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.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Great Teaching Really Matters

There has been a lot of discussion on my blog about teachers, and as a parent with three kids in our public schools, I know how much a teacher can make (or break) a kid's year. And I'd like to state up-front that my kids have had great teachers at Fort River (and this includes some very experienced teachers in their last year or two before retirement as well as some in their first year or two of teaching), and that I believe most teachers in the Amherst schools are strong (in part because we are fortunate to attract great teachers who want to live in or near our community). So, I wanted to do this post to talk about great teaching -- how we get it, where it comes from, etc.

First, I strongly encourage my blog readers to check out this fascinating article from The New Yorker on predicting teachers' success ( Here's really the essential quote: "Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers." This research on effective teaching is new (and actually, Steve Rivkin has done some of this research, in collaboration with Eric Hanushek), and very interesting (you can google their names and read some of the original research).

A recent--and controversial--article in the LA Times actually presented an analysis in which both more effective and less effective 3rd to 5th grade teachers were named (,0,2695044.story?page=1). Again, I encourage you to read the whole article, but here's a key quote: "Highly effective teachers routinely propel students from below grade level to advanced in a single year. There is a substantial gap at year's end between students whose teachers were in the top 10% in effectiveness and the bottom 10%. The fortunate students ranked 17 percentile points higher in English and 25 points higher in math."

So, we can probably all agree that good teaching really matters. However, the next issue then becomes how can you recruit/hire/train people to be good teachers. And the point made in the New Yorker article (and in lots of research) is that the things we might expect to be associated with good teaching (e.g., masters degree, quality of college attended, test scores) aren't ... which makes hiring good teachers harder. Their suggestion is two-fold: first, recruit a lot of people to teach, by increasing pay substantially, and second, make the tenure system very rigorous, so only those people who have demonstrated their success in the classroom are granted tenure.

I believe that increasing teacher pay is a good idea -- as Michelle Rhee (head of the DC public schools) is doing as part of an attempt to reform these historically troubled schools (see an article in Newsweek for a review of some of her efforts at I look forward to seeing the results of her efforts -- and admire her courage and commitment to public education.

In addition, I believe that one of the most important thing principals should do is regularly (and rigorously) evaluate teachers, so that we help good teachers become great teachers, and so that, when necessary, we help less effective teachers find other careers (ideally prior to granting them tenure). This is why I really hope that all principals are conducting these evaluations ... and why I was surprised to learn (as reported by Dr. Barry Beers in his needs assessment of Amherst Regional Middle School) that "Non-tenured teachers (1-3 years of experience) receive one observation per semester. Tenured teachers receive one observation every two years. According to teachers and administrators, all teachers are meeting expectations although everyone can improve." It seems surprising to me both that non-tenured teachers are observed only twice a year, and that in a school with as many teachers as the middle school, all teachers are meeting expectations. In fact, I'd be surprised if at any school in Amherst, and indeed any school in the country, every single teacher is meeting expectations ... just as I'd be surprised if every professor at Amherst College (or indeed any college/university in the country) was meeting expectations. This suggests to me that we need to make sure that principals are setting high expectations for all teachers, just as teachers should set high expectations for all kids.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Still More on Math

This post was prompted by an article in the Bulletin on July 30th ( -- I was out of town and hence didn't get a chance to read it and respond to it appropriately at the time. Given my own interest in math, as well as the intense interest in this education issue at both the local and national level, I have a number of reactions to this piece, and I look forward to what I'm sure will be an active and interesting discussion!

First, I am very glad that we are having a review of the K to 12 math program, which I've asked for since 2006 (prior to my time on the SC). I was delighted when then superintendent Alberto Rodriguez agreed to carry this out as a goal in his first year (with unanimous support from both the Amherst and Regional SCs), and I'm delighted that current interim superintendent Maria Geryk is continuing this effort. I look forward to seeing Dr. Chen's report in a few months.

Second, I really don't think it is appropriate to celebrate Amherst students' "above average" performance on the MCAS as a sign of great success of our math program. I would really hope that our students, who are more affluent than the state average and who live in a town with three colleges/universities, are above average, and frankly, I would hope our scores are above those in Northampton! However, I think it would have been appropriate for this article to have included the very important fact that 3 of the 4 Amherst elementary schools failed to make AYP (adequate yearly progress) in math last year (Marks Meadow was the ONLY school to make AYP), as did all 4 of the Northampton elementary schools. Both Amherst and Northampton use the Investigations curriculum K to 5.

Third, I'm disappointed by the remarks from both Farshid Hajir and George Avrunin. I can't imagine why there there is an accusation that I'm cherry-picking data to show Investigations is bad -- when there isn't any published research showing it is good (if anyone reading this blog has such evidence, please post away). It isn't cherry-picking to state that there is no research showing a curriculum is good if there isn't evidence showing it is good. I do have an ideological bent -- I want our kids to learn math. If there is evidence showing they can do that as effectively through Investigations as with another curriculum, I'd love to see it. Similarly, IMP might be the best high school math curriculum in the world/country. But there are reports from math professors at Berkeley and Stanford suggesting that math curriculum doesn't serve to prepare kids effectively for college math/science. If that is true (and we certainly don't have any evidence that it isn't true), in fairness we should tell kids that BEFORE they choose this track. A 1999 study cited by Mark Jackson simply isn't enough (and see for a critique of this study).

So, here are my assorted thoughts on math in Amherst:

I don’t know anything about K to 12 mathematics; I’m a professor of psychology. But I have three kids in the public schools, and I believe all kids in Amherst deserve the very best math instruction they can have. I also believe that math is a central part of our district’s worthy commitment to social justice, because math is the key to opening doors in college not only in math but also in science (and women and minorities are under-represented in both).

I don’t care if we use Singapore math or Thinkmath or Everyday Math or Investigations or reform math or traditional math; I don’t care whether we have AP Statistics or IMP or traditional math in high school; I don’t care if we track or don’t track or when we track. All I care about is that we are using a math curriculum, and program/policies, that pushes all kids to achieve at the highest levels, and keeps doors open for all our kids to go to college and major in whatever they want and gain access to whatever career they want.

That being said, I have serious doubts about whether our current K to 12 math program is doing that. I am concerned that 3 of the 4 elementary schools in Amherst failed to make AYP last year in math. I am concerned that we have an elementary math curriculum that seems to require extensive math coaching of teachers (which is very expensive in money and time). I am concerned that (very good) elementary teachers tell me that Investigations is hard to teach, so they end up supplementing with their own material, which means that kids have very different experiences in different classrooms. I am concerned that there are no well done studies showing that Investigations actually is effective, and that there is now a published study showing it is actually the least effective of the four curricula studied ( I am concerned that the last math survey of teachers in our district (2007) revealed that several teachers expressed dissatisfaction with the Investigations curriculum, particularly for teaching ESL students (who represent an increasingly large share of the elementary population in our schools; I am concerned that the last math survey of parents in our district (2007) revealed that of the parents who chose to write comments, many noted a lack of challenge for their kids (in elementary and middle school; I am concerned that so many parents of 7th graders teach kids math themselves or hire tutors to teach their kids extensions (which appear to not be consistently taught in the classroom). I am concerned that we have fewer 8th graders taking algebra than many of our comparison districts, perhaps in part because we don't offer "regular" algebra in 8th grade (only honors), which isn't the case in any other district I've found in the country. I am concerned that we allow high school kids to choose whether to take IMP or traditional math yet we really have no idea if these are equally good paths at creating math fluency, especially in light of concerns raised about IMP in preparing kids for college math/science ( I am concerned that kids who want to take AP Statistics in our district aren’t given that opportunity, which kids in virtually all of our comparison districts have.

Given these concerns, which are not mine alone but are shared by many other parents as well as teachers, I am very glad that our district is finally having an independent and objective evaluation of the effectiveness of our math programs/policies/curricula. Is the single best curriculum to teach elementary kids math Investigations? Is the right way to teach middle school math maintaining heterogeneous classes through 7th grade (with kids choosing whether to do “extensions”), and then in 8th grade having honors algebra and regular math but no regular algebra? Are IMP and traditional math equally effective ways of preparing kids for college-level math? Those are the questions I have, and many parents have, and I think we all simply want honest answers — whether those answers point to maintaining our current approach, or making some changes.

I don't believe that having these questions, or asking these questions, is teacher-bashing, or tearing down our schools, or destroying morale. I actually think that asking these questions, and making sure we get answers as well as some action on the answers, is precisely what I was elected by this community to do as a member of the School Committee. I believe my primary responsibility as an elected official is to the students in our schools -- not the parents, not the teachers, not the administrators. And I believe that our students K to 12 deserve a truly excellent math program which provides challenge, engagement, and support so that all students can achieve at the highest levels and keep doors open for the future.

Exciting Changes At ARMS

I've been meaning to do this blog post all summer, and now that the summer is almost over, I figured I better finally get it up. And I know I've been accused of focusing on the negative on this blog, but I'd also like to be clear that if/when I see good things happening, I'm certainly going to be equally loud about those.

So, what I'd like to share with my blog readers is the VERY impressive letter sent to 6th grade parents in late June from ARMS Principal Mike Hayes. This letter (which I understand from Mike is a new initiative) described the importance of helping rising 7th graders continue to practice their reading and math skills over the summer, and gives very specific suggestions for families about how students can maintain these skills.

The English department (chaired by Heather Sullivan-Flynn) requests that rising 7th and 8th graders read one of four books (one list for 7th graders, one list for 8th graders), and has copies of these books available to loan to families if needed. (My rising 7th grader read one of the books, and liked it so much that we got the sequel the next day, and he is now reading a second book on this list.)

The math department (chaired by Steve Zakon-Anderson, who has also contributed to this blog!) provides a very helpful description of math options for 7th graders, and also provided a HUGE amount of material for summer study (e.g., sample 7th grade pre-test, sample 7th grade extensions problems, sample 7th grade final exam) on the website ( This type of clarity and transparency is extremely helpful, and really marks a dramatic change from prior practice (in which the content of pre-test material, and sometimes even the existence of such a test, wasn't known to parents or students).

I remarked on the very helpful nature of this material, and publicly thanked Mike Hayes, at a Regional SC meeting in June, but then realized that those who didn't watch this meeting (or have rising 7th graders themselves) wouldn't be aware of its existence -- hence I wanted to make sure that at least my blog readers know about these impressive steps being taken by the middle school administration. This strikes me as a very good sign for the upcoming year in the middle school!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Amherst Bulletin - August 13, 2010

There are four articles/opeds related to education in this week's Bulletin, so I'm going to post links to each and my own brief commentary here.

First, there is a large (front-page) article on the number of families who are choosing to leave the Amherst public schools ( I thought this article was really well done (very thorough, very balanced), though I do wish it had noted the number of parents in sort of high profile positions who are also leaving our public schools (former Regional SC members, principals in our public schools, override leaders, college presidents, etc.). I believe we need to acknowledge that our schools are NOT serving all children well, and we need to develop a specific plan to help our schools live up to their true potential of serving 'every child, every day' so that families will choose to stay in our schools. I was also really disappointed by Andy's comments at the end of this article -- those are precisely the types of comments that leave more people to leave, because they put the blame on the parents/kids who are leaving, and not on our schools, and thus don't give other parents hope that things will in fact change.

Second, there is a well done oped by the Bulletin editors on this issue ( I really agree with the statement that the investigation " ... must inform the changes the system undertakes in the years ahead." I had asked for exit surveys to be given to families who leave two years ago (2008), but Jere Hochman didn't support gathering this data. That is why I'm very glad the SC voted this year to require such surveys, so that we could indeed understand why some families are opting out.

Third, my monthly Education Matters column appears (, which I believe speaks for itself.

Finally, the former Regional SC chair has a piece which largely criticizes me and Steve (, which I found somewhat ironic since Farshid supposedly resigned in order to allow the Regional SC to function in a more constructive way (which surely is harder to do when the former chair consistently engages in personal attacks on some current SC members in the press). I will add two brief additional points.
  • In terms of Farshid's statement re. words said by me and Steve one night late in a parking lot -- I worked very closely with Farshid throughout much of last year (in my role as vice chair), and I considered him a close friend. We talked 4 or 5 times a day by phone (sometimes as late as midnight), we met frequently for coffee, and he attended social gatherings at my home. I therefore said things to him in confidence, assuming that those things would remain between friends and not be published in the Bulletin. Following a weekend in which the SC met for many hours in executive session (and in which things were said which Farshid knows well I can not repeat), both Steve and I spoke with anger one night, late at night, in a parking lot. We didn't act on those words in any way -- in or outside of meetings -- and thus I believe his comments are simply designed to create bad feelings towards us, and thereby erode community support for the much-needed changes we are trying to bring to our schools.
  • Despite my disagreement with Farshid's choice to bring up these comments made late one night, I do really agree with his statement that "It is not fiscally or educationally prudent to impose curriculum changes that are not based on a professional analysis of all the available data." I very much share his hope that the new evaluation policy we've passed this year helps school administrators make decisions using all available data, including objective data and comparisons with other districts, instead of simply assuming that whatever our schools are now using (curricula, programs, etc.) is simply the best because we are in Amherst.

Monday, August 9, 2010

More Assorted Articles on Education

I've been on vacation for the last two weeks so haven't posted much. But I've seen (or been sent, sometimes by blog readers - thank you!) assorted articles on education that I believe will be of interest to my readers, so I'm posting a few links now. And don't worry -- as soon as the Bulletin goes on line (probably tomorrow), I'll post several articles/columns for reader reactions/discussions.

First, there is a really interesting article from the New York Times called "The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers" ( Although the title may be facietious, the article makes the very wise point that teacher quality really matters in the early grades.

Second, I read an article (also in the New York Times) on a district that is doing a fabulous job of integrating kids with autism into regular classrooms ( I have no idea how this program compares with the program we have in the Amherst schools, but the experience described in this article certainly seems rewarding and beneficial for all kids.

Third, I found this OpEd on bullying to be very thought-provoking and timely, especially for districts in Western Mass ( Although districts, including our own, are under massive pressure to quickly pass anti-bullying policies, these authors make the important point that we need to think very carefully about what really works to prevent this type of behavior.

One final note: I have to assume that all readers of this blog, as well as the writer of this blog, are dedicated to ensuring the Amherst schools provide high quality education for all kids. We may disagree on the approach or methods used to enact improvements in our schools, or even on what improvements are needed, but I'd like us all to remember that people who are posting on this blog as well as the author of this blog are real people - with friends and family members who love them and care about them -- and that taking anonymously pot shots at me or other posters (anonymous or not) isn't constructive or helpful in any way. I'm willing and eager to discuss any and all education issues ... but I really don't want to facilitate name-calling and insults. Please submit posts using your own name if it all possible, and even if you choose not to use your name (for whatever reason), make sure to that you aren't writing something more negatively under the cloak of anonymity than you would write without this option. I allow anonymous posts to encourage broader participation in the dialogue -- NOT to allow mean-spirited remarks about me or others.