With the ire from the school district's last mathematics textbook-adoption process looming in Palo Alto Unified's not-too-distant past, several school board members and parents expressed concern Tuesday that a current process to select a new elementary math curriculum failed to solicit parent and community input early, as is required by the board's own bylaws.
The district launched last fall an "exploratory" process for finding a new curriculum — a decision to, for the first time, staff said, take an extra year to spend with the materials and slow down the process instead of jumping into a full pilot right away. The distinction between the exploratory and pilot processes, staff said Tuesday night, amounted to a "miscommunication" about at what point parents should be involved.
Superintendent Max McGee defended the process as "inclusive" and said it "had plenty of community participation."
Board member Camille Townsend, however, reiterated concerns she has expressed before at board discussions about the adoption process. She pointed to the board's administrative regulation on selection and evaluation of instructional materials, which requires that any textbook-adoption recommendation must be "developed cooperatively among groups of staff and community working together from the beginning of the textbook-selection process."
"I personally cannot endorse anything right now when we're not following our own policy," Townsend said. "It's called local law and we haven't followed it."
Last year, a "representative group" of teachers went to the Santa Clara County Office of Education to view new Common Core State Standard-aligned math materials and chose eight to bring back to the district for further exploration, according to Nixon Elementary School Principal Mary Pat O'Connell, who gave a presentation on the process in Chief Academic Officer of Elementary Education Barbara Harris' absence. The eight curricula were also displayed at the district office over the last several months for community members to view.
Lead math teachers at each elementary school then worked with math teachers on special assignment (TOSAs) and principals to select two to eight different Common Core State Standard-aligned curricula they wanted to explore, according to a previous staff report on the process. Whole grade levels or individual teachers created plans for how to introduce the materials in their classes and submitted the plans to their principals.
Teachers incorporated the new materials along with Everyday Mathematics, the current curriculum that drew much controversy when the board adopted it in 2009. More than 700 community members, mostly parents, signed a petition urging the board to postpone adoption for a year in order to test other textbook options, citing concerns over the quality of the series.
About 60 percent of elementary teachers explored at least one curriculum, according to the district.
In February, several months into the exploratory year, the district surveyed parents about their experience with and goals for elementary school mathematics.
The next month, six parents were selected from more than 30 applicants to serve on a new Elementary Math Exploration Committee along with 50 elementary teachers and specialists. The group met twice, according to the district, in "community member/parent learning sessions" in April and May.
On Tuesday night, this committee recommended three curricula to formally test out in the 2016-17 school year: Investigations, Everyday Math 4 (the updated version) and Eureka/Engage New York. Thirty-three percent of teachers who responded to the district's survey used Eureka/Engage New York during the exploration year, 30 percent used Investigations and 29 percent used Everyday Math 4.
Steven Schmidt, a parent who served on the committee, told the board that its recommendations were based on simply looking at which materials teachers used the most. One teacher, for example, pushed for a particular curriculum, but she was the only teacher who had tested it out, so it didn't move forward. The committee's recommendation process, he told the board, was "not quite as systematic and scientific as you may really think it is."
O'Connell said staff didn't think of the exploration process as tied to official board policy on selecting materials.
"That may be where this disconnect occurred. We thought this was an added experience that we were doing with teachers — inviting hundreds, literally, of teachers at every site to just experience and look at these materials given the Common Core State Standards are a bigger shift in standards than may have previously occurred when we did an adoption cycle," she said.
Some board members expressed frustration at the point the process is now when they, too, told staff in January to involve parents as early as possible. On Tuesday, they discussed how to better involve parents now — and, ultimately, arrive at the best curriculum for students — without throwing out the work teachers did this year in their classrooms.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell suggested that the math committee develop, in a more systematic way, a "weighted list of parameters" to evaluate new curricula against and postpone the pilot process until mid-fall of this year. O'Connell responded that there will be "more specific, deliberate, more expansive criteria" for the pilot compared to the exploration process.
"What I heard from all my colleagues and what bothered me was that the list (of curricula) was winnowed down without community input," Baten Caswell said. "I think the teachers have a lot of expertise and I think they've done a lot of good work and I value that. Without the community's side of it, I worry that we're headed down the same path we headed down last time."
Concerns were also raised about the committee's three recommended curricula. Parent Todd Collins, who is running for school board this fall, pointed to findings from EdReports.org, an independent nonprofit group that provides evidence-based reviews of instructional materials, that indicate Investigations and Everyday Math "do not meet expectations" for Common Core State Standards.
The Investigations materials "lack mathematical focus and coherence" and Everyday Math is lacking on its kindergarten- through second-grade materials, EdReports states. Eureka Math, however, meets expectations on focus, coherence, rigor and mathematical practices for all grades, according to a report.
Board member Ken Dauber said missing from the conversation was a more full understanding of the process that Palo Alto Unified teachers went through in considering the curricula's alignment with the Common Core standards.
Board President Heidi Emberling asked why Everyday Math was recommended when the district's own survey showed almost 40 percent of elementary teachers do not use Everyday Math as their primary math curriculum. The 63 percent who do use it only use it 80 percent of time, meaning one day a week, they use supplementary materials, according to Chris Kolar, director of research and assessment for the district. Staff noted that the committee recommended the new version, version 4, while the district uses version 3 of the curriculum.
Baten Caswell asked for the committee to identify the gaps in Everyday Math 3 that cause teachers to use other materials and evaluate whether these gaps are addressed in the new version.
Board members also asked McGee to post on the district's website minutes from the math committee's meetings and the names of the members to increase transparency. McGee said he would.
Collins also pointed to the fact that one of the math committee's own members is listed as a "contributing author" on the Investigations curriculum website. The member is parent Jennifer DiBrienza. McGee said the district consulted with its attorney on any potential conflict of interest and determined that there wasn't any.
The board agreed to hold a special study session dedicated to the topic of math curriculum in August or September.
The math-adoption committee is set to convene for a "kickoff" meeting on Aug. 29, 3:30-5 p.m., according to a meeting schedule on the district's website.
In other business at the board's last meeting of the school year, trustees approved the district's 2016-17 budget, as well as allocated $150,000 to launch a capital improvements process at Hoover Elementary School. Staff estimated the total cost of the project could be between $15 and $20 million, though the scope and design have yet to be determined.