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Are PA schools different from other affluent districts?

Original post made by Los Altos Parent, Los Altos, on Dec 30, 2007

I have read with great interest the discussion about the latest high school rankings. What I really want to know is:

- Is there a significant difference between PA high schools and schools in other affluent districts, such as Menlo-Atherton or Los Altos High? It seems like these districts also have affluent, educated parents, and motivated and advantaged kids. Yet these high schools didn't make the rankings (which I realize only measures one dimension of performance - specifically, AP tests).

- Is the environment at Paly and Gunn more competitive/high pressures than other schools in the area?

I have heard great things about Paly and Gunn, and I have wondered, is it hype? After all, there are many educated, involved, and wealthy parents in other school districts, shouldn't these schools be good as well? I realize "good schools" is a subjective opinion, I am curious whether there are significant differences in student attitude, culture, teachers, etc.. between PA and other areas. (I live in the Los Altos district now although my kids are young and quite far from high school and the college admissions rat race...)


Comments (14)

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Posted by beenthere
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 30, 2007 at 11:46 pm

As a mom of PAUSD students and teacher for over fifteen years here is my take: Gunn and Paly are excellent schools. Gunn gets english language learners and Paly does not (illegal?). My Paly child's only complaints are that her advanced English class is not hard enough and that it is next to impossible to make a sports team at Paly. Mountain View HS pays the best and is verrry picky about who they hire. Thus, their teaching staff is amazing. At my site, though we have affluence, AP go-getters, and solid parenting in one segment, there is an increasing gang problem, general disrespect,and truancy epidemic among those residing next to and east of highway 101. Look into San Mateo public schools as well as Monte Vista High, Los Gatos High, and Saratoga High. They are super schools.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 31, 2007 at 12:39 am

My understanding of Menlo Park is that the elementary schools and middle schools are very similar to Palo Alto's, but Menlo-Atherton draws on a far more diverse population than does Paly or Gunn--i.e. Menlo-Atherton gets Menlo Park, Atherton and East Palo Alto and East Menlo. I've read that it performs extremely well for its population.

I'm less familiar with the situation in Los Altos, but I think there's a similar, though less extreme situation--affluent Los Altos mixing with a variety from Mountain View. MV's also not basic aid, so I don't know how that affects things.


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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 31, 2007 at 6:10 pm

Palo Alto people are different.


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Posted by the proof is in the pudding
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 31, 2007 at 7:03 pm

The Los Altos elementary schools (typically) perform better on standardized tests than do the Palo Alto schools.


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Posted by Terry
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 31, 2007 at 7:32 pm

On Los Altos vs. PA standardized test scores - as they say, standardized test scores mostly measure the uniformity and value of the nearby real estate. PA is more economically diverse that Los Altos - which contributes to lower average scores. If you pick apart the individual schools, you'll see the expensive, uniform parts of PA (Hays, Duveneck, etc) score higher, while the diverse parts (Briones, Barron Park) score lower. Doesn't reflect the quality of school/teaching (whatever that is), it reflects the diversity of the kids coming in.


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Posted by Alum mom
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 31, 2007 at 8:01 pm

I had a child graduate from Paly and a child graduate from M-A. I would take M-A over Paly any day because of the diversity of the student population and the real world experience. Paly feels way too cloistered to me.

The reason that M-A doesn't do as well on some metrics is that a large number of students do not come from homes that support education. Middle class students constitute maybe half the population. But in terms of academic offerings and the colleges attended by students, M-A is easily the equal of any other school on the peninsula.


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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 1, 2008 at 2:13 am

By Alummom's reasoning, the more "diversity", the better the education. Someone drank the Kool-Aid. An appreciation of the value of an education is esential to absorbing that education. Societies hat reject the authority essential to education will not then make the best use of educational opportunities. Of course, if the diversity is in the Asian direction...


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Posted by Many ways
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 2, 2008 at 2:44 pm

I think Palo Alto's veritable army of highly-involved parents tends to make a difference. When kids see so many local parents volunteering and involved in other ways with their schools, they tend to value their school experience more. It starts long before High School in this town, and is clearly not confiend to the more "affluent" sector.

Standardized tests scores are not much more than a measure of how well certain schools are teaching to certain tests; they are not a true measure of a child's education or ability to do well in college and the work force. (In fact, the scoring of the current SAT "essay" is so contrary to demonstrating use of learned knowledge coupled with good writing skills that a number of prestigious colleges ignore that part of the SAT altogether.)


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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2008 at 2:58 pm

However, the writing part of the SATs is the only part which actually identifies whether a student is fluent in English to the extent that they have the ability to express their ideas well, to think their ideas through, and to make conclusions regarding their ideas. Too many students are being excused from real self expression by working towards multiple choice answers which are often predictable.

Give a written test and although it is much harder to score, it does give a much better impression of how well educated the individual actually is.


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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 2, 2008 at 3:38 pm

Were I to move to France or Korea and yet fail to do my best to become fluent in the local language, I would consider that to be an indication of low intelligence on my part.


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Posted by Many ways
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 2, 2008 at 5:47 pm

My own daughter learned in her SAT Prep class that when she wrote essays that would have earned her a decent grade in her Gunn English Honors class, she received much poorer scores on her SAT practice test essay portion, but when she "got a clue" and wrote a fairly badly formulated and excessively verbose essay using particular SAT stock "buzz" grammer (an essay that would have earned a much lower grade in her school), she received a top SAT Prep essay score.

Hurray, now she knows the "tricks" to "win at the SAT system" - for what amounts to a useless and meaningless score awarded for essentially bad writing. I guess this is why we pay the big bucks for SAT Prep courses - so our children can learn "stupid people tricks". How sad.

Excerpted from the Palo Alto Daily News: Web Link

"The new SAT with its added writing section has proven to be quite controversial. Adding the writing section to the test has increased the test time from three hours to three hours and 45 minutes. Students and educators alike are complaining that test-takers are getting fatigued and that this is affecting their scores.

Additionally, what may be the most controversial part of the writing section is that there is very little evidence to prove that earning a high score on this section means you are a good writer. In fact, many test prep centers claim the writing portion of the SAT is highly coachable.

One of the most vocal critics of the SAT essay is Les Perelman, director of the undergraduate writing program at MIT. In an essay he wrote for Jewish World Review, Perelman states that when he first heard that the SAT was adding an essay portion, he was optimistic. "Instead," writes Perelman, "the SAT essay has turned out to be a completely artificial exercise that appears to reward students for writing badly." This is evidenced, he writes, by the fact that the test "encourages wordiness. Longer essays consistently score higher." Perelman claims that he could look at scored sample essays that were made public and "guess an essay's prescribed score just by looking at its length - even from across a room."

Second, the test seems to disregard factual accuracy. According to Perelman, "the official guide for scorers states: 'Writers may make errors in facts or information that do not affect the quality of their essays. For example, a writer may state, 'The American Revolution began in 1842' or 'Anna Karenina, a play by the French author Joseph Conrad, was a very upbeat literary work.'" "


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Posted by Periwinkle
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 2, 2008 at 8:33 pm

The SATs should be striken from existence.

there was a study done many years ago, in the 70's, by Ralph Nader's public interest group. That study showed a direct correlation between economic wealth and college entrance test scores.


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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 3, 2008 at 11:28 am

What may be more interesting is a comparison between the requirement for foreign universities entrance exams and those of the US. Many countries do not have multiple choice exams and use essay type answers to questions as the norm. Maybe that is more onerous to grade, but comes out with students who perform better. Getting an average high school graduate from Japan, or France, or Germany or the UK to take our SATs and then getting one of our "high achievers" from PA to do their equivalent exams would indeed be very interesting even if it is rather futile.


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Posted by Arden Pennell
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Jan 4, 2008 at 5:30 pm

Arden Pennell is a registered user.

Hi all,
These are interesting comments.
I'd like to learn more about the experiences of students in the district's Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) programs and issues surrounding gifted ed in general. Please feel free to call if you'd like to share your thoughts: (650) 326-8210, ext. 241.

Arden


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