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Palo Alto school board leaves math-acceleration decision to staff

Original post made on Nov 16, 2023

The Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education declined to decide on a flexible student mathematics-acceleration program for its middle schools on Tuesday night, Nov. 14, instead leaving the decision to school administrators.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, November 16, 2023, 2:22 PM

Comments (21)

Posted by Silver Linings
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 16, 2023 at 6:40 pm

Silver Linings is a registered user.

Our district really could make some of the discord go away by making an independent study lane, with resources and tutors to help students as they do math at their own pace. Those who lag could get up to speed and those who want to accelerate could go as far and as fast as they want. The units would show up on the transcript as independent study math, and be explained on transcripts by independent study faculty.

I wish the district would restore the multivariable calculus offering. That said, the district could accommodate students by letting them test out of a credit requirement at the district level, and allow them to take whatever advanced math they want through independent study, including at Foothill. Independent study doesn't necessarily mean a lone student in a room with a book, it just means something outside the district course curriculum. It could mean college-level work with a teacher as guide, or college-level work through a distance course with study groups of other students taking the same. Or it could mean a course with online tools to help a student study on their own. The students can propose what works for them. College applications have a place for college courses taken during high school, they do not need the courses on HS applications.

I don't know if things have changed, but not so long ago the middle schools exceeded the state minimum required hours of instruction, and it's possible for students to take one of those periods 4 days a week and do independent study--even off campus, but also doing self-paced math that allows students to follow their interests.

The trouble with the debate above is it leaves no room for the possibility that students who are behind or those who are advanced might do something different than taking a class at a certain level. In our own experience, the PAUSD math education was an impediment to learning for some, and doing independent study in high school allowed taking more than a year's worth of math every term

Posted by Greene and Paly Parent
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 17, 2023 at 8:26 am

Greene and Paly Parent is a registered user.

"Board members said they were cautious of leading students and parents to think that the fraught topic of curriculum and advanced classes would be something that the board had the power to change."

Our school board is in apparent denial of its role as the entity elected to govern the PAUSD institution, ensuring that students and the community are heard and served. Per CA Ed Code, math placement policy IS something to be set and articulated as a board policy! To the level of the standadized assessments used and the appeal process. Beyond math, Board Policies 6161 (CA school board association) which follow Ed Codes state that "the board formally adopts all primary curriculum...."

Two facets are driving this denial: (1) Way to silence students and even other trustees while operating in the shadows (2) Shedding responsibility for miss-concieved practices and their failures and not putting effort.

Trustee Shounak Dharap is an example of (2). He referred to "limited role" to justify not responding to the community or showing up to his board roles in schools. Yet, when seeking re-election in 2022, after 4 years on the board which persumanbly is enough experience to understand the role, he made the following promise to a parent group:

“The two areas where I think there is room for improvement are (1) calibrating the skip test so it fairly allows students who are capable of higher level math to skip; and (2) additional professional development, co-teaching supports, and teacher aids to ensure that all students in a de-laned class are provided the needed teacher attention to thrive and be adequately challenged. Those are areas I’m committed to addressing in my next term.”

Dharap was dismissed by DiBrienza earlier this year. See context here
Web Link

On Tuesday, as we know, Dharap blatantly broke this campaign promise and sided with DiBrienza and Ladomirak.

Posted by cmarg
a resident of University South
on Nov 17, 2023 at 11:05 am

cmarg is a registered user.

I so admire the school board for letting the teachers decide. For those who feel the teachers should not decide, please realize this would result in loosing very amazing math teachers. It would undermine their being professionals. They are in the trenches!

Also, why are we looking at accelerated math classes when we really need to focus on helping the students in elementary school to master the math concepts. All the energy and funding needs to go to helping those students get a solid foundation so they can adequately master the middle school and high school classes. Once again, I wonder why there are not a math specialists in elementary school - something similar to reading specialists.

I feel that if parents want there to be more advanced classes, perhaps looking at private STEM high schools would be a great option. I feel public school has the charter to address the needs of the majority of the students, who are perfect placed and master the grade level material.

As a parent of a college student, I feel the more we encourage outside social activities, the better chance our children will grow to be balanced and emotionally intelligent adults. So much focus on academics may not result in a healthy and happy children and adults. There is such an uptick in mental health challenges and it gets worse in college! Let's focus on healthy, well balanced and social children.


Posted by Down the yellow brick road
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 17, 2023 at 11:33 am

Down the yellow brick road is a registered user.

@cmarg The board was totally disingenuous. They claimed it is not their job to set direction. Yet, in the previous meeting Dharap and Jesse strongly pressed upon Mr. Lopez to accelerate the implementation of the ethnic studies curriculum. Collins pointed out that the board used to provide direction to staff, but JDB dismissed it offhand.

The board deferred to staff, knowing full well that the board has already directed staff to fight any concessions to acceleration. Teachers are afraid to speak up at the risk of harming their careers.
This internal email from a PRA request is outrageous. There is talk of canceling the honors lane, teacher resistance, forcing kids (from china) to repeat classes, some insight into the cancelation of multivariable calculus, and more.
Web Link

Yeah, right. Defer to the staff. It was all an orchestrated political theater.

Also, they keep talking about the California Math Framework putting Algebra in 9th grade, thus PAUSD is 1 year ahead of California. The CMF has been revised to no longer delay algebra to 9th grade and to encourage acceleration. Get with the times! PAUSD's math placement already puts the kids one year behind our neighboring districts. And, San Francisco is moving Algebra back to middle school.

Posted by MPR
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 17, 2023 at 11:35 am

MPR is a registered user.

What a well-written article. I am floored that a board member would refuse to take responsibility for accelerated learning and wants to instead defer to the staff on such a key issue. What she advocates is basically making a decision—but under the guise of not making a decision. Such a move is not neutral; it's determinative. And it's cowardly.

The board needs to do their job and listen to their voters, whom they are supposed to represent.

Posted by Resident10
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 17, 2023 at 11:54 am

Resident10 is a registered user.

@cmarg I think there are a few things to address in your post

There are a few things to address with letting teachers decide. First, the issue of MVC came up last Spring and in those Board meetings, no teachers were present. The community was told by Austin that the state would not let PAUSD offer the class any longer (it was offered for years). Communication with State BOE offices proved that to be a false statement. So accelerated math only became an issue due to the politics of Austin and three Board members - DiBrienza, Ladomirak and Dharap.
In the meantime, Public Records Act emails show that Austin and DiBrienza have been pushing the math departments to agree with them behind the scenes on MVC. For middle school math, it took a lawsuit to get change. And the judge agreed with parents and required a number of changes. So, The Board leadership has eroded all trust the community has with them or with the math departments.

Whether or not accelerated math is an issue you agree with, understand the way this leadership has handled math issues it has been completely political and full of false statements. This should be the main takeaway for anyone not actually knowledgable about accelerated math.

Your advice about allowing students to purse other activities is based on a false assumption that students that enjoy math and want to excel do not have interests outside of academics. That is completely false and actually quite biased. The students that enjoy math do have many interests outside of academics but happen to enjoy it and want to excel. You certainly would not have the same attitude towards a student that loved music and wanted to learn to play more complex pieces.

Stereotyping kids that one has never met or spoken to is a contributor to a toxic culture in Palo Alto.

Posted by Honesty
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 17, 2023 at 11:57 am

Honesty is a registered user.

The PAUSD board has this funny tendency to say "it's a staff issue" whenever it's an issue they don't want to touch. It's a clever strategy. Of course, what they aren't telling us is that they ALSO put pressure on teachers, ILs, principals to not support students who need math acceleration. Staff who do support math-loving students have to do so covertly.

The reality is that the board has lost community trust -- at least of those paying attention. Why should we believe them that teachers / staff don't support math acceleration? They also *lie* and claim that they won the math lawsuit. They've lied again and again to accomplish their political agendas.

It is absolutely a board decision to direct staff to support math-accelerated students. Kudos to Mr Collins and Ms Segal for having the courage to support these students; the others should be disappointed in themselves.

Posted by Peonies
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 17, 2023 at 5:13 pm

Peonies is a registered user.

Since Don Austin's tenure, so many excellent teachers have left, unwilling to be forced to teach the district mandated style (involving so much computer usage). So many others, who are currently excellent, are being bullied by their principals and newer peers for trying too hard or standing out, or just even showing them that district way of doing things don't work, and so they put their heads down. The good teachers who quit have been replaced by new teachers who are willing to do the district's bidding. The instructional leads who had experience have likewise been replaced, for instance in JLS the Math IL is a now a P.E. teacher. So when the board says they are punting math to the site levels, as MPR says, it's determinative. Of course the site level leads are going to keep doing the board's bidding. The board has decided not to listen to student voices (the results of the math survey sent to all high school kids indicating most of them would like advanced math, the letter signed by 1000+ people, the turn out of high school kids at each and every board meeting since SUMMER), and have likewise decided, in a district that is almost 50% Asian, that Asian voices do not matter and they will just throw up their hands and do nothing.

Posted by PAUSD Student
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 17, 2023 at 7:36 pm

PAUSD Student is a registered user.


1. Increased flexibility does not cost PAUSD more:

-- Placing advanced students in the correct math class can only DECREASE the total number of classes taken by the student in their K-12 years. It is simply the next course in the sequence, and there are no new "advanced" classes created.

-- Offering MVC at our high schools is FREE to PAUSD -- it is paid for directly by throughs the community colleges.

In fact, if you listen to students and review the PAUSD-specific data
Web Link
you will see all students are doing worse in the de-laned program.

2. Teachers are not deciding here. Math Instruction Leads are an echo chamber carefully selected to be aligned with a certain narrative. Teachers that listen and care about students step down or don't get promoted.

PRA'd emails (67717,48533) from PAUSD Math ILs reveal a toxic culture towards students. One IL used the phrase "niche demographic" to explain why she is against allowing a parent-run math club at JLS. Emails of the "math steering" group included a discussion on how to force students "coming from China" to repeat a course and whether this is legal. An IL also "celebrates" the idea of removing MVC.

PRA's emails also revealed that requests for staff (math ILs and administrators) to speak at board meetings in favor of narratives were coming from "the board." In one incident, the board president posted a narrative on social media and it was then repeated by Gunn principal and 4 staff including the math IL at a board meeting. Students: Web Link
Gunn Leadership: Web Link
In another event all three math ILs were called to speak in favor of the math program. Teachers in private but also a former IL, said otherwise: Web Link

3. Think through your "No bread? have cakes!" attitude

Posted by Midtown Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 18, 2023 at 12:00 am

Midtown Resident is a registered user.

The district is well known for putting out misleading propaganda (see e.g. flawed reports on literacy gains). Are they seriously pointing to enrollment numbers alone as evidence that their delaning experiment is working? Any number of students can be pushed to different courses (especially if the district is controlling advancement policy and grades for that matter) but that does not mean those students are actually learning the material. It does appear that based on objective testing data (ie data that administrators cannot manipulate) our students are objectively performing worse than other districts, even accounting for the pandemic. I am completely unsurprised that Tuesday’s Board meeting was a ridiculous rehearsed charade of “We need to stay in our lane fellow Board members” from the Board Prez and her mentees/sidekicks Jesse and Shounak. Interestingly it turns out that Don Austin requested this item to be on the agenda because he felt like he was in a “hard place” and that the Board needed to take a public position on whether to uphold the current cap for acceleration. I guess you can’t have it both ways because the Board declined to take action on both points.
Shana Segal continues to be the only person in the room asking hard questions and making insightful comments (and I also have to give recognition to Todd Collins for trying to speak up for the community here). Lastly, I do think JDB needs to check her biases [portion removed] - her tone was close to unprofessional when she addressed the “math” crowd and stressed that the Board was not the proper “place” to ask for change (this is hypocritical of her to say when certain Board members asked staff to take certain action on ethnic studies). The Board can’t pick and choose what it acts on based on their biases. We should all be very wary of who she pushes to be her successor next year.

Posted by Resident10
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 18, 2023 at 8:22 am

Resident10 is a registered user.

@PAUSD student

So the Board now says they will leave the decision up to the Instructional Leads at the schools, but from the Public Records Act emails, we know the Board has been pressuring the math departments all along? So it's just window dressing to make it appear less political.

And the Board President posts to social media that MVC should not be offered because it disadvantages other students. And the math department at Gunn is telling parents that college applications ask what is the highest math level a students has taken so MVC will hurt other students. These are completely false statements. And DiBrienza or the Gunn Math Department have offered no proof to back up these claims.

No college application asks if a student is taking the highest level of math offered at their school. For some engineering or CS colleges, they do either require or recommend taking calculus for one year.

The sheer amount of behind the scenes politics and outright lies is awful. People need to let sink in that the PAUSD Board President is posting false information on social media in order to scare parents and students and create an "us versus them" mentality.

DiBrienza often talks about the toxic culture of PAUSD schools. It is time for her to take ownership of perpetuating and increasing the toxicity. She has eroded all trust in this school board.

[Portion removed.]

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Nov 18, 2023 at 8:36 am

Retired PAUSD Teacher is a registered user.

A few years back, in lieu of the name changes at Greene and Fletcher, the school board dictated that lessons on eugenics be taught in middle school Social Studies courses. The lessons amounted to canned Powerpoint presentations tracing David Starr Jordan's beliefs on the subject and why eugenics is not considered sound science today.

Every year my department head would remind us of our obligation and ask each teacher how they were addressing the "board mandate". I would simply reply that I was "weaving it in" to U.S. History because there are so many places where it applies. I never taught the "board mandated" lessons, and no one bothered to check.

My point is simple. The board apparently can mandate that something be taught, or at least a curriculum be put in place. Whether they check and see if it is being done is another question. But to state that the board cannot "impose curriculum decisions on staff" is not accurate. It is misleading at best.

Hopefully this board is shying away from doing so because such impositions tend to be overreaching or ineffective. It might be impolitic to say so, however.

I do agree with some who have posted that good teachers who don't see things Mr. Austin's way get targeted for harassment. I know, I lived it.

Posted by S. Underwood
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 18, 2023 at 2:31 pm

S. Underwood is a registered user.

On this issue the Board and Austin have proven themselves fundamentally rhetorical and dishonest. The Board has had their "hand on the scale" re: holding back math achievement for years, even to the point of pressuring staff. But now, they say "let's leave it to staff" because they know it's grossly unpopular with their community.

Austin is happy to take all the heat for the board. That's what he's paid $460,000 / yr in total pay and benefits for (citation below) with an unspeakable pension soon to follow. That's their agreement, and they've been at it for years. And they look in the mirror and call themselves "equity warriors."

They are eroding trust and quality so fast. We need change.

Web Link

Posted by Resident10
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 19, 2023 at 8:12 am

Resident10 is a registered user.

@cmarg -Your words reminded me of something I read and I found what it was.
@cmarg said:"I feel public school has the charter to address the needs of the majority of the students, who are perfect placed and master the grade level material.

As a parent of a college student, I feel the more we encourage outside social activities, the better chance our children will grow to be balanced and emotionally intelligent adults. So much focus on academics may not result in a healthy and happy children and adults. There is such an uptick in mental health challenges and it gets worse in college! Let's focus on healthy, well balanced and social children."

From the research paper “Over-zealous Parents, Over-programmed Families”: Asian Americans, Academic Achievement, and White Supremacy, by Pawan Dhingra1, Professor of American Studies and Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty at Amherst College:
"Asian Americans were perceived to promote academics so much not because there are racial hurdles they must overcome or to compensate for a lack of social capital (as demonstrated by Xie and Goyette 2003), but because they were culturally driven toward academics per se."

"Administrators care about students and felt it was part of their job to tell students and parents how to act, again basing this on their own personal philosophies as parents. In these ways, the cultural beliefs within their version of motherhood become institutionalized as normal. It is as if white, middle- class children suffer no problems in home or school, and no one else would either if people parented as white mothers did."

"Educators reveal a white normativity embedded in the school system as they criticize Asian Americans for their parenting practices and lack of care. School resources are used in one-on-one interactions and in organized events to lecture to students and even parents that they are acting incorrectly. Teachers and administrators actively promote their own parenting as the model"

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Nov 19, 2023 at 9:26 am

Retired PAUSD Teacher is a registered user.

I just don't understand why holding back math achievement is some form of equity. Yes, do your best to raise up those who are struggling, but why does that mean those who are thriving must pay?

Honestly, it seems more a matter of money and resources than anything else. As has been demonstrated repeatedly, offering MVC is not a cost issue. But adding more tutors, support mechanisms, or smaller classes for those struggling would be costly. Thus, instead of expending the necessary resources in a wealthy district flush with reserves, "good economics" dictates that the cheap road to equity be employed: Drag down the high achievers to close the gap. In addition, make it seem as if that is what stakeholders want, which is why the board and Austin must control the narrative and berate those who want more math options and legal placement protocols.

Fewer expenses equal another AAA Bond Rating that Mr. Austin covets so much. Also, a juicy reserve is needed to tackle all those pesky lawsuits. Risk management trumps student achievement. Just don't say so because it is not a sexy “promise”.

Unfortunately, this policy is short sighted, especially in a world where math plays such an important role in our economy and defense. I doubt if other nations on the world stage are looking for ways to slow math achievement. Yet the "Lighthouse District" sees fit to do so even though neighboring districts don't.

Posted by Anony Mouse
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Nov 19, 2023 at 3:10 pm

Anony Mouse is a registered user.

Such a sad state of affairs. Where is the leadership? Where is the bold vision? Tuesday's Board meeting was really a new low. It's clear neither the Trustees nor the paid administrators have any desire to actually take responsibility. Oddly, the most politically expedient solution is to be very clear that PAUSD will fund more flexibility and work hard to meet the needs of its students. The Trustees could then ask for additional property tax revenues to that end - in fact they could expressly tell the community that that is the tradeoff. This is how politics works. Instead, they've been captured by the bleak vision of the administration. For them - political people that they are - the key thing is to win the zero sum game. Certain communities need to be put in their place. "Equity" must be used as a cudgel to silence certain publics. To what end? I urge you all to ask for a more expansive vision. We can do more. We can serve ALL the community well. We will finance that vision. This leadership does not have that vision. For them it's control; controlling the message, controlling people, constraining choice. This is a community of abundance. Let's run our schools with that spirit.

Posted by Down the yellow brick road
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 20, 2023 at 6:19 pm

Down the yellow brick road is a registered user.

@anony mouse
To accomplish a lot of what the math people are asking for costs nothing, and would even have a negative cost. PAUSD spends $$$ on LAWYERS to fight against flexible math placement. They paid for lawyers to advise on canceling Multivariable Calculus, which would otherwise be FREE, paid for by Foothill college. I'm guesstimating on the order of $100K+ in the past few years. A board member said "getting sued is just a cost of doing business". The main ask is for the administrators to simply get out of the way and stop holding back kids. The current lawsuit has been largely focused on stopping PAUSD from illegally forcing kids to repeat classes that they have already completed. And they continue to resist in a game of whack-a-mole with endless compliance hearings in court. They break the law and don't even follow their own board policies. Dharap said in a recent board meeting that bringing up the floor and supporting acceleration is mutually exclusive. If they stopped hiring lawyers to prevent math acceleration, they could hire more teacher's aides to help lift the floor.

Posted by Benjamin Vakil
a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 21, 2023 at 1:01 am

Benjamin Vakil is a registered user.

As a student who has been unfairly and illegally limited in accessing an appropriate level of math at PAUSD, I have put a significant amount of time and effort into fighting for PAUSD to put students first and be open about how it handles math education. I feel it deeply unfortunate that the PAUSD school board has decided that they do not want to have a critical discussion about math topics. In our open letter, signed by nearly 300 PAUSD students (Web Link we laid out very reasonable things the board can do—things well within its purview—that help solve this problem. Instead of trying to work with us, this item was an attempt to shut down this topic. I completely agree with Mr. Collins that this was offensively “pro forma”.

One of the parts of the discussion that I think needs more highlighting was members of the board’s and the superintendent’s repeated use of the slippery slope fallacy to justify the district's cap of skipping to one grade in middle school. It was asserted that by removing this cap, PAUSD would have to offer Alg2/TrigH at the middle schools; students would start skipping potentially an unlimited number of years, which would cause many freshmen to take Calc BC and necessitate PAUSD to offer MVC, LinAlg, and DiffEq (why would that be so bad anyways?). None of this would happen. Until 2022, demonstrably advanced middle schoolers commuted to our high schools to take higher-level classes. This had been happening in our district for at least 40 years without issue. Some in the district believe we need this cap because it’s “not developmentally appropriate” for kids to be doing higher-level math. That is wrong. It was said out loud in the board room to a significant proportion of the students who had skipped two grades of math, which was entirely developmentally appropriate for them.

Posted by Greene and Paly Parent
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 21, 2023 at 11:42 am

Greene and Paly Parent is a registered user.


[Portion removed.]

We don't have to agree, but we need a school system where all students thrive.

I agree with you that math specialists at the elementary level for struggling students are badly needed. This need became apparent in 2019 when the misguided program that failed so many students was adopted. That program was backed by the self-proclaimed "math education expert" on the board, DiBrienza.

See data analysis:
Web Link scroll to bottom of page.

You are spreading [portion removed] misinformation when you pretend it is a zero-sum game. Correct placement and offering MVC cost nothing to PAUSD.

What does cost? Inflated administration costs. And you seem happy with esoteric sports and varsity sports [portion removed.] Varsity sports coaches cost and the recent investment of ~$1 million to upgrade a middle school swimming pool for water polo are deemed perfectly fine (?) And if your kid needs help in math—well, hire a private tutor! [Portion removed.]

[O]ur most vulnerable students are being denied a proven path for social mobility and STEM careers—80% of Latino SED students are not meeting grade level standards in math. [Portion removed.]

Posted by tmp
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 22, 2023 at 1:47 pm

tmp is a registered user.

Palo Alto schools have never cared about students that are advanced. They try to hold them back and make them fit in with the rest of the class.

It has only gotten worse as the school board chases an imaginary utopia where all students are equal and the same. (Read "Harrison Bergeron" a short story by Kurt Vonnegut -where everyone is equal in every way).

These days, if parents can afford it, it is probably best to send their students to a private school or just assume that the PA school board doesn't really want to teach to a student's potential and provide your own additional education via on line classes or tutors or use other outside of the class resources. More work for parents but the only way your child will excel to their full potential.

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Nov 22, 2023 at 4:47 pm

Retired PAUSD Teacher is a registered user.

Sad really.

A community with ample resources and a lot of eager learners coming from all corners and walks of life, yet their desire to excel is not a priority. Granted, there are achievement gap issues, but giving bright students of all backgrounds more reasons to flee is not going to help. In fact, it fits into the paradigm of "the failing public school" which benefits private schools, charter schools, and those advocating for vouchers.

One would hope the board and Austin (who can ride off into the sunset soon) are not pawns in the efforts to dismantle public schools. Their actions, however, indicate otherwise.

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