Amherst College Professors Seek Change in Local Schools
Two Amherst College professors—one an expert on health and behavior in teenagers the other on the economics of education—have joined forces on the Amherst School Committee, united in their commitment to bring about change in Amherst public schools.
Psychology Professor Catherine Sanderson was elected to the school board in April 2008, and Economics Professor Steven Rivkin’s election followed in March 2009. The two co-founded the Amherst Committee for Excellence (ACE) over lunch at Lewis-Sebring in the fall of 2007.
Sanderson has three children in Amherst schools, in Kindergarten, third and sixth grade, while Rivkin’s two children are in second grade and Kindergarten (“So we’re getting our money’s worth,” Sanderson jokes).
In addition to their school board service, Sanderson blogs about Amherst schools at http://myschoolcommitteeblog.blogspot.com/, and Rivkin and Sanderon team up on education-themed op-eds that run regularly in the Amherst Bulletin, the local newspaper.
The two professors recently spoke with Director of Public Affairs Peter Rooney about their educational beliefs, as well as their school board service and its impact on their teaching, research and on town-gown relations.
Listen to the interview and read the transcript below, or download the file here.
Please tell me a little bit about the founding of the Amherst Committee for Excellence, Committee for Excellence’s founding, formation and what it stands for.
The main part of the background is that Catherine said ‘there are real problems in the schools and we have to do something.’ I work in this area professionally but I didn’t know much about the schools.
A number of things came together that led to our decision to start this organization. One had been there was failed override attempt in May 2007 – an attempt to raise taxes which would have provided significant funding for the schools. I was one of the coordinators of the override attempt, and I was shocked by the number of people who expressed a lack of support because of a lack of confidence in the schools’ ability to use additional dollars well.
Another thing that happened is that several principals of longstanding in the district announced their resignation. It looked to us like four of the six principal’s jobs were going to turn over in the Spring of 2008. Given that the principals jobs who were retiring had served 17 to 18 years, we felt this was a crucial time to make sure our voices were heard and priorities and programs were possibly changed. Little did we know that the superintendent would also leave.”
One of the things I’ve read about the Committee for Excellence’s beliefs is that you believe strongly in assessment, evaluation and empirical research to see whether programs and policies that are instituted actually work. Is that an accurate summary?
Amherst schools have made decisions with very little reference to empirical evidence and in particular with very little reference to what’s happening at other schools in other districts, anywhere. Decisions have been made more on strong beliefs in programs rather than on evidence and experience of whether they work, or a willingness once a program is adopted to actually see whether it works. We find that to be a very bad structure if you want to have an organization that’s vibrant and of high quality and reaches the goals you hope to reach.
There has been almost a total absence of willingness to critically evaluate, and rigorously compare anything in the district. That includes the curriculum for elementary school math and the high school science program. It also includes the kind of intervention support we provide to students who are struggling.
To what extent are your priorities as school board members informed by your experiences as professors? It seems to me, for example, that demanding empirical evidence is a real economist’s viewpoint.
I’m an educational economist and I certainly draw from that in thinking about the importance of evaluation in setting goals and measuring progress. It’s been all too easy for a long time, especially in public schools, to talk about how wonderful we are and that we’re doing a great job in the absence of evidence to support such statements.
At the college we’ve both been through outside reviews of our departments within the last six months. It’s extremely valuable to have outside people coming in and looking at the curriculum, the structure, the honors program whatever it is.
Catherine, you were the first person elected to the school board expressing these views and for a while you were perhaps a lone voice. Then Steve was elected as well as another school board member (Irv Rhodes) who shares the views of the Amherst Committee for Excellence. Do you both get the sense that the ice is starting to break here?
I do. Catherine and I were the two leaders of the movement to close a school (Mark’s Meadow Elementary) and redistrict in order to achieve socioeconomic equity at our schools. There was disproportionate poverty at one of the elementary schools and it was the two of us who championed the movement to change that, and it got done.
Looking back was this the major accomplishment so far?
“I think it was the major victory because it will save the school district about $800,000 a year to not have this extra school and it will virtually eliminate differences in the distribution of students who qualify for subsidized lunch -- the share of poor kids. 37: 50 “it was a decision making process that was systematic and it was based on data and it wasn’t even a close call.”
Catherine: "It was unanimous."
How do you think your service impacts the town-gown relations between Amherst College and the community?
“I think having a connection between faculty at Amherst College who are on the school board increases our understanding of what kinds of shared opportunities are possible.”
“As we do our work and as people see were not just for high achieving kids, but we want to work hard and do right by the schools, then maybe we can break down this perception that Amherst College is an elitist, snobby place, and that professors are this way. That’s not at all true, but some people hold it up as a myth.”
Looking forward, in the next year or so what are the major goals or priorities you would like to achieve?
“Fundamental changes in the way the schools operate. That’s a tall order.”
“If we could have impact this year on creating policies that require the use of data driven decision-making that would be a tremendous win and would set the stage for future and a change in the culture.”
Has your service on the Amherst school board influenced your work as professor in any way?
“I’ve actually done research in high schools before but I was looking at issues of health behavior. So the age is of interest to me. Also, a number of students who major in psychology have interests in and in teaching as a career. That’s been interesting to me.”
“For me, teaching the economics of education, I can bring back some personal examples of what’s happening in our schools when we’re discussing research or topics. It’s been more valuable in terms of research for motivating ideas. As an example, I’m starting a research project on principals and principal effectiveness."