What should be taught and how much should parents be included in the decision-making process? These are never-ending questions for educators in Palo Alto. And they will need to be addressed again this year. These questions have been tossed around the district for the past several decades. Not that long ago, decisions were made mostly by educators. But now the emphasis is clearly on having decisions made as often as possible through a consensus of educators, parents and the community.
At the same time, many decisions that used to be made by the central office are now made by individual schools. That allows for a lot of autonomy at the school sites, and a much more "laissez faire" approach by district administrators.
The problem, some say, is that the roles become blurred, and what has evolved is a lack of consistency about who makes decisions and when. Some are made by the district office, some by committees, some by school principals and teachers, and some by school "site councils," which include parents.
"Some time does have to be spent this year defining people's roles. That's been unclear to parents and to teachers," said PTA Council President Cathy Kroymann. "I believe that parents should have input, but I do still consider the teachers to be the professionals," she said. "I don't feel like I have the knowledge to dictate what is the best way to teach."
However, Kroymann said, "sometimes the district assumes they're doing what's right, that it will automatically be accepted," and some things are. The new hands-on science program "seems to be proceeding very smoothly. A lot of people had input into that. It's been very well articulated in grade levels. We have not yet achieved that in all areas."
Parent Marge Quackenbush said "the context in which (educators) are operating" is not always clear to parents. For example, while there are committees that meet for months to reach consensus on some particular subject, other times, things just appear with seemingly little deliberation.
"It's hard for the district to be operating on consensus, on a theme that is not articulated to the general public," Quackenbush said.
A year ago, two committees studied ways to introduce foreign language into elementary schools. The groups of parents, teachers and staff submitted their recommendations to the school board right around the time the district was faced with a $3 million deficit. The board decided there wasn't enough money to pursue elementary school foreign language instruction from a district level, but gave its blessing for schools to do it for themselves.
Some schools embarked on pilot language programs, or after-school classes, and some decided they didn't have enough money to devote to it. Parents at Fairmeadow School went a step farther, and got the district to hire a new teacher for a Spanish immersion kindergarten class. Yet, somewhere along the way, the teachers at the school were left out of the decision loop.
Recalls one school board observer, "suddenly there's a Spanish immersion program at Fairmeadow. The teachers had never heard of it. Who's making what decisions and where?"
Other times, a similar decision goes very smoothly. When Gunn High decided it wants to add a biology class for struggling students, it created Biology 1B.
Sometimes it's unclear whether a change has been effective.
"We need to do a better job on agreeing beforehand what assessment tools we will use to determine whether or not something is working," said school board President Don Way.
Way pointed to a recent example. Two years ago, the school board opted to spend $200,000 on helping low-achieving elementary school students reach grade level. This summer, a staff report to the school board was unable to say for sure whether the money was well spent. "In no school did we have the data to tell us which intervention worked," he said.
Last year, some parents became concerned because they saw middle school math becoming more experimental and less traditional. But the curriculum change had already taken place, and it was difficult for those parents to do anything but react.
"The school board should have intervened much, much earlier," said Jim Maples, a candidate for school board who is a member of HOLD (Honest Open Logical Debate), a group of parents concerned that the new approach to math was sacrificing traditional methods for experimental ones. HOLD is calling for schools to offer families a choice.
Maples, a member of the district's Program Curriculum Committee looking at middle school math this year, said he was never given a clear answer about who makes curriculum decisions. "The district told us quite clearly it was made at the local sites," he said. "We asked JLS. They said they would never consider an issue of curriculum. The board does need to get involved in this. I think they've lost touch with the customer here."
And, the district is paying more attention to the customers.
"Any time we make changes we have to watch our constituents, and make sure we communicate to our parents. That's what we didn't do on the math," said school board member Diane Reklis, who has decided not to seek re-election this year. "If we learned anything, it's that there's room in the middle. In reality, that's what happens in the classroom."1
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