It was hardly a surprise that a proposal to combine the two "lanes" of freshman English into one would meet some resistance in a school district like Palo Alto. Parents love choices, and especially those that allow their high-achieving kids to be challenged to the max.
What was stunning, however, was how dismissively a carefully developed, well-researched teacher proposal was handled by the school board and how quickly the administration turned its back on a plan it had endorsed and brought to the community for adoption.
We don't pretend to know whether the idea of "de-laning" Paly ninth-grade English is a good idea or not. But if we entrust our kids to the teachers of this self-proclaimed lighthouse district for their education, then we owe them the benefit of serious and respectful consideration of a carefully developed proposal.
If our pediatrician or accountant, having come to know our kids or our finances, recommends we do certain things based on their professional judgment, our first reaction isn't to stop talking about it and reject the recommendations because we think we know better or because it's causing angst in the family.
It should be to learn more, ask questions and understand why the talented people we have chosen to trust and educate our children hold such strongly held opinions.
That attitude was nowhere to be found among school board members, or the administrators who capitulated and turned their backs on the teachers at the first signs of resistance.
The Palo Alto High School English department has over several years developed major concerns about the negative effects of having two lanes in freshman English.
They say that kids and parents are selecting between English 9 and English 9A ("Accelerated") for the wrong reasons, ranging from a fear of failure to anxiety about high school pressures to what their friends are doing. Although they didn't say so explicitly, they also are concerned about English 9 being heavily skewed with minority students, and the fact that there has developed a strong stigma attached to being in English 9 that can have strongly negative impacts on student attitudes and motivation.
But more importantly, they point to research showing that students at all levels, even the very top students, do better when in a classroom environment that is diverse in abilities, particularly in English, where much of the curriculum is aimed at students exploring and discussing ideas and learning how to express themselves. It is the ideal subject and year of school for embracing mixed ability classes, they say, and it then allows all students more options for the rest of their high school years.
These teachers, led by Instructional Supervisor Shirley Tokheim, who has a Ph.D. in education policy from U.C. Berkeley, have been working on this plan for more than two years and have been allowed, if not encouraged, by district administrators to move forward with it. All the needed district staff committees green-lighted the pilot program.
With the strong support of principal Kim Diorio (who was vice principal of guidance before being promoted to principal) and the tepid endorsement of Superintendent Kevin Skelly, the proposal was scheduled for 10 minutes on the agenda and finally came before a tired and cranky school board on Jan. 28 at 11:30 p.m.
Six parents spoke; three supported it and three expressed concerns. Four of the five school board members made clear they had received an earful from parents prior to the meeting and felt the proposal hadn't received sufficient public airing and needed more parent buy-in. The board also conveyed they weren't persuaded it was a good educational move.
Then, after agreeing at 1 a.m., at Superintendent Kevin Skelly's urging, to have the matter return to the board later this month for more discussion, it was announced by the district this Tuesday that the proposal was dead and there would be no changes in freshman English.
In what has become an all too common occurrence, decision-making came out of nowhere, the result of unseen, unheard and undocumented deliberation taking place out of view of the public.
How is it that at one meeting of the school board a decision is made to give the teachers time to work further on the proposal and bring it back for further discussion and then the entire issue is unilaterally pronounced dead by the superintendent a few days later?
When decisions suddenly get made or reversed outside of public view, with no explanation, it is fundamentally undemocratic and disrespectful of all stakeholders. The result, as seen in this case, is everyone feeling bad and a lot of thoughtful work getting jettisoned. That is not the governance model we think this community wants.