Armed with a wealth of data on consistency or lack thereof across courses, subjects and teachers at Palo Alto's two high schools, the school board plans to tackle this year longstanding problems like inconsistent grading practices, test and project stacking and homework quality and quantity.
The board discussed for almost two hours at its first board meeting of the year Tuesday an in-depth course-alignment study conducted by global information services firm Hanover Research Group at the end of the 2014-15 school year.
Hanover researchers spent time at both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools, surveying students, teachers and administrators and conducting three student focus groups. They also analyzed course documents syllabi, unit maps and calendars, pacing guides and homework schedules submitted by core subject teachers at both high schools and also put together a "best practices" report for the district with examples of successful alignment strategies employed by two "exemplary" school districts elsewhere in the nation.
With some clear lines drawn between student, teacher and administrators' perspectives on the level of consistency at the two high schools, the report points to a need for more teacher collaboration time; better communication between teachers, departments and schools; and an understanding that the district is hoping, ideally, to create more alignment without sacrificing teacher autonomy or innovation.
"We're trying to look at high quality and fairness in curriculum without having universal consistency in terms of teaching methodologies," said board Vice President Heidi Emberling. "We'd like common outcomes and goals and we also like innovation in teaching, so it's kind of a balancing act."
One of the board's six draft goals for this school year, also discussed Tuesday, is to "foster conditions providing a coherent district approach for aligning course curriculum frameworks, grading practices, homework expectations, project and testing schedules, and summative assessment instruments."
The Hanover surveys, which were administered in March and April and produced usable responses from 3,345 Paly and Gunn students and 140 staff members, found various disconnects between student, teacher and administrators' perspectives. While teachers report that grading practices are consistent within the same courses at each school, most administrators surveyed disagreed, Hanover found.
Another mismatch is between student and teacher perception of time spent on homework: Students report that homework expectations are generally most demanding in math and science courses, but teachers in those subjects may underestimate how much time students spend on their homework assignments.
Board President Melissa Baten Caswell said her son was in a situation last year with a teacher who thought he or she was giving two to three hours of homework on an assignment that took her son significantly longer.
"When I talked to parents, that was happening with all their kids," she said. "If we don't do something systematic we're not going to make any kind of impact on it."
The board also approved Tuesday night an update to the district's homework policy, imposing a 15-hour cap on the weekly homework load for all high school students.
"Students who choose to enroll in Advanced Placement, Honors, or accelerated courses should expect higher homework loads, but not to exceed an average of 15 hours per week," the updated policy reads. The board approved this policy update, along with several others, with no discussion as part of its consent calendar.
And while 95 percent of high school teachers said they believe their own classes prepared students for the next level of course, 85 percent of teachers thought their students arrived prepared for their course, and 60 to 74 percent of students believe that the previous year's course prepared them for their current course across subjects.
Leila Nuland, Hanover content director for the Palo Alto Unified partnership, said via speaker phone at the board meeting that as both a researcher and former classroom teacher, she was not surprised by the differences between the various groups' perspectives, though she cautioned going "item by item" and comparing them.
"Often times as classrooms teachers you're looking at your curriculum map or your teaching guide and you're saying, 'Yes, I hit all of these points and this is what we needed to cover,' whereas students may not have retained all of that. We know that students lose some of their knowledge over the summer, for example. I think that that can explain some of that gap."
Nuland noted that her team's course document review did find inconsistencies between teachers and courses, particularly in grading scales, confirming a frequently heard student concern about instructors who teach the same course but give out drastically different grades.
Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann noted that differing policies on practices like extra credit or late work can also make a big difference for students, but might not be something that teachers are talking with each other about.
"(That's) why teachers might think in general, 'we're consistent,' but we see more the extreme cases where some of those more minute practices can very much skew a grade from teacher to teacher to teacher," Herrmann told the board. "I think that, again, it is from our whole-school perspective those differences stand out to (administrators) more than they may to an individual teacher who may not have time to talk about what they give extra credit for."
Hanover found the greatest variability both across and within courses at Paly and Gunn in history and social science courses.
Math courses showed the highest level of alignment and consistency at both high schools, Hanover found, though Paly math teachers give "A's" for grades at 88 percent and above while Gunn math teachers give them beginning at 90 percent.
Emberling said she would like "more clarity" around whether teachers, departments and schools want board-level guidance around policies for things like makeup work or giving "zeros."
Gunn's new student board representative, Grace Park, said that increased consistency could address student angst around schedule changes and "teacher shopping" students wanting to switch teachers because they got one with a bad reputation or simply don't like the one they got.
Gunn senior Nina Shirole also spoke to the board during open session about standing in line early in the morning on the first day of school last week with more than 100 other students who were frustrated with the limited support they received from counselors on making schedule changes.
"I think if we were to have some sort of consistency among teachers, a lot of this stress behind it at least would be alleviated," Park said. "That's discounting all the stuff like after-school sports and extracurriculars. This whole idea of consistency is one of the reasons why students try to change classes."
The use of Palo Alto's online school-management system, Schoology, was also brought up as a solution to many of the issues raised in the Hanover report, particularly test and project stacking.
"Perhaps most troubling to Gunn and Paly students when discussing course alignment at the high school level is the perceived limitations of cross-subject coordination when planning tests and assessments," the Hanover report reads.
Per the district's new contract with the teacher's union, all secondary teachers are now required to post all course information, homework and grades on Schoology. Herrmann said Tuesday night that hopefully, more universal use of a calendar function on Schoology will help students see far ahead of time and talk to teachers when test and project stacking might occur.
Paly's student board representative, Emma Cole, said that all her teachers this year are posting everything on Schoology.
"It's a huge improvement," she said. "Truly, I think that will help a lot."
Herrmann said that Gunn students have reported that "most but not all" teachers had activated their Schoology accounts by last week. She said she set an expectation that all staff members talk to parents at back-to-school night this week about their use of Schoology.
Board member Ken Dauber said he would like to see the board hear a progress report at its next meeting on teacher use of Schoology.
A group of Gunn teachers, led by math teacher Diane Gleason, also began meeting in May to come up with innovative ways to address test and project stacking, Herrmann said. Gunn also replicated an effort already in existence at Paly this year, opening a schoolwide test center that will make it easier for students to schedule tests at alternate times if they have multiple assignments due on the same day, Herrmann said.
Both high schools are also making efforts this year to be more strategic with teacher collaboration time, their principals said Tuesday. Seventy-two percent of teachers reported in the Hanover survey that they feel there is insufficient time for collaboration across the district, although more than half agree there is sufficient time at their schools.
Both Paly and Gunn have formed Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs, which are groups of "course-alike" teachers that meet on a weekly basis. Paly also has "learning strands," which are cross-departmental groups that meet once a month to discuss focused topics. (A recent one was homework.)
Gunn's new block schedule also includes dedicated teacher collaboration time each week, and the school's PLCs meet every Monday afternoons to discuss topics like common assessments, interventions for struggling students and course alignment.
In other business Tuesday, the board approved an increased housing loan for Superintendent Max McGee, who has said he has struggled to purchase a house in Palo Alto with the $1-million loan included in his original contract. The board unanimously approved 4-0, with member Terry Godfrey absent, a $1.5-million zero-interest loan. The entire loan amount is also now repayable to the district one year from whenever McGee ceases to be superintendent, up from nine months previously.