Last week's Bulletin and Gazette featured two stories on the Amherst schools that I thought would be of interest to my blog readers.
First, there was a long article in the Bulletin on the achievement gap (http://amherstbulletin.com/story/id/201524/), which is a very important topic and one that I hope the district will focus on resolving. I am glad that Superintendent Geryk in continuing some of the important programs established by Dr. Rodriguez to increase achievement in struggling students (including adding a preschool for low income children and creating the Achievement Academy). I hope that the district will be willing to look to schools that have had greater success in raising achievement in low income students and students of color, and re-create programs that have worked well in other places. I believe we also need to carefully examine the effectiveness of the programs we have put into place. Given the considerable research on the importance of raising achievement early on, I believe it would be far more effective to devote more money to raising achievement in preschool/elementary school than to have expensive (and under-used) programs for high school students.
Second, there was a short article on elementary math in the Gazette (http://gazettenet.com/2011/03/19/hearing-set-tuesday-changes-amherst039s-math-curriculum), and in particular about the upcoming public forum on math set for tomorrow night (7 pm, town hall). I know many parents have serious concerns about math in our district, and am very glad the Amherst School Committee voted unanimously to hold a public forum on math. The current math action plan is available on the ARPS website (http://www.arps.org/node/2819).
As noted in the article, I'm disappointed that the plan ignores the recommendations from Dr. Chen. Dr. Chen had 4 recommendations (and I've noted the status of each of these in bold below):
1. Let better mathematics teachers in elementary schools teach more mathematics classes.
This idea will be studied in "Phase 2" (not sure when that starts or ends), but definitely not implemented this fall - although the administration received this report in October (and thus there was plenty of time to have examined this idea already, in time for implementation this fall).
2. Replace Investigations II with Primary Mathematics.
A textbook committee has been formed to examine different elementary curriculum, including Primary Mathematics as well as our current curriculum, Investigations. However, Beth Graham has already eliminated even from consideration by this committee the two elementary math curricula that have demonstrated their effectiveness in a high quality, randomized study across multiple districts. In addition, this committee has only met once (today), and although they will in theory submit a recommendation in June, no change in curriculum will be made for next year, regardless of their recommendation (again, even though the administration received this report in October, and thus could have easily had this group meeting for the last 5 months).
Note from Catherine: Recommendations 3 and 4 are the same -- they are two alternative ways of providing content training in math for elementary and middle school teachers.
3. Support teachers of mathematics in elementary schools and the Middle school with intensive content training. ... A productive low-cost alternative to serve teachers’ content need is described next in Recommendation 4. It is a highly desirable and much cheaper option for carrying out Recommendation #3. The in-house talents in the High School should be tapped into to address the mathematics content knowledge needs of lower grade teachers. In effect, the district is investing in developing in-house capacity in providing content-based training. In case Recommendation 4 cannot be implemented, Recommendation #3 should be followed.
Recommendation #4, to have high school teachers teach math to elementary and middle school teachers, isn't even mentioned in the math action plan, so clearly this recommendation (which Dr. Chen noted was both "highly desirable" and "much cheaper") isn't going to even be considered. There is some mention of providing opportunities for teachers to take graduate courses in math and investigating options for taking math courses in the future, which in theory could provide some additional math training for teachers who are interested in doing so.
One more note: the vast majority of proposals in the math action plan were not in fact recommended by Dr. Chen (e.g., hiring additional math coaches in each building, hiring a K to 8 math coordinator, adding instructional rounds, etc.), and clearly the costs of implementing the action plan are therefore tremendous. I am unsure where the money to fund this program will come from, but clearly it will either require cuts to other programs (e.g., music, arts, Spanish) and/or an override. Although the superintendent suggested grant funds could potentially be used for some funds, it is very unlikely that grants would in fact be a long-term solution for on-going expenses (e.g., a K to 8 math coordinator in Amherst isn't going to be a desirable object of funding agencies, who typically either fund short-term expenses such as pilot programs and/or fund districts with a higher percentage of low income and/or struggling students).
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.