In response to widespread dissatisfaction voiced by students, parents and even faculty over inconsistent curriculum, unfair grading practices and uneven workloads across teachers and courses at Palo Alto's two high schools, the district is embarking on a deep-dive evaluation to identify and improve areas of concern.
The district is taking advantage of an existing contract with Hanover Research Group, a global information services firm, to conduct the evaluation, which will entail reviewing course syllabi, materials and other documents for the four main subject areas -- math, English, history/social science and science -- as well as surveying Gunn and Paly students, parents, teachers and administrators.
Superintendent Max McGee said it was clear from Strategic Plan surveys and Gunn and Paly's Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) reports, which are produced every six years, that students and parents are "really concerned about what they perceive as inconsistency in instructional practices, grading, homework, delivery of the curriculum, assessment, testing."
Survey data from Paly and Gunn's 2014-15 WASC reports, which were released this week and will be presented to the board on Tuesday, Feb. 10, reinforce the pervasiveness of these concerns.
"Most" Paly students said they would like to see inconsistent grading practices addressed, citing grade "deflation" and differences among teachers of the same course. Only 36 percent of Paly parents said they "strongly agree" or "agree" that curriculum and instruction are consistent across teachers and courses.
Less than half of Paly teachers and administrators/classified staff said they "strongly agree" or "agree" that curriculum and instruction are consistent across teachers and courses. Similar percentages -- 47 percent of teachers and 50 percent of administrators/classified staff -- said they strongly agree or agree that grading is fair across teachers and courses.
The picture is similar at Gunn, where 30 percent of students surveyed through the WASC process disagree -- and 14 percent strongly disagree -- that teacher quality and difficulty is consistent across courses. Similarly, 19 percent of Gunn students disagree that grading is fair across teachers and courses.
Gunn parents also voiced significant dissatisfaction with consistency in curriculum, instruction and grading practices. Thirty-four percent of staff surveyed disagree and 12 percent strongly disagree that curriculum and instruction is consistent across courses.
Paly's No. 1 WASC goal is "systemic alignment for greater consistency around learning outcomes to reduce undue stress," and Gunn has identified consistency as a top "area of growth" for the school to improve upon.
Anthony Guadagni, lead Hanover researcher for the school district, said his team will be looking at differences in expectations between teachers and courses and whether or not transitions from one level to the next, or one grade to the next, are consistent. They will also evaluate implementation of district-wide policies, such as the homework policy.
The district signed a two-year contract with Hanover in 2014 and is using a portion of the second year to pay for this review. The initial two-year contract, signed by former Superintendent Kevin Skelly in February 2014, cost a total of $70,000 -- $35,000 for each year.
In order to complete this consistency review and several other projects, the district has agreed to pay an additional $140,000 to cover five new "research queues."
One of the "queues" to commence this year is an evaluation of Palo Alto Unified's world language programs, which the district hopes will help determine whether or not to expand some of its offerings.
With the success and popularity of Ohlone Elementary School's Mandarin immersion program, which was first launched in 2008, many parents are clamoring for an expansion into middle school. (The board is also set to discuss a possible pilot expansion of Mandarin immersion at Jordan Middle School at its meeting this Tuesday, Feb. 10.)
The district also offers Spanish immersion programs at Escondido Elementary School and Jordan Middle School. Both high schools offer several levels of Mandarin, French, Japanese and Spanish; Gunn also offers German.
Hanover will design a survey to help the district determine what direction its world language programs should go in the future and if there is a demand for expanded immersion programs, Guadagni said.
"One of the things that is so hard for school districts is that you have a very vocal minority that can get in their ear and really push the direction that a district might go, but this work is going to allow us to develop a better understanding of what the community feels is best and what students, teachers and administrators feel is best," he added.
Hanover will also prepare a best practices report to offer examples of how school districts throughout the country approach course alignment and world language programs.
McGee said that a final report from Hanover is expected by late spring. It will be shared with the community and used to identify next steps.
"I think it will inform some needed changes," McGee said.