Palo Alto district in top 5; achievement gap lingers

Some gains seen among low-achieving students as Palo Alto district reports top scores overall

Struggling students were spotlighted Wednesday as fifth- and sixth-grade teachers gathered at Jordan Middle School to parse their learning difficulties -- while overall the Palo Alto Unified School District ranks in the top five in the state, officials reported.

Teachers shared concerns about individual students and discussed case-by-case strategies to help them.

The meeting reflected new efforts not only to help struggling students but also to address a persistent and pronounced achievement gap between Palo Alto's African-American and Hispanic students and their Caucasian and Asian classmates.

Some gains among low-achieving students were reported this week, along with stellar overall results among Palo Alto schools as measured by the state's Academic Performance Index.

School board members challenged one another to "dance on the table" in celebration of the overall academic results, which places Palo Alto in the top five K-12 districts in California as measured by district API scores.

The other four are San Marino, La Canada, Piedmont and Manhattan Beach.

The news came in a staff compilation of academic data from various sources.

"The trends look great," school board President Barbara Klausner said.

"This is just one example, and certainly not the only example, of the outstanding caliber of our teachers and educators in the district," board member Barb Mitchell said.

Board member Dana Tom called the results "mixed."

"There's a lot of good news, and significant progress for most disadvantaged groups, especially students with disabilities, but also African-American students and socio-economically disadvantaged students.

"But growth lagged among Latino students," Tom said. He asked district staff members how they plan to address the issue.

Assistant Superintendent Virginia Davis said principals and teachers are working on a case-by-case basis with individual students.

"We do know who the students are, and principals are working with teachers," she said.

"We need to continue to do more to have preventive instructional strategies so we don't have to go to intervention, starting with pre-K and going all the way through.

"We're working very specifically in this area with these populations, doing more in classrooms and less in the way of pull-out.

"We're doing more parent education and helping them become more acquainted with how to help their students be successful."

In a June 2010 report on the achievement gap, the district said 41 percent of all Palo Alto's African-American students and nearly 25 percent of all Hispanic students are enrolled in special education, compared to a district-wide average of about 10 percent.

Those groups also enroll in fewer high-level classes, perform worse than their Caucasian and Asian peers on standardized test and have higher rates of school suspension and other discipline issues, the district said at the time.

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Like this comment
Posted by Sue Miller
a resident of another community
on Sep 30, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Bonnie Hansen, Principal, Sequoia High School in Redwood City, is doing an amazing job with a very diverse student population. The API at Sequoia went up 35 points for 2009-2010. PAUSD administration should consult with her on strategies.

Like this comment
Posted by can do better
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 30, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Yes, it is beyond time for Palo Alto to strive to be as good as Sequoia High School.

Like this comment
Posted by Achievement Gap
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 1, 2010 at 7:37 am

That darn achievement gap! When will the Euro-Americans EVER get the support they need to catch up to the Asian-Americans????

Like this comment
Posted by We can do better
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 1, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Since a significant percentage of our African American and Hispanic students are in Special Education, perhaps we should take a look at the teachers there. Are they all properly credentialed? Do they have a Single Subject Credential in the appropriate discipline if they teach a single subject class? Do they all have a CLAD (Cross Cultural, Language and Academic Development) Certificate or equivalent?

What about the IEP’s for these students? Are they thorough and complete? Are they done properly every year? Are they followed by all the teachers these students have, and not just the ones who feel like it?

From personal experience I can tell you that the answer to these questions is, sadly, in many cases, no. I can’t name names because the Weekly would censor the post. However, anyone can check a teacher’s credentials, by going to Web Link and typing in the teacher’s first and last name. You’ll need to know the middle name as well if there are multiple teachers in the state with the same first/last name.

Another problem is that, as is the case in all secondary schools in the district, teachers are managed by fellow teachers, and not by someone with an Administrative Credential. This Instructional Supervisor system results in a complete lack of accountability for teachers. It is not unique to Special Ed, but has a greater impact on those students because their parents are less empowered for many reasons to make sure that their students are getting the services to which they are by law entitled.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 1, 2010 at 3:47 pm

As the parent of a child who just "graduated" from and IEP to a 504, I have found your statement "Are they (the accommodations) followed by all the teachers these students have, and not just the ones who feel like it?" to be a particularly important comment. My daughter has had teachers who were great and followed the recommendations and teachers that totally ignored the accommodations they were supposed to be giving her (none of them were hard to accommodate or were remotely disruptive to the class). Guess which classes she did well in and which ones she was miserable in?

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Posted by Frustrated parent
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Oct 1, 2010 at 7:02 pm

I have just had the worst experience with PAUSD district. Our student who has been qualified for special ed. (not necesarily special class) who has always attended regular classes, has been put in the wrong place just because they said so. Instead of helping our child to succeed place her in a special ed class they decided to get her out of their way by placing her in a special ed. class without out consent. You would thing that is good to qualified a child for especial education services, but no it is not. Many teachers want their job to be easier and do not go the extra mile teaching the child or getting them extra help, instead they try hard to kick them out of their classes, and want to work with smart kids only. How sad.

Like this comment
Posted by We can do better
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 1, 2010 at 8:35 pm

Hi Frustrated Parent,
You need to contact Holly Wade, who oversees Special Ed services in PAUSD, at (650) 833-4257 or Your daughter should not have been moved to a Special Day class without your consent. You can also contact Parents Helping Parents ( who are good about helping people navigate the special ed process. Hope that helps.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter
a resident of another community
on Oct 2, 2010 at 3:27 pm

I find it interesting that the blame here is put on the teachers and the school district but there is no discussion of other possible causes of children needing the support that special education can provide, and there are many. Why is this?

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Posted by We can do better
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 3, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Peter, I am not blaming the teachers but rather suggesting that we need to look at them as an additional data point in trying to crack the achievement gap nut.

Every time PAUSD does well with it's API scores, some board member or other (in this case it was Barb Mitchell) crows about how wonderful our teachers are.

Well, yes, some of them are wonderful. Likewise, some are terrible. And what I'm saying is that because a high percentage of underachieving students are in Special Education, we should pay more attention to those teachers.

I do not believe that PAUSD always complies with federal and state law regarding the qualifications of our special ed. teachers or the reuirements for IEP's. I know that's a really inflammatory thing to say, but I believe it's true and I believe that the district is lackadaisical about enforcing those rules because overall our district performs so well that no one is going to question whether or not we hire highly qualified teachers, as required by No Child Left Behind. Everyone just assumes that we do.

I'm bringing this up because, just as a wonderful teacher can motivate and inspire students and leave lasting impressions throughout his or her life, a terrible teacher can have just as large an impact in a negative way, causing students to perform poorly, lose self esteem, and give up on their passions because they are told they are not good enough.

So let's make sure that our special ed. teachers have their CLAD certificates, and Single Subject teaching credentials in the subjects they teach. Let's put energy into assuring that we have the best special ed teachers that we can get, and maybe, just maybe, some of our students of color will start to perform better and narrow the achievement gap.

I can't share in the pride of our district just because our White and Asian students are through the roof on STAR tests. Those are some really awesome kids, but many of them also have incredible resources at their disposal including outside tutoring, lessons, extra curricular activities, enriching vacations, summer camps and so on.

I would be so incredibly proud of our district if we could effectively educate all of our students, and not just the privileged ones. But that's going to take some changes that I'm not sure we're ready for.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 3, 2010 at 8:40 pm

The responsibility for any achievement gap is with parents---

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Posted by We can do better
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 3, 2010 at 8:48 pm

You're probably right, Sharon. The responsibility for the achievement gap is with the parents -- of the high achievers. If the White/Asian scores weren't so darn high, there wouldn't be an achievement gap.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 3, 2010 at 9:17 pm

@We can do better

So we could handicap the intelligent kids just to be PC ?

Student achievement is a product of parental values and genetics-- after middle school it is also a product of the students friends.
We are wasting money and time trying to change issues that are determined by parents and their cultural values.

We live in a global economy, that has a much less nuanced view of these issues.
They believe in the the thriving of the fit.
We seem to believe in dumming down to the lowest common denominator in PASD-- apparently

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Posted by We can do better
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 3, 2010 at 11:14 pm

Well, Sharon, I was being ironic. Are you saying that Caucasion/Asian parents have superior genetics, higher cultural values and better friends than African American/Hispanic parents? I just don't believe that.

Tell me, do you have, or have you ever had, children in PAUSD?

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Posted by Had to laugh
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2010 at 11:38 am

Yes, Sharon. In fact let's just ban any of "those families" with inferior values (we all know who you mean, right?)from even living in Palo Alto.

In fact, let's also ban people who are too dumb to know how to spell the word dumb or recognize irony and nuance.

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Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 5, 2010 at 11:14 pm

C.S. Lewis weighs in on the difference between natural equal rights and pathological equal outcome.

“Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose… You are to use the word purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power.
It is a name they venerate.
And of course it is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated [equality before law which secures equal rights].
You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal [in outcome – regardless of creativity and labor]…
You remember how one of the Greek Dictators… sent an envoy to another Dictator to ask his advice about the principles of government.
The second Dictator led the envoy into a field of grain, and there he snicked off with his cane the top of every stalk that rose an inch or so above the general level.
The moral was plain.
Allow no preeminence among your subjects.
Let no man live who is wiser or better or more famous or even handsomer than the mass.
Cut them all down to a level: all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals.”
C.S. Lewis – Screwtape Proposes a toast
Web Link

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 6, 2010 at 8:23 am

Could some of the achievement gap be merely that the struggling students who remain at PAUSD happen to be predominantly non-caucasian?

Many struggling student leave PAUSD or get extensive, expensive help. Of the students I know, all of the kids who would fall into the "struggling" category (who also happen to be caucasian) have either received extensive outside help financed by their parents or have been sent to another school, also financed by their parents.

Like this comment
Posted by agree with Sharon!
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 6, 2010 at 8:57 am

It's a rare event, but I agree with the crux of Sharon's observation.

In general, difference in achievement levels is not something to eliminate. Uniform achievement in a school would indicate that many students are not reaching their potential.

If our tests are sufficiently basic that it is reasonable to expect every student to master the material tested, and if there are statistically significant differences in achievement based on race alone, then we have a problem. To the extent that race is used as a proxy for parent education, parent income, use of education community resource, homework done by the students, help and family environment conducive to learning etc., efforts toward eliminating an achievement gap based on race are misguided.

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Posted by We can do better
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 6, 2010 at 10:24 am

Shame on you, Sharon, for using C.S. Lewis to justify this travesty. The flip side of the achievement gap is not, as you seem to be suggesting, uniform achievement across the board by all students.

It is that all students will have equal access to the best teachers and resources the district can provide, so that our test scores would ideally look more like a scatter chart with the majority of students performing at or above "proficient" with the minority above or below that point.

If you were to take such a hypothetical scatter chart and use different colored dots to represent race, there should be a mix of colors in all areas. Instead, we basically have two straight lines: Asians and Whites at the highly proficient level, Hispanics and African Americans at below basic.

It is the shame of the district. We cannot brag about how great we are if we are not serving our students of color. Give the underperforming students the teachers that all the white and Asian parents fight and pull strings to get. Believe in them. Tell them every single day that they are valued students in our community and we want them to succeed. Advocate for them if their parents cannot. Don't allow their IEP's to be ignored because their parents don't have the wherewithal to ensure that accommodations are met. Make sure no one is prevented from participating in after school activities because they don't have a bus to take them home to EPA afterwards.

We are only as good as our lowest performing students. We can do much better.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 6, 2010 at 6:27 pm

The previous poster --agree with Sharon!, a resident of the Greenmeadow---addressed the statistical and demographic issues in a clear yet sophisticated and scientifically valid manner.

An evidence based approach to education is better for all kids than an identity politics approach--- which has failed since the 60s.

After 50 years of failure, busing, ignoring the impact of cultural values, family environment conducive to learning etc we need an evidence based approach consistent with C. S. Lewis insight

Like this comment
Posted by agree with Sharon!
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 6, 2010 at 7:29 pm

To We can do better,

Consider the context of our school district.

What you are discussing is an opportunity gap, not an achievement gap.

There has been no steady effort to measure the opportunity gap.

We may actually be disproportionally favoring students of color with opportunity, resources and attention.

But what we have measured is an achievement gap. You assume the single cause is an opportunity gap. But there has been no evidence of that presented for our district.

It's probably worthwhile to measure the opportunity gap.

It's probably also worthwhile to look at potential reasons why with equal or lesser opportunity, some people, for example Asians, achieve more. Asians have colored skin and suffer from racial bias and racially-based discrimination. They are not allowed to benefit from opportunities given to "people of color." Why do they succeed?

Like this comment
Posted by What will never be measured
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2010 at 7:12 am

It would be interesting (probably telling) if we were ever to know just how many PAUSD students receive outside tutoring and additional academic programming (and how MUCH they receive) - a believed-to-be very sizable number (often referred to Palo Alto's "dirty little secret").

This aspect of the Opportunity gap should be explored. No disrespect of PA teachers intended, but it's an oversimplification to assume PAUSD and its teachers deserve the major credit (or blame?) for student academic achievement.

The academic playing fields in PA haven't been level for "all" students in a very long time - the score having much to do with income and outside "teaching".

I agree with the first poster - we should look carefully at schools where significant academic progress is being noted - Sequoia being one (or risk the ignorance and arrogance of the second poster - "can do better" ). Embarrassing...

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2010 at 9:25 am


If you observe animals, they naturally behave by putting their interests first, with total disregard to the weaker animals

in theory, humans are supposed to behave differently - your logic and explanations for the achievement gap tend to be inhuman

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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