Palo Alto school district to evaluate consistency, world-language programs

Outside firm hired to conduct research

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.

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11 people like this
Posted by JordanAlum
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 7, 2015 at 9:45 am

It is a shame they are not evaluating consistency of teaching quality at Jordan. It is a mess of inconsistency.

Start in Science, and compare with JLS to Jordan. It's a Gulag at Jordan.

29 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 7, 2015 at 10:46 am

Disgusted that they are proposing to increase immersion programs for the lucky lottery winners and still doing nothing for the rest.

MI was meant to be a pilot with an effort to explore FLES. I am disgusted to see that the MI people still want special treatment while the rest of us get nothing in elementary school.

If a study is being done on world languages, then it should be a study of the value of language in all elementary schools for every student. Otherwise it is money being spent on the select few once again.

Come on PAUSD. You can do better than that.

9 people like this
Posted by Experienced Paly
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 8, 2015 at 10:37 am

How interesting that it was the ineffective Skelly who signed the contract one year ago. What took so long? Inconsistency in curriculum, teaching, and grading is a major issue that can result in a year of Hell if the student has a few of the tough ones - and my children are mostly in regular lanes. I hope the wording of the evaluations leads to accurate results.

What should be evaluated is the regular lane world language instruction, which is basically immersion. English should be allowed in class the first year, as other schools in the area allow English in even second year classes. We found a tutor but students who have no tutor or help at home struggle in these stressful classes, with some having to switch languages because of the difficulty.

I do agree that Jordan should be evaluated too, but high schools are priority at this time.

7 people like this
Posted by tom
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 8, 2015 at 4:37 pm

"World languages"? Don't you mean foreign languages? Interesting how politically correct terms are popping up all the time.

3 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 8, 2015 at 4:46 pm

They changed it to world languages so that American Sign Language could be taught. Unfortunately, the ASL teacher had a bad reputation, the class wasn't popular and it was cancelled.

11 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 9, 2015 at 6:50 am

Please ignore the vocal few. All of our children should have language instruction. Also, the teacher inconsistency starts in 1st grade at our school. I know there are no grades but some children learn how to write while others do not. I am glad it is being addressed at the high schools. The teachers at my elementary school do not want to discuss how to make teaching more uniform. I hope after the high schools are made better attention can be focused on middle and elementary schools.

6 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 9, 2015 at 8:54 am

There was so much discussion about FLES when MI was introduced back when we were still in elementary school.

What is completely wrong about the situation is that foreign language is a PAUSD graduation requirement and yet nothing is taught to the majority of students until high school. At 7th grade there is the opportunity of using one of the electives for a language, but this is optional and there wouldn't be enough space for every student if they all chose to elect to do this.

As for the immersion programs, they are for the lucky lottery winners.

We should also be looking at some Spanish for Spanish speakers, classes and similar for other languages.

FLES should start when young children are still able to acquire language skills without much effort. Waiting until middle school misses that window. All the immersion backers insist that immersion should start early and all the arguments for this are exactly the same for regular language programs. In Europe children are learning 2 or 3 languages as soon as they start school. We are lagging behind because we leave it until later when it is much harder to acquire a good accent and instinctive grammar skills.

Yes, please get the conversation of foreign languages in our schools started and please get some changes made.

2 people like this
Posted by Educator
a resident of Woodside
on Feb 9, 2015 at 9:31 am

Educator is a registered user.

The District focus on high school foreign language is likely based on the University of California requirements, which only acknowledge high school foreign language credits.

5 people like this
Posted by Get Real
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 9, 2015 at 10:50 am

English has replaced French as the language of diplomacy, as well as the language of trade. People in business all over the world ( except for France, Italy, Portugal, Greece, some African countries) are quite fluent in English.

That said, if you wish to work in another country, it is best to learn the language of that country. The people who work at levels below middle class, such as grocery checkers, bank tellers, etc, probably will not speak English. However, restaurant servers, doctors, executives, etc will.

The languages most needed now are NOT Mandarin, German, Dutch/Flemish, Russian, Scandinavian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, or Polish. Rather, they are French, Spanish(Mexican or South American dialects), Italian, Greek, Serbian, Croatian, Farsi, Arabic, Thai, Tibetan.

The ones most needed are not being offered in our schools, unfortunately. And any new language should be started, preferably, at the pre-school level, NOT the middle school level. At the very least, start at the kindergarten level.

These are my recommendations, having spent fifteen years as a foreign technical translator!

BTW, another helpful tool is cultural anthropology. Many companies with overseas branches and clients employ cultural anthropologists now. Intel has eleven of them in Santa Clara alone. Helps prevent many a serious cultural faux pas.

6 people like this
Posted by Experienced Paly
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 9, 2015 at 11:42 am

Misinformation in someone's posting. American Sign Language may have been cancelled before, but it is a class this year and is in the course catalog for next year, with a disclaimer that it may not be offered if there aren't enough interested students. And don't think it's easier than learning a spoken language. Too bad for tenure, because the teacher is . . . every-bad-adjective-you-can-think-of and "teaches" Spanish 1 also. When Winston was here, she wasn't assigned to Spanish, but it appears Diorio is allowing her to have Spanish classes. Languages are difficult enough that good teaching is necessary. Every year, parents are up in arms about this teacher. Spanish tutors all know about this teacher. Perhaps McGee's teacher evaluations can serve as hard evidence for positive change.

8 people like this
Posted by Public Schools are for EVERYONE
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 9, 2015 at 12:15 pm

I would like to see foreign language offered to every child at every PAUSD school--no special treatment for a handful of people. This disparity is unacceptable in public school system. Dr. McGee, I hope you will insure that EVERY PAUSD student is receiving equal opportunity for foreign language education.

Charter schools are parasites on the public school system. If that is the direction PAUSD is moving, we will all suffer.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 9, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Public Schools,

I would like to see education optimized for every child, too, and I was also not happy that we did not get equal opportunities for foreign language education in our schools. But, I do not blame the MI people for achieving what they could with a district so resistant to innovation and change. I think they were just not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Have you seen this? About the best way to acquire language to fluency by someone who studied all the methods - he says immersion is not the best way. Immersion is still probably a good model for people who want to study in more than one language, as our program does, but if the goal is to learn other languages to speak them, waiting on expensive immersion programs with a high institutional inertia barrier isn't really practical. Why not put together these kinds of ingredients and have a language fluency classes in many languages available, even as summer classes?
Web Link

The world is changes, the opportunities to learn and DO are expanding exponentially. Educators are handicapping our system and our children by shutting out our public schools from that.

Did you see these two articles in Wired Magazine?
The Techies Who Are Hacking Education by Homeschooling Their Kids

Web Link
(Contrary to what the article portrays, this idea is not new, techies brought a Homestudy Program to SJUSD 30 years ago, in which families can get help customizing their educational hybrid school-independent study program.)

And this:

Web Link
Bringing the best of what alternative education models offer into the mainstream is a monumental challenge.

I disagree, though, that it's a monumental challenge, if we listen to forward blended-learning proponents like Esther Wojcicki, one of our own most successful teachers in PAUSD.

At the start of her new book Moonshots in Education, she talks about learning the advantage of collaboration, respect, and trust in the classroom. She writes about a lightbulb moment in realizing she didn't have to know everything. She tells her students that the state of the art in tools available for their work is changing and if students find new things, they should look into them and report to class, they may end up using them. She learns from her students, too. The is a "hacking education" attitude that is working really well within our system already.

So why can't we also "hack" language and other education? The school district people can't possibly bring in innovations the way all these smart, educated families could, in a collaborative model.

Maybe that's not for everyone. But the district essentially setting up a choice incubator -- in which everyone who chooses can join -- with a community of innovation, where parents, students and teachers are constantly introducing innovating tools, programs, essentially constantly honing and improving things to provide the best education for every student, that would provide what you are asking for in a more fluid, probably less costly way. And would allow it by next year rather than after 10 years of debate and the hunt for school space. Heck, having a program that allows parents to partly homeschool could mean we could put off building more school space for awhile.

My point is, why not make the best of everything available in public school for those who choose it, through a community of innovation? The district might not allow something like that except as a charter, so they don't have to take the chance that test scores will be lower, and they can always claim it as part of them when they come out higher.

(Wojcicki's book should be required reading at 25 Churchill, and the administrators required to write 5-point essays to demonstrate they understand, that the community gets to grade...)

6 people like this
Posted by Truthseeker
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 9, 2015 at 3:40 pm

Truthseeker is a registered user.

Foreign language instruction for all, starting in earlier grades. No more expansion of immersion programs in our public schools.

@Parent of JLS student: your comments on Wojcicki's book etc. are interesting. I don't, however, see this benefiting the kids/families who need better education the most: the ones who don't have affluent, well-educated parents to turn to when their teachers let them down.

1 person likes this
Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 9, 2015 at 5:12 pm

The foreign language teachers should be native speakers. Many years ago my daughter's French teacher at Gunn was originally from Canada and of Russian family background. She often taught the students incorrect French usage.
Consistent grading is best accomplished by having one person oversee all sections of any class. That way tests are all similar in all sections and the grading rubric can be consistent.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 9, 2015 at 6:21 pm

But that's the beauty of incorporating a community of innovation into the public school system, so that everyone gets the benefit. The resources all the parents come up with get pooled through sharing. If someone finds a free online class about computer programming for kids in grades 5-10 from Harvey Mudd, chances are they'll be sharing it because it was passed to them by other people who tried it and vetted it. Anyone can then benefit from that. If the "hacking" education program is integrated into the public school, there would be an instructor or two helping to individualize the students' paths and guide them, provide resources, etc. The less advantaged kids would suddenly have the same advantages.

One of the things that Wired article points out is how people who homeschool are able to do the basics in such a shorter period of time than in school. I read somewhere that "time on task" studies of traditional schools found students only engaged about a third of each day. That's probably somewhat due to transition costs, but it's not all.

The point is, there are ways to provide the basics in a much more individualized, efficient way. Then there is time to do higher level projects. Kids who are less advantaged would benefit from this, because there would no longer be just one measure of success (grades), but instead kids would be learning by DOING for much of the day (instead of learning to someday maybe do something maybe related to some of those things). Most of the kids would have portfolios of accomplishments to show rather than just grades. And they've have time after school instead of lots of grinder homework, while still getting just as demanding an education.

The second Wired article is concerned that people with the resources are just leaving the system. I don't want to leave the system, I want to bring the advantages mentioned in the first article into the system.

Like this comment
Posted by Another Paly Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2015 at 4:18 pm

So, according to Paly's WASC report:

* less than half of the teachers agree that there's consistency in grading, but aren't they the very people responsible for grading? This makes no sense to me.

* the target timeline for curricular consistency is 2018! That's too late for the vast majority of current sad....

2 people like this
Posted by JordanAlum
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 11, 2015 at 5:51 am

@Another:"* the target timeline for curricular consistency is 2018! That's too late for the vast majority of current sad."

In fact they have actions from the last WASC report that have not made progress. Consistency may be one of them. So that's already 6 years ago - more if you consider it took a year or so to write the report and goals are set three years from now so ... About ten years for progress.

Sad, but not unrealistic for an unmanaged system. Even if half the teachers see a problem, they have no influence over the other half. There is literally no way to manage towards a goal.

All you are left with is tomes of guidelines, recommendations, surveys, standards , and endless feel-good double speak gibberish that is indicative of a pathetic system. No corporate entity of this size requires so much paperwork to say three things:

- teaching inconsistent
- grading inconsistent
- generally low levels of satisfaction

( any service company hitting 75% satisfied across the board would be alarm bells. target should be 95% or 99% satisfied)

Here is how schools are managed -
1) teachers are not managed
2) lots of jaw-jaw on goals, surveys and synergies
3) after a decade about half of teachers retire
4) hire new teachers who conform to goals (maybe )

So you see that any problem can be solved with a half-life of 10 years. Not fully solved, just showing good progress.

Corporate world woul take about a quarter, tops.

It's the difference between a managed and unmanaged workforce.

That we throw our money and children into this morass is a puzzlement.

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

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