Interview by Peter Rooney

Catherine Sanderson and Steve Rivkin voted to close an Amherst elementary school.

Two Amherst professors—one an expert on health and behavior in teenagers, the other on the economics of education—have joined the Amherst School Committee in an effort to bring about change in the town’s public schools. Associate Professor of Psychology Catherine Sanderson, elected in 2008, and Professor of Economics Steven Rivkin, elected a year later, each have children in Amherst elementary schools. They spoke recently to Amherst magazine. Here is a condensed interview:

Q  What needs changing in the Amherst public schools?

SR  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 on a willingness, once a program is adopted, to actually see whether it works. We find that to be a very bad structure.

CS  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.

Q    To what extent are your priorities as school committee members informed by your experiences as professors?

SR  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 in the absence of evidence to support such statements.

CS  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.

Q  Do you get the sense that the ice is starting to break, that the board is more receptive to your ideas?

SR  I do. Catherine and I were the two leaders of the movement to close an elementary school 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. 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. It was a decision-making process that was systematic and was based on data, and it wasn’t even a close call.

CS  It was unanimous.

Q  How has your work on the Amherst School Committee affected town-gown relations here?

CS  It has increased our understanding of what kinds of shared opportunities are possible.

SR  As we do our work and as people see we’re not just [working for the interests of] 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.

Q  What do you want to achieve on the board in the next year?

SR  Fundamental changes in the way the schools operate. That’s a tall order.

CS  If we could create policies that require the use of data-driven decision-making, that would be a tremendous win and would set the stage for a change in the culture.

Q  How has your service influenced your work as a professor?

CS  I’ve done research in high schools before, on issues of health behavior, so [high school] age is of interest to me. Also, a number of students who major in psychology have interest in teaching as a career.

SR  Teaching the economics of education, I can bring back some personal examples of what’s happening in our schools. I’m also starting a research project on principals and principal effectiveness.

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04