Palo Alto's top school officials kicked off the school year Tuesday with an enthusiastic discussion of five draft goals for the year that encourage a more data-driven, evaluation-based approach to instruction and governance.
The goals, which Superintendent Max McGee initially presented at the school board's annual retreat two weeks ago, have been revised and cut down from six to five. The goals both get at what the board wants to achieve this year across the district -- greater use of data, professional development, innovative programs and both internal and external evaluations to create a high-quality "collective community" rather than a "collection of communities" -- and how the board itself can become more accountable and transparent. (View the five draft goals and their "measures and deliverables" here.)
McGee has also stressed the importance of linking each goal back to one or more of the district's Strategic Plan's five sections: academic excellence and learning; personal development and support; staff development and recruitment; budget and infrastructure; and governance and communications.
McGee and district staff also specified numerous "measures and deliverables" for each goal, to identify concrete action that can be taken to implement the ambitious goals.
Board member Dana Tom lauded the five revised goals.
"I do believe these will move our district forward in significant ways," he said. "Each goal is unique, yet they link together in a network that really does support each other."
Board members mostly echoed Tom's sentiments, though he and others pointed out additions or changes they would like made before approving the goals at their next meeting, on Sept. 9.
Tom asked that the district's existing efforts around the Strategic Plan's area of personal development and support, which aims to "support the social-emotional need of students and celebrate personal growth across multiple dimensions," be incorporated in the five goals.
"It remains something that were putting significant efforts toward, yet I don't believe that work and effort is reflected here. It makes sense to add a measure or deliverable that encompasses some of that," Tom said.
Other board members and members of the public said the board's second goal balancing consistent quality and fairness across the district with individual schools' autonomy resonated with them, for various reasons.
"I think it's fair to say the district has not done as well in the past in ensuring consistency, particularly in what Dr. McGee called horizontal consistency," said Ken Dauber, who is running for a seat on the school board this fall. "I think that we can have both. We can preserve innovation while ensuring consistency with the kind of data-based approach that Dr. McGee is suggesting."
The school board's two new student representatives for this academic year, Rose Weinmann from Gunn High School and Carolyn Walworth from Palo Alto High School, voiced concern about a high level of variation among teachers at their own schools and between Palo Alto's two high schools.
"You want teachers to have autonomy ... but at the same time, I'm sending off a transcript in October and if a kid in a different class only had to turn in worksheets and I worked so hard for that B and he got an A by doing nothing, it says nothing next to it," Weinmann said. "That's really important to students. We want innovation and we want change, but we really need those grades and we want it to be consistent."
Walworth agreed, expressing frustration that in her honors physics class this year, her class hasn't received the textbook yet, while another class is already halfway through the first unit.
Board President Barb Mitchell cautioned that McGee and staff spend more time talking to the district community about what, exactly, consistency means to them before moving forward with the goal.
"I wonder if our larger community of parents, staff, board members, students have a lot of different ideas of what consistency is and whether we know enough yet about what that is," Mitchell said. "I heard two stories tonight that illustrated a strong perspective (the student representatives) and I've heard something very different from other community members as well as to what consistency means to them. I don't have a specific recommendation other than an interest in ensuring we have asked enough questions of students in particular on what this means and what were trying to get to."
Other board members emphasized the need to further look at the district's assessment tools as it transitions into the Smarter Balanced Assessment after piloting the new standardized test in April. (Because it was still in the pilot phase, results were not reported to schools or parents.) The Smarter Balanced Assessment is aligned with the new Common Core State Standard, and board members expressed concern that the district could be moving forward too quickly with those new tests while leaving old assessment tools behind unnecessarily.
"I don't want to lose those (tools) that we've used to date, so I want some assurances around this," board member Camille Townsend told McGee. "This is a transition. What are we going to do? I don't need the answer tonight, but I do need some heavy thinking."
Members of the public who spoke to the board Tuesday night also mostly lauded the proposed goals, particularly McGee's data-driven approach, interest in creating more consistency across Palo Alto Unified's 17 school sites and commitment to evaluating innovative programs and practices in order to lift up what works and throw out what doesn't.
"I love the theme of consistency in instruction, course load, teaching, curriculum," said parent Mary Vincent, referring to the second goal, which aims to balance more fair, consistent instruction with individual schools' autonomy. "Overall, I'm very encouraged that you want clear accountability and people to be forthright."
McGee also emphasized the measures and deliverables of the board's fifth goal, which is to be proactive and transparent rather than reactive. These deliverables include doing more outreach; meeting community members for what McGee calls a "second cup of coffee;" collecting all media coverage of the district, whether positive or negative; analyzing the board's response time to complaints and comments; and implement a new communications plan that incorporates "multiple media and messengers."
"We think were pretty transparent and open, but if nobody else thinks you are, then you have some work to do," McGee said.
In other business, the board also threw its support behind a state bill, AB146, that would repeal a schools reserve cap passed through California's 2014-15 budget. All board members slammed the cap, which limits the amount of reserves that school districts can maintain for emergency funding regardless of district size -- and was passed as part of the state budget process rather than going through a normal legislative process.
"It's atrocious that they did this," Tom said. "It's completely flawed legislation that was passed in a completely indefensible way."
The board agreed to bring the resolution back for consent on Sept. 9.
The board also added to its Sept. 9 consent calendar an authorization for staff to solicit bids for the construction of a new traffic signal at the entrance to Gunn High School and a $5,964 addendum to redesign an elevator at the new Duveneck Elementary School classroom building.