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Two Decades of Kids and Counting

By Sally Torbey

About this blog: About this blog: I have enjoyed parenting five children in Palo Alto for the past two decades and have opinions about everything to do with parenting kids (and dogs). The goal of my blog is to share the good times and discuss the ...  (More)

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Uploaded: Sep 2, 2015
Last year we became friends with two families who had recently relocated to the US for work from two different countries, and had children attending PAUSD schools. Both families chose Palo Alto because of the excellent reputation of the schools, but after a year, both families have found the adjustment difficult and one family sought alternative academic options this year.

We have been PAUSD parents for 19 years and our five children have all been well-served by the district. Because the schools have been a good fit for our family, it was difficult to understand these families' issues with the schools, and, at times, the criticisms made me feel defensive, like there was something wrong with our family that this completely inadequate system has been more than adequate! I tried to put those feelings aside, however, and understand their experience. My sense is that the size of the classes and the schools are an issue for newcomers.

Another aspect of our district that both families found surprising was our high school students' focus on being admitted to the most selective college or university possible. Not on preparing oneself for the rigor of college work, but getting in. They noticed that much of the discussion around course selection and extra-curricular activities involved considering what would look best on college applications.

I thought of this observation when I skimmed the 200-page research report about alignment which the school board discussed for two hours last week. While it is essential that each child benefits from consistent expectations in skill and knowledge acquisition across teachers and schools, I worry that what is driving this alignment effort is that Student A is concerned that Student B (who is in another teacher's class or attends the other high school in the district), is getting a better grade while doing less or inferior work, and that Student A feels this is unfair because the lower grade will adversely affect Student A's success in college admissions. The thinking is, if all the classes in our district are perfectly aligned, then this will make the college admission process fair, and students will experience less stress.

The fundamental problem is that the college admission system is biased and unfair, and no amount of alignment in our district will magically make it otherwise. It is inherently stressful to place so much value on an outcome over which students have little control. College admissions is an opaque process and many admission decisions are not based on grades or test scores, or other achievements, but on a host of other considerations that are not clearly revealed or articulated. What we truly need is a reform of the college admission process so that high school students are not burdened with the belief that every single course grade, extracurricular activity, test score, award and recommendation are going to be the key to their gaining or being denied admission to a selective college.

There are certainly important issues raised in this report that need addressing, like the difference between teachers' estimates and the actual time that students are spending on homework assignments. I am concerned, though, that the amount of time and effort focused on achieving an unattainable fairness will prevent teachers from developing innovative and creative ways to engage students, because their time will be spent meeting with colleagues in an attempt to perfectly align their lessons horizontally and vertically, and to assess identically, down to such details mentioned at the board meeting as how extra credit and make-up work count towards the course grade. Collaboration is essential, and best practices and successful strategies should be studied and shared widely, but undue emphasis on alignment detracts from the potential of excellence in our schools and contributes to an environment valuing success in college admissions above all else.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Debbie, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 2, 2015 at 11:15 am

Thank you for posting this. I couldn't agree more.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Sep 2, 2015 at 11:31 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, Debbie, for reading and commenting.

Posted by Maria, a resident of University South,
on Sep 2, 2015 at 12:05 pm

Thank you Sally, I totally agree with you, and I think teachers will be happy having less paper work and teaching more.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Sep 2, 2015 at 12:17 pm

Great post Sally. I just listened to this great story on NPR One about teachers' unconscious gender biases. Web Link

I don't believe alignment is really the problem, although there are probably some inequities that need to be addressed. 25 years ago, the saying was that you went to Gunn for academics and Paly for sports. Transfers into Gunn were maxed out. Things have changed a bit, but I still get the sense that people think Gunn is more rigorous that Paly.

I'd love to hear more about your comment on size. We're grappling with it now on the EMAC committee.

Posted by PR, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 2, 2015 at 12:53 pm

Well-said! Thank you, Sally!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Sep 2, 2015 at 1:29 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, Maria. I also want teachers to focus first and foremost on engaging students!

Thanks, Erin, for reading and commenting. Fascinating phenomenon described in the gender bias NPR story. Thanks for sharing that. It will be interesting to see if this bias is replicated in studies in the US as well. There are a lot of ramifications if it is...
In terms of inequities, Paly Principal Kim Diorio mentioned at the board meeting that the administration takes a look at the grade distribution of quarter grades for each teacher. To me, this makes much more sense as a means to scan for significant inequities than looking at whether a teacher considers 88% or 90% an "A". If the grade distributions are somewhat similar for a course of the same level with a random distribution of students in the classes, that should suffice without micromanaging teachers' decisions regarding bonus points and late homework.
School size has not been a problem for my kids, but they have lived in Palo Alto all their lives and they found that when they moved on to middle and high school they already knew many of their new classmates from scouts, youth sports, church, and have even reunited with old friends from nursery school! They also benefited from the freshmen TEAM program at Paly that provides some aspects of a smaller learning community. I sense it is a lot harder for newcomers in big schools to make friends and find their niche. I would not want to see any of our schools get much larger because of the impact that has on the electives, sports, and other extra-curricular activities, unless we can grow those programs correspondingly.
My kids seem to be more sensitive to class size and how that relates to engaging in learning. I know that there is a lot of controversy in the literature around class size and whether students benefit or not, but my kids are more engaged in smaller classes where they can get to know their teachers, feel they are contributing to the class, and receive more feedback on their academic progress.

Thanks, PR, for commenting!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Sep 2, 2015 at 1:45 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Erin, one more thought on school size. I think the "teaming" that has been done at the middle schools does a lot to mitigate the downsides of a larger school. It would be great if the high schools could similarly "team" the 9th graders in their core classes.

Posted by Palo Alto, a resident of Downtown North,
on Sep 2, 2015 at 8:34 pm

"I worry that what is driving this alignment effort is that Student A is concerned that Student B (who is in another teacher's class or attends the other high school in the district), is getting a better grade while doing less or inferior work, and that Student A feels this is unfair because the lower grade will adversely affect Student A's success in college admissions."

This is exactly what I thought as well, and It makes me really sad. We always feel that you win some and you lose some. You get some "easier" teachers and some "harder", but it all evens out in the wash. The problem is being
fixated on getting a leg up in the admissions war. When did this all happen? It exhausts me.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Sep 2, 2015 at 8:58 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, Palo Alto, for reading and commenting. I agree, we have also encouraged our kids to try to look at the bigger picture. I don't want to see too much energy and time taken up by this issue as it is a distraction from more important issues facing our school district.

Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Sep 3, 2015 at 5:40 pm

There is a big problem with education in this country and those who have never experienced another way of doing it, usually from another country, don't like the criticism about American education.

However, it exists and until Americans start complaining the status quo will remain.

Some of the biggest problems are to do with the college application process. The fact that our students are competing against each other for a few limited spaces from each high school at each top college is horrendous. They should be educated to a certain standard and all should consider themselves capable together rather than compete against each other. High school education should be aimed at getting into college, rather than ignoring the fact that most students have to get SAT preparation done outside of high school by expensive tutors rather than by their own everyday teachers. Then there is the amount of testing. The fact that educators prides themselves on not teaching to the test sounds great in principle, but having numerous tests for APs, SATs, ACTs, STAR tests (or whatever they are now called) and finals, is dumbfounding and unnecessary. Then there is the fact that the top 1% get multiple offers at multiple colleges while the next group get nothing from them and have to do with second best, is also a big problem.

We won't go into the UC not accepting qualified California students in favor of greater fee paying out of state and out of country students because that is also the elephant in the room.

Until the many elephants are discussed and addressed, rather than ignored, there will be no changes. Education in this country needs to be revamped thoroughly. Education is not a race or a competition, but something that should be easily attainable by all PAUSD students. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Now no wonder the "S" word gets brought up in these discussions.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Sep 4, 2015 at 8:20 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Paly Parent,
Thank you for reading and commenting. I am in 100% agreement that a great education should be available to all PAUSD students and that competition should be eliminated in favor of a collaborative environment, and that there is too much testing. I feel improvement in our high schools would best be accomplished by colleges changing their admission's procedures, such as eliminating or reducing the importance of the SAT test. There is no data to support the assumption that an extraordinarily high (versus merely high) SAT score predicts success in college, why is it even part of the admission criteria? Standardized test preparation does not increase students' intellect, it makes them better test takers.
I have two kids who are PAUSD grads and recent college graduates, and I have watched their cohorts as they start to establish their adult lives and begin graduate school or careers. I have observed no correlation between success and happiness after college (or during college), and the selectivity of the college these young people attended. Watching these young people has helped me encourage my kids still at PAUSD to focus on working hard to take advantage of the great educational opportunities they have here, discover what engages them in life, and let go of the college admission competition.

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Sep 8, 2015 at 4:10 pm

I am definitely with you, Sally, on your success, happiness and selectivity comment. But the issue feels even bigger to me than admissions. We need a big change, something as dramatic as the G.I. Bill was for allowing more people than ever before to attend college. Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote about taxpayers subsidize the students at elite institutions by not taxing the income on these institutions' huge endowments while we subsidize students at community colleges a fraction of the amount. I do not envy the parents and children faced with figuring out the admissions process along with how to afford college.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Sep 8, 2015 at 4:51 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

That's a good point LJ. Access to higher education is a huge issue, and while selective schools strive for diversity, it is not enough considering the tax benefits these institutions enjoy.

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