School Board service is a funny thing. On the one hand, most recognize that my colleagues and I volunteer thousands of hours for no purpose other than to do the best thing for students. We have no other agenda — we have no political donors or parties to serve and no political career to protect. For me, it still a shining example of a representative democracy. And of course, we have a staff (from the Superintendent on down) who work for this public entity clearly not for the dazzling pay but for their devotion to children and their education. The work done by our leadership in this District is nothing short of groundbreaking.
But every once in a while (and fortunately not very often), people forget this dynamic and somehow imprint their view of politicians in general onto us, and in doing so engage in shockingly negative and downright mean behavior. Such was the case in the board’s discussion last night around the District’s approach to after-school programs. Unfortunately, the frenzy was kicked off by our current vendor, San Carlos/Belmont After School Program (SCBASP), who has been providing after-school programs for decades at some of our school sites. It has always been known by the District that students and families have been generally happy with SCBASP’s program, but the District has been reviewing all partnerships in the context of strengthening programs for kids, best aligning such programs with our overall Strategic Plan (where the goal is very clearly to better integrate all programs throughout the day), and examining financial alternatives given our continued poor funding from the state. Seeing an agenda item for yesterday’s board meeting, SCBASP sent out an alarmist e-mail full of half-truths to the families they serve, who in turn flooded us with e-mails and attended last night’s board meeting. I understand that parents were working with incomplete information, but it demonstrated something about social psychology that so many were willing to jump to conclusions without getting all of the information. I’m glad that many attended last night’s meeting so folks could hear what is really going on (which is the fact that under no circumstances would the after-school program go away — it was question of whether the District should consider “in-sourcing” it). And although some e-mails we received we only asking for more information, the far majority just parroted what they had heard and many went further as to sling insults at the Board at the District.
It saddened me to see members of our community act in this way, and it didn’t stop with the e-mails. Last night’s meeting demonstrated some of the rudest behavior I have seen at our meetings. Last night I tried to remind folks that if their goal is to influence policy, then insulting the policy makers is generally not a winning approach. Board members were constantly interrupted by some members of the audience and ignored the Board President’s plea for civility. It was an ironic lesson for our students in how not to behave.
I don’t know what the outcome will be for this particular decision, but I do know a few things. I am confident that our staff and Board will have an honest and thoughtful discussion and analysis around the issue, taking into account all dimensions of it and always keeping the quality of programs for our children as the prime consideration. I encourage SCBASP to join our ensemble of partners who have worked so hard to find collaborative solutions with the District and not work at odds with it, and I encourage parents to gain this perspective. Please remember that it is constructive engagement which influences.
At last night’s board meeting, we received an update on the District’s proposal for handling Common Core math implementation in the San Carlos School District. I wrote a detailed summary of our prior meeting in April where we went through some of the options and understood a bit better the approach behind Common Core. The big takeaways from that meeting included: (a) Common Core math is a much richer set of standards with an aim to significantly deepen students’ conceptual understanding of mathematics; (b) Common Core rethinks the sequence of when certain concepts are taught and blows up the boxes between what we formerly called certain areas of math, like Algebra, Geometry, etc. — in other words, certain parts of these “higher-level” math courses are actually taught a lot earlier than before; and (c) this is a very complex, multi-layered issue that has required extensive work by our math teachers and administrators, in collaboration with their high school counterparts. Because of all this, it is extremely difficult to compare our current offerings to the Common Core offerings. Some high schools for example, have embraced an “integrated” approach where they even remove the historical labels (Algebra, Geometry, etc.) altogether, and even though the Sequoia Union High School District is implementing Common Core, they are keeping a “traditional” nomenclature and sequencing.
As one could imagine, there is a fair bit of confusion and angst around this change, both because of the lack of comparability to the past as well our lack of history and data about what will best work for students. The District has continued to work hard on this issue and has had lots of community input (including at a meeting on May 7). Based on all of this, the Board received a more specific proposal last night, and I applaud the District staff for all of the hard work and for coming up with solutions that address so many of the needs and concerns.
My observation here is that there has been a healthy tension between parents who largely appear to be most concerned (and understandably so) about whether their kids will be challenged enough and educators who worry that the new deeper Common Core curriculum will actually be much more difficult and that we risk making inappropriate placement decisions if we use the same framework as before, e.g. “my child must take Algebra (or Geometry) by 8th grade.” Both of these perspectives are valid, and we must recognize that this is in the context of much uncertainty — all being new, we have no experience or data to inform decisions on placements of students and pacing of offerings.
So, to address all this, the District is proposing a broad set of offerings, with a number of different “paces” to find an appropriate one for each student. Although there has been some concern over the last few months by many parents that we wouldn’t any more be offering an “accelerated” class for 6th graders and/or a Geometry class for 8th graders, these options will indeed remain open. You can see the entire presentation from last night’s meeting, but the most relevant new piece of information was slide 5 (click on the image to enlarge):
These three “paces” should accommodate almost all of our students, but we will must recognize that each class is still more advanced than its counterpart in the past. For example, being proficient in Common Core Geometry as an 8th grader should be much more difficult than it is even now, so although there is no way to predict the percentage of the student body that will fall into each of these paths, the educators are saying they think this “3 year pace” may be reserved for a very small number of students.
The next step is for the middle schools to develop their schedule for next year and look at student placements. Parents will be hearing soon about the placement process for next year. But given that we will be in a transition period for the next few years, we must recognize that we will make mistakes in placement. So, the Board consensus last night was that we need to build in extra flexibility and fluidity into the system so that we can accommodate (and indeed, even expect) the movement of students from one “pace” to another, either from year-to-year or within a given year. Also, we must ensure that there will be frequent communication throughout the year with individual parents to best understand how their student is doing in the current placement and also provide the appropriate level of support for each child during any change.
In general, these changes are all very exciting, but they will certainly produce some anxiety (particularly among parents) as it moves forward. Perhaps in three to five years these issues will be moot as we will have the experience and the data to be certain in our offerings and student placements, but for now we will work forward in partnership between our dedicated educators and families.
As many of you know, next year our school district (along with every other in the state) will be fully implementing the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in language arts and mathematics. These new standards are designed to be fewer, deeper, and to better promote critical thinking and conceptual understanding. (The San Mateo County School Boards Association recently published a white paper reviewing the history of CCSS development and the benefits it will bring to public education.) Our district has embraced CCSS, and we have invested heavily in professional development for our staff around pedagogy based on these standards. Also, we are implementing the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC), meant to gauge students’ progress on these standards (most parents may know that this is a “practice” year for SBAC where scores do not count, and these tests started in our schools last week). Most educators’ view is that CCSS is a marked improvement over the current “mile wide and inch deep” standards currently in use in California. If you’re interested in learning more about common core, I recommend this video which does a good job laying out the changes and the benefits.
One of the big complexities here is in the implementation of, and transition to, CCSS, specifically with respect to mathematics. CCSS creates pathways that will seem very unfamiliar to all of us who went to school in this country. Just one year ago, we made a significant change in how we approach math in our school district. We had a number of years of data that suggested we were being too conservative in how many kids were accelerated into higher math classes, and we had different approaches in our two middle schools. We changed the policy to make higher math eligible for more students, and we aligned the approach between the schools, including bringing geometry “in-house” at Tierra Linda. However, what we didn’t know at the time was what would be included in the general “Common Core” math standards in each grade.
Through this past year, there has been a lot more clarity in the specifics around Common Core math offerings in both middle school and high school. In general, the Common Core math standards are much more rigorous than both the current standards as well as what we had expected them to be. At last night’s School Board meeting, we spent a long time on this topic, hearing presentations from David Foster from the Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative (SVMI) as well as from our own staff (administrators and teachers) who have been working on this problem throughout the school year. Although most of this work has not been visible to parents and students, our math teachers have been working a great deal with their counterparts at other elementary school districts as well as teachers at the high schools, and area superintendents have also been continually collaborating on this transition. This is a very complicated, multi-layered issue which took us quite a bit of time to unwrap. I’ll try to outline the highlights.
To best understand how Common Core is approaching math, we should start with the options for high school. High schools in California were given the option of one of two approaches to the pathway for math courses — “traditional” or “integrated.” Both choices would include the deeper learning inherent in CCSS, but they take different approaches to sequencing. The traditional approach is just that — it maintains a path we’re all familiar with — Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2, Trigonometry, Calculus, etc (or some combination of those). The integrated approach is one which breaks down the walls of those traditional classifications and creates a sequence of courses, each of which teaches concepts inherent in all of these subjects, e.g. there are “calculus” concepts that would be taught in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade as well. Experts in the field (including SVMI) highly recommend the integrated approach as it better aligns with the deeper standards inherent in CCSS and has proven to work better as evidenced by the experience of high-performing countries around the world (that is why some refer to the integrated approach as an “international” approach). Different school districts within California have taken different approaches, and indeed whole states across the nation have chosen different paths. Over the objection of many (including many of the county’s elementary school districts), the Sequoia Union High School District (to which most of our students will matriculate) has chosen the traditional path.
For SCSD, there are a few levels of complication. The first is that the current courses at each grade level are not as rigorous as their Common Core analog. (Although this a gross simplification and not entirely accurate, it seems useful to think of the equivalent Common Core math course for any respective grade as being roughly one-half of a year ahead of the historical standard course for that grade. What is really happening is that these new standards are better addressing core conceptual mathematical principles. This in theory will address the superficial treatment and mastery of these concepts that often only become apparent in later courses — including in science — when students are called upon to “make use” of math to solve real world problems. So, the Common Core courses are more “advanced” without per se being “ahead of” the current ones.). Secondly, we have students who are currently taking Algebra (both in 7th and 8th grade) as well as some 8th graders taking Geometry. Particularly for the 7th graders taking Algebra this year and for 6th graders who would have gone into Algebra next year under the current system, there is a transition period where we may need to offer classes not entirely consistent with CCSS for a short period of time and/or perhaps “catch students up” to a course they can take next year. Lastly, we have to align our placements with the paths in high school. Notwithstanding the high school district’s choice of the traditional math pathway, there are still some adjustments and potential “compacting” that would need to happen, particularly to ensure that our higher-achieving students can have the option of taking calculus in high school. The presentation from last night’s meeting outlines some of the potential pathways through both middle school and high school (note that Carlmont and Sequoia will actually take different approaches to “compacting”).
So, there is still quite a bit of work to do, both with respect to the “transition” period over the next year or two as well as where we settle on the math offerings. For example, it’s very possible going forward we may offer only two course levels in 8th grade — “Common Core 8″ and “Common Core Algebra 1,” the latter being more advanced and richer than the algebra currently offered (note that in any case, we will offer Geometry next year for 7th grade students currently taking Algebra 1). But the board discussed two important concepts last night: (1) that we must provide support to students (identified by teachers) who need to “fill in the concept gap” between their current course and the following year’s accelerated course, and (2) we need to remain flexible in our future offerings, particularly for higher-achieving students. As this is still so new for all of us, we need a few years of data to better understand if we’re providing the right mix of classes and if we’re appropriately balancing being conservative or aggressive in the number of students at each level. Despite the changes in course names and sequences, what won’t change is the District’s overarching goal of creating the most appropriate path for each student and pushing each one to his/her potential.
The District will be communicating a lot more over the next couple of months about these pending changes. I encourage folks to read all correspondence on this topic and to attend any events that you can. The next local event will be Wednesday, May 7th at 7:00 PM in Mustang Hall at Central Middle School. This meeting will discuss the Common Core math progression and will include representatives from both Sequoia and Carlmont High School Math Departments. Bring all of your questions!
As parents and former students ourselves, we are inherently biased by our own experience with education, yet we are now entering an era where more and more things about our public schools will look very unfamiliar to us. This includes so many aspects of our Strategic Plan, our new 4th-5th grade schools, how we look at master scheduling, and certainly all of the curriculum changes inherent in the Common Core. I encourage everyone to embrace this unfamiliarity as symbols of real progress in a system that hasn’t changed much in a century. Despite all of the challenges and angst that will accompany this transitions (particularly with Common Core Mathematics), patience and persistence will ultimately yield great results for our students.
As most of you know, the San Carlos School District is proceeding with its plans to build two new 4th-5th grade schools, one on each of the existing middle school campuses. The rennovation of Central Middle School and the new 4-5 school on that campus are the first major projects, and the Draft Environmental Impact Report on that project is currently out for public comment. The final EIR is expected to be brought to the board for approval in February, with construction assumed to start this summer.
In all communications to date, we have been using the names “Arroyo” and “Dartmouth” to describe the new 4-5 schools on the Central and TL campuses, respectively. These have only been working names, simply by using the local street. It was always the intention of the District to have a discussion around naming these new schools. In late October, the board had an initial discussion on this topic and concluded two things. First, the board asked the Superintendent to pull together an ad hoc committee of parents, faculty, and others to discuss the issue of our naming policy. Second, we all agreed that the naming process itself for these two schools should be an inclusive one to gather ideas far and wide from the community, including from staff, parents, and students.
At last night’s board meeting, we received the report from the committee which discussed the naming policy, and we viewed a draft of a policy for first reading. Interestingly, we had a fairly strong consensus among these committee members as well as school board members to have a policy prohibiting the District from naming a school (or other significant school facilities) after any person, living or dead. I was excited to see this, because I believe that naming a major facility (school or otherwise) after a person is actually an exercise in exclusion, not inclusion. Naming schools is a once-in-a-generation opportunity (if even that often), so how do we choose? Everyone involved in public schooling recognizes that it takes thousands and thousands of people to make a school district successful. Who among us would deserve such an honor to have his or her name permanently plastered on the front of the building? If we believe that it really takes a village, there isn’t anyone whose service can stand out over tens of thousands of others. Everyone’s name deserves to be on that door. So, the answer must be that no one’s name be there. And I believe this applies to historical figures as well — how could one objectively judge among a cadre of amazing people in history? If we tried picking either someone local or historical, it would be an exercise in adults picking other favorite adults with our choices likely biased on coincident timing more than anything else.
Notwithstanding our board’s consensus on this overall policy of prohibition around naming facilities after people, we did have an interesting discussion over the concept of “naming rights,” i.e. the idea (however extremely unlikely in our case) that some wealthy benefactor could donate a significant amount of money and hope to have a name on a building. Although we largely agreed we wouldn’t want to “sell” the name of a school itself, we were split on the notion of allowing that for other facilities (e.g. gymnasiums, theaters, libraries, etc.). Personally, I felt that if a donation (from a person or company) were so significant (maybe 7 or 8 figures?) as to create a facility or program that otherwise wouldn’t exist in that form while preserving equity across the district, then we will have served children by accepting such a donation. Of course, this is ripe with issues, including making sure such naming is consistent with our values. But at the end of the day, the discussion is probably academic given the infinitesimal likelihood of our being faced with such a dilemma. We will revisit this section of the policy at an upcoming meeting and try to synthesize board members’ various concerns here.
But the big picture here is the overall consensus on the meat of this policy — it gives us the ability to rise above any political issues and do something truly meaningful when we name our schools. I don’t know what the right names for our new schools are, but I am looking forward to an inclusive process where we bring in students, staff, parents, and other community members to brainstorm ones that are most relevant for us.
The following op-ed piece was published on EdSource today. Also, this is a preview of a position paper being published by the San Mateo County School Boards Association — a preview of that paper (and the earlier one on LCFF) can be downloaded here.
The current structure of U.S. public schools — including the K-12 grade framework — was established over a century ago based on the goals, scientific knowledge, and theories of child development at the time, yet this structure has been remarkably resistant to change despite the fact that our society, economy, and the requirements of our public school system have changed dramatically. Even though educators and policymakers alike have questioned many of the other antiquated structures and practices around public education, there has been remarkably little debate about whether our current grade system is still relevant in the modern age. Starting public school at age five is now essentially an arbitrary point and one which we now know does not best serve most children. Specifically, our incredible advancements in the understanding of child development and brain development allow us to know now that fundamental skills are produced in the early years of childhood, long before children start kindergarten. To compensate for the fact that public school starts too late, we have a created a early childhood education patchwork of state-funded schools, local school district programs, and other child care and preschool programs run by both for-profit and non-profit entities. The U.S. is ranked 26th among industrialized countries in the percentage of four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education, and this lack of universality has created a discriminatory system that only serves half of our children with inconsistent quality often not linked to kindergarten readiness at their local public school.
Although there is always talk about how public schools are failing our children, the fact is that less than 40% of our children are ready for kindergarten when they get to our public schools, creating an opportunity gap long before our schools can address it properly. Many children who live in poorer households and neighborhoods are both less likely to have attended a quality preschool program and less likely to have resources and support outside of school during their K-12 years. There is a mountain of evidence that this opportunity gap is created when children are young — 88% of those who drop out of school could not read proficiently by 3rd grade.
Certainly there is no panacea for every issue in public education, but if there is only one singular change that could address many systemic inequities, creating universal preschool as part of our existing public school system is that change (I would argue it would have a monumentally greater impact on the opportunity gap than would the Local Control Funding Formula). In addition to the moral and social obligation, the opportunity gap created by the lack of universal preschool has a real economic cost to society through lower productivity and competitiveness, lower tax revenue and higher social costs, including higher crime and public safety spending. The evidence linking quality preschool attendance with improved social and economic outcomes is overwhelming, with studies showing multiple times return on dollars spent on early childhood education. Even within my county of San Mateo, a pilot “Preschool for All” program in one district demonstrated immediate and profound results.
President Obama helped energize the debate last February when he talked about making high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. But I would argue that even President Obama is using the language of the 20th (and even 19th) century, and the educational community does itself disservice by calling it “preschool.” That implies something extra and not necessary. Certainly if we were to start our public school system today, we wouldn’t likely start it at age five — a decision made over a century ago for a purpose long past by people with much less scientific understanding of childhood and brain development. Rather we would start public school at age three or younger. So, what we now call “preschool” would just be “school” and it must eventually become part of our public school system. Ideally, we’d just expand our current public school system down two more grades. Only in a half-joking way, I’ve argued that we should renumber the grades, with what we call “Kindergarten” today becoming “3rd grade” — you wouldn’t tolerate your child’s missing 1st and 2nd grade, would you? Making this change would naturally require a significant investment, both in the operating dollars to teach more students but also the money for facilities for local districts to support the extra grades. But to be clear, one shouldn’t infer that the intent is just to duplicate what we currently do in the higher grades (particularly with respect to overly burdensome standards and testing), but rather to create inherent in our public system developmentally-appropriate high-quality nurturing environments for three and four year olds. To make such a change, I recognize that we would have to bring in more early-learning expertise into our public school system to have both teachers and administrators who know how to appropriately address the needs of this age group, as well as have them ready for Kindergarten.
But this is all indeed possible. There is buzz now in Sacramento of taking the current Transitional Kindergarten (TK) program and opening it up to all four-year olds. This would be a tremendous step forward to accomplishing this goal, of course assuming that the legislature fully funds both the program costs and the facility costs. There are also a number of local initiatives — including one in San Mateo County — to march toward universality of early childhood education. But I would argue it’s more than just making sure we serve every student. Only when such early education is core to our public system will schools — all the way through high school and beyond — be truly effective in serving all students to reach their highest potential and be prepared for success in the 21st Century.