A "working group" panel of parents and teachers to share ideas on the best ways to teach math to students in the Palo Alto school district's 12 elementary schools may be the result of Tuesday night's Board of Education meeting.

The math panel was one idea that gained consensus among school board members in a wide-ranging discussion of elementary math instruction.

Board members considered the sensitive topic of "ability groupings" for students as young as elementary age as they struggled to come up with ways to better challenge high-performing children in math.

More than 40 percent of Palo Alto elementary school parents said in a recent survey that their children are not sufficiently challenged in math. And more than 70 percent of Palo Alto elementary students perform at the "advanced" math level on the California Star Test.

Under the current system, Palo Alto students are not officially separated into math "lanes" until seventh grade.

But unofficially -- sometimes even secretly -- elementary teachers engage in a variety of practices to customize, or "differentiate" math instruction to children at various levels, board members said.

Those methods include using math specialists or parent volunteers to take "pull-out" groups, or testing students at the start of each unit and forming ability groups that last only as long at one chapter.

"Teachers have been doing flexible ability groupings for years, but I've been told by various teachers that they have to be secretive about it because it's frowned upon," board member Camille Townsend said. "Is it different now?"

Director of Elementary Instruction Kathleen Meagher said some teachers are using "flexible groupings." But she cautioned: "We really want to look closely at flexible groupings and ensure that they are flexible.

"We don't want to lane our kids at this young age and say, 'You're good at math' and 'You're not good at math,' and have them stuck in that rut.

"We do want to meet the individual needs of students and figure out what student work we need to be looking at to be able to group them together for a lesson, maybe two lessons."

Tuesday's discussion was prompted by an earlier board pledge to consider how to offer greater math challenge for high-performing students as well as to find a "metric" to measure math progress for the large number of students who perform above grade level.

But it evolved into a three-hour conversation among board members, parents and district staff members that touched on the full range of students -- including special education students and "middle students" -- as well as critiques and defenses of the district's elementary math curriculum, Everyday Mathematics, which was introduced in the fall of 2009.

In the end, Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he would return to the board with a recommendation -- likely involving the convening of a parent-teacher math panel -- on ways to assess progress for students performing above grade level.

After consulting with other high-performing districts and surveying Palo Alto teachers, district staff said they concluded that another test for students performing above grade level would not be helpful.

Rather, they said, teachers need more professional development, including collaboration time to share ideas and instruction on how to use SmartBoards in math instruction.

But board member Barbara Klausner pushed back, saying that "additional metrics for above-grade-level students" -- not just professional development -- are needed.

"Good professional development to improve teacher knowledge in math is a good thing, but it is not a timely and cost-effective solution to meeting the needs of high-performing students," Klausner said.

Klausner cited a litany of examples of the informal use of "flexible groupings" currently occurring in elementary schools.

"This is an issue of equity," she said.

"We clearly have schools where parents or other resources are mobilized for this, so those students are getting their needs addressed, yet we have other schools where this isn't happening.

"I don't think we want a system where we have to rely on parent volunteers, or parents who happen to be math-savvy or school-savvy so they can challenge their children on their own. What about kids who don't have that at home?"

Klausner suggested tapping into the abundant parent talent to convene a panel that would help share ideas.

"We should take advantage of our existing expertise for a thoughtful working group to gather information from each school on what they do for students above grade level that seems to work," she said.

"To me, that's the logical next step of what we can and should do."

Skelly said he would bring back a "skeleton idea" for the next step at the next school board meeting, scheduled for Feb. 8.