Over the last year, comments on my blog, in the press, and at meetings have revealed two very different views about who I am, and what I’m trying to accomplish in my work on the School Committee.
On one side are those who believe that I am for some strange reason intent on making up (or at least highly exaggerating) problems that don't exist in the Amherst schools and thereby destroy the district’s reputation. People with this view feel my statements (on my blog, in the paper, at meetings) are inflammatory or overstated, and that I have somehow manipulated the results of the three outside reports published this year that are critical of our schools. Conspiracy theorists believe that I have somehow managed to convince not only Dr. Rodriguez of these imagined problems (although I didn't vote to hire him and wasn't a clear supporter), but also two independent consultants: Dr. Irving Hamer (although I have never met him, emailed him, or had any contact with him whatsoever), and Dr. Barry Beers (who I met only at the start of his presentation to the School Committee on March 9th, and have never had any phone/email/in person contact with at any other time).
On the other side are those who believe that there are some real and fundamental problems in our schools -- as clearly outlined by Dr. Hamer and Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Beers over the last year. In all of their reports, they recognize the dedication, talent, and commitment of our teachers. However, their comments on the school system reflect many of the concerns I and other parents and community members and even teachers have expressed over the last many years. The problem is not what happens in the classroom; it is the framework that turns teaching into education. These are structural problems in the way we deliver education, and include a weak elementary math curriculum, a middle school that has prioritized social/emotional development over intellectual/academic development, a high school that looks different from virtually all other high schools in many respects (including the unique and unevaluated trimester system, the unique and unevaluated approach to teaching English only in heterogeneous classes, and the lowest math and science requirements in the state), and an overall lack of curriculum alignment, differentiated teaching, use of data to drive decision-making, transparency and accountability. These are problems that I have highlighted attention to over the last 2+ years as a member of the School Committee, due to my belief that the first step in fixing a problem is admitting you have a problem.
For those who are still trying to figure out which of these sides is right, or at least more right, I’d like you to contemplate what I possibly have to gain from convincing people that an otherwise perfect school system is flawed. Do I have some type of fiscal arrangement with local charter schools? Do I secretly wish to start my own school district and hope to recruit dissatisfied parents to enroll? Do I prefer smaller class sizes for my own kids, as more and more families flee our district? Do I relish the negative attacks in the Bulletin and on my blog each week? It is truly hard for me to understand what my motivation could be for raising concerns about the district that don't actually exist, and it is even harder for me to believe how I could somehow convince three education experts from outside Amherst that problems exist that don't. The only motivation I have for persistently and consistently raising these problems (in the face of pretty hostile attack) is to try to get these concerns addressed. Given that years and years of polite complaining to teachers and principals about concerns in our district has had no effect, being public and loud seems to be the only potential way to get a response.
I truly hope those who are now leading our district, including interim superintendent Maria Geryk and the administrators and principals who urged the School Committee to appoint her instead of conducting a search for an interim, to prove that they are not simply defenders of the status quo. Show some leadership in acting on the very real issues identified by Dr. Rodriguez and the other two outside experts. Stop responding to outside criticism by providing defensive justifications of current programs and curricula, and stop focusing on how insulting any criticism is to the school district, how it was delivered, who said it, and/or the tone and style that person used. Focus instead on the substance and content of the criticism, which is highly consistent and specific, and therefore should be quite helpful in identifying an action plan for the upcoming year that parents, community members, and teachers can all embrace with enthusiasm and excitement.
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.