After a false start last spring, when a similar plan was met with resistance, the Palo Alto school board took a major step in the right direction last week when it gave its informal blessing to an updated plan for phasing in graduation requirements that are in sync with what is required to attend state universities.
Once the board passes the final package in May, the plan would be phased in over the next six years, taking full effect with the graduating class of 2018.
Under the new proposed policy, Palo Alto would adopt the UC/CSU entrance criteria as its standards for graduating from high school, a higher bar than is currently in place. The change would add two years of foreign language, increase from two years to three of math, including Algebra 2, and change the current two-year science requirement to include a laboratory science.
About 80 percent of the high school graduates in Palo Alto already have been meeting these so-called A-G standards and will not be affected. The debate has centered around whether elevating the requirements will result in getting that number up closer to 100 percent, or simply cause more students to not graduate from high school.
School superintendent Kevin Skelly advocates raising expectations of both students and teachers, so that beginning in elementary school the academic goal is to prepare all students to be able to pass the high school classes needed to attend college.
We strongly agree with Skelly and are happy to see the school board appear ready to move forward with these changes.
Skelly's first plan to adopt the UC/CSU criteria ran into trouble last May when the chair of the Paly math department protested, saying in a letter that he did not want to dilute its current Algebra 2 curriculum, which is set to a higher standard than needed to meet state curriculum standards. The letter, signed by almost the entire department, revealed a stunning lack of sensitivity to the needs of students who struggle with math. It rightfully caused an uproar among some parents, who demanded that the district's lowest math lane be designed to help these students achieve success and to gain eligibility for admission to UC/CSU schools.
Additional questions were raised by special education parents, who feared their children might not be able to meet the higher standards for graduation. The board put the proposal on hold and told Skelly to bring back a revised plan that would address the concerns.
His answer for special education and other students who are not bound for college is a plan to craft individual alternative graduation requirements for those who have "explicit post-secondary" plans that do not include attending college.
Underlying the math curriculum debate is the fact that a disproportionately higher percentage of black and Hispanic students are failing to earn a passing grade in the current Algebra 2 course, in part because it is more demanding than necessary.
Skelly said school principals are "fired up about this and believe it is the right work," but added that teachers "have a lot of different views" and are split on whether raising the graduation standards will help underperforming students.
The challenge for Skelly and his principals will be to make sure that teachers view closing the achievement gap and attaining near 100 percent graduation rates as just as important a measure of their effectiveness as the number of brilliant, award-winning students going on to elite schools.
Test score data shows that Palo Alto schools are doing a worse job than most districts in California in educating both minority students and economically disadvantaged students, an embarrassment for a district with our resources and quality of teachers.
There is much work to be done to close these achievement gaps, and the solution won't be as simple as changing graduation requirements. But Skelly's proposal, which has received praise even from those critics who have been pushing for action, is a solid start.
When the final plan comes before the board in May, we hope it includes a clearer strategy for how the administration plans on making sure the needed changes are implemented in classroom curriculum. It's one thing to change policy, it's another to successfully bring teachers around to embracing and implementing it. To that end, the school board should make this one of Skelly's performance goals for the next year, as he should with his principals.