Laning, the practice of placing students into different academic tracks, has sometimes been criticized in the Palo Alto school district for sustaining the achievement gap between historically underrepresented students and their peers and for being a subjective process that can harm rather than help students.
The school board is dedicating an entire meeting Tuesday morning to the topic of laning its history in the district, research and best practices, how other school districts approach it and a consideration of whether or not to change current laning practices at Palo Alto's middle and high schools.
"The desired outcome of this student session is for Board, staff, and community to deepen individual and our collective understanding of how laning may promote or detract from educational achievement, equitable access and opportunity, consistent high quality and fairness, social emotional health, and high expectations for student success," Associate Superintendent Markus Autrey wrote in a staff report for Tuesday's special study session.
The school district has certain set pathways in English, math, science, social studies as a student moves up through the grades. For example, an eighth-grade student might be placed (by his or her teacher) into Algebra I for his or her freshman year, which then determines what classes he or she enrolls in the next few years (geometry, then Algebra 2, then pre-calculus), which would be less rigorous than a student who started freshman year in geometry. Students who start in geometry can also make their way by senior year to an Advanced Placement math class, while a student who begins high school in Algebra I would be tracked to take pre-calculus his or her senior year.
Though moving up or down a lane is possible, it's an opaque process that is less accessible to some in the district. One finding of the district's Minority Achievement and Talent Development (MATD) committee during the last school year was that waivers that parents must fill out to transfer their student from one lane to another were previously only available in English, making it hard for Spanish-speaking parents to access them or even know they existed.
MATD co-chair Judy Argumedo, who oversees the district's Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) and English Language Development, has 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.
Fewer than 10 students of color at all three middle schools requested parent waivers in a recent year, according to Argumedo.
MATD also found through focus groups and other analysis that the process for placing students into lanes was not entirely objective, with bias and other factors unconscious and not often affecting teachers' decisions about a student's future. Laning begins in middle school mathematics classes, when 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.
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 can derail their path to completing the University of California's A-G requirements.
In its final recommendations, MATD asked that the district create clear, objective and well-communicated information about laning, especially for parents of historically underrepresented students. The group also recommended that the district commission a longitudinal study to analyze the impact of laning on historically underrepresented students and their peers.
Research included in Tuesday's board packet points to studies that show tracking can be both problematic and beneficial. It is problematic in that it "segregates students on the basis of social background; reproduces social disadvantage; unequally distributes educational resources; negatively influences teacher expectations; and perpetuates harmful stereotypes of student based on social background and ability" but beneficial in that "curriculum and lesson planning can be tailored to a targeted audience allowing for a classroom pace appropriate for students; classroom management is much less an issue allowing more time to focus on teaching and learning; students work with peers (and) improves overall graduation."
"With the amount of contrasting research on this topic, it is difficult to land profoundly in the know on one side or the other," Autrey wrote. "The questions (sic) possibly changes from, 'Is tracking good for students or not good for students?' It changes to, 'As an organization, what do we stand for at the core of our work?'"
The school district has considered de-laning before. In 2014, a group of Paly teachers prepared for more than a year a proposal to de-lane freshman English at the school. Second-semester eighth-graders are given the choice whether to take the year-long "English 9" or "English 9 Accelerated" (English 9A) at Paly, a choice that created inequity, teachers and district leadership said at the time. The freshman choice for the regular lane also made students less likely to take honors or Advanced Placement English or U.S. History later in high school, English teachers said at the time.
"I've had conversations with freshman students who self-identify as being in the dummy class they see themselves right off the bat as not being as smart as their peers," Principal Kim Diorio said at a Jan. 28, 2014 board discussion on the proposal. "I think that sets them up in that mindset that they're in a fixed place in our school, and that's really troubling.
"In our school we talk about equity and structural inequalities that exist in our system and how we can raise achievement for all students," Diorio said.
But, facing strong resistance from school board members and many parents, the proposal was ultimately taken off the board's agenda and not considered.
One outcome from Tuesday's meeting could be that staff develop for the school board's consideration a pilot delaying effort for a core subject at the lowest level that that lane traditionally begins in the district, according to Autrey's staff report.
The board will also discuss a report on laning prepared last month for the district by Hanover Research Group, a global information services firm. "Common Practices and Challenges Related to Delaning K-12 Curricula" provides an overview of strategies for de-laning, with an emphasis on English language arts and math. It also includes "peer profiles" of de-laning efforts at San Francisco and Oakland unified school districts and Long Beach High School in New York.
The laning study session begins at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. Read the full agenda here. The board will also convene for its regularly scheduled meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening.