Palo Alto Weekly
News - January 20, 2012
Parents ask board to fix educational disparity
Palo Alto near bottom in state in Algebra 2 achievement of minority students, they say
by Chris Kenrick
Palo Alto last year ranked 147th among California school districts when it came to black-student proficiency in Algebra 2, a group of parents told the Board of Education Tuesday night.
In sometimes tense exchanges, the nine parents demanded a greater sense of urgency by the school district in fixing what they called Palo Alto's "bifurcated school system — one for the wealthy and one for the economically disadvantaged."
"When Visalia is doing a better job (helping black students master Algebra 2), folks, you are at the bottom," parent Michele Dauber told the board.
The statistics came from a print-out by Dauber's husband, Ken Dauber, of results of the 2011 California Star Test in Algebra 2 for various student subgroups.
Seven percent of Palo Alto's black students who were tested showed "proficient or above" — placing Palo Alto 147th statewide in the category. The best district in this regard — Hawthorne in Los Angeles County — had 75 percent of black students who were tested showing "proficient or above" in Algebra 2.
In both cases, the number of students tested was small — 15 in Palo Alto and 12 in Hawthorne.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly did not quibble with the data, though he said he would "have someone look at it."
"I didn't get into education to have results like this, and we need to work to have them better," he said.
Palo Alto long has struggled with the achievement gap, publishing student data and agonizing over how to fix it.
The district has launched multiple early-intervention efforts to nip problems in the bud; analyzed student profiles; trained teachers in culturally sensitive instruction methods and established a special "college bound" program at Barron Park Elementary School featuring a longer school day and longer school year.
Last year Skelly proposed boosting the district's graduation requirements to match the academic prerequisites for the University of California and California State University systems. The proposal is seen as a way to boost expectations — and results — for low-income and minority students who perpetually lag behind the district's high averages.
But the proposal was tabled after an outcry from parents of special-education students, who worried their children would suffer under the suggested requirements.
The recommendation also was opposed by the Palo Alto High School math department, which argued that some students cannot pass Algebra 2 (required for entrance to University of California and California State University schools) without a watering down of the curriculum, which the department said it was not prepared to do.
The so-called "Paly math letter" has become a rallying point for minority parents as well as for the Daubers' group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, which has lobbied for measures to reduce academic stress.
The groups have demanded that both high schools offer basic no-frills "lanes" in math and science that meet, but do not exceed, the UC/CSU entrance standards.
Parents of elementary students said they are fearful of a system that sees many black students placed into special education by the time they are in middle school. The district is currently under state sanctions for having a "disproportionate" number of underrepresented minority students in special ed.
"My two sons are at Nixon, doing fantastically well with teachers and a principal who have high expectations for them," parent Kim Bomar said.
"But I'm concerned about what the parents of other children say, and what will happen to (my sons) when the get to the crucible ... of Paly."
The issues are expected to return to the board in the next two months.
Tuesday night, board members pleaded with the angry parents for a "safe environment" in which people are able to air different opinions.
"I hear the anger and the frustration and the concern in the questions and comments, and they're legitimate," board member Barb Mitchell said.
"But I want to avoid an atmosphere where people don't feel safe expressing their points of view."
But parent LaToya Baldwin Clark said, "Civility goes only just so far.
"This is a conversation that's been going on at least five years, and there's been very little progress, especially for black children in this district," Clark said.
"The way I see it, the people who should feel most 'unsafe' are the parents who are suffering under this dual system.
"And when we want to talk about it, we get a lecture about civility."
Clark suggested that the district scrutinize "teacher profiles" in addition to student profiles.
"Find out which teachers are really getting kids to learn."
She cited herself — the daughter of teen parents without college degrees — as a "testament to the fact that any kid can learn."
"I went to a school where teachers believed in me despite my background," she said, noting she completed BC Calculus in high school.
"It wasn't 'til I went to college that I realized there were teachers out there who didn't think black and Hispanic and poor kids could learn as well as anybody else."
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at email@example.com.
Posted by Michele Dauber,
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 18, 2012 at 1:55 pm
Unfortunately this story did not report the full context for the discussion. The full context is that the Paly Math Department IS, Radu Toma, was interviewed by the Mercury News and reiterated his view that certain kids cannot be successful in Algebra 2, and that it would be folly to place all students on an A-G pathway to college. In response to the reporter's question about why other districts seem to be able to get this same population of minority and disadvantaged kids to pass Algebra 2, Toma stated that other districts with better results are merely "pretending" to teach Algebra 2, unlike at Paly where he "really" teaches it. According to Toma, "When our kids finish with Algebra II, we are not pretending they completed Algebra II."
Read the story here:
If that was true, then it would be reflected in the STAR (CST) scores of students who have completed Algebra 2. If Toma is correct, then Palo Alto students would be expected to be more likely to be be "proficient" or above on the STAR test that is taken at the end of Alg2. As Toma himself stated in the Merc, standards are not the same as achievement.
These data analyze achievement. And what they show is the opposite of what Toma asserts. Far from showing that other districts are merely "pretending" to teach while Paly is "really" teaching, they show the opposite. Black students in 147 other CA districts are far more likely to score proficient or above after taking Algebra 2 than those in PAUSD. In Palo Alto, our students are scoring worse than those who took "pretend" Algebra 2. That's some mighty fine pretending.
It seems like some posters are concerned because numbers of black students taking the CST for Alg 2 are small. While it is true that a change of a few students could make some difference, that does not diminish the significance of the fact that only 1/15 black students who took Alg2 in PAUSD in 2011 scored as proficient or above on the CST test, nor does it diminish the importance of the fact that 147 school districts in CA have far better results with their black students then we do in developing Alg 2 proficiency.
As to the numbers, 15 black students took the Alg2 CST in 2011. Only 1 of those students passed it. In order to be in the upper quintile (33 school districts) for black achievement on the Alg 2 CST, we would need not a small change but a rather large one. The cut-off to break into the upper quintile is 34% (we are currently at 7%). To meet the cut off of 34% we would need to have 5 additional students testing proficient or above (6/15). To be in the upper half of school districts in the state, we would need to have 20% of our black students, or 3 black students, pass this test. That would mean 2 additional students. A change of one additional student (doubling our success rate), would move us to 13%, which would still leave us at number 112, with 111 schools doing a better job.
Of course, even if we improved by 500%, we would still only be getting around a third of our black students to proficient, which would still leave us with a massive achievement gap when compared with white students, two thirds of whom are proficient or better on the same test. So even if we somehow were able to vault ourselves into the top quintile, we would still be horrible. We would just be less horrible relative to other California school districts.
Ultimately it does not make sense to quibble with the numbers by asking "how bad are we really" ? The answer will not be flattering. PAUSD does a bottom-scraping poor job teaching poor and minority students. This poor performance is not, unfortunately, limited to Algebra 2. The Algebra 1 numbers are bad, as are those for geometry, and other subjects.
The point of this exercise is twofold: first, they make it clear that we have a dual system. We have a top-flight school system for whites and asians and a terrible school system for black and poor kids. That's unacceptable. Second, the Paly Math IS is just wrong when he says that other schools where Black and poor kids pass Algebra 2 are achieving their high pass rates by faking it.
More to the point, when will the Paly math department stop pointing the finger at everyone else ("slackers", VTP kids, minority parents, other teachers all over the state and their students) and look inward at their own teaching methods and success/failure rates? Often teachers in PAUSD high schools seem to use their failure rates not as a sign of poor teaching but as a sign of rigor, which is a misreading of signals that has led to epidemic levels of student stress as well as poor minority student outcomes.
The math teachers at Paly and Gunn do not seem to take these scores as any reflection on their teaching. If 7% of my students passed the final, I would be home crying and banging my head on the table asking where I went wrong. I would probably consider a career change, or head down to the Carnegie Center on Teaching Excellence to sign up for some professional development. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
PAUSD loves to congratulate itself. I have never seen a group of people who love singing their own praises as much as this school board. Never have so few praised themselves so heartily for so little. The last year that I have spent sitting in those board meetings listening to those people throwing party after party for themselves has been just mind-blowing.
What these numbers say to me is that we have a lot of room for improvement. There are dozens of districts, such as South Pasadena, that really seem to have cracked the code on how to obtain excellent results from minority students while maintaining high standards and achievement for all students. These numbers dispell the myth that black and brown and poor kids cannot learn higher level mathematics since there are 147 districts in CA alone where they are doing a better job of it than we are, despite the fact that most of them have a lot less money than we do We have a lot to learn from these districts and as Kevin Skelly says, we need to get after that.