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.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Two Hot Topics: Achievement Gap, Math

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 (, 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 (, 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 ( 

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). 


Wondering said...

Thanks for this clear post on Dr. Chen's report and its slow burial in the passing winter months and the math action plan. Where are Chen's recommendations in this plan?

In a November 4th memo on math, Beth Graham noted the possibliity of choosing a new curriculum and stated the normal textbook selection procedure would be followed. More than five months later and .... the textbook committee just met for the first time?!?!!

Why the delay?

Anonymous said...

Dear Wondering:

Have you actually read the math action plan? Or do you just rely on others to interpret (or mis-interpret as the case may be) it for you?

Anonymous said...

To Anon. March 22, 2011 8:32 AM

Your response is typical. If someone doesn't agree with your point of view, they are obviously misinformed. How sad for Amherst. I'm so glad I moved my kids out of the schools here.

Anonymous said...

to Anon 8:56.

I simply asked if wondering had actually read the report? I do think Ms. Sanderson has mis-interpreted much of it, or perhaps I should say ignored, much of what is in the report. I think before making such a sweeping generalization about whether Dr. Chen's recommendations are in the action plan or not, the plan should actually be read by the person making the sweeping generalizations. Many of Dr. Chen's recommendations are in the action plan.

I actually agree with much of what is in Dr. Chen's report. The part I disagree with is that we should blindly follow his recommendation to switch to Primary Math.

Finally, it is your response that is typical. Blindly follow Catherine Sanderson wherever she goes.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 9:12 - Dr. Chen had 3 recommendations (since 3 and 4 are the same). The math action plan studies both recommendations 1 and 2 - that is clearly indicated in the math action plan. So, he made those recommendations in October, and in March we decided to study them. That is factual. Dr. Chen preferred recommendation #4 to #3, and #4 isn't mentioned anywhere in the action plan (although he thought that was cheaper and more desirable). Some version of recommendation #3 is mentioned, although it is unclear how systematic that will be implemented (e.g., how many teachers voluntarily want to attend a summer program on math). At least 2 of Dr. Chen's recommendations are being studied. One is being implemented in some form, and the other one is being ignored. That isn't my opinion - that is just a factual read of the document.

Anonymous said...

Is it true that this mass hiring of math coaches for all the elementary schools is the single largest addition of staff to our schools over the past decade? I am definitely a parent who is troubled by our current math situation but am even more troubled by this seeming blantant disregard for the fiscal situation in our schools. I am not sure where our district will find the money for this. Or, frankly, enough qualified math coaches to actually do the work. I am afraid we will end up with an even larger personnel base (each with expensive and growing benefits) without any improvement in math learning for our children.

Anonymous said...

Dr Chen's report said that if # 4 could not be done, then #3 should be done. The administration has determined that for many reasons, #4 will not be feasible, so they are doing #3.

And I love the respect you have for our teachers: "how many teachers voluntarily want to attend a summer program on math."

Abbie said...

I am curious to hear from other parents about the effectiveness of 'specialists'. This model of teaching seems to be embraced by our district and looks to be expanded in the math recommendations. I could find no research on this topic.

This is NOT questioning the abilities or commitment of the 'specialists' but rather the effectiveness of this model.

My daughter reports that they don't really add much to her learning experience and that sometimes it actually detracts from it (ie frequent change in teachers, personalities, different teaching styles, etc).

I would love to hear what other parents are getting from their kids or if anyone knows of research on this topic. It seems that our district is very much wedded to this very expensive teaching model (and may expand it) and it would be good if we had any idea if it was working.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Abbie - I too have found no research showing this model is effective, and this approach wasn't mentioned at all by Dr. Chen (clearly an expert in improving math education) in his presentation or report. I am concerned that we are spending huge sums of money on an approach that wasn't recommended by our math consultant, and has no research showing it is effective.

In addition, a recent study revealed that this type of professional development has no impact on kids' achievement. You can read the whole article (, and here is the brief summary: "Middle School Mathematics Professional Development Impact Study: Findings After the First Year of Implementation

Results after one year of providing teachers math professional development (PD) indicate no improvement on their students' math achievement when compared to teachers who did not receive the study-provided PD. The Middle School Mathematics Professional Development Impact Study: Findings After the First Year of Implementation included 77 schools in 12 districts in 2007–2008. The PD, although purposely designed to be relevant to the curricula that teachers were using in their classrooms, focused primarily on developing teachers' capability to teach positive rational number topics effectively. America's Choice and Pearson Achievement Solutions were the two professional development providers, each operating in half the districts. Teachers who taught the core 7th grade mathematics class in the study schools were assigned by lottery to either receive the professional development or not. Teachers in all of the study schools continued to be eligible for district-provided PD.

Other key findings include:

* Professional development for the teachers produced no statistically significant impact on their students' achievement in the areas covered by the training-ratio, proportion, fractions, percentages, decimals.
* The training did have a statistically significant impact on one of three measures of teacher practice — "frequency with which teachers engaged in activities that elicited student thinking."
* The training did not have a statistically significant impact on measured teacher knowledge.
* The study's program was implemented as intended and on average resulted in an additional 55 hours of math professional development during the 2007–08 school year."

Anonymous said...


I am trying to understand your post. Would you do away with art, music, PE and Spanish? Those are the classes taught in specials right now.

Is that what you are saying? I can't believe it is but if not then I don't really know what you are referring to. Can you help clarify?

Abbie said...

Hi anon@10:20,

those positions you name are not listed as 'specialists' in the budget (as I understand it). Those positions (ie art, gym, etc) are listed explicitly in the budget.

The specialists that I refer to are the reading specialists and unspecified 'specialists' in the budget. Again, I am NOT disparaging the abilities of these staff, rather just simply questioning the effectiveness of this model.

These specialists visit the classrooms at varying schedules and with varying topics (at all schools we have been in a 'reading' specialist is a frequent visitor, and sometimes a 'math' specialist has taught). These are NOT special ed positions and they teach to the entire class. I hesitate to name staff, as I do not want to give any impression that I am singling anyone out. I am just seeking anecdotal information about whether parents (really their kids) think these positions (this model of instruction) has been effective. I just have one data point (my daughter's).

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Abbie. I knew you couldn't have meant the "Specials" teachers but I couldn't figure out what you meant other than them.

Wondering said...

Anon 8:32. To answer your question: yes.

My question to you: What actions recommended by Dr. Chen are being adopted by the district in its action plan?

Anonymous said...

I too am puzzled by how the district went from Dr. Chen's 4 clear (and inexpensive) 4 recommendations -- to a a math action plan which hires new staff at a cost of $$125,000 next year and an added $265,000 the following year. Dr. Chen never recommended following a math coaching model and I don't think Pelham uses math coaches since none are listed on its staff.

So how did Curriculum Director Beth Graham and the district decide that math coaches were its primary (and expensive) strategy to improve math performance in the district schools? I know that the K-16 Math Council never voted on a final set of recommendations and that individual members do not support this approach.

What research supports the effectiveness of math coaching? What schools are successfully using this model to boost math achievement and close the achievement gap? These are the questions I will like to see answered tonight.

I am also concerned at the continued use of Investigations II for another year. The action plan recognizes that it is weak in computational skills and problem-solving. Pelham's math success seems based on their teachers' skills -- and their really extensive supplementation of the Investigations curriculum.

Why wasn't a textbook committee started last November or even last January? Then the district could skip a year of intensive research into proper supplementation for Investigations II, of coaching teachers in how to implement Investigations II and the supplementation, and of testing how that is going -- when the entire curriculum might be replaced in the following year.

Ironically, the Smith College Campus School which uses Investigations, uses Singapore Math to supplement it. And now, based on Dr. Chen's report, the school is looking at replacing Investigations -- with Singapore Math.

Finally, I am having great difficulty finding what if any of Dr. Chen's recommendations are adopted in the math action plan. Most of his recommendations for action are consigned to "further study," while the plan uses Dr. Chen's own words to justify different actions.

Janet McGowan

Abbie said...

Reading the now posted FAQ about the math recommendations, I think we can surmise that the recommendation for (more) math coaches likely comes from Amy Wolpin (Q17) whose 'research (2006)' is cited. I invite everyone to examine that 'research', which is her dissertation, and I quote is "The focus of this self-study is a critical examination of the influences on my development as an elementary mathematics teacher leader and on the strategies I develop as I coach
teachers to improve, and change their practice."

Her dissertation is a collection of observations, impressions, and opinions. It is not what one would consider 'research' and is certainly not peer-reviewed.

The link is (I don't know if this is accessible to everyone, if not I can email Catherine a copy to post).

I despair that this is considered 'research' by Ms Graham, and this dissertation (not research) was used as a basis to make a very important decision. Really, I have no hope that Ms. Graham will be able to use 'research and data' to inform decisions, if she doesn't even understand what 'research and data' means.

I think it is likely that Dr. Wolpin would once again be our math coordinator (a position I think she held previously (2006? at least)). Her salary is NOT $55,000.

The numbers posted in the FAQ seem to just be salary numbers (not added fringe & benefits) so to be transparent I think the district shoul include all costs of each position (so likely add an additional ~33% or whatever it is for the district).

Anonymous said...

Thinking about all this some more, what I am trying to understand if why none of Dr. Chen's key recommendations were adopted in the district's math action plan and why a different actions were chosen.

From November until the final action plan, the director of curriculum in collaboration with the K-16 Math Council was to "review all data analysis, survey results, the Common Core Standards, and the findings and recommendations in Dr. Chen’s report, in order to develop an action plan (Phase II in Policy IL). Consideration of a new textbook will proceed in the manner outlined in the Policy for Textbook

So what in this 5 month review led to a different set of conclusions and actions? The action plan doesn't have a lot of analysis of the problems or weaknesses it is trying to fix, nor the basis of the solutions chosen. Did Beth Graham see something salvageable in Investigations? What problems in teaching math has she observed? Do the elementary and middle school teachers need graduate level math courses? What was the basis for choosing one solution over another? These are the missing pieces for me in trying to understand the math action plan.

Janet McGowan

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response - I share Abbie and Janet's thoughts completely ... puzzled at the time delay at even considering any of Dr. Chen's recommendation and puzzled by the absence of any actual research being considered (including the famous random assignment study showing Investigations is worse than two curriculum Beth Graham chose to eliminate from consideration). Research and data are not considered when making decisions in this district ... we continue to rely on intuition and anecdote.

Anonymous said...

Hi Abbie,
I'm a parent and can speak to the "specialists" in the system. I think they are over hired--way, way over hired and under used. They run around half the school year, in the beginning, just trying to locate their students and figure out their schedules--more often than not missing many hours of service with these same students. And then there are field trips, absence, class activities, (of course they can further segregate these students and pull them out of classroom activities of which no specialist with any sense of compassion will do.) And so what happens to that hour/half hour of service--The "specialist" sits idle? and is being paid even so...Happens a lot...
Don't get me wrong--please--we need extra help in the classroom, but at the rate of pay that most specialists receive (higher than a lot of teachers)I can understand why anyone might be concerned with how our system is ab/using this money.

Anonymous said...

Catherine, you got called out in the paper by Katherine Appy's campaign manager for lying. Will you please respond to her remarks?

Or will you censor this comment?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 5:08 - I have no idea what you are talking about, but if you have a concern about something you believe I've lied about, just share what that is and I'm always glad to respond. That's in fact why I have this blog - so that people can ask me questions and get answers. Ask away!

Sam I Am said...


This is off topic slightly, but I could not resist. What a "laugh out loud" moment I had when I read in your post about how outrageous it would be to call a piece "research" that was really
based on impressions and opinions. And people don't know what research really is.

That is exactly what you did last spring when you wrote a scathing "aseessment" of the MS math program that involved no real assessing on your part, just opinions and impressions from quite afar.

Sorry to distract from the conversation at hand, but I was having too good a laugh not to share.

Anonymous said...

Hmm... maybe it wasn't her campaign manager, and that's why you have no idea what i'm talking about. Maybe it was Mary Kiely? did you read the letter that Mary Kiely wrote and that was published in the Bulletin a few weeks ago? Have you responded to that?

Abbie said...


I never claimed I did research on it. Funny, how nearly everything has now changed with Extensions, so much so it doesn't even sounds like great improvements have been made. And I will point out that you never actually indicated what was inaccurate.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 5:27 - I believe Mary Kiely stated that I didn't request an outside review of special education; that is actually factually wrong, as I did request such a review. I believe I've been quite clear on numerous occasions (during SC meetings on TV, in my Bulletin columns) that I have heard concerns from special education parents about their experience, which is why I believed such a review was so important. In fact, I was honored to receive a special thank you during public comment at a SC meeting a month ago from the board of SEPAC for my work on behalf of families with special needs kids.

Again, anyone can watch SC meetings or read my blog or read my columns and see what I have and have not done. I think it is pretty clear what I've done while on the SC, and I feel very proud of what I did accomplish in 3 years.

Anonymous said...

You know, the "let's set the record straight" letter?

Anonymous said...

oh, i see. when, and in what form, did you make that request?

would you mind posting a link to mary's letter?

Anonymous said...

of course you got a special thank you... from angry aaronson and ornery onanibaku.

Anonymous said...

Pride hath no shame.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 5:34/5:40/5:46 (since it is clear this is one person) - First, I think it is incredibly cowardly to ridicule other parents from your anonymous perch. Second, the letter was from the co-chair of SEPAC, Melissa Paciulli. Maybe you can find a way to ridicule her now as well. Third, I don't post link to letters from the Bulletin on my blog - never have. But if you believe it is important to have Mary's letter publicized, you should start a blog and you can definitely highlight all letters criticizing me. Fourth, I requested such a review during public SC meetings and in private to the superintendents (many different ones) that we have such a review, because I believed it would be very important (I'm sure you can go through old minutes/ACTV programs to find out what I said when).

And this post is on two very important topics - math and the achievement gap - and although it is clear these topics don't interest you as much as criticizing me, other people do find these topics interesting and thus are engaging (often using their names) on actual issues of education in Amherst.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

re Ridicule of parents:

You've enabled comment moderation. You're the editing published it. You didn't have to; you've made the decision to not post other things in the past.

When a UMass student wrote an article saying that some rape victims "asked for it", the editor who published it was held responsible.

So why did you do it? You tryin' to stir things up or something? How do we know it wasn't you who wrote those things anonymously about parents for some weird reason?

YOU published comments ridiculing parents.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 12:29 - I publish all comments that don't criticize district employees, who may not feel comfortable responding to such critiques. I don't censor comments, including yours, no matter how ridiculous they are. I hope you too will choose to focus on issues of education, instead of personal attacks.

Anonymous said...

Catherine, You know and the rest of us know you censor comments that have nothing to do with district employees. You have not printed some of my comments...and they did not say anything about district employees. The other thing we know is that you do indeed publish comments that criticize district employees. Isn't it time to drop the facade once and for all?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 2:24 - there's only one way to prove I don't publish particular comments, since obviously anyone can make that claim: post a comment, and send a copy of that comment in an email to me ( and someone else you know. That person can then verify that I didn't publish it. Obviously if I wanted to censor comments, I would have censored this one.

Many people who read this blog want to discuss education -- do you have thoughts on that you'd like to share, instead of just criticizing me and making up accusations? How about your thoughts on how to improve math, or how to reduce the achievement gap? Aren't those topics somewhat more important to discuss?