News

In response to declining test scores, superintendent directs focus on middle school academics, particularly in math

New results show students drop from performing above standard once they graduate eighth grade

Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin has directed administrators and principals to conduct a wholesale evaluation of academic policies and practices at the district's three middle schools in response to Latino and low-income students' declining achievement, particularly in mathematics.

Austin's direction was prompted by new results from the state's Smarter Balanced exam, released on Oct. 9, that show Latino students dropped from performing above standard in English language arts and math in fifth grade to below standard by the time they graduated eighth grade. Low-income students also dropped farther below standard in both English and math by the end of eighth grade. In his weekly update on Friday, Austin described these results as "worthy of concern."

The school board will discuss the test results at its meeting on Tuesday.

Austin has asked administrators from Educational Services and the three middle school principals to work with teachers to evaluate their math programs and bring back recommendations before winter break. Specifically, he's asked them to scrutinize historic data for minority and economically disadvantaged students, placement practices, instructional time, naming of math courses, homework practices and teacher credentialing issues for content-specific courses, among other areas.


"Our team sees this evaluation process as an opportunity to challenge past assumptions and look for the next right answers," Austin wrote.

The board will hear a presentation on all students' "distance from standard," or the distance a student scores above or below the minimum standard met score for his or her grade level on the Smarter Balanced test.


At the elementary level, students overall continue to score above standard in math and English. In the past year, students who were identified as socioeconomically disadvantaged showed "accelerated growth" towards standard in both subjects, according to a staff report. Low-income students who graduated from fifth grade earlier this year were overall 32 points below standard in math, up from the previous class's 64 points below standard. Latino students also moved closer to the minimum standard score in English.

By the end of eighth grade, however, students moved from being 25 points above standard in English when finishing fifth grade to 13 points below standard, according to the district. In math, they moved from one point above standard to 20 points below standard.

In other business Tuesday, the board will discuss whether to pursue a staff housing project in Palo Alto. If board members support this, the district will next conduct a feasibility study, including looking at a site assessment, a market study and an initial financial analysis, according to staff.

The board will also hear a report on school safety and emergency preparedness, including recommendations for how to strengthen safety procedures.

The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the agenda here.

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Comments

35 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 15, 2019 at 10:32 am

Remember the political quote about being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple?

That quote is PAUSD. PAUSD serves a cohort of students where the "middle of the pack" comes in doing hand-stands, has fantastically educated and present family support, and fully enriched after-schools and summers. PAUSD takes this cohort, gives it middling support at best, and then pats themselves on the back for world-class outcomes. They honestly think they are hitting triples.

PAUSD is far from what it's cracked up to be. Amid serious issues, the district culture has been to hide, deny, delay, and obfuscate. Hopefully Dr. Austin will corral that heavy train, but he will need our support, pressure, and 'encouragement' to do so.


21 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 15, 2019 at 10:42 am

Does the paragraph below refer to the ENTIRE student body?

"By the end of eighth grade, however, students moved from being 25 points above standard in English when finishing fifth grade to 13 points below standard, according to the district. In math, they moved from one point above standard to 20 points below standard."

It seems that something amazingly rotten is going on here. I do hope I am misreading this. If not, these results are so bad (given this cohort!) that any parent in the know would have to seriously consider withdrawal from Palo Alto middle schools.

I'm not fan of charters, but this looks really, really bad.


27 people like this
Posted by DT North
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 15, 2019 at 10:55 am

Greene has some TERRIBLE math teachers. #1 in the state? Only because wealthy parents pay tutors. Teachers want better pay? Don’t let the terrible ones hang around. As in any other job people who can’t perform should be put on a performance review plan and be let go not protected until they retire young with a nice pension. I am always amazed at some basic knowledge my kids lack. (And they are nearly straight A students, sometimes I don’t know how). And before people get all hot and bothered “poor teachers” yes the excellent ones should be compensated accordingly and no you could not pay me enough to deal with middle schoolers all day so I truly appreciate the good ones and yes we have many but please get rid of the ones who clearly don’t know what they’re doing and don’t want to be there.


18 people like this
Posted by Hallelujah!
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 15, 2019 at 12:27 pm

Please, Superintendent Austin and school board, hold at least one meeting at the district office where parents can give you input without fear of retaliation from teachers.

There are indeed TERRIBLE math teachers at Greene - some who are in charge of math - and many parents commiserate with each other and are desperately hoping for change. Students who loved math in elementary school are discouraged by math (and their math teachers) once they get to Greene.


10 people like this
Posted by Ummm
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 15, 2019 at 1:08 pm

I have a ninth grader in Paly who had a fine experience with Greene -- including the math teachers, all three years. I now have a 7th grader who had a very so-so experience with 6th grade math (more personality mismatch vs. bad math teacher) and good math teacher for 7th. I would say that most of the math teachers are fine, with the exception of a few - and I agree that those math teachers should be OUT given how incredibly focused we are here in Palo Alto with MATH. By the way, why are we so incredibly focused on math? What about the kids who think more on the other side of the brain? They are made to feel unworthy here, stupid even if they just do the regular math lane. That is unfortunate and should not be. Not every kid is a STEM kid.


16 people like this
Posted by Yuri
a resident of another community
on Oct 15, 2019 at 1:28 pm

Which Superintendent do we believe?

This one: "We have a high-performing school district with an emphasis on measuring outcomes. I want to protect space for students to also share their talents in creative and less measured areas. Success is not defined the same for all students or families. It is important that we maintain a perspective that our role is to help all students find their own paths. If we create space, they will often exceed our wildest expectations".

Or this one: "he's asked them to scrutinize historic data for minority and economically disadvantaged students, placement practices, instructional time, naming of math courses, homework practices and teacher credentialing issues for content-specific courses, among other areas".

Love how some politicians talk out of both sides of their mouths. I guess once test scores come out, you can leave all that "protected space" behind. Fact is that nearly 90% of 8th grade math and english students at the three middle schools scored near, at, or above standard in just about every category. So, before you toss your teachers under the bus in a typical 25 Churchill political knee jerk reaction that invites more paid consultants and lawsuits, recognize the incredible work before blasting teachers for not solving a problem that has haunted this district for decades.


16 people like this
Posted by Back to basic
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 15, 2019 at 4:50 pm

I don't blame our K-8 math teachers. They themselves hadn't received a good math education, and they are fettered by the deficient curriculum and false pedagogy prescribed by the math education professionals from schools of education at universities.

Progressive-minded educational experts have successively led astray U.S. K-12 math since a century ago. David Klein has an eye-opening paper about it: "A Brief History of American K-12 Mathematics Education in the 20th Century" Web Link.

In recent years, some elite math-education professors at Stanford University's School of Education have been peddling progressive-style math under the banners of neuro-science, 21st century skills, personalized learning, creativity,and so forth. Extremely misleading and destructive, these fads have been ruining our nation and economy and perpetuating the achievement gaps.

To understand how profoundly problematic PAUSD's K-8 math is, please read the many hard facts gleaned from Palo Alto Online: "Why the Palo Alto Schools Failed in Closing the Achievement Gap or Reducing Stress?" Web Link


17 people like this
Posted by Back to basic
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 15, 2019 at 4:54 pm

The Road Taken by Johnny Who Can't Calculate

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry Johnny could not travel both.
And be one curious kid, long Johnny stood,
And looked down both as far as he could.

One guided by mathematicians, who urge
Rigor, focus, and coherence.
Additions, subtractions, multiplication tables, and long divisions;
Ratios, rates, percentages, and proportions.
Paper-and-pencil algorithms,
Steadily sharpen your thoughts.
Practices dispel anxiety, and practices grow knacks;
Fears will disappear; confidence will grow.
Knowledge is power, and you earn it with sweat.

The other favored by educational experts, who chant
A child-friendly wonderland:
Story-telling, finger plays, and diagram visuals,
Geometric slides, turns, and flips.
Let calculators do the chores,
And sweetie you are for creativity.
Practices cause anxiety, and practices make you a nerd.
Multiplication tables numb your brains,
Multiple ways for five times ten are the magic.
Spiraling through the K-12 woods, and you gain
Critical thinking, problem-solving, and higher-order thinking.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and Johnny—
Johnny took the one guided by educational experts,
And that has made all the difference.

+-*/^%!+-*/^%!+-*/^%!+-*/^%!


15 people like this
Posted by Back to basic
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 15, 2019 at 4:57 pm

Starry, Starry Night

-- to mathematicians who have fought their whole lives to salvage U.S. K-12 math

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a winter's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

You lamented about the absurdity
Leading astray U.S. K-12 math
You anguished over the fads
That caused the math-science death march

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they're not listening still
Perhaps they never will …


20 people like this
Posted by What Will They Do Next
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 15, 2019 at 5:00 pm

What Will They Do Next is a registered user.

It's California..,.what do you expect? California ranks 10th to last in the country. Thank you progressive liberals and teachers unions.


35 people like this
Posted by Truth
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 15, 2019 at 10:30 pm

We've been in PAUSD for many years, two of our have graduated from Paly and are currently in college. PAUSD English teaching has never been good in our time here. I heard it was outstanding in the 70s&80s. Teachers don't want to correct papers so they do not teach how to write, but teach how to analyze instead because it's less time consuming than correcting papers. At Greene, teachers who assign papers have students in class exchange papers and correct each others' (aka peer grading). What can a middle school student know vs. a teacher with an English B.A? Other teachers write unhelpful comments, just to appear as if they are doing something. And then it gets really silly at Paly. Not only do many teachers not have vocabulary quizzes which would help students study for the SAT/ACT, but many English teachers simply do not return papers so the student just receives a grade, no idea how to improve their writing. Some teachers return papers at the end of the semester with no comments so the student never learns along the way. We're only a top public school because of intellectual students and because many are being tutored or taking classes on the side. The lagging minorities proves that the teachers aren't that great. That said, there are some good teachers we have encountered but the two-year tenure allows for bad hires.


17 people like this
Posted by 20/20
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 15, 2019 at 11:40 pm

Our child's experience in elementary school was pretty good, with the exception of math which was abysmal because of EDM. Our child's experience in middle school was mostly not good academically, and was even emotionally abusive at times, and I think it's tragic because there were many teachers I felt could have been better under a better and more ethical leadership culture.

The environment was especially bad for boys, 2e kids, anyone with executive function challenges. Our child had unrecognized vision problems and dysgraphia that was treated like willfulness and punished -- it wasn't assessed for properly until we homeschooled. We were told then that boys' dysgraphia is often caught late.

I think the teachers in the school barely know what dysgraphia is, if at all. Since it affects math calculation accuracy, there should be better education about all LD's for teachers. Our kid did so much better just being given graph paper for math calculation, because it helps kids with dysgraphia line things up. Teachers would see the mistakes and the handwriting blame him for being careless. It was really hard for a kid who was really bright to constantly have to cool their heels, made to feel like they are dumb yet be bored while kids in the same room were given more challenging work. The kids who are easier in our district get the advantages, the outcome differences are just no surprise.

Students with families who can pay for assessments can help their kids. It's no surprise that other kids then start to lose ground throughout middle school. (We asked for assessment during middle school and were practically threatened with worse abuse than we were already dealing with. Honestly and sincerely dealing with the trust issue and engaging in some kind of truth and reconciliation is really needed. Don't turn your back on the kids and families you have damaged PAUSD!)

I take issue with the attack on creativity above. Our kid's creativity was equally savaged in school, and he's accomplished some pretty amazing things since leaving and being allowed to be a creative person, especially in math and science. It turns out that kids can really get a lot done if they don't have to deal with all that hoop jumping and unnecessary academic overhead in school. The journal of Higher Ed just recently published an article showing that grades hurt learning -- I expect there will be commenters who will misunderstand that and think we're talking about no standards or challenges, but as a homeschool parent, I I have observed how mastery-based education is the way to get a self-directed learner with much higher level performance with far more advanced work.

I think the above poster is right that there are just so many kids here who can succeed, the teachers really don't have to care about doing things better for everyone because they'll always have enough kids that do well, they can believe whatever they're doing is working. They feel comfortable blaming the kids who aren't do as well for it.

If our child had stayed in PAUSD, there is no chance that child would have completed all that advanced math in high school as in homeschooling, no chance he would have understood about the dysgraphia or gotten help, and would have not only NOT gotten opportunities from school, but would have tangibly had his opportunities after high school seriously hurt. Not to mention the emotional damage and inability to trust adults in a school setting.

That last point really deserves some consideration by parents whose kids are clearly bright but who are clearly trying (or maybe even stopped), are miserable and aren't doing well in school. Based on what I see in the homeschooling communities, there are a lot of kids for whom school here is actually HURTING their academic progress and HURTING them emotionally and overtly HURTING their future opportunities in numerous ways.

I'm here to say that I never thought we could homeschool, and now I look back and I wish we hadn't wasted our child's middle school years in PAUSD, or endured the abuse (all of us). There are options that no one really tells you about. I wish we had taken all the energy and money we wasted fighting the school and just used it on helping our child, because they were never going to no matter what we did.

I have no regrets about elementary school here despite the lousy math education. We all really wish we'd started homeschool in 6th or 7th, though.


14 people like this
Posted by A Paly Parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 15, 2019 at 11:59 pm

@Yuri,

It is true that "Fact is that nearly 90% of 8th grade math and english students at the three middle schools scored near, at, or above standard in just about every category. "

It is also true that most of these students have helps from the parents or tutors or outside classes... So how do we know how much of these outstanding performance is due to our great teachers?

Just look at the performance of those students who cannot afford the outside help --- the SED (Social Economically Disadvantaged) students! Their performance are below California average. And California is below National average.

Now that's the truth of how well our teachers teach!


3 people like this
Posted by Yuri
a resident of another community
on Oct 16, 2019 at 6:15 am

@Paly Parent,

90% of our students have good parents and tutors which mitigates bad teachers.

10% are poor, and parenting must not be a factor, because only rich folks can be good parents, right?

Solutions:

1. Rich folks in PAUSD should home school their children and increase tutoring time so PAUSD can focus on the struggling 10%. This would also allow PAUSD to trim the "fat" of bad teachers.

2. PAUSD leadership can get off their butts, find schools with similar demographics that are having success with low income students (if they exist), find out what they are doing, and then mimic the successful programs.

3. Have math and english teachers teach 3 periods of subject, and two periods of remediation for the 10% who are struggling. Surely one of the wealthiest communities on the face of the earth would pool its resources to deal with this dire situation, and fund this expensive scheme, right?

4. Sure there are many other ideas out there that would be more effective than piling on already demoralized teachers who answer to some of the worst institutional leadership in this nation.



22 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 16, 2019 at 7:24 am

john_alderman is a registered user.

Sad example of killing with kindness. Message to Tinsley parents: Try to get your kid into Hoover. You want your child to be challenged, not coddled. PAUSD is on a path of "Teach nothing to no one so everyone feels OK". That works for a few years, but eventually reality strikes back, and you have to know your multiplication tables. You won't learn them in class in PAUSD, so only the children with parents who supplement will be academically prepared.


24 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2019 at 8:01 am

Our PAUSD experience is now over, but I have some comments.

Biggest disappointment was math, definitely middle school math.

Next biggest disappointment was lack of teaching kids how to think. Instead they were influenced what to think. Indoctrination, particularly about political opinion, is prolific. Many teachers have their own political agendas which they dole out on the students. Rarely, if ever, is there mention of the fact that there are two sides to most issues. Rarely, if ever, are the students told the pros and cons of many historical or current issues. Teaching our students to be carbon copies of each other is not education. Instead they must be taught to weigh up different ideas and make their own choices, understanding that as they mature their opinions may change and that is part of what becoming older and wiser means.


12 people like this
Posted by 20/20
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2019 at 9:44 am

@john_alderman,
You have it all wrong. The schools have lots of "rigor", so much, that kids end up chasing grades to the exclusion of learning, to the exclusion of developing independence and self-direction. They develop a whole social hierarchy around grades. Teachers dole out learning opportunities based on grades. Talented kids who could be learning at a much higher level end up languishing intellectually, even doing considerably less well than if they didn't have the school.

Kids with unrecognized LD's -- or who just don't "do school" well -- end up learning and achieving less than they could otherwise with their time and energy, and creating a record that quite literally damages their opportunities in school and beyond. Since there are enough kids who do well enough in the system, the damaged ones are viewed as if it's their or their parents' faults. Kids launch into adulthood never developing or appreciating their own talents, often with stunted independence and damaged family relationships.

(Estimates of rates of dysgraphia - up to 20% of the population, especially in boys. Gifted kids who compensate and cover up are no less important to identify and help. What percentage of students does the district identify or acknowledge as having dysgraphia? Do most teachers in the district even know what it is? I hear from parents of students who were assessed for dysgraphia outside, that even knowing a child has been identified doesn't always mean the kid gets help from staff that are ignorant about even common LD's like dysgraphia.)

The schools believe the kids' time should be theirs 24/7, and ask the kids to account for their time around the clock. They pressure the kids to quit outside endeavors that may be the only thing holding them together emotionally or developing their talents. It only gets worse in high school.

The attitude that learning has to hurt, and that "rigor" must be painful, or conversely, if a student is having fun they can't be learning, is exactly what is making our middle schools less effective.

At Gunn, one of the AP teachers got rid of homework -- to focus on learning -- and found not only did the kids become more engaged, but they also did just as well on the AP test.

Our kid was miserable being surrounded by others who were not interested in learning, but were training to better jump through the hoops they were given every day, not appreciating how this trains them to depend on external direction for learning. (That's essentially how our kid described it.)

Homeschoolers have a concept called "deschooling" which they encourage new homeschoolers to practice, which is basically, for every year the kid has been in traditional school, spend one month in which the kid isn't required to do anything. It doesn't meant they don't get learning opportunities -- museums, travel, reading, online learning, projects, classes, etc -- it just means no one makes them do anything or tests them, and both children and parents need to get comfortable with the idea of the student being in charge of their own learning. It turns out this time and process are necessary, a kind of re-learning autonomous life without the gauntlet/cage, in order for students to become better masters of their own time and learning, and in order for them to appreciate that learning doesn't have to hurt or make them feel dead inside (that in fact, they were learning and doing less under those circumstances).

My kid scored above average in every category, but was losing ground every year of middle school. First year out, test scores rocketed, double-digit improvement, even though they were only taken on a lark to be sure we weren't neglecting anything. School, it turned out, was a barrier to spending time more productively, learning, and just becoming more confident, accomplished, and happy.

I'm actually not dismissing the value of good schools and teaching -- our kid happened to homeschool through a public district, in which the trustworthy, upstanding, supportive independent study teachers helped restore at least some faith in the profession.


9 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 16, 2019 at 9:52 am

john_alderman is a registered user.

@20/20 - The elementary schools have no rigor, so the kids are completely unprepared and overwhelmed when they hit middle school, and especially high school. I'd agree that the high schools lean towards overly rigorous, but that's the unpleasant reality of college prep these days. There is no excuse for the weak elementary school, early middle school curriculum though. Rubber hits the road when you arrive in algebra class and fail at basic computation. When you were coddled for 7 years in English and can't spell or don't understand basic grammar.


7 people like this
Posted by 20/20
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2019 at 10:53 am

@john_alderman,
You still don't get it. Our elementary schools both have too much rigor and too little learning content. The kids who had teachers who got on board with EDM because they were told to get in line, their kids ended up backsliding in math. The kids whose teachers kept teaching math (not necessarily rigorously) ended up with a cascade of opportunities.

This idea of rigor (austerity, strictness, inflexibility) versus no rigor is so misguided industrial revolution. There is absolutely no connection between thwacking kids into their seats and how much they learn, except that if you destroy play for kids of that age and they hate school/learning, social and learning outcomes down the line will actually be worse for many of them. Our kid's math education was horribly damaged between a combination of EDM and the teachers literally forbidding the kids from working ahead and making them feel like they were "bad" if they did. This had nothing to do with rigor, in fact, our kid asked to be allowed to just do Singapore Math (more independence, less rigor in school) and was told only after he finished his EDM homework (which was almost devoid of actual math), so there was no time.

The kids getting to middle school aren't failing because of being "coddled", they're failing because the elementary failed at providing those kids a math education, and in many cases, failed at just letting the kids follow their interests. (Ever made a kid cry because the teachers told you in no uncertain terms that the younger kids couldn't participate in the after school math and get ahead, so you had to tell the kid he couldn't do math with the older kids? I have.)

You have acknowledged that our high schools lean toward "overly rigorous". I'm trying to tell you that the "rigor" would have meant our child didn't even get calculus in high school here, versus having lots of freedom and independence as a homeschooler -- way, way less rigor -- and taking college calculus and Diffeq as a sophomore and junior (while also being happier and more independent). Part of what helped was that having less "rigor" meant catching up on learning because of not having to constantly jump through others' hoops, not having to constantly be subject to humiliating grades that had more to do with the unrecognized dysgraphia and lack of support for self-direction than knowledge.

Learning, doing advanced work, are NOT NOT NOT inextricably linked with "rigor". You know how my kid did high school math as a homeschooler? He chose a few textbooks with the independent study teacher, decided which program he liked best, worked through the material at his own pace, took tests and if he didn't get a perfect score, the teacher told him to do more honors problems then retake the test at that level. When you do things that way, you learn everything to mastery. He also did some really fast-paced advanced online courses (live), and some college course MOOC's. Then got college credit in live classes. Then decided that was for the birds because learning was too slow, so is back to self-paced in order to get three advanced math classes in the last year of high school. No "rigor" == way more advanced learning.

When kids don't learn to be self-directed, and the joy is sucked out of learning, and their time is not their own for years on end, of course you have to institute more and more austerity to get them to do what you want. It's not a recipe for optimal learning, and it's a recipe for actually hurting the educations and futures of many kids.


13 people like this
Posted by 20/20
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2019 at 11:08 am

@john_alderman,
Do you know what "unschooling" is? It's a philosophy of homeschooling practiced by about 10% of homeschoolers, that is the polar opposite of "rigor"-- families practice completely student-driven learning. They don't "make" the kids do anything.

How does that work out? Web Link
"Several themes emerged: Getting into college was typically a fairly smooth process for this group; they adjusted to the academics fairly easily, quickly picking up skills such as class note-taking or essay composition; and most felt at a distinct advantage due to their high self-motivation and capacity for self-direction. “The most frequent complaints,” Gray notes on his blog, “were about the lack of motivation and intellectual curiosity among their college classmates, the constricted social life of college, and, in a few cases, constraints imposed by the curriculum or grading system.”"

"None of the respondents found college academically difficult, but some found the rules and conventions strange and sometimes off-putting. Young people who were used to having to find things out on their own were taken aback, and even in some cases felt insulted, “when professors assumed they had to tell them what they were supposed to learn,” "

It's important to note that these kids didn't come out of the womb self-directed, they learn it through unschooling. It's important not to have a fixed mindset about independence -- school teaches kids to be dependent in their learning, not just our schools, it's the model of education. With the burgeoning opportunities of our modern era, ideas about "rigor" being inextricably linked to learning are hurting the learning and opportunities of many kids. In the hear of Silicon Valley, this should stop.


10 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 16, 2019 at 11:23 am

john_alderman is a registered user.

@20/20 We could spend more time parsing terms, but we are close to saying the same thing: kids aren't learning very much in elementary school, and it leaves them poorly prepared for middle and high school. It increases their stress level because they lack experience and competence in basic skills, including things like test taking, and doing homework.

FWIW, the EDM math curriculum of sitting on the floor playing with rubber bands never once triggered any thought of elementary school being too rigorous. Nor the lack of testing, lack of homework, etc...


11 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2019 at 11:30 am

There are at least four sides to this story. 20/20 is primarily concerned with special ed. It was far better in 2007 than it was in 2018. Oh well. You would think that they must have done something that would benefit the Lake Wobegone students in math, then, right? Not so much, because, good math education is actually difficult.

Generally, you need teachers who know each instruction level at least two levels above what they are teaching. At the elementary level, that isn't hard, and, PAUSD elementary students do OK. Most teachers, after all, have had Algebra II. Middle school, on the other hand-- in today's world, that reaches Algebra I. Middle school math/science teachers should actually understand Calculus, even though they won't be teaching it. High school math teachers should actually have been math majors. Advanced Calculus, Abstract Set Theory, Linear and Abstract Algebra, Probability Theory.

Then, these math majors have to be good teachers. Good teachers who don't hate adolescents. I've never understood why, but, there are some middle/high-school teachers out there who actually don't like kids. PAUSD should do some pre-employment psychological tests to pre-screen them out. They would be much happier working at FaceBook than trying to teach -kids-.

So, good teachers. Good teachers of mathematics that is. And, that implies that they know both -calculations- AND have a good conceptual understanding. Unfortunately, this last item turns out to be very difficult to find unless the teacher has been to grad school, because undergraduate instruction in colleges is increasingly directed towards rote learning. Rote learning actually is necessary, but, is not sufficient. In today's terms, math teachers should have an "M.A.T." math degree with Real Analysis, Abstract Algebra, etc. There are people out there, but, PAUSD is unlikely to hire them or accord them with the personal respect necessary to retain them. So, I'm pessimistic about real progress in math here. Most students who actually do well in math will come from mathematical families. "Sad."


Like this comment
Posted by Sally
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 16, 2019 at 4:16 pm

One of America's greatest ideas is that every child should be afforded a public education, allowing them to develop their human potentials and thrive according to their passions and purpose.

Like other American promises, we have to fight to make it true.

"Unschooling" should be a family's right indeed. I'm not sure how it speaks to our dream of public education or our shameful achievement gap.


10 people like this
Posted by Wrong
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 17, 2019 at 1:54 am

Let me get this straight. Lower income and minorities are not performing well academically and [some] don't live in Palo Alto. PAUSD pays for their busing and now we have to dedicate more time to them too even though they live in San Mateo county? Tinsley should be abolished—it only passed when there weren't enough students in the school district. Times have changed, we have too many students now and the money should go to Palo Alto students—Palo Alto cannot save the world.

[Portion removed.]


8 people like this
Posted by 20/20
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 17, 2019 at 9:16 am

@Sally,
"Unschooling should be a family's right indeed. I'm not sure how it speaks to our dream of public education or our shameful achievement gap."

A very high percentage of families who engage in independent education, especially in the Bay Area, do so in some kind of relationship with a public district. Many more would if it were possible. The PAUSD culture is not currently amenable to allowing families and students to have that kind of autonomy and independence in learning, despite autonomy being so much more in line with the broader entrepreneurial culture of the area. No matter what the district says about how it values student independence, everything they do says the opposite. (@Anon - this is about all students, not just special ed.)

There aren't a lot of studies on homeschooled students and testing, but where those studies exist, they found no achievement gap or gender gap. Which makes sense when you're talking about customized education for each child. School districts can learn a lot from homeschoolers and independent education, especially since so many PUBLIC districts have homeschool programs.

There is no public vs private divide here, only figuring out how districts can live its values of giving students more autonomy and independence, customizing education more, helping each child reach their creative potential (as the district's own vision said).

I have been told by an administrator that PAUSD will never do this because they think too many kids would take part. The head of high school curriculum is also kind of the ultimate control freak (neatness- and organizationally- speaking), who fundamentally doesn't understand independence in education. I think this is the wrong way to look at things -- it's easy and cheap to start fostering an independent study program (instead of giving some people advantages under the table and denying others without any kind of formal process as now, which is actually illegal), and I can 100% promise that the majority will still want to be in the traditional school programs. But for those who need the independence, it will make all the difference, and the district can start to understand what aspects might benefit all kids in the district.



8 people like this
Posted by Another
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 17, 2019 at 9:52 am

Another is a registered user.

While my own kids have had generally good math teachers in elementary, middle, and high school at PAUSD, I'm sure that some subpar teachers exist and I'm sorry some have had bad experiences.

Regarding test score disparity, I don't think we can just ignore the reality that PAUSD kids come from extremely different family backgrounds. That disparity--rather than PAUSD teaching--very likely accounts for much of the test score gap. For that reason, it's quite unfair to so harshly criticize teachers for something quite out of their control.

The unpleasant reality is that many of the big winners in the global, technology-driven economy end up living in Palo Alto. And those are often people with off-the-charts academic and technical skill. I know so many families at my kids' schools where both parents have PhDs or advanced degrees from the best universities in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and so on. Palo Alto and Silicon Valley are magnets for people with these skills, and this area, with all of its economic opportunities for such people, attracts the cream of the crop from around the world.

It may seem unfair, and maybe in some ways it is, but the children of these kinds of parents are, in general, simply going to be better at math than your average student. This is not because of tutoring, this is not because of teaching. There are going to be gaps between these kids and their peers from different types of backgrounds. You can blame this on PAUSD, your kids' teachers, or racism, but I think this requires a deliberate disregarding of this reality.

If your kids went to school with a bunch of kids whose parents all played professional soccer, I don't think it would be shocking to anyone if those offspring of pro soccer players were generally a bit better at the game than your kids. Again, it might not be fair, but it would be still true.

I realize that this line of argument can be exploited by racists, eugenicists, and other crackpots for very bad purposes. We and PAUSD definitely should try to provide better opportunities for those struggling in math. The district should be sensitive to the needs of families not from these hyper-educated, high-achieving backgrounds.

At the same time, let's concede that the extreme diversity among the students in PAUSD is very real and not easy for a public school district to deal with. Let's not be so quick to have this knee-jerk response of slamming the teachers and slamming the superintendent. These are very difficult issues to deal with, and there is no easy solution.





5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 17, 2019 at 10:39 am

@Another, the relevant gap is the "proficiency gap," where a large majority of low-income and minority students are below grade level, even compared to other districts with less money and more difficult students to serve. This can't be explained away - it is the district not getting the job done, in ways that other California school districts do.

A public school district that doesn't serve high-need students isn't doing its job. This isn't an "equity" problem - it's a quality problem. Our schools are mostly only effective at teaching kids who are easy to teach (or get outside support). If the student doesn't have those resources, our schools are actually below average. That's a tough message for a town that prides itself on its schools, but the data is right there.

The district has been stuck in ways of thinking and doing things for a long time - success makes you complacent and even conservative. Hopefully this is a wake up call that all is not right, and they need to look at fundamental assumptions and practices. Ultimately all kids will be better served.


5 people like this
Posted by Another
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 17, 2019 at 10:57 am

Another is a registered user.

Thanks, @Resident. That's a good point.

I just went to the Smarter Balance 2018 test score website Web Link

I looked at the Math scores for 6th grade economically disadvantaged Latino students in five local districts. This is the data:

PAUSD: 6.35% exceeded standard, 28.57% met standard
Mountain View/Whisman: 9.29% exceeded standard, 15.85% met standard
Los Altos: 5.56% exceeded standard, 11.11% met standard
Redwood City: 6.39% exceeded standard, 14.99% met standard
San Mateo-Foster City: 1.78% exceeded standard, 9.20% met standard

This was not cherry-picking of data. I chose 6th grade because it was in the middle of the grades shown, and I chose four districts of large towns close to Palo Alto. I have not looked at any other districts.

Based on what you wrote, I was expecting PAUSD to lag the other districts, but if you sum the % for exceeding and meeting standards, PAUSD is actually the highest, by a pretty big margin: 34.92% vs. 25.14%, 16.67%, 21.38%, and 10.98% for the other four.

So maybe PAUSD is actually doing a pretty decent job relative to other local districts? What are the districts you were referring to that are outperforming PAUSD?


2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 17, 2019 at 12:27 pm

@Another, thanks for looking up the data, which seems correct to me. See below for a few data points. The claim is that for low-income Hispanic students, PAUSD does the same or worse than state and county averages (in ELA, slightly better in Math), despite much higher per-pupil funding and a much more resourced student population to serve.

BTW, one fact, often over-looked, is that Southern California schools, on average, have much better results for low-income students than Northern California. That's a big part of why the state average is higher in ELA - SoCal districts/students achieve much better results.

SED Hispanic students, meet or exceed grade level

State: ELA 36%, Math 24.5%
Santa Clara County: ELA 32%, Math 22.5%
PAUSD: ELA 32%, Math 28.5%

(Source: CAASPP site: Web Link)

Funding per pupil, % students low-income (free/reduced lunch eligible)

State: $12.7K, 60%
Santa Clara County: $13-14K, 38%
PAUSD: $20.5K, 11%

(Source: Ed-data, great portal for all school data: Web Link)

Here also is a release from Rocketship Public Schools, a K-5 charter organization in the Bay Area. Web Link They reported that 48% of their SED students were at or above in ELA, 58% in Math. Their funding is around $12-13K per student, and 80% of their students are SED. So, massively better than PAUSD, despite much lower funding and a more challenging population.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 17, 2019 at 12:38 pm

@Another, also, checking your SBAC link, those are to the 2018 results. For the newest results, use the one in my prior post or this one: Web Link


4 people like this
Posted by Greene and Paly parent
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 17, 2019 at 11:47 pm

Thank you @Resident for the data!

Sharing some thoughts on the results for economically disadvantaged (SED) Latino students and what this means to all of our middle school math students:

There are multiple reasons why we SHOULD be doing much better. For once, we are throwing much more money at it. Another one seems to be selection bias.
My understanding is that many of these students are not residents of Palo Alto. The Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) takes 60 students a year from other districts and they are bussed to Palo Alto schools. The goal is to provide them a better opportunity and "lift them up". This is a voluntary program so there is selection bias. These are kids and families that are interested in better education and elect to spend an hour a day on a bus so that they can get that. We take them from very early on (K to 2nd grade) so their education is almost entirely PAUSD. And then we fail to deliver.

The CAASPP results on the report to the board show dismal pace of growth in math during the middle school years.
Web Link
The SBAC grade-level paced growth is of 58 points from spring of G5 to spring of G8. But the average score of our SED Latino students (56 current G9 students) increased by only 14 points in these three years of middle school.


My take is that the obstructions these kids are facing in middle school math are systemic issues that impact the majority of our students all across. The difference is that the VTP kids do not have the family resources to mitigate.

-- Teaching quality: We have many good math teachers, especially the math specialists teaching G7 and up. But also some ineffective teachers. Greene has 3 out of the 7 G6 math teachers ineffective for most students. And this is much more of an issue with math specifically because it is a very sequential subject. For students that have no way to mitigate, any one year of ineffective teaching is a failure point.

-- Systemic misplacement and discouragement: Our MS math program is much narrower and more rigid than at similar districts. This results in a huge spread of levels, especially in G6. About 35% of the kids in G6 math courses are already proficient. This creates a tough situation for teachers and students that actually need to learn lose confidence and feel inadequate.


Another thought is that the grade level minimum standards is a very low bar. Because we aim so low we are putting a hard low ceiling on the SED kids that could in a supportive setting advance higher. The CA standard is not even relevant to the majority of our students: As mentioned above, 79% of PAUSD G6 students meet standards and 65% exceed. A more relevant bar is Algebra proficiency in G8, but on this we trail behind similar districts overall: Only 70% at PAUSD complete Algebra in G8 versus 85% in similar districts. Only 5% at PAUSD complete Geometry in G8 versus 45% in Los Altos. At Cupertino, many disadvantaged studented do Algebra or above in G8. But at PAUSD, our pathway is obstructed with discouragement and minimum school support.

Our Supt and board seem to recognize that our middle school math program needs an overhaul. That all our students need an improved program and that a systemic fix will also help lift up our SED students. Lets hope they will follow through.


8 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 18, 2019 at 10:32 am

john_alderman is a registered user.

@Greene and Paly parent: "These are kids and families that are interested in better education and elect to spend an hour a day on a bus so that they can get that."

There are data biases ALL over, to the point it is a complete waste of time and very misleading to compare districts. As you point out, many VTP kids spend an hour a day commuting. Well, right there is a confounding factor. Maybe it is better to focus on improving local schools so kid have less time in a car or bus, and more in a classroom or at home studying, or playing. They'd be better off at home watching TV for an hour than sitting on a bus.

Also, low income hispanic communities can look completely different from each other. You could have 10th generation Mexican Americans in one district, and you can have Central American immigrants who arrived last year in another. Which do you think is going to have better English scores?


4 people like this
Posted by Greene and Paly parent
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 18, 2019 at 12:16 pm

@jon_alderman

Some more thoughts on out Tinsley (VTP) program...

First, I agree completely that comparisons are problematic and the data has significant limitations. You made some good points. At PAUSD and similar districts "SED/Latino" are small sets of students (roughly 60 a year at PAUSD) and even within PAUSD there is high variances of fraction "meeting standards" metric on the same group of students across grades and different years in the same grade. The use of average scores is also problematic with such a small group. The minimum possibly score for 6th grade is 2235 and the standard met bar is 2473. I am not sure what is the score if you guess everything, but if it is 2235 then one student that sleeps during the assessments and hits minimum score out of the 56 could potentially pull the "distance from standard" 4 point down. Similarly, one student that tops the exam out of the 56 (many PAUSD students top SBAC) at 2724 pulls the distance 5 points up. So at a minimum I would also look at quantiles and the distribution.

Generally, the district should really be performing a more telling analysis on these and actually for all other students using the more accurate data that we do have. There is much that can be understood with more substantive use of available data.

Back to SED/Latino students, even with these limitations what is clear is that the *pace* of growth is very disappointing. The bar increases by 58 points during middle school and on average most students show this increase but the SED/Latino cohort had average 14 point increase (over the three years) then this means that many of these students do not have adequate growth.

You make a really good point if bussing students to PAUSD is the best way to support them given the situation. First lets consider the cost. With what @resident shared, we are spending 20.5K a year per students. I suspect the spending on VTP students is much higher, with the bussing and many special program after school and on weekends (to compensate for what is not achieved during the school day). Also, our lowest lane for 7th and 8th grade has much smaller section sizes, so this can be factored in as well when considering the cost of these students relative to other students. (math8 section sizes are 14, 16, 17 at the three middle schools and Algebra8 average section are 24, 27, 28 students per class) . So lets estimate that we spend 25K per year on each of these VTP students.

Given
-- this amount of spending (~ 25k per student per year)
-- the really poor results
-- the whole focus of our board seems to be on how to improve VTP outcomes to the extent that we do not even have relevant metrics or focus on improving the experience of our "other" 90%
-- the reality of PAUSD pathways where most students heavily rely on external support, even to get to where in nearby districts can be done within the school program (this is one thing we need to deeply look at), so it is very questionable if this is the place you want to ship students that don't have means to start with.

So indeed it might be much more effective to spend the 25k/year per student in an effective encouraging environment. Perhaps a new program within the Ravenswood district (eliminate need for bussing). And there are huge success stories out there that show what can be done, both charter schools and some public schools. With this much investment and the right program, experience suggests that most of these students can be proficient in Algebra at the end of middle school (~ +200 ABOVE standard). And we are putting a ceiling of "meeting minimum stadards" on these students, and have them well below even that.

As for PAUSD, we probably should focus on addressing core issues and improving the experience of all our students. Once we have a program that allows the majority of our students to learn unobstructed and encouraged with effective time at school, then we can think of "lifting up" less privileged students.


6 people like this
Posted by 20/20
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2019 at 12:02 am

I just saw this from Sal Khan at Khan Academy (mailing)

"While reading the news recently, I saw an article about Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, who just won the Nobel Prize for their work on poverty alleviation. They shared this quote on what helps students learn:

“We ran experiments where you change a bunch of inputs, like changing the way the teaching happens or change the books or change the timing. And it turns out that what's really critical is that the kids should have some time when they can catch up with the material they have missed, something that is excluded from most school systems in the developing world." "

In other words, more self-directed learning, more autonomy. One of the best things about homeschool is that kids don't have to give up on something just because they get behind. Mine just took a short-term job (self-contained) doing something he loved, and got very behind on one class. It's an AP class, but it's also homeschoolers -- if it were in PAUSD, it would be an automatic F, because it's all about the grade. Homeschooling, the instructor lets the kids catch up, because they are used to being in charge of their learning, they can. Focusing on the grade, more kids "fail" unnecessarily. Focusing on the learning and giving kids autonomy is no skin off the noses of anyone running the school and it gives more kids a chance to succeed, especially those whose circumstances aren't perfect.

Understanding the value of homeschooling can teach the district how to tell the difference between helpful structure and burdensome academic overhead (which we have way too much of).

Again, learning does not have to be painful, stressful, or resemble punishment more than joy to be high quality.


7 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 23, 2019 at 3:19 pm

I'd apologize if I was sorry, but I have to wonder which of the amateur education critics on this thread could score grade level on these tests. Has anybody done it? Tried?


4 people like this
Posted by 20/20
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2019 at 8:01 am

@Curmudgeon,
Is there a point you’re trying to make? Because the only thing that comes through is you’re looking down your nose at anyone criticizing the education system.

One of the perennial criticisms by people who know nothing about homeschooling is that only kids whose parents are highly educated can benefit. But it turns out that outcomes of homeschoolers depend very little on the education level of the parents, with children of parents with very little education faring only slightly less well than those of highly educated parents on average. This may be because very often the parents aren’t the primary teachers, but they are instead essentially the school administrator who customizes the child’s education.

My point is : “Amateurs” in education are nothing to sneeze at. In fact, They can make better learning possible, joyful, and a more integral part of life.


5 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2019 at 12:26 pm

Posted by 20/20, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

>> One of the perennial criticisms by people who know nothing about homeschooling

My perennial criticism of homeschooling converts is that homeschooling is all they ever talk about. The topic was middle-school academics.

"Atheists bore me because all they ever talk about is God." (a character in Heinrich Böll's "The Clown")



2 people like this
Posted by 20/20
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2019 at 5:04 pm

@Anon,
"The topic was middle-school academics. "

If you read what I wrote, you might have a little bit of appreciation for what you could learn from homeschooling to solve this problem for schools.

That particular comment of mine related to the comments above that want to make the difference in performance some kind of genetic or life-circumstance immutable difference. If you look at outcomes in homeschooling, you see no gender or achievement gap. The schools could be achieving that, too. They could turn things around for any given student within one school year or less.

We have experience in Palo Alto elementary and middle school. And experience with homeschool. We saw the different factors that contributed to our child's abysmal math education in school, and how homeschooling (with NO heroics) resulted in dramatically accelerated learning and dramatically better performance on standardized testing, with LESS stress and less "seat time". We are not alone. Getting the benefits of homeschooling could happen in school, but some of those lessons don't come easy for the district:

Don't be control freaks, let students take charge of their learning (this takes a completely different mindset -- more student learning, less student measuring and sorting).

Meet all students where they are, and remember many students who are underperforming are underperforming because of being failed by the district. Help them catch up (see my post above), don't just sort them and give the advantages to those at the top.

"My perennial criticism of homeschooling converts is that homeschooling is all they ever talk about. "

My criticism of people who know zero about homeschooling is that they tend to be aggressive in their ignorance and assumptions. I wonder how you could know homeschool "converts" who talk so much, and yet you remain so uninformed.

I'm talking about the school district, too, and how it could learn from homeschooling. It's completely on topic. Your going out of your way to make an uninformed attack on homeschooling and me is what's off topic.

I will say this, though. It's really painful to watch students in our district who are talented, motivated, energetic, interesting, and who don't know it, and whose opportunities for the future are actually being HARMED by the way the district focuses so much on sorting and labeling. These kids get fewer opportunities to really learn because of all the academic hoopjumging, and that's cumulative over years. They get a much less impressive high school record, worse grades, and an idea that they are not smart as the reason.

Our district could do better by these students, but proactively rejects it. If only parents know they could put their energy into their children's education instead of fighting the district. If only they had a few of those homeschoolers you know who talk about nothing else (haven't met one myself). I've seen too many really amazing capable kids graduate almost with a cloud hanging over them of the district's making, after years of the way of school even damaging their home life and relationships.

Yeah, homeschooling can instantly change that. The district could, too, if it had the humility to learn something from homeschoolers.



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