"If we see ... marked differences in the racial characteristics of students in those classes, a kind of pedagogical common sense turns into a real moral, ethical and even legal imperative not to do that," board member Ken Dauber said in 2016. "That is just not an acceptable state."
Now, a 2018 district report with data on student achievement indicates the pilot has not yet had much of the desired impact: On average, low-income, minority and special-education students continue to get lower grades in algebra than their peers. Overall, the grade distribution from the first pilot year in 2015-16 to the 2017-18 school year has remained relatively steady, according to the report.
That's not to say there haven't been improvements, however: While the grade received by the highest percentage of low-income and minority students was a C in both years, the percentage getting A's and B's increased. Eight percent (just four students) received an A in Algebra 1 and 1A in 2015-16, but 14 percent received an A the next year and 21 percent last year.
Special-education students' grades also improved from the first to second year of the pilot course. In 2017-18, seven special-education students received A's, seven received B's, eight received C's in and six received F's, the report states.
Critics of the pilot feared that it would dilute instruction to the detriment of higher-achieving students. (There was similar resistance to a teacher proposal to merge two levels of freshman English at Palo Alto High School in 2014.) According to the report, this did occur the first semester of the Algebra 1A class at Gunn. Both teachers and students "expressed the challenge of differentiation within the wide range of students in their algebra classes, and teachers and students both expressed concern that the highest-achieving students were not being challenged."
Several students reported in focus groups that because the class was "easy," they were thinking about taking Geometry A over the summer and taking Algebra 2/Trigonometry A the next year.
Teachers adjusted the course after meeting with a middle school math instructional leader to learn and implement differentiation practices, visiting other local algebra classes and receiving additional training.
Rolling out the class was also a "major undertaking" that first year with a team of three new teachers, including one who was new to teaching algebra altogether, according to the report.
By year two of the pilot, the teachers said they felt they had learned to handle the challenges around differentiation and student support through professional learning, team planning and support from Gunn and the district. They were revising the final exam to better match with the new course and experimenting with standards-based grading, which measures student achievement by specific learning targets rather than grades.
Gunn is continuing to track the first and second cohorts of Algebra 1A students.
There are currently 133 students enrolled in the course, according to the district.
The data report is dated March 2018 but had not been publicly presented, according to Superintendent Don Austin.
Board debates role in evaluating courses
In hearing the report Tuesday night, school board members sharply disagreed with one another over their oversight role in curriculum review.
The voted 3-2 against asking staff to report back further on the results of the pilot. Board members Todd Collins, Ken Dauber and Shounak Dharap supported a motion from Dauber to tell district staff that they have "no obligation" to return to the board with a report on the course, while President Jennifer DiBrienza and board member Melissa Baten Caswell opposed it.
Dauber said Tuesday night that continued evaluation of the class should be staff work and that to expect a future report at the board level would be to continue "down an unproductive road." Board involvement at the individual course level, he argued, could discourage teachers from innovating in their classrooms.
Baten Caswell strongly disagreed. The board's 2016 approval of the pilot promised periodic evaluations that have not occurred. To not continue those would be a "disservice" to the public, particularly parents of children currently in the Algebra 1A class who have written to her and other board members with concerns, she said.
"It looks like a dismal failure, but I don't know that that's in fact true. This is what the community thinks now, that this was a failure," Baten Caswell said.
Kimberly Eng Lee, a Gunn parent and chair of special-education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee, questioned why the district is in the third year of a two-year pilot "with no clear evidence of its impact or efficacy.
"I am puzzled," she said three separate times during her three-minute public comment to the board. "We have no actionable information and we're releasing Gunn's 2019-20 course catalog next month."
Austin said that more review of the class is merited and that the district should determine whether it's "the right path" forward after this school year ends.
Baten Caswell warned that the board's vote Tuesday night could have implications beyond just this course.
"I think we just made a decision that will potentially have ramifications on everything the board decides," she said.
This story contains 926 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.