Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 21, 2012

Letters

Kids are more than data

Editor,

A hue and cry is being raised by some local parents to demand that our schoolteachers list all homework, complete or incomplete assignments, and up-to-the-minute student grades online. Similarly, a mother once came to me as her son's English teacher at Gunn, toward the end of one semester, to demand that I teach her all my course material one-on-one, so that she could remediate her failing boy and save his grade.

These two demands differ in degree of intrusiveness, but are on the same spectrum — a spectrum of parental anxiety over teenagers' performance and a wish to enlist teachers in removing all flaws from that performance. Before long, there may also be requests to place course handouts online, as well as overheads and graphs shown in class, quizzes and tests, essay topics, vocabulary words, important dates in history, and conjugations of verbs. Down this spectrum lies madness.

Speaking recently to our school board, a parent said that in this day and age when he has instant electronic access to Google's market cap, his bank balance, property taxes and "continuous tire-pressure readouts," it's high time that "the critical data" of teenagers' school records should be instantly available. I shudder to think that we grown-ups may start conceiving of our kids' lives in the way we think of tire-pressure (and I don't think this dad really wants that, either).

But it may take some effort to remind ourselves that a high-schooler's performance is bound up in a four-year drama that has nothing to do with instantaneous "critical data."

Marc Vincenti

Los Robles Avenue

Palo Alto

Planning elements in opera

Editor,

The opera house in San Francisco currently requires a Seating Element to alleviate the unfairness of some people always being relegated to sitting in the balcony because they can't afford orchestra, dress circle or grand-tier seats. To promote social equity, multi-level balcony seating should be constructed in the orchestra level, placing it in the aisles and neighboring environs, close to exit doors when possible. Visioning meetings should be conducted to give stakeholders an opportunity to provide their input and create public buy-in until a consensus is reached. Public input will again be sought regarding where to place the new, affordable balcony seating. While some wealthy operagoers who hold orchestra-section season tickets may complain, this is the fair and equitable way to approach opera-house seating. If they try to block these efforts, local NGOs stand in readiness to sue.

Some Orchestra Section season-ticket holders may complain that their sightlines are ruined — a small price to pay for supporting the public good. Every eight years, State law will require the opera house to update its Seating Element, adding a number of low-cost seats to the Orchestra Section, as determined by a regional governmental committee, which is appointed, not elected, and therefore can't be voted out of power.

Eventually, the entire opera house will be converted into balcony seating, except for some prime boxes and the first several rows of the orchestra section, which will be reserved for party officials, billionaire bankers, heads of state and visiting diplomats. Since the opera house will no longer have its current large contingent of high-priced seats, it will lose money every season. This will be remedied through a public-private partnership subsidizing the Opera House with new, equitable taxes, paid by the American taxpayer for the purpose of ensuring equity and music for all.

Cherie Zaslawsky

Oak Lane

Menlo Park

Mala vista?

Editor,

I'm thrilled that finally the Buena Vista property — which is not a "buena vista," more like a "mala vista" eyesore — is going to be redeveloped. This is the happiest news I've heard in a long time.

Kudos to Jisser for finally making improvements on his property by selling it to Prometheus Real Estate, who in turn will be following the city's mobile-home ordinance of relocation to the renters. As far as the tenants are concerned it is very nice that Jisser and Prometheus are willing, or should I say, are "required to give the tenants money for relocating." Perhaps they could also set aside some units for low-income housing.

Hopefully the City of Palo Alto will put a spine on its back and not drag this project through the mud the way they do every project in the South of the City of Palo Alto. Again, kudos to Jisser for the redevelopment. Finally it should be a real "buena vista" in about five to 10 years.

Pamela Diken

Amaranta Avenue

Palo Alto

Comments

Posted by PutItInWriting, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Sep 21, 2012 at 10:48 pm

Mr. Vincenti,

While you have chosen extreme examples to make a point, many well-meaning parents are simply trying to help their children learn. Most of us have had from time-to-time a teacher with a severe accent, someone who could not write clear instructions, or someone for whom the story-telling approach of assigning homework simply didn't work. For those times, the written language is a wonderful thing. You see, writing something down was invented expressly for the purpose of communicating clearly to a large number of people. Many teachers remark they have 130 students; what better way to communicate than in writing! That way everyone gets a clear, succinct description of exactly what is expected from the students.

Students are less confused. Teachers need not tell the story of homework a dozen times over, and parents can distance themselves from classroom management, as we will know that Johnny has a clear idea of what is expected.

I, for one, am a huge fan of writing down instructions, and generally I am a big fan of the written language. I would encourage it strongly; an English teacher convinced me of that years ago.


Posted by Rajiv Bhateja, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Sep 22, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Dear Mr. Vincenti,

I am the parent who brought up the tire pressure analogy. Here is my response to your letter.

Over the last two decades, we have all come to rely on information being available readily online. Many secondary educational institutions have evolved to incorporate this into their policies. Many reputed colleges (Harvard, MIT, Stanford) are moving to deliver entire courses online. The trend is irreversible. We can only change our level of resistance to it but cannot put the genie back in the bottle.

Santa Clara Unified and Harker are two schools I know that post assignments and evaluations online. To my knowledge, neither has suffered the increased insanity that you seem to imply are inevitable under this process. (Indeed, one could argue that that this is more of a problem at Gunn.) I understand your concern about having less face-to-face feedback from your students if you post assignments online. However, nothing prevents the discussion of such assignments in class. We are simply asking that assignments ALSO be posted online. Have you contacted teachers at these schools to understand if your concern is genuine, or how they addressed it?

In the corporate world, there is a well-established tradition of weekly 1-on-1 meetings between employees and their managers to review priorities, understand where support is needed and to maintain accountability. This only works if the information (on which such meetings are based) is reliable. My ability to review priorities with my party-going teenager on Friday night is predicated on timely, current information. In fact, my experience suggests that when students know such information is readily accessible, such discussions are often not necessary.

Children mature at different rates. There are 6th graders who do not need much guidance. And there are college students who fail to hold themselves accountable. It's the parents' challenging job to judge, on a case by case basis, how much support each child needs. There is a reason why teenagers are not allowed to fly commercial aircraft or run for president. And that's why parents need to participate in their education. We are simply asking for information to participate meaningfully -- in what is considered a timely fashion in modern society.

Teenagers are also notoriously un-communicative. (Perhaps you have seen this article which discusses it well?

Web Link

;)

Also, in today's world, the pressures of adolescence are magnified by social media, fast-paced lives, domestic transitions, and high expectations. Given this increasing pressure, it is helpful to students to have readily accessible, reliable information.

When society transitioned from live speech to the written word, intonation and gestures were lost. But the spoken word is often fraught with errors: digits are transposed, negatives are unintentionally added or dropped, memories may differ, voices may drop, etc. So having a well-documented, accessible record of information reduces stress and needless confusion.

Contrary to your suggestion, parents do not need "up to the minute" data -- we just need assignments posted on the day they are assigned and grades posted once available.

Regrettably, some of your statements characterize parents like myself in a pejorative manner ("hue and cry", "madness", etc.) I submit that such connotations are not constructive for a balanced, civil discourse.

Further, your statement that I somehow "conceive of my child's life" in the same way that I think of tire pressure is a ridiculous misconstruance of my position. Obviously data related to my child's life is FAR MORE important. But that is precisely the point! If I can see much less important information so readily, why are you so resistant to making the much more important data of my child's life accessible in a timely fashion? Imagine if your doctor did not have ready access to current test results. Would you say that in asking for it, he too was thinking of your health in the same way he regarded tire pressure? Or does he simply need current, reliable, information, free of verbal static, so he can make guided, informed decisions about your life?

I do agree with your published statement regarding keeping distracting electronic devices out of the classroom. I respect your opinion and perspective as a teacher with decades of experience.

As a parent, I ask that you extend the same courtesy to me (also with decades of experience -- in parenting) and other parents, free of mis-characterizations and ridicule.

It's not that hard to implement this. Let's get it done.

Respectfully,

Rajiv Bhateja


Posted by teach every child, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Sep 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Thank you Mr. Bhateja for posting that story and for trying to introduce PAUSD to Silicon Valley. I wish you luck. In 2010, an anonymous Gunn teacher wrote the op-ed you cited (one of Mr. Vincente's colleagues) about the suicides at the school. That Gunn teacher said that one of the things he thought we should do to reduce stress for our students is:

" Add a technology that monitors students' total nightly homework (with a function that gives teachers feedback on how long their assignments are actually taking) to the technology that tracks attendance and grades."

This sounds very similar to what Schoology is now doing at Paly. My child's TA at Paly uses Schoology to see what each student has on his or her plate and monitors workloads. Parents can do this too, and the student can see their work ahead and plan for it. Paly teachers like it. Maybe you can ask them, Mr. Vincente.

Isn't it time we listened to the anonymous Gunn teacher from 2010 and add that technology for Gunn students. Paly students already have it.


Posted by Palo Alto Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 22, 2012 at 11:20 pm

Another case where Paly students are being served better. What is up with Gunn not adopting an obviously better system? Seems like a no brainer to me. Thanks to Mr. Bhateja and "teach every child" for bringing this important information to our attention! I want to learn more about Schoolology! Sounds great in all respects. Since Gunn doesn't have TA yet, who would deliver the information? I foresee a time when Gunn will also have some form of TA where they can have the same method of delivery of Schoology information to their students as Paly enjoys.


Posted by Palo Alto Citizen, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 26, 2012 at 7:42 pm

Why is Schoology dependent on TAs? Can't teachers post assignments and grades online? I hear teachers moaning about how hard this is -- it is NOT, but it does take organization -- but I also get their perspective that if they do this, they will only be told there is something else they should be doing, for example being a TA. Maybe teachers could teach and put information online in a timely way. It's a simple, clearly defined and objectively reviewable goal that could be in their employment contracts.


Posted by Rajiv Bhateja, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Sep 28, 2012 at 10:07 am

All,

With a quick search, I was able to find hundreds of examples of school districts that have embraced online access and parent connectedness to their children's learning and classrooms.

Palo Alto Online doesn't allow a lot of URLs in these post, so I wasn't able to post all these but search for:

Powerschool district

You'll find hundreds of districts and thousands of schools that have adopted this.

I lost count.

I really liked the themes that school districts mentioned in connection with this: collaboration, connectedness, accessibility, convenience...

Sample quotes:
"PowerSchool, the web-based student information system used by the Park City School District, provides you with a convenient means of being involved in your student's school day."

"Power School is new to District Six and we are excited to offer this excellent tool designed to increase communication between you and your child's teacher. Soon, all parents with a child in our school system will be given a login and password to keep track of your child's grades, classroom assignments and more."

How refreshing!

While we have discussed this, wrung our hands wishing for organic adoption, and gone through our wonderful "Palo Alto Process" for over a decade, others have DONE something.

Case studies and success stories by Pearson School Systems (maker of PowerSchool):
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Web Link
Web Link

There are also several videos on YouTube by districts that have adopted it.

I'm not necessarily advocating PowerSchool but the concept of online access by students and parents to attendance info, classroom activities, assignments and grades is apparently widely regarded as a positive component in education today.

Are these simply, insane, tire pressure-obsessed, teachers, districts and parents, who think of their kids as mere data?

Or are they teams of parents, teachers and educators who value collaboration and connectedness, wanting to support their students with timely access to critical information in our modern information-centric age?

Rajiv Bhateja


Posted by Just my opinion, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 2, 2012 at 1:21 pm

While you are at the research would someone also find out how many high schools have dropped or reduced AP classes in their schools. It would be interesting to see how many schools are the frontrunners in reducing the unnecessary stress placed on students by AP classes. Students are overburdened if they can not keep track of their own grades and/or assignments.


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