Palo Alto Weekly
News - December 27, 2013
School district, higher education turned upside-down
Federal investigation rattles Palo Alto school district
by Chris Kenrick
While Palo Alto residents took issue with the city over development and traffic problems, other disruptive forces turned local educational institutions on their heads this year.
Office for Civil Rights investigates district
A federal civil-rights agency disrupted life for leaders of the Palo Alto school district in 2013.
Spurred by the family of a disabled Palo Alto middle school student, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights investigated the district's handling of the ongoing bullying of the student.
In December 2012, the agency — which is charged with enforcing civil rights laws in schools and universities — found that Terman Middle School administrators had violated the student's civil rights in their mishandling of the bullying. For nearly a year since then, the district has been struggling to reform its policies that deal with complaints of bullying. As of this month, however, it has yet to finalize new procedures, which was among the conditions it agreed to in order to resolve the federal case.
Had it not been for the student's family, who shared the resolution agreement with the Palo Alto Weekly, the public may not have known about the investigation and resulting conditions placed on the district. The Board of Education itself was largely unaware of the scope of the investigation and resolution agreement, having been told by Superintendent Kevin Skelly in December 2012 in such a perfunctory manner that the board didn't even discuss the report.
In February, Skelly apologized to board members for failing to inform them fully.
"When this thing came out I informed you about it, but I didn't give you the report or share the findings of the Office for Civil Rights group, and I should have done that, bottom line," he said. "From a transparency issue, I blew it."
Despite calls this year for a board discussion of "what went wrong" in the Terman case, such a discussion was never put on the agenda.
Critics have accused the school board and Skelly of foot-dragging on revising its bullying policies and resisting the federal enforcement. The district has said it needs time to strike the right balance between protecting victims and not criminalizing matters that are properly resolved in the principal's office.
"The realm of incidents that used to be handled purely verbally and privately is shifting into a realm that's being recorded and tracked, so it's important to get it right," board President Barb Mitchell said.
The issue is set to be taken up again in January, either by the full board or by its two-member Policy Review Committee.
Meanwhile, other Palo Alto families have filed Office for Civil Rights complaints against the district, several of which remain pending.
In June, the Office for Civil Rights opened its own investigation at Palo Alto High School, saying it had "received information that (Paly) has not provided prompt and equitable response to notice of peer sexual harassment, including peer harassment related to sexual assault."
Though the agency did not specify what prompted its investigation, the notice followed the April publication of a six-part story in the student magazine Verde about a "rape culture" at Paly. The articles included anonymous accounts of two alcohol-fueled, off-campus sexual assaults of Paly students; interviews with victims of rape and other Paly students; discussion of Paly students; attitudes on victim-blaming and an editorial criticizing the mainstream media's "sympathetic" portrayal of high-school rapists in Steubenville, Ohio.
With concerns about bullying running high among some parents, Skelly and board members also have been charged with excessive secrecy in their work to satisfy the Office for Civil Rights.
Until the Weekly complained earlier this month, meetings of the board's Policy Review Committee, where proposed bullying policies are being hammered out, were not properly noticed to the public as required under the Brown Act, California's open meeting law.
Internet disrupts higher education
As surely as it has disrupted music, retail and journalism, the Internet in 2013 shook up education, with many of the disrupters emanating from the Palo Alto-Stanford area.
The year saw the term "MOOC" (for massive, open online course) grow increasingly common in general usage as online classes offered by local companies Coursera and Udacity, among others, attracted hundreds of thousands of students around the world.
Angling to stay on top of the fast-moving and hard-to-predict online education wave, Stanford poured resources and attention into university-wide efforts to test and measure new ways of teaching and learning online.
Education technology "is the beginning of a wholesale reorganization of teaching and learning in higher education," associate professor of sociology Mitchell Stevens said. "It will very soon be an un-ignorable phenomenon.
"This is not the sort of fringe activity of Cambridge and Silicon Valley. This is something that's going to be reorganizing the entire sector."
In July, more than a dozen presidents of colleges and universities — including the Foothill-De Anza Community College District but not including Stanford — gathered in Palo Alto to brainstorm the future. Schools represented ran the gamut from the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania to the large University of Wisconsin system to tiny Bates College in Maine to the upstart, all-online Western Governors University.
Foothill-De Anza Chancellor Linda Thor reported that the discussion at the gathering centered on how higher education needs to reorganize to serve students in traditional and new ways, given all the "drivers of change."
"We're moving away from having faculty that were the conveyers of content to — now that there's so much more information available — becoming more curators of the content, of helping guide all the sources," Thor said.
She also posed the question: "Are we moving away from students being associated with an individual institution to students aggregating their own educations from a whole variety of sources and players?"
Nobody knows for sure.
In an October discussion group on "education's digital future" at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Stanford's Stevens introduced Foothill-De Anza's Thor as a pioneer in the field.
As president of Arizona's online-oriented Rio Salado Community College for 20 years, Thor "created the 25-year history of online learning that Stanford, Harvard and MIT just woke up to and decided they should enter," Stevens said.
Foothill College already offers 20 degrees that can be earned fully online, including associate's degrees in accounting, business administration, history, music technology, psychology and sociology.
In November, Foothill-De Anza was co-recipient of a $16.9 million state grant to pave the way for an online "education ecosystem" that would integrate all 112 of California's community colleges.
The initiative is part of Gov. Jerry Brown's push to expand online education as a way to boost access, degree completion and transfer to four-year universities for hundreds of thousands of students.
Under the envisioned system, California's 2.4 million community college students will be able to accrue credit through online courses at any number of different community colleges. Regardless of the source of a class, a student's record will be kept in a single file, avoiding the need to petition for transfer credit.
A statewide portal for the classes will be operational by June 2015, with participation by individual community colleges on a voluntary basis.
"This will make the records student-centric rather than institution-centric and will automate and simplify the process of transfer, qualification for financial aid and things of that sort," said Joe Moreau, Foothill-De Anza's vice-chancellor for technology.
The new initiative, said Thor, "is a cutting-edge vision for California. I believe it will transform online learning for millions of community college students."
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by Michele Dauber,
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 31, 2013 at 2:30 pm
@CPD thank you for your concern. It's OK.
@Details. I agree with you that some of the pressure to excel comes from parents. Interestingly the most recent strategic plan (2013) survey sheds some light on this question. See: Web Link at page 14.
As you suggest, 33% of students identify their parents as a "major" source of stress. However, nearly as many (28%) identify their peers as major source of stress. Most interestingly, 65% of students identify "pressure I put on myself" as a major stressor. What does this mean? The most plausible interpretation for these data is that (1) parents have high expectations that may or may not be realistic; (2) the school environment is highly competitive; and (3) students don't really know where it's coming from and have internalized the competition and pressure. One important fact to note is that students were not given choices to describe the source of stress other than the following" self, parents, teachers, and peers. In other words "the whole school environment" was not a choice. One of the open-ended student responses attributed stress to "Palo Alto culture." '
In my opinion, when students talk about our school culture they are often discussing the most visible signifier of that culture in their lives, which is the amount of homework that they do.
For more information about that, we can turn to the essay recently published by the Campanile editor Hillel Zand: Web Link entitled "The cost of being a student at Palo Alto High School." Zand, the editor in chief of the Campanile wrote that:
Few teachers are aware of the reality where many students hastily copy a peer's assignment five minutes before it is due. But why couldn't this student just do their own homework? Because they spent the whole night completing a project and only got five hours of sleep. So as a sacrifice they chose not to do their homework for another class, copied the information they were supposed to learn as if they were a computer and as a result failed to learn the actual material. And this cycle will continue for days, weeks and years. This is the cycle that has taken a toll on the well-being of our students.
"There's some questions as to how well we're preparing [students] socially, emotionally or for some of the life skills you need to have when you go off to college," principal Kim Diorio said. "I've always thought that there's just way too much work and pressure on students."
As a consequence, Zand cites evidence that students are experiencing hypomania, sleep deprivation, and depression at higher rates than in previous years.
There are many contributing factors to student stress, clearly. But one reason to focus on school reform, in preference to parent reform, is that parents, whatever their competitive nature, are not assigning homework. Homework is assigned at school. Tests are written by teachers. This seems obvious, but it is relevant to the question of where we can get leverage on the problem that Zand is calling to our attention (and his article is really but the latest in a stream of very similar articles written by students at Gunn and Paly over the past decade).
Why are schools assigning so much homework? One answer to this is that there is a homework fad and our kids are unlucky. Our current fixation on homework is like the tulip bulb mania that swept Europe in the 1630s. Once it's over, we will probably wonder what that was about. Another answer is that it is hard to distinguish among the many extremely talented and hardworking kids in certain elite public schools like PAUSD's. Many smart, successful ambitious parents have crowded into this district to give their kids access to "a good education." But because of the lack of diversity in the pool of students (a skewness in the distribution toward the right-hand tail of ability and ambition), teachers have a problem.
Teachers have to distinguish among these students and decide how to rank them (who gets the A). In doing that, where A's are artificially rationed at a low number as in many upper level PAUSD classes, backbreaking workload is often the tie-breaker. Where a student takes several of these upper-level classes (as they must if they intend to go to a good school) the workload is increased and suddenly we have students who do 6 hours of homework per night -- an entire workday after the "end" of the workday.
This leads to sleep deprivation and the problems Mr. Zand rehearses. It also leads to pervasive academic dishonesty with the corrosive impacts to students social-emotional health that brings in its train.
Do educators and parents confuse excessive workload with "good education" and "rigor"? In my opinion as a university educator, yes. I think that people have conflated a ridiculously high workload, which causes stress, sleeplessness, anxiety and depression, with "excellence." They are not the same thing. They just make it easier for teachers to figure out who gets the A. But that is not what "excellence" means.
The Strategic Plan concluded that PAUSD has a problem with academic stress and with dishonesty and marked both (and counseling improvement) as areas in which our schools need to improve. Here are the priorities for improvement from the strategic plan:
Improved counseling, better support for under-performing students, greater emphasis on academic integrity, and reduced student academic stress, especially at the high school level
Neither the strategic plan authors, nor Mr. Zand, nor Kim Diorio, nor me are "bashing" the schools or teachers by cataloging these areas that need improvement. For myself, I feel that I have experienced firsthand the emotional problems that can be caused for a student by excessive homework and excessive workload and competitive environment. I saw it at RISD with my daughter who was already depressed -- and saw the terrible impact that these kinds of environments can have on a vulnerable student -- and I saw it at Gunn with my children and their friends. I don't think it's necessary, I don't think it's healthy, and I don't think it will result in the long run in having a better education.
That doesn't mean I approve of parents who push their kids as you describe in your post, or who look askance at a less-elite college (as an aside, one of my daughters attends University of Vermont, and someone posted in Town Square that we were only advocating for reduced stress because our daughter could only get into UVM and we were in effect sore losers, so it's not like I'm oblivious). It just means that I think that the bigger problem lies elsewhere.
Posted by Details,
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 1, 2014 at 7:27 pm
I understand and agree with what you say in your latest post. The competition IS such that talented kids who do not play the game are overlooked by the more selective colleges. I so agree.
I have seen quite a few Paly seniors who were very underwhelming in reality but who had a very high GPAs, be admitted to elite universities, including Stanford frankly. You probably have nothing to do with undergraduate admissions at Stanford, so I can probably tell you this without offending you (I hope I don't offend you, as I am really enjoying this conversation and have a lot of respect for what you are saying on this thread). To be fair, I've also seen truly outstanding young people be admitted to Stanford. So, it goes both ways.
This whole system does not seem fair at all. We have just resolved ourselves to live with it, as a family. We've given up on elite universities for our kids even though they may have deserved it if you looked at them closely beyond grades. Actually, they had been identified as GATE by the district, but that made no difference whatsoever in their schooling. As a consolation, I know that my oldest child now easily competes professionally with graduates of elite universities.
I can certainly agree with you on the fact that our schools can improve, of course. We've personally had our share of bad teachers that we wished were fired, teachers who were weak teachers, and even one in middle school who was known to have physically abused her students (she has since retired). Unfortunately, the bad teachers can't be fired given the system. However, we've had even more fantastic teachers. There are truly great teachers in the district.
Counseling can certainly be improved too. We have loved the TA system at Paly. My current senior has really thrived on it. Any problem? She has gone straight to her TA, who was also her teacher one year. The TA knows her well, is available and solves problems for her. I really think Gunn would benefit from the TA system. As I understand it, Gunn has chosen to use its money to reduce class sizes instead. Maybe it's why they don't want the TA system. They may not want to give up on their smaller class sizes. There are hard choices to be made. However, from my perspective, it's a no brainer. By high school, a few more students in regular classes is an easy trade-off for a better counseling system from the students' perspective. I really agree with you on the TA system. I would not find it fair, though, if Gunn ended up with more money than Paly so that it can have BOTH the smaller class sizes and the TA system. Unless Paly gets the same deal.
For all our local problems, that I believe at least some people in the district are trying to address, I would go one step further and also blame local technology companies, and national banks and investment companies as well, who seem to only want to hire people with degrees from those few very elite universities. Why but why??? They play into the same system. As an aside, I really think it will hurt these businesses in the long run as they'll pass up on people with great abilities. So, the whole system from the top down needs to change. Maybe the first step would be for universities to refuse to participate in the rankings?
The whole high school/college admission/college/business hiring system in this country is screwed up. The system was great here 30 years ago when I first moved to this country from Europe. A real breath of fresh air. Now, it resembles more and more the traditional competitive European systems. Not good. Let's go back to giving a chance to unusual students, students with personal qualities, creative students, unique students, students who don't just "do" school. Everybody will benefit from this, from families to high schools, from colleges to businesses.
[One last note, especially for "another parent". Many, many times, when I told fellow parents (who asked) which college my oldest child was going to go to, their only reaction was either a pained look on their faces, or them uttering "This is a party school" and nothing else, or I got both the pained look and the party school line. It really hurt. I don't care any more. But at the time, it really hurt.]
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