The Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education declined to decide on a flexible student mathematics-acceleration program for its middle schools on Tuesday night, Nov. 14, instead leaving the decision to individual school administrators.
A two-part proposal asked the board to direct district staff to collaborate closely with middle school principals and teachers to improve choices for student acceleration classes, which allow students to skip a grade or take a higher level of mathematics in sixth through eighth grades. The board was also asked to vote on whether to maintain a maximum of one level of acceleration throughout middle school, with the highest level being geometry honors, for 8th-grade students.
Under the policy, students would still not be able to skip to two or more higher math classes while in middle school, a position that some students challenged, claiming they would be held back from attaining their highest capabilities.
But the board ultimately decided that doing so would be outside of the scope of its authority. In a vote of 3-2, members Shounak Dharap, Jesse Ladomirak and Jennifer DiBrienza opposed directing staff to develop student acceleration programs; Todd Collins and Shana Segal voted in favor. The board also opted not to take a vote at all on a cap of skipped grades.
Board members said they were cautious of leading students and parents to think that the fraught topic of curriculum and advanced classes would be something that the board had the power to change.
In October 2019, Superintendent Don Austin tasked the district's Educational Services team and school principals with revamping the middle school mathematics program to better address students' differing needs, abilities and preparation. Staff implemented the new approach starting with sixth grade in fall 2020, extended to seventh grade in school year 2021-22, and reached eighth grade in the academic year 2022-23.
The adjustments also required adaptations to avoid overlaps with previous courses in the high schools for the 2023-24 academic year, particularly in geometry, according to the memo.
Enrollment data for ninth grade presented on Oct. 24 showed an unprecedented surge in geometry and advanced mathematics placements, according to the memo, an indication that the new structure is working.
"Of significant note, underrepresented students have exhibited remarkable progress, demonstrating the tangible benefits of the program's approach, effectively advancing nearly all students by a full level, as compared to the California Mathematics Framework," the memo noted.
Students advocate for greater acceleration
But students who wanted to skip a certain math class to get ahead now face limitations as part of the curriculum adjustments. They can only skip one level throughout all of middle school. At the Nov. 14 board meeting, they held out hope that the policy might change.
"I'm speaking today as a student who benefited dramatically from skipping multiple years or exceeding one level of acceleration in middle school," a student named Albert said. "Multiple levels of acceleration had no damaging impact on my learning. On the contrary, it provided me with the appropriate level of challenge. Math 7 and Algebra 1, which I skipped, largely contained material I had already understood. To only be able to skip once, I would have had to waste a year relearning material," he said.
Benjamin, another student, said he is a sophomore currently taking Calculus BC. He skipped two grades in math during the sixth grade, bringing him to Algebra 1. Math 6 and Math 7 classes simply repeated many concepts he already knew, and he was dismayed by the lack of a challenge, he said.
"I passed the skip test handily and found that Algebra 1 provided the right amount of challenge. I made new friends including a fellow sixth grader, and several eighth graders as well. Now I'm taking BC Calculus and I'm still faring well in that course. There have been times of difficulty of course, but those are to be expected of any worthwhile endeavor. Overall, for me, skipping did not cause undue stress nor social isolation. In fact, it has allowed me to cultivate my love for mathematics and helped me form friendships with upperclassmen," he said.
Becky Rea, a math instructional leader at Fletcher Middle School, said the district should take a broader view of its policy changes rather than making piecemeal changes. She said the district needs to look at its policies from kindergarten through 12th grade. "In addition, I do want to tell you that all of us are more than willing to work with you, to talk with you to help educate the community and you as board members about our math program, and work together to make it a more nearly perfect program," she said.
Legal disputes over math curriculum
The problem within the Palo Alto Unified School District regarding math placement – particularly for gifted students – has been festering for years.
Parents sued the district in July 2021 for failing to comply with the California Math Placement Act, which requires every state high school district to develop and adopt an objective and fail placement policy for all incoming ninth grade students. The system must take into account multiple, objective academic measures regarding pupil performance including statewide math assessment procedures, placement tests and other state-adopted standards, which the parents said the district had failed to adopt.
The lawsuit against the district alleged that the district was violating Title IX by disproportionately holding back girls from advanced math classes.
The state legislature enacted the placement act to prevent ninth-grade students from being unnecessarily held back to repeat eighth grade math despite achieving a B grade or better. Black, Latino and Pacific Islander students were being disproportionately held back.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Carrie A. Zepeda ruled in July 2023 that the district hadn't violated Title IX, but it was not in compliance with the Math Placement Act on multiple fronts. Zepeda ordered the district to develop objective academic measures required under state law to properly place students in ninth-grade math rather than solely on the next class in the sequence after eighth grade; to collect data and analysis about pupil math placement and deliver the data to the Board of Education; and to develop a clear and timely plan of recourse for students or parents who want to challenge the math placement.
Students who want to skip a class must also be given an appropriate proficiency assessment for ninth grade under the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing.
The district submitted a policy under the court's guidelines, but the plaintiffs have petitioned the court for a hearing on concerns about the policy's lack of clarity. The court has scheduled a Nov. 20 hearing on the matter.
At the Nov. 14 board meeting, Austin noted that the court order doesn't apply to the sixth through eighth grade classes.
But Edith Cohen, one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs, said in an email that what's happening to middle school students will now affect what happens when they get high school because many were not properly placed in math courses in middle school. Cohen, a computer scientist, educator and STEM professional, wrote a 14-page analysis of the policy that the district drafted.
In 2019, the district removed the "grade level” lane, which allowed students to be in class at their appropriate achievement level, forcing students into Algebra 1 classes that were above their level of preparedness, she said.
"There was inadequate support for struggling students that started (their) middle school years behind and slipped further behind. The situation in 2023 is still similar but more difficult. This is because the main change was the removal of options," she said.
The district's middle school "de-laning," which puts students of varying abilities together in the same classes, also holds back high achievers who should be allowed to move ahead to math at their proper levels, she said.
Of the district's one-year-only acceleration limit, Cohen said: "This is an artificial limit that harms students that need that (higher-level courses)."
Austin noted during the Nov. 14 meeting that there are no plans for course additions at the high school level in the foreseeable future. Course development and recommendations are primarily made at the school sites, he said.
The district has faced a backlash from a vocal group of parents and students in the high schools over not putting multivariable calculus, a college-level class, in its campus curricula. Students who want to take the course can do so through Foothill College, but the class doesn't count on the high school transcript and must be taken as an extracurricular subject.
Austin was clear that any accelerated classes in middle school wouldn't lead to adding additional course levels in the high schools.
"There should be no anticipation that PAUSD will create additional course levels beyond the terminal course of AP Calculus BC within the school day or with our current teaching resources. Outside courses, including community college, are not under the direction of PAUSD," he said in the staff memo.
How acceleration got on the agenda in the first place
How the acceleration policy got on the agenda as an action item seemed to bewilder some of the board members.
"This is way out of our lane," board President Jennifer DiBrienza said
Dharap said he brought up the item for discussion at the previous board meeting and initially thought they should vote on it, but he had since changed his mind.
This kind of decision shouldn't be voted on from the dais, he said, and it is out of the proper process for the board to change the curriculum.
"This isn't our decision to impose on our staff. I think we have been very cautious in the last five years not to do that. And so, it wouldn't really be appropriate, I think, to do that now. It would be out of process to direct middle school staff to consider acceleration," he said.
"You don't need board action to do either of these things," Ladomirak said. "Staff can collaborate all they want and come up with ideas for how to improve middle school math in every way, including possibly making acceleration more flexible. And none of us needs us to weigh in.
"Those are decisions for our professional educators to make. And the fact that this recommendation is coming to us tonight – and as Dr. Austin made clear, it was not a request from any teacher or principal or instructional leader – it all gives me pause, and sort of re-emphasizes the point that this is not the board's job," she said.
If staff went back, collaborated and came up with a plan for increasing acceleration in middle school, Ladomirak said she is certain that whatever the plan, there will be many parents and students who will not be happy with it because it won’t go far enough.
"I am also 100% certain that there will be many teachers really upset with this board if we directed staff to do anything around math acceleration because they will see it as this board bowing to pressure from a specific group of parents and prioritizing that agenda over the wisdom of our professional educators."