Update: The redesign plan for middle school mathematics was met with enthusiasm and criticism at the Dec. 10 Board of Education meeting. Read our latest story here.

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Moving away from grades, eliminating laning, accelerating the pace of instruction and promoting the expectation that all students, regardless of ethnic or socioeconomic background, can learn math at high levels are among the "bold" changes the Palo Alto school district has proposed for its middle school mathematics program.

The school board will hear a presentation on the math redesign at its meeting on Tuesday night, Dec. 10.

Superintendent Don Austin directed administrators and principals in October to evaluate academic policies and practices at the district's three middle schools in response to Latino and low-income students' declining achievement, particularly in mathematics, on the state's Smarter Balanced exam. Latino and low-income students' performance dropped in both math and English language arts by the end of eighth grade.

The district is hopeful that the proposals will change outcomes for these students, but also those in the "middle" academically.

"Historically, students on the two extremes of the math spectrum have received the bulk of attention, resources, and energy," a staff report reads. "We are confident that the revisions will positively impact the large 'middle' band of students by reducing redundancy of content, and mapping a clear path for the overwhelming majority of students to enter high school prepared for geometry."

Middle school math should focus on building students' foundation for advanced math in high school, the report states. The document emphasizes that sixth grade students will continue to be grouped together in unlaned math classes, except for "demonstrably advanced" students. Laning, or tracking students into different levels of math courses, early in school "limits both high and low performing students, which ultimately leads to lower achievement overall," the report states. "Heterogeneous classes result in a deeper understanding of mathematics for the high achieving students, while simultaneously raising the achievement of struggling students."

Research on laning's detrimental impacts, including the creation of "separate and unequal educational experiences for students," drove staff's thinking on the math redesign, the report notes.

The district plans to redesign sixth through eighth grade math classes to move at a faster pace, covering four years of standards in three years. As proposed, sixth graders would start with foundational math and progress to algebra by eighth grade. (The plan does propose that advanced students who pass a test can choose to accelerate one time during middle school.)

All middle schoolers would then be able to enroll in basic, advanced or honors geometry their freshman year of high school.

The middle schools will also move away from — and possibly eliminate altogether — grades in math.

"How teachers assess and evaluate students in the classroom impacts a student's mindset and agency," the report reads. "As such, grades can inhibit performance and shut down the complex thinking expected."

The plan advocates instead for using standards-based grading and "quality" feedback from teachers to assess students.

Starting this year, teachers will receive professional development to help them rethink lesson planning, assessments and other instructional practices.

The three middle schools will likely change their bell schedules, potentially as early as the 2021-21 academic year, to comply with new state legislation requiring that all middle schools start the day no earlier than 8 a.m. and high schools, 8:30 a.m. The group of administrators who prepared the math proposals have requested a "non-negotiable" daily advisory period be built into any new bell schedule.

The district plans to focus first on changes to sixth grade math in the 2020-21 school year, and then in the seventh and eighth grades in the following two years. The high schools will then have several years to prepare for any revisions or new courses.

Evaluation will start this year, during the planning phase, and stretch into subsequent years. The district will assess teachers putting new practices into place as well as student measures.

The district has not yet determined the price tag of the proposed changes, but costs will come from professional development, curriculum writing, coaching, assessment tools and membership with the Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative, an effort to improve math instruction and student learning.

In other business Tuesday, the board will vote on a new president and vice president; take action on the district's first interim budget report; discuss a proposed expansion of the Middle College program; and hear reports on special education and on Title IX issues from Palo Alto High School students, among other items. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the agenda here.

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