Aligning | Two Decades of Kids and Counting | Sally Torbey | Palo Alto Online |

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By Sally Torbey


Uploaded: Sep 2, 2015

Last year we became friends with two families who had recently relocated to the US for work from two different countries, and had children attending PAUSD schools. Both families chose Palo Alto because of the excellent reputation of the schools, but after a year, both families have found the adjustment difficult and one family sought alternative academic options this year.

We have been PAUSD parents for 19 years and our five children have all been well-served by the district. Because the schools have been a good fit for our family, it was difficult to understand these families' issues with the schools, and, at times, the criticisms made me feel defensive, like there was something wrong with our family that this completely inadequate system has been more than adequate! I tried to put those feelings aside, however, and understand their experience. My sense is that the size of the classes and the schools are an issue for newcomers.

Another aspect of our district that both families found surprising was our high school students' focus on being admitted to the most selective college or university possible. Not on preparing oneself for the rigor of college work, but getting in. They noticed that much of the discussion around course selection and extra-curricular activities involved considering what would look best on college applications.

I thought of this observation when I skimmed the 200-page research report about alignment which the school board discussed for two hours last week. While it is essential that each child benefits from consistent expectations in skill and knowledge acquisition across teachers and schools, I worry that what is driving this alignment effort is that Student A is concerned that Student B (who is in another teacher's class or attends the other high school in the district), is getting a better grade while doing less or inferior work, and that Student A feels this is unfair because the lower grade will adversely affect Student A's success in college admissions. The thinking is, if all the classes in our district are perfectly aligned, then this will make the college admission process fair, and students will experience less stress.

The fundamental problem is that the college admission system is biased and unfair, and no amount of alignment in our district will magically make it otherwise. It is inherently stressful to place so much value on an outcome over which students have little control. College admissions is an opaque process and many admission decisions are not based on grades or test scores, or other achievements, but on a host of other considerations that are not clearly revealed or articulated. What we truly need is a reform of the college admission process so that high school students are not burdened with the belief that every single course grade, extracurricular activity, test score, award and recommendation are going to be the key to their gaining or being denied admission to a selective college.

There are certainly important issues raised in this report that need addressing, like the difference between teachers' estimates and the actual time that students are spending on homework assignments. I am concerned, though, that the amount of time and effort focused on achieving an unattainable fairness will prevent teachers from developing innovative and creative ways to engage students, because their time will be spent meeting with colleagues in an attempt to perfectly align their lessons horizontally and vertically, and to assess identically, down to such details mentioned at the board meeting as how extra credit and make-up work count towards the course grade. Collaboration is essential, and best practices and successful strategies should be studied and shared widely, but undue emphasis on alignment detracts from the potential of excellence in our schools and contributes to an environment valuing success in college admissions above all else.