Palo Alto Weekly
Spectrum - December 2, 2011
Guest Opinion: District policy shuts out some students from UC/CSU eligibility
by LaToya Baldwin Clark
In May, trustees of the Palo Alto Unified School District met to consider a proposal from Superintendent Kevin Skelly that the district make successful completion of an A-G curriculum a requirement for high school graduation. An A-G curriculum meets the minimum course requirements for admission to the University of California and California State University systems.
Critical opposition to the proposal came from an unlikely source: teachers from the math department at Palo Alto High School. The department, led by its Instructional Supervisor Radu Toma, sent a letter to Skelly and the school board opposing the district's proposal. Citing the letter, along with other opposition, the school board elected to put the proposal off to this year, although revisiting it is not currently on their agenda.
Why is the Paly math department so opposed to making sure that every student graduates prepared to go to college? Their letter focuses on Algebra II, a class that is required for all UC/CSU applicants, and claims that requiring every student to pass this class would have "devastating consequences" for the district's "reputation."
Some Paly students, according to the math department, just can't pass Algebra II as it is taught at Paly. Why? "We live in an affluent community. Most of our students are fortunate to come from families where education matters and parents have the means and will to support and guide their children in tandem with us, their teachers. Not all of them." And who are these students that the math department says are unable to pass even the basic level Algebra II class? "Many of these [students] are VTP students [from East Palo Alto] or under-represented minorities."
It's true that the District statistics on A-G completion are racially skewed. Last year, 85 percent of all high school graduates met the A-G requirements. But of the 20 black graduating seniors from Paly and Gunn last year, only three met A-G requirements.
That's right. Three out of 20 met the requirements. That's 15 percent. Of the 66 graduating Latino seniors, only 27 met the requirement. That's 40 percent. But it's not just under-represented minorities who are struggling under this system. The majority (63 percent) of the students who failed to meet A-G were white and Asian. As a result, none of these students were eligible to apply to a four-year California public university.
The Paly math department avows that "as teachers and mathematicians, we work unabatedly" to teach math. But unfortunately, according to Toma, "brain theory supports the reality that confounding student situations interfere with their ability to focus and succeed."
The letter, perhaps wisely, doesn't spend much time on brain theory. Instead, it baldly states the real reason that some students don't pass Algebra II: the Paly math department refuses to teach it. More precisely, they refuse to teach an Algebra II course that meets the standards set by the UC/CSU systems. By the department's own admission, even the regular lane Algebra II class greatly exceeds the UC/CSU. In the view of Toma and his colleagues, "diluting the standards in our regular lane to basic benchmarks which might allow every student to pass Algebra II would end up hurting the district's reputation." The department refuses to teach an Algebra II that satisfies UC/CSU requirements that students can actually pass. And where does the Paly math department think those students who fail to complete Algebra II should go, rather than to college? They can "go on to community colleges or jobs for which district prepares them better than most districts."
The reputation of a high school is enhanced when all students go to four-year colleges. High school is not college; it is not the place to hinge academic reputation on the planned failure of a subset of the student body.
Furthermore, refusing to teach essential courses because they would "dilute" our district's "exemplary standards" is nothing less than the betrayal of the democratic value of public education and the basic professional responsibility of teachers.
The Parent Network for Students of Color, We Can Do Better Palo Alto and the Student Equity Action Network have been pressing the district for the past year to adopt the A-G curriculum and its standards as the minimum required to graduate. The content that a student needs to master in order to pass what is being offered as the "regular lane" Algebra II course is above "the basic benchmarks which might allow every student to pass Algebra II." Generally, that means that only the most advanced students, or those whose parents can afford to pay for hours of private tutoring, can pass this class.
But contrary to the claims of the department, A-G alignment does not require the teachers to "dilute the standards."
It requires teachers to actually teach.
In Palo Alto, as in many districts, the best and most qualified teachers segregate themselves in classrooms teaching courses that only the most advanced students can master. The concern that students who are not passing Algebra II now will not graduate under an A-G aligned curriculum is unfounded. Studies consistently show that all children, from all "social backgrounds," can learn with effective teaching and the proper institutional support. The Paly math department has no idea what these students can achieve because they are not providing them with effective teaching. The district school board must commit the district to college readiness for every student by providing support to teachers, students, and families to make that goal a reality, starting in elementary school.
The letter purports to "respectfully" present reasons for opposing A-G curriculum alignment. But as a district parent, I feel everything but respected. I'm outraged that when I send my children to school in the Palo Alto district, they will encounter the soft bigotry of low expectations. But in truth, as Russlynn Ali, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Dept. of Education says, "It's not so soft." Teachers employed in this district continue to perpetuate the myth that some students, particularly those from underrepresented minorities, simply can't learn and the district's leaders are doing nothing about it.
The district school board must repudiate the sentiments in this letter by making A-G the graduation requirement for all students so that every graduate can go to college and provide the proper supports to make them successful.
To see a copy of the math department report, go to http://wecandobetterpaloalto.org/Resources .
LaToya Baldwin Clark is a fifth-year graduate student at Stanford, pursuing a PhD in Sociology and a JD at Stanford Law School. She is a parent of a Palo Alto Unified School District student, and a member of the Parent Network for Students of Color.
Posted by Ken Dauber,
a resident of Barron Park School
on Dec 2, 2011 at 11:05 pm
Ms. Clark's editorial does a great job of highlighting the choice that the Paly math department's letter presents: do we want all of our students to have a path to college if they can meet UC/CSU admission standards, or not? The letter makes it clear that the lowest lane math classes at Paly (and presumably, at Gunn as well), are pitched well above the actual A-G standard. Practically, that means that a significant number of students can't go to a public university in California simply because they attend a PAUSD high school. There are an additional number of students who struggle in these classes even though they ultimately pass them, some because their families can afford tutors. This has a large and continuing impact on these students' life chances -- there is an enormous amount of research demonstrating the economic and physical and mental health benefits to a college education over the course of a lifetime. Is it fair to deny these kids access to college not because they don't meet the A-G standards set by the UC and CSU, but because our schools don't want to teach a class that's appropriate to their skills and interest?
I don't doubt that the Paly math department is sincerely committed to math education and to the education of these students. However, it's clear that they are privileging the rigor of the curriculum, even in the lowest lane, over the life chances of these students. The idea which both the letter and @angry parent present, that these kids are better off failing math than going to college, makes no sense if you are thinking about the actual lives of actual people, as opposed to abstractions like "reputation". And while it's true that there are excellent local community colleges, for many students they don't represent a realistic path to college, particularly for minority and poor kids. See on this point an interesting paper from Cal State Sacramento based on data from California community colleges entitled "Racial / Ethnic Differences in Transfer Rates in California: Implications for Policy and Practice." That paper summarizes the research this way: "Research demonstrates that persistence and completion rates are higher for students who begin college immediately after high school, enroll full time, and attend continuously than for students with more non-traditional attendance patterns (Berkner, He, Cataldi & Knepper, 2002). Latino and African American students are more likely to have non-traditional enrollment patterns, including delayed entry, part-time attendance, and periods of "stopping out" or taking time off from college (Lee & Frank, 1990; Fry, 2002). This is particularly true for students who begin their studies in community colleges. In addition, underrepresented minority students are more likely to be the first in their family to attend college, and may therefore have less access to the knowledge and advice of parents and other family members about the college process in general and transfer in particular (Striplin, 1999; Schwartz, 2001; Ceja, 2001). See Web Link, p. 16.
I'm also puzzled by the zero-sum thinking that is implicit in the Paly letter, and explicit for @angry parent. Why does teaching a lowest lane that offers a path to college threaten the curriculum for students in the highest lane? @angry seems to think, despite her praise for the Paly math teachers, that some of them can't understand the math that's taught in the highest lane and have to be kept away from teaching it. I very much doubt that's true -- in fact, I suspect that math teachers don't get better at math over time, they get better at teaching. Having the best teachers focus on the most challenging teaching makes sense, and will benefit those students who are struggling in math. Certainly the idea that those at the bottom need to fail in order to prove the overall rigor of the curriculum is impossible to maintain, at least if you care about the actual kids in those classes as I'm sure we all do.
The idea that the schools should serve all of the students isn't really a radical idea. (I'm happy to see, though, that at least here @angry parent doesn't have a lot of company). This is pretty simple: the school board has adopted a focused goal for the district for 2011-12 to increase percentage of students who graduate with A-G, able to attend a California public university. The Paly math department has made it clear that a key obstacle to that goal is that the lowest lane of math is taught well above the actual A-G standard. Will the school board step in to mandate that there be a path to college for all PAUSD students? Write to the school board -- bklausner, bmitchell, mcaswell, dtom, and ctownsend, all @pausd.org -- and tell them what you think. And while you're at it, ask them what they think, as I at least haven't heard from them about their views on this letter.
Posted by Tremaine Kirkman,
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 3, 2011 at 3:11 am
So much to say, but first let me preface this: I am a Black Senior at Palo Alto High School, founder of the Student Equity Action Network (SEAN), a national merit scholar, and am currently enrolled in AB Calculus AP (Toma is my teacher). I guess that makes me 1 of the 3 (with the other 2 being twins).
First and foremost, I am tired of parents commenting on this issue with barely any advanced knowledge of the issue itself (Yes, I'm talking about you angry parent). The students live through these policies, and have their lives shaped and defined by them. Thus, they provide a completely different level of insight than is possible for a parent to provide. Comments such as yours are made from an extremely limited frame of reference with little research and dedication to the issue at hand. Need an example? You last comment about PAUSD chemistry classes. You are very right in your assertions that students without a good base in math will struggle in chemistry at Paly or Gunn, but what you fail to acknowledge or understand is that you just stated the very counterpoint to your argument. The entire reason that students will struggle without sufficient math skill is not that chemistry is too hard for those students, it's that chemistry as it's taught at Paly is too hard. For example, I took chemistry AC (now chemistry H) for the first semester of 10th grade, and got a B+. Given that the class was at that point unweighted, I dropped down to basic chemistry, figuring that my GPA would benefit, and my stress level would decrease. In that "normal" class, I needed to get a 99% on the final exam (got 100%) to scrape the A-. I ended up working just as hard in that class as I did in AC, for only a minimal grade increase. How are regular students supposed to survive in this "normal lane." You can't tell me that there is not a less rigorous way to teach the class that deals with conceptual chemistry as opposed to math-based chemistry. While your claim was not outlandish in theory, it makes no sense given a certain level of prerequisite knowledge.
I may be in high school, but I've spent the entire last four years committing myself wholeheartedly to this issue through SEAN, and thus can claim infinitely more background knowledge. Forgive me if this all sounds somewhat condescending, passion about certain issues can sometimes lead to an absence of proper etiquette. You continually ask others to read the letter carefully, and to read your comments carefully, as though we cannot plainly see and understand exactly what you are saying. In fact, you are guilty of that very crime to a far more egregious extent. This issue has absolutely nothing to do with Toma's character (I happen to know first-hand that he is an excellent and very supportive teacher), but for some reason you keep tying the goal of accountability to the realm of personal attacks. You also continually claim that we are proposing a downgrade of teaching talent at the highest levels. You, I, and everyone else reading this knows very well that this is nothing but a hollow sound-byte. Do you really believe that our district would strip the highest-caliber students of any possible advantage in mastering such material? In reality, the proposal is one of equity: Craft an accessible curriculum for average students, and then provide them with highly-trained, highly-motivated teachers. That in no way implies removing Toma from teaching AB Calculus classes. Please observe your own advice and carefully read all of the other opinions presented. Perhaps even go a step further, and adequately research the topic, so that we are all operating from an equal level of understanding. You wouldn't debate Intellectual Property Law without first building a necessary level of background knowledge. This case is no different.
Most importantly, I agree wholeheartedly that we have a great system of community colleges in California. In fact, the caliber of our junior college system is unmatched throughout the country. But this issue is not about community college being a valid option. Rather, it is about how there is very little, if any, middle ground between the high performing route and the 2-year route. And when you look at the numbers, this does become a matter of racial inequity (you can have whatever opinions you want about the causes of these numbers, but ask yourself, how much of your opinion stems from any kind of first-hand research or knowledge about the issue?). Thus, proposing the 2-year route as some "holy-grail" for students who cannot cope at Paly is essentially saying: "Hey students of color, you guys aren't really college material at Paly, but community college is great too." And that, my dear angry parent, is the definition of low expectations, which are present from day 1 in PAUSD. Low expectations beget low performance, because students are presented with more opportunities to not succeed. For example, I know a black student that was diagnosed with a reading disability in first grade and placed in a speical-ed course (one of those great extra support opportunities that are apparently provided to all minority students). However, both of his parents, being Stanford professors, went for a second opinion. The result was nothing more than a new pair of glasses. I have seen countless peers fall of at one point or another to the special-education route for no good reason, other than an expectation that if a student of color is not succeeding, "well then, we should probably check to see if they have a learning disability." I'm incriminating anybody's character with that statement, it's a simple observation of numerous, repeated actions throughout my entire life (do some research on our district's special-ed disproportionality issue, you'll be surprised).
To summarize, angry parent, your comments represent everything that makes me despise my hometown. They are elitist, uninformed, and utterly insensitive. Yet that is the standard Palo Alto argument: "Don't change anything, the system works great for the high-achievers! You just want to take from them and give to other, less motivated students." No matter that this consistent rhetoric results in roughly 15% of Black students meeting A-G in a given year. To this "don't rock the boat" attitude, all i can say is this: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." This issue is one of Palo Alto realizing that it has a public, not a private school system, and is thus obligated to provide equity in education. If we accomplish this, we no longer have these low-achieving students dragging down our numbers, which would elevate our overall prestige, and actually benefit the highest achieving students. A rising tide raises all boats.
Posted by former Paly parent,
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 12, 2011 at 5:19 pm
There are several "varieties" of "tutoring" being discussed here, with people of various ages and levels of experience in the subject commenting on each, sometimes to a bit of confusion.
Remedial tutoring and peer tutoring at the ARC (at Paly) are fine and may benefit teens in whatever subject. That's routine stuff. That's not the "tutoring" I have noted on this thread. This tutoring has far less to do with the stress of many high school students here, (though someone who needs support may feel some stress, to be sure).
I feel students should be authentic and genuine and do their own work. There is a type of paid parental activity grouped into a category of action called "tutoring" that is for students who are ALREADY reasonably successful in a subjec, sometimes highly so for years. Sometimes it is pretty stunning and "optimized" to raise the successful student to have that super edge to "win" over other top peers. Yet again, not illegal, but taken to the extreme, creates an extremely unfair situation for students who do all their own work and must compete with such "project" kids.
At the so-called labeled "top" levels of students there are the most issues: increased Tiger Mom tactics, students focused on grades -- to the point there is plagiarism, cheating -- which is sad -- /contrived ECs (cynical to the hilt)/competition in ALL things/"competitive" college admissions offers RATHER THAN ALSO enjoying learning, sharing with others, being a pleasant person, trying out courses based on one's own interest,considering an interesting future in the greater world, engaging with peers rather than plotting how to "beat" them.
I also feel, looking back -- and most closely associated with this thread -- that there should be a reasonable atmosphere in our high schools for normal students who wish to attend UC/CSU and not necessarily be Math majors or BME at UC Berkeley - these students will need math and not remedial math and should not be labeled "losers" -- that is outrageous -- but not the uber-top scheme of AP BC Calc finished by junior yr, as is aimed for by many parents of above average kids. To put down such kids as needing to "go down a lane" may not be the correct response -- some comparability (of curriculum) with the rest of California seems reasonable to me.
There are MANY students here who are high achievers, high socio-economic, highly motivated, fully aware of SAT etc. These students "compete" with each other here and earn grades that will be very important in determining future opportunities and college offers, since students are compared to their immediate peers at their HS, not the national average, and there is a cycle where there has been more competition, thereby more apps put out there, ratcheting up of such things as ECs (I write more of the top private universities and colleges, not UC/CSU, with which I am not currently up-to-date). Some follow their own muse, do their own work, learn in class, and do not receive special support and I salute these -- YOU are the authentic students.
I am meantime concerned some of these students are not earning some of their awards and places; they are partly being earned for them. I have been told about these things directly and also witnessed these things for the yrs my students were in school here. Sometimes I was shocked, sometimes angered, sometimes saddened. Certain kids are told "you are the winners" and then they are managed in their entire academic careers here with parental tactics that do not support the notion that these kids have earned their high spots.
Tiger Mom tactics were NOT typical in the past; there IS a change and it means school for a grade and not for learning/education. I find this sad. I also know it makes for stress on natural students who see this happening around them.
When, some PARENTS (I emphasize parents, NOT students) choose and require to have their particular teens follow a carefully planned course of study fully supported to the hilt, it THEN raises the bar and creates a situation where others 1)may choose to follow (IF they can afford it and IF they choose these tactics -- which some of us find unethical: like taking a high level course in advance elsewhere and then taking it in PAUSD at ease for a grade); 2)they may suffer - NOT by failing/dropping down but by having slightly lower grades, wich DOES affect top college apps - a LOT more stress/time devoted to personal study/their OWN EFFORTS.
It does not seem fair or a level playing field and students ARE affected, when these tactics are taken to the extreme I have seen. Having a kid tutored once in awhile(even advanced tutoring for the kid who favors math and desires acceleration)is not at all my concern nor my business; we are discussing a "system" of extreme Tiger Mom tactics that benefits a kid vs. a kid who does not have access to these extreme measures. Such kids, whether they like math or not, greatly advance and can perform well on challenging tests (though try engaging them in discussion - some cannot discuss the material since it is crammed for testing/grades purposes rather than the enjoyment of learning -- some admit they are "forced" (ugh, some will even say, wryly, looking back) into all of this - though they may admit it BENEFITS them in terms of grades/SAT/AP/competitions/university applications.
NOT self-requested, self-motivated - strictly for competitive -short-term advantage purposes and to pressure/beat peers. A kid who is not a genius can be substantially improved on paper to the point of receiving some meaningful "prizes." Others who are authentic may not get appropriate recognition though they did their own work and are perhaps a fraction "behind" the first.
It simply is not a level playing field.
Some of these people are a fraud - I wouldn't want to be them.
Posted by Thank you activists,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 19, 2011 at 4:29 pm
"The complaints about tutoring truly seem misguided to me. The data seems to indicate that it is not nearly as widespread as some have claimed based on their anecdotal impressions. And the nefarious impact of this excessive learning seems pretty mysterious to me
What is misguided is for the district or anyone to play dumb about tutoring, or to hide behind the impossibility of proving it. Palo Alto's stratospheric combination of money and education,may not necessarily be "data" to prove tutoring, but IS a factor for declaring advantage compared to minority students, minority being anyone lacking similar access. Access to some of the best summer camps in the country, internships, daily expert academic direction from highly educated parents (this adds up), world travel, college application coaches, SAT prep. As Michelle Dauber has pointed out, the tutoring and camp industry exists and grows for a reason. There are also more subtle things of the material nature that can be handy to motivate academically, such as tech gadgets, cars, etc. Collectively, the community's advantage of sorts, can't be hidden just because a group is so pure they don't use any of this.
I don't need irrefutable "proof" about tutoring, and I actually think that tutoring can also have very positive effects. The debate can rage on.
About the nefarious impact - Ken Dauber best explained it .in his post - "What is the effect of tutoring on classroom teaching and learning? The debate above in this thread about the actual extent of tutoring, based on surveys of parents and kids, is happening because tutoring is private and happens largely outside of the view of teachers and other students. Effective teaching, though, depends on teachers being able to use the performance of their students as feedback about the pacing, content, and teaching methods being used in the class. If some of the students are getting taught outside of class by private tutors, their performance won't just reflect the classroom teaching, but teachers have no way of knowing that. From a teacher's perspective, the higher performance of tutored students produces a misleading signal that the course is paced correctly, and the performance of untutored students becomes a fact about those students rather than a fact about the class as a whole."
In an interesting twist, you point to the root cause of what you term "competitive" environment. That may actually be the best way to look at tutoring, it's about competition and as you explain.
"My impression (no data here!) is that the tutoring issue is a red herring. The root cause is the pressure that parents feel due to low admission rates of high-reputation colleges (which it terms is driven in large part from the demographic surge of high school grads) and anxiety about future economic opportunity, which translates into the competitiveness (largely parent driven) we see in the schools. That competitiveness causes worried parents to lash out at those they view as taking away the scarce opportunities - in this case Tiger Moms and others using "unfair" or "excessive" methods like tutoring."
Ironic that if it's about stiff competition, the entire Math department can attack minority students on this very issue.
My two cents is that irrespective of tutoring, the district can serve all students as equally as possible. Holding out that school is still about learning, not just competition, fair learning can be reflected through the right course offerings for students of different achievement levels, lanes that are not imbalanced in favor of one group, or other arbitrary goals.
Your suggestion for people to get "comfortable" that kids will be fine, as long as we love them is nice; some suggest, just level the tutoring playing field with free online options. Both would be a way out for the district, to not to fix the lanes, the inequitable math and science course offerings as I've posted before, or the festering Math arrogant school culture (exemplified by the Math letter), towards students who are not in the most competitive lanes which hurts all students. These all have solutions.