Palo Alto Board of Education members and some parents were largely enthused about district leadership's plan to overhaul middle school mathematics over the next several years, while other parents pushed back against what one described as a "watering down" of math instruction.
In response to low-income and minority students' declining test scores on the state's Smarter Balanced exam, particularly in math by the end of eighth grade, district administrators and middle school principals worked over the last two months to design a middle school math program that will better serve a broader swath of students. Their plan — which at this point does not require action by the school board, Superintendent Don Austin noted on Tuesday, as it includes content shifts rather than new courses or core materials — advocates for standards-based learning over traditional grades. It also pushes for mixed-ability rather than laned classes, which tracks students into higher and lower levels of math. The district plans to revise sixth through eighth grade math classes to move at a faster pace, covering four years of standards in three years.
Ultimately, the district hopes the changes will provide a path for all middle schoolers to take geometry during their freshman year of high school.
Math instruction has been a contentious topic in Palo Alto Unified for years, particularly when bitter "math wars" erupted in 2009 over the district's adoption of a controversial textbook, Everyday Math, for the elementary schools.
"Math evokes emotions, sometimes disproportionate to other things that also matter in the world," Austin told the board on Tuesday evening. "Math discussions are sometimes categorized as 'wars.' There is no war. Our outcomes were simply not what we would expect for PAUSD and we are making revisions.
"That is a good practice," he continued. "It's not radical, reckless or worthy of a fight."
The district plans to focus first on making changes to sixth grade math in the 2020-21 school year, and then in the seventh and eighth grades in the following two years.
Promoting higher expectations in math will benefit all students, Austin said, but particularly so for those in the "middle" and for minority and low-income students. He expects to see more minority and low-income students enroll in advanced math in high school in several years, "opening doors for post secondary options currently closed for many of the students most in need of our best efforts."
Many public comments at Tuesday's board meeting focused on laning. A staff report on the math redesign cites research that suggests laning limits both high- and low-achieving students and creates "separate and unequal educational experiences." The district plans to keep sixth grade students grouped together in unlaned math classes, except for "demonstrably advanced" students.
Some parents questioned whether delaning is beneficial and worried that teachers will struggle to support students of different abilities within the same class. (Teachers will start to receive professional development this year to prepare for the changes.)
Parent Matt McClain suggested that more homogenous classes for seventh and eighth graders will mean a "serious watering down" of content and asked for more opportunities for accelerated placement. Several parents asked the district to provide more clear and well-communicated information around placement exams for skipping math classes.
Kobi Johnsson, a student at Palo Alto High School, spoke to the potential detriments of laning. As an unmotivated sixth grader, he said he narrowly missed being placed in a lower math level by earning points from extra credit math assignments that he "did for fun."
Laning "seeps into your social life" and spurs comparisons among students in high school, he said.
"It makes people in the lower lanes feel that they are less than ... and that they aren't able to participate at the higher levels," Johnsson said.
Parent Michelle Higgins, supportive of the math redesign, argued that laning drives unhealthy competition among both students and parents, which results in well-resourced families seeking outside tutoring to bolster their students' achievement.
"We know that teaching to the test is bad. In Palo Alto, we have an added and equally troubling practice: teaching to the tutored. That tutoring is largely focused on acceleration rather than remediation," she said. "The widespread use of tutoring, especially tutoring for acceleration that starts now in the earliest years and intensifies to the point where it is almost a requirement for higher lanes in high school, drives the pace of teaching in the secondary years."
Board member Ken Dauber, however, said that attention on laning is misplaced. More significant, he said, is the district's expectation that all students be at least in algebra by eighth grade.
"Some students will find themselves in seventh grade algebra and eighth grade geometry because that's where they should be ... and others will be in a different place," he said. "It seems to me that that probably more appropriately balances our desire to serve the individual needs of students with a desire not to create a stratification system that makes some early decision really consequential."
Board members asked staff to provide more concrete details on how they plan to support struggling students, including those who start sixth grade already behind in math, and how the plan overall will be evaluated. Austin emphasized that Tuesday was the first of several meetings on middle school math and that the plan will likely require changes up to and even after it's implemented.
Dauber encouraged community members to not see the meeting as a high-stakes "win-lose moment but the first in a long conversation about how we're going to do middle school math."
He and newly elected board President Todd Collins praised staff for breaking with historical district practice for making big changes, which typically involves forming a large committee to study an issue over many months with uneven success when it comes to implementation. Instead, a targeted group of staff took a quick, deep dive into an issue and are prepared to "fail fast" and adjust if needed along the way, Collins said.
"That's a very large change in our practice and it really bodes well not just for this but how we do things generally and our ability to make positive change down the road," Dauber said.
Weekly journalists discuss this issue on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our podcast page.