The school district's board room was full early Tuesday morning with parents who turned out to hear what became a wide-ranging discussion on academic laning, equity, access and differentiation in Palo Alto's classrooms.
The board convened for a special study session to discuss the topic of laning, a sometimes controversial subject in Palo Alto that, as one speaker put it, "brings out both the reptilian fears and best sides in all of us."
Laning, the practice of placing students into different academic lanes based on achievement level, begins in the Palo Alto school district in middle school mathematics classes, when sixth-grade teachers recommend their students enter a certain lane for the following year. Teachers make this decision 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.
Some parents worried Tuesday morning what a laning discussion might mean for their children in the future. Superintendent Max McGee began the meeting by addressing what he said are "misconceptions" he's heard from community members over the last few days, including that the study session was a "prelude to eliminating tracking" or taking away higher lanes of classes.
"This is simply not so," McGee said. "It's about ensuring opportunity and access for all students to participate and have the support to succeed in rigorous classes so we can make our vision a reality."
He said the district could consider at some point down the line de-laning a few but "certainly not every class," and Tuesday's study session was meant to provide a foundational background to both the board and community for future discussions on the topic.
One mother, however, said that a lot of parents are in "panic mode" right now.
"We're happy to have the discussion for de-laning or any kind of laning options but we are very worried: Are we leveling up, or leveling down?" she asked the board.
In 2014, when the school district considered a proposal to de-lane freshman English at Palo Alto High School, it was shot down by many parents and some school board members. Both then and on Tuesday, some board members said they were flooded with emails and calls about a potential change in the district's laning practices.
Several other parents voiced concerns Tuesday about what de-laning would mean for higher-achieving students who already find themselves "bored as heck," as one mother put it, in classes that they say lack differentiation. One mother of a fifth-grader said her son has tested out of every unit in his math class. Instead of receiving additional instruction, he has been given Kahn Academy videos to watch online, additional worksheets and math games to play on the computer, she said.
"There has been zero differentiated instruction and that is the sticking point for a parent like me," she said. "I'm all for access; it's the practicality of how do we do it and make sure it benefits all students?
Laning, however, allows students like her son "to move at a pace that's suitable for them," she said.
"It keeps them engaged. They truly love math and that allows a high-achieving child who has a passion for the subject to actually stay engaged," she added.
On the flip side are the district's historically underrepresented students who, McGee said, are disproportionately represented in the district's more challenging classes at higher lanes. In a presentation, he included quotes from students, parents and teachers his Minority Achievement and Talent Development (MATD) committee interviewed in focus groups as part of their work during the last school year.
Parents said the lower math lanes are "perceived as a 'dumping ground' where the worst teaching and education happens," McGee's presentation reads.
A teacher of the lower-lane math course offered in seventh grade ("math 7", compared to the accelerated "math 7A") said during a focus group: "Most of my students are Hispanic or African American and there are some that should not be there."
In its final report, MATD wrote that laning, particularly in mathematics, has "created a significant divide among students." The group recommended that the district create "clear, objective and well-communicated information about laning decisions and waivers in mathematics in middle school and high school."
McGee expressed support for laning in the upper grades, but said middle-school math placement can in particular be problematic. School board member Ken Dauber suggested that the district commit to having all of its eighth-grade students complete algebra before entering high school to level the playing field. Other board members agreed.
"Sixth grade seems to me too early to be making decisions about children's ability that is going to have long-term effects in high school," Dauber said, noting that "that doesn't necessarily mean that we don't have different levels of algebra, but it does mean that we have all students arrive at high school able to take up the opportunities that high school presents."
Board members requested more concrete data around laning how students have performed in Paly's accelerated freshman English class ("English 9A"), for example; the history of the practice in the district; the racial and ethnic breakdown of different lanes; which students are moving up or down lanes and how frequently that happens.
Board President Heidi Emberling stressed that student voice must be a part of any laning conversation, and board member Melissa Baten Caswell added that parent and teacher input are also critical.
"Given that there are a lot of strong opinions on both sides, I think it's really important we look at data," Baten Caswell said. "That's my request, that we have a clear look at data and that we're clear on what it is we're trying to do."
What exactly the district was trying to do Tuesday remained murky. Board members wondered if doing away with laning would be the right solution to some of the problems the district is trying to solve. And McGee said that there are no specific proposals around laning being considered at this point. He reassured the board that if and when proposals around laning practices are brought forward, they will be subject to board approval.
The board's data requests will likely be brought for further discussion at a board retreat in June, McGee said.