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Homework, grading, curriculum: Consistency at Palo Alto's high schools

New report to guide district in goal to align courses, schools

In its first meeting of the 2015-16 school year, the Palo Alto school board will tackle a 200-plus page research report that sheds light on both similarities and disparities in curriculum, homework, grading practices and expectations at the district's two high schools.

The incredibly detailed report was prepared by global information services firm Hanover Research Group in response to repeated student, parent and teacher feedback that inconsistent curriculum, unfair grading practices and uneven workloads across teachers and courses persist at both Gunn and Palo Alto high schools, in many cases causing student stress.

One of the school board's Strategic Plan goals, adopted last year, was to "create conditions that assure consistent high quality and fairness in curriculum, instruction, and assessment while affording individual schools autonomy to design, implement, and evaluate innovative practices and programs aligned with the District's Strategic Plan." (A similar goal reappears in the board's draft goals for the upcoming school year.)

The Hanover report — which draws on student, parent, teacher and staff surveys; student focus groups and deep analysis of course documents, all conducted during the 2014-15 school year — found that while most classes in the same subject and grade level are designed to cover the same general topics, the way the content is delivered and assessed varies greatly from teacher to teacher.

"I would argue that two different courses taught by the same teacher are more similar than the same course taught by two different teachers," one Palo Alto High School student said during one of Hanover's three focus groups conducted this spring.

Both students and teachers reported that increased teacher collaboration time — within departments, school sites and across the district — would make a difference in bringing greater consistency in workload, assessment and scheduling.

The report indicates there is greater alignment in curriculum and assessment in mathematics than any other subject area. One-hundred percent of math teachers surveyed reported that they use the same grading practices as other teachers of the same course in their school, as did most other teachers. Math course documents, submitted by teachers and reviewed by Hanover, also "displayed the highest level of alignment and consistency within each high school, if not across the two high schools," the report reads. Most math courses at both schools follow a similar structure for assessments and homework, Hanover found.

There is, however, a notable difference in grading scales in Paly and Gunn's math departments: Paly math teachers generally give "A" grades starting at 88 percent and up, while Gunn math teachers reserve "A's" for grades above 90 percent.

Science courses are generally similar and are most likely to provide an estimate of weekly time spent on homework throughout the year — almost all of which fall within the district homework policy limits, Hanover found.

English language arts courses were more difficult to compare, the report notes, as there is a different structure of course sequence for ninth and 10th grades at Paly and Gunn. (Overall, freshmen and sophomore students at Gunn enroll in two semester-long courses per year, whereas their counterparts at Paly enroll in one yearlong English language arts class each year.)

Hanover researchers found the greatest level of variability across and within courses at Paly and Gunn in the history and social science courses.

"Although content described in course documents is generally comparable across teacher sand schools for the same grade and level, teachers employ a variety of different strategies for homework assignments, assessments, and final exams or projects," the report reads.

The report also sheds light on the amount of homework assigned in different subject areas, with survey results suggesting that students spend more time on math and science homework — an estimated three to four hours per week — than their estimates for English language arts or history/social science classes (one to two hours per week). Teachers and students report similar expectations for the amount of time spent on homework in English and history/social Sciences; however, teachers in

science and math may underestimate how long their students spend on homework, Hanover found.

The report notes, however, that "there is no universal sentiment toward homework among PAUSD high school students," with student descriptions of their homework loads ranging from "minimal," "fair," and "average" to "inconsistent," "hard," "stressful" and "waste of time." Students did not indicate that homework is more demanding at either high school, according to Hanover.

But participating students said they are most frustrated when they feel that their teachers' homework grading practices are more demanding than other instructors teaching the same course. Some suggested implementing a "teacher pairing" system in which English and history teachers teaching the same class grade each other's assessments.

Other strategies employed by other school districts to achieve better alignment, Hanover notes, include curriculum maps (which "capture, for each course taught within a given school building or district, a 'snapshot' of the skills and content targeted in the curriculum and the assessments used to evaluate achievement"), district pacing calendars, common course descriptions, syllabus templates, alignment matrices and unit planning guides.

Juniors and seniors in the focus groups confirmed the existence of a notorious "junior year homework spike," which they attributed to the greater availability of advanced placement (AP) courses and "the increased pressure of college admissions."

According to the survey, the spike in junior year homework load is largely concentrated in English language arts and history/social science courses. The percentage of students who reported that they spent two hours or more per week on homework increased from 34 to 41 percent in English language arts in freshman and sophomore year to 52 percent junior year, and from 27 and 17 percent in history/social science in freshman and sophomore year to 28 percent in junior year. The amount of time that students estimated spending on homework is more consistent across grade levels in science and math, the report notes.

Students at both high schools also reported that they "value homework assignments that are assigned at regular, predictable intervals and are challenging, goal-oriented, and consistently graded for accuracy." They also favor assessments that are consistent and scheduled ahead of time, with many pointing to the familiar, stress-inducing issue of test and project stacking.

One Gunn student reported in a written section of the survey that "after Gunn promised to stop stacking tests," the student had three tests on the same day, and a few weeks later, four tests on the same day.

"It is this excessive amount of homework, projects, and tests that stack up all at the same time that is unreasonable, and teachers need to communicate better so that students can succeed both academically, and mentally," the student wrote.

Students suggested in the focus groups that their teachers use the schools' online learning management system Schoology to better coordinate and track test and assignment schedules. All secondary teachers are now required to use Schoology to post all course information, homework and grades, per the district's new contract with the Palo Alto Educators Association (PAEA). Some teachers spoke out against the Schoology requirement in their survey responses, asking for autonomy in use of technological systems.

Other students report teachers assigning homework over breaks or expecting work to be done over breaks "even if not officially assigned," one student wrote.

While an overwhelming majority of students surveyed (90 percent) feel that teachers have reasonable expectations of them as students, numerous written responses paint a different picture.

"They think much too highly of us, going so far as to say they expect us to complete feats even superman would shy away from," one student wrote in response to a prompt, "Please explain the ways in which your teachers' expectations of you as a student could be more reasonable."

"The whole unsaid mindset of the school is only to exceed expectations," another student wrote.

For some teachers, the conversation about consistency — itself somewhat of a controversial term in Palo Alto Unified, where school sites pride themselves on operating as independent, unique bodies — also brings added expectations.

"The school used to have reasonable expectations but that is rapidly changing," one teacher wrote in a survey response. "More and more responsibilities are being heaped on teachers with nothing taken off our plates. The school needs to take a hard look at the amount of things they are asking teachers to do and then prioritize."

Hanover notes that with more districts moving toward curriculum alignment, schools must find a careful balance between teacher flexibility and autonomy and "the need for peer collaboration and a shared vision for learning outcomes."

"In the absence of a shared framework and general roadmap for student learning, schools and districts have found that inconsistencies, redundancies, and gaps in the curriculum can go unnoticed," the report reads. "Accordingly, there is movement toward curriculum alignment."

In other business Tuesday, the school board will discuss six draft goals for the 2015-16 school year, which the board, Superintendent Max McGee and district leadership team members discussed for close to six hours at a retreat last Friday. The goals focus on differentiation, alignment, better use of data, equity, enrollment management and student well-being, both social-emotional and physical.

The board will also consider an amendment to McGee's contract, which originally granted him a $1-million interest-free relocation loan to purchase a home within the district. McGee, who has said he has struggled to find a house in Palo Alto at that price, has asked to board to increase that loan amount to $1.5 million.

Other items before the board on Tuesday include approval of the appointment of the district's new associate superintendent, former Los Gatos High School Principal Markus Autrey; the acceptance of a $23.4 million donation from the Peery family to fund a new athletic center at Paly; and several board policy updates. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in district headquarters, at 25 Churchill Ave.

View the full agenda here.

To watch a video of the Palo Alto school board's retreat, visit the Weekly's YouTube channel.

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