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.  


Caren Rotello said...

I have read the second study you report -- the comparison of math curricula, including Investigations -- and found it to be the best-done educational experiment I've seen. (Not just well-done based on educational literature standards, but truly well-done!) Everybody should read it, especially the members of the K12 Math Council. The conclusion of the experiment is that Investigations is dramatically less effective than 2 alternative curricula, resulting in about a letter-grade difference in math performance. I sincerely hope that the Math Council takes evidence like this under serious consideration as they deliberate the future of our elementary math program.

Anonymous said...


Why don't you send the study to the Math Council; Beth Graham the Curriculum Coordinator; and to the superintendent as an example of a good study for our district to use.

Caren Rotello said...

Anon 10:48:

I did send the report to then-Supt Rodriquez in Dec 2009, and got no response.

You're right that I should send it to the current administration as well. With all the pressure on schools to improve MCAS scores, the benefits of using a better curriculum are obvious.

Ed said...

Two points --

First, Maria G still hasn't gotten back to me on what her interpertation and the district's implementation of that OCR Guidance Letter is.

And second, as to teacher and free speech versus professionalism, there is this interesting thing from Drudge about an IndianaAsst AG who tweeted (or something) that he would like to see the cops shoot the protesting teachers in Wisconson. He got fired....,0,4211346.story

Enough said?

Curious observer said...

Wouldn't the K-16 Math Council, Superintendent and Curriculum Director already be aware of this federal research on the ineffectiveness of Investigations? How old is this research? How many years of lowering test scores will it take for them to act? Didn't the math consultant say to replace Investigations last fall? Why the delay?

Anonymous said...

To Curious Observer:
Don't assume that the Math Curriculum Council has this research. Also, the math consultant did recommend replacing Investigations. There is a group of parents is encouraging the schools, the new Curriculum Director Beth Graham to do just that. That is the point of bringing (& paying for) an outside consultant! These citizens have asked for reports that are supposed to be generated, a time line, and yet they are getting nothing. Get involved! Ask at SC meetings when Investigations is getting replaced? And with what? And why the secrecy? When teachers are going to be trained in higher math than they teach (another Dr. Chen recommendation) Will the new math curriculum be in place by Sept 2011? Maybe you will get some answers.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Just FYI to all - I sent a copy of the report Caren references to Beth Graham last August, and to Rick Hood and to Irv Rhodes. I do not know if other members of the math curriculum council received it from Beth, but she certainly has it.

The math consultant sent a report to Beth and Maria Geryk in October recommending that Investigations be replaced (among other changes to elementary math). I have no idea when or if this or other recommendations will be made by the superintendent regarding elementary math.

nina said...

Thanks for these important and interesting reports. I do want to comment that the research on the LETRS reading curriculum should not be construed to mean that all professional development in reading intervention is pointless (or at least statistically insignificant). The research only showed that professional development in LETRS wasn't useful.

There are many, many reading intervention programs, most of which require significant training to execute them properly. Right now in the schools teachers are learning one from Columbia Teachers College. Since interventions are legally mandated, we have to use SOME program. Hopefully this is a good one -- according to research.

Ed said...

Following that point -- it has got to be mentioned that some professional development is better than others. And I am not saying I know, but is there some way to evaluate professional development BEFORE paying for it?

6th grade move? said...

Hello- just wondering, did the discussion about moving 6th grade to middle school go anywhere? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

6th grade move: why not contact the school committee members who will continue to sit on that committee and ask them about their progress? Are we all starting to realize how little information we will be getting once Catherine ends her term?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Two responses:

1. I agree that professional development can be important. But I think WHAT type of professional development matters. Dr. Chen recommended content-based professional development in math for elementary and middle school math teachers, but I haven't heard any plans for this type of professional development to be offered. Similarly, I haven't heard of any professional development that we plan to offer that has been shown in research to be effective, and the studies I've posted in fact point out that some professional development is INEFFECTIVE (meaning it is a waste of money and time). I believe that we need to use things that work - not things that we think/hope/wish would work, but things that actually work.

2. I am on the 6th grade task force, although of course I will be stepping down in 4 weeks when my term expires. This group has met once, and no other meetings are scheduled. Mike Hayes and Nick Yaffe are the co-chairs of the group. A report is supposed to be given to the Amherst SC later this spring, with any recommendation (if there were to be one) to be implemented next fall (fall 2012).

Perhaps relatedly, I have no idea about the status of the changing start times task force which has also been meeting.

Anonymous said...

I also saw in the bulletin last week that the trimester-semester change (a good idea) is also still on the table. Possibly an update on that change might be coming later in the spring too? (but in total, a lot of possible changes!)

Anonymous said...


I followed the link you suggested and noticed that the
North Carolina study about 6th grade in middle school is included. Maybe you should add it to your list, and also direct your fellow committee members to it. As I remember it, that large and well-respected study raised serious questions about the wisdom of such a move.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 4:22 - the current teacher contract gives high school teachers the right to control whether the high school is on trimesters or semesters. Two years ago the teachers voted 2 to 1 to maintain the trimester schedule, as this produces a reduced workload at a given time for the teachers. It was clear from the meeting that the high school administration would like to control the high school schedule (to the best of my knowledge, we are the only district in MA that has given up the right for the high school principal/superintendent to choose the high school schedule - it is HIGHLY unusual). So, it is possible that a new contract would result in a change in the high school schedule, but it certainly isn't a certainty. Obviously those discussions occur in negotiating sessions.

Anonymous 4:48 - I am familiar with that study re. the 6th grade placement and in fact have already given a copy of that study to each and every member of the 6th grade task force. However, I didn't include it in the list I posted because it doesn't meet the highest research standards (whereas all the studies I posted did). The summary listed on that website notes: "Cautions: Despite statistical matching, there were still some differences in the characteristics of the two groups of schools. For example, middle schools were in larger districts and had fewer economically disadvantaged students. The study authors used statistical techniques to adjust for these differences. However, differences in district policies, characteristics of the student body, and other factors not controlled for in the analysis may affect the results." This is an important limitation, which means we can't draw causal evidence from this study. In contrast, the other studies posted all used true random assignment, which increases our ability to make causal interpretations.

Abbie said...

Am I understanding you correctly? That IF the recommendation is to move 6th grade to MS that it would happen next fall? And this recommendation won't be made for some time yet? This doesn't give families who don't want their kid to go to MS (for 6th grade) to find alternatives (deadlines for applications to other schools will have long passed).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Abbie - my understanding is that a move of the 6th grade could not happen for this year (fall of 2011) but could happen for the next year (fall of 2012). But I think it is far too early to think about whether this will or will not happen - the task force is meeting and examining various aspects (financial, logistical, educational), and then will send a report to the SC. But I have no idea what that report will say (presumably it will give pros and cons), nor do I have any idea what the SC will do what that report (presumably, if a change is possible, public meetings will be held to get feedback). I obviously won't be on the SC at that time, but that is my guess about what would happen, based on what happened with the vote re. Marks Meadow.

Abbie said...

oops, my error- thinking next year would be 2012...sorry

Anonymous said...

I think it's unfortunate that your response to the post about the North Carolina study contains comments that only question its value (e.g. - "doesn't meet the highest research standards" and "an important limitation").
I don't dispute either of those comments, but I'm puzzled that you couldn't find a single positive thing to say about the study, which reportedly received widespread acclaim.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 7:42 - I'm not saying anything good or bad about the study - I'm just noting that I didn't post it, as you suggested I do, because of the concerns raised BY THOSE WHO PUBLISH THESE REPORTS. I chose not to publish many other studies because concerns were raised about the ability to draw conclusions -- the criteria I used to decide whether to publish a study was whether there were any concerns raised. There weren't any concerns raised about the 6 studies I chose to publish; there were the concerns raised about this study, which is why I chose not to publish it.

Anonymous said...

Could you provide some info re: the study of the trimester system? I was shocked when I read the teachers' union has to approve any changes -- is there any way for the public to advocate for a semester system?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 10:29 - the School Committee gave away the right to choose the high school schedule to the high school teachers during contract negotiations. This was a VERY unusual choice by a School Committee, and I haven't been able to find any other district in MA in which the high school principal, superintendent, and SC have no control over the high school schedule. In January of 2009, the high school teachers voted 2 to 1 to maintain the trimester system. Last year we heard an estimate that eliminating study halls would cost nearly $300,000 more under the trimester system than under the semester system, so clearly this has major budget implications. In addition, and as noted at the last Regional SC meeting, it makes scheduling much more difficult.

There are two things that members of the public could do:

1. Request to high school teachers that they vote to move to a semester schedule (they could do this at any time, since it is under their control). If enough parents requested this change, I guess it is possible HS teachers would agree.

2. Request to the SC that this provision of the contract be changed in the current round of negotiations (remember, however, that the teachers may or may not agree to this change, since it is already in the contract).

I hope that is helpful.

Anonymous said...

Two things. First, a cautionary note even though as many of you know, I am a big proponent of the WWC.

These education studies and others are written for practitioners (teachers and/or administrators and/or other field researchers)--as research studies are in any professional field. Not that others can't read them and have opinions about them, but it's in the INFORMED interpretation of studies in ANY field--research validated or not--where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. I'm guessing that my opinion of biology research would not matter much to anyone in the field, although I certainly could have a strong opinion about it. A more germane comparison is that I could read some research about bridge building designs, but woe to any town that built or repaired bridges based on what I think the engineering of it ought to be.

All this is to say, just because ours are public schools, it doesn't mean that we--the public-- are all suddenly experts in the field of education because we can access and read these studies--which, frankly, are only very available now because of the internet. In the "old days," they'd be stuck away in educational journals 99.9% of the public didn't even know existed. Though I encourage anyone interested to know about the What Works Clearinghouse, it's more as a place to become informed than to become sudden experts in education and therefore proactively "know best" the programmatic decisions a school district should take, and what should happen in classrooms. I sense some of these postings taking the latter stance.

Also, the WWC merely validates research claims, which is a way to sort out studies based on how valid their claims are. This gets slotted into how studies are interpreted. However, when the WWC does not validate the claim, it does NOT usually mean the claim is wrong or faulty, merely that it has not been demonstrated satisfactorily.

I'm sure Catherine will confirm how tricky social science research is because of the myriad variables that enter into studying people as individuals or groups. You need to know A LOT about the field to really understand them. This includes education. Studies that were state of the art in the conclusions they drew years ago are called into question as perspectives change and grow. Also, research claims in education can be valid, but it turns out not only (or even mostly) for the reason/s they think. So rather than read these and other studies and think, "Now I know what our district should do!", I advocate more of a "Our district wants to buy x-program because it claims such and such, yet the WWC does not validate any research about it, and so explain your decision!" type of relationship to this information.

Again, to avoid any misunderstanding, my position is not "You don't understand, so don't read them!" It is "Read away to become better informed!" just not "Read away to become an instantaneous expert!"

ken said...

My second thing is to clarify the trimster schedule. This was negotiated into teacher contracts when the Junior High was morphing into the Middle School maybe 12-15 years ago (or so). It was to find meeting time for teachers to team under the Turning Points model. Because the MS and HS are in the same region, language was negotiated into the contract for this for MS and HS teachers. Schedules, etc, are a mandated issue of collective bargaining. This is why it is contractual. It was NOT something put forward by teachers, it was administration that insisted on it for the sake of Turning Points and through the negotiations process, the contract was changed.

And so now it's there, it is the duly-negotiated reality that teacher's now "own" in the contract at the insistence of administration, and therefore it is up to the administration to figure out some way to bargain a new reality into the contract with teachers if that's what they want to try to do.

ken said...

The long WWC post is mine--I accidentally did it Anonymously.

Wondering said...

It seems if amherst regional moves from a trimester to a semester system, fewer teachers are needed to teach the same number of students. Is this right?

If so, is the trimester system now being held onto for educational reasons or to keep jobs? (And why are teachers staffing study halls when this could be done by others, lower paid employees?)

Anonymous said...

All I know is that it makes no sense for students to study a given subject only two out of three trimesters per year. The school year is short enough as it is. It's clear the trimester system compromises a student's ability to retain information over the long haul and build on core knowledge. We've got to get rid of this thing! Hopefully Steve Rivkin will lead the call once Catherine's SC term ends.

Anonymous said...


Just wondering in a very off topic way--With all of our town's budget concerns, is the Fort River principal who is on leave, still drawing his salary after five months?

Anonymous said...

6:26: I hope so.

Ed said...

Request to the SC that this provision of the contract be changed in the current round of negotiations (remember, however, that the teachers may or may not agree to this change, since it is already in the contract).

I am not so sure it would make a difference -- if the SC has the guts to hold the line (and without Catherine, they likely won't) then it goes to arbitration and the arbitrator has to agree (amongst other things) that this is a legitimate thing to be negotiated and I don't think the teachers would win that one.

Besides, anyone watching what is going on in Wisconsin right now?

Ed said...

Ken -- UMass has one of the best engineering departments in the world and yet built a steam plant that attempted to pipe live steam 1.9 miles DOWNHILL with results that this Education major could immediately anticipate.

My point -- you have to be careful, very careful, when reading research outside your field. But it doesn't mean that you can't do it as well as the people in the field, nor that you can't do it BETTER than the people in the field because you are looking at the subject "tabla rosa" -- a clear slate without biases because you don't know any of the people involved.

Unlike the Global Warming people, good researchers lay out their methodology and sources so that anyone else can follow the same path they did and come to the same conclusions they did. This stuff is published so that you can do so...

ken said...

Ed, I understand your point, but I didn't claim professionals were infallible in their field. Is it possible someone can read a study outside their field and understand it "better" than someone in that field? I guess it could happen. But do you think it's usual? I don't. Not even in the Lake Wobegon called Amherst, where all the adults are above average.

Anonymous said...

Has there ever been discussion about the effects of Feb. and April school breaks? This year when there were so many snow days and another year when there were a lot of sick days in my families, my kids seemed to get further behind after the breaks.

FR Parent said...

Anon 9:20: I agree! Especially in a college town where many of the parents have a March break. Many of my kids' friends are taken out of school for that week as well. I would vote to give up the February break and April break in exchange for one break in March. that would also help our social justice goal since many parents have a difficult time finding and affording quality care for their children for those two weeks and cannot afford the time off.

Anonymous said...

11:09 ... couldn't agree with you more! The second half of the school year has so many breaks -- they completely interrupt learning. A single March break would make so much more sense both for students and for working families.

Anonymous said...

All school systems have a February and then an April break. Why should Amherst be different then all the other school systems?

I would not expect any changes to be made in the break schedule. There are very good reasons for the schedule the way it is set up. Also, a reminder. UMass students have most of January off, so they are only in school for about 6-7 weeks before their break in March. Students in the public schools go back to school on January 2nd, so by mid February they have been in school for 6-7 weeks. Why would we expect more from elementary students than we expect from college students? Also, a February vacation helps with illness among students and teachers as it affords a break from people being with each other passing their illnesses around.

So, I would not expect any change in the schedule of second semester breaks and I do not think there should be a change.

Abbie said...

Do all MA public schools have Feb and April breaks? That is definitely NOT the case in the rest of the country. Not sure anon@4:50 has gotten out of the state...there is a whole country outside of MA doing things differently- some things better, some things worse. We could learn from those places doing things differently and better.

I agree though with the idea of one break (instead of two) but can see that change would take a lot of effort to accomplish and certainly won't happen in the next ten years.

Anonymous said...

In an area where so many parents work for one of the five colleges, I think it'd make all the sense of the world to have the school's break together with the colleges Spring break. And it would make even more sense to end school a few days before Christmas, so that people who have families in other states or countries could spend the holidays with them. This year the last day before the break was Dec. 23rd, and we were back right after New year's. I think one week in March and a longer Christmas break would make much more sense.

Anonymous said...

And as on of the MANY families who have no connection to the area colleges, I like things the way they are.

Anonymous said...

Think of the cheap airfares if amherst had a march break.

Anonymous said...

Abbie said...

"Do all MA public schools have Feb and April breaks?"

Yes. It appears that in MA the vacation schedule was built around President's Day in Feb. and Patriot's Day in April. Judging from the comments here, it wouldn't matter where the vacations were placed. People would still complain.

Anonymous said...

Catherine- is there any research about the positive or negative effects of two breaks? It seems like folks we know in other states only have one and like another poster, one of my kids seems to get behind whenever there is a break and worse this year when there were many consecutive, short weeks.
Interesting point about going to one break being better for social justice. If most jobs allow 2 weeks vacation, with summer, spring break and other days off, many working families don't have enough days off to manage another week off of school.

Wondering said...

The fact that people disagree is always an argument for doing nothing. Anon 9:55: how do things work at your job and in your home? Do you just sit around staring because people have differing views?

Anonymous said...

This discussion about one or two breaks being a social justice issue is a bunch of nonsense. Kids are supposed to be in school for 180 days per year. So, if you only have one break, then summer vacation starts one week earlier and families who can't afford 2 breaks will just have to figure out what to do with their kids for one extra week of summer vacation.

May I remind everyone that most colleges have a break during the month of January. So, they go from the 3rd week of january to the 3rd week of May, or 4 months, with a one week break. Our local schools go from January 2nd to the 2nd or 3rd week of June - about 5.5 months. And you only want them to have 1 break during that time? You expect them to be able to handle more school time than the college kids? It is too much to ask of them.
This is a non-starter of an issue. And it has nothing to do with social justice. This is about the families with college professors who want all of us to have only one break in March because that is what they have. For those of you new to this town in the last 20 or so years, this has been discussed before and deemed not in the best interests of the kids to only have one break in March.
And finally, what do Brookline and Newton do? These are the districts we attemp to emulate in all things. We should do what they do. This is one of those cases where usually we want to do what everyone else does, but not in this case.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

I don't know of any research on the benefits of two versus one break. However, there is considerable evidence that low income kids suffer more from breaks in school than high income kids (e.g., they are less likely to have high quality care during that time, get adequate nutrition - w/o the free breakfast/lunch provided at school, take exciting and stimulating family trips, etc.). With short 1-week breaks, it is harder for families to make good arrangements for kids than during the summer (when there are more options for camps, summer school, etc.). It certainly strikes me that kids are now out a ton in January/February (curriculum day, Martin Luther King Day, snow days, etc.) and moving to a one-week break in March could make lots of sense in terms of having less disruption in school (e.g., did we have ANY 5-day school weeks in January?!?).

I believe there are two issues with making that change (and we did discuss this idea a few years ago, briefly):

First, the state places pretty clear requirements re. when MCAS testing has to occur, and the testing of some subjects/grades occurs in March (that may be why other districts in MA have used the weeks in February and April as breaks, not March).

Second, the teacher contract specifies these breaks, and teachers would have to agree to a change. But if teachers who don't live in Amherst have their own kids in another community, this would be bad for teachers who then would have to find care for their own kids during that time.

If there is any interest in this idea of moving the breaks, that suggestion should be sent to the whole SC at:

Anonymous said...

Yes, the kids had alot of snow days in january this year. It has never been as bad as this in previous year. We should not be using this winter as an example of the norm.

Low income kids have the same options for one week vacations as they do for the summer. LSSE has one week vacation camps, with the same low income eligiblity criteria as the summer.

I sure hope we are not going to be wasting precious time and resouces on this issue. The schools have much bigger fish to fry.

Anonymous said...

Ms Sanderson

The WWC site says, in regard to the North Carolina study that cautions against the placement of 6th graders in a middle school, "The research described in this report is consistent with WWC standards with reservations."
Could you please direct us to a study that is WWC approved without reservations, and thus meets your "highest standards" threshold, that says it's a good idea to move 6th graders to a middle school.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 7:59 - I don't know of any other research on the issue of 6th grade in the middle school. However, there is considerable research showing the hazards for kids of 2-year schools (too much transitions, not enough time to settle in), and I assume that is why the current MS principal (and every MS candidate for principal we've interviewed in the last 5 years) feels moving 6th grade would be good, and I assume that is why most other districts in MA and the US have placed 6th grade (and in some cases 5th grade) in the MS.

Anonymous said...

You've often mentioned Brookline as a district we should look to for ideas about what works well for students, because they seem to do so well with a
comparable student population.

Are you aware that Brookline has done away with the middle school model and has gone completely to a K-8 model?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 10:26 - I am aware of that, and that has been discussed by both the SC and the 6th grade task force. However, this isn't a viable model for Amherst for several reasons. First, the MS building isn't able to handle children so young. Second, it would require redistricting, which we've obviously just done. Third, this model isn't possible without redoing the regional agreement, which requires votes of all 4 town meetings. So, regardless of whether this is a better model, it isn't feasible for Amherst.

One more thing: I'm on the SC for 3 more weeks. This topic isn't going to come up for a vote in that time, and so obviously my opinion about any of this isn't rally relevant. I'd recommend sharing your thoughts with on-going members of the SC.

Anonymous said...

"You've often mentioned Brookline as a district we should look to for ideas about what works well for students, because they seem to do so well with a comparable student population."

If you base your question on an incorrect premise, how good to you think the answer will be? No way, no how is Brookline's student population comparable to ours. Have you ever been to Brookline? There are no low income folks living in Brookline. Brookline's student population is NOT comparable to our student population.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the K-8 model would be problematic for us here, but hoped you realized that it is actually a current national trend. Your comment about what "most" places in the US do with their 6th graders may have been true ten or twenty years ago, but in the past decade many school districts throughout the country have not been putting 6th graders into middle schools they have been taking 7th and 8th graders out of them.
I understand you will soon leave the committee, but until you do this blog represents a popular community forum for an exchange of ideas.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 9:14 - there are many school districts across the state and across the country making many choices. We aren't going to find one that is identical to Amherst. Brookline is similar to Amherst in many ways, including membership in MSAN (e.g., commitment to achievement for all students) and racial diversity. I believe it is silly to believe we can only learn from districts that are precisely like Amherst ... and that gathering data from many districts about what has/hasn't worked, is informative. But to refuse to consider a district as relevant to Amherst because we have more low income students seems silly to me.

Finally, in some cases, you find districts that are similar and not similar to Amherst making the same choices. For example, many districts are moving to Physics First in 9th grade - Springfield (very low income population), Bement and Deerfield (elite private schools), Brookline (public school with fewer low income kids). When you see that type of similarity across so many different types of districts, it indeed strikes me as something we should consider ... even if none of those districts have precisely the same number of low income kids.

Anonymous 9:40 - I'm not sure if the K to 8 model is indeed a "national trend" - most districts aren't using it, and there is no research supporting it. But if we can't do it in Amherst, I'm not really sure why we should spend lots of time considering it.

Anonymous said...

To quote from "Comparing Achievement between K-8 & Middle Schools - A Large Empirical Study" that came out of the Byrnes & Ruby Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins, with funding support from the National Science Foundation:

"Middle School conversions are sweeping the country. Already reforms have begun in states such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Maryland, and New York...while other districts looking to convert their MS to K-8 schools include at least 8 other states across the country."

Philadelphia, one of the nation's largest districts, has increased its number of K-8 schools from 61 to 130 in the past decade. Baltimore has opened 30 K-8 schools in the past decade. Cincinnati, like Brookline, has gone exclusively K-8.

A study by Columbia University (Rockoff & Lockwood) found that NYC public school students who attend standalone middle schools lag behind peers who attend K-8 schools, promoting changes in that city.

A study of Milwaukee schools (Simmons & Blyth) found similar patterns. They noted that students who attended K-8 schools had higher academic achievement, demonstrated greater leadership skills, participated in more extracurricular activities, and were less likely to be bullied than students who followed an elementary/middle school track.

So.....something significant is going on nationally.
And, much research has been done about it.

Does the research meet the highest WWC standards? I don't know. But, it does seem to come from sources that are pretty reputable (e.g. - Columbia, Johns Hopkins). The research was covered favorably in the April 2006 publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Bottom line - the research was convincing enough to lead school administrators and school boards in numerous districts to absorb the costs and logistical demands to make dramatic changes in the belief it would improve student achievement.

So, what's my point? It is not that we should pursue a K-8 model in Amherst. It is that we should consider the reasons that a large number of districts throughout the country are abandoning the 5-8 or 6-8 model middle school. They've tried it, and it hasn't worked to their satisfaction.
Some seem to believe that if we would make the Amherst MS a 3-grade operation that all sorts of problems would be resolved. The evidence from around the country suggests that may be wishful thinking.
This thread, after all, is about making evidence-based decisions.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 2:10 - I'm not sure if you've actually read this study, because it was designed to test whether this K-8 model led to advantages, and the authors suggest that they may not. In fact, here's a quote from a recent summary: "One of the more remarkable recent developments in middle school education is the back-to-the-future trend of developing K-8 schools to lift middle-school achievement in reading and math.

But a new study by two Johns Hopkins University researchers says this popular middle school reform should be approached with far less enthusiasm and far more caution. The higher student achievement in math and reading associated with K-8 schools has more to do with student demographics, grade size and the school transition issue than with the K-8 grade structure, they say.

"Much of the old K-8 advantage clearly resides in the different student populations that are served by old K-8 schools and middle schools," the researchers conclude.

Their conclusion is based on a five-year longitudinal study of 40,883 eighth-grade students in the Philadelphia City School District which is implementing a policy of converting its middle schools into K-8 schools to improve math and reading achievement. The study was recently published in the American Journal of Education.

While students in older K-8 schools in the Philadelphia district did indeed perform better in math and reading than their middle school counterparts, students in newer K-8 schools with high-poverty, high-minority populations show only some advantage in reading and none in math, according to this rigorous, large-scale study.

"A K-8 conversion policy alone does not represent a 'silver bullet' reform for closing the achievement gap and improving student achievement," write researchers Vaughan Byrnes and Allen Ruby. "Administrators must ask themselves if such a massive reform is truly worth the resources given the likely impacts. They must also compare it to other possible reforms and decide if they are getting with K-8 conversions the best possible 'bang for their buck' in terms of reform finances.""

Thus, the authors were trying to examine the costs/benefits of such a model, and ultimately concluded that the beneficial effects found in some studies (which lacked appropriate controls) are probably over-rated (and are due to the demographics of the population, NOT the move to a K-8 system). This is why it is important to do good research in order to draw conclusions.

Anonymous said...

Again, my point is not to support the idea of a K-8 model. It is that school districts all over the country were driven to consider the change, and many made it, due to dissatisfaction with their 5-8 or 6-8 model schools. If they had been pleased with what they were getting from their 5-8 or 6-8 model they never would have pursued other configurations, and we wouldn't be having this K-8 conversation.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 3:21 - so, it seems clear that many districts, for many reasons, have experienced the 6-8 grades as challenging. But in terms of what that means for Amherst, I believe it is clear we can't do a K to 8 model (and there isn't research suggesting this is the perfect solution anyway). The options are thus to stick with the current 7-8 system or to move to a 6-8 model. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, which is why there is a task force studying this exact topic.

ARHS Parent said...

There is another option. What about moving to a 7-12 model? This would keep the regional/elementary lines intact (which I realize have to be a consideration for our system). With declining enrollments, couldn't we fit 7-12 in the ARHS building? The middle and high-schoolers already share a bus schedule so that is already set. Some of our area schools (Pioneer Regional, Hopkins Academy, Smith Academy, Frontier Regional, PVPA) already have that configuration. Has the SC talked with anyone at those schools to find out how happy they are with that model and how it works for their students? I don't know if this would be good for Amherst but since the K-8 and the 6-8 models seem to be impossible due to the current regional agreement, I wonder if this should be considered instead.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if 7-12 works better educationally, but we sure have a lot of administrative staff for fewer and fewer kids. I went to a much bigger high school with half the administrators arhs has now. You could even fit fort river and crocker into the arms building with some physical modifications for smaller kids so there would be even fewer administrators and kids could even swim.