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.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Education Matters: Change Doesn't Come Easily

I'm posting the link to my final Education Matters column in the Amherst Bulletin (  I have enjoyed sharing my thoughts about education in Amherst (and elsewhere) with Bulletin readers, and appreciate the dialogue my columns have fostered.  I'd be interested in hearing what my blog readers think about the issues raised in this final column -- as they strike me as the key ones we are now facing as a community (as we hire a superintendent and embark on what already appears to be a very heated School Committee race this spring). 


Steve Dunn said...

Hi Catherine: I have a question for you regarding your Amherst Bulletin editorial (Jan 14,2011). First, I should say that I find the tone of this piece somewhat offensive in that you seem to be claiming individual credit for anything positive that has happened in the three years of your service on the School Committee. I don't know if that was your intention, but that's how it came across to me.

My question has to do with this statement in your piece, "Although implementing these changes created conflict among adults, they also improved education for children."

Can you verify (i.e., quantify or back-up with hard evidence) that "these changes" improved education? Or even that education has improved (regardless of "why")?

Thank you. And thank you for your service on this committee.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Hi, Steve,

Thanks for your question - this is is precisely why I have the blog (so I can answer questions from the community).

First, as is very apparent to all in the community, nothing gets done on the SC without approval from the majority of the board. So, certainly I've accomplished nothing without this support (and therefore I use "WE" to describe the changes that have occurred). But I do believe I had a pretty large role in some of those changes: I made the motion to close Marks Meadow and redistrict and I made the motion to add Spanish. I was on the policy subcommittee and drafted (and revised) the evaluation policy. And I specifically asked for the outside evaluations of all of those programs (and took some heat for doing so), and, as you might recall, Steve Rivkin and I wrote a column over a year ago suggesting we add preschool for low income kids. Thus, I think it is certainly fair to say that I was instrumental in creating these changes (and I'd be interested in hearing if you think this is unfair).

In terms of your question about whether these changes have improved education. Well, I think you should talk with parents who have kids in the MS now versus 3 or 4 years ago. I believe the changes resulting from the Beers report have significantly improved this school. I believe arts/music education is important, so I believe keeping these programs has improved education. It is too soon to see if the preschool and Spanish programs have led to improvements (these are just 6 months in), but based on research in other districts, we would assume these programs would lead to tangible benefits for kids. We haven't yet seen changes resulting from the special education and math reviews, but I'm hopeful that we will soon.

Thank you for using your name and participating in this dialogue. Please let me know if you have other questions/comments.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it was your determination that led to the closing of Marks Meadow, but not with your characterization of this as a positive accomplishment.

Have any students left the district because of this move, either because they valued MM or didn't like the overcrowded schools that resulted?

Joel said...

Reading the comments here reminded me of a joke Jesse Jackson used to tell about how the press treated him:

Jesse and the Pope were fishing in the middle of a lake in a rowboat. A wind blew the Pope's hat off his head and into the lake. Jesse got out of the boat and walked across the water to retrieve the Pope's hat. The press witnessed all this from the shore and reported on it the next day. The lead summed up the incident: "Jesse Can't Swim!"

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 10:04 - to answer your question: Marks Meadow students were all redistricted to Wildwood, and Wildwood had absolutely no decline in projected enrollment. So, it is hard for me to see evidence that students left the district as a result of that change. In addition, we'd have to imagine how many students would have left the district if we'd kept the school open, and had to cut a million from our school budget - meaning larger class sizes, reduced art/music/PE. It is hard for me to see a way that those changes wouldn't have really reduced the quality of education we provide to all kids. Closing Marks Meadow was a very difficult decision ... but I am confident it was the right one.

Anonymous said...

closing of Marks Meadow, but not with your characterization of this as a positive accomplishment.

Think of the education pie as round and limited -- money is finite and even with taxes what they are in this town, there really will never be enough to spend all we could to benefit our children.

So do you spend a lot on a few children -- many of whom are professor's kids -- at the expense of everyone else? Essentially, should the poor subsidize the rich?

Or do you say that we really can't afford to give this really expensive education to everyone, and thus it is not fair that we give it to a few -- let's instead improve everyone's education...

If you have four children, do you buy one of them nice outfits and let the rest wear rags, or do you try to spend equally on all four of them? That, more than anything else, is why Mark's Meadow needed to be closed -- and the child who is having the entire family clothing budget spent on her also will complain upon being told that her brothers need clothes too...

Anonymous said...

Catherine, I hope your last column is indicative that you will be running for school committee once again. I would hate to see you leave the school committee. Your voice is an important one because your laser sharp focus on student achievement keeps the agenda on track and empowers all parents to speak their minds for the futures of their sons and daughters. At the same time, administrators and teachers have the space to articulate their priorities. There isn't always agreement, but there is always dialogue with data and research at the center. Isn't that what we mean by "it takes a village...?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 3:45 pm:

You've hit the nail on the head: the equity argument.

And so much of the anger directed at Professor Sanderson comes from the gut, a gut that's still seething that a school that provided a disproportionate benefit to certain children and families in town was closed. It doesn't matter to these folks that the closing saved programs that benefited a wider public of schoolchildren (or they'll simply deny that that was the trade-off). Never mind that 5 SC members voted to close it.

Yes, she can claim whatever credit comes from the public for the closing because God knows so many people, yes, very well-off people, whether they admit it publicly or not, are still blaming her for it, still pissed at her (and they've enlisted their kids to spread the venom with them).

Being a small "d" democrat is sometimes easier to talk about than to do, especially when democracy seems to be coming at the expense of you and your neighbor's children. We talk the talk of ideals in Amherst right up until the ideals require us to walk the walk, i.e. a sacrifice from us for the greater good.

Damn those elected leaders like Ms. Sanderson who actually took us at our lofty word; doesn't she know that talk is cheap?

Anonymous said...

Anon 12:12:

I don't see anyone complaining about the closing of Marks Meadow currently. Everyone seems happy with the transition to Wildwood. I believe there is universal praise for the work the administration and teachers did to make the transition go so well. It appears to me that the only gut that is seething about the Marks Meadow closing is yours.

Mary May said...

Someone asked if all the MM students stayed at WW. Catherine, your answer was misleading. Yes, the numbers are as high as predicted at WW, and YES some folks chose to choice out to smaller schools. For the purpose of accuracy, yes there were a few students from MM who did choice out to Pelham. Others were on the list but there weren't enough spaces. A few others opted to attend either a charter school or a private school. Yes, WW enrollments are as high as predicted, but that does not mean that no MM students left the system. There have been several new students at WW which may account for the original estimated numbers. If one wanted to know the actual cost of what Amherst is paying for MM students who choiced out, I suspect that information could be obtained through cental office.

And as far as bitterness that a previous writer implies, I simply haven't experienced that attitude. I previously taught at MM (for 25 years) and I am now at WW. Yes, teachers and families and students might still MISS the school but I see parents, staff and students on a daily basis and I'm simply NOT experiencing the kind of anger that a previous writer implied. To suggest that 1) MM students are mostly professor's kids is simply NOT accurate. 2) To suggest a bunch of rich families want a different experience for their kids at the expense of all the other kids in town is also NOT true. 3) To suggest that MM folks are angy and bitter and not accepting the change is nothing close to what I have experienced being connected to both MM and WW. And finally, isn't it possible to LOVE a place where good things were happening, to MISS that place AND to be able to accept that a change did have to happen? That is what I see and hear from those folks who lost their school. Folks spent WEEKS in the summer working on this transition. People worked around the clock to close one school and fill up another one. We have jumped on board at WW and are putting our energies into making it the best place it can be. It would be refreshing to hear some appreciative words for all those MM folks who gave above and beyond to make this transition happen smoothly rather than hearing continual accusing, judgemental remarks that simply are not accurate.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Mary - thanks for contributing the dialogue. And I certainly didn't mean to imply that all MM kids went ahead and attended WW ... but I think the key to remember is that enrollments were done at both of the other two schools, so it is clear that some kids are choosing to leave our system (for charter/choice/private) regardless of whether their school closed. We don't have any information on whether MORE Marks Meadow kids left the system than kids at any of the other schools last year, which is the relevant comparison.

Again, I think we need to compare the number leaving from Marks Meadow to outside the district to how many kids would have left our district if we had increased class sizes by 2 or 3 kids on average and reduced art/music - which is precisely what would have happened if we hadn't closed Marks Meadow.

Was it a tough choice? Yes. Did it cause disruptions for some families? Yes. Was it the best choice for the district? Yes.

Thanks, Mary May and Anonymous 6:05, for describing how well things generally are working at Wildwood. I've certainly heard good things from a number of families - so, kudos to Nick and the teachers for making this work so well!

Anonymous said...

There is a larger issue with the Mark's Meadow school -- it was built in the late 1950s to serve as a place for UMass students to practice working with children prior to becoming teachers.

When UM dropped all of the elementary education certification programs and then abandoned the "lab school" concept, it was like a car that finally becomes too expensive to keep repairing, you can limp around town with it for a while, but you are gonna need a new one soon.

The manna stopped falling from the sky, and Amherst couldn't afford the school otherwise, and Catherine did what had to be done.

Don't blame her anymore than blaming the officer who actually arrested that creep who shot those people in Arizona -- blame Bailey Jackson and his girlfriend for shutting down the lab school....

Curious observer said...

It's hard to imagine that strong emotions, resistance and anger would not occur any town or city where a decision is made to shut down a school and to redistrict. Look at Boston right now.

Is that enough reason to avoid these issues, not to talk about them and to stall making a decision? Was the way the Amherst School Committee handled this particularly brutal? Seems like the yelling was from the crowd, not the committee table. The School Committee held many public hearings that probably were very hard to sit through.

And in some way, it's okay if some in the crowd yell, since these are important issues that affected their children.

But to criticize the decision-makers as devisive or unduly confrontational just because they raised hard issues, discussed the choices and made decisions... well, that's stupid. It's what leaders and elected officials are supposed to do. It doesn't always look pretty and words aren't always spoken in modulated tones. That's not real life.