Guest Opinion: Our schools — some questions about the 22nd century | News | Palo Alto Online |


Guest Opinion: Our schools — some questions about the 22nd century


Standing in a crowded school board room in June of 2014, natty in suit and tie, making his first appearance here, incoming superintendent Max McGee sprinted to the finish of his debut speech by declaring that our district ought to be the exemplar, not just of a 21st but of "a 22nd century education -- so let's get to it."

This surprising, go-for-broke conclusion seemed a leap. Regarding our kids' social-emotional needs, Dr. McGee hadn't said a word (though a student editorial had once dubbed his Illinois Math and Science Academy the "Illinois Malnutrition and Sleep Deprivation Academy"), and Palo Alto's teenagers were living, already, amid the highest of expectations.

Marc Vincenti
In any case, as fate would have it, instead of being launched toward the next century, what we all suffered here, starting not long thereafter, was a tragic return to our past: the loss of four more high schoolers and the hospitalization of 50 others for mental distress -- an academic year not of the kind we might like to dwell on.

And only now is Dr. McGee back on track to that future -- advancing a bold, revisionary plan for a combined middle and high school to open on the Cubberly campus as soon as 2018. It would not only relieve enrollment pressures at other schools but, he says, offer an "innovative" style of teaching and learning as well as a clear "choice" to Palo Alto's parents and students.

The plan for the new school was unveiled at a special Oct. 26 meeting, by a district subcommittee. (Handpicked, the six-person panel is made up not of Board of Education members but of five community members plus Dr. McGee.) The details were packed onto 70 slides addressing everything from construction to connectedness, educational design to funding.

It's a big vision, but what does it look like?

Healthy doses of skepticism and scrutiny are in order -- not only because, as the Weekly has written, these recommendations "could bring about the most significant change in the Palo Alto school system in decades, if not in history," but because Dr. McGee's foundational convictions have often been obscure and it's been hard to know which of his statements to take to the bank.

Let's travel back for a moment.

In October, Dr. McGee stalled his own momentum on hiring in-house counsel. In September, he proclaimed cheating in our high schools a problem "of premier importance," but at the next board meeting brushed it aside, saying he'd learned of no "outright cheating," only minor infractions. Last April he went back on a promise to Gunn students to hear them out on zero period. At a March board meeting, after a reference to the "dark hour" of the previous day's suicide, his Superintendent's Report was given over to awards and tributes, joking and banter.

For months, he failed to initiate a legally required Uniform Complaint Procedure in a case of possible sexual harassment. In February, he staged a public forum with a panel of experts billed as "Let's Talk: A Community Conversation," but the audience arrived -- after the school year's third death -- to find an event structured to prevent them from uttering a word. And regularly last school year he called for "an expanded definition of success" for our students (one less focused on high achievement) even as, in front of the board room cameras, he celebrated high schoolers who had excelled nationally and internationally.

So we should look carefully at this newest plan now, before the expensive blueprints are drawn up and the "Building for the Future" construction signs are in place.

First and foremost: Who's on this "subcommittee"? Who are our planners? In Dr. McGee's report, they're identified only by name -- but an Internet search turned up the following:

One of the two men is a technology executive at VMware, "a company that provides cloud and virtualization software and services."

The other is a senior director at Asurion, which "provides device protection for electronics."

One of the women has two decades' experience as a manager or mechanical engineer at TE Connectivity, Measurement Specialties, Inc., and Texas Instruments.

The second woman, with a career in broadcasting, applied for our library commission with the sole goal of boosting technologies (e-books, e-readers, "electronic usages").

The third woman, a scientist "interested in education, economics, and demographics," heads a girls' robotics team co-sponsored by NASA.

Now, to meet what PAUSD goal is the collective background of this group centered on high-tech? Why are three of them highly placed high-tech executives? According to what principle were educators and historians and ethicists and architects and psychologists not included?

If fields other than high tech had equally deep pockets, might they have been involved in the planning? Given the stress that the subcommittee places on the readiness of "major, local new funders," might the funding tail in any way be wagging the educational dog?

And not only is the subcommittee drawn from a limited demographic, so too is the group from whom they took input. Of the 1,335 community stakeholders they consulted, the portion who are district teachers was 0.15%. Not to have secured the advice -- and through it, the buy-in -- of those professionals most indispensable to the success of a project depicted as so desirable is shortsighted, poor leadership.

But so much for the planning. Now let's turn to the plan for this "innovative" school. The subcommitee report advertises: "an innovative academic curriculum, emphasizing experience-based, inquiry-oriented, team, and cross-disciplinary learning." But how is that new and different?

It's actually tried-and-true.

For years, English teachers have had teams of students inquire into the best courtroom strategy for George (in make-believe, cross-disciplinary trials to conclude Of Mice and Men). For years, physics instructors -- teaching in "Mythbusters" mode -- have had teams of kids experience dropping raw eggs from on high after inquiring into what cushioning might work best.

French teachers assign readings in sociology and current politics, conversations about everyday experience, and invite kids to access (cross-disciplinarily) their inner Julia Child. A teacher of environmental science sends kids to inquire, via virtual time-travel, how seismic waves point to epicenters and how their own families could experientially be better prepared for earthquakes. A history teacher poses inquiries concerning the Weimar Republic then puts students into teams to make films that teach their classmates about pre-Nazi Germany. In communications, I had students go on a cellphone "scavenger hunt" to inquire, for example, about the cost of engaging the Hoover Tower carillon to serenade an outdoor wedding (which would be experience-based for them someday, I could only hope).

It's not surprising that business executives (or anyone who doesn't spend their days in Palo Alto's schools) would be ignorant of such activities; but classroom professionals aren't dumb and they like to have fun, like anyone else.

Commendably, repeatedly, the subcommittee acknowledges how brittle, stressed and disconnected many of our high schoolers feel. But it's in their plan's remedies for this, terribly and sadly, that the subcommittee is most misleading. Yes, when it comes to enrollment, Gunn and Paly are probably too large but it may be their frayed human fabric that most makes them feel so. After all, people can live contentedly in the most mammoth of cities if they feel close and secure ties within their apartment building, on their blocks, and to their city's institutions and traditions. But this plan, which presents itself as responsive to students' feelings of dispossession, is completely unresponsive to what exacerbates those feelings most -- a worn and ragged school fabric.

Here is the texture of high school life: debilitating levels of anxiety-causing, distrust-inducing cheating; students cut off from their teachers and studies by all-day connectedness to social media and their cellphones; relentless grade-reporting that gives kids little time to recover from the despondencies of adolescence and that reminds students every three weeks that they are commodities rather than fully rounded human beings; overwork and sleep-deprivation caused by AP and homework loads un-modulated by the most sensible, state-of-the-art means; and overcrowded classes (Gunn and Paly have 407 classes with 30 or more students) that in a thousand ways distance teenagers from the adults they hope will champion them.

On these as the actual causes of the disconnection and stress he decries, Dr. McGee's plan for our young people's future is utterly, fatally silent.

Fallible as humans are, we sometimes get our perspectives wrong. We become enchanted by things merely because they are, or seem to be, new. But we're entranced by our children because they're ours, confounding, ever-altering and irreplaceable. Let's treat them as we all need to be treated -- as if they really exist.

Related content:

Guest Opinion: The Cubberley plan — Isn't the issue over-crowded schools?

Marc Vincenti taught English at Gunn for 15 years and is campaign coordinator of Save the 2,008.

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Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 14, 2015 at 11:20 am

Thank you for bringing us back to thinking about the schools we have and how to make them better. Your examples of good teaching within the various disciplines remind us that "project-based instruction" is not equivalent to technology-based instruction and is already in good teachers' tool kits. Finding ways to do more of it at all levels while meeting community expectations of what an excellent education entails is the challenge.

And keeping a focus on what can be done to help all our students safely and successfully navigate their educational course through PAUSD must be our primary concern as we consider the various alternatives being set out for discussion.

3 people like this
Posted by Volunteers
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 14, 2015 at 12:48 pm

The committee is made up of community volunteers who applied for this task. The deadline for applying for the committee was actually extended an entire month because no one applied. Have you asked how many applicants there were or who else was in the pool? They were not "hand-selected" as you suggest. I would challenge you to find a large number of parents who are not somehow involved in technology and also interested in education, and who also have the time to serve on a committee like this.

Like this comment
Posted by Volunteers2
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 15, 2015 at 11:49 am

"Hand picked committee members" - I think you are both right. The process was mostly like @Volunteers said, with almost no one applying. However, one member of the committee was added well after the rest, after presenting a vision for a bold new secondary school to Dr. McGee, and later the EMAC and other audiences. You could fairly say this person was hand-picked, and came in with a specific outcome in mind. Personally I don't think this is necessarily wrong (many people on this sort of committee have history with the issues and a specific answer in mind), but it was a little odd with this person being added well into the process, having made a very specific proposal.

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