Critical opposition to the proposal came from an unlikely source: teachers from the math department at Palo Alto High School. The department, led by its Instructional Supervisor Radu Toma, sent a letter to Skelly and the school board opposing the district's proposal. Citing the letter, along with other opposition, the school board elected to put the proposal off to this year, although revisiting it is not currently on their agenda.
Why is the Paly math department so opposed to making sure that every student graduates prepared to go to college? Their letter focuses on Algebra II, a class that is required for all UC/CSU applicants, and claims that requiring every student to pass this class would have "devastating consequences" for the district's "reputation."
Some Paly students, according to the math department, just can't pass Algebra II as it is taught at Paly. Why? "We live in an affluent community. Most of our students are fortunate to come from families where education matters and parents have the means and will to support and guide their children in tandem with us, their teachers. Not all of them." And who are these students that the math department says are unable to pass even the basic level Algebra II class? "Many of these [students] are VTP students [from East Palo Alto] or under-represented minorities."
It's true that the District statistics on A-G completion are racially skewed. Last year, 85 percent of all high school graduates met the A-G requirements. But of the 20 black graduating seniors from Paly and Gunn last year, only three met A-G requirements.
That's right. Three out of 20 met the requirements. That's 15 percent. Of the 66 graduating Latino seniors, only 27 met the requirement. That's 40 percent. But it's not just under-represented minorities who are struggling under this system. The majority (63 percent) of the students who failed to meet A-G were white and Asian. As a result, none of these students were eligible to apply to a four-year California public university.
The Paly math department avows that "as teachers and mathematicians, we work unabatedly" to teach math. But unfortunately, according to Toma, "brain theory supports the reality that confounding student situations interfere with their ability to focus and succeed."
The letter, perhaps wisely, doesn't spend much time on brain theory. Instead, it baldly states the real reason that some students don't pass Algebra II: the Paly math department refuses to teach it. More precisely, they refuse to teach an Algebra II course that meets the standards set by the UC/CSU systems. By the department's own admission, even the regular lane Algebra II class greatly exceeds the UC/CSU. In the view of Toma and his colleagues, "diluting the standards in our regular lane to basic benchmarks which might allow every student to pass Algebra II would end up hurting the district's reputation." The department refuses to teach an Algebra II that satisfies UC/CSU requirements that students can actually pass. And where does the Paly math department think those students who fail to complete Algebra II should go, rather than to college? They can "go on to community colleges or jobs for which district prepares them better than most districts."
The reputation of a high school is enhanced when all students go to four-year colleges. High school is not college; it is not the place to hinge academic reputation on the planned failure of a subset of the student body.
Furthermore, refusing to teach essential courses because they would "dilute" our district's "exemplary standards" is nothing less than the betrayal of the democratic value of public education and the basic professional responsibility of teachers.
The Parent Network for Students of Color, We Can Do Better Palo Alto and the Student Equity Action Network have been pressing the district for the past year to adopt the A-G curriculum and its standards as the minimum required to graduate. The content that a student needs to master in order to pass what is being offered as the "regular lane" Algebra II course is above "the basic benchmarks which might allow every student to pass Algebra II." Generally, that means that only the most advanced students, or those whose parents can afford to pay for hours of private tutoring, can pass this class.
But contrary to the claims of the department, A-G alignment does not require the teachers to "dilute the standards."
It requires teachers to actually teach.
In Palo Alto, as in many districts, the best and most qualified teachers segregate themselves in classrooms teaching courses that only the most advanced students can master. The concern that students who are not passing Algebra II now will not graduate under an A-G aligned curriculum is unfounded. Studies consistently show that all children, from all "social backgrounds," can learn — with effective teaching and the proper institutional support. The Paly math department has no idea what these students can achieve — because they are not providing them with effective teaching. The district school board must commit the district to college readiness for every student by providing support to teachers, students, and families to make that goal a reality, starting in elementary school.
The letter purports to "respectfully" present reasons for opposing A-G curriculum alignment. But as a district parent, I feel everything but respected. I'm outraged that when I send my children to school in the Palo Alto district, they will encounter the soft bigotry of low expectations. But in truth, as Russlynn Ali, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Dept. of Education says, "It's not so soft." Teachers employed in this district continue to perpetuate the myth that some students, particularly those from underrepresented minorities, simply can't learn — and the district's leaders are doing nothing about it.
The district school board must repudiate the sentiments in this letter by making A-G the graduation requirement for all students so that every graduate can go to college — and provide the proper supports to make them successful.
To see a copy of the math department report, go to http://wecandobetterpaloalto.org/Resources .