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.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

More Amherst Schools News

There are two stories from this week's Gazette that I think will be of interest to my readers.

First, there is a story about a meeting with Dr. Andrew Chen (the math consultant hired by the superintendent to review K to 12 math). There are opportunities for parents to meet with Dr. Chen tomorrow (Wednesday). Here's the story link:

Second, there is a story about the drop in enrollment at Amherst Regional Middle School ( I want to make two points about this drop in enrollment:

  • parents with means (economic - to pay for private school - and/or job-wise - to be able to provide transportation to and from private/charter/choice schools) have many more options than parents without such means ... and it isn't good for our district or our schools if parents of means start to opt out. I hope the Regional SC and the superintendent and the principal take this drop in enrollment very seriously, and I really hope we can take steps (quickly) to make this school a more appealing choice for all families; and
  • although some will claim that parents are opting out of this school because of the negativity by certain SC members (like this one), I find it extremely hard to believe that parents are choosing to opt of our schools (and pay large sums of money to a private school and/or spend considerable time transporting their child to/from a private/choice/charter school) simply based on concerns expressed by 1 or 2 SC members -- the costs are simply too great to make such a decision with so little information.

The concerns about the middle school that I've expressed (on this blog, in meetings, in the paper) are concerns that I've heard expressed by many parents (and kids) for YEARS, and I am highly concerned that I'm continuing to hear the same types of concerns from parents of middle school students now as I hear from parents of 12th graders when they reflect on their child's experience in that school: it is one thing to have a problem (which occurs in all districts/schools over time), but it is another thing (and I think an unacceptable thing) to have a problem and refuse to acknowledge it and fix it over such a long period of time. I believe that parents who are considering whether to send their children to this school (in the face of concerns they've personally experienced with older siblings and/or heard from others) MIGHT be convinced to give this school a chance by statements (from the SC, superintendent, and principal) that reflect an awareness and understanding of the concerns parents and students have about this school as well as a commitment to address these concerns with a specific plan (and timeline). However, statements from district leaders that this school is actually excellent, there are no problems, and any concerns simply reflect the difficult age of middle school are hardly reassuring when people's own experience is so dramatically different from such statements. When I talk to kids and parents about the middle school (and I've talked to MANY), there are amazingly nuanced responses about strengths AND weaknesses of the school (suggesting that it is not just "a difficult age" or "a difficult transition"). I'm hopeful that the middle school will seek to build on its strengths, and work diligently (and quickly) on its weaknesses, in the upcoming year ... and I hope that as both a School Committee member who is highly committed to excellent public education for all kids AND as the mother of a rising 7th grader!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Chairman resigns from Amherst school panel, citing divisions, lack of teamwork

This is a longer version of an article that I posted earlier on my blog -- hence I think the link to the old article isn't working (since it has been updated): It has been a long day - including spending basically from 2 to 10 pm with my SC colleagues - so this will be brief. I would like to congratulate Rick Hood on his selection as Chair of the Regional SC, and I look forward to working with Rick in the months ahead (I was also re-elected as Vice Chair of the Regional SC). I believe we had a productive retreat today, followed by a productive Regional SC meeting, and I hope we can re-new our focus at the regional level on education and district goals.

I'm disappointed, and frankly puzzled, by Farshid's decision to specifically criticize me and Steve in this article -- it is hard for me to reconcile his decision to resign in order to bring about new collegiality while criticizing two Amherst members in the process. I worked with Farshid very well for the vast majority of his time as Chair (throughout which I was vice chair), and considered him a friend -- thus I am also disappointed that he would choose to make these remarks in the press in light of the considerable positive work that he and I did together throughout much of the last year (basically throughout Alberto's superintendency).

In terms of Farshid's accusations, I'll make two brief points. First, I continue to be saddened by the interpretation that saying "we could be better" and "let's live up to our potential" (which both Steve and I do say relentlessly) as denouncing and hammering and fomenting dissent, which I think is a deliberate misinterpretation about our comments (but an effective way of trying to silence our concerns). Second, I certainly agree that I've been impatient with the process of change in our district as well as the tendency to simply stick with the status quo (I seem to not be the only one concerned about staying with the status quo, based on the enrollment drops we are seeing at both Amherst and Regional levels), and if "power politics" is setting policy that is supported at a public meeting by a majority of the SC (such as our new evaluation policy, our Spanish language program, the addition of preschool for low income kids, or the recommendation that the HS have fewer study halls), then I'm guilty as charged.

Finally, I appreciate Irv Rhodes' thoughtful comments in this article, and believe the considerable positive efforts we've made at the Amherst elementary level (which of course includes both me and Steve) are due in part to Irv's leadership on this committee (which is why I supported him as Regional Chair). Encouragingly, every expectation I have of Rick Hood's approach to leadership is one of collaboration, inclusion, and a focus on goals -- NOT personalities/rumors/motives. I am newly optimistic that we can make great progress in helping our regional schools reach their true potential -- of being excellent for every child, every day (not just in words and slogans, but in the reality all kids experience in these schools). It is an exciting time for the Amherst and Regional schools and I feel fortuate to have both Irv Rhodes and Rick Hood leading these two committees.

Amherst's Rhodes mulls Regional School Committee chairmanship

This article just got posted, and I think speaks for itself ( Note: I am walking into SC meetings from 2 pm until .... 9 pm (?), so I won't be posting comments on any articles for the next few hours.

Leverett's Hajir to resign from Regional School Committee

Here's an article regarding Farshid Hajir's decision to resign from the Regional School Committee ( I share his hope that under new leadership, this committee can return to focusing on how to provide the best education possible for students in our regional schools. It has been striking to me over the last few months the differences between Amherst SC meetings and Regional SC meetings. The Amherst SC meetings, under Irv Rhodes' leadership, are productive, efficient, collaborative, and entirely focused on education (watch the one from July 20th, which was possibly our best meeting). The Regional SC meetings get bogged down in personality, and rumors, and accusations -- and spend almost no time focusing on education. The chair of the SC clearly makes a huge difference in the quality of the meeting, and, most importantly, the progress that can get made in our schools. I look forward to our reorganization at tonight's meeting, and hope that we can all join together to focus on creating truly excellent schools for all kids.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Amherst board looking into declining elementary enrollment

I'm posting another story about the declining enrollment that the Amherst elementary schools are experiencing, which was discussed at length at the Amherst SC meeting last night ( As reported at last night's meeting, the initial projections last fall were that there would be 1243 students K to 6. The students enrolled thus far (basically a month before school starts) are 1177, meaning 66 fewer than anticipated (about 40 students fewer than projected in kindergarten, and about 20 fewer 1st to 6th). I find this really concerning, as I believe it suggests that families are opting out of our elementary schools for other options (choice, charter, private). I look forward to a report this fall on the reasons given by families making other choices, given our new exit survey policy.

In addition, the class size averages are VERY low in some schools/some grades, which indicates to me that we are perhaps not using our resources in the best way. For example, in the 6th grade at Crocker Farm, there will be three classes with 15 students in each class (45 6th graders total), yet our target class size for this grade is 24 and our maximum is 27. We could easily divide 45 kids into 2 classes (22 in one, 23 in one) and still be BELOW our target and our maximum! Here's another example: at Fort River, there are 70 kids in 6th grade which has been divided into 4 classrooms of 17 or 18 in each. I have no idea why we would make a choice to divide the teachers that way when we could easily divide the 70 kids in 6th grade into 3 classrooms of 23-24 each (again, still below our target and our maximum). If we had made different choices, that would save 2 teachers that we could use to, for example, increase our instrumental music program, provide more afterschool care, or increase the grades covered in our Spanish program (which will start this fall for 1st and 2nd graders). These are precisely the types of choices that I believe the community should weigh in on, and the School Committee should share their own beliefs with the superintendent as we plan for the future.

Amhest Begins Math Review

This article focuses on the upcoming math review (K to 12), which I know is of interest to many parents ( I would also encourage interested readers to check out the Amherst SC meeting last night (on ACTV), in which we discussed this review for some time, as well as the summary of the scope of the review that is posted on the ARPS website ( As we discussed at last night's meeting, the present review (as commissioned by our current interim superintendent) will include surveys of teachers (but not parents), and no comparison whatsoever to the experience in other districts, which I find concerning. In addition, the focus of this review is to see how well our curriculum align with the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) standards, which are somewhat controversial (they are very much in the "reform math" camp, not the "traditional math" camp -- which you can read more about at: That also seems to me to be less than ideal -- I would prefer, and indeed expect, that all evaluation of our curricula and programs be done using an objective lens, as opposed to the lens of a particular ideology (Steve spoke to this point at length at last night's meeting).

However, I'm very glad to hear that the Chair of the Regional SC supports a rigorous evaluation, so that we don't have to just rely on anecdotes to evaluate our programs and curricula (which has been the approach for far too long in this district). That is precisely my view, which is why I asked at last night's meeting for the review to expand to include three additional components (as specified in the evaluation policy unanimously supported by the SC earlier this year): comparison to benchmark districts, surveys of parents, and review of empirical data on the effectiveness of different curriculum. I hope that these three components will indeed be added, which would indeed help us gain a fuller understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of our current K to 12 math program.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Assorted School Committee Stuff

Sorry for the long delay in postings -- it's been a busy few weeks with work and family stuff! But I want to draw my readers' attention to a few things that I think will be of general interest, and also to return to a few lingering issues.

First, the Regional School Committee is having a retreat this Thursday (3 to 6 pm) in which we will discuss our goals, processes, etc. We had a similar retreat last year and it was really beneficial -- lots of focus on common goals for the upcoming year -- and I'm hoping this one will be as useful. There has been a bit of discussion (at three separate meetings) about individual SC members completing a survey of "best practices" of School Committees and then compiling these results to discuss at the retreat. I don't think this is a particularly good idea (can expand on why if readers are interested) but my colleagues seem to feel this will be useful, so I did ultimately vote in favor of completing this instrument. You can read the Gazette's coverage of this topic at our last meeting at:

Second, we had a long regionalization meeting on Tuesday, June 28th, which included a recommendation from the Shutesbury SC that each town forms an individual "study group" to examine options for their own town/school moving forward (e.g., full regionalization, a different union configuration, etc.). Shutesbury has already formed such a group as has Pelham (you can read a story about Pelham's group at: Irv Rhodes, on behalf of the Amherst SC, had asked the Pelham SC to form a joint Amherst-Pelham group to study our options moving forward (e.g., forming an Amherst-Pelham regional agreement, combining the Amherst-Pelham districts, etc.), but the Pelham SC was not interested in forming such a group at this time. The Amherst SC will meet tonight to discuss how we might want to move forward on the Union 26/regionalization discussion. I still intend to do a longer blog post re. the whole regionalization discussion, but continue to be puzzled that the regionalization committee met for over a year and only considered three options: making no changes, full K to 12 regionalization (which they even admitted is VERY unlikely to occur), and expanding Union 26 to include Leverett and Shutesbury (so that Amherst could pay 80% of the bill and have 25% of the vote for superintendent, and we could require superintendents to manage 5 different budgets and attend 5 different SC meetings!).

Third, there was a piece in the Gazette on Saturday about an open meeting law violation on the regional SC ( This issue goes back to that now infamous meeting on May 11th, in which the regional chair inserted a Union 26 meeting in the middle of the regional meeting against the wishes of all Amherst SC members. I do not believe Rick meant any harm in his actions -- he was simply trying to de-escalate the situation, which had become quite volatile, with the best of intentions. But this is a good reminder that all SC members need to be careful about what they put in email to other members!

Fourth, there are two SC meetings this week: tonight the Amherst SC meets (7 pm, town hall, probably live on ACTV as well) to discuss a number of topics (the math review, the implementation of the Spanish program, afterschool programs) and on Thursday, the Regional SC meets (I'm not sure of what is on the agenda for this meeting yet) at 6:30 pm in the HS library.

Finally, the Regional SC met last week to interview two more law firms (we had voted to interview 5 firms: 4 new firms, plus our current firm). After seeing presentations from all five firms, the Regional Chair, Farshid Hajir, noted that he doesn't see any problem with our current firm and therefore recommends we simply stay with this firm. Other members of the SC disagreed (particularly since neither Rob nor Irv were in town for this meeting), and ultimately we decided to return to this issue at a later meeting. If any of my blog readers have had the opportunity to see the interviews (3 were on Tuesday, June 22nd and 2 were on Tuesday, July 13th -- all available on demand at ACTV), I'd love any thoughts you have (either via my blog or via my private email:

Monday, July 12, 2010

Study at R.I. boarding school finds more sleep for teens equals better performance

Note: This is a longer story about the study that appeared in the Gazette last week on the benefits of delaying the start of school. I am definitely in favor of looking into this idea for the upcoming year.

The Providence Journal
July 7, 2010
By Felice J. Freyer, Journal Medical Writer

When the head of St. George’s School proposed starting the school day a half-hour later, many were skeptical.

Eric F. Peterson, the head of the private boarding school in Middletown, just wanted St. George’s students to get more sleep. But his plan faced resistance.

“The initial reaction was, ‘What difference can 30 minutes make? The kids will just stay up later,’ ” Peterson said. “I felt, what harm could 30 minutes more do?”

The school, which includes grades 9 through 12, decided to try the later time just as an experiment. According to the plan, from Jan. 6 to March 6, 2009, school would start at 8:30 a.m. instead of 8.

But the effects of that extra half-hour were so swift and dramatic that the 8:30 a.m. start time has stayed in effect. And a local sleep researcher’s documentation of those effects are being published in the July issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine — adding to growing evidence that later school start times have measurable benefits for teens.

Adolescents stay up later at night because of biological changes that make it harder to fall asleep until late, abetted by a wealth of modern-day distractions. But they need as much sleep as younger children, resulting in chronic sleep deprivation.

Once St. George’s changed the start time, Peterson noticed right away that more kids were at breakfast and they seemed more alert. The teachers felt “less frantic” starting the day.

Far from staying up later, students went to bed earlier, so they added an average of 45 minutes to their sleep time on school nights. Buoyed by the extra sleep, they felt more motivated and less depressed. Fewer were late for class. Students fell asleep in class less often, and fewer went to the health center with fatigue-related complaints.

Barely halfway into the experiment, Peterson says, “I started hearing, ‘We’re not going to go back to the original start time, are we?’ ”

The St. George’s experiment was tracked by Dr. Judith A. Owens, a pediatric sleep researcher at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, whose daughter was a senior at St. George’s. Though the study involved a small group and a short time period, she said, it provides “one more piece of evidence that this is worth doing.”

The students took an online survey before and after the two-month experiment, gauging sleep habits, behavior and feelings. (Of the school’s 357 enrollees, 201 completed both surveys.) Owens did not measure academic performance because the study’s time frame was too short to gauge effects. But other studies have shown a link between shorter sleep and lower academic achievement.

“What surprised me most,” Head of School Peterson said last week, “was the breadth of the benefit. I kind of figured things would be a little better in some ways. They seemed to be so much better in many ways.”

For example, he said, “We more than doubled the amount of quality breakfast food that we were consuming as a community in the mornings. That stunned me. … Who knows how that played into people’s later alertness?”

Maddie Carrellas, of Middletown, was a senior at St. George’s when the experiment took place. As a day student who had to drive to school, she was especially appreciative of the extra half-hour. “I just had a lot more time in the morning. I felt a lot more relaxed,” she said.

Sometimes she even went to bed earlier because she knew she had a little extra time to get ready in the morning. (Some students told the researchers that they were inspired to go to bed earlier when they saw the benefits of sleeping an extra half-hour in the morning.)

St. George’s original start time of 8 a.m. is gentle compared to most public high schools, which typically start at 7 or 7:15 a.m. To catch the bus, many public school kids are awake by 6, but few can fall asleep before 11.

To make up for the half-hour of school time lost in the morning, St. George’s cut 10 minutes of class time per week for each course and sports practice was shortened by 10 or 15 minutes.

Owens acknowledges that changing school start times is logistically easier for a boarding school that doesn’t have to contend with bus schedules and afterschool jobs. But she notes that in Minnesota, Kentucky and elsewhere, public school systems have successfully delayed start times — and have documented such positive effects as higher SAT scores and fewer car crashes.

It’s striking, however, that despite the improvements, St. George’s students were still sleep-deprived after the time change. The average school-night sleep time increased from 7 hours, 7 minutes to 7 hours, 52 minutes. But the typical adolescent needs 9 hours to 9¼ hours of sleep every night. Only 11 percent at St. George’s slept 9 or more hours after the time change.

Before the start-time change, 85.1 percent of the students reported struggling to stay awake or falling asleep during class. Afterward, that dropped to 60.5 percent — a significant change, but one that still leaves more than half the students feeling sleepy in class.

“It underscores this really terrible epidemic that we have in this country of inadequate sleep across the board and particularly affecting our teenagers,” Owens said.

Sleep deprivation is especially harmful to the very parts of the brain that need to develop in adolescence — those involving motivation, judgment and emotional regulation. “We have no idea what the long-term consequence is,” Owens said.

Owens calls for a cultural shift that recognizes sleep as necessary and valuable, rather than a sign of laziness or a waste of time.

“Parents will do everything they can to improve success in their kids,” Owens said.

“They’ll do Stanley Kaplan, go to all sort of lengths to pad their resumes … But the most important thing they can do is get them more sleep.”

KEY POINTS: Teens and sleep

Teenagers need an average of 9 to 9 1/4 hours of sleep each night, but find it hard to fall asleep before 11 p.m.

Shorter sleep times have been linked to poorer academic performance, depressed mood, memory and behavior problems and weight gain.

Starting school a half-hour later at St. George’s School increased the percentage of students getting at least 8 hours of sleep from 16 percent to 55 percent; reduced the percentage who said they rarely or never got enough sleep from 69 percent to 34 percent; and reduced the percentage of students who rated themselves as “at least somewhat unhappy” or depressed from 66 percent to 45 percent.

Parents can help by minimizing the time needed to prepare for school in the morning; keeping televisions, computers and other electronics out of the bedroom; limiting naps to a half-hour; and considering reducing your teen’s afterschool activities.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Education Matters: What Do We Want Now?

This link is to my latest Education Matters column (July 9, 2010, Amherst Bulletin), which examines our current school budgets and the spending choices we are currently making ( I'd be interested in hearing thoughts about both our current choices and alternative choices from parents, teachers, students, and community members.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Two Interesting Articles Related to Education Issues

I am posting links to two recent articles on issues related to education that I think will be of interest to my blog readers.

First, I'm posting a link to an article in last weekend's New York Times on the growing trend of public high schools adopting International Baccalaureate programs ( This sounds like potentially a great fit for the overall mission of the Amherst Regional schools, given the focus on both integrated learning and global awareness.

Second, I'm posting a link to an article in today's Gazette on the advantages of delaying the start of the school day to give kids an extra 30 minutes to sleep ( I think this is an idea that the Amherst schools should definitely consider -- I know the Northampton schools have considered it for a couple years, though I don't believe they've made such a change.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mixed reviews for special ed in Amherst

I'm posting two links to an article in today's Gazette about the evaluation of special education in Amherst. The special education evaluation was briefly presented at the most recent Regional SC meeting, but there will be a longer discussion of this evaluation at a future meeting. I was struck (and commented at the time) that this evaluation, while relatively thorough, didn't include virtually any examination of our special education costs (which I believe was asked to be completed by the SC last spring), and in particular whether our staffing levels were appropriate in terms of our population. I am struck that the Amherst Regional schools employ four special education administrators (all making over $95,000), which seems odd to me since we employ (as of last year) not a single person whose job is to focus on curriculum/evaluation/instruction (and even now, we have only one person -- the Curriculum Director). I have met and talked with many parents who are involved in special education in Amherst, and, as noted in this article, satisfaction is not particularly high, which concerns me. I believe we need to set developing recommendations for improving special education in Amherst a high priority for the upcoming year. Here are the two links:, and

One more note: there is also a front page article stating that the DA has NOT issued the expected ruling on blogs, but has sent the concerns raised by School Committee chairs to the Attorney General. Here is that link:

Thursday, July 1, 2010

More Thoughts on IMP

My June Oped in the Bulletin regarding math in ARMS and ARHS has led to a number of responses, including two letters in today's Bulletin (not yet online, but will be soon) and an official response on the ARHS website ( The high school response makes a number of claims about the benefits of IMP, including that this program is associated with students taking more math classes and achieving higher standardized test scores. I would encourage parents and community members to read the research posted in this link carefully: what is very clear is that IMP was developed in the early 1990s, and that ALL of the research cited in this link is from the early to mid-1990s, when students taking IMP math were still in high school. Some evidence now suggests that this approach didn't really stand the test of time -- meaning that when students trained in IMP entered college-level math classes, they struggled considerably. This might be why of the 23 districts that, like Amherst, are part of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN), 16 do NOT offer an IMP math track. It might also be why there is considerable controversy in the mathematics community about IMP (and other forms of reform math), as described in an editorial by David Klein, a math professor at California State Northridge, in the American Journal of Physics entitled "School math books, nonsense, and the National Science Foundation (

Most importantly, what the response from the high school does NOT say is that "we have tested the effectiveness of the IMP program in ARHS and have found the following results" -- because absolutely no analysis of the effectiveness of this program has been conducted in our high school. And that is the entire point of my oped, which in fact ended with the following sentence: As part of the upcoming review of the mathematics curriculum in Amherst, we need to objectively evaluate the effectiveness of both the IMP and extensions programs so that we can adequately advise students about both the benefits and costs of their choices, and ideally help all students make choices that expand rather than limit their possibilities. My piece did NOT say "let's immediately end the IMP math program" -- it said we need to evaluate the effectiveness of this program in our school, since some national data is suggesting it has some real problems for college-bound students (particularly those who want to study math or science).

As a member of the Regional School Committee, I pushed hard last fall for an evaluation of K to 12 math, including an examination of the effectiveness of the IMP program. This would be quite an easy evaluation to conduct: since we currently have kids in both the IMP and traditional tracks, one could track their MCAS scores over time and directly compare rate of change (improvement) as a function of which math track was chosen. One could also compare whether one approach was better as a function of gender, or level of math proficiency, etc. Again, this would be a very easy analysis to do, and yet it hasn't ever been done so we really don't know how effective this alternative math program is in general or how effective it is for particular students.

I have been a member of the School Committee for over two years, and a member of the Math Curriculum Council for a year prior to that, and at no time has any high school math teacher (or the HS principal) come to a SC or math curriculum council meeting and requested this type of rigorous evaluation so that we would definitively understand the benefits and/or costs for all or some students of choosing the IMP math track. Yet this seems like an evaluation that all SC members, math teachers, parents, and principals, should agree is long overdue, and highly important for our students.