Candidate Ken Dauber has posed a challenge to the Palo Alto school district's long-held culture of "site-based decision-making."
He thinks the district has been slow to spread "best practices" among all schools and has called for greater top-down direction in areas such as high school guidance counseling and requirements that teachers use technology tools to post assignments online.
Unlike the other candidates, who have served in leadership posts in the PTA and school site councils, Dauber has gone directly to the school board to lobby on issues he cares about, mainly in the area of reducing academic stress.
For the past 20 months, he and members of an organization he co-founded, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, have become regulars at board meetings, advocating on issues ranging from changing the academic calendar to creating a new homework policy.
He has called for Gunn High School to adopt the "teacher-advisory" counseling model long used at Palo Alto High School and asked the board to require secondary teachers to use the software tool Schoology to post assignments online.
The district historically has opted for a different approach, asserting there's greater compliance and buy-in from teachers when they're permitted to develop their own systems so long as students on every campus are receiving "comparable" services.
But, Dauber said in a recent interview, "School site-based decision-making has gone too far.
"For example, at Paly we have years of evidence that teacher advisory is delivering guidance services more effectively than the more traditional model at Gunn.
"We should be able to take that knowledge and produce comparable services for students across the district."
Dauber also has called for greater transparency in district communication.
His use of the California Public Records Act -- he filed seven requests for information from the school district between April and June -- has sparked change in the way the school district handles communication. Namely, Superintendent Kevin Skelly's "Confidential Weekly" memo to board members, previously private, is now posted on the district's website for all to see.
If elected, Dauber said he would go even further, advocating public posting of all communication between school board members and district staff, except that related to legally protected personnel and student issues.
After 20 months of activism, Dauber has softened his earlier call for the school board to replace Skelly. In February 2011, he and his wife, Michele, published a guest opinion in the Palo Alto Weekly calling for "new leadership" in the school district.
Dauber now says that if elected, he would not vote to fire the superintendent.
"I see myself as having a strong working relationship with Dr. Skelly and expect that to continue on the board," he said.
While not claiming full credit for recent board votes to shift the academic calendar and raise the graduation requirements for traditionally underperforming students, Dauber thinks the presence of We Can Do Better members at school board meetings has been a "critical step" in provoking change.
Dauber, a former assistant professor of sociology, has worked for the past 13 years as a software engineer, the last five of them at Google. He has consulted on education issues for a variety of organizations, including the U.S. Department of Education, Education Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
He is critical of district participation in national magazine rankings of high schools advertising "how our kids 'stack up' against others."
"If we focus exclusively on the highly visible measures, then we risk sending the message to kids who aren't achieving at that level but are still growing and strengthening their own potential that their work isn't valued and their effort isn't valued," he said.
"I think that we should value achievement at all levels."