News

Concerns over academic laning at Palo Alto schools resurface

Superintendent addresses 'misconceptions' around board discussion on practice

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.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly referred to laning and tracking as synonymous practices. They are not. This article has been updated to eliminate that confusion. This article has also been updated to clarify when laning starts in the Palo Alto school district -- while sixth grade teachers recommend laning placements, students actually begin laned classes in seventh grade. The Weekly regrets the error.

Comments

6 people like this
Posted by JLS parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Mar 8, 2016 at 1:47 pm

Interesting to contrast the middle school laning depiction in this story with what I have heard as a parent of a current 6th grader this year (I have no older kids so am new to this). The message I took away from the 6th grade parent math-night explanation was: "Math 7A is a way to move faster compress three years into two. Math 7 keeps them on the regular schedule. There's nothing wrong with either path, different kids develop differently, and some students prefer 7 even if they are recommended for 7A for reasons like heavy extracurricular activities or other circumstances. You can still get a path to a strong math program in high school from either 7 or 7A."

This story, and the quotes in it especially, imply a different story: Math 7A is the desired path and Math 7 is a lower level class for dumb kids. I have to say, if that's the attitude being conveyed to students (instead of the more measured attitude described above), I can see how laning would be considered a problem.


17 people like this
Posted by C
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 8, 2016 at 1:53 pm

"Most of my students are Hispanic or African American and there are some that should not be there."

Then why not focus on making laning more effective - making sure students are in the right lane, as opposed to eliminating them all together? Or at least making moving between lanes easier at lower levels of education (in high school switching is common. In middle school, not so much)?

As for sixth grade math, why not make sixth grade math actually teach new material instead of spending all year reviewing fractions?


16 people like this
Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 8, 2016 at 2:12 pm

I've been underwhelmed by the delaning in English--advanced kids aren't learning anything and aren't being prepared for the more advanced classes later, while kids with issues aren't tuning in. Group projects are done by the advanced kids with minimal contributions from the kids who would actually benefit more from doing the work.

If you're going to put all the kids together then you need to get serious about differentiated instruction--give kids real options that challenge them and make it possible for a child to move within a system. As it is, you get English classes that veer between very, very basic writing assignments and reading Shakespeare--pretty much a guaranteed no size fits anyone situation.

As it is, I think the number of math lanes is kind of crazy, but the math classes, as a whole, are in better shape than the ones in the humanities--at least the curriculum within a given class is at a consistent level.


6 people like this
Posted by Accuracy
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Mar 8, 2016 at 3:41 pm

@Weekly @Elena Kadvany

The article states:

"Laning, the practice of tracking students into different academic tracks based on achievement level, begins in the Palo Alto school district 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."

Laning and tracking are inherently different. Just as a car can switch between lanes but a train cannot change between tracks, the phrase "laning, the practice of tracking" is automatically inaccurate: either there is laning but not tracking, or tracking but not laning. You can't have both.

In the context of PAUSD, the tracking part is inaccurate, because we don't have a tracking system here (yes, the word "tracking" is incorrectly used 4 times in this article).

The above paragraph also implies that laning begins in 6th grade, which isn't true. All 6th grade students in the district take the same math class throughout the entire year.


1 person likes this
Posted by Elena Kadvany
education reporter of the Palo Alto Weekly
on Mar 8, 2016 at 4:54 pm

Elena Kadvany is a registered user.

To Accuracy: Thank you for pointing out that error. The story has been corrected.


14 people like this
Posted by Been There, Done That
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 8, 2016 at 5:41 pm

Placing lower aptitude students with top students is an uneven playing field. There is no way it's going to make them perform better, and if anything, they'll lose hope. Plus, some students usually don't have access to the tutors that other students have, pushing them further behind.

The 5 math lanes at Paly should be reconsidered, especially the accelerated lane, which is right above the regular lane. In 11th/12th grades, the accelerated lane students are in the same classes with the 10th/11th grade students in the AB lane (higher lane). This laning makes no sense! Just because the accelerated student is one year older, doesn't mean they can compete with AB lane students. They should change the class for the accelerated lane students so they are not with AB lane students, but the math department head only cares about the BC lane students. And everyone knows the BC lane is insane and most everyone has tutors.

Does the BC lane have a large impact on college applications or are the students being unnecessarily tortured?


12 people like this
Posted by Unschooling, happy, and ahead
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 9, 2016 at 12:09 am

All of this is unnecessary torture.
Web Link


4 people like this
Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 9, 2016 at 12:32 am

I've seen some good homeschooling and some tragically bad homeschooling. It's not an option for the many, many families that require dual incomes to live around here, so it's really neither here nor there as far as this thread goes.


6 people like this
Posted by Bad laning
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 9, 2016 at 6:58 am

@JLS points out where the schools start to stumble with laning - 7A is the desired lane for many, and at Jordan we were clearly told lies": it's okay to go in either lane , you can switch later" - practically speaking, it's a one-way trip. Laning up happens far less than down. They tell you this lie to ease their pressure on the next issue they create: scarcity.

Here's the other gotcha: they fixed the number of 7A classes regardless of demand so it clearly became an arms race with your whole future math at stake (and science - because that is linked to math progress in high school)

Parents who knew this really piled on the tutoring in 6th grade. Lesson learned.

The schools should provide as many 7A slots as demanded by parents and students. End the gladiator wars.


4 people like this
Posted by Laning is tracking
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Mar 9, 2016 at 7:10 am

Laning is better thought of as a watered-down form of tracking. Elena, you had it right the first time. It may be less rigid tracking than the type of decades past, but it's still a form of tracking. I know you don't want to spend your days Googling various educational research, but assertions like mine and others are just that, assertions. The research on the label of tracking is very clear that, at best, there isn't a clear tracking label. So tracking and laning can be synonymous especially when you examine the true practice and less than equal outcomes.


12 people like this
Posted by Bad Laning
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 9, 2016 at 7:11 am

If you get a terrible math teacher in 6th grade, you are screwed. Ours never taught 6 before, and never taught math. And he was new to the school. (He got promoted later)

It didn't go well - our student was laned down after this clown was through befuddling his class. Years later as part of other testing we discovered a very high aptitude and reasoning ability in math - 95+%ile.

But in 6th grade they learned two things- 'they are dumb at math' and 'math is boring'. Bad teaching creates disengagement. Laning is the outcome of bad teaching. It's built in to the system. The schools know they have bad teachers, and their solution is to teach the unlucky students at a lower pace.

The school should teach these kids more math with higher quality teachers so they can catch-up after a bad year. They don't. Laning is inaccurate, and punitive. It represents more the failures of the system than the students.


7 people like this
Posted by Bad Laning
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 9, 2016 at 7:27 am

The teacher matters more than the lane.


Another example: after coming out of Jordan, our other student was placed in English 9 with Mr Bark. Not 9A, just plain English.

He was an outstanding teacher - he caught the class up on 3 yrs of middle school English, taught them to write, and prepared them for 10A -other kids in that class had similar success. To this day our student uses notes from Mr Bark - I believe he taught them through most of 10A level. It was 3 years of instruction by others equivalent to 1 year with Mr Bark.

The teacher matters way more than the lane.

[Portion removed.]

The school should fix bad teaching, not worry about laning. Or if you use laning, it should be applied to put more time and the best teachers to catchup the students who struggle after a year of crappy teaching.

Use laning to fix problems the schools created.


7 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 9, 2016 at 7:28 am

"...Placing lower aptitude students with top students..."

This is the fundamental reason we have so many problems.

I admit I am a throwback. I went to public school in the mid 1960's When I was in a grade ALL the students were performing at grade level. Students that were performing lower than grade level were held back and repeated the previous grade. Students performing higher than grade level were promoted to the next grade.

Teachers were able to teach AT grade level and didn't have to deal with outliers. All the students benefited from more attention, more focus. We all moved up to the next grade. Those that didn't, repeated the grade. It wasn't a disaster if someone repeated a grade.

/marc


6 people like this
Posted by JLS parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Mar 9, 2016 at 9:43 am

@Bad Laning, interesting perspective on how the middle school laning works. Definitely gives me pause in how I've approached it, which has been: what's the value in rushing into a potentially high pressure accelerated situation so early?

And I can definitely see how the teacher would matter more than the lane in almost all cases. Having a great teacher is such a difference maker, and also luck of the draw (that's true everywhere, of course, not just PAUSD).


6 people like this
Posted by My Take
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 9, 2016 at 11:23 am

I agree, the teacher makes all the difference. My student had a math teacher who does not speak English, and so missed a lot of curriculum and didn't test into the higher lane. He had to work all summer to learn what he was not taught and retake the test. He has been in high lane ever since, with straight As.

The alarming thing here was how he was slapped with a label by the middle school math department and if a parent had not stepped in, he would have been stuck in the lower math lane for good. They were very resistant to taking a second look once he had been labeled inappropriately. I'm sure he is not the only one.

Among the students, the lower lane is considered a dumping ground, which causes students who may be there for the wrong reasons, to fall further behind.

Good teaching would make a great difference to many students, who may not have parents with the wherewithal to step in, or may not have access to the tutors that prop up many of the students who are considered gifted. Rather than pat themselves on the back for the performance of tutored students, the math teachers in this district need to improve the teaching, and the methods used to evaluate each student's aptitude, while providing ongoing opportunities to lane up, where appropriate.


2 people like this
Posted by C
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 9, 2016 at 11:26 am

"@JLS points out where the schools start to stumble with laning - 7A is the desired lane for many, and at Jordan we were clearly told lies": it's okay to go in either lane , you can switch later" - practically speaking, it's a one-way trip. Laning up happens far less than down. They tell you this lie to ease their pressure on the next issue they create: scarcity."

You can switch later - some times are just more ideal for switching, and if you choose to do so the assumption is that you'll play catch up on the material you didn't learn. I will grant you that students really only switch lanes at the start of HS or just before calc. As for the lane-down stats, those are mostly due to the high rate of attrition from the highest lane into the 2nd highest lane. I'm not sure what they'd look like if you took out that chunk of students.

The problem is the way they introduce the classes. When I was a student, they introduced them as - - in an effort to make the lanes sound like they're the exact same thing when they're not - "They teach the exact same material, but 7A just moves faster" (see the problem?).


5 people like this
Posted by Math_Interest
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 9, 2016 at 11:29 am

The most important thing in learning Mathematics is to encourage kids early on to think & find methods on their own to solve problems. Unfortunately that does not happen in most classrooms. Doing all the problems correctly or scoring high grades are secondary. Once they start thinking on their own high grades will follow eventually.


14 people like this
Posted by Unschooling, happy, and ahead
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 9, 2016 at 12:15 pm

@Opar,

[Portion removed.]

The point if the article is that it's the principles allowed to flourish in (good) homeschooling that make the difference, not that it takes place at home. I have attended public schools where those principles were also allowed to flourish, and they were the best, most joyful, and least stressful educational experiences of my life.

The system being imposed here is not necessary for the math education, in fact, it's probably impairing people on both ends of the spectrum and causing unnecessary stress. Learning how to learn for the joy of it is really hard under the system we have and is why many people choose homeschooling. (There are now more people in homeschool than in charter schools nationally, and approaching the order of magnitude in private school at the current rate of growth.) The majority are now choosing it, not to avoid school, but because of better and more customized educational opportunities. Those people are discovering that the old structure wasn't helping their kids learn, wasn't giving them a healthy community of learning with peers, and wasn't helping them get into college. Parents decided to do what their kids needed while the system wasn't moving.

Read the article. The point is not to get everyone homeschooling/unschooling/custom schooling/ hackschooling/independent schooling - one of the beauties of it is the positive, energized community of people who are doing what they choose and in charge of their own, customized education, but it's definitely not something you can put on autopilot so it's (as you agree) not for everyone - the point is that the same principles that make homeschoolers like these such desirable elite college material can and should be applied in public school. @Bad laning is right on. But the problem with the system isn't laning versus not laning, it's a system that cannot support every student as independent learners to meet their best creative potential. (Refer to our district vision for a better wording.) The focus should be on how to apply the best principles to give kids the best, most fulfilling math education possible, not on tweaking the structure already incapable of providing that. This just seems diversionary and unhelpful.


8 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 9, 2016 at 1:17 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Marc, I also went to school in the 60's and was bored stiff until I hit junior high school and math classes were tracked. It made a huge difference, even though they wouldn't let the teachers introduce Algebra so as not to conflict with high school. In high school, algebra was not tracked and there were no AP classes. Algebra was not only agonizingly slow, but I was bullied as one of the few kids excited about math. Fortunately, I was able to get into a special accelerated class for the next three years. This was in Watsonville, with a highly differentiated set of students, but minimal differentiated instruction and not so many involved parents. I still managed to attend and graduate from UC Berkeley, no thanks to my high school counselors. I made sure my kids attended schools with a lot more opportunity. Paly's college counseling then (90's) was outstanding.

Laning is not bad per se - but the implementation can be bad. If a child (and her parents) want the child to try for a higher lane, they should be allowed to. There should be a slot available for every child who wants to be there. My experience is that the school is not the best at choosing which lane. If the class is too hard, the child can always drop down a lane. I would also agree that the teacher is more important - and a good teacher can help kids catch up and change lanes (rare). However, the teacher is only slightly more important and being in a class with kids who can move at a similar rate is important for teachers who cannot provide differentiated instruction.

I moved between states when my children were in school. Rather than actually evaluate them formally or look at their records, I found schools routinely wanted to put them in lower lanes, because their school was better, including Paly. This was despite the fact they attended magnet competitive schools. It took a year and a lot of effort (mostly on their part) to get them appropriately placed at Paly, which paid off in the end (both were Nat'l Merit Scholars and attended great colleges), but it was not easy. Higher lanes should not be rationed but rather be aspirational. A teacher whose students move up lanes should be rewarded as doing a great job rather than just complaining that they don't belong there. Check out the movie "Stand and Deliver" based on a true story about Jaime Escalante's success in teaching his minority kids Calculus and getting them into college. His success required a lot of effort on his part - and differentiated instruction to reach kids who had been so neglected in lower level math classes. I doubt they would have succeeded in a typical Calculus class, despite their innate ability that he developed. He also was able to motivate the kids to reach higher. It can be done. Lower lanes should not be a permanent sentence - rather it should be a place for differentiated instruction for kids to reach their full potential and to facilitate any student who wants to move up a lane.

Differentiated instruction is the ideal but in practice it is difficult to implement and impractical in advanced classes. There should be much more of it at the elementary and middle school level. Then laning would not be such an issue.


7 people like this
Posted by Unschooling, happy, and ahead
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 9, 2016 at 1:37 pm

[Portion removed.]

@Opar,
I know people who are homeschooling several children while both parents work fulltime. There are so many resources now, "homeschooling" is only what some of them do at home.


6 people like this
Posted by Been There, Done That
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 9, 2016 at 1:53 pm

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by Unschooling
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 9, 2016 at 1:54 pm

[Post removed.]


5 people like this
Posted by Been There, Done That
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 9, 2016 at 2:19 pm

Sure, it looks great on paper, but homeschooling does not teach discipline, responsibility, or real life lessons such as interacting with all types, problem-solving. I know someone who is "homeschooling" her boys and she sends them to 2-3 classes of "homeschooling". She just wants them to avoid the rigor of academics in PAUSD. [Portion removed.]


11 people like this
Posted by Unschooling
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 9, 2016 at 4:52 pm

@Been there,
[Portion removed.]

We went for unschooling precisely because we all felt school education made students so defendant on external direction, and kept them in such an artificial environment away from all types. Having to be responsible for their own education, their own direction, creates more prepared students, more prepared people.

We wanted to be away from all the unnecessary baggage and overhead of PAUSD. That actually allows for more rigor, more responsibility, and more ability to succeed. Homeschooling math has been more customized, accelerated, and interesting. Same with everything else. Education has been broader and deeper. The reason most people are afraid to leave is a fear the kids will be disadvantaged for college, but as the article points out, the opposite is the case.

Being so independent is not for everyone. But most kids coming from traditional school need help getting over the dependance. Esther Wojciski points out that when she took on kids who were from underperforming English classes, it took on the order of 9 months before they could get over expecting to be told what to do all the time. Many homeschoolers talk about that same transition time, because schooling breeds dependence.

The amount of energy going into laning, delaning, the arguments, grades, etc - I just look at that and shake my head, because there are so many resources now to allow teachers to teach kids at everyone's individual pace. The homeschoolers have figured that out. It's hard to just put the school kids into that cold turkey precisely because they are so dependant on external direction and rewards. Why do you need all those grades if you're a good teacher (read Deanna Kohler and what she says about the six sigma problem).

(I just listened to my kid hold ground in a political discussion with an adult economist - wouldn't have happened as a district student. I'm really not going to engage any further on this thread about homeschooling because kind of like restaurant critics who don't want a ton of people ruining their favorite restaurants so they never review them, I'm actually not that interested in convincing anyone of anything. Getting back to the point of this thread - read the whole article. The principles they speak of, that make the successful homeschoolers so supccessful, apply to school as well. That's totally being missed in this laning discussion.)


9 people like this
Posted by Unschooling
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 9, 2016 at 5:14 pm

[Portion removed.] Can we please get back to the topic at hand? Laning, delaning - the focus is on tweaking the system, not on first and foremost on what all students need to have the best, healthiest math education possible.


2 people like this
Posted by It's the Boasting, Stupid
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 9, 2016 at 7:05 pm

Why not face the elephant in our midst: the parental bragging rights that come with the faster lanes.


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

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