent. Amherst and Pelham each have three representatives on the Union 26 board from their respective town School Committees.

On April 27, the Amherst School Committee voted unanimously to hire a lawyer to examine the Union 26 agreement, as well as a new state law that allows municipalities to withdraw from a school union by a one-time majority vote. Amherst member Steve Rivkin argued that a voting system in which Pelham and Amherst had three votes apiece was unfair, as Amherst students make up a drastically larger portion of the Union 26 student population, while the town pays a greater share of the district's costs.

"I am a very strong believer in proportional representation. I don't understand and am very troubled by an arrangement that has Amherst voters having one-tenth the representation of voters in Pelham," Rivkin said.

The decision to seek a legal opinion occurred after some Amherst members expressed discontent regarding a March 9 Union 26 vote, in which the board's three Pelham members joined Andy Churchill, then Amherst School Committee chairman, in promoting Maria Geryk to the position of interim superintendent.

The emails between members of the Regional School Committee - comprised of representatives from school boards from Amherst, Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury - began on May 8.

The crux of the exchange centered around a decision by Hajir to call a joint meeting of the Regional and Union 26 school committees at the request of Farnham and Geryk to discuss the acrimony surrounding the superintendency union.

In a subsequent email addressed to Hajir and sent to every member of the Regional School Committee, Rob Spence, an Amherst representative, wrote, "I think this is an inappropriate time to schedule a Union 26 meeting. ... I find this particularly inappropriate, especially that the Amherst School Committee chair was not consulted."

In the exchanges, Amherst member Rick Hood suggested that they might be in breach of state Open Meeting Law. A copy of the state attorney general's "Open Meeting Law Guidelines" posted on the department's website said that, "like private conversations held in person or over the telephone, email conversations among a quorum of members of a governmental body that relate to public business violate the Open Meeting Law." The Gazette had not received confirmation of the potential breach of law from the Northwestern district attorney's office as of press time.

Also on May 8, Farnham replied, "I would like to clarify that Irv specifically requested that I call a meeting of Union 26 and asked me to do this as soon as we possibly could."

Rhodes argued that contention, saying that while he had asked Farnham to talk to the Pelham School Committee about scheduling a Union 26 meeting as soon as possible, he had not wanted a Union 26 meeting without consultation with his town's full committee and its attorney.

"After reading this email I am shocked and saddened by your liberal use of what you consider facts," Rhodes wrote to Farnham in a message also sent to other members of the regional committee. "One thing is for sure, I will never ever meet with you without other witnesses present. ... Please stop spreading falsehoods and start taking responsibility for your misguided actions."

That drew a response from Geryk on May 10, who wrote to Irv and the group, "Irv, this email is extremely irresponsible. I am embarrassed by the conversation you are pursuing and request that we all be mindful of the language and tone that we use. ... Please remember that (School Committee) emails are considered public record."

Geryk and Rhodes continued their back-and-forth, copied to the group, while Farnham never directly responded to the accusations.

A highly charged Regional School Committee meeting followed on May 11, in which Amherst members blasted Hajir for allowing Union 26 onto the regional agenda. At the time, Amherst members argued they could not discuss the matter of the union until they had time to consult with an attorney. Pelham members argued they just wanted to have a conversation about the Amherst committee's concerns.

Ultimately, the Union 26 committee voted to adjourn before even taking up the subject. Hajir argued that the two bodies share the cost of a superintendent and, as such, a change to one school board would impact the other.

"First of all, it is very commonplace to have joint meetings of region and Union 26, and the reason is that we cooperate together to hire a superintendent," Hajir said in a phone interview Tuesday. "If there are discussions to changes to Union 26 ... then that impacts the region because the region would have to share its superintendent with another configuration of school committees, such as the Pelham School Committee and the Amherst School Committee separately."

Hajir also argues that as the respective chairs of their committees, he and Farnham have the authority to call a joint meeting.

Rhodes disagrees. "He overstepped his bounds, and he knew it," Rhodes said. "Union 26 is Union 26, and it does not include the region."

Farnham said the meeting was scheduled quickly because the Pelham School Committee voted to authorize its Union 26 representatives to meet with Amherst's Union 26 representatives on May 6. To ensure that Union 26 was added to the regional agenda for the May 11, arrangements had to be made quickly to have the meeting posted in time, Farnham said.

Catherine Sanderson, an Amherst member, said she understands Rhodes sensitivity to the subject.

"Irv was trying to represent the Amherst School Committee's wishes, which is his role as chair, and Farshid, Tracy and Maria all knew that the Amherst School Committee members did not want to have this discussion during a regional meeting at this time."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Comparing Massachusetts School Unions

There have been many questions over the last few weeks (on my blog and others, at School Committee meetings, etc.) about school unions, so I wanted to share information on school unions in Massachusetts.

First, here are the basic facts:
  • there are 17 school unions in Massachusetts, which include a total of 71 towns
  • these unions each include between 2 and 5 towns
  • these unions include schools with enrollments ranging from 0 (New Ashford, Monroe) to 1321 (Amherst)
  • Amherst is one of only 3 towns with enrollments more than 1000 in a union (the others are Southborough with 1208 and Kingston with 1180).
Second, of these 17 school unions, only 6 unions include just 2 towns:
  • Northborough & Southborough (300 & 1208 students, respectively)
  • Amherst & Pelham (1321 & 125 students)
  • Freetown & Lakeville (533 & 742 students)
  • Dover & Sherborn (572 & 450 students)
  • Berlin & Bolyston (212 & 377 students)
  • Lanesborough & Williamstown (270 & 426 students)
What is very clear from these numbers is that in the majority of these two town unions, in which each town has 50% of the vote in choosing and evaluating a superintendent, the towns are quite similar in school population -- meaning in only 1 case other than Amherst-Pelham (that would be Northborough-Southborough) does one town have more than twice as many students as another town. In the Northborough-Southborough Union, one town has only 25% of the kids compared to the other town; in Amherst-Pelham, one town has fewer than 10% of the kids compared to the other town. In other words, of all of the 2-district school unions in the state of Massachusetts, the Amherst-Pelham district has by far the greatest disparity in terms of population.

Third, I examined the size of towns in unions throughout Massachusetts. As you can tell in the numbers presented above, Pelham is the only town with fewer than 200 students in a 2-town union in the state of Massachusetts: All other towns with fewer than 200 students are in unions with more then 2 towns. Here is the complete list of towns with fewer than 200 students and their unions:
  • Union 26: Amherst (1321), Pelham (125)
  • Union 28: Wendell-N. Salem (144), Erving (174), Leverett (165), Shutesbury (154)
  • Union 38: Conway (175), Deerfield (490), Sunderland (186), Whately (132)
  • Union 43: Clarksburg (140), Florida (82), Monroe (0), Savoy (42)
  • Union 54: Brewster (503), Eastham (225), Orleans (189), Wellfleet (147)
  • Union 61: Brimfield (344), Brookfield (304), Holland (251), Sturbridge (920), Wales (169)
  • Union 66: Southampton (559), Westhampton (140), Williamsburg (165)
  • Union 70: Hancock (41), New Ashford (0), Richmond (133)
As you can see in this list, Pelham is the only town with fewer than 200 students that has 50% of the vote in choosing a superintendent. All other towns of this size have between 20% and 33% of the vote. For example, Shutesbury and Leverett each of 25% of the vote in choosing a superintendent for Union 28, although Shutesbury and Leverett both have more students than does Pelham.

Again, I'm not taking a position on whether Union 26 should be dissolved or modified. But what these numbers clearly indicate is that the Amherst-Pelham Union is unique in this state -- Amherst is the largest town in a union in Massachusetts (and only 3 of the 71 towns have enrollments greater than 1000), the Amherst-Pelham union has a greater population disparity than any other union in Massachusetts (by a pretty wide margin), and Pelham is the only town in Massachusetts with fewer than 200 students that has 50% of the vote in choosing a superintendent.

School Zone: Sizing up Amherst, Northampton salaries

Hampshire Gazette
Saturday, May 15, 2010

AMHERST - The question of whether Amherst pays its teachers more than Northampton has finally been answered. Sort of.

The average Amherst salary of about $60,000 is higher than in Northampton, but some have argued that the salary scales are similar, and the reason for the disparity is that Amherst teachers have more experience. Joe Cullen of the Amherst Budget Advisory Committee compared all the salaries for the five educational levels and 20 "steps" or experience levels and calculated the difference between Amherst and Northampton for each category.

He found that Northampton teachers with a B.A. at step 1 make $526 more than in Amherst and $894 more if they have an M.A. But at all other steps, teachers with bachelor's degrees make more in Amherst, such as $4,749 more at step 13.

Most teachers with more education than bachelor's degrees make more money in Northampton than in Amherst only in steps 8 through 11; at step 11 with a doctorate, Northampton teachers make $5,750 more. But Amherst pays more to the experienced teachers at steps 13 and up than Northampton, as much as $7,127 more.

School Committee member Steve Rivkin said it isn't clear whether the salary disparity is good or bad, and the numbers don't look at working conditions, such the amount of time spent in the classroom.

Note from Catherine: These analyses, which were presented at the SC meeting on Tuesday night, reveal that if Amherst paid teachers accordig to the same salary/step rate as Northampton, we would have saved over $1,000,000. This is exactly the type of analysis I believe we should be doing regularly -- meaning comparing all aspects of education in Amherst to that in other peer communities -- and this is an example of the great work that came out of the Citizens Budgetary Advisory Committee, which I really hope will continue.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Amherst Meeting Agenda: May 18, 2010

6:30 PM, TUESDAY—May 18, 2010
Town Room, Amherst Town Hall

Call for Executive Session—If Needed

1. Welcome
· A. Call to Order
· B. Agenda Review
· C. Minutes—March 27 and May 2, 2010

2. Public Comments

3. Policies
· A. K-6 World Language Policy (first reading) and Presentation of the 2008 World Language Report

4. Superintendent’s Update
· A. K-12 Math Review Update
· B. Equity/Social Justice Update
· C. End-of-Year Surveys Update
· D. RTI Update
· E. After-School Program Update
· F. Curriculum Director Update

5. Unfinished/Continuing Business
· A. Current and FY11 Staffing Update
· B. FY10 Budget Quarterly Update
· C. Redistricting Update

6. New Business

7. Subcommittees
· A. Subcommittee Appointments
· B. Legal Issues Subcommittee Update—Union 26 Agreement
· C. BCG Update
· D. Policy Update
· E. JCPC Update

8. Adjournment

Amherst panel has lingering questions on school budgeting

Hampshire Gazette
Friday, May 14, 2010

AMHERST - Citizen volunteers who met twice a week for four months in an attempt to decode the school budget have disbanded, with a long list of unanswered questions.

The panel has recommended that the School Committee immediately create a new citizen group to continue the work.

The Budget Advisory Committee collected questions about school spending from the public and sought information from administrators.

The task was to have a "just the facts" approach and to "translate (the information) into something usable," said Chairwoman Alison Donta-Venman.

"I didn't feel our job was done," she told the School Committee Tuesday.

While thanking the nine volunteers for their efforts, several committee members said their energy, expertise and independence were valuable and that the effort should continue.

"This has been a great committee that will be hard to replicate," said School Committee member Steve Rivkin. "You're free to quit, but your charge is not complete."

For example, the group was unable to specify the reasons why Amherst's per-pupil expenditures are $4,000 a year higher than Northampton's.

Interim Superintendent Maria Geryk said this question is still under analysis and there will be a report soon.

The panel was also unable to say why the per-pupil administrative costs don't decrease as the size of the student population increases.

It doesn't know the estimated savings of creating a K-12 school district, though a different committee is expected to give the School Committee a report on this next month.

No answers

There were no answers on combining services between the schools and Town Hall, or getting more money out of local campuses, such as to pay the cost of children who live in tax-exempt housing and attend local schools.

"How do we restart the engine on this machine?" said School Committee member Rick Hood. Rivkin compared the citizen panel to the Congressional Budget Office, which provides nonpartisan advice on federal economic proposals.

Farshid Hajir, chairman of the Regional School Committee, said there will be a discussion of goals in about a month, and cautioned about "adding a burden to the administration."

School Committee member Catherine Sanderson said it would be too bad to lose the momentum the panel has established, and creation of a new one should be on the agenda for the June 8 meeting.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Regional school board ponders future of Union 26

Hampshire Gazette
By Nick Grabbe Staff Writer
Published on May 14, 2010

Breaking up is hard to do, which may explain why Tuesday's School Committee free-for-all over a possible end to the Amherst-Pelham superintendency union was contentious.

While an hour of discussion among committee members produced little result, a public comment session earlier in the meeting was pointed. Several citizens criticized the Amherst School Committee's vote to seek legal advice on its alternatives regarding the union.

The little-known Union 26 Committee supervises the Amherst-Pelham union, which shares a superintendent for the elementary schools. The panel is comprised of all three members of the Pelham School Committee and three of the five members of the Amherst School Committee.

Issue of fairness?

Amherst member Steve Rivkin has questioned whether it is fair that the two towns have equal representation on the committee while Amherst has 10 times the number of students, hinting that this arrangement might be in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

The practical significance of the Union 26 Committee is that it votes on superintendent decisions - and an important one is coming up next spring. On March 28, the committee voted 4-2 to have Maria Geryk serve as interim superintendent through June 2011, with all three Pelham members joining Amherst member Andy Churchill in the majority.

On Tuesday, a meeting of the Union 26 Committee came up in the middle of the agenda for the Regional School Committee meeting, which was already running behind by 40 minutes. Amherst School Committee members Rick Hood and Rob Spence had to leave because they are not members of the Union 26 Committee.
Amherst committee chairman Irv Rhodes said he was not interested in meeting with the Pelham members until hearing from an attorney about options for ending Union 26. Member Catherine Sanderson said she was not comfortable with the exclusion of Hood and Spence. Rivkin asked if the Union 26 Committee should be "reorganized," possibly producing a different chairman.

Tracy Farnham chairs both the Pelham committee and the Union 26 committee. The Amherst committee first discussed a possible breakup six weeks ago, and the Pelham committee was "eager to have a meeting so it could clarify the changes sought," decide whether it needs its own attorney and communicate with constituents, she said.

Geryk tried to keep the peace, inviting Amherst members to share their concerns over Union 26. Rivkin suggested Geryk may have a conflict of interest, since she is responsible for both towns' elementary schools. Geryk responded that she was not taking a stand on whether the union should continue, but merely trying to bring about a resolution.

Rhodes called for the meeting to be adjourned before any actual debate about Union 26 began and to schedule another meeting for a mutually agreed-upon date. Farnham said one reason to call the committee together Tuesday was to set that date.

"We just want to know what the issues are," said Pelham member Nora Maroulis. "That is all this is about, so we can be prepared when we come together."

No point in discussion

Sanderson said there's no point in discussing the issue when half the committee doesn't want to.

"It feels like an ambush," she said, adding that she was "disappointed and puzzled about what has happened."

In the end, five members voted to adjourn, with only Farnham abstaining.

Earlier, attorney Elaine Fronhofer of Amherst said she had done some research and found no basis for saying the union is illegal based on its representation.

She compared its composition to the U.S. Senate, where California and Wyoming have two seats each despite their different populations.

"Union 26 benefits both towns," she said.

Jim Oldham said it's ironic to hear Amherst committee members complain about representation.

"Where are the Amherst residents clamoring for a change?" he asked. "There's no evidence you're representing anyone but yourselves. There's been a lot of rapid change in the school system, and we need time to work on a more consultative process."

Norm Page, a former Pelham representative on the Regional School Committee, said the union has saved the school system "hundreds of thousands of dollars" over the years, such as by enabling the sharing of space between the two towns.

"Hiring a superintendent is the only sticky area," he said.

Education Matters: Listening is key to success of district

Amherst Bulletin
Published on May 14, 2010

Effectively leading a school district requires carefully setting priorities and making tough choices. In some cases, all School Committee members and the superintendent will agree on particular budget priorities, goals and policies. In other cases, School Committee members may have different views from one another, and/or from the administration. Ultimately, the School Committee, as the elected representatives of the community, must carefully consider all available information and make often-difficult decisions.

In February of 2009, interim Superintendent Helen Vivian proposed eliminating the elementary instrumental music program and reducing intervention teachers to avoid closing Mark's Meadow. The School Committee spent considerable time last spring hearing from parents, teachers and community members who strongly urged us to keep the school open. Yet ultimately the School Committee prioritized maintaining small class sizes and the instrumental music program over continuing to operate four schools when all students could easily be accommodated in three.

In December of 2009, high school Principal Mark Jackson's budget proposal included a recommendation that in light of dismal budget projections, high school students would move from two to three required study halls a year. This would avoid small increases in average class size, which he stated would lead teachers to rely more on multiple choice tests and assign less writing. However, the Regional School Committee opposed requiring all high school students to spend 20 percent of their school time in a study hall, and thus recommended maintaining only two required study halls (which has now been reduced to one following the passage of the override).

Other districts have made very different decisions on this issue, particularly in light of data suggesting that slightly smaller class size is less important in high school than in early grades. There are relatively few classes at Amherst Regional High School with more than 25 students (14 percent in English, 13 percent in social studies, 15 percent in science, 26 percent in math), but all students take two required study halls. In contrast, in the two public high schools in Newton, a higher percentage of classes have more than 25 students (4 percent in English, 37.5 percent in science, 32 percent in social studies, and 34 percent in math) but students have no required study halls, meaning that Newton students spend 14 percent more time in class than students in Amherst.

Last month, the Amherst School Committee voted unanimously to develop a policy requiring the introduction of a Spanish language program at all elementary schools. Such a program will require additional resources, and thus School Committee members will need to decide whether allocating resources to teaching Spanish is indeed a better choice than increasing the number of technology teachers and intervention teachers as interim Superintendent Maria Geryk has recommended.

In all of these situations there is no choice that will make every parent, teacher and administrator happy. For example, some parents feel adding Spanish will take away from math, science and music instruction time, and that those subjects are more important than adding world language. Others feel strongly that Spanish should be added as both a core academic subject and as a way to promote the multicultural mission of the Amherst schools. Based on the feedback from the community to me and to the School Committee as a whole, I am supporting the elementary Spanish initiative, particularly since world language was taught in the Amherst elementary schools until 1992, and has been continually discussed over the last decade (including 200 signatures on a citizen's petition in 2000 and a recommendation from a committee appointed to study the issue in 2008). However, I do believe we should implement this program with a plan to evaluate its impact over the next several years.

But in all of these cases, there are not "right" and "wrong" answers - there are simply choices that different people would make in different ways. School Committee members must therefore listen carefully to all voices (parent, teacher, staff, community member, student, superintendent) and ultimately make decisions that reflect what they believe are the best priorities, values, and goals for our district.

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.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Regional School Committee stalls on Union 26 talks

Hampshire Gazette
Thursday, May 13, 2010

AMHERST - A meeting called to address the reasons why Amherst is looking at alternatives to its current superintendency union with Pelham adjourned without the board discussing the issue Tuesday.

The Union 26 Committee is composed of the three members of the Pelham School Committee and three of the five members of the Amherst School Committee. The Amherst committee has questioned the fairness of equal representation between the two towns when Pelham has one-tenth the number of students.

The practical significance of the Union 26 Committee is that it votes on superintendent decisions, and an important one is coming up next spring. On March 28, three members of the 4-2 majority approving a 15-month interim superintendency were from Pelham.

On Tuesday, Amherst members said they did not want to discuss the issue before they had consulted an attorney. They said that when the discussion takes place, it should include all five members of the Amherst committee.

Tracy Farnham, chairwoman of both the Pelham and Union 26 committees, said she wanted to hold the meeting to clarify the changes that Amherst members are seeking and decide whether Pelham needs its own attorney.

The only real discussion of the issues took place in the public comments portion of the Regional School Committee meeting.

Amherst attorney Elaine Fronhofer said her research showed no legal problem in the make up of the Union 26. A new state law allowing one town to vote to leave a union has not been tested in the courts, she said.

Jim Oldham, of Amherst, said it was ironic to hear Amherst members talk about representation. "Where are the Amherst residents clamoring for a change?" he asked. "There's no evidence you're representing anyone but yourselves."

And Norm Page, a former Pelham member of the Regional School Committee, said the union has saved the school district "hundreds of thousands of dollars" over the years, mostly by enabling the sharing of space.

Note: I think it would have been appropriate for Nick Grabbe to acknowledge that Elaine Fronhofer school choices her child into the Pelham schools, and that contrary to Jim Oldham's assertion that "there are no Amherst residents clamoring for a change", the CBAC (citizen's budget advisory committee) report presented at this meeting specifically noted that members of the public had indeed raised questions about whether Amherst should be its own K to 12 district as well as whether it should regionalize with Pelham.

School Unions

So, there has been a lot of discussion at recent School Committee Meetings, in the paper, and on my blog about the role of school unions. And clearly school unions make a lot of sense in some circumstances - namely those in which each individual school could not afford to hire a superintendent (and business manager, and IT person, and HR person, and special education director, etc.) on their own.

Union 28, for example, is a 700 pupil school system with four elementary schools that serves five towns (Erving, Leverett, Shutesbury, New Salem, Wendell). Each of these towns has one K to 6 school (ranging in size between 140 and 170 students) and each school has its own local school committee. These communities are all quite similar in terms of demographics (they are largely White -- ranging from 83% White in Leverett to 94% White in New Salem-Wendell) and also in terms of size (the smallest, New Salem-Wendell has 144 students and the largest, Erving, has 174 students). Each of these school committees is represented on regional issues (such as hiring central office staff, including the superintendent).

Now, let's contrast that to Union 26, which consists of only two towns: Amherst and Pelham. These towns differ dramatically - Amherst has 4 (soon to be 3) elementary schools serving 1,321 students, whereas Pelham has 1 elementary school serving 125 students. These towns also differ dramatically in terms of their populations: Pelham (like all of the towns in Union 28) is largely White (83.2%), whereas Amherst is considerably more racially diverse (53% White). As with Union 28, each town has the same number of votes in terms of hiring and evaluating the superintendent and the district lawyer (although Amherst pays 47% of these salaries at the elementary level and Pelham pays 3%).

If you examine all of the union associations in the state of Massachusetts, two things become very clear:
  • The elementary school population in Amherst is larger than any other district in the state that is part of a union. The second largest town is Southborough (1208), and the third largest is Kingston (1180). There are no other towns with school populations larger than 1,000 who are in unions in Massachusetts.
  • The gap between the largest and small town is greater between Amherst and Pelham (1196 students) than in any other union in the state. There is a gap of 900 between Northborough and Southborough (this is the second largest), and a gap of 419 between Westhampton and Southampton (this is the third largest). The majority of union relationships have relatively small differences in size (e.g., like with Union 28).
I'm not taking a position on whether Union 26 does or does not make sense for Amherst now, or in the future. But I believe that it is certainly worth examining the pros/cons of this relationship for both Amherst and Pelham -- particularly since this union seems rather unique in the state of Massachusetts (both in terms of the size of Amherst and the gap in size between Amherst and Pelham).

Finalists Announced for Assistant Principal Positions at Middle School and High School

Amherst Regional Middle School Principal Michael Hayes has announced the selection of Diane Chamberlain and Betsy Dinger as finalists for the position of assistant principal at the middle school. Chamberlain is currently serving as an interim assistant principal at ARHS. Dinger is currently a special education reading teacher at ARMS. Members of the community are invited to meet the finalists on Thursday, May 13 from 12 to 1 pm at the middle school.

Amherst Regional High School Principal Mark Jackson has announced that Diane Chamberlain is also a finalist for the assistant principal position at the high school, along with Jeff Cook. Cook is currently Senior Curriculum Access Specialist at the Urban Science Academy in Boston. Members of the community will have an opportunity to meet with Cook on Thursday, May 13 between the hours of 11:10 and 1:10 at the high school. Chamberlain will be available to meet with community members between 10:00 and 12:00 on Friday, May 14.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Amherst explores end of Union 26

Hampshire Gazette
By Nick Grabbe

Published on May 07, 2010
School Committee members from Amherst and Pelham are differing over a longstanding agreement that spells out the structure of the Union 26 superintendency, and if changed, could have an impact on the selection of a new school leader next year and spell the end of the two-town board.

The Amherst School Committee presides over the Amherst elementary schools and the Pelham School Committee has authority over that town's small school, but they share one superintendent. This connection is called Union 26, and the committee governing it includes all three members of the Pelham committee and three of the five members of the Amherst committee.

The Amherst School Committee voted April 27 to seek an attorney's guidance on what the alternatives are if it elects to withdraw from Union 26. Withdrawal could mean the end of the Union 26 board, possibly sending Pelham out on its own for a superintendent's leadership. Irv Rhodes, chairman of the Amherst committee, said that, while seeking an attorney to do this investigation, he hopes that representatives from both towns can "sit down to begin a discussion on possible changes to the agreement."

This Union 26 Committee is separate from the Regional School Committee, which governs the secondary schools and also includes Shutesbury and Leverett. The Union 26 Committee must approve superintendent changes and other decisions, such as legal counsel, said Rhodes.

This little-known committee became important last March 8, when it voted 4-2 to have Maria Geryk serve as interim superintendent through June 2011. All three Pelham members were joined by Amherst committee member Andy Churchill in the majority, while Rhodes and Amherst committee member Catherine Sanderson voted no.

This vote "highlighted the disparity" between the two towns' representation on the committee and their school enrollments, Rhodes said.

Amherst committee member Steve Rivkin, who replaced Churchill on the Union 26 committee when he didn't seek re-election, said at an April 27 meeting that the agreement that outlines the make-up of the union may be out of compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

"Amherst has more than 10 times as many students and pays 94 percent of the elementary school component of the superintendent budget," he said in an email message. "I believe that proportional representation is an important principle, and that the current arrangement does not give Amherst voters anything close to proportional representation."

Tracy Farnham, chairwoman of the Pelham School Committee, said that Union 26 has been successful and worked well for more than 100 years.

"We are not aware of what prompted their decision to review the partnership at this time," she said in a statement. "Naturally, it would be our hope that the spirit of fair and balanced partnership with which the Union was created, rather than the politics of the day, would inform any discussion of the Union and its continued success."

Pelham Committee member Kathy Weilerstein said, "We're perfectly happy where we are."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Research on Elementary World Language

Given the considerable concern expressed by some commenters on this blog about adding world language, I've now conducted a search of relevant literature. I'm providing abstracts from several research studies.

Title: Second Language Study and Basic Skills in Louisiana.
Author(s): Rafferty, Eileen A.
Source: 1986
A statewide study in Louisiana revealed that third, fourth, and fifth graders who participated in 30-minute elementary school foreign language programs in the public schools showed significantly higher scores on the 1985 Basic Skills Language Arts Test than did a similar group that did not study a foreign language. Further, by fifth grade, the math scores of language students were also higher than those of students not studying a foreign language. Both groups were matched for race, sex, and grade level, and the academic levels of students in both groups were estimated by their previous Basic Skills Test results and statistically equated. The 13,200 students studied were randomly chosen from those who had not been exposed to a foreign language at home, were fluent in English, had not repeated a grade in 1985, and whose 1984 and 1985 test scores were available. The results of the analysis suggest that foreign language study in the lower grades helps students acquire English language arts skills and, by extension, math skills.

Title: Basic Skills Revisited: The Effects of Foreign Language Instruction on Reading, Math and Language Arts.
Authors: Armstrong, P. W. and J. D. Rogers. (1997).
Source: Learning Languages, Spring, 20-31.
Examines the effect of foreign language education on the basic skills of elementary school students. A group of third-grade students given three 30-minute Spanish language lessons per week performed as well as or better than a control group (given no second-language instruction) on academic achievement tests. The results of this study are particularly interesting since one class of students in the experimental group had actually received one-and-one-half fewer hours of math instruction per week, yet still outperformed the students in the control classes in math.

Title: Effects of FLES on Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary Achievement: A Multi-Method Longitudinal Study
Author: Taylor, Gregory; Feyten, Carine; Meros, John; Nutta, Joyce
Source: Learning Languages, v13 n2 p30-37 Spr 2008.
Historically, school officials, parents, teachers and others have expressed concerns about the implementation of foreign language in the elementary school (FLES) programs believing that precious time was sacrificed from the rest of the curriculum to make room for foreign language study. Some wondered if second language instruction made sense for monolinguals, who at times struggled with their other elementary subjects. This study attempts to allay these fears by showing that, far from detracting from the rest of the curriculum, foreign language study can enhance it, reinforce it, and help students to achieve in all scholastic areas. This study attempts to answer the following questions: (1) What effect will FLES instruction have on participants' aural/oral L2 (Spanish) skills?; (2) What effect will FLES instruction have on participants' Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) reading comprehension scores in their native language?; (3) What effect will FLES instruction have on participants' CTBS vocabulary scores in their native language?; (4) What effect will FLES instruction have on participants' motivation at school generally as perceived by parents and classroom teachers?; (5) What effect will FLES instruction have on participants' cultural awareness of the L2?; and (6) What effect will FLES instruction have on participants' achievement in reading, vocabulary, and language arts? The FLES program began as a pilot in four elementary schools in Pinellas County School District, Florida. For three years, the approximately 500 kindergarten students in these schools began receiving Spanish instruction for 20 minutes a day, four days a week. A total of 21 classrooms participated in the study.

In sum, the research I've been able to find shows clear benefits (in terms of standardized test scores) to kids even from studying as little as 1 1/2 hours a week of a world language, and the addition of language study appears to have either no effect or a positive effect on math scores. I imagine the Foreign Language Committee appointed by Jere Hochman in 2008 conducted a thorough review of this literature, which is what led to their recommendation of 1 1/2 hours of language instruction in elementary schools.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

World Language Report

Note: Given the interest in world language on my blog, I am posting the entire world language report issued in July 2008.

K-12 Foreign Language Committee Report July 2008


In the past decade, parents, community members, and teachers in Amherst have expressed a strong interest in beginning the study of foreign languages in the early grades. Elementary school language programs are growing nationally, statewide, and in our own schools. The exposure to other cultures and different ways of seeing the world will help our students develop a better understanding of themselves as members of a global community. In response to these initiatives, we believe that it is time to implement a foreign language program in all Amherst elementary schools.

Research indicates that the early study of a foreign language results in the following benefits:

• Academic achievement and cognitive gains for ALL students, including:
➢ Mental flexibility, divergent thinking, and higher-order thinking skills
➢ Development of student’s memory, creativity and listening skills
➢ Greater progress in the acquisition of English Language Arts, specifically in the areas of reading and writing
• Higher standardized test scores, especially in the verbal areas
• Positive attitudes toward diversity
• Insight into one’s own language and culture
• Sharpened awareness of one’s self, of other cultures, and of one’s relationship to those cultures
• Heightened self concepts and sense of achievement in school
• A “head start” in language requirements for high school and college and thus also increased career opportunities where knowing another language is an asset

We believe that, for all of these reasons, Amherst should start language instruction early, take it seriously, and fund it well.


1. K-6 FLES Program:

We believe that the best option for an Elementary School Foreign Language program is a K-6 FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary School) model, along the lines of the Chinese program we began at Wildwood in 2006-2007. A program beginning in Kindergarten and offering engaging curriculum based on the National Standards and integrated with the elementary classroom curriculum provides students with the best opportunity to develop proficiency in the target language and to continue study successfully through their years in secondary school. There is a wealth of research on the characteristics of a successful elementary foreign language program.

Elements of a successful foreign language program:

• All students begin the study of a foreign language in Kindergarten.
• All instruction is in the target language and oral proficiency based
• Content-based thematic units in the foreign language enhance, reinforce and articulate with the English language classroom curriculum
• Staffed by certified teachers who utilize developmentally appropriate methodologies and differentiated instruction
• Incorporation of the five C’s of the Massachusetts Frameworks and the National Standards: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons and Communities
• Ongoing authentic assessments embedded in engaging learning activities
• Include a component of exploration within the 6th grade language program that will increase students’ knowledge and enthusiasm for further language study in the secondary school.

A FLES program could begin as a small program at the early grades, with the plan that it would grow as the first students progress through school (6-7 years to full implementation). Alternatively, we could follow the model of our Wildwood program, beginning in grades K, 1 and 2 and having the program fully implemented in three years.

In considering what languages to offer, we are attuned to several factors:

• The success of the Chinese program at Wildwood and the availability of federal funding for further Chinese study
• The range of offerings in our secondary schools (Chinese, French, German, Latin, Russian, Spanish)
• The characteristics, desires and interests of the various elementary schools
• Meeting the needs of heritage speakers

We are aware of the possibility of a new configuration of the elementary schools, and have recommendations that would be practicable with any of the future arrangements. Further, the committee formally endorses a K-6 Spanish program in the Pelham Elementary School.

1A Chinese at Wildwood and Mark’s Meadow
Spanish at Crocker Farm and Fort River

This recommendation recognizes the success of the Chinese program and the desire of many in the community for Spanish instruction in our elementary schools. It also recognizes the possibility of schools being paired in a primary school / elementary school model.

1B Language Options

There are additional possibilities for languages other than Spanish and Chinese that could be considered in the elementary program.

We are aware that research shows that the group finalizing decisions (informed by a survey) concerning language choices for each school should include all those who have a stake in the implementation of the program – parents, foreign language teachers, classroom teachers and school administrators.

We were charged to consider three options. We feel strongly that the above option is far superior to the following two, which we rejected:

2. 4-6 FLES Program:

This is a scaled-down model which is not as effective. Students will develop some proficiency, but typically a program of this magnitude does not give students enough instruction for them to skip a year of language at the middle school level.

The one language that does work at this level is Latin. Not being a modern language, Latin has different goals and different methodology. Songs, skits and stories are still used to develop oral and reading proficiency, but in addition students spend a lot of time in the study of English word roots, and ancient mythology. The research shows that students enrolled in such a program achieve lasting benefits in language arts and other areas of the curriculum.

3. FLEX in Grade 6 or 5-6

FLEX (Foreign Language Exploration) programs offer exposure to a variety of foreign languages. They do not provide the benefits of increased proficiency that a full FLES program offers. The goal of a FLEX program is to introduce students to the concept of language study and to give a taste of it in a variety of languages. The benefits of a well designed FLEX program are increased enthusiasm for language study and more information for students to make an informed decision as they choose a language to begin in 7th grade.

A FLEX program would be an inexpensive option that would fit well if we were to have an elementary configuration with one 5-6 school. Students could study each of our six languages for one third of the year over the course of two years. FLEX language courses focus on basic proficiency and introducing the cultures where the language is used. They are multi-cultural, fun, and increase students’ knowledge and enthusiasm for further language study. A Grade 6 FLEX program could offer students a snippet of each language and offer the same benefits, though in a diminished form.

Respectfully submitted by members of the K-12 Foreign Language Committee:

Carol Carson-Leinhart
Irene Eigner
Liz Elder
Roberta Issler
Alicia Lopez
Paul Lipman
Judi Newcomb
Sean Smith
David Brule
Karen Lowe