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National Merit Corp. names semifinalists

Original post made on Sep 13, 2013

The National Merit Scholarship Corp. named 49 students from Gunn High School and 31 students from Palo Alto High School as semifinalists in its annual competition, placing them among 16,000 highest-scoring students nationwide – roughly the top 1 percent -- on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, September 13, 2013, 4:16 PM

Comments (68)

Posted by Parent, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 13, 2013 at 5:34 pm

Fantastic. Congrats to all!


Posted by RogueTrader, a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 14, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Last year, 426 graduated from Gunn and 465 from Paly.

Assuming this year's graduates are roughly the same, that means 49/426 or 11.5% at Gunn and 31/465 or 6.67% at Paly qualified for the academic honor.


Posted by Gunn parent, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 14, 2013 at 6:17 pm

The number of Gunn students qualifying for national merit semi-finalist status based on their PSAT scores is remarkable. While the district will will to celebrate this as a feather in its cap, it is bad news for many parents -- and here's why:

This is a very crowded pond. The group of students who will be competing for the small number of elite school slots from Gunn is large and it will be hard for any student to sufficiently distinguish him or herself from the large group of high-scorers.

People aren't stupid. They're smart and they can do the math. If over 10% of the class qualify for national merit semifinalists they are all competing against each other for the same 1% of the college admissions.

This competition among Gunn students for slots will lead to an increasing arms race among ambitious and talented students for the small number of prized fat envelopes. This arms race manifests as each family and student trying to create whatever opportunities they can to differentiate themselves from the pack -- this means more tutoring, more APs, more extracurriculars, more "volunteer" and "service" hours, more, more, more.

That "more" raises the temperature at Gunn for every student, not just those top 10% fighting in the Ivy League Death Match. As the top rises due to tutoring, teachers look for ways to raise the bar for those students, and it ends up putting pressure on those in the next 2-3 quintiles as well. Many of those students can't handle that pressure and sense of competition and don't learn effectively.

Students at the top who are competing with each other for slots turn to cheating.

Students in the next quintile feel like failures even though they are very successful by any objective measure.

Students in the middle quintile and below turn to drugs, alcohol, self-harm, eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.

Students in special ed and minority students are cast off into dumping grounds and might be better off there where no one expects much from them. They will be among the 30% of PAUSD students who go to community colleges -- from which many of them will never complete a 4 year degree within 5 years.

What is the correct institutional response to this situation? The spread between the top and the middle is very large. It is very hard for teachers to teach to such a broad range of ability and preparation. Right now the answer is that students outside the top have to lump it and bear the consequences of the fact that their parents mistakenly "moved here for the schools" and then realized that every other smart person with smart children -- including many absolute geniuses -- did the same thing.

This is our particular challenge. We don't have the challenges of other districts, where they have gangs, drugs, violence, and poverty. But we are not challenge-free. Our challenge is to see this highly competitive pool as not a sign of glory but as a challenging situation in which the district must decide how best to ensure a positive learning environment in which every child can feel and be successful.

Unlike districts dealing with gang violence or teenage pregnancy we have a tendency to see our situation as a wonderful gift rather than as a challenge. In the high-stakes testing world in which PAUSD's leaders feel that they are being judged for results, they have somehow landed at the top of the world without expending much or any effort and receive praise and applause. We are rich in the currency of the times. But these tests scores tell a different story than the one the district wants to tell with them and it is high time that parents woke up to that reality -- the reality of tutoring, depression, and excessive pressure and competition.




Posted by Wow, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 14, 2013 at 7:38 pm

Wow, talk about seeing the glass half-empty! I think it is great news for the kids who were recognized and the school overall. You are quite wrong in your assumption that these kids "compete against each other" - the number of kids from Gunn and Paly getting into highly selective schools is large overall and small compared to all the grads out there. Individual school admissions swing wildly from year to year (e.g., five or six from Gunn got into Harvard in 2012, two last year). There's room for everyone and for the most part, they all do fine. They do have to compete against the tens of thousands of other striving kids out there, and this certainly helps.

I hope you take a chill pill, and since you are a parent, that you don't pass this negative view of the situation on to your kids. If your kid was honored, good for him/her! If not, no big, they'll shine in other areas. All will be fine.

BTW - there are no more "prized fat envelopes" - the admissions decisions come via email or web site these days.


Posted by Parent of an alum, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 14, 2013 at 9:31 pm

My child was selected as a National Merit Semifinalist and didn't even bother to fill out the paperwork until the counselor called us and asked where our child's paperwork was. I questioned him and he said, "Mom, that's just a "racket" and I don't need that on my resume". We told him that it represented money that we wouldn't have to expend on his education and he agreed to complete the paperwork and send it in.
I am now wondering if the counseling office was so keen on having him return the paperwork was so that the school could have bragging rights. My kids were very humble about all of their achievements and I am beginning to appreciate that even more when I see all the bragging that goes on in this district.

Congrats to all of the students that were nominated!!!


Posted by Gunn parent, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 14, 2013 at 11:16 pm

Yeah. I guess you should hurry over and tell all those students and admins at Paly to "take a chill pill" based on this story from the Weekly about the intense competition and feelings of failure by students when they don't get into their first choice colleges. Perhaps the students also need one of your "chill pills" because according to the Campanile seniors feel "alienated and rejected," and according to the class vice president they feel like failures who "weren't good enough" when they don't get in.

Regardless of your assertion that "it will all be fine" the perception among students is to the contrary. They see that their fellow students are all ambitious and many are brilliant and feel that they have to work harder, do more, and be more to have a chance at a competitive admission. You say it's all fine. But of course you have no idea since you have no crystal ball. And so the race is on.


"The term "rejection wall" had some "negative connotations that weren't really appropriate," Senior Class Vice-President John Brunett said.

"This year it's not called a 'rejection wall' but a 'colleges-missing-out wall,'" Brunett said.

"We want to focus on the positive aspects -- that people in a very stressful environment in a very stressful school can see that it's OK to fail and sort of take some pride in that, have a community-life feeling."

Rather than taping up their own rejections, as in the past, Paly students are asked to drop off their rejections, with names blacked out, at the Student Activities Office, and others will handle the posting.

Brunett said the new plan -- as well as the absence of a rejection wall last spring -- represents a "group decision" on the part of student leaders and administrators.

"A common description by students for colleges rejecting them is because they're not good enough, and that's not the case. It's because it didn't work out; they don't have room for that many qualified people."

Web Link


Posted by Sam, a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 14, 2013 at 11:34 pm

@Gunn Parent -

You are so right. Palo Alto needs to ban extra work, tutors, any sort of extracurriculars, and especially all hard classes and APs.

All our kids should be equal in their classes, no one is better or gets more. Remember, it takes a village collective to equalize all our kids. We will then have a truly pure egalitarian and stress-free society.


Posted by Wow, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 15, 2013 at 1:44 am

@Gunn Parent - having put a couple through Gunn to college, my experience is virtually all the kids seem pretty happy with the outcome, and wonder in retrospect what all the stress was about.

As for the rejection wall - my oldest was more excited about printing out her rejection emails to post than talking about her acceptances; she thought it was a hoot. The whole point is to show that rejection happens to everyone and in volume, and you shouldn't take it personally or be ashamed. We did it for job offers in my college and business school for the same reason, and got a hoot out of it. Anyone who doesn't want to do it can just skip it.

And yes, I am confident "it is all fine." Like you, I've lived a while, and looking around me, I see happy and successful people who had all kinds of college experiences (and sometimes none at all), as well as less happy and successful folks with top schools on their resumes. As I tell my kids (and anyone else who asks), it's not about where you go, it's what you do when you get there.

In the meanwhile, I am very happy for the kids who were honored, and applaud their efforts so far.


Posted by Glass full, a resident of Terman Middle School
on Sep 15, 2013 at 8:31 am

Great news that Gunn has so many students who can ace a paper test and bad news that a Gunn student reported that another Gunn student (just graduated if that helps you sticklers) attempted another in a long string of suicides. The glass is really full and it would be great if Kevin Skelly and his publicity assistant principal could inform us of a complete picture of our school district.


Posted by One note, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 15, 2013 at 9:00 am

" attempted another in a long string of suicides"

And tragically you will find the same in many communities.


Posted by Another parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 15, 2013 at 10:02 am

@Gunn parent,
I think it's very impressive what these kids have accomplished.

You make a valid point. Another possible route would be reopening our third high school so that all 3 schools were more optimally sized (the only way to do that is make it a choice school). Your point is one reason I feel bad that those of us who wanted to see Cubberly reopened rather than expanding Gunn (that new building is at least new, but feels very dark and institutional and would have been nicer as a smaller building.) That many more of our high achieving kids could be at the top of the class, be class officers, yearbook, sports, etc (All these things flow together as the city struggles with car and bike traffic on that corridor to Gunn and still gives no thought to having no input on reducing the demand there through decisions made a few years ago that they did not want to influence.)

It's one of the challenges of very large schools. But the decision to take this route was a conscious one - if you want to see different, you have to speak up, early enough.


Posted by Gunn parent, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 15, 2013 at 11:10 am

@another parent. You are right that we need a third high school, for many reasons not least the ones you mention. But the reason we don't have one isn't that people didn't try its that in his first act as superintendent Kevin Skelly hijacked the high school task force that was considering a third school and told them that the could not consider a third school and could only make gunn and Paly larger. The committee had no idea what it was then supposed to do and floundered, producing a list of random ideas that were ignored. It was a foreshadowing of Skelly's unilateral leadership and his tone deafness to community needs.

We need smaller high schools and we need to serve all students not just the top 10%. Gunn students deserve equal counseling services and this superintendent and board have refused to provide them.

We need to do more about these issues than post here. Unless gunn parents take action to receive better counseling they will continue to receive far worse counseling than Paly. We need a new direction -- every student having appropriate challenges, good counseling, support, chances to shine, good college prospects. [Portion removed.] We need real reform.

If we have this many kids who are this capable we can reasonably ask whether those at the top are going far enough and those in the middle are getting the attention they need.


Posted by former Paly parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 15, 2013 at 11:46 am

Gunn Parent/Charleston Meadows tells it like it is, including for PALY.
OF COURSE, "My kid," (some say) did it with his/her hands tied behind his/her back...
The REALITY is uber-powerful parenting/management of youth for competitive purposes.
NOT all these kids are "geniuses." I have witnessed kids forced to do BC Calc AP by junior year and so on, do that with year-round systematic prepping and very careful parental management, and use it only for top college application purposes (such accelerated accomplishments not continuing in university level education, in other words).
Ethical, very high achieving students who do their own work and who have not had the luxury-level outside prepping/handholding are at a disadvantage here. FACT.
New/naÔve parents and students, just be aware of the doctoring that goes on and do prepare your paper record although I still entreat people to be honest and do their own work and let their own personalities shine through in the college apps and hopefully some honest students will be rewarded.


Posted by Gunn students, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 15, 2013 at 11:55 am

@Sam: Just wanted to say thank you for making our day with that comment! My friends and I were just scrolling through the comments and holy cow that is possibly the most ridiculously socialist idea that has ever popped up on these Palo Alto threads. We literally LOL'd.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 15, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Gunn Parent is so right.

The answer is clear: let's eliminate testing. Grades too, while we're at it, along with any other subversive yardstick to tell whether kids have learned anything, or not.

Very truly yours,
The California Teachers' Association


Posted by Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 15, 2013 at 1:36 pm

The 3rd high school option should definitely be addressed again, and again and never dropped.

Before Skelly there was talk but it was dropped by parents saying that they had bought to go to Gunn (or Paly) and they did not want to go to an untried new school which was not known by colleges, etc.

The fact is that many people do think there should be a 3rd high school, but for everyone else's kids rather than their own.

Therefore the possibility of calling a 3rd high school a daughter school of Gunn (or Paly), a Gunn/Paly hybrid, a magnet liberal arts school, or something else rather than a fully functioning, stand alone high school, has been mentioned.

When the high school task force was being invoked, these were the things I understood they would talk about. At the first meeting Skelly told them not to consider any type of 3rd high school, so these things were never discussed. Shame.


Posted by go on, delete me, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Sep 15, 2013 at 2:54 pm

[Post removed.]


Posted by Another parent, a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 15, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Skelly made a decision about expanding Gunn and Paly before he had any understanding of the district and how we use choice schools here. Any decent choice program would be oversubscribed and pretty soon seen as an exclusive option. Under such a scenario, it would be possible to optimize the size of all 3 schools.

Unfortunately, Mr. Skelly's strength is not creative thinking, and as above people point out, he tends to discount parental input.

Well, the die is cast. I hope we will remember to vote for stronger leaders in the next school board elections, not just those who are nice.

Although these numbers are astonishing, didnt we have a much larger percentage a few years ago? Maybe I'm remembering something else.


Posted by Gunn Student, a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 15, 2013 at 4:40 pm

[Post removed.]


Posted by energizer bunny, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Sep 15, 2013 at 8:28 pm

[Portion removed.]

Well done HS students, these are awesome results!


Posted by Sam, a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 15, 2013 at 10:51 pm

[Portion removed.]


Posted by palymom, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 16, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Glad I received my California public education BITD, before the state became test-centric. Saddened by the 75% nonfiction push of the Common Core, that our children are reading less and doing far fewer creative things. But that's what it takes to keep up with Korea and China. And my son sure needs high scores to enter a formerly Humanities-driven, now career-driven university.


Posted by palymom, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 16, 2013 at 1:27 pm

You all need to look into how often a sophomore in CA is tested. You would be shocked. Why so many yardsticks? Fewer assessments please. And stop changing up the assessments.


Posted by Nora, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 16, 2013 at 5:35 pm

[Post removed.]


Posted by palo alto parent, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 17, 2013 at 10:18 am

How many of the kids who did this had private tutoring? I am only pointing out that while this is a great accomplishment and they should be very proud of themselves, the achievement in this area is often not just intelligence but a lot of expensive preparation. I say this as a former Merit semifinalist who prepared only by learning the vocabulary lists we were given as part of English class,studying hard in school, and taking the test without realizing the consequences. The good old days.


Posted by OK?, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 17, 2013 at 10:32 am

^^ Brag much? Talk about not having enough going on in your life.


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 17, 2013 at 10:39 am

@ former Paly parent: your FACT is not a fact without relevant data. I can refute your claim just on the basis of how our own children fared at Paly and beyond. No tutors, no expensive prep classes. They worked hard and they also teamed up with their friends for study sessions. No hand holding either as their course work was beyond what either one of us remembers.

So tired of people blaming others for high performance issues.


Posted by Dad, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 17, 2013 at 1:48 pm

It is ridiculous to imply that tutoring is unethical or cheating.

If you hire a baseball/soccer/basketball coach for your kid to help him/her compete better, is that cheating? Of course not.

But when it comes to education, somehow the rules change?
I think some parents just don't like to see competition in education (but are ok with it in every other domain), esp. when their kid is not getting awards.

The implied belief is "Oh, well, my kid could have been a National Merit Semi-Finalist, too, if he/she had prepared more...." Maybe. Maybe not.

Just keep it simple and congratulate kids for their accomplishments.


Posted by Mom, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 17, 2013 at 3:47 pm

baseball/soccer/basketball isn't the key to social mobility. Education is. Providing private coaching for your kid so that they can excel at a sport is not shifting the odds at a successful life against those who can't afford private coaching. They won't be as good at the sport perhaps but they won't lose out in the ability to be productive citizens.

Education is different. If the system is slanted toward those (and only those) who can afford private tutoring, then the entire purpose of public education is defeated.

Protecting the democratic purpose of public education means questioning the extent to which private tutoring has introduced systematic bias into the PAUSD system. Compassion and decency also require a thoughtful look at the impact of this arms race on our children.


Posted by Our experience, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 17, 2013 at 4:11 pm

@Mom - you are correct that the purpose of public education is to produce educated citizens. But I can't understand how one kid getting tutoring impacts another kid's ability to be a productive citizen. It just doesn't. There are lots of colleges in the land and one will take your child, regardless of class rank or GPA (the only things that I can think might be effected by others). Once there, your child can put her/his skills to work and achieve his/her full potential.

If the primary purpose of public education were to support social mobility, then I submit that local educational funding, in particular the basic aid model like Palo Alto, would not exist; nor would local educational foundations, or even funding through PTAs. Education is a great leveler, I agree, but some folks have access to better (or at least richer) school than others - that's just the way it is.

Luckily, hard work is far more important in determining life outcome than just dollars, especially since just about all in PAUSD have access to a good set of educational resources. Overlooked in tutoring discussions, I think, is that getting tutored is work - sure there is someone there explaining things to you, but you have to apply your mind to it and actually learn it. If we were talking about hiring someone to do the work, that would be cheating. This is hiring someone (or utilizing a parent, sibling, cousin, Khan Academy, whatever) to help you do the work more effectively - there just cannot be anything wrong with that, and the society that tries to prevent it is on the road to ruin.

In terms of the effect of this on our children - I agree, that is an issue that parents should attend to. My message to my kids is work hard, do as well as you can, and if you did your best, you did well - as my dad always told me, angels can do no more. There's always going to be someone who does better than you, but who cares? The issue is focusing on the things that matter to you and developing yourself as a person and member of society. That approach has worked well for us so far.


Posted by Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 17, 2013 at 4:32 pm

This discussion is going round in circles, like many of discussions on education do.

If the purpose is to educate every child to enable them to go to college or to be successful in life at whatever they do, then it really does not matter if one child is achieving more than another.

Education is and should not be a race, however there is the problem that only the best get into the best schools and therefore only the best get the better deal.

We have problems in California in that although the population is growing, and in particular for this discussion, the high school population is growing, we are not getting an increase in the number of places at our UCs to educate those who reach the required level to receive a place.

The UCs started out as a system whereby the reasonably bright California high school graduates had an affordable college for their third level education. This has since become a race for the brightest. Likewise, Stanford started out as an affordable college for California students, and we know where that has gone. But the big difference is that one is public and the other is private, but the UCs are acting pretty much like Stanford and the other privates, taking only the very best. The fact is that so many California high school graduates are reasonably bright and there are not enough places at the UCs. This means that other factors come into play and things like affirmative action, quotas, diversity, and geographic demographics come into play. I don't mean that this shouldn't happen, but it does mean that in a forever dwindling number of UC places, they have to continually find ways of layering down the applicants to make it follow through as a race to get into a UC.

Going back to what I said at the start of my post. Education is not and should not be a race. Unfortunately, the rules have changed and now it is more and more a race and no longer about all students having an equal chance to get to the top.

Of course not every 7 year old starting out in Little League will make the pros, and not every 7 year old will be able to become President of the United States, no matter how hard they try and how much help their parents give them. But, each child should have a fair shot at an education within their own state if they reach the required requirements. Trying to figure out what makes a fair shot is different for each family. To some, paying for extra tutors to gain an edge is part of that fair shot. To others, letting a child do their best with perhaps a poor teacher or other disadvantage, is the fair way to go. Unfortunately, what is fair for one is not necessarily fair for another, and really what is fair anyway?

There is no such thing as a level playing field when it comes to education, no matter how much we would like it to be.


Posted by Meh, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Sep 17, 2013 at 5:03 pm

[Post removed.]


Posted by Congrats to the Scholars!, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 17, 2013 at 5:17 pm

Not sure how a thread about National Merit Scholars disintegrated into comments about tutoring - but congrats to all of you and to all the students who are simply trying their best!


Posted by Dad, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 18, 2013 at 8:03 am

@Mom -

Free education is available everywhere on the Internet (CK12.org, Khan Academy, SAT prep apps etc...). So, every kid in every socio-economic class in Palo Alto has the option of learning more and preparing well for standardized tests. The new public education (local school + Internet learning) is 10x better than what we had growing up.

Doing well in school now is a matter of will and desire, not access to expensive resources.


Posted by Mom, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 18, 2013 at 8:57 am

Yes why aren't those poor kids using the high speed broadband access that Dad casually assumes that they all have? What's wrong with them that they don't go into the family's multimedia room and fire up that iPad. Must just not want to succeed.


Posted by Palo Verde Parent, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 18, 2013 at 9:24 am

@Mom
All libraries have free internet access. The Paly library (with computers and internet access) is open until 5 each day. Yes, it might be less convenient for some but preparation is available to all.


Posted by Mom, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 18, 2013 at 8:03 pm

It's not that it's less convenient. it's not equal to equate being able to go to the library from 3-5 and having a private tutor and test prep course. This is not even a point worth making it's so obvious. When teachers rely on the idea that eveyone has access to tutors and teach differently it disadvantages the students who don't have access. In PA that has worked because there are so few poor kids without that access.The fact that they have no power in this city doesn't make it right that we have schools geared to high achievers with access to resources. And it doesn't make it healthy for anyone.


Posted by Nice one!, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Sep 18, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Mom's solution to inequality is to dumb down the district to the lowest achiever!


Posted by Mom, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 18, 2013 at 9:02 pm

Here's an idea. You're all about competition, right? Ranking, differences, etc. You like that. Why promote an unfair race? Why allow some of the kids to take performance enhancers in the form of extra help? A fair fight, a fair contest, would be one in which every kid has the same amount of resources and instruction. Otherwise, you're not measuring ability, native intelligence, or potential. You're not measuring hard work. You're not even measuring teacher quality. You're measuring money.

if you are so into "achievement" why wouldn't you want a fair contest to measure achievement? Everyone at the same starting line. Maybe you are afraid of how a fair fight would come out. Take your thumb off the scale.


Posted by Our experience, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 18, 2013 at 9:21 pm

I thought the point of school tests was to measure how much kids learned - period. Some will learn by hard work, some by effortless ability; some will study alone, some with groups; some will have helpful parents, some will not; some will have jobs, sports, and drama, others will just hit the books; and some will have tutors. But regardless of how they get there, if they learn the material, they earn the grade.

Rather than tear down those with tutors, a better point is that grades aren't the whole story about 17 year old's academic ability or potential (not to mention overall ability or potential). The top schools all say that they fill their classes with valedictorians, but they don't. To the extent that UC's use GPA as a large factor in their decision (do they?), that's a shame - there should be more to it.


Posted by nice one!, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Sep 18, 2013 at 9:35 pm

@Mom,
Yeah, makes sense. Let's teach the kids the minimum and let only those with money teach their own kids! That's as dumb as the new approach to summer school: "Let's not teach anyone unless we can teach everyone for free!". You're in great company,

Unfortunately the rest of the world is passing you by.


Posted by Palo Verde Parent, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 18, 2013 at 10:01 pm

@mom
This discussion was about standardized testing PSAT and national merit designation. There is help and prep available (on line) for anyone who puts the effort in to prepare for these tests. Yes it might be easier for others but that is life. You change gears and talk about tutors and teachers.


Posted by OPar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2013 at 12:18 am

I think it's fine for some kids to use tutors, take test prep courses, etc. *IF* they aknowledge doing so. What I don't like is any kind of deception. If kids, as has been alleged, are taking summer-school classes at the JC that cover the same curriculum as a regular school-year class and then repeating the course for an easy A in high school then that should be part of their transcript.

The huge irony of all the test prep and SAT test gaming is that originally the SATs were intended to reveal aptitude. You weren't supposed to even be able to study for them. At this point, they're kind of useless (I'm speaking of the SAT Is not the IIs which used to be achievement tests.)

Recently, I got a flyer from a local tutoring service that featured 70 hours of tutoring over a couple of months for Calculus BC. My feeling is that if your kid needs that much tutoring, he or she has no business being in that class. And if I were a college admissions officer, I'd rather have the kid who gets the B+ in that class on his or her own steam than the kid who's massively tutored into an A-.

And, no, by the way, watching some Youtube videos on a subject is really not the same as having one-on-one tutoring. It's also disingenuous to pretend some kid whose parents are working 14 hour days and don't, themselves, have college educations (or fluency in English) is going to know the college-prep game the way the sophisticated ambitious parents of Palo Alto do.


Posted by Mom, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 19, 2013 at 1:58 pm

PVP, OE etc: Boo hoo, someone doesn't like the idea of a fair fight. Let's take your overprepped, over scheduled little precious sweetheart who think that the world is full of unicorns pooping rainbows just for her and match her against a poor black kid with a single mom with all the odds in the world against him being raised by his grandparents -- teach them both equally, same teachers, same quality of education, no unfair advantages and tutoring for either -- who will be President?. Maybe Barack Obama got to be President in a fair fight and maybe that's what is so scary.


Posted by OPar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Mom,

While I agree with the gist of what you're saying, I don't agree with your characterization of the kids here. I don't think the kids here have a particularly idealized view of the world with an endless sense of entitlement. I think most of them feel highly pressured and have a good dose of self-doubt as well. When you put kids in tons of tutoring and test-prep courses you're sending the message that you don't think their own independent efforts are good enough.

It's funny, we all have so much compared to most people on the planet, but this thread is filled with people who feel somehow inadequate--a bunch of kids doing well on the PSAT translates into a zero-sum game that somehow penalizes *other* kids. Nothing's ever good enough.

You know, life doesn't end when you're not a star. Most of us aren't stars and we're really okay. It's really less important for your kid to get into Harvard than it is for he or she to be capable of being happy and resilient enough to deal with life's ups and downs.


Posted by OPar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Mom,

While I agree with the gist of what you're saying, I don't agree with your characterization of the kids here. I don't think the kids here have a particularly idealized view of the world with an endless sense of entitlement. I think most of them feel highly pressured and have a good dose of self-doubt as well. When you put kids in tons of tutoring and test-prep courses you're sending the message that you don't think their own independent efforts are good enough.

It's funny, we all have so much compared to most people on the planet, but this thread is filled with people who feel somehow inadequate--a bunch of kids doing well on the PSAT translates into a zero-sum game that somehow penalizes *other* kids. Nothing's ever good enough.

You know, life doesn't end when you're not a star. Most of us aren't stars and we're really okay. It's really less important for your kid to get into Harvard than it is for he or she to be capable of being happy and resilient enough to deal with life's ups and downs.


Posted by Mom, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 19, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Your kids must have had different friends than mine -- good for them!


Posted by OPar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Mom,

Well, there are thousands of kids, so neither of us is probably getting a statisticallly valid sample . . . I've liked most of the PA teens I've known, but that doesn't mean there aren't obnoxiously entitled ones.

But then, my working theory of PA parents is that 80 percent are fine or great, but the remaining 20 percent can drive you nuts.


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 19, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Um, President Obama attended Punahou HS in Honolulu --- a very elite and expensive (private) college prep school. Hardly the life of an underprivileged child.


Posted by Mom, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 19, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Obama was a scholarship student at Punahou. It's in his memoir. It gave him a chance in life that he otherwise would not have had. He got the same access to excellent teachers that the other students had in a private prep school. In a fair fight in which all students have access to excellent resources, the truly able can rise to the top. In an unfair system in which the rich buy better education for their children, their children do rise to the top but only because of the impact of money.

The same results are being had in many charter schools and academies in which minority achievement results are outstanding. If you give all children access to the same excellent support, then your "merit" test is of "merit." Otherwise the SAT is just a wallet check and nothing else.

I don't think that private school students use tutoring at the same rate than PAUSD students do, and the reason is obvious, which is the subject of my original post -- the number of very bright students at Gunn is so large and the competition among them so intense that they are being pushed through an arms race against one another. The true losers in this race is absolutely everyone. Even those who "win" lost their childhoods doing meaningless homework until 1:00am and attending every manner of tutoring and prep.


Posted by Mom, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 19, 2013 at 7:42 pm

On Obama's impoverished childhood and being a scholarship student in the white school:

Web Link


Posted by OPar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Mom,

I personally know of several kids at private schools who use tutors. The pressure's less to the extent that the schools tend to be smaller and there can be more individualized support, but the demands and expectations at the competitive private schools can be brutal--and, yes, tutors are used. Even at some of the supposedly mellower schools you see plenty of tutoring.

I think the pushing down of the math curriculum is the most idiotic. Two years of calculus in high school seems to have become the "norm" for high achievers, but plenty of otherwise bright kids need tutoring to get through it. The irony is that many STEM fields only require the first year of calculus. We've created a situation where kids are sweating over math they don't even need. I know of one kid who did her two years of calculus in high school with a tutor and now, in college, can no longer do it. And, no, not a PA kid, but a kid who went to a private school.

From what I can see, the huge beneficiaries of this mess aren't the kids or the colleges, but the testing organizations.


Posted by Mom, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 19, 2013 at 9:10 pm


I agree -- College Board is laughing all the way to the bank.


Posted by Our experience, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 20, 2013 at 8:22 am

@Mom - the idea that the goal of schools is to provide a level playing field and a "fair race" in life; I'm not sure where that comes from. They provide a basic level of education to all comers - a "floor." Folks are always able to buy more - by going to private schools, tutors, home schooling, charters, or choosing what school district to live in (like many of us did). Which seems fine - some people value education more than others, and some people have greater means than other.

We can talk about how high the "floor" should be, but it is a floor, nothing more. Anyone who wants to do more is welcome to - even encouraged, since education is a semi-public good. I just don't get the idea that public school families who want to do more are viewed to be doing something wrong or unfair. I'm not aware of any public policy doctrine that supports that view. So long as they aren't cheating, those kids/families are just investing in their own education.


Posted by Mom, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 20, 2013 at 3:40 pm

When teachers and schools adjust curriculum and practice due to the prevalence of tutoring that is a community problem. It's not that any one family is per se doing anything wrong it is that the system itself is misaligned to the needs and abilities of kids who lack resources. In your terms the "floor" is set too high and those without tutors cannot attain it. For example at Paly algebra 1A was a prerequisite to take bio 1. It probably still is though there were parent request to change that. Therefore only advanced Alg students could even take bio 1 as freshmen. That is about unequal resources. It is just one example among many.


Posted by Mom, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 20, 2013 at 8:21 pm

Here's the Paly course catalog for 2013-14 showing that Algebra 1A is still a prerequisite for Biology 1. That means -- just so that everyone is clear about this -- that you cannot even take the introductory, lowest level of the lowest lane of intro Bio 1 unless you are in advanced math (and you cannot even get into Alg 1A in 9th grade unless you had "superior achievement" (i.e., an A) in 8th grade pre-algebra.

How did we get here and what, if any, is the relationship of tutoring this this problem?

There is an intense competition in elite high schools nationally due to perceived reduced probability of obtaining an elite college admission. This fear, which is based in part on the zeitgeist fear of Asian, particularly Chinese competition, is particularly salient in Silicon Valley due to the high numbers of Chinese immigrants, which make what is currently a national anxiety into a highly visible local paranoia. This leads many parents to participate in an arms race for achievement, which includes tutoring, prepping, parental help, and enrichment -- starting with Baby Einstein and building to a crescendo in high schools with full-monte resume building that includes founding nonprofits, expensive overseas "service" projects, multiple club sports, and other activities in addition to excessive homework and AP coursework.

As parents and students look around and see other parents and students engaged in these activities they feel that their student is at a disadvantage if they do not do it as well. Unwilling to do or not do anything that might harm their child, they are pulled along reluctantly by the tide of prepping.

Teachers feel pressure to differentiate among students. This pressure comes from multiple directions, including from some teachers' own sense that their classes are more "elite" and they are more like "college teachers" if they teach harder and more "rigorous" classes. They notice that many students seem to pass their classes, even advanced and AP classes, very easily, and feel that they cannot give all these students an A. The want to grade on a normal distribution, and so even though many students are meeting the state-mandated course objectives for that level class, the teacher forces the right hand tail into a normal curve, and gives out very few As (this is how we get students who receive 5s on the AP test getting a C in AP classes in PAUSD.

Students who should receive an A because they have met or exceeded the course objectives are receiving Bs or even Cs. They panic because they want to get As. They ask for a tutor. The parent agrees, and is happy the child wants to improve. But everyone else did the same thing. So now the teacher moves the goalpost again in an effort to "up the ante" and make the class even harder in order to preserve the low number of As.

Students run harder and harder toward an ever-receding goal. Parents pay more and more money but students' grades are very hard to improve. Students become demoralized when the returns to effort do not materialize. Teachers begin to fetishize and take pride in having a class so hard no one can get an A except a few brilliant geniuses. They are now almost college teachers in their minds. The district gets to brag about its off the charts test scores.

But. Do those grades, that are lower than predicted by test scores hurt our students? Are our students going less far than they would if they were in a less competitive pool or with teachers who did not constantly raise the bar on them? Most likely.

And, what of students who can't even get in the race? What about the 10-15% of PAUSD students whose parents can't tutor them and can't pay for the private tutoring just to enable them to tread water or to pre-take classes to get ahead? They aren't even in the game. They can "go to jobs or community college."

Tutoring by itself is not a problem. Tutoring, Palo Alto style is destructive.

Palo Alto Weekly should do a cover package on tutoring. The strategic plan survey says that 50% of our students are tutored, some very extensively. Families are paying several hundred dollars a month for tutoring according to the most recent Strategic Plan survey. We need a good journalistic examination of the explosive growth of the tutoring industry in PA, what the effects are on students postive and negative, how test prepping invalidates the results of tests (for example, NY City privates abandon the ERB due to prepping invalidating results) and more. This is a topic that cries out for a full treatment perhaps by Terri Lobdell similar to her excellent reportage on coaching, bullying, homework, and bullying. Hope to see it soon.

begin to increase the difficulty of the coursework.


Posted by Mom, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 20, 2013 at 8:21 pm

Link to Paly catalog: Web Link


Posted by substance, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 21, 2013 at 7:52 am

Mom,

Mistakes

1. Biology 1.

You say " Algebra 1A is still a prerequisite for Biology 1." Not true. Freshmen in Algebra 1 are "recommended to take ...Biology as sophomores." (Paly Course Catalog)

2. "NY City privates abandon the ERB due to prepping invalidating results" as reason to get rid of SAT tutoring too.

The ERB at issue here is for kindergarteners and measures, among other things, vocabulary and the ability to identify geometric shapes, two things that are easily prep-able.

Studies show that prepping for the SAT – a reasoning test - does NOT move test scores. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, "test prep courses have minimal impact in improving SAT scores — about 10-20 points on average in mathematics and 5-10 points in critical reading." Web Link

Overstatements

1. Arms Race.

You say "This leads MANY parents to participate in an arms race for achievement." If I remember correctly, the number of admits to the elite colleges around here holds at a pretty steady 10%. So maybe 20% think that they have a chance at being one of the 10%, but that leaves "many"-to-most - at least 80% - who are not.

2. APs.

"excessive homework and AP coursework."

The number of APs our students take is not off the charts. PAUSD doesn't even let students take APs until their junior year and the average number of APs Paly and Gunn students take is just 2.

3. "Students who should receive an A because they have met or exceeded the course objectives are receiving Bs or even Cs"

This, I agree, is irksome, but from my observations appears to describe, at most, one or two AP classes out of 20 available.

4. "What about the 10-15% of PAUSD students whose parents can't tutor them".

As others have pointed out, there are ample FREE resources available from tutors at school to tutorials with teachers to online lectures to local nonprofit academic support programs .

Intolerance for differences

1. "highly visible local paranoia"

"Paranoia" in your view perhaps, but for many immigrants the path to college scholarships and success in America - and life - is a great education gained by working very hard at school.

Given that the race-blind UCs are now enrolling many immigrants/first generation children, I would say that these students got it right and that others who want the same for their children should emulate them or, at the very least, refrain from disparaging their work ethic, aspirations, and determination.

2. Tutors.

Ever consider that some use tutors because, with 35 in a class, PAUSD classes are more lecture than seminar and students feel that they will understand the material better if, like in college, they have a TA to go to? That is not an arms race. That is turning underfunded public schools into a teaching environment that works for the student.

Unfounded Assumptions

1. "no one can get an A except a few brilliant geniuses".

Unless you have access to every teacher's grade book, there is no way that you can know this.

2. "Are our students going less far than they would if they were in a less competitive pool or with teachers who did not constantly raise the bar on them? Most likely."

Your conclusion is conjecture and speculation.


Posted by Mom, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 21, 2013 at 9:12 am

Here is the actual language from the Paly course catalog about Bio 1 stating flatly that Alg 1A is a "prerequisite":

Prerequisite: Freshmen in Biology should be enrolled in Algebra 1A or higher math. Freshmen in Algebra 1 are recommended to take Conceptual Physics as freshmen, Biology as sophomores, Chemistry as juniors and an elective science as seniors.

I have no idea why there is a set of people who are determined to defend the district's practices no matter what. Assuming that these defenders are not employees of the district, it is shocking to me that there are parents who defend poor practices, and who will make things up (such as the above claim that Alg 1A is not a prerequisite when the word "PREREQUISITE" is right there in bold letters). Still, someone shot out of the woodwork to spew the whopper that it's "Not True." Any why not just lie about it? After all, this is anonymous, there's no fact checking, anyone can say anything so long as it's civil. One of the biggest problems with the anonymous forum in my mind is that you can lie your face off so long as you do it with civility.


Posted by substance just pwnd you, mom, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Sep 21, 2013 at 10:20 am

Web Link
"Prerequisite: Freshmen in Biology should be enrolled in Algebra 1A or higher math. Freshmen in Algebra 1 are recommended to take Conceptual Physics as freshmen, Biology as sophomores, Chemistry as juniors and an elective science as seniors."


Posted by substance, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 21, 2013 at 10:26 am

Mom,

Your post shows TWO math paths to Bio at Paly:

- Alg 1A freshman year -> Bio freshman year: "Freshmen in Biology should be enrolled in Algebra 1A or higher math," or

- Alg 1 freshman year -> Bio sophomore year: "Freshmen in Algebra 1 are recommended to take ...Biology as sophomores."

Either Alg course is a prerequisite for Bio so there is no need to call me a liar, tag me as uncaring, or view me as an apologist.

Care to retract: "it is shocking to me that there are parents who defend poor practices, and who will make things up (such as the above claim that Alg 1A is not a prerequisite when the word "PREREQUISITE" is right there in bold letters)"?

Or this: "spew the whopper that it's "Not True." ...you can lie your face off"?


Posted by Mom, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 21, 2013 at 10:49 am

Algebra 1A is a prerequisite for Bio 1. If you do not have the prerequisite to take the 9th grade science (Bio) you have to take "conceptual physics" instead and wait until you have completed Algebra 1 (with a C+ or better) and are in Geometry before you can take Biology 1, which is the lowest lane of Bio that is offered in PA.

The lowest lane Bio, which is typical 9th grade science in PA requires advanced math. Either you are concurrently enrolled in advanced Algebra or you have to complete lower lane Algebra before you can even take it. Even though Bio does not rely on math in any way.

Get it? The pre-req for Paly's lowest lane 9th grade bio class is advanced math.

I am sorry you do not seem to understand what a prereq is or how to read a course catalog. I take back the accusation that you are lying as it appears you are just not able to understand what a prereq is or how it works.


Posted by Palo Verde parent, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 21, 2013 at 10:59 am

@Mom
At many high schools Bio is a soph course. Not all students are ready to take Bio in 9th grade. Paly is not saying students can't take Bio just not recommending it as 9th graders. Conceptual Physics (the course that Alg 1 9th grade students take per the catalog) is a UC approved course. Not sure how this is "poor practice"? Putting students in a situation where they have a better chance of success and completing a UC approved course doesn't sound like poor practice to me! Why does a student have to take Bio in the 9th grade anyway? At Menlo School students take a physics class not bio in the 9th grade.

It seems to me that there is a group of PAUSD haters who are always going to have an issue with the district. This thread was about the achievement of a group of kids why turn it into something else?


Posted by paly parent, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 21, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Gunn requires ALL freshman to take Bio - are their students just more competent than Paly's?

Web Link


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 21, 2013 at 2:59 pm

We have one squeaky wheel on all of this. I think that the greater (silent) majority is pretty happy with the education professionals who run Paly.


Posted by Palo Verde Parent, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 21, 2013 at 3:05 pm

@paly parent This looks like a new pathway for science. When my son was at Gunn there was an intro to science type course for students that were not ready for Bio. This course was not UC approved so I think the new situation is much better. It looks like they just swap the two courses (Conceptual Physics and Bio) at the two schools. One could just as easily ask since Paly students take a physics course as a freshman are they more capable? I think it really doesn't matter the order in which the courses are taken. At the end of Soph year both groups will have 2 years of UC science completed, which is fantastic.


Posted by paly parent, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 21, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Until last year, Paly freshman that weren't "ready" for Biology, were required to take a Science class that didn't fill a UC requirement AND if sophomores were taking Chem, there wasn't a regular level of Chemistry.

For some reason, the Paly science department deems the Paly students smarter than Gunn?


Posted by A Gunn Student, a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 9, 2014 at 6:58 pm

In the words of Ron Burgundy, "That escalated quickly".


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