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Achievement test data sparks heated discussion

Original post made on Nov 9, 2011

Responding to criticism that he's excessively focused on test scores, Palo Alto School District Superintendent Kevin Skelly said Tuesday that supporting struggling students as well as top achievers is a central challenge for the school district.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, November 9, 2011, 9:48 AM

Comments (124)

Posted by Retired Teacher
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 9, 2011 at 10:14 am

Really, this notion that AP classes and SAT scores should not be reported is ludicrous! We have one of the best school districts in the entire nation. We should be proud of our students and the education they receive here. We should both praise and accurately assess achievement levels, not try to dismantle programs that work well from a misguided idea that dumbing down the schools will somehow make students stress free.

At the same time, we should be improving programs for low achievers and students in the middle. We should be continuing and improving programs to help students set realistic expectations for themselves, and to offer support for students who are overstressed.

Let's reach out to all students, not attack the very strengths that make our schools so appealing to parents!

Posted by Data Guy
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 9, 2011 at 10:23 am

1) Looks like PAUSD SAT scores were _down_ 12 points compared to last year.
Web Link

2010 SAT average: 1947
2011 SAT average: 1935

2) API scores at Gunn were _down_ 9 points compared to last year (but up 3 points at Paly).

If we are going to use SAT and API scores as metrics, let's acknowledge this negative result in the reporting.

However, one would expect that the SAT scores will be _higher_ next year because the class of 2012 has a higher % of PSAT National Merit Finalists compared with class of 2011 (24% vs 20%).

Posted by Carlos
a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 9, 2011 at 10:28 am

As we tend to oversimplify things by grouping categories of academic underachievers by race, we'll get into a vicious cycle of spending scarce resources into a problem that is not going to get better any time soon since the roots of it are beyond what PAUSD can address.
I myself come from a south-of-the-border country where many of these underachiving kids and/or their families originated from. And here's is something that many of us should be aware of: these kids will probably equally underperform or might do even worse in those societies. It has little to do w/ someone's ethnic background, but a lot to do w/ family's values, level of education, cultural, etc etc. Factors which are so individual/family specific that PAUSD, despite its good intentions, has no chance of solving. It's not a school problem, so please stop spending limited resources on a lost cause and instead focus those resources on the vast majority of kids who through hard work figured out to do well in this system.
Just like we cannot expect all kids to be star athletes, we can not expect them all to succeed academically either. And don't blame some kind of institutionalized bias for it. I think PAUSD has already done a lot in this area.

Posted by need to know
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 9, 2011 at 10:40 am

I believe it is very useful for these numbers to be public. My children felt very inferior in the palo alto school district. Their intellectual self-esteme was quite low. Even though their mother and I tried to tell them that the Palo Alto pool was not typical of the rest of the world. It was only after they went to college did the realize that being above the mean in palo alto meant they were really quite smart. Anything we can do that points out how the middle of the pack stacks up with the rest of the state or country provides parents data to support their children feel good about their achievements.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 9, 2011 at 10:44 am

The other aspect is the kids the in the middle. These good B+ with an occasional A- kids would be A+ kids elsewhere. They are left to feel dumb because they are not the high achievers and the high achievers get the glory. I would like to see students who work hard get the credit they deserve also.

It is really hard to be a straight A student in Palo Alto. Many kids are not getting As and are made to feel like failures.

Posted by Southern Roots
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 9, 2011 at 10:46 am

Thank you Carlos. Well said.

Posted by For excellence
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 9, 2011 at 10:53 am

I am so glad our family is soon done with this school district. We moved here for its excellence. Now, there is a vocal group that wants EVERYTHING watered down to the level of the lowest achievers. This signifies the end of excellence in this district for all students.

(Note that comparing us with private schools is not valid. Private schools get to choose their students. A public school district has to accept everyone, which means that the student bodies are not comparable and the methods used can't be the same, or they won't have the same results anyway.)

Posted by I just want to party
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 9, 2011 at 11:11 am

I agree w Carlos . Family values play an enormous role in whether or not a student succeeds. My mother (hispanic) did not go to college an doesn't care about my grades or if I skip class or do my homework. My father is Ivy league educated and is a self made man...he came from nothing, and has much higher expectations from me. Needless to say I have taken the path of least resistance and now cannot get into the UC system. My choices are Jr college or state school or an expensive private school that is willing to take our money. Personally I don't care. Since my parents have money I will go to the private school and enjoy the party.
Spend the money on those who truly want to work hard. All the extra help and programs available to me were a waste of my time and other's money.I see other families of little means with intense desire to get educated. Focus on them instead of categorizing by race.
For the record my parents are now divorced. My father will give me anything in the hopes I will be successful. I don't value education but the money allows me to enjoy great fashion and wonderful parties. I plan to marry someone rich. I'll tell my children education isn't all it' cracked up to be. Enjoy life.

Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 9, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Eliminating AP's and replacing them with "home grown" courses is a possibility. My sense is that there would be blood on the streets over the change, but if the faculty at the high schools wanted to make the effort to create their own courses, it could work. Gunn and Paly have enough of a reputation with colleges that "advanced courses" there would be treated like AP courses elsewhere.

But I'm not really sure it is worth all the trouble. The people complaining don't seem focused on the quality and pacing of the AP curriculum (which is why Scarsdale, Fieldston, and I believe Casti moved away from AP), but more the idea that some kids taking advanced courses is bad in itself (it dials up the "stress-o-meter"??).

Alternative progress and achievement measurements are fine; bring 'em on. But that won't make the AP and SAT measures irrelevant. The idea that people seem them as harmful seems out of touch.

Posted by m
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 9, 2011 at 1:30 pm

There are always some kids who make it through the PA schools with top grades, meet their parents' expectations, get into great colleges. But this is a small minority, even here.

The problem is what happens to the other 95%, or 99%. They underachieve compared to their own, their parents', or their peers' expectations. They emerge from the school system exhausted, unmotivated, and without their own sense of direction after a lifetime of being told which classes to take and how to package the resume. We can talk about fragile emotional states in adolescence, excessive pressure from parents or peers or counselors, or many other things, but in the end these kids are not well served.

This is the bizarreness that is Palo Alto schools. The great majority who are average or above average, but not standouts, feel like $#&@. This is the great tragedy of this high pressure environment. The 95th percentile kids will do great no matter what we do. Instead, we need to motivate the middle 80% who are perfectly capable of doing very well but are continually beaten down. To put numbers on this and make it more realistic, the top 5% of the high school graduating class is about 40 kids. These win most of the awards, get into Stanford and Ivies, and give speeches. I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the 600 below them.

I don't know the answer, but it's not a policy from the school board. It is more closely related to the parents who move here with mostly unrealistic expectations of their kids. Just moving here doesn't guarantee your kids will go to a top-10 college, nor should they. There are thousands of other opportunities for them to be healthy, happy, and productive, and we can only focus on getting into the top colleges. Our parent community, with all its wonderful strengths, also has this big downside: it forms a highly self-selected high-expectation environment. It is a genetic fact that even among smart and motivated parents, their children will form a distribution closer to the average than they are. We just don't seem to want to acknowledge this.

Regarding the student commenter above (whose writing I'm not sure is true or just provocative), we have in DeAnza/Foothill an absolute gem of a community college that would do you great benefit to consider. Community college here is not a booby prize. It's an outstanding opportunity to get your act together and find something outside of the PAUSD pressure cooker to prepare for real life.

Posted by why not?
a resident of another community
on Nov 9, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Not sure how the kids of the "Seven parent members of We Can Do Better" are doing with the AP classes and SAT scores. What is the big deal of publishing the information?

Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park School
on Nov 9, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Our comments last night to the school board focused on what's lost in narrowly defining high school achievement largely in terms of AP courses and tests. I'm including a note that I posed to our Facebook group this morning for those interested. (Web Link

We Can Do Better had a strong representation at last night's school board meeting -- six members spoke in response to the district's almost exclusive focus on AP exams in reporting on "high school achievement." We pointed out that focusing on AP exams has several problems: it provides no information about overall achievement in the high schools, it narrows rather than broadens the definition of success that our students see, and it raises the unanswered question about what we're giving up in the curriculum by devoting ever greater resources to preparing students to take these tests.
It's particularly odd that PAUSD is putting more eggs in the AP basket at a time when the value of AP courses and exams is increasingly being questioned. Research consistently shows that taking and passing AP tests doesn't predict better performance in college once student background characteristics are taken into account. Colleges and universities (including Stanford and other elite institutions) increasingly don't count AP tests for credit, because they don't actually reflect a college-level understanding of the materia. Comparable public and private schools are moving away from AP courses, because they constrain the curriculum and tend to privilege breadth of coverage over depth of understanding.
Melissa Baten-Caswell actually underlined this point, when she noted that Castilleja School in Palo Alto has stopped teaching AP classes for these reasons, and instead are developing their own upper-level classes. She went on, though, to say that this lesson doesn't apply to PAUSD because our teachers couldn't develop their own rigorous classes. I don't know why she thinks that, though, since presumably our high school teachers were developing and teacher rigorous classes before they started to shift to teaching AP classes instead.
The larger point, though, is that the district is still seeing student achievement in the high schools through a narrow, and unfortunately self-serving, lens. It's easy to see unalloyed success when you choose measures that focus on the highest-achieving students. (It's particularly easy when, as several of our members pointed out, we live in an affluent community well-stocked with high-achieving students). That leaves unasked and unanswered the question of how the whole student body is doing. I suggested a number of measures for which data is equally available -- examples include the percentage of students who experience negative, neutral, and positive grade trajectories over their high school career; A-G graduation rates; the percentage of students who complete course sequences during their high school careers; the percentage of students whose performance on standards tests increases over time, etc. We can also look to see whether the allocation of courses and teachers in the curriculum fits the needs of students.
The biggest losers in this definition of success are not adult readers of district reports, though. It's students who see that "success" means a transcript full of AP courses in many different subjects, and a thick score report from the College Board, rather than exploring a range of courses of various levels across the curriculum.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 9, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Our concern about APs is not that we don't think that they should be offered or discussed. These are both red herrings. What we do think, however, is that the report produced by the district was unreasonably celebratory, repeatedly using terms like "amazing" and "super impressive" (as did the district staff member who presented it and essentially ran out of adjectives to describe how "fantastic," "amazing" and "impressive" our AP test performance is.

1. There are a number of undefended assumptions embedded within a report about how "amazing" it all is. First, that taking a lot of AP classes and tests is a good thing. Second, that successful AP performance predicts college success. There is little, or no, evidence to support either of these assumptions. As Ken explained to the Board in his comments (not quoted or described in this story) the College Board thinks that its test predicts college success. However, scholars who have examined this issue have concluded that once you control for the variables that also predict taking an AP test (race, income, school district resources, etc.) the independent effect of the AP test on college performance drops out of the equation. AP tests themselves have no predictive power on college success. The College Board would like you to believe otherwise, but this is not based on rigorous research.

Furthermore, the District's own slides demonstrated this, in that Palo Alto, for all its ramped up AP arms racing, performs no better in college graduation rates from the UC system than students from other districts who lack our AP test-taking record.

This means it is reasonable to question the benefits of the AP program. District staff at last night's meeting displayed unalloyed cheerleading for the AP program and also a belief in the inherent goodness of the AP program that appeared to be impervious to facts. That is unfortunate because it makes it hard to ask questions about the opportunity costs associated with AP testing, which is my next point.

2. What are the costs associated with an expansive AP program. The district reported, as a clear success and all-around great news- that we have had a 25% increase in the number of AP test takers and the number of tests taken per student over the past 7 years. What is the evidence that this is "good"? In order to answer that question we would need to know what was displaced from the curriculum in order to make room for the standardized curriculum from New Jersey.

We know that the AP curriculum has often been criticized for sacrificing depth in favor of breadth. Teachers lack the freedom to develop their own advanced coursework when they are forced to teach this College Board developed curriculum. We don't know what else we might do with those resources because we apparently can't even ask that question, so deep is the article of faith that AP == good. How then are we to interpret the fact that peer schools such as Castilleja and Scarsdale High and a raft of high-status schools are dropping the AP program and developing their own classes?

Interestingly, Melissa Caswell expressed skepticism that PAUSD teachers would be up to that task, stating that the school her daughter attends, Castilleja, had decided to develop its own rigorous courses, but "of course" PAUSD teachers could "never" do that. I have more faith in our teachers and think that not only could they do that, many of them would love to do so if they were given that opportunity.

3. There is no problem with issuing a report disclosing scores. The problem is that in a report entitled "High School Achievement Measures" these were the only measures chosen for the annual report to the Board and the public. The report is an unalloyed celebration of how great it is that our kids are taking more and more AP tests and classes. There are essentially no other reports on achievement or measures in the report. When Ken suggested that we should have a broader definition of achievement and more measures, such as grades and course completion rates, the district's new "data" director, Diana Wilmot characterized such measures as "noncognitive" (!) suggesting that the only measures she considers connected to cognition are those involving standardized tests produced by the College Board and ETS.

At the end of this report, we actually know little about the picture of achievement (or lack of it) in our high schools. One part of the problem is that "achievement" in this context means "progress," that is, an update on the state of our high schools but it is more fun for the staff and board to report on achievement as if the term has a positive valence -- who is "achieving" and in PAUSD, "achieving" is a fortiori defined as "high scores on AP and SAT tests." This is a sad situation and one that is sure to lead to increased stress and decreased self-esteem on the part of students who do not fit this narrow definition of success. This leads to my fourth point.

4. Using this narrow definition of success is not just wrong it is harmful. Kevin Skelly is constantly issuing encyclicals about how we need a broader definition of success. He frequently states that it is parents, not the schools, that are responsible for the narrow definition of success that focuses on scores, tests, and college admissions. Here was a chance for him to ensure that his actions were consistent with his words on this score. This document, and the discussion that accompanied it at the board meeting, reflected precisely the narrow definition of success that he claims to be battling against.

We need leadership on this issue from the district. What are children who are not AP all-stars to gather from the message in this report about how "super amazing" all those AP test takers are? What about the fact that the majority of our minority students are not even A-G graduates, let alone taking a million APs? It is not wrong to report the scores. It is wrong to put up on screen in big letters "SUPER AMAZING" and then go on and on and on and on for over an hour, waxing rhapsodic about how great it all is.

This lapse into happy talk about SATs and APs is fun for staff, which surely must be tired of talking about mental health, suicide, and stress. But it is very important the PAlo Alto not just go back to business as usual but make some real changes.

One real change that is easy to make is not to issue reports like this one. We should be much more matter of fact when reporting on things like this rather than gloating and jumping about like children bragging about how great they did on a test.

I have no issue with AP tests. I have an issue with the way this was handled. There is no evidence to support the idea that all this AP test taking is a good thing. But even if there was such evidence, perhaps we could handle it more gracefully next time.

Posted by KF
a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 9, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Many of those who support the continued focus on high GPAs, and AP tests say that they support "Excellence".

It makes me wonder how they might define an excellent human being?

Kindness, the ability to fix broken appliances, a green thumb for gardening, skill and time put into hand written thank you cards, a creative painter, the balance and intuition of a skilled surfer, a loving heart, the ability to analyze right from wrong in society, the ability to play a cello solo or a mean blues guitar, clear communication skills, empathy, eagerness to be an active member of a community, a good dancer, a loyal friend, the ability to recover and continue on after a crushing defeat. These are qualities that I would value in an excellent human being.

Do high AP scores and a high GPA predict this kind of success?

Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 9, 2011 at 3:38 pm

>> Do high AP scores and a high GPA predict this kind of success?

Let's check our prison population and see whether the anti-corollary holds.

Posted by DZ
a resident of Fletcher Middle School
on Nov 9, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Please teach your kids be themselves. Don't be influenced by other kids. Rich or poor, it is their own choices. Work hard to be success, or being easy all day and wash the world will always offer BMRs. Stop the good or bad human being shit. Don't judge other people use your own standard.
Our schools' success is exactly this country needs. Without this kind of commencement from our parents, teachers and those excellent kids, only few will do well, and many will fail...

Posted by Mike
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 9, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Really, you expect to measure the performance of PAUSD by your (quite personal and subjective) assessment of what makes an excellent human being??? (A smart kid who's not a good dancer doesn't measure up?)

Don't you think the development of excellent human beings is first and foremost the responsibility of the family/parents? I have certainly considered it so for my kids. The first and foremost responsibility of the schools/teachers/district is to provide an excellent academic education, or at least the opportunity for one.

Posted by citizen
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 9, 2011 at 4:03 pm

True, one cannot predict future "success" from AP and GPA. This is because a society needs many kind people to run. Some students are good at speech/debate, so they might be a manager or lawyer later. Some students are good at math, they will become engineer later. Often, these engineer type of students are the ones who are doing well in high school, but not those students who talk well or manage well because there isn't such measurement in high school. Our current school system is more focus on engineering type, unfortunately. That includes college admission. I think PAUSD is doing a great job under the current education system. We should support their achievement, not, instead of, every time PAUSD wants to say something about academic achievement, someone is trying to stop them saying a word of it, or starts criticize everything again. This is not productive at all. For those parents who want a different type of school, you should look for some alternative schools which fit your need. Until college admission policy is changed, PAUSD has to follow the "rules" created by college, including Stanford.

Posted by Jess
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 9, 2011 at 4:43 pm

@KF: Those personal attributes that you described are exactly what I am wishing for for my son, but unfortunately the colleges will not accept my son just because he is a good kid.

We can talk all we want, but at the end of the day, it is really every parent and every kid's choice. I chose to pay a high price to move to Palo Alto so my son can go to Palo Alto schools. My son chose to study hard to get good grades, good AP and SAT scores, because he wants to go to his dream school. I did tell him a college degree, even if it's from Stanford, does not guarantee success in life, but I am glad to see him trying his best. He also learned to recognize that some kids are smarter, some kids are talented, some kids have very rich parents, and some kids have connections/legacy or whatever privileges ..etc., but he needs to make the most out of what he has.

Posted by jack
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 9, 2011 at 4:46 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by Wynn Hausser
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm

@retired teacher said: "Really, this notion that AP classes and SAT scores should not be reported is ludicrous! ... Let's reach out to all students, not attack the very strengths that make our schools so appealing to parents!"

Of course it is ludicrous. But no one is saying or even suggesting that. And no one is attacking the strengths of our district. As Ken and Michele Dauber explain above, it is the narrow definition of success we are reacting to.

@Carlos said: "And here's is something that many of us should be aware of: these kids will probably equally underperform or might do even worse in those societies. It has little to do w/ someone's ethnic background ... Just like we cannot expect all kids to be star athletes, we can not expect them all to succeed academically either. And don't blame some kind of institutionalized bias for it. I think PAUSD has already done a lot in this area."

Yes, there are a variety of factors that lead kids to under-perform, and schools cannot be expected to solve the problem alone. But interestingly enough, studies have shown that there is still an achievement gap when controlling for ethnicity alone. And as for whether enough has been done, even the board and administration say more needs to be done.

@for excellent schools said: "Now, there is a vocal group that wants EVERYTHING watered down to the level of the lowest achievers. This signifies the end of excellence in this district for all students. (Note that comparing us with private schools is not valid. Private schools get to choose their students. A public school district has to accept everyone, which means that the student bodies are not comparable and the methods used can't be the same, or they won't have the same results anyway.)

This is the cry sounded every time anyone challenges the status quo. Why would I want to water things down? Why would I be fighting for my kids to go to lesser schools after struggling for years to ensure we can live in the district. Of course, I wouldn't nor would anyone else. And the call for better comparison was for our benchmark public schools, not private ones. Which isn't to say we don't have things to learn from private schools.

@ need to know and others said: "I believe it is very useful for these numbers to be public."

Yes, I agree for the reasons you state. My oldest, now a senior is one of those who is top 2% in the country and top 25% in Palo Alto in terms of test scores. His grade point average, which in many places would represent him as a very good student, place him in the bottom 40% at Gunn. And Supt. Skelly made this same point. What I personally object to is the self-congratulatory tone that often comes from district officials and was evident in the presentation.

To all: Folks, please pay attention to what the people involved with We Can Do Better actually say rather than impute motives based on your own biases. I think you will find that we are reasonable people and that there are plenty of areas of agreement. I will also note that almost every board member said in their remarks that "this is an important discussion to have." I dare say that the conversation wouldn't be happening at all without the members of our group making sure our district is held accountable for serving all its students.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 9, 2011 at 4:57 pm

I don't think we can truly value success by what school a child gets into, or how much they get on the SAT, or how many APs they get. However, I don't think we have much of an alternative.

I think the true measure of success is what they are doing ten years after graduating high school. Do they have a job? Do they have a fulfilling life outside of their job?

Look at many (not all) of the Occupy protestors. They claim to be college graduates who can't get jobs. Look at the boomerang generation. They may have jobs but they still return to live at home because they can't afford to live on the salary they are earning. How are our Palo Alto graduates doing ten years' down the road? Is there any way of measuring that fact?

I trust that my kids will be leading happy and fulfilling lives, professionally and socially, by the time they are 10 years out of high school. That is what I will call success.

Crystal ball anyone?

Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 9, 2011 at 5:47 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by amom
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 9, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Can't we raise our children to be resilient enough to withstand the sting of a report that is celebrating achievements whose glory they do not share? If we see success as defined more broadly than what is represented by test scores, why can't we take the report in stride and not allow it to crush us? If a child is not a star athlete should they be shielded from the celebration of others' triumphs? We need to be raising kids who have a strong sense of their worth and not to be devastated because one particular measure does not put them at the top. They can also understand that they have choices, and if they choose to cultivate other talents or just have a more relaxed and healthy lifestyle, their test scores may not be hailed as SUPER AMAZING. So what? If we truly measure success differently we should be able to tolerate not being at the top of a ladder we don't value.

Posted by Retired Teacher
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 10, 2011 at 7:56 am

What a relief to know that this dissident group doesn't object to AP programs and high SAT test scores. It's just that the PAUSD should not congratulate students or feel proud of their achievements in these areas, because, for some arcane reason, probably related to the many faults of the district leadership, not all students can achieve at this level. They can present scores, as long as they denigrate them and flagellate themselves that not all their students are above average. Shades of Lake Woebegone!

Maybe if these unreasonable attacks on the district and the assumption that the schools are the sole cause of student stress and failure were avoided, some light could be shed on the real issues, and real support could be given to students. Where are your programs to educate parents on unreasonable expectations? Where are your support groups for students dealing with stress? All you're doing is hammering, hammering, hammering at the board and whacking the district as it tries to develop the very programs you've asked for, but you don't offer time, energy and supplementary support for.

You can claim to be reasonable people, but your veiled attacks and the narrowness of your thinking belie the claim.

Posted by Some points to consider about APs
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 10, 2011 at 8:12 am

From the Washington Post:

About an AP Study which "compared the college outcomes of AP students who had low SAT scores with the outcomes of non-AP students with low SAT scores, and found the AP students did better. Similarly, AP students from low-income families, who often struggle in college, did better than non-AP students from low-income families...even
students who only get a 2 on their AP exams after taking the AP course have significantly better college outcomes than non-AP students."

Web Link

The College Board paid for the study but the Washington Post reported that "they are reputable, independent scholars, and their data is there for all to see. It is extremely rare to have such a study with a sample that large, more than 300,000... "

Another from the Washington Post:

"The revised AP courses, beginning with biology, will put more emphasis on conceptual understanding and cut back on memorizing content...Major revisions to physics, chemistry, European history, world history and art history will follow, with the hope of being ready for exams in 2014 or 2015."

From the New York Times:

"William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard, said that Harvard’s admissions officers care little what a school calls its courses, but find that Advanced Placement test scores are a reliable predictor of college performance.”

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 10, 2011 at 8:55 am

@Some points to consider

I am happy that we are having a conversation about the relative costs and benefits of the AP program. It is true that the College Board funds and self-publishes a lot of research on the benefits of its examination. It is also true that the College Board itself profits enormously from the exponential growth in AP testing over the past few years.

Here is a 2007 study from Harvard University, published not by the College Board on it's website but in the peer-reviewed journal Science Educator, and presented at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The article's authors found after surveying 18,000 college students enrolled in introductory science subjects that there was essentially no relationship between the AP and college performance. Rather math fluency, high school classes emphasizing depth over breadth, and lab experience are the best predictors of college success in the sciences. (Sadler & Tai 2007).

Web Link

Web Link

So, why all the growth in AP classes and tests despite the fact that there is little evidence that they improve college performance? One reason is that the College Board has worked very hard -- funding research, publishing promo materials, etc. -- to persuade anxious parents otherwise. Another reason is that students don't take these classes to learn the subject. They take them so that they can compete with others who are taking them to get into college. They take them because they have -- in what surely must be one of the great marketing achievements of all time -- convinced millions of parents, students, and school boards that their kids are doomed to lose the competitive race if they don't take them.

What this means in reality could be better described by recent high school grads or current high school students than by me. While many of them say that they liked their AP classes, they consistently say that they felt pressure to take as many as they did because they watched what their peers were doing and felt that they had to keep up.

That is not a costless decision because the structure of the AP class is that it focuses on memorization of a lot of facts to cover a set of specific, pre-prepared curricular objectives. If you want to see what "teaching to the test" looks like, forget No Child Left Behind -- look at AP US History. This translates into a lot of homework (as much as 2 hours per day per class), which translates into late nights, sleep deprivation, and possibly anxiety, stress, and depression.

This doesn't mean that we should eliminate AP coursework. APs make sense for disadvantaged school districts in which students need to persuade college admissions officers that the As on their transcripts are equivalent to the As on the transcript of a student from a better school. One way to do that is to have students in Alabama and students in NYC take the same curriculum and the same test. It is a way of leveling the playing field for disadvantaged kids and sections of the country.

That is not the challenge we face in Palo Alto. Rather our challenge is preventing our kids from being ground down by the feeling that no matter how many APs they take and how late they stay up doing homework, it isn't enough. Our challenge is to not inadvertently increase the pressure on our already stressed-out kids by holding up those who take a lot of APs as the "model" of "achievement."

At the School Board meeting the first comment after this presentation on how SUPER AMAZING our AP performance is, was from the Paly student Rep who said that to him everything at Paly is driven by competition, that he felt the competition acutely himself and that he could see how it would be hard if you weren't doing well to be in that environment. I felt that should have been the end of the party, yet the celebration of our AP results continued for another hour and a half after that and none of the board members ever really even addressed what I thought was quite an important and poignant comment.

Posted by Carlos
a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 10, 2011 at 9:14 am

I respect those who want to stay off the AP/high GPA path, but I also expect them to respect my kids' choices about pursuing it. Here's why, and I assume many readers can relate to this. As an immigrant in this community, I have no 'legacy' ties to any of the prestigious universities in this country. My kids won't be able to get in because their last name is XYZ, or because their parents are alumni, or because our family donated lots of $.
The only real chance for my kids to achieve an elite college education is to work hard in high school, demonstrate their achievements through AP courses, high GPA, and extraordinary extra-curricular activities. That's a family and personal choice we have made, and we'll do our best to succeed.
If you already have some "legacy" ties at these elite institutions and have the 'luxury' of not following this model, I don't resent you, but please don't change the rules of the game for all of us who have to work hard and smart to get there. That's the history of this county and its immigrants.

Posted by Trisha Davis
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 10, 2011 at 9:22 am

@ Michele Dauber
I want to thank you and Ken for your thoughtful, well researched comments and your efforts to improve PAUSD. You have many supporters who appreciate your efforts to improve the lives and educations of all students within the district.

Posted by We can do better
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 10, 2011 at 9:22 am

I agree with "amom".

We should be celebrating the achievements and successes of everyone in this community; achievements in academics, sports, leadership, arts, etc...

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Please do not conflate PAUSD vs. parent responsibilities.
PAUSD's metrics are academically focused since that's the primary job of schools.
Ultimately, the "whole person" metrics (kindness, compassion, resiliency, etc...) are the responsibility of parents.

Posted by Refreshing
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 10, 2011 at 9:34 am

Carlos - thank you for sharing your candid thoughts. It is refreshing to hear you echo that education starts in the home. It would be incredibly valuable if you could continue to share your viewpoint with the Board and the Hispanic/Latino community in PA.

Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 10, 2011 at 10:21 am

@Michelle, you and your colleagues definitely have a point to make and something to add, but your attitude and approach does put some people off, and, interestingly, you seem not to realize it and blame the people who disagree. While you clearly want to be helpful, your approach - including earlier calling for the Superintendent's removal - can be divisive and potentially destructive. Your group should pursue it's goals as you see fit, but you should be aware of your impact on others - who knows, it may make you more effective.

Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 10, 2011 at 10:39 am

There is so much gaming of the system nowadays with regards to high stakes standardized testing for college admissions, like SAT, AP, the math competitions that it is well known across the country that scores can be raised signifcantly by actions (in particular: costly, sophisticated tutoring)arranged by PARENTS. Current competition for valuable university slots means there is an advantage when parents are very involved in all this. The naive on all this are taken to the cleaners.
There is a definite attempt by some high school students to "psych out" their peers, with whom they compete for key university slots, by bragging about their SAT scores.
I prefer the behavior of decency whereby personal scores are private, with appropriate recognition of NMF of course, no problem, and the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. Unfortunately, I think some parents instill in their kids an unpleasant competitive streak when it comes to SAT scores, and wow, is that unfortunate for the atmosphere and society. Selfish, sometimes quietly involved with means to "beat" their peers - what attitudes and behavior.
Of course, a certain number in the population doesn't do this, and may suffer for that, but enough do that it is noteworthy.
I mean, some parents are carefully planning for SAT testing around 6th grade age, starting SAT prep for JHU admissions, etc. Those who lead a more balanced life, are unaware or naive, or just don't have the money, find it difficult to compete with parents who regard their students here as projects. Long-term Tiger Mom actions generally pays off big time with respect to scores later, like SAT, but doesn't make these kids better persons.
It is gratifying that PAUSD posts strong test scores but this mainly reflects high socio-economic levels and extreme parental practices of managing their kids for optimum resumes for university applications.
I would like to see a district superintendent who, like the current principal of PALY attended "normal" universities and appears to be running the school quite well rather than one who offers Ivy legacy advantage to his kids and may capitalize on current Ivy fascination over all, to the extent that some covet Ivies for the name brand label.

Posted by Some points to consider about APs
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 10, 2011 at 10:39 am

Ms. Dauber,

The 2006 Harvard study found that many college educators did see the value in AP courses.

They also found that AP classes have some effect on success in college courses, it's just that APs are not the only factor and a 5 on an AP exam did not equal an A at the colleges surveyed (unnamed) but rather earned students a 90 (on average) in the introductory college science course in the same discipline (a 4 averaged 87, a 3 averaged 84; and students who took a non-AP high school honors course averaged 82).

The scientists' conducting the study were concerned about students skipping science classes in college, and so based on their research advocated that colleges "tighten their awarding of AP credit [for science classes], since many students currently use AP credit to avoid college science courses altogether."

Harvard does that by only giving advanced standing for a handful of AP courses and only if the student earns a 5. Some other schools like the UCs are less rigid and give graduation credit for AP exam scores of 3 or more.

APs' other value is in giving colleges an objective way, in the era of grade inflation, to determine which students will succeed once admitted. As noted above, in 2007 the Harvard dean of admissions said that Harvard sees a correlation between APs and college success.

Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 10, 2011 at 10:44 am

I neglected to mention that there ARE some outstanding teachers in the district - these teachers should be recognized and paid higher salaries and bonuses but union rules prohibits this, of course. Teachers can lead to better educational outcomes, of course, however there is so much happening OUTSIDE of school so that is why I focused on that. I just wish more parents valued the education and instilled this in their kids, rather than focusing so intensely on testing and resumes. Some are secretive about applications to interesting summer programs (so peers won't also apply). Some of us just don't think like this and it was sad when we found out how others operated....

Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 10, 2011 at 10:50 am

Well, you better plan for it, people don't just fall off the apple cart and score 5's on APs. Remember once upon a time when students took 1 or 2 APs in subjects THAT INTERESTED THEM and where they wanted to learn more and ponder the it is a RACE to take as many APs as possible and figure out ways to raise one's score. It MAY be correct - I think it is disputed at the university level - that high AP scores may lead to better achievement at the university level, but once again there is GAMING of the system. I know a student at Harvard (not from Palo Alto) who was extremely careful with her applications and she told me she didn't send her one "4" score on an AP to Harvard -- she just sent her "5s" -- she had a high level of awareness, she said, that her 4 might hurt her(!) on her Ivy League apps....the focus has been removed from the classes and subject matter and is all on optimizing test scores. What a mentality!

Posted by Retired Teacher
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 10, 2011 at 12:29 pm

former Paly parent: You'd like a superintendent who attended a "normal" university? What an extraordinary statement! Our superintendent attended Harvard, that "abnormal" place over there on the wilds of the east coast? By all means, let's dump him immediately! What about Stanford? Or is it just the ivies that produce graduates unacceptable to you?

As for students who present their best results to try to get into the college they want--that's hardly an example of GAMING the system. PARENTS can be part of the problem, it's true. But values in this society--not just this town--are distorted and harmful, often quite destructive.

It would be more helpful to this discussion if you would focus your attention on changing those values, parent behavior, student behaviors, and how to get extra attention to those students who are really hurting, rather than implying that the problem is that some universities are the opposite of "normal."

Posted by Some points to consider about APs
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 10, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Former Paly parent,

Sorry to read that you think parents are hiding information and students are intentionally psyching out other students to get a competitive advantage.

My experience here has been quite different. There is competition for college slots but I've found all my children's friends to be very supportive. There is no need for gaming/psyching because there is not a straight line into the college of anyone's dreams these days. Sure you need to be strong academically to get into the most competitive colleges, but check out Naviance and you'll see, save Stanford and the UCs which lots of PAUSD students get into, not that many of our students apply to the same college. There are lots of great colleges and only so many applications a student can complete. It is virtually impossible to know what a college is looking for - top colleges reject tons of kids with perfect SAT scores and accept lots without, so must not be it.

Also, people have studied whether expensive SAT prepping helps students. Turns out that it doesn’t really. The Wall Street Journal ran a story about this a few years ago:
Web Link

Posted by Marie
a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Skelly is a strong advocate of increasing the AP enrollment at both Gunn & Paly. His kids all went to Gunn. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] PAUSD kids are a product of a very selective gene pool. In large part, the kids drive the AP craze with little attempt on the part of school administrators to change this destructive energy. Instructional supervisors are pressured to increase enrollment in AP courses and the number of AP courses. Principals cave into the frenzied challenges of parents when their child is denied enrollment into AP courses. AP enrollment is NOT a birthright. If you were foolish enough to buy a home in an overpriced town for the access to the "wonderful" PAUSD, you are NOT entitled to anything. Many colleges (like MIT) don't even accept APs. The curtain is coming down on the AP prestige. What will you use for bragging rights now?

Posted by DD Mom
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 11, 2011 at 10:54 am

Let's say, you are a father who wants his daughter to marry rich.

Then you saw 20 yr old Steve Jobs, who was passionate on, well, lots of things, diet, spirit, technology, art, to name a few.

And then you saw a 20 yr old, not so passionate on anything, but straight A medical school student.

Which one would you choose for your daughter? (if the whole the purpose is to marry rich)

The medical school student. Not Jobs.

Statistics. It is the same rule that top universities follow to choose their freshman class. They might miss a few geniuses here or there, but STATISTICALLY, choosing a student body largely based on AP\SAT is a good and safe approach. They stick with this approach because there is no better alternatives in the real world.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 11, 2011 at 11:58 am

I would (1) let her choose and (2) IF she asked me, I would urge her to do not on a basis other than money.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 11, 2011 at 11:59 am

I mean to choose on a basis other than money. To quote Rick Perry, "oops."

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 11, 2011 at 12:11 pm

I agree with Michelle, and further would say that I would urge her to wait for another 5 years at least before making the decision. 20 is much too young to judge a person's ultimate character, for either party.

Posted by doing the impossible
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 11, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Web Link
Web Link

public or private, it can be done.

Posted by DD Mom
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 11, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Ok, I put it in a different way. let's say, Stanford decided to choose 10 from Gunn. What do you think they should do?

1 Choose the kids with best SAT \ AP \ National Competion Rewards

At least, those kids are either, truely interested in the subjects, or super smart, or super hardworking.

As a matter of fact, based on my 12 year's IT exprience, there are a few lucky geniues like Steve Job, but for most ordinary people like us, success comes from persistent and hardworking, even on the things that are NOT interesting at all.

2 Choose those with great passion, interest and what?

Oops, how do you measure a person's passion and interest? From Gunn's 500 graduates, how do you decide who are the top 5 most passionate ones?

Churchill once said "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Similar thing can be said on college admission. The current process\standard would continue untill there is a realistic and better alternative.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 11, 2011 at 2:57 pm


What you say is very true, but at the very least, colleges could interview potential students, even by video conferencing. I lot can be seen which can't come through from the various application processes.

Posted by Mikey
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 11, 2011 at 4:11 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by RussianMom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 11, 2011 at 8:12 pm

DD, well said. I back you up 100%. It is easy to miss a genius in the process of self discovery. Plus not all passionate people, considering themselves ginius will bloom into great students/workers. But it's most likely that hard working established at school kid will not be a trouble maker at college. Like a stock market - where would you invest - starter with potential or well proved company? Mix is nice when you have enough funds (spaces)....
But Steve Job vs Md, I agree with Michele - lets the daughter choose... (and prey).

Posted by Prey is right
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 11, 2011 at 8:53 pm

A few would pray, but it's not PC in the valley.

Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 12, 2011 at 8:15 am

What has gotten lost in this is that while 75% of Paly and Gunn kids are above average in something, whether it is test-taking (SAT/AP style), sports, or music, some kids are generally below average, and are not (real) college material. Those kids still deserve an education.

Posted by We can do better
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 12, 2011 at 9:54 am

So, does anyone have suggested solutions on how to close the achievement gap?

We may disagree on AP's, academic metrics, college admissions etc... but the fact remains that we still have 8-10% of the student body who are not proficient academically (according to California Testing Standards).

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 12, 2011 at 10:44 am

Have we asked the 8-10% of the students who are not proficient what would help them? Have we asked their parents and theirs advisors or counselors? They are much more likely to yield answers than the rest of guessing.

The one thing I think would help is making sure ALL the students take Biology and Algebra freshman year (currently there are "fill the gap" classes instead) and provide the kids who need the support a smaller class, the best teachers and additional support. Keeping them on track with their peers is really important. Getting off track in 9th grade derails all four years.

Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park School
on Nov 12, 2011 at 2:28 pm

I think the most effective change we could make to close the achievement gap is to hold the schools accountable for improving the learning of minority and less affluent students. I spent a number of years working with the Education Trust West ( on the issue of the achievement gap, and the most important intervention has been to raise expectations. That's why the Parent's Network for Students of Color advocated so strongly last year for making completing the A-G requirement curriculum for UC and CSU a PAUSD graduation requirement -- if students need to be ready for college to graduate, the district can no longer give them high school diplomas without educating them to their potential.

This isn't a radical idea -- San Jose Unified, for example, instituted A-G for all in 1998 (see Web Link and the former superintendent there, Linda Murray, has published book with the Education Trust about how to deliver college-preparatory education to all students (see Web Link

Concretely, I agree with palo alto mom about focusing attention and resources on ensuring that all students in 9th and 10th grade are taking and passing courses that put them on the right track for graduation. There are currently many incentives for the best teachers to teach advanced level courses to small numbers of students, and to define success as a school by the number of high-achieving students (as the district did on Tuesday). We need to shift the incentives so that the district gets judged by how well it educates the whole student body. Some of that can be done by changes like A-G for all, and some by changing how the district reports on "achievement". Right now, the high schools' lack of success in educating a significant portion of the student body is nearly invisible, unless you dig into statistics on the California Department of Education website.

Finally, it is important to note that this is not only a problem for underrepresented minority kids. Most (63%) of the students who did not graduate with A-G in the class of 2011 were white and Asian. There are a substantial number of students who are not being well-served by the high schools, and they could all benefit from a definition of achievement that looks at more than merely AP exams and average SAT scores -- for example, GPA trajectory, college readiness, success in completing course sequences from introductory through advanced courses, rates of passing foundation courses such as algebra and chemistry, etc.

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 12, 2011 at 2:48 pm

palo alto mom,

"The one thing I think would help is making sure ALL the students take Biology and Algebra freshman year (currently there are "fill the gap" classes instead) and provide the kids who need the support a smaller class, the best teachers and additional support. Keeping them on track with their peers is really important. Getting off track in 9th grade derails all four years."

Your suggestion nails it.

The "egalitarian Nordic system" in Finland is a complete contrast to PAUSD in this respect, as a "comprehensive school system without selecting, tracking, or streaming students during their common basic education"

Instead of laning students by age 13-14 and developing a caste system by 9th grade, FInland offers three straightforward tracks only at age 16.

Not half a dozen math lanes, with middle school kids taking high school math, or some high school kids taking Math at Stanford. Their smorgasbord seems cleaner, developmentally appropriate and along the lines of your suggestion.

from Wikipedia
The Finnish education system is an egalitarian Nordic system, with no tuition fees and with free meals served to full-time students. The present Finnish education system consists of well-funded and carefully thought out daycare programs (for babies and toddlers) and a one-year "pre-school" (or kindergarten for six-year olds); a nine-year compulsory basic comprehensive school (starting at age seven and ending at the age of sixteen); post-compulsory secondary general academic and vocational education; higher education (University and Polytechnical); and adult (lifelong, continuing) education.

The Nordic strategy for achieving equality and excellence in education has been based on constructing a publicly funded comprehensive school system without selecting, tracking, or streaming students during their common basic education.[1] Part of the strategy has been to spread the school network so that pupils have a school near their homes whenever possible or, if this is not feasible, e.g. in rural areas, to provide free transportation to more widely dispersed schools. Inclusive special education within the classroom and instructional efforts to minimize low achievement are also typical of Nordic educational systems.[1]
After their nine-year basic education in a comprehensive school, students at the age of 16 may choose to continue their secondary education in either an academic track (lukio) or a vocational track (ammattikoulu), both of which usually take three years. Tertiary education is divided into university and polytechnic (ammattikorkeakoulu, often translated into English as "university of applied sciences") systems.

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 12, 2011 at 3:00 pm


"...the most important intervention has been to raise expectations"

The clearest way to raise expectations could be to have a system that doesn't segregate kids by achievement level during a common basic education.

If I were an achievement gap student, I probably wouldn't need further communication on expectations if I had the Finnish system.

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 12, 2011 at 3:28 pm

there seem to be only two options at age 16 in Finalnd, academic or vocational.

I wonder if "average" kids can go on the academic track or if it's only for the prodigious.

I imagine there will be the "it wouldn't work in Palo Alto" because......

and that would probably all have to do with expectations.

Posted by Refreshing
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 12, 2011 at 10:05 pm

Finland - I don't think Lowest Common Denominator education system would work here. The goal is not make all the kids equal.

We are a diverse society with diverse range of skills.
There's nothing wrong with having a range of academic performance, just as there are ranges of athletic and artistic talents. Everyone should not be taking the same courses as freshmen, just like we don't expect everyone to be on a varsity sports team or in the school play.

There is a problem when the bottom 10% are not meeting the minimum bar (a low bar set by California). I'm all for setting a higher minimum bar starting at freshmen year. Expect a lot from all kids early. In fact, this should start in middle school. But let more advanced kids take more advanced classes. It would be a disservice to bore them.

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 13, 2011 at 12:28 am


The middle is not the Lowest Common Denominator in Palo Alto.

We just have the problem that getting into college relies on a dog eat dog system and the non-egalitarian system is relied on to make some kids better compete in a race with diminishing returns to society.

Otherwise, there should be no conflict between a good education and an egalitarian system. The fear of change will keep lowering expectations of students, and lowering expectations of education as well.

Posted by turning disadvantage into an advantage
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 13, 2011 at 8:23 am

The majority of PAUSD kids missing a-g credits were white (87), but when measured as a percentage of enrollment the lack of a-g credits is primarily a concern for African Americans and Hispanics; 56 kids in total in the class of 2011, about 85% and 50% of their respective enrollments. (About 40% of the 170 who did not satisfy a-g had learning differences (abt 80 students) or language differences (abt 30 students)).

Not all is bleak for our underrepresented minorities, at least for college admissions, if they get the counsel and guidance so they can take the classes they need to get into college.

College admissions officers want a diverse campus and, to get it, lower admissions expectations for underrepresented minorities noting that many did not have the same advantages their Caucasian peers got along the way and so deserve a boost to level the playing field.

It is not a slight admissions advantage.

A 2010 study out of Princeton measured the boost to be comparable to 310/1600 SAT points which could move a kid scoring in the 50th percentile into the 90th.

It is having an impact.

The entering class at Harvard this year is 12% Black and 12% Latino; the US' racial breakdown is 13% and 16% respectively so it is roughly proportionate. Compare that to whites. About half of Harvard's entering class is white, 1/3 less than the 72% whites in the US.

This racial advantage is not nuanced.

An African American or Hispanic student who comes from a well-connected, wealthy family gets an admissions racial boost too.

Low-income, under-supported Caucasian kids do not.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 13, 2011 at 8:42 am

The Foothills transfer program is an excellent transition from high school to college and should never be undermined or forgotten.

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 13, 2011 at 9:33 am

turing disadvantage to advantage,

"An African American or Hispanic student who comes from a well-connected, wealthy family gets an admissions racial boost too."

Isn't there a quota for poor whites too?

Colleges likely have all sorts of different "boosts" to shape their freshman class, not just racial. I suspect that admissions offices are ultimately looking at the students themselves, what they have achieved, what kind of person they are, not just their race or economic condition.

Anyway, I hope you're not saying that hispanics and blacks have an "advantage" to get into college, so the achievement gap is not an issue.

Posted by RussianMom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 13, 2011 at 11:34 am

I am. Hispanics and blacks have an "advantage" to get into college (360 SAT is huge) and Caucasian / Asian kids don't have a reserved college admission quota. Achievement gap is not an issue because: 1) there are enough resourses for kids to succeed, especially in PAUSD, IF they WANT to succeed. 2) not all kids desire to become college grads. 3) to succeed there are family involvement and family support. Nor fair to expect the school to babysit high schoolers.
I have plenty kids from all races that do just fine and work very hard to use everything that our school district has to offer. And some, who are total waist of the resources. Don't get me wrong, I am not measuring by grades, but rather by effort and willingness.... Don't take from kids who want and capable.
And Findland, your school system maybe extremely progressive and well balanced among all, but truly even there did everybody achieve and succeed equally?

Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park School
on Nov 13, 2011 at 12:31 pm

"RussianMom"'s comment is a great example of how a zero-sum approach to education, in which we pit kids against each other in a fight over supposedly scarce resources, leads to nasty sentiments like "let's not worry about whether students from underrepresented minorities actually learn, affirmative action will take care of it." If kids graduate without A-G credentials they're not going to our California public university system (including UC and CSU), where affirmative action is banned anyways. The PAUSD students who don't graduate with A-G are disproportionately lower income, which makes it even more tragic that they are barred from even applying to public universities.

But more to the point, high school is supposed to be about educating the whole student body. Addressing the educational needs of underachieving students of whatever race isn't going to diminish the quality of education that high achieving students are getting -- in fact, I think it will improve everyone's educational experience, since schools that don't take every child's education seriously are probably broken in more systemic ways. As "Finland does it better" points out, it is possible to have schools where the assumption is that all children can learn. We should be holding PAUSD accountable for making that assumption a reality.

Posted by For excellence
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 13, 2011 at 1:37 pm

When you talk about eliminating APs you are talking about diminishing the quality of education that high achieving students are getting.

My children have taken AP classes because THEY want it, they can handle it, and they enjoy the challenge for the most part. I don't want that taken away from them.

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 13, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Russian mom,

Clearly, colleges have figured out that high SAT scores aren't everything, some don't even use them, imagine you could score zero and still get in.

Regardless of the college rat race, I still hope for better, and will take Finland over Russia on this one.

"... instructional efforts to minimize low achievement are also typical of Nordic educational systems"

Behold! Nordic people have low achievers?

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 13, 2011 at 2:37 pm

For excellence,

APs are not essential for a good education. The best ranked college preparatory schools in the county have eliminated them.

Posted by For excellence
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 13, 2011 at 4:08 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Prep schools, if they are private, get to choose their students. I don't think that comparing our public high schools to private schools is valid if only because of this difference.

Finally, no matter what we do, and even in blessed Palo Alto where all parents think they are the smartest people on earth, there will always be kids who don't achieve as well as others. Something should be done to help them of course, but not at the expense of the high achievers. And, most of all, parents of lower achievers need to learn to accept their kids as they are. Indeed, I think the worst problems in Palo Alto schools is parents whose expectations of their children are out of proportion with reality and who burden their kids with them.

(and yes I am European, but not from Russia, nor from Finland, and I am not at all a tiger mom type. I have never had my kids tutored for example.)

Posted by RussianMom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 13, 2011 at 4:18 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Ken, I agree. Don't get me wrong - EVERY single kid deserves the best educational experience that system is capable to provide. no exceptions. My point was that the initiative needs to come from a child, not forced by school or active parent group. And not taken from higher achievers. There is place for every child. we explained to our kids at high school - it's easier to get a quality education at reputable private school, but it's equally possible to thrive in public school, if the child put an extra efford... Ken, I am with you that education need to be accessible to every child.

Posted by RussianMom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 13, 2011 at 4:21 pm

To brighten a bit - I am ME (and nobody can't fake my grammar, spelling and punctuation). Having a different opinions on this blog is fine al long as ALL of us are not in deferent to our schools, kids and education that they are getting. Let it be a positive experience for all!

Posted by turning disadvantage into an advantage,
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 14, 2011 at 7:58 am

A few things.

One, the 170 kids in PAUSD who did not satisfy a-g might benefit from better college counseling but they should not be forced into satisfying a-g to graduate.

Some of them will not want to take the traditional route to a 4 year college, opting for Foothills or trade schools instead. Some cannot; perhaps they cannot afford a 4 year college or their learning differences mean that they want to continue their education in less mainstreamed ways. Of the 170, 24% were economically DISadvantaged (Mr. Dauber check your facts). 31% had IEPs.

Page 36 Web Link

The district's report shows some things that need to be addressed regardless of a-g. Early math drop outs is one. But is it essential that all students have the UCs’ 2 years of a foreign language? Nice to have it perhaps, but not crucial; 56% of the 170 did not.

Two, it is important to look at students by academic need, not by race or income.

Many have posted that this is, at its core, a race issue. The Weekly reported that African American parents and students showed up at the board meeting reprimanding PAUSD on behalf of Black students calling this "disgraceful" and a "crisis."

Without knowing why kids fell short (above) and with knowing that 87 Caucasian and 129 economically ADvantaged kids were among the 170, you cannot conclude that a bias, racial or economic, is at work here.

Blanket assumptions and narrow interests flame and miss the point.

My post about college admissions was intended to show that, despite what people may think, it could be argued that our most disadvantaged students are our struggling White students who have a much higher bar to pass to be admitted into same the colleges their underrepresented minority counterparts attend.

To Mr. Dauber's comment: There is only one racial group that is not underrepresented in the UCs - Asians; 45% of the admits last year were Asian while 13% of CA is of Asian decent.

Yes, Blacks and Hispanics were under-represented but so were Whites who were 33% of the admits but make up 58% of CA's population.

The UCs favor students who work hard and do well in high school.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 14, 2011 at 8:19 am

This is part of the problem. Foothills is not an alternative to a traditional four year college. It is more often than not a different transition into a UC. Two years at Foothills in their transfer program with good grades and a guarantee into a UC is something that a good Palo Alto student should consider because there is less competition from the typical high achieving PA students. College transfers are a much more realistic option and on graduation from the UC there is no difference in the BA obtained.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 14, 2011 at 8:21 am

Here is a link to the Foothill transfer program Web Link

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 14, 2011 at 8:35 am


1. Ken stated that economically disadvantaged teens were overrepresented in the group of students who graduate without A-G. The proportion of children in PAUSD high schools who are economically disadvantaged is 6% at Gunn, and 7% at Paly. By your own post, you acknowledge that 24% of those who did not graduate with A-G were disadvantaged. That means that the percentage of poor children who are graduating without A-G is higher than their percentage in the general student body. That is what" overrepresented" means.

The picture of low-income achievement is even worse, however, than this 24% number graduating without A-G would suggest. Based on the district's own data, around HALF of the poor students at both Paly and Gunn are rated as "Not Proficient" on their California High School Exit Examination, compared with an overall student body rate of around 10% in that category. It requires no great statistical analysis to conclude based on the magnitude of these differences that poor kids in Palo Alto are doing far worse than their better-off peers.

Interestingly, Gunn does far worse than Paly. At Gunn, 50% of poor students are ranked as Not Proficient in Math, compared with 42% at Paly. In English, the gap is even wider, with 57% of Gunn students but only 40% of Paly students receiving that ranking. Even accounting for the larger number of native Spanish speakers at Gunn, that gap is hard to attribute to anything other than differences in the schools, particularly since the math gap is also present.

As some of you may recall, We Can Do Better instigated an investigation by the school board into differences between the counseling systems of Gunn and Paly that will take place this year. These differences may play a role in explaining the Gunn/Paly achievement gap for poor students. As we showed last year, parents and students at Gunn are around twice as dissatisfied with their "traditional" counseling system as parents and students at Paly are with the "advisory" model in use there. It is likely that features of advisory, which build connections between students and teachers, enhance the achievement of poor students. That would be consistent with the academic literature which shows that interventions such as advisory that reduce stress also raise minority and poor student achievement.

The bottom line: Ken was correct in stating that poor kids, regardless of race, are overrepresented among students who need some additional supports to be successful in our highly-competitive schools. This is not some academic question. This is about whether resources are fairly distributed or whether they are unreasonably clustered at the top. School officials seem to take a lot of pleasure in bragging about the high scores and high achieving kids in our district. But we should not be out crowing about how AMAZING it all when half of our poor kids (and also around half of our underrepresented minority kids) are not even ranking as proficient on the CAHSEE, let along graduating with A-G.

That doesn't mean we should eliminate advanced coursework and neither of us nor anyone in We Can Do Better has suggested that. We need to educate each child, and ensure that every child is given the chance to thrive to his or her potential. I reject emphatically the thinly-veiled suggestion in "turning"'s post that poor and minority kids just don't have much potential. I think that one big problem with this anonymous forum is that it permits people to say things that are really inappropriate and false without having to defend those statements or be held accountable for having said them in the grocery line or on the soccer sidelines. Posting statements as "turning" does suggesting that Asians are successful because they work hard while black and hispanic youth, by comparison, fall short, trades in the worst stereotypes and is destructive to our community. If you want to say things like that, I challenge you to do it under your own name and take responsibility for your views.

Posted by turning disadvantage into an advantage
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 14, 2011 at 9:10 am

Ms. Dauber,

There is no subtext as you claim saying that poor and minority kids don't have much potential. You are reading things into my post that are not intended. I state that all kids who are struggling need support, not just poor and minority ones.

I added the UC admissions requirement because it is how the UCs work. I did not state whether I agree or disagree with it. UCs favor students who have high GPAs, take advanced courses and score high on their SATs regardless of race or income.

I understand that kids at all levels work hard. Please finish reading my sentence. UCs want kids who work hard AND "do well in high school" (aka, as stated, above have high grades, take hard classes and have strong SAT scores).

Unless I am missing something, there is nothing "inappropriate and false" about that statement unless you disagree with the UCs' policy which you would need to take up with them.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 14, 2011 at 9:19 am

@Resident. I agree that the JC route is an excellent opportunity and that they provide a real college education at a lower cost and with smaller class sizes, more faculty contact, and many advantages. I do not diss the JCs. I object to the racial and economic disparities which prevent some kids from electing a 4 year college even if they would prefer it, not to the fact that kids choose go to JC. One of my kids went to JC and transferred to Berkeley. However, JCs are underfunded, and mistreated by the CA education system. Clark Kerr's master plan unfortunately did not anticipate Prop 13's cannibalistic effects on the CA educational system. The transfer rates at many JCs are really low, and the 6 year graduation rates for JC students to any bachelor's degree is unfortunately not what we would like it to be.

Posted by DD Mom
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 14, 2011 at 10:18 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 14, 2011 at 1:52 pm

I think Palo Alto could use a K-12 charter school based on the Finnish model.

Everyone gets the same, identical basic education until age 16. Absolutely no, nada, Zero laning or tracking. Bored geniuses need not apply.

At 16, not 1 day or 1 hour earlier, students choose a math and science track or a regular college ready track.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 14, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

First, eliminate ALL racial identification at every educational step. Make the collection of racial, ethnic or religious information illegal. Treat every child as an individual, not the member of some subset of humanity.
Then, eliminate compulsory attendance after 16, and go into laneing as soon as the basic fundamentals are acquired.

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 14, 2011 at 11:07 pm


You're already getting fancy.

Keep it simple, if FInland has your ideas fine, otherwise work the model exactly as Finland does.

We're not a special subset of humanity that we need to tailor make everything.

Posted by Finland has it easier too!
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 15, 2011 at 8:20 am

Finland has a homogenous population - making it much easier to educate their students. We have schools in PA that have students that speak 30 different languages at home, a much more challenging group to teach. Aside from that - tracking beginning at 16 makes sense - the student is mature enough to know what they may want and mature enough to handle the appropriate work (there are many middle school kids, especially boys, who end up in lower tracks simply because they are not mature enough to handle the homework load).

Posted by Palo AFinland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 15, 2011 at 9:35 am

Finland has it easier,

Palo Alto is ALSO a homogeneous population, and probably even more than Finland.

FInland is a country, Palo Alto is a college town. Please inform yourself. I would imagine they have as many Finish language learners, special needs students, as every public school system in the world. They probably also have students with acne.

I'm glad we agree on the value of tracking only after age 16 though. I certainly would trust a charter school in Palo Alto to provide a basic education until that age, and they wouldn't have to bother with managing umpteen different tracks and demands from parents.

As it is, I hear that the middle school math lanes are already not enough for some parents. There are kids who find the higher lane "too hard", but the lower lane "too easy". Is it just me, or does this sound absolutely nuts?

There's also a lot of talk about "differentiated" learning which I imagine means different strategies to address different students in a classroom. So, we have gazillion lanes, tracks, and differentiated learning in each of those tracks?

The only way to prove people wrong about this insane system and the biases about achievement gap kids is to develop a different approach, a different philosophy. Lanes, and tracks are too dear an near in PAUSD so it will ever change (except to add more lanes). A charter school would be great, or for PAUSD to create this alternative choice system like there's Ohlone.

As it is, with all the lanes and tracks, it's as if they run a dozen different schools for each grade, what''s one more school without lanes.

I read that FInland is actually just now going to pilot a gifted student program. I wish them luck because they will find out that everyone thinks they're gifted, and the floodgates will open. Nobody rushes to sign-up as an ungifted learner, but they will have people beating down the doors to be in the new gifted programs. Resources will be scarce and something will have to give. Those benefitting the most will likely be the tutoring industry.

Posted by what do you say
a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 16, 2011 at 12:15 pm

What do you say to kids who are cut out of a high school diploma?

Posted by what do you say
a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 16, 2011 at 7:03 pm

What do you say to kids who have been working for 13 years in this tough environment and cannot do the A-G work but are fully suited to attain a diploma?

What do you say when they are cut out of the job market because they did not graduate high school?

What do you say to parents when one of their kids fits the Palo Alto college-bound mold and the other is not planning college? Should they move out of the community?

This is not an intellectual exercise, it is the lives and futures of 170 kids we are tossing around. They deserve the diplomas they have worked for.

Posted by finland has it easier too!
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 16, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Finland IS an ethnically homogenous country, 93% of them speak Finnish, 6% speak swedish and the remaining are mostly russian. That makes teaching much easier. I also remember a family who moved here from Finland being amazed at the hours young elementary kids spend learning spelling - something that does not need to happen in Finland

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2011 at 12:14 am

FInland has it easier too,

FInland is still a country with over 7 million people. The 6% of Swedes plus the Russian and other immigrants alone are a Finnish language learner issue.

Finland also has socioeconomic differences, lower income students, and rich and poor people have special needs children, which together account for another percentage of kids who, by FInland's own account, require additional support. They ADD resources for kids who need extra support, and they acknowledge having students that need support.

It's so annoying to hear Palo Altans who have just been declared "the most educated" in California try to pass as a struggling public school system, challenged and suffering from diversity. To cover under "ethnic" diversity?

If you are referring to all the Chinese, French, Indian engineers at Google as the diversity challenge in Palo Alto, there is apparently also deceit behind the excuses for the achievement gap here.

Palo Alto IS homogeneous by common sense standards. The diversity FInland likely does not suffer from are demanding parents, who have turned the schools into college rat race mills.

FInland does it better not just in terms of academic achievement with nobody left behind. Their approach makes for a school culture that is safer, and more humane.

Dividing kids before age 16, into a million lanes so that a percentage can "stand out" for schools to "shine" and to push achievement for recognition's sake is out of place for a public school system.

I still want to understand what over a dozen Math lanes in 9th grade has to do with a good education. Two lanes, I can get, but there must be an explanation, does anyone know?

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 17, 2011 at 5:45 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Just three lanes; college prep, academic achievers and fundamentals only. A good high school education is all 90% of us need. All need fundamentals.

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2011 at 8:29 am

I meant to say over 1/2 dozen math lanes. Not sure if it's over that, but at least that many?


As long as the lanes are chosen only after age 16, but what would be the difference between academic achievers and college prep? or why would fundamentals only preclude enough education to get you through college? Simple is so much better.

A basic education could also not shut kids out of science because their Math is not high enough and more could go further than Biology. I'm sure Finland doesn't skimp n Science education for all.

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 17, 2011 at 9:34 am

I agree that any education should not shut kids out of science because their math lane is not high enough. Perhaps the science should be taught in a different way instead of excluding students. For example, why does Gunn have a regular lane of Biology and Chemistry, but Paly only has "advanced" lanes for both?

Posted by Finland is different
a resident of another community
on Nov 17, 2011 at 10:20 am


According to McKinsey & Company, which studied this recently, the difference between the US and Finland education outcomes is because of differences in teachers.

Web Link

In the US, teaching is one of the easiest training programs to enter - with lower admission requirements than other fields (over 50% who apply get in). Once in, it has been reported that teaching programs are often easier to pass than other disciplines students study at college and students can get a teaching credential in 4 years, no further training is needed.

Web Link

Compare that to Finland. According to Timo Lankinen, the director general of the Finnish National Board of Education, "all Finnish teachers must have master's degrees, and admission to teacher education programs is highly competitive.... fewer than 15 percent of applicants are accepted."

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2011 at 11:35 am

OK we can also compare the weather, FInland is colder.

We are talking about PAUSD and Finland right? When referring to teachers, it's Palo Alto teachers, not New York City rubber room teachers.

I don't buy that PAUSD is that different from Finland, or that our teachers are somehow not as qualified, or that Palo Alto has oh so many obstacles. As the Daubers say, we can do better and Finland has some glaring contrasts to our system which could be considered when looking for solutions


Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 17, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Wow it is not easy to find this thread anymore. It seems to me that the bottom line is that in a public school system in a liberal, diverse democracy every child, regardless of social background, should have the opportunity to be educated, and to attend a 4 year public University if that is their desire. That seems like a basic imperative of our system. I believe that is what Finland does well -- apply these principles of equality of opportunity and equity to its public education system.

Palo Alto has somehow over time fallen away from these principles. Often our public high schools seem to be operating more as if they are elite private schools rather than democratic institutions. Partly this is about ego and opportunism by teachers and staff. Partly this is about ambitions of parents. Partly this is attributable to funding constraints and the desire to prove that our schools merit donations and extra funding. But however we got to where we are, we have arrived at a place with broken values.

This is why the focus on our high test scores is a problem -- it supports the view that our public schools exist to serve as private academies for the elite rather than as open, democratic institutions of opportunity.

Every child deserves to graduate from PAUSD college-ready by A-G standards. Every child in PAUSD, unless they have a disability that would prevent them from doing so is fully capable of achieving this goal, given the high-quality instruction, and support that an educated and affluent community is able to provide.

Let's take the objections to A-G for all. First, "what do you say" asks what about those kids who work hard and stay in school all four years and then are denied their diploma by PAUSD because they could not complete their A-G requirements. Let's first of all dispense with the red herring of special education because it is easily addressed.

No student in special education can lawfully be required to do things in order to receive a free appropriate public education that they are prevented from doing by a disability. There is no need to go further than that. An IEP or 504 plan can easily provide an exemption for such child from meeting A-G. There is no requirement or need to indicate on the child's diploma or record that he or she received a waiver, and it may be the case that to do so would be unlawful. ETS does not indicate on the test scores of disabled children whether they received accomodations. The supposed special education problem with A-G is a red herring that need not consume any more time.

But what about non-special ed kids? The poster seems concerned that PAUSD would essentially send them packing without a diploma if we required A-G, throwing them onto the trash heap of life. The only way to understand how this could even happen is that PAUSD teachers would be teaching courses that are much harder than the UC/CSU standard, and would refuse to teach to that standard even if ordered to do so by the board, and that those teachers would then insist on failing children and depriving them of their diplomas rather than teach to the UC/CSU standard. I found this hard to imagine.

But sadly, many parents (all of them white) who spoke against A-G for all at last May's board meeting echoed this comment. They simply do not trust PAUSD to implement A-G for all in a way that does not penalize children who are perhaps in the left-hand tail of the distribution for ability. The fact that a fair number of parents oppose A-G for all because their white children are struggling in classes that are ridiculously hard, taught at a breakneck pace, need private tutoring, and aren't getting good instruction or help from teachers should alert us to a serious problem with the PAUSD high schools. These parents feel that they have seen enough. They don't trust PAUSD not to just refuse to graduate their kids rather than admit that there might be a problem with the teaching or the curriculum.

There is a sizeable number of parents in Palo Alto who are pretty convinced that if the district had to choose between making it possible for every kid to graduate A-G ready or just kicking some kids to the curb, the district would choose the curb rather than risk its own "excellent reputation."

And that is where a lot of the stress comes from. We have a laning system that is rigid and a one way ratchet. We have some teachers (not all by any means, but it only takes one D in one class to prevent your child from being A-G compliant) who are more invested in the reputation of their school than in the learning of their students, and we have administrators who won't lead on the issue, and we have a Board that is truly feckless.

I do not blame parents for their distrust of the district, as expressed in their opposition to A-G. But I do not think we can trade away the life chances of minority kids who want to go to a 4 year college in order to avoid having to force this issue. The right answer is to use our power as taxpayers and voters to hold the district accountable for improving its teaching so that every child thrives.

Every day regular kids trudge into math and science to receive the message that they are simply not Gunn or Paly material. This is the genesis of our achievement gap, it is the genesis of our problems with stress, anxiety and depression, and it is an urgent matter to fix it. It violates democratic principles and values to persist year over year with our black and Latino students graduating without college access.

It's not even a dirty secret, since everyone knows about it. It's just dirty.

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Michelle D.

I would add that Palo Alto needs to stop hiding behind excuses.

Can't have it both ways, to be proud of the wonders of the schools, but when the gap is brought up, PAUSD is suddenly a struggling challenged diverse public school district that can't do it all. You hear of parents hounding the board about calendar changes, everyday math, whatever, but the achievement gap is more like a nuisance.

In terms or resources and homogeneity Palo Alto is practically Finland, compared to other really challenged districts in the country, and much more should be expected of this community.

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 17, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Michele - your words are so accurate "Every day regular kids trudge into math and science to receive the message that they are simply not Gunn or Paly material". For a variety of reasons - from ability to teachers lack of interest in actually teaching - there are a number of PAUSD students who simply fall thru the cracks. Students who if a teacher reached out to them to help (instead of always expecting "self-advocacy") could achieve the A-G requirements. The best teachers should be teaching the struggling kids in addition to teaching the top students.

Many of our classes are simply much more difficult than they need to be. Yes, our bright students get to college and say they are much better prepared than their peers. But what about the kids who give up because they think they can't achieve the impossible goals set by our PAUSD classes.

Ask any of the local tutors and college counselor who work with students from multiple local districts and they will all tell you that PAUSD classes are harder, require more homework and especially more rote memorization than any other local district.

Posted by Ex-Paly Student
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 17, 2011 at 9:16 pm

I am an ex-Paly student who, after reading all that you have written, could not disagree more. You are running a group called "We Can Do Better Palo Alto," which seeks to do better by lowering standards. Instead of pointing to a small number of students who are not succeeding in our schools to advocate for increased outreach, you have decided that we should solve the problem by lowering our standards. There's nobody to complain about poor education so long as we get them their diploma, right?

The next argument, inevitably, will be that you aren't arguing for "lower" standards, you're just arguing for application of state standards to Palo Alto schools. However, as your group notes, WE CAN DO BETTER. We have more resources, better staff, more committed parents, etc. There is a reason that despite your concerns, Palo Alto schools top out on almost all measures of student s uccess. To accept merely meeting the state standards as "good enough" does a massive disservice to the students of the district. Maybe you believe that there are some students who are not on 504's but are merely too intractably stupid to ever be able to meet the standards the vast majority of other kids do... On this issue then, we disagree. Maybe teachers haven't been doing enough outreach, maybe we need better information on tutoring services available, but I refuse to accept that expecting more out of Palo Alto schools was a naive project that failed to account for the fact that there are students who just can't be helped.

Maybe you're right. Maybe we can lower our standards without anybody noticing, and that will help a couple students on the borderline get access to college. We'll pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves we did a good job. But when colleges notice that people like you have trashed the high standards that make our schools great, are you prepared to see ALL of our students lose college access, because graduation from Paly doesn't mean anything? You are the one who is telling students they aren't Paly material. You are the one telling students, particularly black and Latino students, that they aren't smart enough to meet anything other than the hopelessly low bar that is the state minimum standards. Your solution is to lower the bar for them, which just passes the problem of education inequality on to the next level. We need to stop passing the buck and deal with the problem that some kids aren't getting educated, not just note that if we graduate everybody, the degree gap disappears.

One last note: I am very aware that tragedy has struck this neighborhood, and that people want to do something about it. My concern is that people are too quick to explain away emotional difficulties as having one central cause, and then find themselves with a load of unintended consequences after trying to deal with that issue. Take some time and think a little. You have already alleged conspiracy in our schools, as well as personally accused an extremely well respected teacher of mine of overt racism. You think if white and Asian students succeed but blacks and Latinos don't, that means that blacks and Latinos are clearly just never going to get smart enough to meet the bar. He thinks that if the whites and Asians can succeed, so can blacks and Latinos. The mere fact that you disagree on whether or not those students have potential to succeed does not make him a racist, in fact, the same allegation could be made of your claims. However, calling people racists behind closed doors does not make an effective political campaign. Quit slandering community members behind closed doors and get into a serious public discussion. I'm 19 years old, and feel guilty about having to advise a woman many years my senior on how to conduct public discussions.

P.S. For those who are unsure about the racism piece-it comes from a Facebook page where she and her compatriots slander hardworking Palo Alto teachers for fun. Check out the informed discussion at Web Link

Posted by Ex-Paly Student
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 17, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Note: The above was mostly in response to claims made elsewhere that you don't support Paly teachers using discretion to place kids in lanes based on their own judgement, as well as your opposition to Palo Alto math standards being more strict than the A-G state requirements.

We both agree we should do something about the left side of the bell curve. We disagree on the allegations of racism (pointed at specific staff members I might add) and whether or not rigorous standards are good for low performing students, and students in general.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 17, 2011 at 10:25 pm

Dear Former Paly Student:

First, I admire your fire and loyalty to your teachers. You are right that I am very critical of the letter that your teacher wrote. I do not agree with his view, which you echo in your post, that teaching one Algebra II class at the UC/CSU standard would "trash" our schools or "ALL of our students lose college access, because graduation from Paly doesn't mean anything." I don't want to hurt your feelings as you are a young person still trying out different arguments, but that assertion simply makes no sense. It is ridiculous to believe that raising the achievement of students at the bottom of the hierarchy has any impact of any kind on the achievement of those at the top. These two things are unrelated to each other. What on earth could even be a plausible account of how this could happen?

A high school is judged on how well it educates all its students, not on the percentage of students it leaves in the dust as proof of "rigor." You have mistaken your teachers' theories for facts.

Second, my disagreement with the Paly math department about A-G for all is hardly being played out "behind closed doors." I don't post anonymously to this forum, for example. I show up at Board meetings, and meet with district officials, and join parent organizations and engage in highly public advocacy for what I believe. Nothing I have done has been "behind closed doors." I believe in open debate and think it is healthy. Unfortunately the letter submitted by the teacher you are defending was not made public at the time it was submitted. Therefore you have not read it.

You can read it here:
Web Link

Perhaps you will agree with the sentiments expressed in this letter. That is your choice. But many, if not most, parents in Palo Alto will not. And all deserve to read it and have a free and open discussion on whether or not the sentiments expressed therein are consistent with our democratic values or not.

Finally, I have to say that it is very easy for someone like you, from your vantage point as someone who obviously has many college choices, to defend a system in which you succeeded. We all want to believe that the "merit" based systems that selected us are valid. Otherwise it might call into question the rewards we are reaping. I think it is understandably hard for you to place yourself, as a high-achieving young person, into the shoes of someone who struggled or did not have as many advantages as you did. I don't blame you for holding this view -- you evidently are merely emulating your teachers, who cut a very poor figure for you to follow.

Hopefully after you have a few years experience in the world outside of Palo Alto you will have a broader horizon.

Best wishes for success in college,

Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 18, 2011 at 12:24 am

Ex-Paly Student -

I do tend to agree with your sentiments and the sentiments expressed in the letter. And while I respect Michelle's right to her well-informed views, I think they represent the opinion of a small vocal group, and to say "many, of not most parents" agree with those views is her guess, nothing more. I would guess that many, if not most parents (and teachers!), actually agree with you.

Don't let the nay-sayers and haters get you down. You'll run into them through out life, as I'm sure you have already. Like Michelle, they may say they just understand things better than you, and if you only had their superior perspective, you'd see it their way. Maybe. But in the meantime, trust in your own experience and judgment and feel entitled to your own views.

Good luck!

Posted by Succeded in Palo alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 18, 2011 at 6:03 am

Where is your claim of "But many, if not most"? Your fb group has 152 likes. I won't call that many. I respect your opinion but don't pretend to speak for the majority.

I strongly disagree with Michele's comments. I worked hard in hs and took 8 APs. I had strict and nurturing teachers, not good or bad teachers. When I had a hard teacher at paly, I worked harder and smarter. I learned to ask questions, go to extra help/tutorials, and manage my time better. I didn't blame my teachers or tried to get them to lower academic standards. Guess what, I'm a happy, motivated college student now. So parents, don't dumb down your students. Support them, support your teachers. You can succeed!

Posted by turning disadvantage into an advantage
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 18, 2011 at 7:41 am

Ex-Paly Student,

You nailed it. What the Daubers are calling for is not "increased outreach" or support for those who are struggling but "lowering our standards." They know PAUSD wants all kids to graduate. If a-g is the template, PAUSD will have to water down classes so all kids can pass.

The Daubers use tactics that grab headlines to embarrass the district into meeting their list of demands. This round the Daubers and their group are demanding a-g for all and getting press for it by calling their fight one against a "crisis" of racism.

It overlooks the facts pointed out above: well-off and white students would be negatively impacted by a move to a-g too.

If PAUSD adopts a-g as the floor, students will have to pass Algebra 2 (not just Algebra 1) and take two years of a foreign language (PAUSD none).

On a-g, ask what is wrong with accomplishing the same objective through counseling about a-g WHILE allowing kids who can't/don't want to meet a-g to graduate with pride rather than asking for special, discretionary (may not get it) accommodations?

The Daubers' quest is not to lower stress. Many students will find that having to pass two years of a foreign language and taking two extra years of math more stressful.

So it seems that the Daubers want to address that increased stress by then lowering standards so kids who are struggling can have the same chance at getting into the colleges kids excelling at are being admitted to. Under their proposal, PAUSD will water down the classes and there will be no way for colleges to differentiate PAUSD students because more kids will have high GPAs.

Here are a few problems with this approach:

Highly competitive colleges are not the right fit for kids who are struggling in their high school's hardest classes. These colleges are exceptionally hard and the competition at them is extreme, even for PAUSD students. Students need to be at a college where they can be happy and succeed.

No ground is gained in student emotional health by watering down standards leaving other kids underchallenged and bored. Some under-challenged students (nearly 20% of our country's most capable students) drop out of school, 58% of them because there was "not enough challenge" at school.

Web Link

Despite some's love for homogeneous Finland in this thread, the solution is to keep PAUSD's different lanes so students can take classes which fit them right.

Paly does that, in math, in science, etc.

There are 3 levels of Algebra 2 at Paly. Sure the highest lanes may be hard for some but no one is telling kids that those are the flavor of Alg 2 they need to take.

PAUSD gives high school kids about a month to figure out if the class and teacher is the right fit for them and allows them to move if it is not. I've found the math department to be very flexible, allowing kids to move anytime during the semester if needed.

So an unhappy and unsuccessful child who stays in the hardest classes is doing so for other reasons, again perhaps because he or his parents want him to take rigorous classes so he can have a chance at being admitted into a very competitive college. That is OK, but then they should not blame the school if the child is buried with homework trying to keep up or the child's grade in that class closes the door to some colleges.

Of course there are times when the lane may be right but the teacher is not. It is rare to find a teacher who all kids in the class find accessible, inspiring and fair. My kids have had the same teacher several times and have had opposite reactions to his/her style and content. To make a major policy overhaul because a child doesn’t like a teacher when others do would be ludicrous.

If the basic class is too hard for a child too, then perhaps the child didn't get good enough instruction in the classes which preceded it, perhaps the student didn't take the class seriously enough, or perhaps the child's brain is not wired for math. Ms. Dauber, brain research supports the Paly math department's claim. Dyscalculia is the formal name given to it:

National Center for Learning Disabilities: Web Link

Learning Disabilities Association of America: Web Link

Whatever the reason, PAUSD provides free on-site tutoring, after school and during prep period teacher access, summer school remediation, and internet in the school's library which gives students zillions of free online help.

Please no replies that if parents didn't privately tutor these kids all PAUSD students would be at the same level. Not so. I know plenty of kids who were somehow born understanding math and who have excelled in it without even one hour of private assistance or a summer program to help them get ahead. I know plenty who were not and got tons of tutoring and still struggle in math.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2011 at 9:40 am

@turning and others who agree

1. Will someone please specify for me the mechanism by which teaching to the UC Regents standard in the bottom lane of the 3 lanes of Algebra 2 at Paly will impact the college application or admission for any Paly student in the middle or upper lane of that course?

You guys have a long parade of horribles about how the reputation of the entire school and every student in it will suffer if we teach to the UC standard in our lowest lane rather than insisting on coursework harder than that standard. The fact is, as you yourselves admit, we are already heavily tracked. We have many lanes of math. The students who would take the UC standard lane are nearly in a different school already from those who are taking multiple APs and high-lane math. They are not attempting to edge your child-prodigy out of Stanford so you need not try to so hard to keep them down. They merely want to take classes at the standard set by the state for attendance at the UCs and the CSUs. Due to the UC admission system, such students would likely not be selected for admission to a competitive UC such as UCB or UCLA because they did not take AP Calc. These students are currently not attending any 4 year college. They merely want to go to university. What is the interest of the high-achieving student in AP BC Calc in preventing the student at the bottom from attending Cal State Hayward (where the current Paly Math IS went). Please explain the mechanism to me.

2. Many parents in Palo Alto believe that the curriculum is needlessly difficult. The fact that our lowest lane of math is needlessly hard, and in fact so much so that it is obstructing the college chances of a group of our kids, only supports this view. High School should not be a hazing ritual. All our kids are harmed by the mentality of Spinal Tap High, where everything, even the lowest lane, "goes to 11."

The Weekly has a series of stories this week about academic stress. These are the same issue, though it may seem we are talking about a different group of kids (white and Asian high achievers and minority kids who struggle). In fact, all are suffering from the same malady: too much pressure and a mindless drive for "high" achievement at the expense of the well-being of the kids themselves.

3. Setting the bar for Algebra 2 above the California State standard for A-G even when we know that it has a disparate impact on minority students may well not even be legal. District officials, including the author of that letter, know that their policy is disproportionately preventing poor and black and brown kids from getting to college. That may violate federal law. Hopefully we will be able to resolve this issue without testing that hypothesis.


Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2011 at 9:59 am


To start with, the Paly Math Department refers to Algebra II as advanced Math. I wonder if Finland considers Algebra II as advanced Math, and the highest possible level for their population.

Anyway, It's not clear which of the two reasons are more of a concern to Paly Math teachers about adding Algebra II as a graduation requirement.

That affluent parents will pay for the Algebra II credits outside Paly, as they describe, and the less affluent students who can't afford to pay for those credits, will not graduate.

Or, that adding the requirement will also necessitate lowering the standards so much that Paly's reputation will suffer. Do they really think that Paly kids would end up taking remedial math in college because the standards would have to be lowered THAT much if Algebra II is added as a graduation requirement? The teachers mention that 85 kids graduated without Algebra II.

The letter also describes at the top that, the majority of the families in PA value education, with the exception of the VTP families (referred to as slackers), so we should avoid dealing with them on this matter. HUGH?!! WOuld Finland do that to 85 kids???

As the teachers themselves point out, Math is the ticket to Science, so doesn't keeping graduation requirements LOW, LOWER the bar for ALL students and encourage LESS Math and Science, with the exception of the high flyers who would fly high no matter what?

Not everyone needs to be an engineer, but why actively exclude more students from having enough Math skills leading to potentially other technical work. Math and Science don't even have to be valuable for technical work, they are important for everything, including to be a parent who can help kids with homework.

I can only hope there is LEGAL recourse to stop this madness! PAUSD's reputation is already being impacted. Yuk.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:06 am

Web Link

here is the Paly math lane flow chart. One almost needs an advanced degree to read this thing. As you can see, the laning process begins in middle school, and likely before. But by the time of high school, the vast majority of students are taking something called Alg/2TrigA, either as a sophomore or a junior. Only the lowest lane of math even offers a traditional Alg2 class, which is taken junior year. The vast majority of college bound kids are taking Calc or Pre-Calc as juniors.

So let's be clear: we are talking about kids who are taking Alg2 as a junior or even as a senior. Let's also be clear: the UC Regents standard for A-G is not a low standard. It is a high expectation. Many students will have to work very hard to meet it. It is insulting and offensive that taxpayers who work hard to move here to access these great schools, and send their kids to us with the expectation that they will be able to go to college -- people who worked and sacrificed and scraped, who have somehow managed the thread the needle of getting their kids to PAUSD, now discover that those at the top like "turning" are standing in the CSU school house door.

Be for real: the other classes are not even called Alg2. It isn't going to hurt anyone in Alg2 Trig if the Alg2 class is taught to state standards. Or add another lane (not that we need more tracking -- look at that chart!). You can call the current version of Alg2 that you think is so important Alg2H and then teach regulat Alg2 to the standard. This is not rocket science, even if it is being dominated by people who hope that their kids will become rocket scientists.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:12 am

@Finland: I am glad you share our shock. Please join our facebook group (Web Link We need more parents to come out to the Board of Ed meetings and express a desire for equity, reduced stress, and fairness for all. Or send me an email at

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:26 am

turning disadvantage to advantage,

Do you realize you're making the case to keep lower standards in Palo Alto, and to dumb things down for all students?

Posted by turning disadvantage into an advantage
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:54 am


What proof do you have that PAUSD is "setting the bar for [basic] Algebra 2 above the California State standard for A-G?" The only way to compare is to compare curriculum and grading scales.

Also please address whether you think PAUSD's foreign language classes are unnecessarily hard too? In my kids' experience, they have been among the easiest. Passing a-g for all would require all students to take 2 years of a foreign language too but some don't. What happens to them?

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2011 at 11:05 am


yes I was also very surprised to discover this fact about our Alg2 class. However, a letter signed by 14 current members of the Paly math department and written by its chair, says just that. In the letter, the teachers opposed A-G for all because, they say, they believe that a subset of Paly students, including those from East Palo Alto and underrepresented minorities cannot pass Algebra 2, as it is currently taught at Paly. According to these teachers, we could "dilute the standards in our regular lane to basic benchmarks which might allow every student to pass Algebra II." By this they mean that they could teach the class to the California State benchmarks, but they don't want to, they go on to say, because to do so would erode the district's "reputation."

Thus, the teachers themselves acknowledge that we could teach a basic Alg2 class that would be A-G compliant and would allow every student the opportunity to attend Cal State but they don't want to do it.

Why not? They go on at some length about the importance of the district's reputation, when compared with that of inferior schools such as SJUnified ("nowhere close to ours") and San Mateo Unified ("still no competition to ours") which do require A-G for all.

Again: please specify for me the mechanism by which offering Alg2 at the high California State A-G UC standard would hurt the reputation of any student in Alg2/Trig? It's not even the same class. Grades would not be comparable. And again, if you must, then rename the current, harder, Alg2 as Alg2H and teach a regular Alg2 class for those who find meeting the California state standard challenging enough.

I do not believe that the parents of students who struggle in math will be comforted by the excellent reputation of our schools. This is undemocratic.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2011 at 11:06 am

Read the letter here:

Web Link

Posted by Kim B
a resident of Nixon School
on Nov 18, 2011 at 11:51 am

The reason Carlos is so wrong is that he misunderstands the issue. No one is saying that kids who are still learning English will have the same English comprehension as the child of the Stanford English Lit professor, or that the kid who has had no access to Biology will perform as well as the kid who has helped out in her dad's Stanford lab since 8th grade. Clearly kids come with differing advantages, especially in this area. This issue regarding academic achievement is this: if a school measures its success by the performance of its top students, those results are mixed with parental input (academic, financial and otherwise). If you want to evaluate the effectiveness of the instruction, you look at those without all the parental input, and measure their performance. That performance in all likelihood won't be as excellent as kids with more advantages, but it shouldn't be sub-par like it is here. When students fail to meet minimum standards of proficiency (not talking excellence here), you can't blame the families for being immigrants, poor, illiterate, non-English speaking, whatever. This is what teachers are paid to do. You have to look at the effectiveness of the instruction. By this measure, many other school districts in this area are doing far better than ours. Why?

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2011 at 11:52 am

I'm reminded of the movie Stand and Deliver where a teacher in East LA got kids to take Calculus and pass the AP tests consistently, and even after he left the school, the school continued getting the same results.

I just don't see how crowning Algebra II as Kilimanjaro is consistent with an excellent reputation in Math, especially in Palo Alto.

With Math so rigorous, the Science classes must be on steroids too. No wonder sports, theater and glass blowing are offered as other avenues for success in school, and don't we import engineers anyway?

It's a worthy cause trying to do better, but if there is no budge, I at least want to know where I can send my check to the fund that pays for achievement gap kids to take Algebra II outside of Paly, with the "pay for credits" mentioned in the letter.

Posted by unbelievable
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 18, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Even with our highest lanes in math,those high Science/Math achievers will still have a very large gap when compared them to their foreign equal parts. If you do not believe,then you should look at those large tech companies,each and everyone of them employs core scientists from those countries and regions.What can our teens do if later in life,they need to compete with them in our own home land?Yeah,they can learn English major,political science,music where they can not even feed themselves.

Posted by Trish
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 18, 2011 at 2:33 pm

I too was shocked to see the Paly Math Department letter. Further, I agree with Michele that having a regular Algebra II class that would allow more children to pass that course and meet the A-G requirements in no way "lowers standards" at Paly. It opens doors for more students to go to 4 year colleges. And Finland is correct, the science department is on steroids as well, as evidenced by a comparison of the state standards to the Chemistry 1A curriculm standards as taught at Paly. Why isn't there a regular chemistry and biology class offered at Paly? It seems that Paly believes the state standards are too low, and perhaps that is true, but why would you deliberately foreclose a number of kids within your district from meeting the A-G requirements and narrow their college choices? Can't an Algebra II course be devised that does more than the minimum state standards but isn't taught at a breakneck pace such that more kids could pass Algebra II? How does helping kids on the left end of the bell curve hurt kids at the right or in the middle?

Posted by Succeed in PA
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 18, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Why would you push your student to a 4 year college by taking a watered down A-G req? Aren't you setting him up to fail? Or maybe your next step is to change the college graduation req?

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2011 at 5:58 pm


A basic Algebra2 class is not in any sense "watered-down." So the answer to your question about whether a student who passes a basic Alg2 class is being "set up to fail" by attending an 4 year college is no. But even if such a student would have to work hard to be successful in college, that is a decision for that student, the college admissions officers, and his or her parents to make. Not for the Paly Math IS and not for you. Maybe that student has other abilities and gifts beyond Alg2 that will help them to succeed in college, such as good manners, and empathy. Not every student who is able to "succeed" here evidently has such things.

Posted by LaToya Baldwin Clark
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 18, 2011 at 6:07 pm

To say that offering a A-G standard Algebra 2 class is "dumbing down" is nonsensical. Offer the current Algebra 2 class as honors, and add an Algebra 2 class that meets - but does not exceed - the standard needed to be approved by UC/CSU. The evidence that this course does not exist is in the math department's letter - they clearly say that the current course requires more than A-G requires. Students taking the "harder" class would have that noted on their transcript, just like all honors classes.

And then require teachers to actually teach. Require them to use proven pedagogical methods for teaching students of all backgrounds. Parents of high achieving students should want this too - why should your kid be either 1) a math genius or 2) subjected to hours upon hours of tutoring to even have a CHANCE of passing?

This would do nothing but help students. ALL students would be eligible for UC/CSU admission - @Succeed in PA - how is this setting any child up to fail? The course will be approved by UC/CSU, meaning that they believe the content learned in the course is appropriate for a student starting out in one of their colleges.

The only justification for not having this class - and the other A-G courses that meet the standard - is that folks are happy with a system that is purposefully designed for a subset of students to fail. The math department take DELIGHT in the fact that some kids cannot pass their class. They are, in essence, taking DELIGHT in the fact that not all Paly grads can go to college. Be clear - the requirements for UC/CSU are the same requirements for almost ALL colleges and universities. Just look at a sample of schools from across the country, varying in prestige and selectiveness (check U.S. News and World Reports and go to the admissions pages.) This is not just about UC/CSU. This is about 4-year college period.

Posted by Commenter
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:26 pm

LaToya -- You recommended offering the current algebra 2 class as honors. I apologize for my negligence, but I do not know which Algebra 2 course you are referring to (the Algebra 2 course taken junior or senior year, or rather algebra 1 or algebra 1.1?*). Assuming you mean the Algebra 2 class taken Junior year of the "Algebra 1" lane, I do not understand why this should be honors. Honors classes are weighted GPA's and generally have more curves to tests, and occasionally a curve to the class (for example, Geom/Alg 2A has a 2% curve to the class, making an 88% an A-). It doesn't make sense to give a course that covers less material the honors delegation when there is already a course similar with the delegation (alg 2/trig H from "Algebra 1A" lane). The tests, of course, are still be curved as needed... but the class? I don't think that the class should merit a curve given that it taught material at a slower speed and therefore should logically be easier to understand. <--- meaning that on tests (which many think decrease in difficulty as the lane level decreases) students should do well/better & therefore not need the class curve...

*I excluded mention of the classes Algebra 2 geometry and alg 2 trig H because both are technically honors already

Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:34 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2011 at 1:49 am


Let's review the college admissions process first. Any applicant to Stanford or similar school generally considers applicants who have done 2-3 academic feats 1) Taken the hardest or most challenging courses their school had to offer which would not be Algebra II at Paly or Gunn for Math, 2) Highest grades at them 3) High scores in Subject tests (Chemistry, Biology, Math, etc) or other measure of excellence at an academic subject which are not anywhere near the neighborhood of Algebra II.

You are talking apples and oranges when you refer to college ready and Stanford ready. Of course they consider other things like essays, experience, there are interviews, and so forth but Algebra II is not an issue.

The subgroup of kids that want to meet the Stanford and other Ivy league type requirements will not miss a heartbeat , nor anyone wanting to rise ABOVE Algebra II because they can take the higher lanes.

Establishing Algebra II as a bare minimum for all, should in theory elevate the teaching standards for Elementary through High School. Nobody is being set up for failure in college if the goal is a higher standard for all.

Science classes should also have equal HIGHER goals so students have more Science in High School. Currently High Math is the only ticket to more Science. In a world where more jobs require these skills. Again, not everyone needs to be an engineer, but how about a nurse, wouldn't you want your nurses to have had more Science in High School?

By worrying about Johnny not getting into Stanford, we have our heads stuck in the sand. And is it realistic that Palo Alto schools cannot handle teaching more students to Algebra II and especially to MORE Science in a decent way?

Posted by LaToya Baldwin Clark
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 19, 2011 at 8:46 am

@Commenter: I am referring to the plain Algebra 2 class in the Algebra 1 lane. According to the math professors, this "algebra 2 regular lane course" is above the basic benchmarks. In order for all students to have a chance of passing this course, the department states they would have to "dilute" their standards for the course.

My suggestion is that they offer this course, as it is currently taught, as an Algebra 2 honors class, and also offer a class that is Algebra 2 basic benchmarks. Currently, there is no honors class for those students wanting to only take Algebra 2 - with no other math class integrated.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 19, 2011 at 10:16 am


Perhaps we could call it Algebra2.5 or Algebra2 (The Fear-Based Edition). The point is to have a version of Algebra 2 for the lowest lane that is set at (and not above) the California State A-G standard. The current version of Alg2 contains material that goes beyond that standard. Some posters contend that it is important to have the class that goes beyond the standard in order to maintain "rigor." So one possible solution would be to add a class in the bottom lane which is still college-preparatory but is set at the California state standard for A-G and not above it.

There is no good reason to bar a set of our children from attending a 4 year college when it is in their ability to do so. District staff actually made this very recommendation last year when they presented the A-G plan to the School Board. Debra Lindo stated that the district should establish math curriculum that meet A-G but may be less challenging than other, current offerings in PAUSD.

This is a question of democracy and basic fairness. All this talk about rigor and dilution and so forth really just obscures the fact that we have a group of kids, around 10% of the PAUSD high school graduating class at both Paly and Gunn, that is blocked from attending a 4 year college not by a state standard but by the math department's arbitrary and unfair determination that they should have to reach a bar HIGHER than that set by the state in order to get the chance to go to university. But the standard for what must be attained to get to university in California is set by the state government, an institution that is at least in theory responsible to the people and subject to an open democratic process. The A-G requirements are set through a political process.

Now comes the Paly math department, unelected, unaccountable, and unreviewable -- apparently -- by the principal of the school, the feckless School Board, or the Superintendent -- and imposes for its own reasons, unknown to the public, an additional, higher bar, one that disproportionately blocks access to college for black and brown kids.

The result is that parents who sacrificed and played by the rules and worked hard to get their children to one of the "best" school districts in the state so that they could go to college, something those parents did not get to do, something they dreamed of for their kids, now find that their kids are not going to get to go to university after all. Of course they don't find that out until they have already worked and paid taxes here for many years, when it is too late.

Interestingly, the Paly math curriculum guide does not even describe the lowest track at Paly (that includes Alg 1.1, Alg1.2, Geo, and Alg2 as "college preparatory." This is so even though a student completing this track would indeed be A-G compliant with 3 years of A-G certified math. That means that in the 9th grade, some students are being placed by PAUSD onto a math track that the math department does not describe as "college prep."

Thus we have two schools, one for high achievers, and one for kids who are cast off in 9th grade. Perhaps we have third school for the kids who are "in the middle" but are treated as if they are invisible, low achieving, and unimportant. All three groups of kids are plagued by the same problem, however--standards that are set artificially high and cause stress, anxiety, and damage to kids.

At the last school board meeting, members of the board and Kevin espoused the theory that if only we could somehow show our kids that even if you are at the bottom in Palo Alto you are really at the top in the state. This fact is supposed to somehow comfort them as they trudge from class to class feeling like crap day after day. This fact is somehow supposed to fix the fact that a great number of them sit in math classes where the material is pitched over their heads BY DESIGN, taught at a level that they are not even intended to understand. The board thinks that the solution is to tell them "don't worry about the fact that you don't understand a damn word that is being said in your math class, because 4 years from now you will be somewhere else and maybe by then you will understand what is happening in your classes. So try just not to worry about the next 4 years, because when you leave here, if your self esteem has not been utterly destroyed by our teaching methods, you will find yourself solidly in the middle of some other, lower achieving, pack.

This is not just a "minority" issue. Plenty of white and Asian kids feel this way or feel that that they really learn their material from private tutors that their parents are paying for.

What the Paly math department letters sets forth in black and white is that all this stress is literally optional. Everything can be turned down a notch, and our kids can feel good about themselves, and confident in their ability to learn, with the right instruction and the right supports.

We Can Do Better than this.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 19, 2011 at 10:26 am

Read the Paly math department letter here:

Web Link

It has been downloaded over 100 times in the last 24 hours!

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 19, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Michele - thank you for all your efforts!

To all of Michelle's detractors - she is not suggesting we "dumb down" our curriculum. She is suggesting that we teach a level of math (and I would suggest science too) that is A-G compliant and appropriately geared towards students who find math challenging.

We should also examine our Science Departments - at least at PALY, there is no "regular" lane of Biology or Chemistry, putting students who are not good at math behind their peers from the onset in 9th grade.

ALL our students should be able to take A-G fulfilling classes starting in 9th grade that are taught appropriately and maintain the STATE standards, not Mr. Toma's.

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Yes, Michelle thank you for your efforts. It's also refreshing to hear things straight up.

I'm not defending the Math Department. letter, but I think we got to this bizarre place thanks to generations of parents and community members that made it so. More often than not, you hear parents wanting more challenge, fear of the middle, fear of Johnny being "bored", and obsession with how we're taking care of our high achievers. Standing up to those parents is practically impossible, and as much as one expects to hold the district accountable for change, in spirit I hold the community accountable. The letter reflects the community's values.

Posted by Succeed
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 21, 2011 at 6:05 pm

I'm so shocked by all the comments made here by this small group of parents. It is obvious that there is a disconnect between your perception and the teachers.

Algebra 2 and Trig is typically a 9th grade math class in PA. It is even offered in 8th grade to advance students. I'll be surprised that taking a "watered down" algebra 2 will help your chance in getting into UCs. With our budget problems, UCs will continue to offer more and more admission to international students who typically take AP calculus in 10th grade.

We have great math and science teachers here in our community. They know what it takes to succeed. I strongly disagrees with your watered down curriculum.

Posted by Finland does it better
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 21, 2011 at 11:49 pm


"international students who typically take AP calculus in 10th grade"

That would be taught at which standard? There is no 10th grade calculus international standard to compare it with.

The "watered down" issue here is that the teachers are making the case that the Palo Alto standard is what would have to be watered down to the California standard. The California standard contemplates international standards and somebody actually looked at what is being taught in other countries, and set the bar at that level.

I also respect the quality of teachers in Palo Alto, and is why I have been making the case they are as good or better than Finland's. Because they are so good, they can teach at international standards when those standards are studied and set objectively.

In Finland they also teach Chemistry and Physics, as core subjects, before 10th grade. Are those classes the same as Chemistry and Physics at Paly and Gunn?

Other countries we admire set their standards not necessarily higher at each grade level, they set them completely differently.

If competing with international students is the goal, at least we should do it right.

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