Publication Date: Wednesday, October 05, 2005|
Q & A
Q & A
(October 05, 2005)
With the Palo Alto school board election just weeks away, the Weekly sat down with the four candidates to quiz them on school-related issues from intelligent design to teen drinking.
What is your greatest asset?
Ezran: I think that one of the things I would bring to this race is a very strong management and finance background. I often hear that in Palo Alto we do need leaders with more management experience, so I think that makes me an interesting candidate for the school board, not that there is anything wrong with current city council members or school board members. I just think it would ... the mix of the skills that are on these elected bodies. I also think I have a lot of experience with the community, so it's not just management and finances, but it's also community experience that started many years ago when I was on the board of directors of the cable co-op. Then there was my involvement with the Healthy School Lunch Committee and with the PTA currently and the re-elected treasurer of the PTA Council of Palo Alto. I certainly have a strong interest in community activities and that's a good mix to have. I think that community activism without management and financial skills is not as good as having both.
Mitchell: I think my greatest asset is my experienced leadership over 15 years in our school district at both the elementary, middle and high school district-wide level. I think that gives me a context, a history, the relationships, as well as a good sense of what this district has been trying to accomplish and what challenges and opportunities we have.
Mullen: My greatest asset is my financial background and expertise that I bring to the board.
Tom: I bring a blend of business management and volunteer experience that will be valuable to the school district. I've been an engineer, a manager, and work in organizational development now. Most of my career has been as a manager and I've focused on effective management skills as a manager and in organizational development where I deliver management training. As a volunteer, I've been PTA president, co-chair of the school site council, advisor for the student newspaper at Duveneck and a sports coach for soccer basketball and baseball. I believe I've developed knowledge about school district issues and the interests of our children through those experiences.
What will be the district's main issue over the next 10 years?
Ezran: I think there will be many important issues, but there's an obvious one, which is finances. I am not very optimistic in terms of the outlook for the financing of public education in the United States and California specifically. I think it's going to be an uphill battle. I have many reasons for that. I think it's going to be important for the school district to be very frugal in its spending, to be very careful to rebuild its reserves and it might have to go back to voters again for a parcel tax. I hope it will not be an increase in the current amount, which was already increased, but you never know and I won't make a campaign promise because if there is an economic disaster it might have to be raised. My hope as a candidate is that you can do everything to minimize this amount whatever it is. We must have also to issue a bond to improve some of the facilities such as the multifunction rooms in elementary schools. I think we have a structural change where in the past you could rely more or less on federal funds and state funds or being a basic aide district, I know our federal funds are fairly limited, but nowadays we can rely on these sources a lot less. So we have to basically fight our own way to finance the district to achieve our education goals.
Mitchell: I think the greatest issue ahead from a school board trustee perspective is establishing a long-term strategic vision for what we want this district to be in 10 years. That road map would allow us to prioritize our resources, focus on the things that are the most important to us and our students, and also put us in the best position to handle the scores of issues and challenges we face a long the way, such as a growing population, money management, providing an outstanding ed to our students, hiring and retaining our best teachers. Having a great road map is the most important thing.
Mullen: Well I wish I had a crystal ball. I would imagine there is going to be several issues, but I believe finances of the school district will continue to be an issue of the school district both with respect to operating costs, as well as capital costs associated with keeping our schools in great shape.
Tom: The district's main issue will be planning for enrollment growth. We appear to be on an upward trend, particularly given the proposed housing developments in the pipeline. This has a huge effect on our fiscal stewardship. It affects our per-student funding based on our tax base, it affects the number of teachers we'll need to have. And very significantly, it affects the number of schools. We need to continually collaborate with the city on projections to take into account the expected growth and we need to plan for the ramifications of those projections.
What district policy would you change?
Ezran: I'm not sure there are any specific policy I would change, but I can tell you there are some practices that I would change. For instance, I'd like to improve communication with the community and the city of Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills and Stanford as well. My commitment as a candidate is that I would organize community forums, even myself as a school board member, or I would have the whole school board agree to do that, organize such and such meetings. I think that when you attend a school board meeting you're a bit limited in the way you can communicate with the school board. You have three minutes, it's a one-way communication. It might be well suitable for such a meeting, so I think it's insufficient to establish communication with the community. You want to have dialogue.
Mitchell: I'm not running for school board to change any existing board policy. I'm eager to learn more about them and certainly become more knowledgeable about their implications. However, on a policy level I would like to focus on ensuring that board policy is well aligned with our budget, our personnel policies, our evaluations, and of course our strategic plan and annual goals.
Mullen: That's a good question. Our district's been in business for many years and has a terrific legacy. Off the top of my head, I don't have a specific policy in mind that I would initiate the change for.
Tom: I would like the school district to increase its focus on prioritizing its goals. The school district has a small number of strategic goals, which have support. As part of the district's strategic planning team a couple of years ago, I helped develop those. Each year the district develops a long list of programs to advance toward those goals. However, this list should be prioritized and each program should have a measurable goal. What would help would be to list the top 10 programs for each strategic goal that provide the greatest benefit for our students. That would serve two functions, for the community it would help them gain a better grasp of where the school district is putting its attention. It would do that much better than having a very large document that very few people will take the time to read. For the staff it would help focus their attention on the most essential programs that they must be successful at in order to accomplish our mission, which is first-rate teaching and learning.
Are there any new avenues, program or initiatives the district should embark upon?
Ezran: Yes, there are many, so let me get started here. In no particular order, but I think we need to improve the training of new teachers. I think we need to continue to work on writing skills in elementary schools, I think there is still room for improvement there. I'd like to see if we can find the funding, start teaching foreign languages in sixth-grade as opposed to seventh-grade. Everyone knows the sooner you start, the better. There is another thing, I would like to see a resolve, it's a question of having an elementary school in Los Altos Hills. It seems like one of these issues that nobody wants to touch. I think the issue might have been more on the side of Los Altos school board, than our school board, but still, it's one of those hot button issues that nobody wants to address. As a school board member, I'd like to address it. I feel like it's a sub-optimal situation for Los Altos Hills elementary school children to be bused and to do day-long trips to go to school. Los Altos has enough students to fill a full elementary school. I know the potential there is at least 400 students. It also has two great sites, so it's not like it would be very costly. It's two sites, one is Bullis, the other one is another school we own and rent. I think it's about establishing a dialogue with the city of Los Altos Hills and a dialogue with all the school districts like the Mountain View district and also the Los Altos school district.
Mitchell: Yes and hopefully more than one. One example is to help address the greatest challenge the district has which is to try to individualize education for every single student in the district. It's a common goal of parents and teachers and there are school districts out there as well as samples in-house that model individual educational plans. Campbell Union School District is one example that's getting national attention for pioneering a student success plan. The idea is to set simple annual objectives, identify support, monitor achievement and provide continuity of communication year to year that would help parents and teacher work together toward the success of each student.
Mullen: We have terrific programs in the district. We've got high-performing students in the district both from an academic and a vocational perspective. One of the initiatives I believe we need to bring to the table is greater budgetary discipline with respect to our finances. Jerry Matranga said it aptly in a newspaper article recently that the district should rebuild its reserves and I don't disagree with Jerry at all in that regard.
Tom: I support having the school district increase its emphasis on writing particularly in the secondary schools. The school district made a large advance in its writing curriculum for the elementary schools when it added the Six Traits Writing program, which gave good structure to the writing curriculum for our elementary students. I believe we need a similar advance for our secondary schools. Writing is an essential skill that's part of communication that all of our students need to be successful in the future. As a young engineer, a column that I remember that had a great impact on me was written by Bob Metcalf, the inventor of the Internet. His message was that every engineer not only needs to be strong technically but they to be an excellent communicator and salesman because the greatest idea in the world is worthless if you can't persuade someone of its merits. And so in any domain a person will need to be able to communicate and with the proliferation of e-mail writing has only become more important.
Will another general obligation bond be necessary to continue updating district facilities?
Ezran: Yes, it will be necessary. I think the timeframe might be the next two or three years, so if I'm elected it would be definitely at the end of my term. There are several things that we need to work on. One of them is in elementary schools we need to improve the multifunction rooms for instance. In the longer term, there are other things that we could do. For instance, we could have a plan for much better lunch facilities. I remember and many people will remember that when they attended school they had a cafeteria. I think having a place with some kind of kitchen facility with a place to sit down would be an improvement on the way children have lunch. Right now there are very long lines, they don't have a place to sit down. They don't always have time to take lunch because of these long lines. I see it myself with my daughter at Jordan. That would be from my point of view would be a continuation of some of my work on the Healthy School Lunch Committee.
Mitchell: For any school district and especially a school district grown 42 percent in the last 15 years, facilities investments are not just a one time thing. While the bond measure in 1996 has provided a huge amount of improvement, there remains a number of things that haven't been renovated, updated or even built in over 30 years. We need to look at our classroom space, we need to look at our athletic facilities. We need to look at our plans for opening additional sites. And a bond measure is one way a school district has to do that. That said, I believe we have some trust and accountability to demonstrate to the community, as well as a specific plan before we go out for bond money again.
Mullen: That's another excellent question. It's still early in the campaign and I'm still in the process of researching various operations of the district. Certainly I can think of a couple buildings, a building in particular that could use updating and I think it would be the Haymarket Theater at Palo Alto High School as needing more than just paint and new tiles on the floors. However, to the extent that we need another GO bond, I can't state with any degree of certainty that it's necessary in the near term or long term. The board needs to make sure as a group that all financing options are investigated before we go to the taxpayers with our hat in our hand.
Tom: I expect that we will need another bond at some point both to further upgrade our facilities and to address the enrollment growth that we expect. It's the responsibility of the administration to develop a proposal based on projected needs and present that to the school board.
What specifically should the school board do to reduce student stress?
Ezran: First let me state that a little bit of stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Stress is a factor of life. You have it in your adult life and you better get used to some of it in school. That being said, there is no doubt that in Palo Alto there is a particularly high level of stress and it's a very complex issue that can't be attacked with just one solution. It needs to be tackled from many different angles. I think that one thing we might want to consider is the amount of homework we give to students and maybe see if that can be reduced a bit. I think we might also want to look at making sure that school counselors are well educated on how to deal with that issue. We might want to have, in fact the PTA now has been doing some sessions on that and we might want to encourage them to continue to educate parents. We might want to have the district educate children on that and find some solutions. When you're dealing with college admissions process, it's very difficult not to be stressed but we need to tell children that if they don't get into Harvard or Stanford, they're obviously not a failure. It's hard for them to understand that a lot of parent education is needed because I think one of the main sources of stress is also the very high expectations that parents have. You have parents who feel that their students don't even have enough homework. You need to have a multi-pronged strategy that deals with parents, the amount of homework, in a nutshell and a few other things.
Mitchell: The good news is I believe the district has recognized the increase in student stress and has been confronted with it in indescribable ways. There's a lot of interest and consensus around this issue and teachers tell me it continues to change and get worse even in the last five years. Groups such as the district committee on stress, social norming, PTA council, principals, adolescent counseling services offer the interest, expertise and opportunity to help us pull resources and inform the district on specific measures it can take. In addition, I think it's time to be looking at a number of issues that stressed students and expand this coalition to issues of academics, social, bullying, abuse and look at some of the leading remedies that deal with creating a safe environment for our children. One idea would be to finalize this coalition into an advisory group with an ongoing role because I don't think this is a one-time problem to fix.
Mullen: The school board is a policy setting entity and this is not a new issue to the Palo Alto schools but at the same time it's an initiative that needs to be pushed down at the site level with great communication with the parents and other stakeholders in the community to ensure that our students are challenged yet not overburdened with expectations that may be unrealistic.
Tom: I am personally concerned about stress for my own family. I have a middle schooler who is approaching the years where the stress increases dramatically. As a youth sports coach, I've been through training by the Positive Coaching Alliance and they've charged me with being a double goal coach, meaning one goal was to win, but another goal was to develop the character of my players. I believe we need to have a double goal school district. One goal for the school district is provide an outstanding education to all students, but the second goal is to build the resilience and other skills needed for our students in the future. To me, first-rate teaching and learning involves both the core academic areas as well as the skills that span multiple subject areas, such as critical thinking, collaboration and communication. I support the school district's strategic goals that address the issue of stress, one of which is concerned with the social emotional health of our students and the other one refers to offering multiple avenues to students to demonstrate success. I would like the school district to increase its level of collaboration with the SOS organization, Stressed Out Students, and I believe that one of their principles is very sound in that they believe it's important to involve all stakeholders that's students, parents and teachers and administration. That's necessary in order to gain the buy in to ensure the success of school reforms or changes they decide to make.
Should the school district limit the number of Advanced Placement courses a high school student can take each year? Why or why not?
Ezran: Of course it has to limit the number of such courses because funds are limited. It has to basically find the ideal compromise between demand and paying for the supply. That means looking at what students the students want, what's useful because some requests are not going to be that useful. The district needs to sort out between all those things. I think there's a tendency among high school students to over do it and we need to counsel them and tell them they don't need to take a plethora of AP classes to get into college.
Mitchell: I wouldn't see that as a board level policy and would be inclined to leave that flexibility up to the high school principals, guidance staff and individual families. This has been a strategy in some school districts in an effort to reduce stress. Other districts have experimented with eliminating the extra GPA point that a student gets when they take an AP course. I do think we need to come up with strategies that both serve the academic goals of students as well as alleviate the sense that that's what they need to do to be successful.
Mullen: I think the number of AP courses each student takes each academic year is entirely up to the student and that student's parents at the family level. That's the level that the discussion should occur is at the family level. If the student needs the AP courses to remain academically challenged then I see no reason why the student shouldn't take as many AP courses as they reasonably can. The number of AP courses is student centric. It depends on the character and the nature and the abilities and goals of each student.
Tom: The choice over the number of AP classes a student takes should be made by the student and his or her family. However, the school district does have a responsibility to provide advice and guidance to the student about what appears to be manageable for most students and what they feel is appropriate for that particular student and I think the school counselors and teachers that know the student better are in the best position to provide that guidance. Ultimately, the decision should be made by the student and his or her family. The important thing is that they're able to make a well-informed decision.
What should the board do about overbearing parents, known as "helicopter" parents?
Ezran: We have our share of such parents in Palo Alto. As you know, it's a community very involved and rightly so with the education of the children. Children are their most precious things. That said, when dealing with such parents I think the first thing I would advise is to still be courteous, listen to them like you would with anybody else and you probably want to kindly mildly educate them about the process and about behaving in the way you behave yourself. You have to model the behavior essentially with the hope they will perform to your model. I would advise to be a bit of a diplomat and a soft touch, I think that works much better than confronting them.
Mitchell: At the board level, I would look at our values related to collaboration, respect, teamwork and communication. But in terms of specifics I would reach to principals, teachers and staff members to better understand the effect this is having on their responsibilities. I think the underlying issue is home-school communications and there are real opportunities that could go a long way in preventing helicopter-like behavior, such as individual education plans, proactive progress reports, conferencing. The board also has to be responsible for ensuring that principals, teachers and staff members are treated with respect and courtesy and that their given the tools and resources they need to put such tools into action.
Mullen: The board is a policy setting organization, however, implementation of policy is best and most effectively achieved at the site level. Education is learning about life and acquiring skills to succeed in life and this I think dovetails nicely with your previous question about stress. I think parents need to understand that all parents have a role in their child's education but when they enter the door of the classroom the responsibility and the proverbial baton is passed from the parent to the professional educator.
Tom: The board could promote greater education to parents on appropriate behavior that's productive for their child and for the school. While I was co-chair of the Duveneck site council, I led the creation of the Duveneck Partnership, which was a set of brochures, one for parents and one for teachers, and they provide strategies to help strengthen that partnership between parents and teachers. It focused on affective communication and how to address issues productively. I feel that it did provide many parents with a greater understanding of the context that their teachers operate within and how to approach them.
If housing prices in the area continue to rise, how will the district continue to attract and retain quality teachers in the next decade?
Ezran: First let me say that it's not just about teachers, it's also about classified employees, administrators and obviously teachers. It's a big issue. It goes way beyond the school board level. I think it's a regional issue. It's an issue of persons in the city of Palo Alto employees, fire fighters and policemen. There are some band-aid solutions, such as nonprofit organizations that I know of that are helping teachers get better loans with very good rates, but it's only a band-aid solution. The solutions rely a lot more on the regional level with the different cities having low-cost housing plans essentially. I would encourage everyone in Palo Alto to vote for candidates or consider at least candidates who encourage low-cost housing. It's critical to the needs of this community.
Mitchell: First, I think we want to be the most appealing school district to work for in the Bay Area and in California so that the quality of life in our district culture is worth some tough trade offs. I think we need to keep our compensation competitive to local benchmarks, which is one way to not let it get away from us. We also can be grateful for organizations such as Housing Options for Teachers, which continues to place or help up to 100 teachers annually reduce some of the costs and entry-level obstacles that they face. Lastly, I think the district can play a role in helping the community realize how our housing costs eat up a much larger share of a teacher's compensation than do most other areas in the state.
Mullen: One teacher I respect immensely recently retired from the district. He was a middle school math teacher and he lived in Fremont, taught in the district for many, many years and was adored and respected by parents, students and fellow educators alike. There are a number of housing options throughout the South Peninsula area and I think that housing options will continue to evolve over time. If you and I Alex could project the future of the real estate market we'd be unique form other people in having that crystal ball ability.
Tom: This question is primarily focused on compensation given projected housing price increases. I believe that the salaries that teachers, as well as all staff of the district, must always be competitive compared to neighboring school districts that have the same local economic landscape. We must always be competitive, but no more. We have to be fiscally responsible. The goal is to deliver the best possible education with the dollars we have. Beyond the dollars, I believe that Palo Alto is a very attractive district to work in. We have an outstanding educational program, we have rich course offerings, we have small class sizes relative to neighboring districts. In addition, I support the HOT program that helps teachers who are first-time homebuyers which has made a difference for many teachers and at least one principal.
What do you think about the superintendent's salary? It's over $200,000 a year.
Ezran: It's not an issue for me. I think that the salary is dictated by the law of supply and demand. It's very, very difficult to get a good superintendent. It's a very tough job, one of the most difficult jobs you can think of. The average tenure of a superintendent is three to five years. While many principals are not even interested in the job anymore. They used to be. But now they don't need a 70-hour work week. They don't necessarily want to have the headaches because it's a very difficult position and you're always attacked by at least a fraction of the community. When you look at the job in Palo Alto, you have 1,300 employees, the budget is around $118 million, it's like a CEO job of a mid-size company. When you look at the whole budget, it's a drop in the bucket. It's not an issue in my mind. I think the salary is fair compared to other superintendents in other districts.
Mitchell: I know that it is an issue, although I don't know at this point all the details of the compensation package that was negotiated several years ago. At the same time, the compensation environment in 2001 may have been quite different than it appears now and I do think we want to continue to seek national candidates as the district contemplates recruiting and hiring the top administrative staff in the future. I think we should be benchmarking and I think we need to be careful with those commitments, but I also know that being a superintendent in the Palo Alto Unified School District is a huge job.
Mullen: The superintendent is a well-paid administrator of our district and often times it takes a certain pay package to attract the right people to the district to help us achieve our goals.
Tom: I'm a businessman and I've hired many people during my career. As with my business experience, the school district should hire the best people and provide the best work environment and as with all staff, including the superintendent, we should pay competitively for what we expect and no more. In our school district, we expect a lot. I understand that the responsibility of the board is to oversee the finances of the district and that includes the superintendent's salary.
What advancements in technology should the district make in the next decade?
Ezran: I think we should keep up with the technological curve. It's hard to predict what technologies will exist in 10 years. But some of the things I can think of will be wi-fi or wi-max, essentially wireless technologies. We need to make sure each classroom has enough broadband bandwidth essentially to deal with multimedia tasks. I'm sure there must be ways to better computerize all of our data bases and that's something I will look into to make sure we have all the financial tools, computer tools to run our finances, human resources, procurement. I would look into such systems for the district. We need to be state of the art.
Mitchell: There's no question that investing in technology can have a hugely positive affect on education in a classroom, productivity for teachers, and improved communications to parents. Just think of the typical work environment of our parents and consider the gap. The most immediate challenge is a refreshment plan for the computers we have now. While we currently have a one to five ratio of computers to students, we have no plan for replacing old technology. We need a line item budget for hardware. Depending on how ambitious we want to be, access is another issue and to the degree we can get to one to one computing like most of us have in our daily lives we could see a huge shift in how students can do research, can turn in assignments, can access assignments. As a parent of two college students, that is standard practice and it's powerful at the college level and could be equally powerful at the middle and high school level. A third area is the huge opportunity in making home-school communications efficient and effective without piling hours onto a teacher's plate. The district is in the process of launching In Class, which is a homework and grade progress-reporting tool. Technology could be powerful as well as we look at best practices for developing individual education plans and ongoing budget analysis and program evaluations.
Mullen: Considering my laptop will be obsolete in probably 24 to 36 months to prognosticate out 10 years is a difficult, probably impossible, question to answer accurately. We might actually get a chuckle out of the question if we look back 10 years from now. However, we do need to upgrade certain infrastructure aspects of the district's system. One infrastructure aspect that I tend to investigate and champion the enhancement of is the financial reporting system. To be able to understand the benefits of the programs we're offering our children and the academic outcomes of those programs.
Tom: Our children are growing up with technology to a greater and greater degree, so they're education needs to reflect that. Students need to understand how to use technology productively, most effectively and most efficiently. The district must invest what's needed to accomplish that goal, however, it would not be fiscally responsible to pay the top dollar to be on the leading edge of technology. I'm talking about balance. The school district should balance the need to stay up on the latest technology while being cost effective in its investments.
Should intelligent design be taught in local schools? Why or why not?
Ezran: I am very strongly opposed to the teaching of intelligent design or creationism in schools. I strongly believe that we need to have a separation between church and school. I am really amazed by the amount of energy that is being wasted in this country on issues, such as intelligent design, abortion, gay rights, stem cells, the right for some women to get access to contraceptives in a pharmacy. We must be the only Western nation that is having such destructive debates. It's due to the emergence of the religious right in this country and it's destructive debate. It's preventing us from dealing with more important and urgent issues as a nation.
Mitchell: As a school board trustee, I would look to the principals and classroom teachers at the various schools when it comes to instructional practices and content such as that. I think the board's primary role is to set direction for what we want to accomplish. There are state standards as well for content that we set teacher to cover. I think it's very important that we continue to allow principals and classroom teachers to decide how that content should be best delivered. One of the great things about this district has been the culture, the values, the creative, the imagination of our classroom teachers.
Mullen: Currently we have a very deep and enriched curriculum with a lot on our plate. To add intelligent design to the menu I don't think is important at this point in time.
Tom: Our students should understand the theory of intelligent design. They should be aware of it because of the press it's gotten and the promotion it's received. It may be something that is appropriate to be taught in religious studies or perhaps in science class. The critical thing is that it's given proper context and appropriate emphasis. The students should understand the ideas and theories and evidence that support it, just as they should understand the ideas and theories and evidence that support evolution. The more informed our students are of any controversial issue the more critically they'll be able to think about the issue and reach a proper conclusion.
How would you alter the district's curriculum?
Ezran: I am very pleased with the , but . Again, if the funds are available I would like to see the teaching of foreign languages start earlier like in sixth-grade. I think we need to evaluate what languages we want to teach. Chinese might be pretty high on the list of many parents and students. Improving writing skills is also very important and we need to strengthen the curriculum in that area. We need to make an effort to think about how we best prepare our students for the challenges of the 21 st century. The fact that outsourcing is likely to remain prevalent in our economy so that means we need to prepare students who are world class, world class in math, physics, sciences, liberal arts, whatever subject they are interested in. It's a challenge because we compare ourselves to the rest of the nation and we do pretty well, but when you look at how the U.S. is ranking compared to other Western world countries I think there was a PEW survey they showed we were 25 th out of 29. There is room for improvement and we need to fill the gap because our students will be competing with students from other countries. It's different then it was before.
Mitchell: First I would say that I'm not running for school board with an agenda on altering the district's curriculum. I think the greatest role a school board member can play in enriching the curriculum is to champion this district's rich array of electives, protect our seven-period day in middle school and high school and restore its financial commitment to art and music and science enrichment at the elementary level. In guiding a strategic long-term plan, it would be invigorating to see what our principals, teachers and parents might imagine Palo Alto Unified doing differently as we look outward to what other school districts are undertaking in curriculum.
Mullen: Like I said in the previous question, I believe we have a very rich curriculum with a great deal of depth and wonderful offerings for our students currently. To answer that question, I believe it's going to take more research on my side to understand, like I said earlier on in question 11 when it comes to academic outcomes for certain programs, that might be an aspect to consider. I'm not a professional educator, I'm a business man by training and experience and I think it's important for the board as a policy setting entity to work closely with the administration and the teachers to make sure our curriculum is always up to date and challenging for our students.
Tom: I would like the school district to continue to promote differentiated instruction to a greater degree. Differentiated instruction is a method to help provide an outstanding education to the struggling students, to our advanced students, and to our mainstream students. The challenge in today's classroom is that we have a very heterogeneous group. Students of varying levels, a student who is advanced in math may not be as advanced in English. While I was on site council I watched the fourth-grade teachers work all year long on differentiating their math instruction. It was a lot of work. They essentially had to create three different curricula to address those varying needs. It was a lot of work, but it was very successful. The students were engaged and the parents were happy with the results. The effort that those teachers made as a team is too much to expect out of every individual teacher to take on by themselves. The school district should promote training so that this kind of endeavor ... takes more than one day, it's an ongoing process. Much more importantly, they should promote collaboration between teachers to develop better differentiated curricula and to share those great results with other teachers. The other area I think about for the curriculum is our writing program. Our elementary schools made the great advance with having the Six Traits Writing Program toward elementary school writing. I support a similar advance for our secondary schools.
If there was one program to give additional funds, what would it be?
Ezran: I would personally favor spending that money for closing the achievement gap. I'm talking about some of the children coming from minority families for instance, not exclusively, it can be anybody else. Some of the things we might consider for those children who are having difficulty is to, maybe just for them, a slightly longer school day. I've seen many schools in low-income areas where the schools have decided, particularly charter schools, not that I'm proposing charter schools here, but some charter schools have experimented with a longer school day. I think there is one in San Jose for instance that has been very successful. They had outstanding results. I think one of these schools has better results than Palo Alto and it's in a low-income area. The way they did it is no secret, it's essentially with longer hours in school. You know you keep children away from television and video games and you have them study longer. That's a possibility for these children.
Mitchell: Wouldn't that be a great discussion to have with our principals, parents, teachers and staff members. Deciding where we want to spend our next dollar is a critical role for the school board to assume. I believe it needs to be done first in the context of a long-term multi-year vision. And then annually with regard to the budgeting process. I can promise you this, with 6,500 years of teaching experience and 450 years of principal experience in our school district, the answer would be phenomenal.
Mullen: I think if you asked that question of 100 different parents in the district you might get 100 different answers. Every program is important to a different person for different reasons and to narrow it down to just one program is myopic.
Tom: Differentiated instruction is the program that would provide the most benefit for the most students for our money. It addresses the difficulty of teaching a heterogeneous group of students, some who are struggling, some who are advanced and some who are in the mainstream. The school district's mission is to provide academic growth for all the students, to provide the appropriate level of challenge for all the students. The school district has made efforts to encourage differentiated instruction in the district but they can do more. When I was on site council, I observed the fourth-grade teachers work all year long on differentiating their math instruction, which essentially came down to three different curricula to address the needs of three different levels of students. It was a lot of work and too much to expect of individual teachers to take on themselves. I would like to see the school district provide the funds to encourage greater collaboration among teachers, encourage sharing of ideas and curricula that supports differentiated instruction and provide training on how to create such curricula.
What is your position on standardized testing?
Ezran: It's a very tough issue. If one were to design a testing system from the ground up, I'm pretty sure we would not end up with the system we have today. There are too many mandates at different levels, mandates from the federal government, the state, the school district. It seems to me it's very complex. Everybody is lost, including parents who maybe don't understand it. You've got to be an expert to try to understand what's going on. My hope is that over time we'll simply that but that will certainly require some action on the part of the federal government and the state of California. One of my thoughts would be that for instance, you could imagine that the high school exit exam is an exam that is planned at the national level, so it's actually a child who finishes high school in Palo Alto and passes the exam would be at the same level as another child on the east coast. We need to look at having comparable high schools on a national level. You could imagine, that with the majority of schools, the test could be determined by the states. It needs to be rationalized and simplified. That's one thought. The second thought is that it's important to understand that testing is only one measure of a child's ability to succeed is school and in life. There are other things to take into accountability, their social skills for instance, how well they do in the arts. There are many things that are very important to the life skills that are not measured by the testing.
Mitchell: There has to be a left brain and a right brain answer to this question. On the one hand, the district needs to be accountable for educating our students and ensuring that they are proficient in important curricular content areas. It's also important that there are tools that give students and families information on how are students are doing compared to national benchmarks. I know that is not something the district had when my children first entered and it creates a vacuum. That's not ideal. On the other hand, we may be overdoing it. It's exciting that we want our students to be proficient but surely we could find ways to consolidate the multiple tests that are devised and administered by the classroom, district, state and national levels. One example of this consolidation is the Cal State campuses, which are now accepting the SAT assessment for their placements.
Mullen: Every educational institution needs to have a basis for assessing its effectiveness. Standardized tests, while there are many that are administered to our students, seem to be a necessary component to assess our effectiveness and to ensure student success, at least academically. Over time I suspect that standardized tests will evolve as they have in the past and we will achieve perhaps a best practices standardized test that might minimize the various tests that are currently administered to the students.
Tom: Standardized testing is important. From a practical standpoint, it's necessary for the school district to receive federal and state funding. Measurement is also important. For many struggling school districts it's made a difference for them, helping them focus their attention on improving their programs. However, particularly for high-performing districts such as Palo Alto's, standardized testing can get over emphasized. We have a saying at work about metrics, which is that you get what you measure. The design of the tests can very often drive what is taught, perhaps in a counter productive way. There is a saying that my principal had went to the effect that, not everything you can measure is worth measuring and that you can't measure everything that is worth measuring. So standardized testing is important as a piece of data on how we're doing. But first rate teaching and learning encompasses more than what we can measure on standardized tests. Our students need to be good collaborators and good communicators. And those are skills that will serve them in their life and their not part of standardized tests.
Should the board do anything about teen drinking? If so, what? If not, why?
Ezran: First I would say it's not just drinking, it's drugs, it could be smoking. It could be driving under the influence of alcohol. We're here to educate children and the school district, the teachers cannot do it alone. It is a shared responsibility with parents to educate them on these issues. The district and teachers need to reinforce good messages regarding these issues. I would approach education by the school district on these issues because sometimes parents might not do it and it's in the kids' best interest to be educated on these issues. It's not only the responsibility of the district. I also feel that if the district becomes aware of such issues with such children, it needs to take action and there are a range of sanctions available to make sure it's clearly communicated that this type of behavior is not acceptable.
Mitchell: The school board has the responsibility for providing a safe environment to our kids. I talked earlier about proposing a task force that could consolidate a number of stress issues, high-risk behavior issues and student safety issues and formally work with schools, PTAs, district leaders, leaders in the nonprofit area, for example Adolescent Counseling Services, Foundation for College Education, and others to start looking at these issues collectively and figuring out ways how we can compliment each others strategies and activities. The risk of taking each of these things on one at a time, such as teen drinking, abuse, bullying, is that we're not taking advantage of our collective potential nor the underlying reasons that these issues may have in common.
Mullen: When both my daughters were in elementary school in Connecticut, the school district maintained a very close relationship with the local police department who sponsored a DARE program, educating the kids, like I said, as early as elementary school, about the dangers of risky behavior, including alcohol, drugs and other abusive behaviors. It's important that the board insist that the administrators at all levels enforce the policies of the board with respect to a no tolerance perspective on drugs, alcohol and other prohibited items on campus.
Tom: Teen drinking is a concern of many parents in the school district. I think our most effective approach to this problem is through education. We can raise the awareness of the issue with teens and their families. We should promote open dialogue between teens and parents and teachers and counselor because if you talk about a problem then you can deal with it.
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