Early education, math key to closing Palo Alto's achievement gap

Committee's most urgent recommendations to return for school board approval June 9

After years of piecemeal efforts to reduce the achievement gap between minority and other students in the Palo Alto school district, the Board of Education expressed support Tuesday night for a set of robust and ambitious recommendations on the issue.

Superintendent Max McGee's minority achievement and talent development committee presented Tuesday its top 12 recommendations, which urge the district to tackle problems as complex as an underlying and unconscious narrative of bias that "permeates the system at all levels," one committee member said.

Other recommendations include regularly testing young students on reading and math to provide early intervention help when necessary; evaluating the district's myriad intervention and support programs; and creating an "equity coordinator" position to monitor the district's efforts to increase opportunity, access and diversity.

"This is the beginning of a historical day in Palo Alto Unified School District," McGee told the board Tuesday. "While we have seen episodic improvements in serving (historically underrepresented students) ... it has been far too long since we've seen a systemic approach."

Several board members stressed that early intervention and the placement of students into subject-matter lanes deserve heightened focus and attention. The regular diagnostic testing of pre-kindergarten through second-grade students in math and literacy is the committee's No. 1 recommendation.

Board member Terry Godfrey reflected on a "College Readiness" report prepared by a former district administrator in 2013 that showed elementary school students' proficiency scores on standardized tests in elementary school were powerful predictors of their ability to complete A-G subject requirements in high school. (A-G, the coursework required by the California State University and University of California systems, is considered one measure for college readiness.)

"I carried that report with me for ages. ... I just thought, 'Oh my god, how can we let this happen?'" Godfrey said. "Being there early often feels like the right thing to do."

Parent and co-chair of the group Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS) Sara Woodham echoed Godfrey's sentiments, saying, "It's so much easier to solve these problems with our younger children than it is to ask our high school staff and teachers to address issues that literally – they get these kids overnight, but these issues with the kids have been building for years and years. It starts with early education."

Board member Heidi Emberling suggested that further "low-hanging fruit" around early education could be to expand enrollment in the district's six-month Springboard to Kindergarten program, aimed at children about to enter Palo Alto schools with no previous preschool experience, but noted that child care and transportation are barriers for some families.

Board member Ken Dauber raised the topic of laning, which begins in middle-school mathematics classes. The committee, unable to find consensus on what has historically been a contentious topic of debate in Palo Alto, recommended that the district start by creating clear objective and well-communicated information about laning, especially for parents of historically underrepresented students.

Committee co-chair Judy Argumedo, who oversees the district's Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) and English Language Development, said that she herself as a new parent in the district was unaware of how to get her daughter – who loves math and gets straight A's in the subject – into a higher lane math class when the family moved to Palo Alto from Los Angeles.

Parents must fill out a waiver in order to do so, but fewer than 10 students of color at all three middle schools requested parent waivers in a recent year, Argumedo said. She added that documents about the waiver process were not translated into other languages, only one informational parents night was held and the district's rubric for determining assignment to various lanes was not provided to parents ahead of time.

"It's not transparent. Parents aren't aware and it becomes this really dicey situation that's really not clear and ultimately is harming students," said committee member Avani Patel, a former teacher from the Ravenswood City School District.

"Parents shouldn't have to know the system in order to get their kids into a position to take advantage of the opportunities that we have," Dauber added.

In its report to the board, the committee also notes that a subjective process for math laning in middle school "has created a significant divide among students." Sixth-grade teachers recommend students for a certain lane based on a nine-point rubric and placement test, the results of which can affect students' opportunity to take higher-level classes in high school. Committee members described Palo Alto's laning process as deserving of further review.

Eighth-grade Algebra 1 is also often considered a gatekeeper class to success in high school and college, and subjective misplacement for minority students can have a devastating, long-term impact. A 2010 study that looked at math placement in nine school districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties found that disproportionate numbers of African American, Latino and Pacific Islander students were forced to repeat Algebra I in freshman year, which derails their path to completing the A-G requirements.

Dauber noted that the end of sixth grade "is a very early time to be making kind of decisions that have this kind of consequence" and urged the committee to further explore the process.

Board President Melissa Baten Caswell pointed to the Cupertino Union School District, which she said recently created an expectation that all students get to algebra by eighth grade, with positive results.

Community and board members, although optimistic and supportive of the committee's report, expressed concern that the ambitious set of recommendations could, like much of the district's past work on complex equity issues, fall by the wayside.

"If you don't have the follow-up plan, you really suffer," said Godfrey, citing the failed implementation of the district's homework policy, which was similarly crafted over several months by a large committee committed to solving a pervasive issue in the district.

One of the committee's recommendations is to continue the group as a standing district committee that will run throughout the year. The new equity coordinator will also be a dedicated, district-level person charged with overseeing implementation at both the district and site levels.

"If we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always gotten, as the saying goes," McGee said. "We hope this report changes these current practices that have led to historically inequitable outcomes."

The committee's 12 most urgent recommendations will return to the school board for approval as part of a budget discussion at its June 9 meeting.

Related content:

Palo Alto high schools prioritize culture change, achievement gap

Minority students speak to challenges they face in Palo Alto

New committee addresses Palo Alto Unified's achievement gap

'Broad action' encouraged to fix district's achievement gap

Superintendent to convene achievement gap committee

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


5 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 27, 2015 at 9:53 am

For many kids, Algebra II is very difficult but yet it is a requirement. I don't want to dumb down the requirements, but I do want this addressed.

For many kids who struggle through math in high school, they see the subject as a useless exercise which has no perceived use for their futures, and this could be for someone interested in pursuing an arts or other degree.

We could definitely get more kids interested in math in high school if they saw practical uses for math. A class that emphasized skills such as check book balancing, taking out a loan v saving and paying cash, how credit cards work, how taxes work, household budget management, mortgages, reading profit and loss accounts, what is a credit score, etc. may make sense to a lot of kids and actually get them interested in math rather than being put off by learning math in a way that they can see as being useful.

When many kids are afraid of math and feel that it is beyond their capabilities (even if it isn't) they are starting off at a disadvantage. Making it appear useful could get away from the stigma of math phobia.

16 people like this
Posted by Wilson
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 27, 2015 at 10:04 am

Interesting that Math seems to be the focus of this group for improving student performance. English is the glue that links our society and all of its intellectual activities together.

Most people do not use Math outside the STEM envelope. It's doubtful that many of the currently employed teachers could pass a Math proficiency test.

6 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on May 27, 2015 at 10:05 am

I totally agree. Have you seen this?
Web Link

Eugenia Cheng is the scientist-in-residence at the Art Institute of Chicago. She talks about a different way of approaching math. Not everyone needs to master every level of math in detail before understanding all the advanced math and wht it can do.

Like this comment
Posted by Annie's Biped
a resident of Midtown
on May 27, 2015 at 10:35 am

Hooray for Springboard! It really is a tremendous program.

6 people like this
Posted by Necessity
a resident of Barron Park
on May 27, 2015 at 10:44 am

In many countries now, preschool has become mandatory and is paid for by the government.

A college education is also a necessity and should be paid for by the government--even through grad school, like the rest of the world!

5 people like this
Posted by Gill
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 27, 2015 at 11:02 am

Why is additional testing of young students a good thing? I understand that we don't want to let kids drop behind but we already have such an aggressive testing system in the US and I don't see that adding additional testing is a good idea. Is no-one else concerned by this?

5 people like this
Posted by Sandra
a resident of Terman Middle School
on May 27, 2015 at 11:25 am

Regarding math lanes in middle school, I had to ask for a waiver for all 3 of my children as none of them "passed" the rubric. Two of them are currently in college and getting A's in advanced math classes. The rubric is flawed and definitely creates a disadvantage for those students not in the advanced lane if their intention is to attend college. To the PAUSD school board, please consider the approach used in Cupertino schools.

4 people like this
Posted by Necessity
a resident of Barron Park
on May 27, 2015 at 12:26 pm

Actually, Gill, so much heavy testing at such young ages creates A LOT of kids with test anxiety. And that leads to A LOT of falsely low test results.

It is cruel and wasteful.

6 people like this
Posted by On math
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 27, 2015 at 12:41 pm

Excerpt from first post by Parent talking about math:

"they see the subject as a useless exercise which has no perceived use for their futures"

You could just as easily substitute art for the subject being referred to. Mathematics should be taught as a supremely creative subject requiring the highest use of our faculties. To link it to mundane things like balancing checkbooks and the like makes it boring. Mathematics should be taught for the joy it brings to us.

6 people like this
Posted by former paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 27, 2015 at 1:10 pm

'Parents must fill out a waiver in order to do so, but less than 10 students of color at all three middle schools requested parent waivers in a recent year, Argumedo said. She added that documents about the waiver process were not translated into other languages..."
-With all due respect, this is ridiculous. It has gone way beyond reason to complain about documents not being available in any possible other language than English.

10 people like this
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 27, 2015 at 1:20 pm

@Sandra - could you outline the Cupertino approach?

If Math is important, and I believe it is, then the switch to Everyday Math isn't doing the "underrepresented" students any favors. Only teaching multiplication tables up to 5s is clearly going to hold students back as they get into middle/high/college. The gap is going to widen because parents with resources and who are planning ahead are having their kids tutored or supplemented in math starting in elementary ssxhool

Like this comment
Posted by Marty
a resident of Midtown
on May 27, 2015 at 2:06 pm

Dear "Parent"
You said students feel that math is "a useless exercise which has no perceived use for their futures" (So what? I don't think everyone feels that way.) And "We could definitely get more kids interested in math in high school if they saw practical uses for math" I would have *hated* checkbook balancing and taxes. You want to have them learn how to compute a tip in a restaurant, too? Talk about DULL!

Why does everything have to have some "practical" use?? Isn't that exactly a source of stress that many students are feeling? They get the message that you are not good unless you are doing something "useful" or making money. Think about all the students who feel they are "useless" - who don't feel valued because they don't want to get a tech job working on the next big thing? How many artists, actors, musicians, etc. feel they don't belong at Paly because they aren't in love with tech?

Or what about the student who feels literature or poetry is a "useless exercise with no practical use"? Why does everything have to have practical value, to be useful? What "practical application" of poetry would you suggest to ruin its beauty? Maybe students get turned off of math because every problem has to be doing something "useful" (as artificial as such problems might be). Maybe if they could see the structure and elegance of mathematics it wouldn't always be such a tedious process of doing something "useful"!

4 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 27, 2015 at 2:58 pm

The answers to my response were exactly what made me hate math in high school.

I can see no joy in math, now or in the past. I love English language, literature, geography and history. I also really enjoyed biology and earth sciences. But math, to me that was a waste of time, and anyone telling me about the beauty or importance made me very antagonistic toward the subject.

After school in business college I had to do a mandatory class in bookkeeping and business math. All of a sudden, I began to get why it was important. I had never heard of such phrases as ledger, debits, credits, bad debts, profit & loss, budgeting, etc. I had a bank account, but would never let my parents see what I was spending my money on or even how much money I had. This class didn't just prepare me for my future career, but also how to look after my personal finances.

Personal finances, yes that was interesting. I needed that since I had to live within my means and couldn't run to mom or pop if I was overdrawn.

Wish I had learned all that in school instead of calculus!

2 people like this
Posted by paly parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 27, 2015 at 4:17 pm

@Marty -Different things motivate different students. I have one child who thinks literature and math are both interesting to study. My other child thought literature and math were boring and useless. She would rather have learned "practical" writing such as how to write a research paper (which no one ever taught) or business plan. She also thought math was dull and useless until she had a teacher focus on the practical applications.

6 people like this
Posted by JLS & Paly Parent
a resident of Midtown
on May 29, 2015 at 3:59 pm

How is a nine-point rubric, including performance on a math assessment test "subjective"? How does not taking Algebra 1 in 8th grade "derail" meeting A-G requirements, if, even in the lowest math lane, a student can complete Algebra 2 (which is a recommendation) as a senior. The reporting here is "subjective" and misleading.

At JLS, math laning is clearly presented at a parent meeting in 6th grade, and by multiple emails from the 8th grade math teacher regarding placement and opportunities to affect that (including student improvement in second semester and parents' requests). Students are well aware that they can take free PAUSD summer math courses, which are usually over-subscribed, to jump lanes. The Paly course catalog illustrates math laning and states that it is possible to change lanes and how.

I think the real issue regarding math placement is that there needs to be more attention to students 1) who are doing really well (A's) to be informed by teachers/counselors about their choices and 2) who are not passing to receive more support from teachers or the school (especially if parents are either unaware* or unable to tutor them at home) rather than being ignored. (*posting up-to-date grades is necessary)

Finally, I echo other posts: please get rid of Everyday Math--it really is the worst ever:
Web Link

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

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

After experiencing harassment, owner of Zareen's restaurants speaks out about Islamophobia, racism
By Elena Kadvany | 28 comments | 6,992 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 13 comments | 2,353 views

Goodbye Food Waste!
By Laura Stec | 7 comments | 2,264 views

Premarital and Couples: Tips for Hearing (Listening) and Being Known
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 769 views

Is racism also a local problem?
By Diana Diamond | 17 comments | 463 views


Register today!

‚ÄčOn Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More