On Tuesday evening, the Palo Alto school board will vote on a new English Language Arts curriculum that a number of teachers who were on the district's English Language Arts Pilot and Adoption Committee said should be scrapped.
Tuesday's meeting follows a May 4 special listening session during which the board heard from 22 speakers, most of whom opposed the 41-member committee's recommendation to adopt the program. Of the 25 teachers on the committee, 20 chose not to vote at all, they said.
The district has been looking to close education inequities for underserved students and those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia.
The committee, which was formed in August, includes parents, teachers, specialists and administrators from all elementary schools and grade levels. Members were tasked with reviewing eight ELA curricula for kindergarten through fifth grade, from which three were piloted for three to four weeks this school year.
The committee recommended the board adopt the Benchmark Advance/Adelante curriculum for reading and the Teachers College units of study for writing. In addition, they recommended a supplemental curriculum, Haggerty Phonetic Awareness, to support students, including those with dyslexia, to become proficient readers. The Haggerty curriculum would complement an existing program, the Orton Gillingham methodology, which focuses on teaching phonetics, according to the committee.
But many teachers who spoke during the May 4 board meeting said the district should pull back and consider additional curricula that might be a better fit for students. Some teachers said the $2.7 million price tag for initial teacher training and supplemental materials for the 2022-2023 school year would be better spent on other programs or bolstering existing programs.
Other committee members, including parents, said although the curriculum isn't perfect, it's time to adopt something rather than to extend the search indefinitely.
Angeline Rodriguez said as a teacher on the ELA adoption committee she didn't vote on the recommendation. She couldn't in good conscience choose between three teacher-centered, one-size-fits-all programs that go against everything she has learned to be effective literacy instruction.
"Having to choose between three subpar literacy programs is not upholding the PAUSD Promise. How can you as a board in good conscience move forward? Knowing that, I'm asking you tonight for more time, more time to evaluate a rigorous and developmentally appropriate curriculum that is student-centered and grounded in best practices. Making such an important decision in haste will only adversely impact the very students that we are here to serve. … We should not rush and move forward with curriculum that 85% of the committee did not endorse," she said.
Christina Nosek, another teacher on the reading adoption committee, also said she didn't vote.
"My charge always as a teacher is to do what's best for the kids I serve. I couldn't look my colleagues in the eye or myself in the mirror at night, (if I) voted for something that was not good for my students, especially the students in my classroom who are serviced by IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) plans. I had to seek out alternate texts and instructional methods outside of the Benchmark curriculum so they would be able to access learning for each lesson. … I fear (the Benchmark curriculum) it's really going to hurt our kids for years to come. Please make the right decision and give us more time," she said.
The teachers also received support from Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association. A survey of its members found that 49.7% of respondents reported low to very low morale this year and 36.4% said it was "just so-so."
One factor that kept coming up is the lack of or ignoring teacher input into school goals, decisions, curriculum and changes in district policies. The teachers who did not vote had many reasons, Baldwin said.
"Those reasons were gathered at the committee meetings (but) were not included in the board packet," she said.
"They were continually told that their charge as the committee was to pick a curriculum. Shouldn't the charge have been to find the best curriculum for students? And if the vast majority of the teachers on the committee did not feel any of the three were good, shouldn't they be able to recommend extending the process another year and pilot more?" she said.
Many teachers have told the Palo Alto Educators Association they will not serve on district committees in the future because they feel their input doesn't matter, she added.
The Community Advisory Committee for Special Education in Palo Alto (CAC), however, strongly supports the proposed curricula, they said in a May 3 statement to the school board.
"It is simply unrealistic to think that we could select and purchase an off-the-shelf curriculum that perfectly meets our needs without some tailoring. But the products available to teachers are structured to take much of the burden out of planning, giving them time to think about how to teach rather than what to teach and enabling them to focus on the needs of individual children," the CAC said.
Kimberly Eng Lee, the Lucille Nixon Elementary School CAC representative, asked the board on May 4 to approve the ELA adoption committee's recommendations.
"Parents depend on a coherent system. Adopt the new standards and aligned material, reduce haphazard instruction. It's the only way for kids across dozens of rooms and grades to get (them help) and equally instruct with uniformity," she said.
School district board members were also of different opinions.
"I've looked over this carefully, and it looks to me like this adoption process followed the board policy and the statute with fidelity so I don't think we have a process issue, at least in terms of how the process was administered," board President Ken Dauber said.
But he said there has been a compliance issue, which he thinks is critical.
"This curriculum was never adopted by the board, as is required by state law. I frankly am not sure whether this curriculum could have been adopted by the board, had there been an adoption process. But the fact that the district is not in compliance with our own board policies and with the statute I think is a critical issue and contributes to my sense of urgency. … The current curriculum has not served our students well. And that's really the fundamental point. … It's not an acceptable situation for us to have been in for all of these years to use a curriculum that is not serving our students, particularly our struggling students.
"This is to me kind of where the rubber meets the road in terms of equity and systemic racism is ensuring that we have curricula that meet the needs of students. I'm disappointed that we have not lived up to that standard, at least in terms of outcomes. And I'm looking forward to a curriculum discussion that really focuses on how to get to a point where we serve students well."
Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza likened the curricula decision to the pandemic, when 100 teachers called her and asked that the schools not be reopened. They did what they were taught by Superintendent Don Austin: "stay in their lane" and defer to the experts. In that case, they listened to the public health experts, who said it was OK to reopen the schools. In hindsight, it turned out to be a good decision, she said.
But now, the experts regarding the ELA curricula are the teachers. In previous curriculum agendas, DiBrienza said her vote aligned with the position taken by a majority of the teachers.
"I think that that was easy for me because they are the experts in that example. They are the ones with our kids and they are the ones that implement it. Certainly the five of us up here aren't.
"And if we're not going to listen to them, who are we listening to? Who is making this decision? Who are the experts here? I think it's really important that when it is a public health decision, we listen to public health and when it is a law we listen to legal, and when it's a curricular pedagogical decision, we listen to the … people that we asked to spend a year serving on a committee and do the work," she said.
"I can tell my colleagues that there is no way that this can be a successful adoption if these guys aren't on board with it. So I don't know exactly why we're moving ahead now. I appreciate the process. I appreciate the timeline that was put on it. It feels like it's not done yet. … Certainly, if we want to adopt a new curriculum it should be a curriculum that the majority of the pilot committee are on board with and are ready to adopt and are ready to get behind. … Next week, unless I hear some convincing argument from you guys or from staff. I'm a no vote on this," she said.
Board member Shounak Dharap said because the 20 teachers didn't vote and their views aren't all known — at least four were said to have abstained due to feeling intimidated — it's not known if the rejection of the curricula is as wide as it appears to be.
Dauber agreed that the abstentions don't mean the committee didn't reach a recommendation. He also noted that senior staff — Danaé Reynolds, lead principal of literacy instruction, and Anne Brown, assistant superintendent of elementary education — support the recommendation for adopting Benchmark.
"It's very clear to me that Benchmark is imperfect. It's very clear to me that the process was imperfect. But that being said, for all the reasons I said before, I think staff's recommendation to move forward now as opposed to delay is reasonable. I understand that people don't agree with it. I understand that … the process might become more perfect if we waited, but I don't think it's unreasonable to the extent that it means there was something so wrong with the process that the board needs to step in and say 'staff, we are ignoring your recommendation,'" Dauber said.
Reynolds expressed dismay regarding the committee's fractious deliberation.
"I was really disheartened to hear that four of our teachers shared that they were made to feel intimidated by their peers or uncomfortable by their peers, and had decided not to make a recommendation as a result. This is something that we are learning from and we'll work together to ensure that something like this doesn't happen in future pilots. … We want our students to feel safe. We want our teachers to feel safe as professionals in all settings," she said.
The May 10 meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. The public can attend the meeting in person at the district's board room, 25 Churchill Ave., or view a livestream at midpenmedia.org.