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, 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.


Michael Jacques said...


Great post. Thanks for the very thorough job of defining your position on math. I do believe as a PhD in almost any area of study you have the math background to have at least a strong and valid opinion of how math is taught.

As I posted from your previous post if the MS keeps the momentum up we may get those higher numbers taking algebra in the 8th grade. Lets all stay informed and supportive of the MS as this new curriculum / model develops.

As I have posted many times I do have issues with investigation and maybe it is as you state more an issue with inconstant additional materials added by individual teachers or increased need of teacher training rather than Investigations itself. Either way I look forward to Dr. Chen's assessment.

On that note do you know if the charge of Dr. Chen was officially changed from telling us if we are using Investigations correctly to telling us if our math program is up to par with other top achieving districts?

ken said...


First, Thanks for this column about math.

I have not read any comments that accuse you of teacher bashing because of your comments about math. I have not been a regular reader of your blog so may not have seen them. But when I've been on, at least, i've not seen these 2 things explicitly connected.

I think you need to be more careful with your MCAS citations. First, it's not consistent to emphasize the negative, while dismissing or explaining away the positive. You know from my post that for the 2009 graduating class, anyway, our % growth from grades 3-6 was higher than the state average--sometimes very significantly--in ALL subgroups. The scores published in the Bulletin article are not disaggregated, and that absolutely needs to happen, but just dismissing them out of hand feeds the perspective, which you don't like, that you are only focusing on the negative. You could have said something like , "I hope the subgroup data shows the same level of high achievement."

Regarding AYP, more than 65% of MA districts are experiencing some level of AYP issue, and that is expected to rise to over 70% this year. This includes some of the wealthiest, highest performing districts/schools in the state. There are 3 reasons for an AYP "problem": 1) bad instruction (or programs); 2) demogarphic shifts; 3) a particular problematic cohort of students; 4) the issues inherent in NCLB. #4 is that AYP is calculated on a projected growth increase leading to 100% proficient or above from a baseline score established the year of NCLB until the year 2014 (or 15, I forget which). Realistically, that calculation is not sustainable, and thus you see in every state, including MA, a signiificant rise in AYP failure each year now. When people say NCLB needs to change, this is one of the major things they mean.

The default position in people's minds when you say we haven't met AYP (and that you infer in the way you wrote it) is #1. But it's just as likely that it is due to #2, 3 or 4.

If AYP was such a big issue to Amherst, it would not have taken the social engineering shift of low income students from Crocker district. That is probably going to have significant AYP reprocussions. One is the raising Crocker's MCAS scores so that they probably quite easily make AYP, while Wildwood is quite likely going to get lower scores because of their population shift; depending on how much lower, it could consign them to several years of AYP problems because it will be measured according to that projection of steady growth towards 100% proficient or above from their original baseline score.
In Amherst, there could well be all 4 reasons mixed together, but only a careful analysis of MCAS results over the last couple of years will tell you that. Then if you use the term "failed to make AYP," you need to be specific about why.

(part 2 next post)

Nina Koch said...

"Is the single best curriculum to teach elementary kids math Investigations?"

No it isn't. There is no single best curriculum. Classroom practice is what makes the biggest difference. See this report from out of Johns Hopkins:

Effective Programs in Elementary Mathematics: A Best-Evidence Synthesis

That's why professional development matters. Teachers need to reflect on their practice, no matter what curriculum they are using. That's what the district needs to focus on right now.

Here is a press release about a report that found that the US is significantly behind other countries in professional development:

US Behind in Professional Development

When I say professional development, I'm not talking about attending a workshop one day and then forgetting about it. The development needs to be ongoing and embedded in the teacher's daily life. Check out the report and see what you think.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Nina - I think there are three really key points here.

First, the data on the effectiveness of professional development is very mixed. You provide a link to a study that reviews a number of different studies, and even that study acknowledges that many of these studies are weak. But the most recent study, using random assignment, reveals that professional development had no impact on students' math achievement ( And this study wasn't a study of just a one day course, but rather more intensive (3-day summer workshop, series of one-day workshops followed by in-school coaching), and provided 67 hours of PD.

Second, professional development is expensive. So, we then need to consider what we are giving up to provide the level of professional development necessary to have Investigations work. Are we willing to have larger class sizes in elementary school? Are we willing to give up our elementary music program? Again, this is about trade-offs, and if there are math curriculum out there that require less professional development to be effective (again, this is assuming that professional development is indeed effective), then we should be aware of those trade-offs.

Third, regardless of the effectiveness of professional development, I believe we should have the best math curriculum out there. It doesn't make sense to say "well, it doesn't really matter what math curriculum we have, because really professional development matters more." So, I believe we should have the best math curriculum we can have (as based in research and objective evidence), AND I believe that, if the research supports it, we should add professional development to that curriculum.

Anonymous said...

If I was Nina I'd be really discouraged. Do you look at either of the links to reports that Nina provided, Catherine? You didn't respond to what Nina actually just went into your normal everyday spiel. That is what is so disheartening to so many of us, Catherine. You don't really listen or respond to what people actually write. You just use a purported response to what folks write to repeat again and again your slanted view of the world. So disheartening.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 12:14 - I'm quite surprised by your comment, in that my post directly responds to the first link that Nina posts - as I note, the link that Nina posts is a summary of research (which I read in its entirety), which acknowledges that curriculum matters some and instruction matters more. I then note that a more recent randomized study shows professional development does NOT work, but I also acknowledge that even if professional development DOES work, that doesn't mean the curriculum is irrelevant.

In terms of the other link Nina posts -- that is a post showing other countries have a lot more professional development than we have. That study doesn't show any type of a causal link between professional development and achievement ... and I think a lot of those countries make a lot of other education decisions (e.g., more time in class, tracking, more focus on rote memorization, less poverty, etc.) that we don't. So, there could be many other explanations for higher achievement in those countries than in the US/MA/Amherst.

If you have thoughts about what Nina posted or what I posted, respond to it -- but please focus on the content of the post, not just an attack. I read each of links Nina provided, and I responded to the first one at length (the second one wasn't related to math, which I why I didn't comment on it). Yet you make a personal attack for really no reason accusing me of not listening or responding and presenting a "slanted view of the world" -- because I provide a research link showing doubts about the effectiveness of professional development AND stated that even if professional development is effective (which clearly Nina believes), we STILL need the best curriculum possible (which I would think many people would agree with)? That doesn't help the dialogue move forward at all, which Nina and I are both trying to do.

Nina Koch said...

Actually, I did not say "Professional development is effective" because I would not attempt to make such a general statement. Professional development is a type of education, and therefore it takes a wide variety of forms and seeks to accomplish a variety of goals. To say "Professional development is not effective" is equivalent to saying "Teaching is not effective" or "Medicine is not effective." No one would say that, even in light of a study stating that a particular medicine failed to accomplish a particular goal.

What I said is that professional development is important. Here's the logic:

If teacher quality is a critical factor in student achievement, then to increase student achievement you have to do something about teacher quality.

And how do you propose to do that? It's not as if excellent teachers spring like Athena from Zeus' head. They have to be developed. That's why it's called professional development.

Anonymous said...

I think this post on the Community Supported Education blog is very insightful on the math curriculum discussion, and a helpful framework in which to talk about the issues. In particular, the questions Laura Wenk raises about what constitutes math competence (and the differences of opinion on that topic) are very thought-provoking, and deserve further discussion before we can deem a specific set of methods are or are not effective.

Anonymous said...

I don't know where AMherst's elementary PD money is being spent. BUt during my time there in SPED it wasn't being spent on SPED.

Anonymous said...

It should not be so difficult to understand educational decision-making in Amherst that a person needs a PhD to participate in the discussion!

Anonymous said...

Taking advice on math from a Hampshire College professor? Are you serious???? The school that is world famous for zero structure, no schedule, or anything based on real life? That Hampshire College? No thank you. I'd home school my kid before I let a professor from Hampshire College start calling the shots on what a classroom should be like.

Anonymous said...

Hey, this is great. Just bring the intelligent stuff from Community Supported over here, and then we can discuss it thoroughly without being outed over there!

Then the rest of us don't have to go over there to wallow and sift through all the mutual thanking and self-congratulating, as well as the subtle slapping at current SC members, to actually find the substance worth discussing!

Anonymous said...

So, let's see. An ad hominem attack on the person who wrote the thoughtful post on the CSE blog, an ad bloginem attack on the blog's comment policies, and (I think) a complaint about the reading level of the post (presumably "PhD level" in Anon 3:44's opinion) but no actual engagement with the important questions the post raises

Excellent examples of why the more substantive discussions will happen over there rather than here.

Anonymous said...

And I'll add that I'm surprised that you let the ad hominem attack through, Catherine. Way to elevate the discourse.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 7:11/7:12 - I actually debated whether to publish that post regarding Hampshire College ... and ultimately, I decided that since I've been criticized (routinely) for where I work (the elitist Amherst College), it seemed unfair to apply different rules to those who do posts on other blogs. I think it is inappropriate to criticize people (especially anonymously) for where they work (or live, for that matter), but I'm not going to censor posts that criticize where I work ... and thus I'm not going to censor those criticizing where others who have blogs about our schools work either.

One more point: Ms. Wenk (in her post on a more constructive/positive blog than mine) states the following "And we need a school committee that works on the side of teachers, not against them." I find this a really odd statement, in that teachers have complained about the use of Investigations, as noted in a district-wide survey 3 years ago. Yet the assumption is that SC members who want our math curriculum evaluated are working against teachers. I guess I find it hard to see this as a more thoughtful, balanced, or constructive take on our schools, as I believe others have pointed out on my blog (and certainly have pointed out to me privately).

If you don't like this blog, don't read it. Luckily you can follow the discussion about math on the other blog, in which you will hear Ms. Wenk's opinion of our math curriculum and can post your own thoughts (though not anonymously, as you've chosen to do on my blog).

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 7:11, my remark about needing a PhD was in reference to the first comment posted in this thread, where Michael Jacques said, re CS's post, that "as a PhD in almost any area of study you have the math background to have at least a strong and valid opinion of how math is taught."

Nothing to do with the level of discourse "over there" on that other blog, which I think is a fine addition to the local blogosphere.

I don't have a PhD, but my spouse does, and he is smart enough to know that because his PhD is NOT in math education, he has no more insight into math education than any other random (if intelligent) person.

As I said, it should not require a PhD to understand the issues re:Amherst's math curriculum.

Anonymous said...

To change the subject slightly:

Alisa Brewer makes the clear, concise comment at that other website (that I can't figure out how to register on): "Public school in the U.S. is still a better fit for girls than boys."

As the father of a daughter and no sons, I believe that she is 100% correct on this, and our society has not begun to fully grasp the significance of this. Perhaps this is because of the power relationships that linger on between men and women in other areas.

But, for me, all the spending on football programs will not change the fundamental reality: American schools are not serving boys as well as they are serving girls. The phasing out of phys ed programs during the school day, I would submit, disproportionately harms boys, for example. But I suspect that there are more profound problems in how boys are taught that I simply can't grasp as a layperson. As a prosecutor, I see something like 10 times more young men standing in the dock in court than women of any age.

Take a look at the percentages of girls versus boys enrolled at the top liberal arts colleges. Girls rule, and that may be fine, but some inquiry into what's happening to boys academically in elementary and secondary schools is way over due. Let's face it: it's simply not yet fashionable to worry publicly about the plight of boys in our schools these days.

Rich Morse

Nina Koch said...

The post about Hampshire is ridiculous and unfounded. Here is some actual information:

Hampshire College outcomes

showing the rate at which Hampshire students go on to earn a PhD. It's very impressive. The fact that students work independently and intensively on their Div 3 projects at Hampshire probably makes them very good candidates for doctoral programs. Just because a structure is not familiar to you doesn't mean it's not a structure. Hampshire is also well known for producing entrepreneurs.

I haven't seen any characterizations of Amherst College nearly as disparaging as the one of Hampshire College. It suggests that the entire institution is worthless. I'm surprised that you let it through, Catherine, but given that you did, I am really surprised that you did not at least respond to it, to show your respect for your colleagues at Hampshire.

The next time someone calls you "polarizing" and you are trying to figure out why they think that, this would be a good example.

As for your excuse that you let it through because people have "routinely" criticized your institution as elitist, I just did a Google search on your blog for people using the term elitist and most of the results are from you, complaining about being called elitist, rather than people actually doing it.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Nina - as I've said repeatedly, I am not censoring anything that doesn't make a personal attack on a school district employee. I have censored posts (as recently as last week) that identified specific "inferior" teachers at one of the elementary schools. But I haven't censored posts that attack me (including ones that do attack my education/employer/neighborhood), and I'm not going to refuse to post those that criticize posts made on other blogs. I wish that person had been more respectful in his/her characterization of Hampshire College ... but I also wish Ms. Wenk hadn't chosen to engage in an unfounded attack on the current SC in her post. And I've just chosen to post your comment which criticizes me for lying (e.g., no one has criticized Amherst College) and for being polarizing.

Definitely feels like a no win for me -- I can allow all posts through (and be accused of letting in posts slamming teachers), only allow named posts (and eliminate a number of thoughtful contributions for those who may well prefer to remain anonymous to avoid the attacks), or I can censor posts that don't fit "appropriate standards" which is a VERY fine line and then get accused of censoring. Many posts aren't particularly respectful of someone -- in fact, Nina, many of your posts are downright disrespectful to me (accusing me of lying, misrepresenting data, etc.). But I am not going to censor criticism of me on this blog (even criticism that is personal and unfounded), so I don't see why I should censor criticism (even unfair) of those who post on other blogs.

Nina Koch said...

I would agree that being a publisher involves making a lot of difficult decisions. Perhaps you should follow the same rule that most publishers follow: if a statement is both malicious and untrue, don't publish it. Such an item is not protected speech.

In the case of borderline items, I would suggest that you apply the notion of countering speech with more speech. When you saw the comment about Hampshire, you must have noticed that it was a pretty rotten thing to say. So then you could say something to counter it. But you didn't. Instead, it appears from your explanation that you thought something on the order of: "Well people have been really mean to me, so I am going to allow this and not say anything."

I appreciate that maintaining the blog is a lot of work, especially if you have to read each comment and think through whether it is protected speech or not, but you have chosen to be a publisher.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Nina - I'll give that suggestion re. publishing and responding some thought. Thanks. My own choice has typically been to just ignore speech that I find non-productive, because frankly, I'd rather have this dialogue be about education. Hence I didn't respond to any of those who posted yesterday about non-education things (e.g., whether you need a PhD to understand our math program, the rules of the "positive" blog, etc.). I find the posts on education interesting and valuable, no matter what perspective they take. I find the other posts not useful, and thus while I post them to avoid accusations of censorship, I frankly don't like to highlight them by responding and continuing that dialogue (and just look now -- see how many responses are not about EDUCATION, but are about rules of posting).

I would also ask that you consider applying the same diligence to attacking those who criticize me unfairly as you do to those who criticize others unfairly. I can't think of a single time that you've called anyone out on a negative thing they've said about me (where I live, where I work, where I went to school).

ken said...

I had been away this weekend and just sat down to continue "part 2" of my response to Catherine's math-related column. I was energized because the discussion in the earlier thread about math, which gave rise to this new math-specific thread, was a positive (mostly) discussion of popints of view...

...and then I read the postings and see that the ugliness, anger and pettiness is creeping back in. (I'm not addressing you directly, Catherine, but the tone of many of the postings and responses.) That's one of the main things that drove me away from continuing to interact on this blog for many months, before I just got on again a couple of days ago. It's too bad, because it really doesn't need to be that way.

Catherine, you often complain that people mischaracterize your positions as being quite negative, which may well be the case (that you are misunderstood and mischaracterized). However, I believe Nina is quite right that the posts you choose to address or not by association give coloration to your positions, whether you feel that is justified or not. You can allow posts on without censoring--while also saying that you don't appreciate what they've said or the way they've said it, even--no, especially--if they are supporting your position. Otherwise, people assume you agree with very negative, aggressive or hurtful postings since you are so quick to say what you disagree with or don't like in postings that disagree with your point of view.

Just a suggestion.

Anonymous said...

I looked over the link that Nina posted about effective programs in Elem Math and I think it would be difficult to draw any conclusions in regard to what might help us improve our system. Mainly because each approach was tested under different demographic conditions and many were tested in urban school systems - systems that may have entirely different issues to address.

In regard to the IMP debate, I agree that it is good to offer choices - and I agree that parents should be aware if there are consequences due to the choice between IMP and traditional math. And one of my biggest critiques of how public schools are managed is that they often adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. However, the fact that an LA magnet school uses IMP doesn't convince me that it is right for us to use. The LA schools which feed into CAMS have a reputation for being pretty weak. And, although many students from CAMS go to impressive colleges, we don't know if they need any remedial math when they get to their colleges.

And, in regard to the GCC professor who says that students she has observed from Amherst who have had traditional vs IMP seem equally prepared in her eyes -- I'd like to know how many ARHS students she has observed and what fields of study they were headed into, etc, before adopting this opinion as evidence.

Lastly, I wish that people who are opposed to CS could adopt a more collaborative tone instead of a defensive and challenging stance when engaging in this math discussion. It is difficult to find conclusive evidence to inform our decisions about our schools but if we can at least accept that all who are working on the schools have honorable intentions, I think we will get a lot more done.

Maybe our goal right now should be to try to agree on what evidence is pertinent and what is not.

Curious observer said...

Are there any other readers of this blog that find the constant criticism and hectoring of Catherine Sanderson a strange combination of SNL Church Lady/Felix Ungarism and sexist? The glee and freedom with which people tell Ms. Sanderson what to do, how to think, behave and so on. Would anyone scold a man like this?

Anyone have an opinion on what she should wear and how often she should smile?

People should look at themselves and reflect on how negative, weird and obsessed they sound with this constant flogging of Sanderson and telling her how to behave and what to do.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Ken - I appreciate the tone of your remarks, and I have been waiting for your post #2 of yesterday to continue! I too was excited by the math discussion and wish we could continue on that vein. Here's the thing - I have tried not to respond to posts that are irrelevant or mean-spirited, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with me. Someone posted to Rich Morse (I think in response to a post I did a few days ago) criticizing me by saying (something like) those who oppose IMP are just suck-ups to the mind-numbing College Board, or something like that. I didn't respond (though I did post it), though I obviously disagree with that. But what I've found is that if I post a response, then others comment on my response, and then the whole discussion gets side-tracked, as I see has happened here. We aren't now talking about math - -we are talking about the rules of my blog, and what I comment on and what I don't comment on. I have a limited amoutn of time (believe it or not) to post on my blog, and I've preferred to use that time to comment on substantive issues facing our schools - not on whether someone criticized Hampshire College, or my posting-style, or whatever. I guess I could start automatically responding to each post saying "be nice" or "good point" or whatever ... but again, I'd really, really like to focus on EDUCATION.

Someone posted something rude about Hampshire College. I ignored it (as did all other posters). Then Nina attacked me for posting it and not refuting it instantly, and I responded, and now we have 10 posts discussing my blog ... not math, not education. That strikes me as really unfortunate.

Can we PLEASE get back to talking about Math (this is everyone, not just you, Ken, though I would really like to hear your point #2!)?

Anonymous 2:07 - thank you for moving us back to math. I appreciate it. I believe we should pay particular attention to randomized studies, which the ones I cited are (the one about Investigations and the one about professional development). Those are the "gold standard" of research, and I think should be most informative to our decision-making. And those studies lead me to believe that we need to take a careful look at the curriculum we are using in the Amherst elementary schools, and whether this is in fact the best approach.

Curious Observer - I think you raise some interesting points -- thanks! I would hope all members of this community can focus on the SUBSTANCE of what I say, and not the tone/style. I think my views about education are pretty clear, and I would that people who like the changes I've helped bring to the schools (e.g., instituting annual surveys of parents, closing a school to save a million a year, redistricting to create equitable schools, adding Spanish, instituting real evaluations of our programs/curriculum) would be appreciated/acknowledged. In terms of my tone/style - I'm doing the best I can ... and no matter what people think about me (or my hair/dress/speed of speech), everyone knows tons more about what I think and why then I believe they do about any other SC member now or in prior years. I would think that would be appreciated by those who both agree and disagree with my views.

Nina Koch said...

to 2:07 pm

I offered the link to because it is a synthesis of multiple studies. I don't think that individual studies on their own are actually that useful. So I wouldn't expect to look in there and find some particular technique that should be imported to Amherst. Instead, I think it's useful because of its larger conclusion as a meta-study:

"The review concludes that programs designed to change daily teaching practices appear to have more promise than those that deal primarily with curriculum or technology alone."

That's what I think we should pay attention to. We need to look at what is actually happening in the classroom. I am hopeful that Dr. Chen's investigation will help us to do that, as will the new practice of instructional rounds that is set to begin this year.

By the way, in terms of studies coming from urban or high-poverty districts, I think it's no accident that they so often do. (The one that Catherine cites comparing four different curricula also comes from high-poverty districts.) I think it's because the more affluent districts aren't going to accept the conditions of the study. They don't want their math curriculum chosen randomly. Districts with fewer resources, on the other hand, might be more open to the prospect of receiving curricular materials and training provided by the study.

There is a very basic problem in educational research which is that random assignment conflicts with how we want to run our schools. We don't really want to flip a coin and say, "Okay you get this and you don't." I don't think ARHS parents would accept random assignment of their children into a math class. And no one wants to give a kid a placebo. This is why the What Works Clearinghouse rejects almost every study they see. It's almost impossible to meet their research criteria in an educational setting.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I hear the cheap stereotype about Hampshire College repeated in my presence, I make sure to respond in this way:

When I was a student at Amherst College in the years 1974-1978, I was in numerous Amherst College classes in which there were Hampshire College students. They were distinguished in my mind because they had almost always done the reading and were ready to participate fully and insightfully in class discussion, far more regularly than my Amherst College classmates.

I admit that it's a limited and dated experience, but, along with the distinguished Hampshire College alums and professors I can think of, I find the long-standing stereotype about Hampshire College, whether students or faculty, that it is somehow a less serious place, to be absolute crap.

Therefore, I don't think anyone's affiation with any of the educational institutions in town should discredit his or her opinion about the subject at hand. This is just plain dumb.

Rich Morse

Joel said...

To echo Rich's comments, I teach at UMass right now and many of the best students I encounter are from Hampshire. They are bright, creative, and hardworking. They are also the sorts of college kids who work hard to build an interesting and challenging curriculum made up of classes from around the Valley.

The slam on Hampshire detracts from a valid point, which is that we should pay close attention to the differing perspectives on K-12 math education from those people who study how to educate kids and those folks who see the results of that education.

Both perspectives are incredibly important and I fear some of the critique of the reform math from university math, science, and engineering faculty is ignored here in town, while the support of those programs from education profs. is held out as evidence of their efficacy.

Those different perspectives and how to transcend them are much more important than the snarky attacks on both the defenders and critics of the status quo in Amherst.

Anonymous said...

I don't see Laura Wenk's blog post as taking a position one way or another on our curriculum debate, but rather as a challenge to us all to discuss some basic assumptions first, in particular how we define math competence and math education. What is/are the goal(s) we are trying to achieve with our math program(s)?

My concern about the points of view of university math/science/engineering profs is that their sole context is math/science/engineering majors. Those students are important, and we certainly want to provide the preparation necessary for those kids, and in that sense the input from those profs is very important. But my guess is that the majority of students do not go on to study math, sciences or engineering. What level of math competency do those students need to excel in today's society? How do we define that competency? How do we meet those needs as well.

I would also be interested in a clearer definition of the problem: what are the specific ways in which our current curricula are not meeting the needs of our grads? This is not intended as a defense of the status quo, but rather as a way that we might find common ground, or at least a common language with which to have the discussion.

Anonymous said...

This conversation on math philosophy is interesting. I understand the perspective about having math options for students who will not go on to study math/science in college. However, do we have separate humanities classes for HS kids who won't be studying humanities in college? Literacy and numeracy are fundamental. Why shouldn't experts in the field of math be the "deciders" about how math should be taught? (Experts in the humanities decide what is taught in Lit, History, etc) I'm wondering if this drive for creating different styles of math classes is driven by parents of non-math oriented kids who just want them in a class where they are ensured an A -- rather than allowing them to be challenged.

PS- It's great to read comments from frequent CS defenders who are showing support for Hampshire and denouncing attacks on style and affiliations. Let's keep the focus on substance...

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 6:45 - I just want to add one thing to your post ... and that is that I don't think 8th graders have any idea whether they are going to be a math/science/engineer or not! That is my concern -- we should be making sure all kids keep doors open, so they can get into college, major in anything they want, and succeed in any career. I also think kids don't know what careers involve math ... so psychology actually involves a huge amount of math (statistics at the undergraduate level, but more advanced math at the graduate level). If you had asked me as an 8th grade girl if I wanted a math or engineering career, I would have told you no ... because I would have had no idea that psychology required math (nor, at that time, did I have any idea what psychology was). Similarly, economics is a very popular major (at most schools, economics/business and psychology are in the top 5 most common majors), and requires a huge amount of math -- but I doubt the average 8th grader would have any idea that was true.

Now, I'm not saying IMP doesn't prepare kids for the math necessary to succeed in econ/psych in college. But I certainly believe we need to know if this curriculum works as well as a traditional approach, or better than, or worse than, AND I think we need to know if certain students benefit more from IMP than others (which could really help parents and kids make the right decision).

Anonymous said...

Catherine, what is our role/mission for the ARHS graduates who will not attend college?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 11:17 - since over 90% of ARHS graduates go to college, I believe that our primary job should be preparing all kids to be able to get into and succeed in any college they attend. So, we might have 1% of kids who want to be professional athletes, or want to be professional ballet dancers, but I believe the primary mission of our high school should be to prepare the vast majority (over 90%) who do attend college. I also believe that having a strong, comprehensive, and rigorous high school experience is useful preparation for those who don't attend college -- regardless of career paths one takes (or college coursework/majors), I think it is useful to be able to read and write well, understand mathematics and science and history, have an appreciation for other cultures/languages, have exposure to art/music, etc. Those are all experiences that help people read the newspaper, understand current political events, work in a variety of careers that don't require college, etc.

Curious observer said...

Has any Amherst administrator or teacher ever written on this blog or spoken out publicly in favor of program evaluation? Please list examples.

Wouldn't it be odd if we let students take courses in the hopes that they learn but didn't test them at the end of the course or grade any of their papers? Just hope that it all went well. Isn't resisting any program evaluation to see if stated goals are being met the same thing?

Catherine Supporter and Appreciator said...

"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."

As a supporter of your's, I disagree with this. Your primary responsibility is to not only create the changes we need to ensure a quality education for our kids, but also to create a climate conducive to change - which may require buy-in from the very parties you identify. This could be an area for improvement.

Anonymous said...

I think it's overly idealistic and unrealistic to think that you can please all the groups you mention all the time (parents, teachers, admins). You have to prioritize. And I think that is the mistake that leaders in this town tend to make: they want to please everyone all the time. It's good to have a clear vision and priorities. I also think that many people in our town expect to be treated as a priority all the time and that creates unrealistic expectations. Being an adult means having the ability to accept that your needs can't always be addressed as the top priority.

Anonymous said...

I think "Pleasing" is different from working with people to build their buy-in, as "Catherine Supporter and Appreciator" wrote above.

Calling it "pleasing" trivializes it and makes it seem like it's accomodation rather than cooperation.

Anonymous said...

What educators, teachers and administrators, at any of the Amherst schools have ever stated publicly that they don't want program evaluation?

I don't think I've ever heard that.

However, I do think there is a big difference between a school carefully and calmly evaluating its programs and a school committee casting programs into very negative light as it calls for evaluation.

Sanderson has made her name on the latter approach. Despite your continuous denial of it, your approach to the work of the school committee, your tone and style, is that which most people have a problem with.

How can you say we should ignore the tone and style. You slam programs that you don't like. You started the negativity.

That is not evaluation. I realize that your tone and style is who you are and that is not going to change. However, you need to realize that as long as you keep beating the schools upside the head, you will meet with resistance.

Would you like it if people evaluating your work began with a condescending, negative tone that obviously discarded all the work you did? Maybe you don't see this but it is the berlin wall you have built between the school committee and the schools.

Nobody said the SC and the school district employees have to be friends, but a professional approach to your work might help you to get some people in the schools to listen. As it is, your aggressive, negative approach from the beginning has only caused a huge rift.

Now, you and others of your ilk may not care at all about a rift between school employees and the school committee. Maybe this is how you are in all aspects of your life. But I think it is part of the school committee's job to learn how to work WITH the schools.

Anyone can sit back and say this or that is not working. It takes a lot more than that to create positive change in any organization.

You like to show everyone how much homework you do in finding data to support your ideas. I suggest you study the vast body of of work regarding organizational and individual excellence. I don't know of many excellent organizations that were beaten into submission and then excellence shone through.

Does morale in the schools mean anything at all to you?

Anonymous said...

I don't get the idea of "buy-in" from teachers, i.e., town employees. If the administration and SC require something be taught the teachers can choose to

1) do their jobs


2) leave their employment

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:14: well that was said in a positive, constructive, open-minded tone. No surprise that you have a morale problem.

Anonymous said...

"What educators, teachers and administrators, at any of the Amherst schools have ever stated publicly that they don't want program evaluation?"

Are you joking?! Name one program eval that ANY staff/admin had called for before CS's tenure on the SC.

From day 1 anytime CS asked for something she has been met with resistance. And it has been her tenacity and unwillingness to back down that have led to her being labeled negative.

I think it is the school personnel who have built the Berlin wall.

And, it IS about "pleasing" with many school staff. Such as the MS teachers not being pleased with CS asking for an eval of the MS -- and the MS teachers writing a letter to the Bulletin in protest. This is where much of the narrative of CS being negative began.

Asking for evaluation = BASHING in the minds of many school faculty/admin members.

Blindly trusting everything that goes on in ARPS = SUPPORTING the schools/teachers/admins.

Anonymous said...

9:47am - how about parents and town residents? is buy-in needed for them? without buy in there is no sustainability, no consensus and no peace.

evidence A

Abbie said...

I think this is a really good article in yesterday's NYT

Anonymous said...

The level of denial that exists about our schools is astounding, but it's been there for years.

Just think back to when we had the misfortune to have a school principal who had problems with young boys. Remember the closing of ranks around that administrator: the letters to the editor, the statements of support for the persecuted adult. And others can tell you how life at school became absolutely miserable for the young accuser.

We believe what we want to believe. And the claim that teachers are "demoralized" is being put forward to stifle criticism, all criticism, including questions about curriculum and trimester systems, as if these were somehow deeply personal attacks on teachers.

But the problems being cited at our schools, especially the Middle School, have been real, and parents are now reacting with their decision-making about where their children attend.

How long can you wish it away, or claim that it's 100% perception and 0% reality?

ken said...

Catherine, I appreciate your reply to my posting. I will only add regarding that, that when posters who support you say things that are offensive, and you don't respond (be it about whatever), by default you will probably be associated with those remarks, especially when you are very quick to respond to disparaging remarks made about ACE, for example. Because you allow some things to go unaddressed but not others, you leave it up to others to characterize your intent. I think that's not just about you--it's human nature.

About math--I think we have to be very careful in "needing" studies done somewhere else to tell us whether Amherst's math program is good or bad. As you yourself noted, Northampton also has Investigations, and gets lower results. Some of it is undoubtedly demographic, yet I think the data I provided earlier this spring would show that even within are non-affluent subgroups, we outperformed them in many if not all of them, in growth from grades 3-6. The only "study" we really need is an in-depth analysis of our own MCAS data.

I find it ironic that on the one hand, we talk about Amherst's "naturally" high achieving students on MCAS, and at the same time, bemoan the story state of our math program. You can't have it both ways. The MCAS is one of the, if not the, leading state assessments in terms of challenge, and Massachusetts students perform at or near the top of assessments in the US. Many of Amherst's students score at or near the top of MA performance. The main objections to Investigations seem to be from those parents whose children do so well with it. If the program was truly "bad," even our best students would not do as well. You can't be poor at math, or be missing important things, and do well on the MCAS. (And please don't bring up the point that some students get outside-of-school help without data showing exactly what % of students that is.)

This goes to the heart of the discussion: good teaching matters most, from the lowest- to the highest-achieving students. Teachers who take ANY program and filter their instruction through the lens of helping students as they need--some more fluency with facts, others more fluency with concepts, some with both, and everyone solving challenging (for them) problems--good will happen.

You mention AYP and I addressed the problems with AYP in my first posting. But if you look at AYP, our schools made AYP in math many years in a row--while using Investigations! So how is it only valid to criticize Investigations because we didn't make AYP one or two years, for whatever group/s, but not say it was good when we made AYP for many more years?

A lot of the math debate about math programs just sounds like a philosophical debate in disguise. It's about preference, not weakness.

Abbie said...


I really take issue with your conclusion that the only people that don't like Investigations are those whose children do well. You COMPLETELY discount families real struggles with the actual content of the material (or lack thereof). What gives??

I have really got to say 'with what RIGHT do you have to tell me that our experience is wrong' or somehow biased? You, yourself, has NO experience being taught it yourself or your kids or for that matter teaching it (right?). Please, if you have an opinion stick with what you know and you would gain more respect. My daughter hasn't had an easy time and I know other kids haven't either. It is not a "fun' or "rewarding" curriculum.

Of course good teachers can make a silk purse out of a pig's ear, but is that really the rationale you want to stick with???

Terrified parent said...

Catherine what do you know about this?

Is it true that this individual is a school van/bus driver?

When were you and the school committee informed?

VERY concerned.

ken said...

Wrong. I've taught Investigations myself, to some of the most struggling students at FR, and my children went to FR during the time it was used (even if the much inferior first edition of the program). I don't completely discount anything, either. Of course some children will struggle more in a particular way of doing something--it happens in EVERY subject. If a teacher doesn't respond appropriately, that's on the teacher, not the program (unless teachers are not allowed to diverge from a paced curriculum, which mercifully is not the case in Amherst). But the experience of some (a few? tens? hundreds? thousands?) does not negate MCAS trends, which are NOT just positive for the students we'd expect to do well.

Moreover, I couldn't care less whether we used Investigations or not in Amherst. To me, the issue is, what data is being used, how is it being analyzed, and how is the discussion being driven. I think you missed the point of what I was saying, and mischaracterized my experience and views on just about everything, so I'm really not sure what more I can add.

lise said...


First, a disclaimer, my kids did not go through the Amherst elementary schools so I do not have an opinion on the particular math curriculum.

I appreciate the importance of MCAS as a measure of whether Amherst is achieving math competency. We want to meet AYP goals and do well in comparison to the state averages and to comparable districts. However, there should also be a proficiency goal. For example, many districts have a target around the percentage of kids ready to start symbolic algebra in 8th grade. Although this is a middle school measure, it is clear that the elementary curriculum is the primary factor in driving that percentage. It would also be important to look at the percentage algebra preparedness in various sub-groups

Similarly in the HS we should have goals around MCAS, SAT and SATII performance. We should also have goals for the percentage of students that complete a year of math beyond Algebra II, and the percentage of kids that take Calculus. Once again we should analyze these metrics for subgroups as well.

In either case MCAS scores are not enough.

Abbie said...


As you have not (to my recollection) ever even entertained the idea that other math curricula might better serve our kids, it seems you are very MUCH in favor keeping Investigations or at least the status quo.

Also your argument that our MCAS scores show we are doing fine with Investigations does not, in any way, mean that another curriculum wouldn't be an improvement. Everything is relative- meaning comparisons need to be made.

As far as I hear, the discussion is driven by what has been shown (by the best criteria available) to most effectively teach math and this involves actually COMPARING two or more curricula. Since it is unlikely our schools will take on such a comparison it means we need to rely on those that have.

Anonymous said...

How does Amherst do vis a vis the MSAN comparision schools and what programs do the best performing MSAN schools use? Also, where is Amherst on the math MCAS state-wide? In SATs scores? In the top 25 schools, the top 50?

ken said...


I agree. MCAS isn't the only thing--but it is the starting point as well as much of what needs to be looked at, if for no other reason than that's what the state and federal government require. I am saddened that the state of education has come to this, where a test like this carries so much weight. But it is what it is. I object to when some people dismiss or explain away all the good in our MCAS performance, while emphasizing the bad.

Allignment between elementary and secondary has always been an issue in Amherst, and not just in math. There's far too little connection. That said, even adequate math preparation as reflected in MCAS scores is enough to have a strong Middle School math performance (BTW, 7th grade tends to do well on MCAS math, but 8th looks like it falls somewhat), as MCAS is tied to state frameworks in math and our math program needs to reflect the state frameworks. I think when people make the case that Investogations "doesn't prepare" students well in math, they are guessing, mostly.

Joel said...

My understanding is that we are BELOW the state average in the percentage of 8th graders taking Algebra.

We should always be concerned about being below a state average, but it should concern us even more for two reasons.

First, we are in fact a college town and we should expect to be well above state averages. I wonder how our numbers look compared to towns with as high a percentage of parents with college degrees and grad degrees as Amherst. I worry that we are far below those averages.

Second, a problem in 8th grade means we haven't had a successful K-7 math program and that the HS math programs is hampered by the K-8 experience.

I think we need to start evaluating our math program from that starting point. Why are we below average in 8th grade Algebra students?

ken said...


I am happy to have program x, y or z in our schools. What matters most is 1) teacher knowledge of student needs, 2) teacher knowledge of math, and 3) the training to connect 1 and 2. What I have consistently said is that I object to the characterization of our present math program as "weak," when I see no data to back up that claim, and mostly just hear people's suppositions, anecdotes and philosophical biases. I have taught Investigations with good results to very struggling learners, and they did quite well. Conversely, I've seen it taught badly even to good learners. But that possibility is true for EVERY program. I've taught in other math curricula and work with teachers all over the state trying to get better performance out struggling learners in a whole range of programs. The reality is that certain communities of struggling learners typically struggle in whatever program is superimposed on the class. So what I've been saying all along is that the frame of the discussion is all wrong. I'm "defending" Investigations only in the sense of objecting to a discussion being driven--in my opinion--by philosophical bias masquerading as "proof" that it is a "weak" program. If the question was only, "Let's try Everyday Math because it's the only program the What Works Clearinghouse validates through published research," then go for it, if you want to spend the money and time to train teachers in yet another something. But that's a very different conversation than the one I've been reading in this town.

Abbie said...


It isn't clear to me that current Amherst ES teachers are getting any (significant) training in teaching Investigations, so I am not sure why switching to a new curriculum would be different. I think it is a great starting point to say lets think about other math curricula like 'Everyday Math because it's the only program the What Works Clearinghouse validates through published research' and see what teachers and administrators and families think about it.

I have no personal stake in the matter as my daughter will be past the point of any change being introduced. I do think it is an important conversation that should occur ASAP for future kids.

I think this is exactly what CS and a lot of other folks have been saying.

ken said...

Abbie, it's incorrect to presume that ES teachers have not been trained in Investigations. They have. (Again, I wish people wouldn't just guess at or explain away things--that's part of what is bothersome about this whole conversation!) I believe, unfortunately, that the math coaches that we once had have been axed, though I could be wrong. What's missing is peer observation and on-going mentoring at the level there should be.

There should be a reason to invest big $$ in a new program and the time to train teachers in it. Otherwise, why not also with language arts, and science, and social studies, and why not change every other year because there always could be something better. It comes back to the fact that there should be a reason, and I guess what I don't really see is much of a reason for math. The need to train teachers to work more skillfully with certain populations, and the on-going support to help? Absolutely. The need to tweak Investigations instruction for particular subgroups (as needs to happen, by the way, in EVERY math program and district in the state)? Absolutely. But in times of tight $$, I don't see the data that justifies spending it on a global effort to change everything.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Hi, Ken/Abbie/Joel/Lise/others,

I've resisted replying because I actually think you all were doing a great job of responding ... and I'm actually trying to gather some data to answer an ANON post re. other MSAN districts (should be able to update this soon). I think this is a really great conversation, and I appreciate the thoughtful tone pretty much used consistently.

I would hope we all agree that we want kids in Amherst to have the best math curriculum possible. I don't have an ideological preference pro/con on what we use -- but I do want a curriculum that actually works (not one that we just say works or thinks work) ... so, I do think data (including data in our district, such as MCAS which Ken provides info on and % taking algebra in 8th grade, as others note PLUS data in other districts, such as our comparison districts and MSAN, PLUS research) is essential. And although I believe that good teachers can make any curriculum work (and I know of teachers who create/gather their own math work), I also believe that our district (and all districts) benefits from having a consistent, challenging, and coherent curriculum so that we aren't expecting teachers to create their own materials.

I am delighted that we are now having an evaluation of our math program, which I've asked for in written and verbal communciations to the superintendent and School Committee since 2006. I hope that a rigorous, comprehensive, and objective evaluation of K to 12 math is something that we can all agree is essential ... and long overdue. Yes?

ken said...


I agree districts should always be evaluating the efficacy of their programs, and teacher impact on student learning. Is the math evaluation "long overdue?" Connecting K-6 to 7-12? Agreed. The same could be said for LA, science and social studies, too. But Investigations? Don't agree. The 2nd edition has only been in use consistantly for a few yearsin Amherst. One needs time to contrast it to previous performance, and look at MCAS trends over time. So just the characterization of this as "long overdue" lends a tint of negativity that doesn't need to be there. (A good evaluation, BTW, can't happen until the disaggregated MCAS scores for 2010 are in, which I've heard will probably happen mid-September.) But evaluations are always good, if done well.

Also, Catherine, when you say that all you've ever wanted is an evaluation, maybe this can help shed some light on what some people perceive as negativity in your approach. I've seen quotes where you call Investigations "weak," "at the far end" of the reform math spectrum, you've cited research which comments negatively on Investigations while pushing aside anything poitning to a contrasting view, you maintained those characterizations even after I showed you Amherst's student growth data in math that appears tio show something quite different, etc. That's not JUST wanting an "overdue" evaluation without bias, that's staking out an intellectual/philosophical position before an evaluation of the math program's efficacy in OUR town is done--or even started.

You may be unaware of the overall negative sound of your critique even if unintended, but the words you use to describe many issues--such as my example above, where you say one things one way and then explain or summarize your views as another--make it sound like you are emphasizing an overall negative critique of our schools, protestations to the contrary. And the frequently very angry, dissatisfied and "our schools suck" feel of many posters who support you on this blog only serves to exacerbate that perception. Perception is reality, in the public domain especially.

I think this math discussion has been productive whatever one's views, and I hope it's a better model for how issues could and should be discussed on this (or any) blog.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Ken: three quick things.

First, our math curriculum hasn't been evaluated in 10 to 15 years, and it may well have been longer. The second version of Investigations was chosen without any review of research, examination of data, comparison to other districts, etc. So, yes, I think long overdue. Is that the same for science/social studies/English? Yes -- that's why I pushed hard this year for an evaluation policy in which all curriculum will undergo review on a 5 year cycle.

Second, I've examined every study I've seen on math curriculum, and there isn't a single one that shows Investigations is effective (that wasn't done by the publisher, or in some other non-scientific way). Not one. The same is not true for other curriculum. So, it isn't true that I brush aside other research not showing "my point" -- there isn't ANY research showing Investigations is good. I've commented on this blog that Everyday Math might be a fine choice, because research on the What Works Clearinghouse shows that curriculum IS effective. Everday Math is also a very reform-based curriculum, so it isn't accurate that I'm opposed to reform math. I am opposed to (a) relying on a curriculum that isn't supported by objective research, and (b) relying on MCAS 3 to 6 growth data of Amherst alone to show success.

Third, I've called for evaluation of many things -- trimesters, 9th grade ecology, Investigations, IMP, extensions, etc. -- and each of those requests is typically met with considerable resistance. You attribute that to me -- my negativity, or my supporters' anger, etc. I guess I would attribute that resistance differently. I believe the Amherst schools have consistently not evaluated anything, and that approach feels familiar and comfortable to administrators/teachers in our schools, and they frankly don't like the idea of having to "prove" whether something works (if they "feel" it is working, that is OK). So, shots are taken at me repeatedly in an attempt to paint me as negative, teacher-bashing, morale-destroying, etc. I don't think that is accurate, but as you note, perception is reality in this case, and it may well be that those who don't want objective evaluation of our schools/programs will succeed in removing me from the SC next March. Ultimately, I think people in Amherst need to judge whether they want someone on the SC pushing hard (even in the face of almost relentless personal attacks) on evaluating what we do in our schools and how it impacts our kids.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Catherine said, "perception is reality in this case, and it may well be that those who don't want objective evaluation of our schools/programs will succeed in removing me from the SC next March."

Catherine, I am a huge supporter of objectively evaluating our schools and programs on a consistent basis AND I will also work hard to see that you are removed from the SC next March.

These two things are NOT mutually exclusive. It is typical of you to paint those who want to see you gone as also NOT supporting good schools or objective evaluations of our schools. And in a nutshell, this is why I want to see you gone. You equate those who support you as also being the ONLY ONES who support excellent schools. That is just not the case. There are ALOT of people in this town who support excellent schools and objective thorough evaluation of those schools and DO NOT support you.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 10:54 - I'm very glad to hear that you support objective evaluation of our schools. And if feel someone other than me could lead to that result, you should absolutely support that person 100%. I believe my record of what I've accomplished is very clear, and it didn't happen because I wanted to be liked all the time -- it happened because I wanted great things in our schools for all kids, and therefore I was willing to take considerable heat. That's why I pushed to close Marks Meadow, redistrict to achieve equity, complete the first outside evaluation of the middle school, conduct a review of special education, add Spanish to all the elementary schools, and push for real superintendent and district goals. Before running for SC, I believed, as you may believe now, that great changes could happen in our schools with just some positive encouragement. Certainly there were many people on the SC prior to me who also supported objective evaluation of our schools, as you do now, yet we both know that objective evaluation didn't happen. The resistance to objective evaluation and the desire to preserve the status quo is extremely strong -- and that is what any candidate will find after winning a seat on the SC. I hope your candidate, if he/she is successful in beating me, can effectively create the objective evaluation you say you want, in what I assume is a kinder, gentler way. Our schools certainly need it, and our kids certainly deserve it.

Anonymous said...

"Terrified parent" and others are waiting for an answer, Catherine.

We need to know our children are safe.

We need to know that our school administration is keeping the SC in the loop...


ken said...


Sigh, I really didn't intend for what I wrote to be taken as you did. If you read what I actually wrote, I didn't accuse you of negativity--I showed how some of what you say can be understood as negative, even if that was not your intent. If you need another example, it's the way you just characterized the implementation of Investigations in the ES, which you implied was random and unchecked, but which I can assure you is quite inaccurate, because I was there. It was in response to perhaps the most prestigous math organization in the country--NCTM--and what they advocated as the best approach to teaching math, the impact of the Chinese math expert Li Ping Ma and her views on what makes instruction math in China more effective than here, and it was in the political context of the international TIMSS study which raised anew the "sky is falling on Amercian schools about math and science alarm" (i.e., the poor state of Amercian math education which just focused on procedures and number crunching, to which the Invesitigations program became the logical "antidote"). I'm not saying what part of any or all of those things i was in agreement with, merely stating the reality of what drove the choice and use of the program. Maybe the majority of districts (my experience is that most use it, in the districts I now train/have trained teachers from) in MA have been drinking the same KoolAid, but it's not just another Amherst idiosyncracy.

And we also have not been not evaluating, because we've had to be watching MCAS results all along
--we made AYP for all those years in a row, so why should anyone have assumed things were so awful?

I am sure you have met a lot of the kind of resistance you've described for its own sake, but I also teach my own kids that it takes two to tango, and the only way the dialog gets better is if both sides understand their contribution to what has made it negative or difficult. I thought the letter to the Bulletin a couple of weeks ago by that guy who recently moved here from Palo Alto was quite telling. BOTH sides need to lighten up, is my reading of the situation. There are areas of need in our schools--the devil is in the details of the who, what, where, when, how and why of the discussion and how the parameters of that discussion get set.

One final AYP thing since you've continued to bring it up. I'll use Fort River as the example. FR made AYP in math from the first year it was calculated until 2 years ago--I think 7 or 8 years if I'm not mistaken. If not meeting AYP these last 2 years is the result of Investigations, why did we make AYP 7-8 years previously--when Investigations was being used? As you know, AYP is calculated in grade level bands, which for us in elementary is grades 3-5. Any problenmatic cohort of students entering into a band becomes 30% of the weight of that band, and if that brings the new AYP calculation below the predetermined progress rate for the grade band or a subgroup within that grade, which was set in year 1 of AYP calculations, that will triger an AYP citation. Because that same group stays in that band for 3 years, it could quite conceivably cause 3 years of AYP citations. Or maybe a grade has an extra large number of kids with significant needs, or maybe there's an influx of kids from out of district, or maybe there are new teachers who haven't been trained in Investigations because there is no training any more so they're not teaching it well, or maybe it's all of those things rolled into one, or some combination. But just repeating "3schools didn't make AYP" within the anti-Investigations argument implies quite strongly that the program is the probable cause, but I hope at least you are now that the program, itself, is one of the least likely causes of all, given the previous 10 years of MCAS results.

I hope you find this helpful.

Abbie said...


to quote you in your most recent post "or maybe there are new teachers who haven't been trained in Investigations because there is no training any more so they're not teaching it well" vs your earlier post in response to my opinion, that it isn't clear teachers are getting training in Investigations (me) and you (Ken) "Abbie, it's incorrect to presume that ES teachers have not been trained in Investigations. They have." Which is it Ken?? Its pretty black and white.

I am not going to discuss this with you anymore, Ken you are too slippery for me and its clear that you are simply against any idea of looking at our current use of Investigations and other options (it is really clear!) As for your point of why aren't folks pushing to evaluate reading, writing, etc...My guess would be that most folks (myself included) think the ESs do a very good job with these disciplines.

Maybe CS has the willpower and patience.

Anonymous said...

I think Ken has been pretty clear. Many teachers have been trained in Investigations and newly hired teachers have not. PD has been cut drastically in the schools due to budget constraints and so new teachers have not been trained in using Investigations. And if Catherine has her way we'll do away with PD altogether in the future because according to her it has not been proven to be effective in bumping up students' learning.

ken said...

I thought I was being clear enough, but apparently I wasn't, so thanks Anonymous for clarifying it further.

Sorry, Abbie, that I'm so slippery, but I was trying to be quite clear about my position, which is NOT that I'm against looking at Investigations for any reason. It's about the framing of the discussion, and who sets the agenda, and why--which I think I said directly to you in another post, though granted I may have been too sly and indirect for my own good. (BTW--I didn't realize I was "into it" with you.)

Curious observer said...

Ken, it might advance your very detailed critique of Sanderson's reputation (does she need a P'R person since she seems unable to manage how people view her?) and her many statements and positions, if you actually said something postive about Sanderson's long hours, hard work and her results that you admire. You may not realize that your posts can look, like so many Sanderson detractors, really negative since you never say anything positive about her ideas and results.

People constantly attack Sanderson for being really negative and slanted -- looking really negative and slanted themselves. Don't fall into that boat.

No one here says the Amherst schools suck. She never has. She has 3 of her kids in the system and wants it to work better for them and other children. Somewhat crazily, she thinks it can.

Over and over, if anyone raises questions about school programs and curriculum -- or even asks for an evaluation or to look at other schools, all hell breaks loose. And hell seems to uniquely break over Sanderson -- even when the rest of the school committee members agree. There are a lot of parents and other town residents agreeing with Sanderson. I even think many teachers agree with her, but don't speak out publicly.

If some teachers and administrators can't hear any criticisms or resist examining their programs and practices on a regular schedule, they should ponder why. We teach our children to ask questions, challenge assumptions and to search for facts -- this has to start happening in the schools too. Too much is at stake.

The school system and those within it cannot blame all their resistence and anger on one person's perceived negative attitude. It's too easy and masks the fact that Sanderson's criticims are often spot on. The Hamer report on the middle school is evidence of this.

How annoying Sanderson is and how important.

ken said...

Curious Observer,

I think one difficulty I (and others?) have about this blog is that divergent views do not get "heard." They get morphed into something quite different. For example, I didn't critique Catherine's reputation. Many others have done that and I was merely pointing out why that maight be the case, since she always denies any responsibility in the negativity about education bubbling up in this town. Catherine is far more energetic than me, I'm sure she's a brilliant professor, I admire her perseverence and her zeal in trying to make the schools better, etc. I'm sure she has met strong resistance at times, and it has been no fun. I also appreciate her starting a blog for the public to discuss education matters.

But is this about Catherine--or our children and schools? Hey, I'm not such a bad guy myself, and I know at least a little bit about education, having taught over 30 years, I'm a published author in the field, and now a teacher trainer working all over the state. While I don't expect people on this blog to ask for my autograph or swoon over what I have to say, I think what i have to say carries at least a modicum of legitimacy anyway, even if it doesn't agree with Catherine's views. But I realize I'm not right about everything, nor do I claim to be. I'm always open to what data, or a new interpretation of it, will show, and I have a number of areas I think Amherst could improve as a school district. However, not everyone feels that in an educational discussion, the baseline of correct views or not is what Catherine has to say, and I feel that whatever I (or Nina and others) say here, and whatever data I post, is not heard as an attempt at dialog, but as a rejection of a collective monologue. It often feels like a fight to the death, not a conversation.

What gets addressed on this blog, and how it gets addressed, add up in people's minds, and people walk away drawing conclusions about it all. There have been many balanced posts that have gotten flamed, and some real "out there" and extremely negative ones that get passes. Everyone is entitled to their opnions about the sum total of what they read here, both explicit or implicit, as well as in the newspaper. Some will praise, some think negative. So I think we'll just have to agree to disagree about all this.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

So, I am going to say one more thing, and then I'm hoping we can move on and discuss education and not Catherine. I believe that our schools have some strengths. I also believe they have some weaknesses, as has been verified by independent evaluations of particular aspects of our schools (e.g., Dr. Hamer, Dr. Beers, Dr. Rodriguez). I haven't ever said our schools suck, or our teachers suck, or all programs/curricula/classes suck. As Curious Observer notes, I have three kids in the schools, and I'm working my behind off trying to make our schools excellent. People may disagree with what I think excellent is (that's OK). People may disagree with the way I go about trying to make changes (that's OK). But I would hope that all readers of this blog can recognize my intentions -- and my intentions are and will be to make our schools be truly excellent for all kids.

I also believe that in Amherst, any criticism of the schools is seen in a very, very negative light. I believe that we have held our schools up to be "perfect," and that people who dare to speak about concerns are often criticized themselves. People can blame the negativity in our schools on me/my blog/the current SC ... but I believe that the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have a problem. And until we admit we have a problem, it isn't going to get solved.

I will say that I'm discouraged that there is so little public support from teachers and principals and administrators in our schools for the type of rigorous, objective evaluation I'm asking for. If Investigations is truly the best curriculum out there, then surely an evaluation would reveal this to be the case. Similarly, if our new 9th grade ecology course is truly the best way to teach kids science, then surely an evaluation would reveal this to be the case. Yet I literally can't think of a time on this blog or at a SC meeting in which a principal or teacher said "yes, we really want to know if this program/curriculum is working for all kids, so please make sure that this year we conduct a rigorous independent evaluation of it." It would be really refreshing to hear that -- and it would indicate, for me and others, that there truly is a commitment to evaluate on the part of the administration.

Joel said...

I have a quick and simple question for Ken and Nina:

Why, esp. given the educational background of so many of our parents, are we below the state average in 8th grade Algebra?

ken said...


I am careful to talk about only what I know the most about, which is the elementary curriculum. I don't know the MS math curriculum. I will say that 7th grade math MCAS is rather high across the board, but 8th grade is lower, and then it goes up again pretty strongly in 10th grade. So to me, the 8th grade math program is where to look. It does not seem that such a situation should be happening, given MCAS strength on both sides of 8th grade. So that's where I'd start looking.


Last from me too. You continue to protest in response to what I write that you haven't said the schools suck. I wonder why, because I've gone out of my way to say it's sometimes posters who support you who say it--the issue is that you don't respond, so people are free to connect those negative views to you. But I can only say this so many ways before it just gets repetitious.

Nina Koch said...


I would say that your question is neither quick nor simple but I would appreciate an opportunity to answer it at a later time. I am trying to launch five new websites right now.

But just so I know what you are asking about, can you tell me where you saw the information posted about state averages for algebra participation? Thanks.

ken said...


Here are the math MCAS figures for our elementary (grades 3-6 average), 7th, 8th and 10th grades. The first number listed is the CPI, the state's figure which reflects percentages of students in each of the 4 scoring categories (Advanced, Proficient, Needs Improvement, Warning)--the closer to 100, the better. The second figure is the SGP--student growth percentile as calculated by the state (I think the state calculates the mean or mode for this, and the state average will always be 50); 40 is low average, 60 is high average, so under 40 isn't too good, and over 60 is excellent. I don't have the time to list by subgroup, so this is the total student score. Amherst is on the left, the state average on the right:

grade 6 81.9/61 78.5/50

grade 7 89.2/54 73.8/50

grade 8 83.3/42 72.8/50

grade 10 93.2/49 88.1/50

You can see that our elementary 3-6(the SGP is particularly strong, even with that awful program of ours) and 7th grade performance are quite good, but 8th grade drops in both the SGP and CPI, before a bump again at 10th. This preliminary "using a chainsaw to analyze data" approach leads me to conclude that the weakness of our K-12 math lies mostly in 8th. People who know the secondary schools should have analyzed the data already and drawn some conclusions in light of their more intimate knowledge of students, programs, teachers, previous years' MCAS results, etc. I don't know who those people might be, or whether such an analysis has been done.

Hope this helps.

Concerned parent said...

Aren't the middle school math teachers the people to address this question, not a high school math teacher? I would hope they have been looking into it already and are doing all they can to fix it.

Also, there is a MCAS bump when all the towns combine. I wonder if one could track the middle schools math MCAS scores by elementary school to see how Amherst elementary school kids fare in middle school versus Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett.

ken said...

Concerned Parent--If you notice, Amherst's SGP is higher in grades 3-6 than grade 7 (3-6 is Amherst only, while 7th is all regional students). The state is emphasizing the growth percentile measure now because it measures student improvement, and is less sensitive to demographic factors than the CPI which just looks at what MCAS scoring categories students are in. Because Pelham and Shutesbury are much less demographically complex in all ways than Amherst, and their schools are smaller, they are likely to have higher CPI scores, so 7th grade CPI scores will be slanted slightly up when mixed together. But Pelham gets very high SGP scores (in the 70s!) while Shutesbury is much lower (30's-40s) even with fairly high CPI scores. So the SGP is more telling overall, but when looking at CPI and SGP scores together, grades 3-6 and grade 7 strong, while 8 is not nearly so.

It's quite complicated and you need a scalpel to work cleanly and accurately with the data. My buzzsaw is just making the first few cuts.

Joel said...

According to this study:
Massachusetts leads the nation with 45% of 8th graders taking or having taken algebra.

According to data on this very blog from 8 June 2009, less than 40% of ARMS students have taken or take algebra in 8th grade (35% in 8th and 2-3% in 7th).

Now, the Commonwealth average includes wealthier towns filled with college grads and folks with graduate degrees. Downward pressure is put on that average by impoverished towns and places without high expectations that HS grads go on to college.

At the very least, ARMS should be at the state average of 45%. Frankly, the way we talk about ourselves and our schools, I would expect us to be well above average.

We are, for example, significantly above average on spending per student. Indeed, adjusted for cost of living, we may be the most profligate district in the Commonwealth. We have three institutions of higher learning in town, including the flagship state university, and yet our 8th graders seem to take this keystone math class at a lower rate than 8th graders throughout Massachusetts.

Anonymous said...

As Mike Hayes pointed out at a SC meeting, you can slap the name Algebra on any class -- and all of those classes called Algebra may have greatly varying degrees of actual Algebra in them. It's interesting to look at the NEAP scores compared to the percentage of students taking Alg in the different states. For example CA reports that 59% of its students complete Alg in 8th but their NEAP scores are considerably lower than MA - 270 vs 298. It would be interesting to see Amherst NEAP scores when discussing this issue.

Anonymous said...

What does NEAP stand for?

Anonymous said...

I spelled it wrong -- it's NAEP National assessment of educational progress -- and I now realize that we can't get individual scores for our town -- it is only a state assessment tool. But my point was that it is hard to compare one state to another because math courses vary so widely. You would have to look at test scores in addition to the % of students who are reported as taking advanced math or 8th grade algebra to get a definitive answer to the question of how Amherst compares to the rest of the state.

ken said...

NAEP--National assessment of Educational Progress. It's like a nationwude "report card." You can find out about it at

ken said...

Anonymous--I believe NAEP is really each state's stnadardized test (e.g., MCAS), normed together with each question given points according to the level of challenge of the question (in terms of what level of learning is being asked for, from remembering facts to interpreting or applying information, etc), and students assigned a NAEP score accordingly based on their right answers. So in a way, MCAS will tell you the "NAEP information" you want to know about how Amherst 8th graders did. MS staff would have a breakdown of how their students did on the algebra-specific questions on the MCAS. I'm almost sure i have the MCAS-NAEP connection correct.

Curious observer said...

Ken -- Thanks for the buzz saw and the beginning of the analysis on middle school math. That level of detail and recognition that there may be a problem advances the discussion and I'm sure people want to hear more. It also seems to buttress many parents' complaints about middle school math.

On negativity: If Sanderson has to take the heat for other posters' negative comments, why don't people give her the credit for the positive comments? Sanderson doesn't comment on or correct or applaud all comments. Does she need to? Can blog readers understand that the views of the posters are the views of the posters?

It takes an extra step to blame Sanderson for the negativity of another poster's comment. That step is taken by people assigning her blame for someone else's comment. Not much she can do about people making that incorrect assumption. I'm curious about why they keep making that false assumption, the blaming her.

It does serve to deflect attention from the issues Sanderson is raising and puts the attention on her. So Sanderson and her tone become the real problem. It certainly seems easier to correct her tone than find, analyze and debate facts, although maybe not. People become incredibly defensive when their errors are pointed out and some of this may be operating here.

But at the end of the day, those decrying Sanderson's negativity sound very negative and tiresome themselves.

ken said...

Curious Observer,

It's interesting to me that you and a couple of other posters spent so much of your post commenting on an issue you think is over-commented on. My goal--I repeat--was only to help shed light on why people take much of what Catherine says as negative. I think I simply laid out what is actually a very common phenomenon for "lightening rod" public figures, whatever their beliefs are: if your supporters say controversial or extreme things that you don't address, but you do take the time to address many other things, it gets put on you.

And I actually don't think it's the case at all, at least for me, that I brought this issue up is because I don't have much of anything substantial to "defend." Quite the contrary, in fact, since all the data I have posted about the relative strength of our elementary math program in this and in previous threads has gone almost COMPLETELY unresponded to by both Catherine and her supporters, while nearly all the response has been devoted to my more incidental comments about the negativity issue. So in my case, anyway, I think you have it backwards.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 5:21 - I am aware of the situation that you are describing, but it's not something I can get into with an anonymous poster on a blog (nor something that I can post). If you have concerns, please send them to the entire school committee at: Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused. I don't see the Anon 5:21 comment you are responding to, yet it seems the topic is significant (you are aware of the situation but you can't get into it because it originates with an anon poster and you want them to communicate with the entire school committee).
Why the mystery?