My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Making Evidence-Based Decisions

Throughout my time on the SC, I've pushed for more use of evidence-based decision-making, meaning choosing programs/policies/curricula with proven results in other districts and evaluating the effectiveness of our own programs/policies/curricula.  And I think it is fair to say that I failed to make any real progress in moving our district towards such changes.  I'm sure we can all point to reasons for this failure - some resting on me, others resting on the district - and I don't think it is particularly worthwhile to focus on attributing blame at this point.

But I still believe strongly in the benefits of making evidence-based decisions (in education, in medicine, etc.), so I just want to share a cool link with my blog readers that summarizes (in really easy to understand ways) high quality research studies on education:  This is a government-based website that provides objective information about findings from scientific research on education topics, and I encourage interested blog readers to check it out.

Here are some cool examples of real findings from this site that I believe have direct implications for our district (I've put the key findings in bold).

1.  How to close the race-based achievement gap:  "Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap"

This study examined whether having African-American middle school students write essays affirming their personal values improved their academic performance. Seventh graders were placed at random into intervention and comparison groups near the start of the school year. Both groups were given structured writing assignments three to five times during their seventh- and eighth-grade years. The intervention group wrote about their personal values (e.g., relationships with friends and family, religious values) and why these were important to them.The comparison group wrote about neutral subjects, such as their daily routine, or why values they considered unimportant might be important to others.

The study analyzed data on about 175 African-American and 190 European-American students (the study’s term for white students who are non-Latino and non-Asian) at a suburban middle school who were randomly assigned to intervention and comparison groups at the beginning of seventh grade. The study measured effects by comparing the seventh- and eighth-grade GPAs of students in the intervention and comparison groups. These GPAs included grades from the four core academic subjects: science, social studies, math, and English. The study examined effects separately for European-American and African-American students and for low- and high-achieving students.

Among African-American students, completing writing exercises about their values increased their average seventh- and eighth-grade GPA by a quarter of a letter grade (0.24 points), a change that was statistically significant. The intervention did not have a statistically significant effect on the academic outcomes of European-American students. Among low-achieving African-American students, the effect was somewhat larger, an increase in average seventh- and eighth-grade GPA of 0.41 points. In addition, the intervention reduced the likelihood that low-achieving African-American students were assigned to a remedial program or were retained in grade.

2.  The effectiveness of different elementary math curriculum:  "Achievement Effects of Four Elementary School Math Curricula: Findings from First Graders in 39 Schools"

This study examined the relative effectiveness of four widely-used early elementary school math curricula: (1) Investigations in Number, Data and Space (Investigations), (2) Math Expressions (ME), (3) Saxon Math (Saxon), and (4) Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Mathematics (SFAW).  The study included about 1,300 first graders from 39 schools in four school districts in Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, and Nevada.  Participating schools were randomly assigned to use one of the four curricula. At least one school in each district was assigned to each of the four math programs. A random sample of approximately 10 students per classroom was included in the analysis. The study measured the relative effectiveness of the four curricula by comparing end-of-year test scores on a nationally normed math assessment developed for the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Class (ECLS–K).

First graders attending schools assigned to the ME and Saxon curricula scored significantly higher on math assessments than students attending schools assigned to the Investigations or SFAW curricula. Math achievement did not differ significantly between schools using ME and Saxon; nor were there significant differences in student math achievement between schools using Investigations and SFAW. The authors report that math achievement of ME and Saxon students was 0.30 standard deviations higher than Investigations students, equivalent to moving a student from the 50th to 62nd percentile. Math achievement of ME and Saxon students was 0.24 standard deviations higher than SFAW students, equivalent to moving a student from the 50th to the 59th percentile. 

3.  How to close the income-based achievement gap: "Addressing Summer Reading Setback Among Economically Disadvantaged Elementary Students"

The study examined whether providing summer reading books to economically disadvantaged first- and second-grade students for three consecutive summers improved reading achievement.  In the spring of the first year, 1st- and 2nd-graders in each school were randomly assigned to receive 12 self-selected summer reading books every year for three consecutive summers. Each spring, students in the summer reading group attended a book fair and were asked to select 15 books from the 400 to 600 offered. From these 15 books, 12 were distributed to students in the summer reading group for free on the final day of school.

The authors examined effects for students overall as well as for the subgroup consisting of the most economically disadvantaged students—those who were eligible to receive free lunch.

The study found that students who received three consecutive years of free, self-selected summer reading books had statistically significantly higher reading test scores than students who did not receive summer reading books. The reported effect size of 0.14 is interpreted by the WWC as roughly equivalent to moving a student from the 50th percentile to the 56th percentile of reading achievement.  In addition, the study found a statistically significant effect of summer reading among students who were the most economically disadvantaged, with an effect size of 0.21.

4.  The potential limits of professional development:  "Middle School Mathematics Professional Development Impact Study: Findings After the First Year of Implementation"

The study examined whether 7th-graders’ knowledge of rational numbers improved when the students’ math teachers participated in related professional development activities.  A total of eight 6-hour sessions of instruction on pedagogy, content knowledge, and resource materials were provided, three during a summer institute and five during school-year seminars.  In the weeks following each of the five seminars, a total of 20 hours of classroom coaching were provided by a facilitator to assist teachers in applying new strategies.
Professional development was administered by either America’s Choice or Pearson Achievement Solutions.
The study analyzed data on about 4,500 students and 200 teachers from approximately 80 schools in 12 districts during the 2007–08 academic year.  Half the schools within each district were randomly assigned to offer 7th-grade math teachers professional development on the teaching of rational numbers. Teachers in all schools were allowed to continue participating in existing professional development programs.  Student-level math achievement was measured by a computer-adaptive rational number test developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association. Teacher-level topical knowledge was measured by a rational number test created by the study’s authors. Teachers’ instructional practices were measured by classroom observations. The study measured the effects of professional development by comparing outcomes at the end of the academic year in schools that were offered professional development provided by the study with outcomes in schools that did not.

The study found that students in schools where teachers were offered extensive professional development by the study performed no better on a test of math achievement in rational numbers than students in comparison schools at the end of the 2007–08 academic year. Further, the study found the professional development had no impact on teacher knowledge of rational number topics and on how to teach them. However, the study found a significant positive impact of the professional development on one of the three measures of teacher instructional practices examined. Teachers who were offered the study’s extensive professional development engaged in 1.03 more activities per hour that elicited student thinking than teachers not offered the study’s professional development.

5.  More on the potential limits of professional development:  "The Impact of Two Professional Development Interventions on Early Reading Instruction and Achievement"
This study examined the effect of a professional development program based on Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) on the knowledge and practice of second-grade teachers and the reading achievement of their students.In two of the research groups, teachers received eight days of reading instruction training based on selected modules from the LETRS curriculum, modified for purposes of the study. Training was offered in the summer and continued through the school year. One of the two groups that received the training also received weekly one-on-one support from a specially trained instructional coach. In the third research group, teachers received the district’s standard professional development program.
The authors examined data on 270 teachers and more than 5,000 second graders from 90 elementary schools in four states during the 2005–06 school year. Study schools were randomly assigned to one of three groups: one in which second-grade teachers received training based on the LETRS curriculum, another where they received the training as well as ongoing instructional coaching, and a third where the teachers received the standard professional development available in their district. Thirty schools were assigned to each research group. The study measured effects by comparing the outcomes of teachers and students from each of the three groups of schools.

Providing second-grade teachers training based on the LETRS curriculum (with or without the instructional coaches) increased their knowledge of reading instruction techniques and their use of explicit instruction. However, it did not increase the reading test scores of their students.  The authors estimated effect sizes on reading scores that ranged from 0.03 to 0.08. These estimates were not statistically significant.

6.  Improving elementary science knowledge:  “Teaching Science as a Language:  A ‘Content-First’ Approach to Science Teaching”

This study examined whether teaching scientific concepts using everyday language before introducing scientific terminology improves the understanding of these concepts. Both groups were taught through web-based lessons with no science instructor. The content-first lesson began by explaining scientific concepts in everyday language, and then linked these concepts to scientific language using interactive quizzes and activities. The control lesson began by defining scientific terms, and then provided activities similar to the content-first lesson but based only on scientific language.

The study included 49 students—30 who spoke Spanish at home and 19 who spoke English at home—from one fifth-grade classroom in Oakland, California. All students took a four-hour web-based lesson on photosynthesis developed by the study authors. Twenty-five students were randomly selected to take a version that explained scientific concepts using everyday language before introducing scientific terminology. The other 24 took a version that used scientific terminology from the outset. At the end of the lesson, the study authors used a test they developed to assess students’ conceptual understanding of photosynthesis.

When tested immediately after the lesson on their understanding of photosynthesis using scientific language, students who received the content-first lesson had higher scores than students who received the lesson that introduced scientific terminology from the outset.  The difference in test scores was about three-fifths of a standard deviation, equivalent to moving a student from the 50th percentile to the 74th percentile.
These six studies all provide data (based on high quality research studies) that I believe have potentially great importance for the Amherst district.  Two point to the limitations of professional development in terms of improving student achievement (one in elementary reading, one in middle school math).  Two point to the effectiveness of particular interventions for decreasing the achievement gap (one in African American middle school students, one in low income elementary students).  One points to the hazards of using particular elementary math curriculum (including Investigations, our current curriculum).  And one points to the benefits of explaining scientific terms in an everyday way at improving science knowledge in elementary school students.

So, here are six studies identified by the government as meeting appropriate standards for conducting research, and each provides evidence about what works (or doesn't) in terms of student achievement.  And for me, that is a better way of making decisions about education than relying on gut instinct about what works, or our feeling of what should work, or what we hope, based on ideology, would work.  I have no stake in any of this research - I don't know the authors, this isn't my work, and I get no pay out if Amherst adopts (or avoids) any of these approaches.  But I believe we all - parents, teachers, students, community members - have a stake in making sure our public schools are doing the best they can for all children, and to me that means making evidence-based decisions about how to best allocate our limited school dollars.  

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Closing the Achievement Gap: Strategies That Work

It will be a slow news week in Amherst (with schools on vacation), so I thought I'd post two interesting articles on strategies for closing the achievement gap.

The first, from Newsweek, focuses on the effectiveness of reducing the achievement gap as a function of income of having low income students attend schools with higher income students, instead of clustering low income students at a single school (  This is precisely the research that led to the decision 2 years ago to redistrict our elementary schools, and I hope we see similar gains in terms of achievement in low income kids.

The second, from The New York Times, describes the work of Harvard professor Dr. Ronald Ferguson, who has been a leading expert in examining ways of decreasing the achievement gap as a function of race (  I had the opportunity to have dinner (at an event sponsored by Amherst College) a couple years ago with Dr. Ferguson, and I was extremely impressed by his rational, research-based perspective on how to address this very challenging (and seemingly pervasive) problem.

UPDATE:  Here is an example of a recent paper presented at a conference on reducing the achievement gap which examines data on the effectiveness of particular strategies for reducing the gap (I've pasted the abstract below - and have bolded the points I found most profound).  The gist is that this research showed smaller class sizes K to 3 (below 18) were very effective in leading to long-term improvements in achievement, and these effects were particularly beneficially for African-American students (I've pasted the paper's abstract below).  So, we could use the results of this research to make decisions about how to allocate resources in our district, and presumably that would help reduce our own achievement gap.  Last year, kindergarten classes at FR and CF were 20 and 21, and 2nd grade classes were 23 at WW.  In contrast, 6th grade classes in all three schools were 16 to 18.  The research reported here suggests that for the same money, we could have increased class sizes in 6th grade at all three schools and reduced class sizes in kindergarten (FR and CF) and 2nd grade (WW) and led to higher level of achievement for all students, and especially for African-American students.  This is research that Steve Rivkin (and others) has conducted, and in fact, Steve was asked by the Brookline SC to present his research on the benefits of small class sizes in particular grades earlier this spring.  Brookline seems to be a district that is interested in making research-based decisions;  Amherst is a district that has not shown this same interest (Steve's points during SC meetings on the benefits of particular educational approaches are typically ignored, although he is considered an expert on economics and education). 

"Would Smaller Classes Help Close the Black-White Achievement Gap?"Alan Krueger and Diane Whitmore, Princeton University

This paper examines the effect of reducing class-size on student achievement, with particular attention to differential effects by race. A review of the literature suggests that low-income and black students tend to benefit more from attending a smaller class than white students. We extend the literature by providing new results from a long-term follow-up of students who participated in Tennessee's Project STAR. Project STAR was an experiment that randomly assigned 11,600 elementary school students and their teachers to a small class (target of 13-17 students), regular-size class (22-25 students) or regular-size class with a teacher-aide. The experiment began with the wave of students who entered kindergarten in 1985, and lasted for four years. After third grade, all students returned to regular-size classes. We analyze the effect of past attendance in a small class on standardized test scores through the eighth grade, on whether students took the ACT or SAT college entrance exam, on performance on the ACT or SAT exam, on criminal conviction rates, and on teen birth rates. The results indicate that, while students are in small classes, average test scores increase by 7-10 percentile points for black students and by 3-4 percentile points for white students. After all students are returned to regular-size classes in 4th grade, the gains from having attended a small class fall to about 5 points for black students and 1.5 points for white students, and persist at around that level. If all students were in a small class in grades K-3, we estimate that the black-white test-score gap would fall by 38 percent in grades K-3, and by 15 percent thereafter. Combining estimates of the effect of small classes on 3rd grade test scores from the STAR experiment with national trends in the pupil-teacher ratio for black and white students since 1971, we find that historical movements in the pupil-teacher ratio can account for almost all of the narrowing of the black-white test score gap as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam. We also find that having attended a small class compared to regular-size class raises the likelihood that black students take the ACT or SAT college entrance exam from 31.8 to 41.3 percent, and raises the likelihood that white students take one of the exams from 44.7 to 46.4 percent. As a consequence, if all students were assigned to a small class, the black-white gap in taking a college entrance exam would fall by an estimated 60 percent. In addition, we find that past attendance in a small class raises the average score on the ACT or SAT exam by 0.15-0.20 standard deviation for black students, and by 0.04 standard deviation for white students.

Lastly, we find evidence that criminal conviction rates are 20 percent lower for black males who were assigned to a small class than for black males assigned to a regular-size class, and maximum sentence rates were 25 percent lower, although both of these effects are not statistically significant. The teen birth rate was one third less for white females who were assigned to a small class compared to those assigned to a regular-size class, and the fatherhood rate was 40 percent lower for black teenage males assigned to a small class than for those assigned to a regular-size class. The effect of class size on teenage births for other groups was not statistically significant.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Amherst Bulletin: February 18, 2010

There are four pieces related to the SC/superintendent in this week's Bulletin which I thought would be of interest to my blog readers.

First, there is a piece describing Maria Geryk's new superintendent contract (  This is similar but not identical to the Gazette piece I posted earlier.

Second, there is a brief story about the Amherst elementary budget cuts proposed at this week's meeting (  I haven't done a blog posting summarizing that meeting, so I want to make three quick points:
  • there is still no written agreement governing how costs are divided between Amherst and Pelham:  so, Pelham with 10% of the enrollment and 25% of the elementary schools is still paying only 6% of central office costs and Amherst is paying 94% - which I still don't understand.  Apparently the new goal of the budget subcommittee (Irv, Rick, Debbie Gould) is to have an agreement in place a year from now.  
  • the Spanish program will be expanded to go from 1st and 2nd to 3rd grade next year, but with no increase in staffing, meaning that world language will only be offered 40 minutes a week (contrary to the recommendations of Sean Smith, head of world languages, to provide 1 1/2 hours a week).  Some members of the SC expressed concern about this lack of exposure to world language, given the goal of the policy to increase fluency by 7th grade so that students could move into 8th grade Spanish if desired.]
  • the enrollment numbers continue to decline, with 99 students fewer this year than last year and another drop of 75 students expected next year (and this could even be lower, since we were 44 students lower than projected last year).  We also discussed the marked climb in the percentage of kids on free/reduced lunch:  29% of this year's 6th graders are considered low income, compared to 52% of this year's kindergartners.  Rick noted that the number of kids on free/reduced lunch actually hasn't really changed;  what has happened is that the number of kids not on free/reduced lunch is decreasing. 
Third, the editor's column is entitled "Catherine Sanderson's Quest for Change" (  I appreciate the editor's kind remarks about my service, and just want to make a few corrections for the record. 
  • Anonymous comments on my blog had nothing to do with my decision to not run;  the week prior to my decision not to run, I learned that my older son's guidance counselor and teacher had send a nasty and name-calling email (identifying me by name) to many in our community, and had to spend a fair amount of time redoing his schedule.  This incident led me to really consider the toll of my service on my family.  
  • I do believe the SC members should send their own kids to the public schools (although there are currently SC members who don't choose to do this, and that has been the case throughout the time I've served on the SC), and although it is of course silly to imagine that anyone would opt for private schools out of lack of support for a given superintendent (and I didn't consider pulling my kids after I lost the vote for the last superintendent), I believe families certainly see the superintendent as having a major impact on the nature and direction of our schools.  Thus, to run for re-election, I needed to feel confident I could tell the voters that I would have my three kids in our schools in three years ... and I didn't feel I could make that promise, and thus I didn't think it was appropriate for me to run.  
  • I certainly agree that building consensus is essential in making progress on any committee, and that is why I'm so pleased that I was able to work with my colleagues to create such consensus on many important decisions:  closing Marks Meadow, redistricting, implementing Spanish language in the elementary schools, creating an evaluation policy, and requesting outside evaluations of math/special education/the middle school.  I'm surprised the editors didn't note that all of these accomplishments, which I consider some of the most important ones of my term, were unanimous votes, thus clearly indicating great consensus on the committee.  
Fourth, I also have a final oped explaining my decision to resign (  I believe this column speaks for itself, so I won't elaborate. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Two Updates

First, the contract with Maria Geryk has now been signed and is official.  You can read the Gazette story at:

Second, I was interviewed by as part of the "Conversations" series on ACTV, and my interview will be shown tonight at 7 pm (you can read the Gazette story on this interview at:  I don't know if the interview will be re-broadcast or available on demand.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Maria Geryk Appointed to Permanent Superintendent

You can read the press release at:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Next Week's Meetings

There will be (at least) three SC meetings next week - and all will be important.

First, on Monday (2-14), we will meet to discuss the contract for the superintendent (this meeting might be mostly in executive session to hammer out details).  You can read a brief story on this meeting from Masslive at:

Then, on Tuesday (2-15) the Amherst SC will see the first FY12 list of budget cuts/adds, and on Wednesday (12-16), the Regional SC will see the first FY12 list of budget cuts/adds.  I believe the Amherst SC meeting will be carried live on ACTV (and thus held at Town Hall);  the other two meetings will be in the HS library and will be filmed by ACTV by not shown live.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

My Decision: Part 2

Two quick things to post.

First, I want to thank all of those who have sent kind words via email/text/phone throughout the day.  I appreciate hearing from many friends ... and also from those who I didn't even know were supporting me who understood my decision and expressed appreciation for my efforts.  I really, really appreciate it.  And don't worry:  I'm doing OK!

Second, there is a bit of an expanded article from the Gazette on my decision:  

My Decision: I'm Not Running

The papers to file to run again for my seat on the Amherst and Regional School Committees are completed and stacked neatly on the corner of my desk.  The deadline to turn them in is 5 PM today.

I have been outspoken and activist on what I feel needs to be improved in the Amherst schools: educational accountability, transparency and community involvement and fiscal responsibility. 

During the last three years we have been successful at bringing real change to a stagnated system.  Some of these changes, such as eliminating mandatory study halls and closing Marks Meadow to maintain small class sizes, intervention support, and music and art in elementary school, had the potential to improve my children’s education.  Most would make no difference for them.  My children went to preschool, they were not in the school that required redistricting for economic equity, they have not struggled on MCAS tests, and I am quite capable of ensuring that they take 8th grade algebra and exceed the minimum high school graduation requirements for math and science. 

There is a tremendous amount of hostility toward me in the community, which makes it unlikely that I could have any real impact as a member of the School Committee in the future.  If I said I thought we should have healthier food in the cafeteria, then there would be public accusations that my brother is an organic farmer, that this change in food was just for my kids, and that this change was all about me.  It has never been about me.  My career is as a college professor, not a school committee member (and certainly not a politician).  For me it has always been about what is best for all the children:  Not what feels good, but what yields good educational results.

Some events of the last week have made it clear to me, and to my husband, that whether I would win or lose, running for School Committee would make it untenable for my children to stay in the Amherst public schools.  It is not about the superintendent selection;  it is about mean personal public attacks, including attacks from school personnel.  Since my motivation for serving was to better education for my children, along with all the children of Amherst, this sets up a difficult conundrum. 

So in the end, the papers will remain on the corner of my desk, not to be filed at Town Hall.  I wish the best for the Amherst and Regional Public Schools;  it has been an honor, if not a pleasure, to serve.

Here's the Gazette story on my announcement:

And here is the Masslive story on my announcement (which includes a link to my press release announcing this decision):

Monday, February 7, 2011

Geryk Mulls Offer

Here is the latest Gazette story on the superintendent decision:  And here is the latest Masslive story:

I'd like to remind all blog readers that personal attacks on SC members (me or others) aren't helpful in moving us forward, and that I won't post negative comments about district staff.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

One Year Appointment for Maria Geryk

Here's the gazette link of the article:  And here is the Masslive article:  And here is a more updated Gazette article:

It was nearly a 5 hour meeting, so I am not going to appoint to summarize it.  The gist is that all non-Amherst members and Rick Hood supported Maria Geryk and the other 4 non-Amherst supported someone else (initially two for Kohn - Steve, Rob, and two for Bayless - me, Irv, although Steve and Rob both changed their votes to Bayless after the first ballot).  The final vote occurred because Irv (who is on region and Union 26) agreed to a one-year term with Maria.  That vote passed 6 to 3 on Region (me, Rob, Steve opposed) and 4 to 2 on Union 26 (me and Steve opposed).  Maria will be evaluated by January 1, 2010 and at that time either will be released from her contract or her contract will be extended for a longer term. 

Here is my statement that I read, just FYI:

I’ve given this vote a tremendous amount of thought over the last few weeks, as I know all of my colleagues on this board have done.  There is no greater responsibility for the SC than choosing a superintendent, and I know we all take this role very seriously. 

For me, there are two real challenges in making this decision:  first, anyone we choose is a bit of a “leap of faith” in that you never know exactly how someone will be in the job until someone is doing that job (and we have one candidate who in fact has been doing this job and two who have not been doing this job – at least in Amherst), and the second is trying to focus on the totality of the information about the candidates (public opinion, references, prior work and educational history).  As we saw with the closing of Marks Meadow, there are often a small number of very loud voices with one view, and it is easy to assume that view represents the entire community.  So, I’ve tried very hard to consider the totality of information I’ve received from many sources (both in the Amherst area and from outside our immediate area). 

In thinking about my decision, the most important thing for me is where I see the schools right now and who do I see as the person/people who can help us build on our strengths and address the challenges we face.  I see real problems in the Amherst schools – and I know the problems in the Amherst elementary schools are frankly not the same ones seen in the elementary schools in Pelham, Shutesbury, and Leverett but many of the broader problems (achievement gap, finances) are seen in our elementary and regional schools. 

  • In the Amherst elementary schools, we’ve seen a drop of 99 students this year compared to last, and this is 44 students fewer than we projected, with 30 students fewer than expected in kindergarten.  In addition, we are seeing a massive change in the demographics in our elementary schools:  over 50% of kindergartners currently in our schools are on free and reduced lunch (compared to 37% of overall elementary students, marking a dramatic shift).  I find this really concerning, as it indicates to me that a growing number of families are opting out of our public schools. 
  • I see a big achievement gap in our elementary schools.  In our elementary schools, only 30% of African American students, 38% of Latino students, and 30% of low income students reach proficiency on MCAS math tests. 
  • One of our three elementary schools (Fort River) showed declines in both ELA and Math MCAS scores for all students – the aggregate and most subgroups – from last year to this year. 
  • I see problems in special education, with about 40% of parents not satisfied with their participation in their child's IEP, communication with staff, and the staff's responsiveness to their needs and concerns.
  • I see huge budget problems now and in the foreseeable future, as indicated by Representative Ellen Story at the Four Towns Meeting last Saturday.
So, when I think about choosing the next superintendent, my primary concern is who the best person is in terms of moving our district forward as we face these pretty immense challenges in terms of achievement, demographics, and finances. 

I know that many community members and teachers have very positive feelings about Maria Geryk, and I hear this passion.  And I really wish I could feel good about supporting her candidacy, because in many ways, that would be the easiest choice since she is already here and known by our community.  But voting for superintendent isn’t supposed to be the easiest choice – it is supposed to be the choice that is best for our community moving forward, and as much as I appreciate the work she has done on creating instructional rounds and being visible in the community, I also have real concerns about her ability to handle the very real problems we face.

  • We have a big achievement gap, and students who were failing MCAS were identified in September, yet the Achievement Academy didn’t start until January (half-way through the school year), which seems less than ideal.
  • We have one school (Fort River) that is showing declines in both math and ELA MCAS and she hasn’t developed a plan to address this.
  • We have real concerns from some parents in special education, and she hasn’t attended SEPAC
  • We have major budget challenges, and it is February and we’ve not seen a budget at Amherst or Regional (and she has already cancelled the budget presentation set for Tuesday).  This is two months later than what we had with Alberto.
  • We have had a report on math in our district from an outside expert in October, and it is February and we have had no action plan on dealing with this recommendation, despite the fact that we have a major achievement gap and lower MCAS math scores in 3rd grade than the state average.  I haven’t seen any sense of urgency from her in addressing these long-standing concerns.
  • We had, at the time of her appointment, a very divided SC, and I have seen no interest or willingness on her part of trying to bring the SC together, which is really sad to me.  I didn’t vote for Alberto Rodriguez, yet when he arrived, he reached out to me and met with each SC member individually each month, and really worked to understand all of our concerns.  I haven’t seen this type of interest in getting to understand those who disagree with her from Maria.  Relatedly, I know that Maria has reached out to some community members, but I feel that reaching out has been to those who support her – and there hasn’t been a willingness to do the same for those who have real concerns – about math, about special education, etc. - and I find that really unfortunate. 
So, when I look at Ms. Geryk’s performance over the last year, a year in which she was clearly trying to put her “best foot forward” in terms of getting the superintendent’s job, I have serious concerns.  And those concerns unfortunately make it impossible for me to take a leap of faith and vote to make her the permanent superintendent.  I feel really bad about this, as I know this vote in many ways would be the easiest one for our community, since she is of course by far the most familiar choice, and change is scary. 

I had hoped I could vote for Dr. Kohn and feel comfortable taking a leap of faith about his candidacy.  I liked his commitment to social justice and achievement for low income kids and kids of color, and I liked his ability to make major changes in struggling districts, and I liked his experience as a regional superintendent in MA.  But I understand that for many people in the community, and some of my colleagues on the SC, voting for Dr. Kohn would require too much of a leap of faith, and I can understand and respect these feelings, and therefore don’t feel comfortable supporting his candidacy either. 

However, after reading all of the comments from parents and teachers and community members and outside references (who have known Dr. Bayless for years), I feel quite comfortable taking the “leap of faith” necessary to offer him the permanent position. 

  • He has considerable experience as a superintendent (11 years), meaning he’s dealt with precisely the types of things we are going to deal with (budgets, instruction, evaluation, etc.). 
  • He has huge amounts of experience in business – he has a certificate in business and has served as an associate superintendent for business in three different districts, and has worked in California (a state with huge budget problems).  The Amherst and Regional schools have a budget of 50 million – and we really need someone with experience making difficult budget choices and gaining community support for such choices. 
  • He is new to Amherst, and MA, but the challenges we face are precisely the types of things ALL districts face, and he has support from people (e.g., Rob Detweiler) in understanding MA laws and finances.  I believe the long-term knowledge and experience he brings is really valuable, and more than makes up for what he doesn’t current know in terms of specific MA laws/regulations.
  • He has a strong focus on evaluation, and the importance of evaluating what we are doing to make sure that it is working.  This is NOT a strength of our current district, and I really think his focus on doing this would be invaluable.
  • He is clearly dedicated to low income students and ELL (many Latino students in CA) students, and discussed a number of specific ways he had worked to improve achievement in these groups.
  • He has intensive experience in developing strategic district plans, which is also not a current strength of our district and I believe could be really advantageous. 
  • He has a very nice manner in terms of bringing people together – his idea of bringing together small groups of SC members (with different views) to discuss things is excellent, and is precisely the type of thing that I believe would have been really, really helpful over the last year. 
Will there be a learning curve if we offer the job to Dr. Bayless?  Yes.  But I believe that giving a couple of months to Dr. Bayless to learn our schools and towns and administrators and MA laws is a very small price to pay for gaining his extensive knowledge and background with finances and evaluation and bringing people together.  I feel 100% comfortable that Dr. Bayless has the ability to help all of our schools build on their strengths and work on their challenges and bring our communities together.  

UPDATE:   It has been a very long day, and I don't think anonymous potshots at me or Steve or anyone on the SC is helpful or constructive or brings the community or the SC together in any way.  If anyone wants to share private thoughts with me, please send them to my private email:  But I'm not going to continue to provide this forum for mean-spirited attacks. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Still More Superintendent Search Updates

I'm posting two pieces on the superintendent search - one a review of Maria Geryk's interview with the community yesterday from the Gazette ( and a more general review of the superintendent search process and various community views from the Bulletin (  As noted in the second piece, the community has varied feelings about the three finalists - SC members are certainly getting feedback pushing each of the three finalists!  I think it is also important to remember that the SC also has much more information than the community will ever see - lengthy work histories, references (both in writing and via phone) from numerous sources, and all of the feedback sheets completed by various people (teachers, administrators, parents, community members) at each of the forums.  I believe we will all take all of this information very seriously in making our decision about which of the three finalists is the best fit for our community at this time when we meet on Sunday ... and my hope is that the community will rally around and support the superintendent, whoever he or she might be.  When we last searched, my first choice candidate wasn't chosen, and that was certainly disappointing ... but I supported Dr. Rodriguez from the time he was chosen, and I was sorry to see him go as he did in March.  I hope that all members of the community will welcome and support the chosen superintendent, and that we as a SC are able to select someone that we can all feel good about working with and supporting in the years ahead.  This is a crucial time in the Amherst and Regional schools and choosing a superintendent is the most important work the SC does. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Superintendent Search Update

I'm just attaching a brief article on the search update - with a decision still expected this (Super Bowl) Sunday (  I agree completely with Kristen's quote in this article that we need to select a finalist who has the support of the entire SC, and I am very hopeful that we will be able to reach such an agreement this Sunday, and then all move together to support this person in the important work ahead for our districts.  This is a very exciting time for the Amherst and Regional schools, and I hope we see our districts moving to reach their full potential in the year ahead. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Final Interview: Thursday, February 3, 2011

So, let's hope the third time's the charm:  the third finalist, Maria Geryk, will interview tomorrow (8 to 9 am MS cafeteria and 2:30 to 3:30 WW library are open meetings with the public;  6 to 8 pm ARHS library is an open interview with the SC).  Here's the Gazette story on the delay:

Few Students Show Proficiency in Science, Tests Show

This article (from The New York Times) is very interesting, though depressing - showing that American students are much less proficient in science than in other disciplines (  As many of my blog readers likely know, K to 12 science education is one of our district goals for this year, and I am hopeful that we will see some improvements to science education (especially in our elementary schools) in the upcoming year. 

UPDATE:  Here's another article summarizing the same study (