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District policy shuts out some students from UC/CSU eligibility

Original post made on Dec 2, 2011

In May, trustees of the Palo Alto Unified School District met to consider a proposal from Superintendent Kevin Skelly that the district make successful completion of an A-G curriculum a requirement for high school graduation. An A-G curriculum meets the minimum course requirements for admission to the University of California and California State University systems.

Read the full guest opinion here Web Link posted Friday, December 2, 2011, 12:00 AM

Comments (200)

Posted by PAUSD parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 2, 2011 at 8:55 am

The math dept. letter can be easily accessed through the "We Can Do Better" facebook page.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 2, 2011 at 9:10 am

The link to the letter posted here is broken. Here is the link:

Web Link

Posted by another
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Dec 2, 2011 at 9:17 am

How about our schools prepare our students for uc/csu AND San jose state, san fransico state where they are more suitable for those students, and do not get me wrong, there are so many great local markets for sjs,sfs,santa clara univ.too.Think outside of box,please.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 2, 2011 at 9:23 am


CSU is San Jose State and San Francisco State, and preparing these kids to get there is all that parents are asking for. Please google "CSU".

Posted by Sigh..again
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 2, 2011 at 9:44 am

What is foolish about this is the assumption that somehow only kids from EPA or disadvantaged would fail to get a degree if a-g were required to graduate.

There are MANY kids, of the richest amongst us, who simply can't pass all the a-g and will never go to a UC/CS school. Just won't happen. Choosing a university track is GREAT..go for it if you can. But allowing kids to get high school degrees with a vocational track, and not have to be in "special ed" to do so, should not be that hard of a concept to grasp.

Not all kids are UC/CSU material. Simply a fact. Stop trying to force all kids into one mold, and those who can't are somehow "failures".

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 2, 2011 at 10:30 am

The problem isn't that all kids don't go to college. The problem is that those who don't go are vastly disproportionately African American and Latino. If it was the case that the proportions of those who do not go to college was even moderately racially representative of the district's population that might be consistent with your post. But the numbers tell a different story.

The numbers show that somewhere between 0% and 15% of black students and 40% of hispanic students graduate A-G compared with 75% of whites and 85% of Asians. Obviously, that's a problem and it is not merely that some kids are not college material unless you believe that more black and brown kids are not college material for some reason that is totally unrelated to district policy or pedagogy.

When you drill down you find that the stumbling block for these kids is math, specifically Algebra II, and that the real problem there, as this editorial expresses, is that PAUSD insists that we cannot change the material, pace, or pedagogy in order to assist these kids in succeeding in Algebra II because our "reputation" is more important.

That's wrong. It's inconsistent with the democratic values of public education. The parents of black and brown kids work and pay taxes in this community and deserve for their children to receive an equal educational opportunity. This is about basic fairness.

It is also about priorities -- why would we place reputation above the life chances of our students?

Posted by CommunityCenterParent
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 2, 2011 at 11:19 am

Algebra II is not really that difficult a subject. If the success rate in any population is as low as 15%, likely that is due to the ACCUMULATED failures of many math teachers for a number of years. The issue likely goes back to Middle School or earlier. Shameful.

The requirement should be ON THE SCHOOL SYSTEM (the whole system) to teach to A-G as a required goal. If they show up at Paly without the basics, guess what - it is still the schools systems responsibility to provide a means to catch-up to standard. We cannot accept the failures of all previous years teachers as the starting point for future failure.

The requirement should NOT be borne on the students alone - e.g.: you failed Algebra II, so no diploma.

Put the responsibility where it belongs: on the paid experts who are highly skilled at teaching.

Posted by js
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Dec 2, 2011 at 11:39 am

The issue here is very simple: the math teachers do not need to be so hoity toity that they cannot teach an Algebra II course that mainstream students can understand and pass. Rather than make the class particularly hard so tutoring and parental help is required to pass, they should deign to teach students for whom math is more difficult and lack outside assistance. It is embarrassing that the teachers are only willing to work with the top students and uninterested in the rest of them.

Posted by Kirsten
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 2, 2011 at 12:50 pm

The entire educational system is set up to pair well with traditional one income families, where one parent is dedicated to dealing with the oddball hours of school, tutoring, summer school, pre-school, volunteer requirements, driving to field trips, collecting classroom funds and supporting the classroom, etc.

Just being a family with two working parents, I think is a bigger input than color. This is a poverty tax.

Have you ever noticed that essentially all of the parent-teacher conferences are right in the middle of the work day? Why? My best guess is the teachers union. That does not serve kids and families at all.

Some working families do compensate, buy throwing money at daycare and tutors, but unless you earn a high income, the tradeoff is parents rarely seeing their kids. Is that the meaning of life?

There are a lot of kids working to get the uc/csu requirements at local community colleges too. This is what happens when you can't keep up with that upper lane. That's why there's a huge crowd outside KUMON on San Antonio on a Wednesday evening, and zero kids in the craft store next door. Very sad indeed.

Posted by CommunityCenterParent
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 2, 2011 at 2:00 pm

What you want is accountability on the teachers to deliver the education to all the kids. Not just the easy ones.

It is frustrating that they feel they can choose a subset of students to ignore. I would like to ignore my taxes which pay for them, but sadly I cannot.

To publish an open letter to the community explaining why they cannot step forward to be responsible is outrageous.

Posted by jclee
a resident of another community
on Dec 2, 2011 at 2:19 pm

I attended a public high school with execptional standards; one that required that students passed regents exams in order to pass most core courses, in addition to the course requirements. Most students had to take Calculus to graduate. My high school major required Calculus I & II.

My alma mater's reputation was built on students' ability to excel in courses, pass regents exams, and acceptance rates to distinctive universities. What's more, my high school had a population of approximately 5,000+ students.Free tutoring was provided by students, and teachers held office hours.
The expectation was that all students would excel (not just some), even those that found themselves in truancy because the chose to cut class and hang out at the arcade or local department stores.

Oh - and the actual 'minority' population was white (40%).

Most stores had signs and clear policies stating that students were not allowed in stores/arcades without parents during school hours.
Would you like to guess which ethnic population of students had the access to hang out in these places without being questioned or arrested?
Needless to say, the 'majority' were in class...

Paly's excuses are really just an example of institutionalized racism; don't let them get away with it.
In the meantime, search for inexpensive or free places that offer algebra tutoring (borrow an algebra book from the library). Don't let these racists limit opportunities for your children.

I'm so grateful to have been educated on the east coast! I would hate to raise children in the bay area.

Posted by Concerned Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Paly and Gunn are on mega-steroids academically, and that is a huge part of student stress. Students need a fair chance to meet the UC/CSU admissions requirements, including basic lanes, not everything has to be honors. If you're in honors, you should know it by an H in the course designation. In fact for many courses you have to take an advanced lane, they don't offer the basic lane, and even in the so-called basic lanes they have made the classes very hard in order to maintain "their" standards so many students don't have a fair chance to succeed. Even the better students get slammed by their harsh grading (handing out Cs regularly to honor students), so when they apply to college they don't have the GPAs that comparable students have. Also the 4 years of social studies graduation requirement needs to go -- the state requires only 3 years and most colleges 2 years. The social studies teachers will be opposed to fixing this anachronism so they can keep their teaching assignments by forcing everyone to take extra social studies they don't need -- fixing that could help with student stress right away. Many teachers are high on themselves and think they are professors at some private school they have created in their minds.

Posted by Anon
a resident of another community
on Dec 2, 2011 at 2:42 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by FPA
a resident of another community
on Dec 2, 2011 at 2:54 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by PA res Stanford staff
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 2, 2011 at 3:26 pm

My children (of color) attended Paly over 10 years ago but even then it was clear that the school was geared toward getting high acheivers into prestige universities. Preparing "average" students for a "basic" college education was not a priority. I'm glad that someone with knowledge and authority has spoken up on this matter.

Posted by Paly grad
a resident of another community
on Dec 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm

@Anon, there's a reason why we have the Tinsley desegregation program. And living in EPA with its crime rate and dealing with people with attitudes like yours does not sound like a great deal. Let's focus instead on how this problem impacts all of our kids, who are way too stressed out, and we are seeing by this that so many kids of all backgrounds are not getting the basic college prep that they should our public school. If it's good enough for UC and CSU, it should be good enough for Paly. The math teachers take credit for the high achievers, even tout how many contests their students win on their own resumes, and then write off the others as unteachable. Our teachers should be the people who want to teach all of our kids! I'm a Paly grad myself, so I've been there done that. I came out on top academically so to speak, but was very aware of the caste system that is alive and well at Paly.

Posted by Anon
a resident of another community
on Dec 2, 2011 at 3:56 pm

I was actually just reacting to jclee who was calling it racism (above my comment). I totally know these transfer programs are really important, just giving it a devil's advocate spin. This teaching to a uber high level of kids in Palo Alto is a problem for many students though, not just students of color. So, I'd really prefer to not call it a racial issue. I think it's broader (or just different) than that. That's my 2 cents.

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2011 at 4:00 pm

When is this small group of vocal parents in this town going to stop trying to dismantle the perfectly good schools that we have?

They start with the school calendar, then call to eliminate AP classes, and now move on to attacking math classes, especially high lane classes.

I will point out that the better math teachers ought to be teaching the high lane classes, because the other math teachers are just incapable of doing it.

Please, stop the push to dismantle what is good in Palo Alto Schools. And stop pushing to help some students by taking away from the majority.

Posted by concerned citizen
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Dear Radu Tomo and associates, LLC:

Your are employee of all tax payers and responsible for the success of all students not selectively the smart ones who are easy to teach. It seems to me from your letters you want to teach the ones who are well prepared and groomed by tutors and not the one who are not prepared (they are not prepared by choice but by earlier teachers) make your work easy. Your motivation and responsibility is to teach all and specially those who need the most help.

Posted by Paly grad
a resident of another community
on Dec 2, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Thanks Anon for clarifying, I agree with you it affects everyone, but also people of color disproportionately. Angry person, no one is trying to dismantle what is good in PAUSD. We want to make it good for everyone! And yes leave the high lanes alone, just give the so-called regular people a lane that is not ridiculous to succeed in. I don't know who is trying to eliminate AP classes, and I don't care about the calendar, so it's not just a few vocal people. The idea is to include everybody in getting a good education in PAUSD, how can that be a bad thing. It won't affect those at the top, they will still have the advanced courses and their top SAT scores and all that, just like I was when I was at Paly. It willactually help them because our schools will seem better statistically and rated higher nationally if more people have successful outcomes.

Posted by Anon
a resident of another community
on Dec 2, 2011 at 4:40 pm

I'd like to add another thought about the use of the word "racist". It's just a word of caution. There is a lot of science and research behind the analysis and understanding of social bias, racial profiling, income and economic disparity, crime statistics, nutrition, access to education and many other related topics. It is very easy to quickly use the word "racist" like it's ammunition. Once that accusation gets pulled out, a conversation can go from collaborative and positive to one of hostility and defensiveness.

You may not believe it, but as a tall, blonde, blue eyed female engineer, I've suffered from employment discrimination plenty, enough to have real economic consequences on my life and family that impact us today. I've been a targeted victim of rape because of how I look, too. Bias and "isms" can take many forms.

I would just plead with folks to try not to lash out with allegations of racism so quickly. The truth lies in the details and those can only be discussed when no one is on the defensive and no one is on attack.

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2011 at 4:55 pm

@ Paly grad.

Here is what the Guest Opinion post says, in part:

"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. "

This seems to imply that teacher don't teach in PA high schools while they are assigned to high lanes.

First, bright students still need to be taught. They don't guess math all by themselves (for most of them at least). They need to be taught and well, by competent teachers. Having less than the best teachers in high lane classes would be a disaster. I know firsthand, actually, since I had a daughter who had one of those poor teachers in the high lane math class in her freshman year and it was a disaster. She had to be laned down. The teacher in high lane math classes DO teach contrary to what seems implied in the opinion.

This statement also seems to imply that you want the top teachers to conversely teach the lower Alg. II class, by switching them from high lane class to this class. Again, I'll stress that such a switch would be disastrous for the high lane classes.

All this IS calling to take from the more advanced students to help the less advanced ones.

As to the calls to eliminate AP classes, peruse the threads on this board and you'll see it is a recurring theme of those who want to help the lower achieving students.

Helping the lower achieving students is all well and fine, however, I AM getting tired of all these calls to take away from the more successful students to bring about improvements in the other students. And, yes, I am getting angry at all the nonsense.

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Also, I want to say something about Mr. Radu Toma.

Mr. Toma not only is a brilliant, brilliant math teacher, he also is a wonderful human being, who cares deeply about his students and all students.

I find it really sad that HE is now being attacked in this all out assault against the school district. When will this stop?

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Oh, and one more thing.

Please, stop assuming that everyone who is in a high line math class is necessarily tutored and prepped and has been tutored and prepped since kindergarten or before.

I currently have a child in high school, in the top lane math class, who has NEVER been tutored. (And he is not the only one.) We could not afford it, for one, and it's not our parenting style also. BTW we don't appreciate either all the tutoring/prepping that is going on for kids who don't really need it, because we agree that it is unfair competition.

However, my child most likely won't be able to survive these classes any more if you take away from these classes the fine teachers now teaching them.

Please, do not oversimplify the situation.

Posted by andrea
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 2, 2011 at 6:08 pm

This disgusts me . PA needs to get off their high horse. Someone needs to give them an attitude adjustment. How is this right in any way? They have this program to work with kids in EPA but then do this so they can't get into college? Thats ridiculous. One of the many reasons I want my daughter OUT of the PA school system. The school system as well as far too many parents are more caught up in the image of the schools then what is best for the students. Yes I'm sure those brainiac kids & their parents think this is not their problem but what about the majority of students affected by this? Doesnt PAUSD see that this is going to have a huge negative affect on their wonderful reputation??? HELLOOO?? I just dont get it. I was in basic lane classes and I needed help I did not get all through high school and it sucked. I in no way met my potential. The school just looked a blind eye..yes that was Paly 25 years ago. Sad to say but it sounds like things have just gotten worse.

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2011 at 6:47 pm

@ andrea

"They have this program to work with kids in EPA but then do this so they can't get into college? Thats ridiculous. "

Your statement is absolutely wrong. No one in PAUSD stops anyone from going to any college. Anyone who can handle the required classes can take them.

Besides, there are colleges that don't require as much as the UC/CSU system does.

Also, if you can't make it into the UC/CSU system straight away from high school, there are absolutely excellent local colleges, such as Foothill, that allow you to start there and then transfer to the UCs/CSUs as a college junior. The transfer rate of former PAUSD students from Foothill and DeAnza is very good.

Now, I'll repeat what I said before. Improve things for lower performing students, but stop suggesting that we should take away from the higher performing students (eg, eliminate AP classes, take the top math teachers away from the top lanes, etc.) to achieve your goal.

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 2, 2011 at 6:47 pm

This is actually pretty simple

The head of a department should professional enough not to refer to students as "slackers" (see Mr. Toma's letter to the BOE)

PAUSD Math and Science teachers should actually instruct their students.

PAUSD should teach regular level courses for ALL subjects that are required for UC/CSU admission (PALY currently does NOT teach a regular level Biology or Chemistry course).

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2011 at 7:09 pm

I can't believe this.

@ palo alto mom:

Where does Mr. Toma mention the word "slacker" in his letter? I don't see it anywhere.

Are the small gang who want to water down Palo Alto education now going to also use mis/disinformation to achieve their goals. Unbelievable.

By the way, Mr. Toma's letter is very balanced, measured and well articulated. I encourage everyone to read it and see his reasoning. He actually wants to help all students.

Stop these calls to water down the PA Curriculum.

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2011 at 7:14 pm

OK I take this back. He does mention slackers at the end of his letter. Still, first there are slackers in PA, like everywhere else. There are also hard working students who have trouble with their math classes.

Again, Mr. Toma's letter is very reasonable and well articulated. Please, all of you read it carefully.

Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2011 at 7:41 pm

The stumbling block is not math. It is the English requirement. From what I recall, more kids did not meet the English requirement than the math.

Posted by Paly graduate
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 2, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Ms. Clark,

I am shocked to read your editorial-guest opinion. First, in all my K-12 years in PAUSD, I've witnessed nothing but support for the "under-represented" minorities: Special reading group and weekly math tutoring in elementary school; special aids/teachers for middle school; academic center math and science tutors at Gunn and Paly. Kids used to tell me that they don't care because their parents don't care- instead of doing homework at night, they're out partying or hanging out with their friends. Your comment, "because they are not providing them with effective teaching" is absolutely wrong and absurd. I finished AP Calculus in my Junior Year. I had great teachers at Paly who inspired me to take advanced math at Stanford during my senior year. They were tough because they expected me to work hard. And I am grateful to them for teaching me the working ethics I need to be successful today.

My message to the parents: STOP manipulating the system. Go home and expect your students to work hard. There is NO discrimination and NO easy way out. Expect your students to work hard.

Posted by LaToya Baldwin Clark
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 2, 2011 at 8:10 pm

@ Parent:

"Mr. Toma not only is a brilliant, brilliant math teacher, he also is a wonderful human being, who cares deeply about his students and all students.
I find it really sad that HE is now being attacked in this all out assault against the school district. When will this stop?"

Whether Mr. Toma is a great person is not relevant. No one forced Mr. Toma to author this letter, or to encourage the members of his department to sign it. Mr. Toma wrote a public letter, and as a public employee, is being asked to be accountable for his actions and the actions of his department. Where has Mr. Toma's character been attacked? In truth, what is being attacked are his behaviors, not him as a person.

"Besides, there are colleges that don't require as much as the UC/CSU system does." Actually, there are not very many. Look at the lowest ranked college in U.S. News and World Report and check their admissions requirements. University of South Dakota, ranked #194, requires 3 years of advanced math, 4 years of english, and three years of science. (They do not require a foreign language.) Paly's current graduation requirements are 2 years of advanced math, 4 years of english, and 2 years of science. Almost all schools ranked #100 and above require exactly what the UC/CSU system requires.

"No one in PAUSD stops anyone from going to any college. Anyone who can handle the required classes can take them."

Of course, anyone who can "handle" the required classes can take them. At issue is that the "required" classes are not broadly able to be handled. This policy of not having accessible classes for the average student IS stopping many students from going to college (see point #2).

"Improve things for lower performing students, but stop suggesting that we should take away from the higher performing students (eg, eliminate AP classes, take the top math teachers away from the top lanes, etc.) to achieve your goal."

As parents, we all know that the teacher your child has matters a lot. This is the reason there is so much behind-the-scenes action at the beginning of the year switching students out of some teachers to get moved to another. I did not mean to suggest that top-achieving students should now get ineffective teachers. The point is that ALL students should have highly-effective teachers, regardless of whether they are low-performing or high-performing. But the truth is, low-performing students (in comparison to high-performing students) have the greatest gains when they have a more effective teacher in comparison to a less effective teacher. High-performing students have much less to lose than low-performing students have to gain.

At the end of the day, public education was created for the betterment of society. Not just for some kids and not others. By virtue of having your child in a public school system, you have to be willing to equitably share resources. The push for A-G aligning is about sharing all this community has to offer with all kids who attend its schools.

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2011 at 9:28 pm

@ Ms. Clark

#1 I stand by my statements about Mr. Toma. First and foremost, to hint that Mr. Toma, whom you probably do not know personally, is racist is very uninformed and completely wrong about him, as well as insulting. Nothing in his letter points to that and you should not be going there. Second, his letter is actually very reasonable. He explains clearly that if we require everybody to meet UC/CSU requirements to graduate, our graduation rate will go down. Is that what you want? (See also #3 below about watering down the curriculum to prop up graduation rates in that context).

#2 As I said, and of course you conveniently ignore it, we have excellent community colleges in the area, that do a splendid job taking PA high school graduates who did not make it directly to the UC/CSU or other campuses and, in two years, take them to the point where they transfer to UC/CSU campuses, including UCLA and Berkeley, for their Junior year in college. Many kids have successfully done that, I know several personally, and the transfer rate of PA school alumni is quite high. Good deal in my opinion.

#3 There already are accessible math classes at all levels. What you are asking for is watering down the curriculum so that more people can take and pass Alg.2, and also, implicitly, so that there no longer are discrepancies in achievement levels, which really is all about making the PARENTS of the less successful students, not the students, feel better about themselves. In the process, we are hurting the majority of kids, and hurting the school district as a whole.

#4 Well, I beg to differ. You are again hinting that the lower achieving students have a greater need for quality instruction than the higher achieving students and that teachers should be switched, and I don't buy that. I know from my personal experience that it has been of utmost importance for my children to have teachers who were comfortable with the higher level math they were teaching. To ask for good teachers for all is one thing, to hint that the high lane class should settle for mediocre teachers so that the top math teachers do remedial work, is not acceptable.

Again, I find appalling this concerted effort by a relatively small group of parents to attack the school district on all fronts, first the calendar, then AP classes, and now this.

Posted by Moira
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 2, 2011 at 9:31 pm

I commend Ms. Baldwin Clark and others for analyzing the A-G data and identifying that there is a need for Algebra II classes that meet the UC/CSU requirements and aren't geared at a level beyond that. Not everyone will be in engineering or technology, but you have to get to college first to study liberal arts or social sciences. I was never interested or strong in math, but I was a top student in languages, English and History. I wouldn't have gone on to UC or graduate school if the math classes at my school weren't geared for my average ability. There were advanced classed for those who excelled at math.

Did you also know that at Gunn you can't take Chemistry if you didn't get a B in both Math and Biology Freshman year? You have to waste a year in a science class that doesn't meet UC requirements, it is filled with minority students. Why is it a C+ student can't attempt Chemistry? There is no leeway that a student could improve Sophomore year and get a B or better in Chemistry. is it because the basic classes are beyond what other high schools teach as UC/CSU compliant?

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2011 at 9:53 pm

@ Moira,

Maybe I can address the chem class question a little bit although i know the Paly classes, and not the ones at Gunn.

Chemistry as it is taught is really almost more of math class than a lab class. If you don't do well in math, you'll be lost in the chem class. It's that simple. As a matter of fact, kids who qualify for the class find it hard. So, imagine what it would be like for the kids who don't currently qualify.

College admissions have become much more competitive since your time, unfortunately. Between the demographic boom of the past decades and the ongoing budget cuts for public universities we've had a squeeze at the admission level.

I know that you can get enough science at both Paly and Gunn, without being in honors classes, and you can still qualify to enter a UC. Go read the info on the Gunn or Paly website. You'll be able to verify that for yourself.

I have experience at the college levels for my older children. What they'll tell you is that, coming from PA schools, they were ready for the UCs they went to and did not have to struggle badly once there. This contrasts starkly with their UC classmates who came from school districts where the curriculum was laxer. These latter students had a very hard time at UC. Is that what we want for PA children?

Again, and again, we have wonderful community colleges here who take late bloomers and prepare them to transfer to UC/CSU campuses in two years. IMO a very worthwhile option for students who could not take/pass Alg. 2 in high school.

Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park School
on Dec 2, 2011 at 11:05 pm

Ms. Clark's editorial does a great job of highlighting the choice that the Paly math department's letter presents: do we want all of our students to have a path to college if they can meet UC/CSU admission standards, or not? The letter makes it clear that the lowest lane math classes at Paly (and presumably, at Gunn as well), are pitched well above the actual A-G standard. Practically, that means that a significant number of students can't go to a public university in California simply because they attend a PAUSD high school. There are an additional number of students who struggle in these classes even though they ultimately pass them, some because their families can afford tutors. This has a large and continuing impact on these students' life chances -- there is an enormous amount of research demonstrating the economic and physical and mental health benefits to a college education over the course of a lifetime. Is it fair to deny these kids access to college not because they don't meet the A-G standards set by the UC and CSU, but because our schools don't want to teach a class that's appropriate to their skills and interest?

I don't doubt that the Paly math department is sincerely committed to math education and to the education of these students. However, it's clear that they are privileging the rigor of the curriculum, even in the lowest lane, over the life chances of these students. The idea which both the letter and @angry parent present, that these kids are better off failing math than going to college, makes no sense if you are thinking about the actual lives of actual people, as opposed to abstractions like "reputation". And while it's true that there are excellent local community colleges, for many students they don't represent a realistic path to college, particularly for minority and poor kids. See on this point an interesting paper from Cal State Sacramento based on data from California community colleges entitled "Racial / Ethnic Differences in Transfer Rates in California: Implications for Policy and Practice." That paper summarizes the research this way: "Research demonstrates that persistence and completion rates are higher for students who begin college immediately after high school, enroll full time, and attend continuously than for students with more non-traditional attendance patterns (Berkner, He, Cataldi & Knepper, 2002). Latino and African American students are more likely to have non-traditional enrollment patterns, including delayed entry, part-time attendance, and periods of “stopping out” or taking time off from college (Lee & Frank, 1990; Fry, 2002). This is particularly true for students who begin their studies in community colleges. In addition, underrepresented minority students are more likely to be the first in their family to attend college, and may therefore have less access to the knowledge and advice of parents and other family members about the college process in general and transfer in particular (Striplin, 1999; Schwartz, 2001; Ceja, 2001). See Web Link p. 16.

I'm also puzzled by the zero-sum thinking that is implicit in the Paly letter, and explicit for @angry parent. Why does teaching a lowest lane that offers a path to college threaten the curriculum for students in the highest lane? @angry seems to think, despite her praise for the Paly math teachers, that some of them can't understand the math that's taught in the highest lane and have to be kept away from teaching it. I very much doubt that's true -- in fact, I suspect that math teachers don't get better at math over time, they get better at teaching. Having the best teachers focus on the most challenging teaching makes sense, and will benefit those students who are struggling in math. Certainly the idea that those at the bottom need to fail in order to prove the overall rigor of the curriculum is impossible to maintain, at least if you care about the actual kids in those classes as I'm sure we all do.

The idea that the schools should serve all of the students isn't really a radical idea. (I'm happy to see, though, that at least here @angry parent doesn't have a lot of company). This is pretty simple: the school board has adopted a focused goal for the district for 2011-12 to increase percentage of students who graduate with A-G, able to attend a California public university. The Paly math department has made it clear that a key obstacle to that goal is that the lowest lane of math is taught well above the actual A-G standard. Will the school board step in to mandate that there be a path to college for all PAUSD students? Write to the school board -- bklausner, bmitchell, mcaswell, dtom, and ctownsend, all -- and tell them what you think. And while you're at it, ask them what they think, as I at least haven't heard from them about their views on this letter.

Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 3, 2011 at 12:12 am

So what happens if the math course is watered down, and the same demographic of kids don't do well? Doesn't the issue have to do more with the resources that the affected demographic group of kids don't have?

If a student is having trouble understanding a concept, alot of time the parents are the ones who will help the student with individualized attention. What the article doesn't highlight for all the students (including the white & asian kids) is the other data points like - how much education did the parents have, what is the income level, are they one income or two income households, etc.

Posted by I'm listening, but...
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 3, 2011 at 12:36 am

I am concerned that the level of several classes at the high school are taught above state standards; it's unfair. Some students repeat them but can only pass when they take the classes off campus--some pay lots of money and get tutoring but others take the class at community college. Seems wrong to not be able to earn a C- or better in high school but do so in the same course in college.

But, the statistics the district reports don't account for those students who choose a community college option early on and willingly opt out of trying to be CSU/UC eligible; instead, they focus on graduation. These are informed decisions families are making and we are not in a position to judge others' values.

Moreover, other students who are not CSU/UC eligible matriculate to other 4-year colleges, routinely. (BTW, appearing in US News and World Report rankings is not the mark of a quality education or a "good" college.) If PAUSD moves to A-G grad reqs, students who don't meet them will be not granted a diploma and cannot matriculate to college (a certificate of completion or waiver isn’t sufficient). Imagine the blow to a student’s psyche if he is admitted to 4-yr college (not a CSU/UC) but can’t earn a diploma from his high school to attend that college because A-G requirements weren't fulfilled?!

And, let's be clear...taking the correct sequence of A-G courses isn’t enough; classes need to be passed with C- or better for CSU/UC eligibility while a D- is currently a passing grade for PAUSD graduation.

People are concerned about reducing student stress. But, specifying an increased number of A-G requirements (i.e. requiring 20 elective credits to be world language credits while still requiring 4 years of History when CSU/UC only requires 2) puts more pressure on students and offers less freedom to pursue electives that keep them motivated and interested in learning.

Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 3, 2011 at 12:55 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by I'm listening, but...
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 3, 2011 at 1:27 am

Oh, forgot to add...
If students take classes off campus to fulfill A-G requirements, the high schools might not even be aware of it. In other words, some of the students the district reports as not meeting A-G requirements actually have done so (off campus) and were admitted to CSU/UC.

Posted by Kim B.
a resident of Nixon School
on Dec 3, 2011 at 1:51 am

A similar problem was happening at Stanford. The math department was teaching classes at such an elevated level that many engineers couldn't pass the necessary math pre-requisites, so they were foregoing engineering majors. To solve the problem, engineering started offering the math courses that the engineering students (not math majors) needed to be successful. Is this lowering standards? I don't think so. I think it's working around an unreasonable and unnecessary obstacle and creating a path for more students to become successful engineers.

PAUSD needs to do the same to create paths for success for more of its students. Unfortunately, the district itself is the obstacle for many kids. Otherwise, why would kids at Paly and Gunn fail the algebra 2 course (which is required for admission to UC/CSUs) taught in the high school, but pass it easily in places like Foothill College? The courses seem to intentionally weed out kids who could thrive in the most accessible state colleges and universities, if only they were not being precluded from attending them by the egos behind the current high school math instructional levels.

Much has been said about these "excellent" math teachers. But excellent teachers don't abdicate their responsibility to teach poor or other disadvantaged kids. That was the origin of public education-- teaching the children of dirt farmers and others so they would be contributing members of society. It is outrageous that the entire Paly math department (save the one retiring teacher) would sign a letter publicly stating that they could not be expected to teach these children. And with half of kids getting Ds or Fs in algebra 2 at Gunn (though, again, doing well at the much touted Foothill College and in other CSU approved online courses), I fail to see what is so excellent about the teaching there either, if this example is any indication. If half of my clients were failing, no one would be congratulating me because of the success of my other 50%. I would be unemployed.

Posted by Kim B.
a resident of Nixon School
on Dec 3, 2011 at 2:15 am

I read a few comments about kids who do poorly in high school math and then struggle in college. I went to an elite college that offered remedial math. I didn't take it, but I'm sure that the students who did are now doctors, lawyers, stock brokers, coaches, professors (though probably not math professors) or otherwise successful in their careers. And I'll bet they are glad to have had the chance to take that remedial math class in college, as opposed to being weeded out in high school. So let's leave the college admissions decisions to the admissions officers, please. It's their job, not the math instructional supervisors', not ours.

Posted by Tremaine Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 3, 2011 at 3:11 am

So much to say, but first let me preface this: I am a Black Senior at Palo Alto High School, founder of the Student Equity Action Network (SEAN), a national merit scholar, and am currently enrolled in AB Calculus AP (Toma is my teacher). I guess that makes me 1 of the 3 (with the other 2 being twins).

First and foremost, I am tired of parents commenting on this issue with barely any advanced knowledge of the issue itself (Yes, I'm talking about you angry parent). The students live through these policies, and have their lives shaped and defined by them. Thus, they provide a completely different level of insight than is possible for a parent to provide. Comments such as yours are made from an extremely limited frame of reference with little research and dedication to the issue at hand. Need an example? You last comment about PAUSD chemistry classes. You are very right in your assertions that students without a good base in math will struggle in chemistry at Paly or Gunn, but what you fail to acknowledge or understand is that you just stated the very counterpoint to your argument. The entire reason that students will struggle without sufficient math skill is not that chemistry is too hard for those students, it's that chemistry as it's taught at Paly is too hard. For example, I took chemistry AC (now chemistry H) for the first semester of 10th grade, and got a B+. Given that the class was at that point unweighted, I dropped down to basic chemistry, figuring that my GPA would benefit, and my stress level would decrease. In that "normal" class, I needed to get a 99% on the final exam (got 100%) to scrape the A-. I ended up working just as hard in that class as I did in AC, for only a minimal grade increase. How are regular students supposed to survive in this "normal lane." You can't tell me that there is not a less rigorous way to teach the class that deals with conceptual chemistry as opposed to math-based chemistry. While your claim was not outlandish in theory, it makes no sense given a certain level of prerequisite knowledge.

I may be in high school, but I've spent the entire last four years committing myself wholeheartedly to this issue through SEAN, and thus can claim infinitely more background knowledge. Forgive me if this all sounds somewhat condescending, passion about certain issues can sometimes lead to an absence of proper etiquette. You continually ask others to read the letter carefully, and to read your comments carefully, as though we cannot plainly see and understand exactly what you are saying. In fact, you are guilty of that very crime to a far more egregious extent. This issue has absolutely nothing to do with Toma's character (I happen to know first-hand that he is an excellent and very supportive teacher), but for some reason you keep tying the goal of accountability to the realm of personal attacks. You also continually claim that we are proposing a downgrade of teaching talent at the highest levels. You, I, and everyone else reading this knows very well that this is nothing but a hollow sound-byte. Do you really believe that our district would strip the highest-caliber students of any possible advantage in mastering such material? In reality, the proposal is one of equity: Craft an accessible curriculum for average students, and then provide them with highly-trained, highly-motivated teachers. That in no way implies removing Toma from teaching AB Calculus classes. Please observe your own advice and carefully read all of the other opinions presented. Perhaps even go a step further, and adequately research the topic, so that we are all operating from an equal level of understanding. You wouldn't debate Intellectual Property Law without first building a necessary level of background knowledge. This case is no different.

Most importantly, I agree wholeheartedly that we have a great system of community colleges in California. In fact, the caliber of our junior college system is unmatched throughout the country. But this issue is not about community college being a valid option. Rather, it is about how there is very little, if any, middle ground between the high performing route and the 2-year route. And when you look at the numbers, this does become a matter of racial inequity (you can have whatever opinions you want about the causes of these numbers, but ask yourself, how much of your opinion stems from any kind of first-hand research or knowledge about the issue?). Thus, proposing the 2-year route as some "holy-grail" for students who cannot cope at Paly is essentially saying: "Hey students of color, you guys aren't really college material at Paly, but community college is great too." And that, my dear angry parent, is the definition of low expectations, which are present from day 1 in PAUSD. Low expectations beget low performance, because students are presented with more opportunities to not succeed. For example, I know a black student that was diagnosed with a reading disability in first grade and placed in a speical-ed course (one of those great extra support opportunities that are apparently provided to all minority students). However, both of his parents, being Stanford professors, went for a second opinion. The result was nothing more than a new pair of glasses. I have seen countless peers fall of at one point or another to the special-education route for no good reason, other than an expectation that if a student of color is not succeeding, "well then, we should probably check to see if they have a learning disability." I'm incriminating anybody's character with that statement, it's a simple observation of numerous, repeated actions throughout my entire life (do some research on our district's special-ed disproportionality issue, you'll be surprised).

To summarize, angry parent, your comments represent everything that makes me despise my hometown. They are elitist, uninformed, and utterly insensitive. Yet that is the standard Palo Alto argument: "Don't change anything, the system works great for the high-achievers! You just want to take from them and give to other, less motivated students." No matter that this consistent rhetoric results in roughly 15% of Black students meeting A-G in a given year. To this "don't rock the boat" attitude, all i can say is this: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." This issue is one of Palo Alto realizing that it has a public, not a private school system, and is thus obligated to provide equity in education. If we accomplish this, we no longer have these low-achieving students dragging down our numbers, which would elevate our overall prestige, and actually benefit the highest achieving students. A rising tide raises all boats.

Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 3, 2011 at 10:54 am

This debate overall is a worthwhile one to have in the public sphere, and I appreciate that there are some well-reasoned arguments on both sides. I also appreciate those who have posted comments without anonymity. The only point I wish to add to the dialogue is that I think Ms. Clark is on solid footing when she's most specific, but less so when she generalizes about the "best teachers" being isolated and only working with the highest level classes. In my ten years at Palo Alto High School, I have been impressed by the overall level of professional practice and knowledge among my peers, and I have seen a concerted effort to ensure that faculty members teach classes all along the range of grade levels and course difficulty. Furthermore, I would have a hard time identifying "the best teachers." Some people use that phrase to mean teachers who have the highest level knowledge in their field, while others use the term to mean most organized, communicative, supportive, friendly, inspirational, etc.

Posted by Moira
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 3, 2011 at 11:35 am

Thank you Mr. Kirkman for your input and I wish you the best in your future education. The focus of this has been primarily on black students, but other PAUSD students aren't meeting the A-G requirements, or require private tutoring and parental involvement to do so. The job of a public high school is to do its best to educate all of the students. Of course there are those whose whose learning-disabilities may prevent them from attending a UC/CSU, but that is not this entire group of students. And no, JCs don't result in a decent transfer rate to 4 year colleges, sad but true.

Angry parent is the part of Palo Alto community who make people from outside the area view us as insufferable elitist snobs. He/She touts the rigor and excellence of UCs, yet had to disparage my degree from an earlier era when I posed a different opinion. Maybe he/she needs to hear this in terms more on par with his/her cold logic: California is majority non-white and these students are underachieving and attending college at a very low rate. If these black and latino kids aren't educated and don't find decent jobs, who will buy the high tech gadgets, buy the houses, hire the bankers, lawyers and doctors who were the "good" students at Paly and Gunn?

Posted by parent of former toma student
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 3, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Having experienced the arrogant attitude, and intimidation Toma regularly subjects his less than future nobel prize math students to, the real issue isn't racism, but the fact that Toma doesn't want to take the time to teach or inspire, which I consider to be inherently lazy. His accent and rapid fire delivery makes it difficult for students to follow in class. Since he's tenured, the only solution is to make sure to avoid his class. I do have to say that his negative approach to students who approach him looking for help isn't necessarily shared by all signatories to the referenced letter. My other child had a completely different experience with an Algebra II teacher that took the time to engage and listen to her students.

He may be a great mathematician, but he is definitely not a good teacher. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I thought the whole point of going to school was to learn and for teachers to teach.

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Moira, I am not trying to disparage you! I am the product of the same system as you a number of years ago! I am just being realistic here, is all.

To those who call me an elitist, call me that if its makes you feel better. However, my message all along has been that EVERYBODY deserves good schooling and good (ie effective) teachers. Still, what I detect in the current movement is an undercurrent of people who want high level classes watered down or even eliminated (some parents call for the elimination of AP classes). And I, along with other parents, am against this, while we are in favor of supporting and helping students who struggle. BTW there is much support at the high school for those who want it, including free tutoring.

To those who suggest that universities, including UCs, should be in the remedial business: This is definitely not in the original charter of the UC!! They are supposed to be research universities. That' s why we have the three tier system in Calfornia! Asking the UCs to offer remedial classes as part of their normal business is asking to now water down education at the UC level. To offer (more) remedial classes, the UC will have to cut some of their normal and higher level classes; their funds are limited. So, you are now effectively asking the UCs to water down their offerings.

Just consider that the primary and secondary education systems in the US is in general of a low level internationally (PAUSD being one of the exceptions). Now, we should lower the level at the university level?? US universities are good, but won' t be for long with this reasoning. Lessening our educational level further won' t do anybody any favor, including your own children. Actually, it will harm this country and ALL of its inhabitants (and no, I am not Asian or a tiger parent type).

Again, everybody should be given a good education, without eliminating AP classes or lowering class levels. And PARENTS should accept that all kids won' t be Stanford or UC bound.

If Palo Alto has a parent problem it is the problem of parents who can't accept that all children are not going at the same top level.

Posted by 3kids
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 3, 2011 at 2:43 pm


Gifted students have disabilities. They are more likely than students with average IQ scores to have neurological disabilities, such as ADHD. Some of these exceptionally bright kids are being shut out of classes they can substantively handle, because they don't receive accommodations in the upper math lanes. Our child was placed in a special gifted math program in middle school, and scored well on the Calculus AP exam, but had a poor experience in the Paly math system. "Disability" is not synonymous with a cognitive inability to understand complex academic subjects. The A-G requirements may help move our school culture in a good direction by fostering a greater willingness to include kids who need accommodations in the upper math lanes.

Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 3, 2011 at 4:17 pm

I think the issue is Toma doesn't want to expend the resources necessary to get the lowest percentile to pass, because it takes away from time with the better students, and time is a limited resource. This is completely understandable. Frankly, if a kid needs that much help to pass Algebra they will not have a chance in a UC/CSU school.

Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park School
on Dec 3, 2011 at 5:58 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Paly grad
a resident of another community
on Dec 3, 2011 at 6:27 pm

@ angry person --

I don't think anyone is fighting to get these teachers to teach anyone they view as unteachable -- you can keep these people for the higher lanes. I think people want quality teachers who don't carry these attitudes. Imagine being a student of color at Paly and reading this letter? What kind of environment is that when your teachers are literally writing you off?

I think you are presenting a scare tactic about no APs which deflects the issue at hand, whether you intend to or not. This is not a zero sum game; the high performing students will always have their AP classes and are not brought down by the students you are worried about. The two issues are not intertwined. It's about using the resources already allocated to the lower echelon (i.e., they go to class too) and using them more effectively so they can succeed.

I think the Paly math department needs leadership that actually believes in all of their students. The district and principal can't allow these offensive statements, or if they are not offensive, then the letter should be handed out with the math syllabus, posted on and sent home to each family so they know where they stand when they get to Paly.

And what is the Paly math department doing anyway writing letters to lobby the school board? They have a labor union and they have their rights as private citizens but they can't use their paid position to lobby.

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Old Palo Alto,

You're only right that resources are being skewed in favor of one group, but it's a matter of opinion if the direction is the right one.

So far, Palo Alto reflects your opinion.

Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park School
on Dec 3, 2011 at 7:26 pm

The Weekly took down my attempt to respond to Old Palo Alto humorously, so I'll just say it more directly. The UC/CSU systems set the standard for A-G classes at a level that they believe is appropriate for students to attend UC/CSU schools. Our math department chooses to teach classes in the lowest lane that are harder than the level set by our public university system. Failing to pass those classes is not a sign that those students would "not have a chance" in college.
I think that both the Paly math department, angry parent, and Old Palo Alto share a desire to have their cake and eat it too -- to deny to some students the ability to attend a public university in California, while at the same time denying that that is the implication, by saying that these kids would certainly fail if they did make it to college. This is a nice way out of taking responsibility for what is actually happening here, but it isn't true -- at least according to our public universities, which set the A-G standard.
It's worth noting that our school officials are not speaking with a single voice on this issue. The Superintendent, Kevin Skelly, and the senior staff of the district were trying to get A-G adopted for all students. They were thwarted by the refusal of the math department to agree to teach Algebra II in a way that met the needs of all students. The school board, despite its members claims to support access to college for all students, failed to back up the Superintendent. That's why I urged everyone, in an earlier post, to let the school board let you know what you think.

Posted by Marie
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 4, 2011 at 9:18 am

Yes, the teachers in this and other districts practice "missionary" teaching in thought & deed. They have very low expectations for students of color. No, they don't wear white sheets with pointed hats. But covert racism is just as bad as overt racism. They feel as if they are doing the students of color a "favor" by not pushing them to excel. Unconsciously they (white teachers & administrators) see potential maids & drug dealers while I see the next president of America, the next state senator, or PAUSD board member.

Wake up Palo Alto! Take off the blinders! Do the right thing.

Posted by Paul
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 4, 2011 at 9:52 am

The Civil Rights Department spokesperson sees the BIG picture - nationwide. PAUSD is one of thousands of school districts that hires white teachers and administrators who are given no screening and no training for dealing with a diverse student population. The recruiters and press give candidates the impression that they are entering a white wonderland where every student has a parent who is employed at Stanford or owner of a mega-buck start up.

And not all students of color are from EPA or EMP. There are black & brown kids who have been in the PAUSD system since kindergarten but you wouldn't know it from their skill level as compared to their paler or yellow classmates. How is it that kids sitting in the same classroom receive a different education?

Here is one of the dirty little secrets of some teachers - lower expectations for non-white/non-Asian kids. These are NOT cruel people;just unenlightened and products of a racist environment. The media - TV, movies, magazines, newspapers - present negative images of non-white folk. Teachers are just as susceptible to this brainwashing as most of us.

School districts need to make a REAL effort to raise the consciousness of their teachers, administrators, parents, and students with regard to negative racial images, covert racism, and equality for all.

Posted by concerned
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 4, 2011 at 12:09 pm

The request for A-G to be a graduation requirement is elitist in and of itself. The message it sends is that any student who is not college material or who is interested in another career path or who matures later than some of our other students should not be allowed into our community. It is an exclusive suggestion and I applaud the school board and administration for their wisdom in realizing this.

Low expectations for special ed and for studens of color and low socio-econominc standing are real issues in PAUSD but forcing kids out of our schools will not be a solution to those problems.

Overly fast pacing and heavy workload are real issues in PAUSD. They can be solved without sending a message that all who plan to attend Community College, go out to work after high school or gear their high school resumes for schools which do not require A-G are not welcome.

The networks and groups who are advocating for A-G are advocating for the wrong solution to these problems. In the process they are offending all of us whose parents are machinists, carpenters, plumbers and many active military who spend their time protecting us.

Networks and groups, please consider some of your fellow students who are not able to or who do not share your view of the world and your goals. Please consider the stress that would be placed upon students who may not be able to complete A-G as taught strictly to the UC/CSU requirements (not amped-up versions that we may have now). These individuals exist and their shot at jobs and programs which require a diploma should not be jeopardized by this request which looks short-sited, uncreative and elitist in their eyes.

Posted by Joanne Jacobs
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 4, 2011 at 12:48 pm

If Palo Alto high schools offer a basic Algebra II course that met minimal UC/CSU requirements, it's likely that more students will be able to start college at San Jose State rather than Foothill. (These students won't have the grades and test scores for UC.) That will raise their odds of completing a bachelor's degree: Community college transfer and graduation rates are quite low.

However, students with weak math skills have poor graduation rates at four-year colleges too. About half of San Jose State students -- all of whom passed a version of Algebra II with a C or better -- are placed in remedial math, which is often a "Bermuda Triangle" for college aspirations. Most will not go on to earn a college degree.

There's a tradeoff here: Lower standards so more students can start at a four-year college, but accept that many won't be prepared to succeed when they get there. Or maintain high standards and work harder to persuade all students to take and pass Algebra II.

The third option is unlikely at Paly: Work with Footbhill to create a career-prep track. I write Community College Spotlight (, so I know there are programs that qualify students for a "middle-skill" job in two years or less. But this would be seen as setting low expectations for other people's kids.

Even if Paly creates a basic Algebra II class, it can't be easy enough to guarantee everyone will pass. Making A-G courses a graduation requirement will mean more students -- disproportionately special ed, black and Hispanic -- will need a waiver to graduate. That could be a price worth paying. After all, employers rarely check high school transcripts and there are many non-selective colleges that won't care. But the board should consider it.

When my daughter took high honors geometry from Mr. Toma in ninth grade, she thought he was a good teacher only for the many super-smart students in the class. She dropped down to low honors for Algebra II, a much better fit. (Her teacher for that class has signed the letter, I see.) She had Mr. Toma again for AP Calculus (AB) as a senior. She decided he was a good teacher who worked hard to reach all students. Earning a C "was my fault," she said. "I wasn't willing to work hard enough." She'd prioritized AP English, Campanile and Mock Trial. She may not have learned much calculus, but she learned to take responsibility for her choices. And she was able to earn an A+ in Statistics in college.

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2011 at 1:09 pm


We are talking about Algebra II right? Elitist?

A workforce that is afraid of Algebra II in the 21st century?

The allocation of resources is a value issue, but Algebra II is an EDUCATION issue.

While it's a matter of opinion, PAUSD is currently missing the mark on the values issue, by refusing to add 1 more Math lane to teach an Algebra II class at State standards, in favor of teacher devised standards. Teacher devised standards favoring competitive Math students is highly inappropriate for a public school. Actually, this could and should also be a legal issue.

This same district can't contemplate getting Algebra II taught, as a rock bottom Math level by 12th grade of High School?! That's an education failure.

In other parts of the country, this would merit a charter school option.

Community Center, you had it

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Community Center Parent, you had it right..

"Algebra II is not really that difficult a subject. If the success rate in any population is as low as 15%, likely that is due to the ACCUMULATED failures of many math teachers for a number of years. The issue likely goes back to Middle School or earlier. Shameful."

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2011 at 1:28 pm

I completely agree with those who say that math is not taught properly before the high school level in Palo Alto. I've always been amazed by how it has been taught here. Coming from Europe, where I learned my math through high school, I've always found it shocking.

In particular, in exercises/homework/tests/quizzes, all the way around, and through at least the 7th grade (including in the high lane), I saw that students were only expected to give their answer in the form of the final result of the problem.

Past basic calculations (additions, multiplication tables, etc.), it is severely deficient in my opinion. Students should be made to show their work from the earliest grades! That's the only way to make sure they understand the problem, apply the proper reasoning, know how to proceed (there may be more than on way to do it right of course), and also learn to write down their mathematical thinking as they are required to do it in high school. It should be done right away, from elementary school on forward! And the end result given as the answer to the problem should be only part of the grade. The students should get credit for the reasoning they get right on paper. And, BTW, it should not be in the form of an essay. They should learn mathematical annotation which they learn very little of in our schools.

So, I wholeheartedly agree that math teaching is deficient in our otherwise excellent elementary schools and in much of middle school in PA.

Posted by concerned
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 4, 2011 at 5:26 pm

Big Picture, We are talking about forcing A-G, not simply adding a lane of Algebra II. I'm not really familiar with the Paly math dept and their laning policies. At Gunn we have an Algebra II lane which is aligned with the STAR test to state standards. A-G also includes 2 years of a Modern Language and the requirement to have a C- or better in each class. So yes, if trade programs do not require these things, then forcing A-G will cut some students out of a diploma, losing a 13 year struggle to graduate. I would call that elitist.

Paly's Algebra II class is a different issue. Furthermore, English was the class which kept most of the students from completing A-G in the class of 2011. The groups and networks have chosen math as the new basis of their argument because the Paly math department wrote a letter. But it is not the only issue.

Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park School
on Dec 4, 2011 at 7:02 pm

@concerned: I think you're saying that it's elitist to expect that the schools will prepare all students to go to college, because some students don't want to go to a 4-year college in favor of other options like the military or building trades. I think that's separate from the practical problem of what to do for kids who can't pass an A-G curriculum, for which there has to be a practical solution, which I'll talk about below. But right now we have a situation in which many students don't have the opportunity to go to college, whether they want to or not, because of the lack of classes that meet the A-G requirements taught at an appropriate level. The fact that those students are disproportionately black and Hispanic makes this not just about free choice of future career paths, but the translation of systemic disparities in opportunity into outcomes in our schools. I also wouldn't equate A-G exclusively with college -- when Russlynn Ali, currently the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, was in California advocating for A-G for all for large urban districts like LAUSD, she talked about A-G as preparation for work or college.

The question of whether to require A-G as a graduation requirement has a practical aspect -- what about kids who can't pass an A-G curriculum? -- and an organizational component -- what changes would that produce in our schools, and are those changes positive or negative? As the Superintendent emphasized at the May school board meeting, waivers of the A-G requirement provide an option for students who can't (or even don't really want to) pass an A-G curriculum. Those students wouldn't be worse off with a waiver than they are currently -- they would have exactly the same transcript, and they already know that they aren't graduating with A-G.

So why bother to have A-G as a graduation requirement at all? I think the answer is that it shifts what is now a private, essentially imperceptible event -- failing to take and pass a college-ready curriculum -- and turns it into an event that the school has to be accountable for and can manage. The Superintendent emphasized this at the May meeting, and I think he was right. If students are expected to have an A-G curriculum in order to graduate, then counselors will be accountable for ensuring that they take the right classes. If students are expected to pass A-G classes in order to graduate, then teachers will be accountable for teaching A-G classes that meet the standards that students can pass (this is precisely why the Paly math department wrote the letter opposing A-G as a graduation requirement -- they don't want to be accountable for teaching A-G classes that students can pass). If students are expected to pass A-G classes in order to graduate except if they have a waiver, the school administrations will be accountable for ensuring that the granting of waivers is an opportunity to determine whether it's really in the student's best interest, and for probing into whether the waiver represents an organizational failing rather than an individual choice. Right now, no one is clearly accountable at any step in the process, and as a consequence we have students not being prepared for college through an impenetrable combination of bad counseling, low expectations, lack of appropriately pitched classes, and diffuse responsibility.

In terms of math versus English and other courses -- I certainly wouldn't say that the problem of the lack of classes in the lower lanes that conform to the A-G standards is confined to Algebra II. I suspect that it's hard to read from missing classes back to causes, since once students realize that they are not graduating with an A-G curriculum the 4th year of English may well seem unnecessary. But the math teachers were the only ones who refused to commit to teaching A-G for all in May, and they are the ones who felt so strongly about it that they organized themselves to write a letter.

Posted by concerned
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 4, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Ken, the points you raise have been understood from the beginning but it never hurts to review.

The problem with this solution is that waivers are demoralizing. They create a second-class citizen out of a student who has been struggling to graduate from this district for 13 years. Whether a recruiter notices or not, the student notices. I think that counts far more. Respect for our students and their mental health is very important.

Creating second-class citizens out of some of our students simply to put a watch on our district is not acceptable. It shows that we are not cognizant of what our most vulnerable students go through. In fact, those families whose students are not successfully passing A-G do not have the luxury of showing up at school board meetings or writing for the Weekly because of the humiliation factor. Advocacy for a change like this is not at all a level playing field.

I also wonder, if one needs a waiver, and anyone can get the waiver, what does a requirement really mean?

While the Paly math department was the only group who wrote a letter, many staff, parents and students have reservations about this exclusionary proposal. The reservations of these others may not be the same as those of the Paly math dept. Mine are not.

Posted by Nancy
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 4, 2011 at 9:00 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park School
on Dec 4, 2011 at 9:34 pm

@concerned - I understand what you're saying about stigmatization, and it makes sense to be concerned about it. I think our current system is stigmatizing our kids through unnecessary failure and that waivers are less harmful than that, but ultimately I think we're disagreeing about means rather than ends -- we both want schools that meet our students at their own level and work to help them learn. We can certainly agree that our classes should be more accessible to all students and that all of our students should have a path to college if they choose, whether A-G is required for graduation or not. Let's work on making the changes that we can agree on.

Posted by Stop the whining
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 4, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Why do we keep relating everything to racism? Why not link it to effort and values? Who cares what race/color you are, if people don't value education and put the effort necessary to succeed in it (as in any other fields), then they won't. If they don't value it enough to make the sacrifices necessary, then why blame society? And why allow society to pressure anyone to think that they're doomed if they don't go to college?

Our handyman makes more than our family does after all deductions. He, his wife, and 2 kids live in a house shared by 12 people. They have cable TV, spends $10K on trips to Vegas, are building a multi-story residence for their family in Mexico, and are happy with their life. I try to share my values on education with him but beyond that, I have to respect his choices, too!

Posted by Student of Color
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 4, 2011 at 9:50 pm


15% means that in the current system we are already second-class citizens. When someone walks across the stage, they aren't thinking they are there because of a waiver. Making A-G the standard prevents someone walking across the stage and realizing that they have no concrete plans after high school. At least this way, they have to seriously consider all of their options, instead of simply falling through the cracks.

Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 4, 2011 at 10:58 pm

It doesn't matter what your color is, if you're willing to put in the work you will get the grade. Implying anything different suggests that 'students of color' are not up to the task at the same degree of effort. This is non sense. 'Students of color' are just as smart and capable as students without color (isn't this silly?), stop making crutches and get to work.

Posted by Student of Color
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 4, 2011 at 11:24 pm

@Old Palo Alto

You are right in saying that students of color are just as smart and capable as other students. But what you fail to realize is how far behind many students of color find themselves when they get to high school, due to a systematic inability to prepare all students equally. If you really want, you can blame that issue on students of color not fully applying themselves in elementary school. However, that view expects far too much personal responsibility out of small children. So it's not a matter of not working hard or "making crutches." Rather, it's a matter of how much extra effort it will take in high school for many students of color to simply catch up in terms of academics, study skills, etc. In today's ultra-competitive college environment, such a disadvantage out of the gate is a huge obstacle that cannot be overlooked or taken lightly.

Posted by LaToya Baldwin Clark
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 4, 2011 at 11:39 pm

I believe that most people who care about this issue, on either side of the debate, want what's best for students. But many of the arguments being made really reflect bigotry, for lack of a better word.

I've never heard of any inner-city school or school district that serves mostly minority or low-income students advocate for an eventual goal of anything less preparation for a college education. Schools serving these students are starting to focus on college completion as a metric of success, even though they are only K-12. Why? Because it is uncontroversial that a college degree is the best way to better one's economic, social, and political standing and what you do in K-12 should prepare you for college. When you leave high school, every door should be open to you. You should be able to fully engage in the social and political life of this country. That is the promise of America's public education system.

No one is advocating for A-G aligning without serious reform throughout the entire district. No one is advocating that the District institute the policy for the Class of 2013, who are currently juniors. The policy would be adopted for an early class - say current 6th graders. This gives students, families, and the district time to implement all the added supports that will be needed. I agree that the problem is not solely the teaching at the high school level. Beginning to expect college readiness for all students in middle and even elementary school is the only way to make A-G work. It requires a different way of teaching, a different way of engaging parents. It requires actually using proven teaching methods and accountability methods that are known to support all students and encourage differentiated learning. It requires an investment in professional development, and an openness to do things differently.

Even with extra supports, there are going to be some students who will not be able to fulfill the requirements. But allowing a waiver system does not create more of a dual-citizenship problem than the district already has. Many of the comments here reflect these distinctions. This district already has two tiers in place among many other strata: bussed v. non-busses; high-achievers v. low-achievers; 4 year college goers v. non-4 year college goers; special education v. non-special education. The waiver system is much less insidious than any of these other tiers, because the district will have to individualize each child to see if a waiver is appropriate. They will have to justify why a child cannot go to a 4-year college right out of high school. They will have to justify why after a child spends his or her whole schooling experience in PAUSD they cannot pass basic benchmarks for college. The district will have to collect accurate data in order to fix the problems they have. Now, the district just allows the chips to fall as they may instituting reforms that have not been shown to drastically reduce the achievement gap between races or disability status.

But this is not just a black/latino issue. Nor is it a VTP/Palo Alto resident issue. Please understand that. Many of the kids who are struggling are white. In fact, the majority of kids who did not meet A-G were white or asian. Many of the kids who are struggling are Palo Alto residents and have been so their entire lives. Many of these kids have parents like me, with multiple graduate degrees, who live on Stanford's campus and are thus the kids are exposed to hard-working students every day. This issue is not about lazy parents, or kids who don't want to work hard. It's about average kids who need to have the opportunity to go to college. It's not elitist to point out that a kid's decision to not attend college at 17 most likely isn't great long-term planning. This issue is about teachers who obviously do not think highly of EVERY student. There is no doubt that attending college is best, while at least being prepared means that the 17 year old who chose not to attend at 17 can still go when she is 19. Teachers who have already written those kids off as unteachable or a waste of their time should not be teaching in a public school. At the end of the day, this issue is about adults standing in the way of kids going to college.

Posted by Kirsten
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 5, 2011 at 1:10 am

One point I don't think anyone has mentioned yet, is that a minimum requirement class, although meeting the standard to UC/CSU admittance, may not really prepare a student to do well at the university.

I don't have a lot of data, but I have recently started teaching engineering courses at a community college in the area and I've heard faculty express concern about the rigor of various pre-req classes, specifically including math. There is concern and discussion at the CCs about students who do well and meet the requirements at CC who are not well enough prepared for the rigor of UC or CSU.

This is an important point.

Posted by Stop the whining
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 5, 2011 at 2:13 am


"There is no doubt that attending college is best"
You may value the fact that your parents have multiple graduate degrees and live on Stanford's campus. What makes you think other parents should and do feel the same?

"this issue is about adults standing in the way of kids going to college"
Does this include the parents -- who may have a different value system than yours? Are you going to hold THEM accountable?

I know several families whose kids never bother to submit assignments ever since they were in first grade. The school's answer: pour more resources, pull them out of class to catch up with work, get aide time to help with assignments. Please don't be so quick at blaming the teacher / school / district. These are English-speaking, American-born kids who spend their time either online or watching TV instead of doing HW -- while under their parents' watch.

What are your plans for holding the above adults accountable? Surely you're not planning to only hold the teachers accountable?

There are many paths to becoming a productive citizen. It's first and foremost the parents' responsibility and prerogative to choose. This decision is affected by their priorities and experiences, which no teacher or school should ever be held against.

Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 5, 2011 at 6:00 am

LaToya Clark - I think your latest post gets to the heart of the issue - what is needed to prepare students to be successful at college; is it strictly the A-G UC/CSU requirements so that they can apply to colleges, or do the requirements go beyond that, so not only can they apply, but have a much higher degree of sucess at college?

Beyond this issue, are more, which is the admissions criteria to a UC/CSU. Grades and class cirriculum do factor into the admission criteria, and will changing the it materially affect the probability of those students who don't meet the A-G UC/CSU requirements being admitted to a UC/CSU school.

Posted by Observer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 5, 2011 at 8:45 am

It's so ironic in a town like Palo Alto that is so high on its academic standards and achievements, that there is any push back on institutionalizing the college track as the default pathway. It's as if there's a knee-jerk reaction against doing anything to help our underserved minorities, because their presence is resented, except on the football field. Now we know that even the teachers don't want them around either. How sad and so ironic!

Posted by Other side of 101
a resident of another community
on Dec 5, 2011 at 10:06 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 5, 2011 at 11:26 am

All students run from Mr. Toma like the plague. Unless they are math geniuses. He is torturing our students and doesn't care. He is rude and difficult to understand due to his thick accent. The material is already difficult and his personality makes it much more stressful for our students.

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 5, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Getting into a 4 year college and struggling a little is infinitely better than not being eligible for college at all. College students are older and hopefully more mature - some kids just mature later. College classes also just take a lot less time - perhaps 10-15 hours in the classroom per week vs. the 30 or so in high school. College students are often taking only 3-4 classes and do not have all the extracurricular resume-building activities our high school students feel required to do, so there is (in theory) a lot more time to study.

ANY class which is required for graduation and for college acceptance should be available at the USC/CSU level by competent staff.

Posted by Reality Check
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 5, 2011 at 1:54 pm

The Paly math department is using its position to achieve the personal ends of the individuals involved. Maybe these teachers would actually have to start teaching these lower-achieving students? Maybe they would have to update their teaching plan? Sounds like work to be avoided at all costs. Why wouldn't you want to avoid real work when you've got tenure and can instead focus on writing passionate letters to get out of doing your job. They're dressing up their personal agenda with the cloak of their public position. For example, if the proposal were to change the social studies graduation requirement from four years to three, to take the unnecessary extra year off of our kids, you'd have to be skeptical of the history department opining on this -- they'd be against it because they would be facing fewer classes to teach, once kids were freed up from this outdated requirement. But I'm sure we'd hear from them that our kids need more history, as I guess black/brown kids are very capable at social studies since they're not wasting any extra time on math. So Paly math should teach math, not engage in public policy debates -- they're conflicted by their own personal agendas, which seems to be continuing to take credit for the high achievers with tutors who come to school already knowing the material, and to avoid having to really teach anybody. Nice work if you can get it.

Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 5, 2011 at 1:58 pm

"All students run from Mr. Toma like the plague. Unless they are math geniuses. He is torturing our students and doesn't care. He is rude and difficult to understand due to his thick accent. The material is already difficult and his personality makes it much more stressful for our students."

Unfortunately I have to agree with Parent and his/her comments on Mr. Toma. My daughter had Mr. Toma for calculus last year at Paly. She basically learned nothing in his class. He is hard to understand, talks rapidly, and only cares about the elite students. We found a tutor and she would go once a week to the tutor. She would spend an hour each week with the tutor, review all her homework, ask questions, and learn the material. When she tried to ask Mr. Toma questions in class he was rude, or ignored her, or said she was disruptive. She is now in a top 10 liberal arts college and getting an "A" in calculus. She says the professor is teaching the class.

My guess is that Mr. Toma is a suitable teacher for really high level students. But he was useless as a teacher for my daughter and was not interested in her math development. Very disappointing.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 5, 2011 at 2:20 pm

This is not rocket science.

Create 2 lanes for AlgII, with the upper class (the current class) as an Honors class. Problem solved.

Next issue please.

Posted by money
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 5, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Where is the money for that?Our state is cutting money for schools.

Posted by Paly Parent x3
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 5, 2011 at 2:41 pm

@Cresent Dad - THank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!!!

My feelings exactly! What is so hard about this option?? Has nothing to do with dumbing down courses, simply clearly labeling the courses that are being taught correctly. Alg2 is being taught at an advanced level. Label it as such. THere are no if/and's about it.. it is!

I think Mr. Toma, et al. are being completely ridiculous, unfortunately lazy, and it is clear... they don't want to REALLY teach. If the Alg2 course level approved by the state is appropriate for the UC/CSUs then why not Paly? I can't believe this is even a debate. Really?? I hope the District wakes up and really takes a look at teacher motives, because it's not to teach, CLEARY.

Give students an option, instead of making it look as though they are not competent enough to pass a typical Alg2 course. Label the course as it really is... an Alg2 Honors course!

The Paly Math Dept. should feel horrible! Appropriately label the lanes, and then allow the students and parents to choose which is best for their student.
Currently, our students look as though they can't handle a regular Alg2 course. That is, unless they go to another school, which they shouldn't have to do!

Create a UC/CSU lane. Next issue! After all, you ARE getting paid to teach... so TEACH!

Good grief.

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 5, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Since when should it be the district proving that kids can't go to four year colleges? It is and it should be the kids proving that they can do it!!

With this SMALL group "We can do better Palo Alto" demanding changes they want and demanding it with BULLYING tactics (look at the tone of many of their posts around here), we might as well give a high school diploma to anyone that shows up and sits there for 4 years, no matter the classes they take, no matter the grades they get.

And then, let them collapse in college or later. Oh but the parents will be able to claim that their kids went to a UC or Stanford, and that's all that matters.

Posted by district teacher
a resident of Woodside
on Dec 5, 2011 at 6:23 pm

@Reality Check: Bingo. Your first sentence says it all and this is especially true about the math department.

Posted by gunn
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 5, 2011 at 7:51 pm

haha, I'm laughing while reading this article, because some of the truths of it apply to smart studnets too.

I am a 3.9 unweighted gpa student from gunn who has taken ap classes and is national merit scholar

the classes I got Bs in were cases of teachers who didnt watn to teach. only kids who got As had tutors or knew the problems that were going to be on the tests, or were the type of kid who can read a textbook and memorize it perfectly.

then teachers use the excuse that the 'class is just hard, accept it'. What a joke.

Posted by parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 5, 2011 at 9:02 pm

Gunn has it right. Good teachers aren't lazy and help their students learn. To think we're paying for the laziness of arrogant, dismissive, and intimidating teachers like Toma through property taxes and high real estate prices makes my blood boil. Another of his famous excuses to students in his class was he couldn't be bothered to meet students outside of class because he was too busy with the duties of being instructional supervisor for the math department. Why on earth did someone with that attitude become a teacher?

Posted by Marianne Chowning
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 5, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Please, no more personal attacks! They are inappropriate and they detract from the broader issue which is way more important than any stories about particular teachers.

It seems to me that the focus of the district and its employees should be on restructuring the path that begins with 9th grade Algebra to create a rich, engaging, and relevant math sequence that leads these students through Algebra 2. Equating this work with 'watering down' the curriculum would be highly unfortunate. Let's not miss the opportunity to do something creative and important (and hard!). Building a secondary program with high expectations for all of our students and ensuring that all of our students are UC/CSU eligible -- This is something PAUSD could truly be proud of... This is the 'reputation' that matters to me.

Posted by they started it
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 6, 2011 at 7:27 am

@Marianne, the personal comments are totally appropriate because the Paly math department created this debate by inserting themselves into public policy, writing a letter to the school board, and signing it under their individual names. So of course they have invited this discussion of what they are all about, what their personal motives are, why they say they can't teach certain kids. They are in class today teaching our kids, and what are the kids supposed to think of this letter? Thanks to Paly and Gunn kids and families for their honesty, as we can only improve our schools for everyone if we have the truth. For teachers to say kids are unteachable without wealth and tutors is outrageous, so you have to look at what these people are all about. Unfortunately, it looks ugly.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2011 at 8:13 am

Time for the whole college admissions process to be overseen and revamped. Trouble is, no one really knows where to start or with whom it should start.

Education in this country as a whole is a mess!

Posted by RussianMom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 6, 2011 at 8:18 am

Let's start with tenure. Every school has 'famous' teachers who are perfectly aware of their untouched positions. If the working space guaranteed without proper evaluation and competition, there are just a few true enthusiasts who will keep up the level.

Posted by EPA dad
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Dec 6, 2011 at 8:24 am

They need to come to EPA and tell us to our face that they think our kids are unteachable. Let's have an event at the Boy's Club and invite Paly math and all the school leaders. Some of the math teachers even live in EPA themselves -- what are they thinking? If I told my customers and boss that I can't work for some people I would get fired. These people just don't want to work, and they don't think they have to answer to anyone -- where do I apply for that job?

Posted by Michele and Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 6, 2011 at 8:28 am

While we appreciate the anger that people feel with respect to this letter, we agree with Marianne Chowning that the personal comments about particular teachers are a distraction from the important issues of public policy raised by the letter. Let's focus on advocating to the district and school board for a college pathway accessible to all our kids, and schools that pride themselves on educating all of our children. The letter is a valuable piece of evidence for systemic issues -- for example, the teachers mention the prevalence of tutoring in the math program, which raises not just questions of equity, but also academic stress both for students whose families can't afford tutoring and those who can. More broadly, why do so many of our students in math and science classes need paid professional help in order to keep up with the class?

Posted by EPA dad
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Dec 6, 2011 at 8:52 am

They need major retraining for sure on how to teach and relate to all kids. If they write a public letter like that, what do they say in private? It's like it's the 1950s, except instead of IQs of Blacks they talk about brain theory, and don't use the n-word. If we're going to move on to policy, where is the apology, where are they saying they support all of our students for Alg2? It's like waiting for white smoke from the pope. They think they're infallible math gods.

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 6, 2011 at 9:04 am

Not that we should personally attack any of these teachers (and several of them are excellent) but Mr. Toma showed a lack of professionalism by referring to students as "slackers".

He also referred to "expensive but shallow pay for your unit institutions" (such as the School for Independent Learners and Lydian Academy). My eldest went there for a couple math classes and a Chemistry class (which incidentally was taught by a Paly teacher). The teachers there actually instruct their students, the schools are both WASC accredited and the courses are taught to the UC/CSU standards - which are WAY more stringent than the classes taught by our "independent study" teacher.

The one very valid point made by the letter is that MANY students receive outside tutoring and those who can't afford it can be left behind. It is unfortunate that so many students required additional help to do well in our math and science classes.

Very anecdotal - many of the white and asian student I know of who were struggling at Paly left (if they aren't there, they can't be counted as the "underachievers") and went to private schools.

Posted by Kirsten
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 6, 2011 at 10:19 am

Is it possible to just add another class, as described by @Crescent Park Dad? Is that prohibitively expensive, or is that just the easy answer?

I know even within my own family, my kids are totally different in how "teachable" they are. Part of it is how easy the material comes to them (very different), but one gets really emotional, one doesn't and one is much more organized/studious than the other. Some of that will change over time, as they mature. f(t)

We can't afford tutors, either. All we can do is try to help them ourselves, watch Kahn academy and do workbooks over the summers. Hopefully that will be enough.

In terms of language to use regarding kids who do not try - we should acknowledge that they exist - what is the best word to describe them? It's ok that they are there and that they are not trying. This time in their lives may just not be when they will apply themselves. But we can't expect a teacher or school to be able to push them through any particular curriculum.

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2011 at 11:17 am

Notes about tutoring:

1) My family has never used tutors and we definitely don't advocate pre-teaching the kids the content of their future math class.

2) It is part of some Asian cultures to systematically use tutoring, as in Korea for instance (I am not making a value judgment here, just a statement of facts). They probably will keep resorting to tutoring no matter what changes in our schools.

3) For those who can't afford paid tutors. There are FREE tutors at the high schools. The tutoring is coordinated by the Academic Resource Center (ARC). So, please, if you need tutoring and can't afford to pay, go use the resources available to you at school. The tutors there are both adult volunteers and high level students who do it for community service.

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2011 at 11:28 am

The Paly math teachers are a hard-working dedicated group who care for their students. To equate getting a B in a class to the teacher being lazy smacks of terrible bad faith.

Mr. Toma speaks with an accent but his English is impeccable and very understandable.

Complaining about his accent sounds rather xenophobic to me. If your children have a problem with foreign accents, they will have problems in college, where there are many foreign born professors and T.A.s. They will even have a greater problem in their future lives as adults, both in everyday life and at work, if they live in California, given the very large number of immigrants here who speak English with foreign accents. You children had better start getting used to it right away.

My child, who had Mr. Toma as a teacher and has him as his teacher adviser, tells me that Mr. Toma is actually well liked and respected by most students who have had him as a teacher. I am not surprised at all because all my personal interactions with Mr. Toma have also been very pleasant.

I agree that this should not be a place to launch anonymous personal attacks on our teachers.

Beware what you do. We have excellent teachers here. If they are harassed too much by parents, they have options, and they will leave. Maybe you think that it will be a good thing. Well, think again. Having second rate teachers won't do anyone any good.

Posted by Confused
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 6, 2011 at 11:43 am

I understand that these points don't directly help us decide exactly what specific action to take regarding UC math requirements, but I have a fundamental confusion about teaching. I'm 40 years away from high school. I see all the swirling emotion, activity and politics around public schools. The perspective represented by this teacher letter jolts me.

As I see it, the role of a teacher at the high school level is to cause students to learn material. To do that, they need to communicate well and deeply - that is, they must understand what the students know and how they look at things, and build from that. Their job includes providing assignments that help their students learn.

Each question by a student helps the teacher see the student's perspective, knowledge, mastery, thinking, creativity, etc. and provides a guide for what to cover next and how to cover it.

This letter seems to suggest that the role of a high school math teacher is to present material on a one way street, then reuse assignments and tests in order to sort the abilities of the students.

Has the role of high school teacher changed so much in 40 years?

(BTW, why does Paly need mathematicians? Surely a fairly complete understanding of undergraduate mathematics is more than a sufficient content background to teach high school classes).

If all the teachers do is present material and sort student performance, we're not getting our money's worth from them. This is better done via textbooks and videos and on-line tests, which will cost far less than full time teacher salaries.

Also, I think these teachers overrate the actual benefit of their own reputation for rigor. Few university admissions committee members will think, "ah, Paly, well, this B+ represents an A+ at most schools." A more likely thought is, "well the test score is better than the course grade; must have been prepped."

I'm confused about the role of a teacher, but I would ask the high school teachers not to confuse ability to learn math from a teacher with ability to learn math independently from a teacher.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Angry parent -

I wonder if you might try to look at this discussion from the perspective of others. I hear you when you say that your opinion is that Mr. Toma is a good teacher. And I think he probably is effective with some students, including yours. But maybe there is another side to the discussion. Last year my daughter had Mr. Toma. She was struggling from day one in his class. She is not a slacker. She has top grades, high test scores, and is going to a top university. I am not saying that to brag but to let you know that she is a very capable sudent. She is currently taking calculus in college, doing well (grade = A) and enjoying the class. I asked her why this didn't happen in Mr. Toma's class (we discussed this yesterday over the phone). She explained to me that her current college professor takes the time to teach and is effective at explaining the concepte. He works with the students and enjoys helping them learn. She did not feel that Mr. Toma was effective or interested in teaching her (or about 50% of her class). She felt he talked too fast, had an accent that made it difficult to understand (especially when he was talking so fast), and was only interested in teaching to a select group of students that met his profile of "non-slackers". He would ignore her questions or give her short answers so he could move on. He was not available after hours because he always has meetings. The only way she survived Mr. Toma's class was due to me hiring a tutor. She learned enough in one hour a week from a tutor to barely scrape by in Mr. Toma's class.

I wonder if you think all the students and parents who are frustrated with Mr. Toma and are posting on this board are delusional or just making up stories. Or do you think we all have a personal grudge against Mr. Toma so we are taking the time to post here. Or is it possible that there is a problem with his teaching style. I personally feel it was a waste of time for my daughter to go to his class. I realize he is tenured so is "untouchable". But that is another issue.

I would encourage you to be more open minded and try to listen to what other folks are saying.

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 6, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Confused - your comment is exactly right - teachers should not confuse teaching students with letting students learn mainly independently. A good number of the Paly math teachers have a reputation of simply not instructing their students (Arne Lim is NOT one of them, he is a terrific teacher that can teach to every student). Covering a topic once then handing out work is not teaching. Neither is explaining something exactly the same way only louder when a student says they don't understand a topic.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2011 at 1:48 pm

There are two major issues - what to teach and how to teach it effectively - effectively, being so students learn. Mind you not necessarily to guarantee an A+ grade, but to understand the concepts and apply them.

Not wanting to teach effectively because it will take more time and result in less than an A grade, sends the message that it's okay to write off students and relegate them to a bottom tier of society and life options. The letter instigated by Toma does exactly that.

Why, then, is it okay for Skelly and the board to endorse that by not adopting the UC/CSU guidelines for graduation? Surely for the amount of money Skelly is paid, we should expect more from him than rubber stamping and maintaining an inadequate status quo. It's shameful.

Posted by Gina Dalma
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 6, 2011 at 3:27 pm

I want to thank LaToya Baldwin Clark for her guest column on the effects of the school district failing to make successful completion of an A-G curriculum a requirement for high school graduation due to pressure from the PALY math department. Simply, our educational system should be evaluated on its capacity to educate the students that are NOT fortunate to come from families that pay for tutors outside the classroom, not on students that will do well no matter what. I am so dismayed that this issue has been put on the back burner. By doing so, we are literally keeping kids from a post-secondary education. The same kids that need to be nurtured within a belief system that sends the message that they will achieve. We are taking that away, before they start.

Posted by Observer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 6, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Actually, Skelly is the one who proposed A-G alignment in the first place (under his watch, we have already aligned English and Art), and is one of its biggest advocates within the district. I agree that the board's actions are unacceptable, but let's not rope him in with that failure. He has recognized the inadequacy of the status quo and has sought to change it.

In response to angry parent, who seems to have quite a bit to say about this issue, I would just say to reevaluate the way you think about public schools, because you seem to be confusing them with private schools. Tutors should not be a necessity to succeed. And nobody is equating getting a B with poor teaching practices. We are equating systematic failure (Ds and Fs) with poor teaching practices, attitudes, and curriculum.

Posted by paly student
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 6, 2011 at 3:45 pm

In my experience, the ARC system of tutoring is largely ineffective. There is usually a backlog of students trying to get tutors, and those tutors, being other students themselves, are not always that effective. Tutors are a valuable resource, but if the majority of the class is using tutors, maybe it's time to rethink things a bit.

Posted by Marie
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 6, 2011 at 4:10 pm

The "problem" has many side to it.

* Covert racist attitudes of students, parents & teachers
* Self- fulling prophecy
* Course materials which are too European oriented
* Lack of funds & real interest in helping all to students to achieve

How is that Mr. Escalante was able to raise the GPAs and SAT scores of Latino kids in SoCal's worst barrio? Rent or download STAND AND DELIVER. He set HIGH expectations for these throw away kids and meet them at their level. He raised their self-esteem and self-image - singlehandedly. He cared about those kids because they are the future.

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2011 at 5:06 pm

@ resident

I understand that Mr. Toma did not work out well for your daughter as her teacher, and I accept that. I don't think you are making it up. I also believe, as I stated, that MOST students who have Mr. Toma are like him and respect him because this is what I have heard repeatedly from students and parents alike. I don't expect him to please 100% of the school population and I understand he was not a good fit for your daughter and some other students mentioned here. No teacher will ever please absolutely everybody.

@ observer: "nobody is equating getting a B with poor teaching practices"

Please take a lot at the post by gunn, a member of the Gunn High School community, above. It states: "the classes I got Bs in were cases of teachers who didnt watn to teach."

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Oops, I meant to say: "MOST students who have Mr. Toma like him and respect him..."

And also: "Please, take a look at the post by gunn..."

Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 6, 2011 at 7:07 pm

I've taken AB Calculus with Mr. Toma and I frustratingly struggled with the difficulty of his class. However, even after two semester of calculus in college, I still believe Mr. Toma has been the best math teacher I've ever had. He truly cares about his students and really wants them to succeed. In terms of preparing students for college rigor, Mr. Toma does an exceptional job with his students. I credit my ability to succeed in my calculus classes to him. I understand that you're daughter may have had an entirely different experience, but I just wanted to share my personal experience.

I agree with common sense. I feel that we need to address what really prepare students to be successful in college. Is it strictly the A-G UC/CSU requirements so that they can apply to colleges, or do the requirements go beyond that, so not only can they apply, but have a much higher degree of success at college? I personally feel that the goal should not be to merely give students the opportunity to enter college, but to equip them a strong foundation to succeed.

I am not saying that we should ignore the students who fail to meet the Alg 2 requirement. However, I feel that if we lower the standards for Alg 2 more students will be inadequately prepared for college. Certain majors such as all sciences, economics, engineering, math, and statistics all require fairly advanced levels of calculus and algebra. Most students turn away from these majors due to their difficulty, but also because they lack a solid foundation to handle these classes. The current Alg II standard prepares students fairly well to move on to Pre-Calculus and then Calculus. I understand that not all students will want to go into these fields and thus, the current Algebra 2 requirement is a limitation for them to enter college. I also understand that most students who enter these fields are already taking advanced levels of math and science. But when you’re 18, you don’t know whether you want to be a doctor, a scientist, engineer, etc. Lowering the standards will limit the students’ ability in the future to pursue their interests. From personal experience, it is better to have rigorous and challenging courses in high school, where you can take advantage of teachers and counselors. Once students are in college, they will not lower their standards, simply because the material is too challenging, you are inadequately prepared, or the professor is simply not teaching the material well. They’ll simply fail the students who are then forced to drop out. I understand that high school is not college. However, it is necessary to prepare our students to face the reality of college academics especially in the UC/CSU system.

Posted by 12345
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2011 at 9:52 pm

Teachers need to prep and plan and actually teach. They leave the room for extended periods of time, do very little prep and spend 90% of their time reviewing homework - which needed so much review because they never actually taught a lesson in the first place. One of my daughters has won a high school math award each year. Last year it was a real surprise because she sat in the back of the class, ignored the teacher and TAUGHT HERSELF the lessons using the 1990s textbook. The teachers need to teach all students not just the high-achieving ones. In the "accelerated lanes" in both middle and high school you are expected to hear it once, if even, and understand it. The "regular" lanes are treated like remedial instruction. My kids have been in both as well as "bridge summer school" programs. Such a shame we can't get it right.

Posted by Paly Junior
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 7, 2011 at 12:34 am

As a high school student in the district I have seen first hand how not having adequate lanes effects students. At Paly staff will opening admit that our classes are extremely accelerated. My sophomore year my counselor compared my exploratory thinking english class(this is the regular lane) to an AP class. I chose to take the regular lane because I have a learner difference so I read slower than my peers. I was frustrated to find out that this "regular lane" class was supposedly as hard as an AP class.

I also find it absolutely ridiculous that at Paly there is no regular lane science class that meets the (d) requirement until you're a junior! I'm not interested in biology and would never have taken an advance course of biology in high school unless I was forced to, which I pretty much was. Some of my classmates argued that I could have taken the class in summer school. I feel it's absurd to say my parents should pay hundreds of dollars for me to take a class my school should already offer. I am in no way saying that we should get rid of the advanced lanes. I just think that we should have a true regular lane.

Why people don't want to teach a true regular lane of Algebra beats me. No one ever said that we were taking away your AB Calculus! We're saying that there should be a math class that meets the UC/CSU standards, not the Stanford standards. Why should we not give as many students as we can the opportunity to go to college?

One of my close friends who went to a local public high school is now a freshman at Cal Berkley. He did not excel in math in high school but did extremely well in other subjects. He did the summer bridge program that got him up to speed with his math and got him ahead in other subjects. It would be unfortunate if he had attended a school that only offered math classes that overwhelmingly exceed the standards and was eligible for UC/CSU because of that.

Question, has PAUSD ever thought about offering IB at the high schools?

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 7, 2011 at 1:18 am

Following on the comment of Paly junior, I keep hearing about how there is no regular lane bio or chem at Paly, only honors. I looked into this, and unbelievably, it is true. And not only that, students have been complaining about it for years. Here is an article from the Campanile from 2008, that states :

"Currently, the chemistry lanes offered are Chemistry 1A, Chemistry AC and College Chemistry AP. . . .For students who find Chemistry A to be difficult, the only other option is to take Intro to Chemistry and Physics.

However, this class focuses on both subjects as opposed to one or the other and does not fulfill any science requirement. In such a case, the department should consider the option of adding another lower chemistry lane for students."

Indeed, when one checks the Paly website the lowest lane of Chemistry and Bio (both of which are a-g lab sciences) are Bio1A and Chem1A, which are honors-level courses, as designated by the "A". Then there is the "accelerated" version of that honors level course. But nothing basic. Of course the pressure is not really on the school to offer that class, because you can't even take these required sciences if you are underprepared for math.

For example, Bio is a freshman science, but you cannot take it unless you are enrolled in Alg1A. Yo are not predicted to successfully complete this class if you did not get all A's and B's in all your prior coursework in 8th grade. Students in Alg 1, and those who were not strong students in middle school will have to take a non-A-G science class freshman year which dramatically reduces their chances of reaching A-G science requirements of three years of a lab science with a C- or better.

But it gets worse. In order to take Chem 1A you have to have a B or higher in Bio 1A (so remember those who couldn't take Bio1A because they got shunted into the nonA-G science? They can't take chem either) AND a C+ in Alg1A, AND be enrolled in Geometry, AND have a science teacher recommendation. It is almost certainly easier to get a job teaching at this school than it is to graduate from it with A-G.

Thinking through the logical sequence then, an underprepared student, even one very committed to threading the needle, would have an almost impossible time getting through science, due in part to the math department's inflated standards and the lack of regular lane science curriculum.

There is no regular lane Biology and Chemistry class that every student is expected to take and pass. Indeed, every student is not expected to take these science classes at all, only those who are strong students in math and well-prepared by their earlier work.

Students have evidently been complaining about this for years. At tonight's forum on educational equity sponsored by the Barron Park PTA, Ken asked Kevin Skelly about the Paly Math letter and aligning the math department standards with those of the state . Kevin responded that he believes that the lowest lane of a subject should be taught at the state standard and not above. We are really glad to hear that. Now it is time to put that opinion into action: Kevin, do something about math and science at Paly and Gunn so that our kids all have a pathway to college.

This can be done now, next semester. Not next year or next board election. There is no reason to allow this to go on any longer.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 7, 2011 at 1:22 am

Link to the Campanile story by Mia Parekh from 2008:
Web Link

Posted by future Paly parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 7, 2011 at 7:30 am

I would like to have regular lanes for classes so that as a family we can decide what course load my children have, so they are not overstressed. LIke one of the students said, if you don't like biology, you should be able to take the regular lane. That way you can create a balanced program for your child, say, with APs or advanced classes in the areas of interest, and a regular load elsewhere, for example. That would rationalize the process and reduce student stress, and help them develop their passions and sense of purpose.

Posted by Paly grad
a resident of another community
on Dec 7, 2011 at 7:35 am

When I went to Paly in the 1980s I took AP Physics but was very stressed even though I got a B at the semester, so I transferred down to Physics 1 and was able to excel and relax a bit. It was a good way to balance my life. Like other students in the class, we wanted to get through the class, not devote our lives to science. The curriculum should have regular lanes and be transparent.

Posted by Trish Davis
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 7, 2011 at 7:51 am

@Michele Dauber, "It is almost certainly easier to get a job teaching at this school than it is to graduate from it with A-G.". I totally agree with this statement if you add the phrase, "the way math and science is currently taught there". There is no excuse for not giving all students the opportunity to take and pass at least two years of lab science (regular biology and chemistry), especially given the USA's dismal ranking worldwide in these subjects and the need to have a better educated workforce in this country.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 7, 2011 at 8:24 am

According to the district, of the 170 kids who graduated without A-G, 65% were missing math and 55% were missing science. I was incorrect in something in my post which is that a student needs only 2 years of a lab science to be A-G not 3 (3 is recommended). So that means that around 100 kids are not getting even 2 years of lab science (Bio and Chem) under PAUSD's current standards.

That's astounding to me. But it is consistent with the fact that a substantial number of minority students are not even enrolled in a math class after 10th grade in PAUSD according California state education data. If you stop taking math, it would be very hard to qualify to enter science such that each rule builds on the others, resulting in a pattern of exclusion and preference for majority children.

Posted by Examples--Please!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2011 at 8:57 am

From reading thru all of these comments, it's a little difficult to know who really knows what they are talking about, and how many people are "just talking".

How many of you folks actually know what the content of the CA State standards for Algebra II are? Here's a like to the CA DoEd web site that provides the "official" viewpoint on those standards:

Web Link

Now, from all the "words" delivered on this topic in this thread, can anyone provide some verifiable information as to how the PAUSD Algebra II course delivery exceeds the "standards" in terms of "complexity" or difficulty expected of each student's mastery?

This is a show-and-tell exercise. Can anyone post tests from the PAUSD Algebra II classes, or homework exercises, so that we can all see what is going on here in terms of hard data?

Posted by Reality Check
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 7, 2011 at 9:40 am

@Examples -- the Paly Math department *itself* in its 4/20/11 letter states that it is teaching above benchmarks in its basic lane: "The alternative, 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 . . . ." QED.

Posted by Student of Color
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 7, 2011 at 10:31 am

The Paly course catalog description for the lowest level of algebra II includes "right triangle trigonometry." The state requirements do not mention trig in any way. Also, our classes have "a careful study of mathematical functions (constant, linear, quadratic, polynomial, rational, logarithmic, exponential)." The state requirements require an understanding of logs and exponents in an algebraic sense (change of base, solving equations, inverse relationship between the two, etc), but there is no requirement for such an in-depth knowledge of graphing these functions. Is it useful to know? Sure, if you plan on progressing to significantly higher levels of math. But it clearly exceeds standards for a baseline a-g course offering.

Also, the lowest geometry class also offers "an introduction to trigonometry." If this is not even required for algebra II, then why on earth is it part of the geometry curriculum?

Posted by Former Gunn parent!
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 7, 2011 at 10:46 am

I find it interesting that the letter is signed by Dr. Bowers wife and by other PAUSD staff spouses! I feel they are being RACIST, but this is the way a lot PAUSD works with the Superintendent (not all of PAUSD! We do have some great staff members!). If the Math teachers wanted to help, there are many better ways to help. The problem is they don’t understand being of color and don’t really care! If they cared they would have not written these things. It’s really sad! I sure feel bad, because being part of PAUSD, I don’t want to be part of this! Sorry to all the families of color that were offended, I was very offended too!

Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 7, 2011 at 11:50 am

As this conversation continues, it is important that we have accurate facts. I am not sure where "student of color" got the information about the state standards for geometry but this is from the CST website for geometry topics:

18.0* Students know the definitions of the basic trigonometric functions defined by the angles of a right triangle. They also know and are able to use elementary relationships between them. For example, tan(x) = sin(x)/cos(x), (sin (x))2 + (cos (x))2 = 1.
19.0* Students use trigonometric functions to solve for an unknown length of a side of a right triangle, given an angle and a length of a side.

It seems as if right triangle trig is a standard for geometry. It is possible that it is included in the Alg II class as part of a review.

Posted by Examples--Please!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2011 at 12:27 pm

> the Paly Math department *itself* in its 4/20/11
> letter states that it is teaching above benchmarks in
> its basic lane:

This statement does not constitute an example of what "above" actually means.

Hard examples please.

> no requirement for such an in-depth knowledge of
> graphing these functions.

Graphing is not that difficult. In fact, once you learn how to graph one function, you've learned how to graph all functions in 2-Space (2-Dimensional space). If your math teachers didn't teach you that, then that's reason to gripe.

> Also, the lowest geometry class also offers "an introduction
> to trigonometry." If this is not even required for algebra II,
> then why on earth is it part of the geometry curriculum?

> But it clearly exceeds standards for a baseline
> a-g course offering.

Effectively, this student seems to be objecting to learning things that he/she feels he "shouldn't have to know". Trigonometry turns out to be extremely valuable in Calculus and Physics. It is impossible to comprehend either of these two topics without a very workable knowledge of trig. Trig also is used in carpentry, numerical machine tool operation, surveying, cartography, astronomy, and just about anything that functions in the real, 3-dimensional world.

Still waiting for someone to look at the syllabus for the PAUSD Algebra II course and the state standards, and come up with a "delta list".

Posted by Data and Facts
a resident of another community
on Dec 7, 2011 at 12:48 pm

On a related, but relevant note, the data presented in the Paly math department letter and considered by the board appears to contradict the data the school district is officially reporting to the California Department of Education (CDE). (posted at Web Link

Specifically, for the past two years PAUSD has reported that nearly 100% of graduates have met the entrance requirements to attend a UC/CSU. The CDE defines this category as:

“Number of Graduates plus the number and percent of graduates who completed all the courses required for University of California (UC) and/or California State University entrance with a grade C or better.”

According to the math department letter 85 students graduated from Paly last spring without completing Algebra II. However, the district reported that 99.8% of Paly’s graduates had met the above definition (which requires the completion of at least Algebra II). The district posted similar stats for 2009. However, in 2008 the District posted a rate of 74.8%.

2009-2010 – 98.9%
2008-2009 – 99.9%
2007-2008 - 74.8%

Across the nation there are examples of public high schools preparing 100% of their graduates for four year college acceptance and success. These are high schools serving high proportions of students who are impoverished and enter high school with significant academic skill and content knowledge deficits. These schools have dispelled the myth that all students can’t be prepared for college. There is a greater than $1 million dollar lifetime earning gap between those who have a four year college degree and those with a high school diploma. Given the real life implications for at least the 85 graduates last year and the impact on the communities in which they live, the Palo Alto Unified School District and its employees should be seeking to emulate practices from schools that are succeeding in preparing all students for college.

It seems to me that the risk to the district’s reputation for finding legitimate ways to prepare and qualify every student for college is far less than the risk of falsely reporting data to make it look as if they do.

Web Link

Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park School
on Dec 7, 2011 at 1:20 pm

@ Examples -- The question of exactly how the Algebra II class taught at Paly exceeds the A-G standard is one that is best posed to the Paly math department, since it is their letter that says that it does. They are obviously convinced that the difference is significant, since they say that "diluting the standards in our regular lane to basic benchmarks which might allow all students to pass Algebra II would end up hurting the district's reputation." They also wrote a letter to the Superintendent and the school board in order to avoid having to make this change. If you're questioning whether Algebra II as taught at Paly actually exceeds the state A-G standard, then I think your argument is with the Paly math department.
Kevin Skelly said last night at an open meeting at Barron Park School that courses taught in the lowest lane should not exceed the state A-G standards. I think the right next step is to ensure that this policy is enforced in the high schools, and then to hold the schools accountable for demonstrating that they have the alignment right.

Posted by Examples--Please!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2011 at 2:18 pm

> In May, trustees of the Palo Alto Unified School District met to
> consider a proposal from Superintendent Kevin Skelly that the district make
> successful completion of an A-G curriculum a requirement for high school
> graduation. An A-G curriculum meets the minimum course requirements for
> admission to the University of California and California State
> University systems.

The PAUSD is a “political subdivision of the State of California. Why should its requirements for graduation be any different than any other high school in California?
>You should ask the Math Department?
Well, maybe.
What should we ask?
Let’s see:

1) Do you work for the PAUSD, or do you see yourselves as “independent” Math Experts, setting the standards for PAUSD students as you see fit?

2) Your letter talks about “diluting the PAUSD standards so as not to diminish the reputation of the District” (or words to that effect). A couple of questions about the current curriculum, and this idea of "dilution", if you don't mind--

Q1) Is Algebra II (and/or all other math course work compliant with State Dept. of Ed. Standards?

Q2) Does the PAUSD math coursework exceed CA Math Standards?

Q3) If Yes to Q2, in what way does it exceed CA Math Standards?

Q4) Can students be harmed by learning more math (such as you now teach in the PAUSD) which exceeds CA Standards?

Q5) If the PAUSD taught strictly to CA standards, how would the PAUSD’s “reputation” be sullied?

> Hold them accountable.

Isn’t that the Superintendant job, and the Trustees role to oversee?

Posted by parent
a resident of another community
on Dec 7, 2011 at 2:56 pm

The lanes were collapsed at Paly by the previous IS in an attempt at I'm not sure what. She is now retired. There is some cleaning up to do after her reign.

Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 7, 2011 at 4:08 pm

wow. VERY worthwhile discussion. In my opinion, as a former parent there, and understanding that conditions change to an extent at PALY year to year - esp. in administration! - I don't know about specific policies right take nevertheless is that more attention should be paid to the issues raised here AND to the above average achievers. These - many who do have academic interest and talent are overlooked and mowed over by uber-prepped kids, ESPECIALLY math-tutored and prepped kids. That takes $$$, parental pressure, and the parental choice to do this from an early age. IN fact, some kids and parents operate almost outside of the school system! Some of us opted to have our kids do their own work, but they often suffered from that ethical choice owing to an uneven playing ground and learning in class.
Yes, the grading can be harsh at upper lane courses but it sure is easier for kids who have already been prepped on the curriculum and heavily managed for things like math competitions. Awareness and pressure of wealthy Tiger Moms creates an advantage for their Tiger Cubs.
Please don't lump caring parents who raise questions into one category of "demanding to get rid of all AP classes" and other such rubbishy hyperbole. The basic premise of this dicussion is completely valid.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 7, 2011 at 4:31 pm

We Can Do Better agrees with former Paly parent that the issues raised here are very worthwhile -- in fact, we have been so excited to see this conversation that we hope to sponsor an evening program on the order of a Community Conversation about the pervasive role of tutoring in our schools, and the personal, ethical, moral, and political implications of that practice. We hope to look at the effects on both those kids whose parents can afford it and those who cannot. We hope that potential panelists could include academics, doctors, teachers, tutors, teens, and clergymembers. Judging from this forum there would be substantial community interest in such an event.

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2011 at 5:26 pm

@ Michelle Dauber

I totally agree with you on this one, even though it may a difficult problem to solve. Trying to tackle this tutoring issue is very worthwhile.

In our case, we think we've suffered from this current state of affairs. My youngest child, currently at Paly, is in all the high level classes and really gets it without struggling, and he's never been tutored. Still, his grade in math is a B+ while students who were pre-taught the class get As (they actually take the class privately before taking it in high school). He too would get As if he was taking the class for a second time!

Never mind that my child actually works for pay ten hours a week in his chosen field of science at a very prestigious local science organization (not Stanford)... he will probably not be admitted to universities like UC Berkeley or UCLA because his grades won't be high enough... It is kind of ridiculous IMO, knowing how advanced he is in his field. But there is this B+ in the way.

We, his parents, don't despair because we know from our older kids that his talents will get him somewhere even if he does not go to Berkeley. Yet, we think this situation is extremely unfair.

Here, with tutoring, you have an issue that can unite parents across the spectrum, from parents of lower achieving students, to parents to high achieving students and everyone in between.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 7, 2011 at 6:36 pm

@parent who is starting to be angry

Terrific! Maybe you would like to work with us on tackling this topic and getting the conversation started. You seem to have some very relevant experience. My number is 650-521-6005. Let's get started! We are hoping to hold this event this spring.

Posted by Huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 7, 2011 at 9:26 pm

So what's the idea? A community event against tutoring? So the kids are allowed to get help to learn more to do better in school? Just because other kids, who choose to work less hard, do somewhat less good? Not sure how that conversation really goes.

My kids don't get tutoring (or any help from Mom and Dad, for that matter) and do fine. I'm sure there are kids who get tutoring who do better, but I'm sure there are kids who do lots more outside activities who do worse. This is really a problem people want to bust their pick on??

Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 7, 2011 at 11:28 pm

My overall point is that some parents are extraordinarily clued in to the current (competitive) college apps process and some manage this process to the absolute optimum for their kid(s). Yes, parental support is great and appropriate but over-management of parents can lead to a brutal competitive atmosphere that is not conducive to genuine learning - education in my opinion. A lot of it is contrived.
Times have changed since the good old 70's 80's 90's.
Sometimes a kid (average or above average or gifted) becomes highly competitive with his/her peers in the race for a prestigious college. There ARE limits to offers to a particular school. Fine, but it partly came from the lack of a level playing field. I am aware of much lauded cases of high achievement that were genuine, semi-genuine, and not genuine at all.

My problem also is when a kid who has a genuine personal interest in a school or subject (but not legacy) APPEARS less stellar and sometimes does not receive offers that might have been very goot matches owing to not being packaged to perfection or having a parentally optimized paper record but IS genuine. (thankfully, some universities adcoms are increasingly spotting such packaged applicants from what I read.)
I am not certain that understanding of AP courses is entirely clear to all up and coming students and parents; meantime, some kids take excessive APs for their paper record/apps rather than through personal interest (all this is quite cynically done) and this greatly increases stress in our high schools for others. The philosophy of "ends justifies the means" is ok for some - not for me.
Yes, one can rise above it but - again - my point: it does not make for a pleasant school atmosphere.
Meantime, the naive, new to the area, less wealthy, those with offbeat interests or recently developed maturity, etc. may be behind the curve and sometimes, taken by suprise - contrary to some posters' opinions on this forum, I am not referring to INTELLIGENCE of the student nor his/her aptitude, willingness to work, etc.
What I particularly dislike is the notion that a kid who is tops in Math (but massively tutored/prepped - with every conceivable advantage) is held up as "superior" to one who is a high achiever but not "perfect" by comparison. I had a mother tell me her kid (prepped for MANY YRS in Math, inci8dentally, who finished BC Calc in jr. yr, did Stanford Math as a senior) was INADEQUATELY positioned to even bother to compete in the math contests AMC 12 USAMO etc. since this kid had not had the customary MULTI-YR advanced tutoring specifically for these contests! - Yet these contests do lead to grt university offers.
Yet again, a child who takes a late personal interest in Math or Art may be in a challenging situation -- owing to the practices of OTHERS. I think this should be altered. One may be overlooked, penalized or criticized for following one's own interests, even if developed later when "compared" to a child who has been COMPLETELY DIRECTED by a Tiger Mom since a very early age to high math proficiency. In past in America, it has been quite OK to have later developing (genuine) interests/passions but beware that now.
Constant communication/ Facebook has increased bragging by teens and they need to learn to have respect for others.
You can't legislate how others manage their kid's lives (again, optimized for academic "competition") but you CAN have administration LEAD THE WAY with a positive, inclusive atmosphere - for ALL. I firmly believe administration makes a huge difference in terms of environment at high school, and several things can be "recommended" if not taught by the leadership: manners,common courtesy, modesty about personal "achievements" like perfect SAT scores; promote willingness to work with others, stopping plagiarism/cheating (at highest levels of students pressured to "excel"), emphasize genuineness and doing one's own work.
I think students should sign more statements testifying to this OR openly acknowledge paid tutor or parent (major) assistance with essays, apps, contracted multi-yr costly college admissions prepping, etc.
I witnessed some clever but unpleasant practices here that I do not endorse, as I find them unethical and inauthentic, however we cannot legislate away nasty parental Tiger Mom practices, but we CAN and SHOULD support the authentic students who explore their own genuine interests, even the quiet ones not skilled at self-promotion. Have students do more work/essays in class - avoid opportunities for Tiger Moms to utilize deceptive practices that produce a "winning" paper record but are largely inauthentic.

Posted by Huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 8, 2011 at 12:02 am

Paly Student, I hear you that you don't like the atmosphere you perceive. And certainly I agree that the administration (not to mention parents) should promote manners, modesty, etc. - though at the same time, there is nothing wrong in my view with recognizing accomplishments of all kinds (academic, sports, arts, volunteering, etc.). And if there is cheating (including overzealous "help" with written work), then that is certainly unacceptable and should be severely watched for and punished.

But the whole tutoring, prepping, and review thing - aren't those just other forms of hard work? Even learning the material ahead of time - while I can see why it makes some uncomfortable, isn't it still doing the work and learning? It is not clear to me why one should punish or stigmatize it, any more that we'd want to stigmatize students would study long hours instead of doing other things. If you learn the material cold, you get your "A" - that seems fair to me.

While the "quirky" kids may not be as visibly accomplished in high school, there is plenty of opportunity for them to shine later if they choose. The world's a big place and life is long - very few are remembered for what they accomplished in high school or where they went to college.

Posted by disgusted
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 8, 2011 at 7:42 am

@Examples --

It's not very nice to ask a question and then attack the character of the person who tries to answer it, especially when they're a student! How low can we go, what a bad example you set for the children.

"Effectively, this student seems to be objecting to learning things that he/she feels he "shouldn't have to know". Trigonometry turns out to be extremely valuable in Calculus and Physics."

Your question was about the curriculum. Let's keep the focus there. The Paly math department already stated the delta you are asking proof for, a fact that was pointed out to you and which you choose to ignore, so it looks like you are trying to send us all on a fishing expedition as a diversion.

Paly math: teach an algrebra 2 class for all like the rest of California. Let's have basic lanes, honors lanes, AP lanes, simple stuff -- why are they fighting this so hard?

Posted by Bob
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 8, 2011 at 7:42 am

Is there any follow up on the mental health of students who graduate from the PAUSD high schools? Do they burn out in college or later if they haven't already? To me a very important issue is - do they enjoy life when they are in their teens? Do they have some fun? Do they learn social skills? Or do they think of 'walking down the railroad track' or actually do it? Are they burned out by the time they get to college? Not everyone is geared to math, science. Some are gifted in the arts, language, writing, music, literature. Some are mechanical. Society needs a broad spectrum of skills. Not every teenager is wired up the same way. A lot of this pressure is 'family honor'...and not every student has to go to college to succeed or take math-science curriculums. Here in Palo Alto the parents are the problem, and student mental health is strong related problem. I also think that publishing the year end grad names and where students are going to college or if not should be eliminated. Too many parents have gut-churning angst to make sure that their child has the best school published for all to see. It's that 'family honor' thing. I am glad my grandkids don't live here.

Posted by disgusted
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 8, 2011 at 7:50 am

@ Huh --

You're missing the point about hard work. Of course all students need to study and do their work. The point is what are we asking of them? Do you want calculus in algebra too? And should they learn that in advance as part of hard work? Should they stay up all night too?

They are children, and it is up to us adults to make sure their public school is serving them properly -- they are not horses we are racing at a parimutuel.

No, we need classes that say what they are -- regular, advanced, honors, AP, etc., and cover the curriculum they are supposed to.

Why is that so hard to understand? I really wonder about all of the obfuscation that is going on in this thread, away from the basic facts that the Paly math department wrote this letter saying their standards are above basic and they could teach a regular algebra 2 class that people could pass, but they don't want to because of their exalted reputation. As someone else said, QED.

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 8, 2011 at 8:58 am

Disgusted is exactly right - we need to teach a regular lane of all the A-G subjects taught to the UC/CSU standards - not the standards of any particular individual or even department. The math and science departments at Paly are very proud of their "reputations" and support some extraordinary students. But they do not support the regular kids who may not love math and science, but do want to learn enough to qualify for college.

The "pay for credit" schools and St. Francis fill the gaps for us. I'd would love to see the stats of how many students take science at SIL or Lydian, especially chemistry. St. Francis over the summer is another great resource for Paly kids, they teach a regular level of chemistry. I'd also like to see the stats of classes that are dropped by kids, especially by individual teacher.

Posted by Huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 8, 2011 at 9:01 am

@disgusted, sorry that I seem dense to you. I was reacting to the above posts about tutoring, not so much the laning and curriculum you mention. Some people seem to want to stigmatize or otherwise discourage what they view as "excessive" hard work, including tutoring. Seems like a separate issue from what classes are offered - am I missing something?

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2011 at 9:31 am


Interesting that your concern about unfairness is about your son's B+ in the high lanes, which you say would be A s, if not for students who "unfairly" cover material ahead of time.

I would not want to come together as a community to complain about the unfairness of tutoring, and how it hurts the kids in the high lanes. However, you bring up a very good reason for why the district practice of shutting out some students from UC/CSU eligibility needs to stop. By establishing UC/CSU eligibility for students who attend PAUSD K-12, everyone could finally be held accountable for prioritizing, to meet basic standards for all students first.

Currently PAUSD has made it a sport to reach higher and higher for students who by definition are covering material ahead of a grade both outside and in school.In school, students cover material ahead of the grade through all the lanes, and the process of laning itself, which encourages more covering of material ahead of the grade. At home, getting ahead is a formal home schooling of sorts which ranges from a paid tutor, to the capable guidance of an engineer, doctor, or professor parent over 13 years. This is often confused with genius, brilliance, but it is simply covering material ahead of time with very qualified assistance.

Some kids start Kindergarten already knowing how to read, others start second grade multiplying fractions, some start Algebra in 6th grade, and there is no shortage of students in any lane or grade who have weeks of homework covered before the material has been taught. Not surprising there are so many Math lanes, Math is just the more straight forward subject to pre-cook. Parents of pre-cooked kids demand not only of their kids but actively push the schools around. The code phrase is that their child is getting "bored" unless the district offers something "more" for their kids. Then, the district has a full plate with supporting kids to keep up with the more. It never ends.

We're failing miserably by not first focusing on educating the most disadvantaged students (which in Palo Alto is anyone with parents who are not college educated), and especially in more Math and Science. This should be a #1 priority.

Posted by Another aspect
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 8, 2011 at 10:02 am

It's fine, actually great, to teach a kid the material covered in a course ahead of time. But why should the public pay for the kid to then take the course when he already knows the material? And at the same time make it harder for the teacher to teach and focus on those taking the course who did not learn it ahead of time?

The school ought to offer a much more robust "test for credential" program which will give these kids what they want - credentials for accelerated learning - without contorting the teaching around them.

Competitive admissions to many famous universities is one thing, but at our public high schools we don't want competitive education.

For education itself to be competitive because some want to compete for credentials is bad. Wrong. A mistake. Something to avoid. Something to correct. Bad for us. Bad for our kids. Bad for society. Bad for the teachers. Bad for the universities.

It is, however, good for those who want to position their kids as being more able to leverage education than they really are. Because it is a misrepresentation that a child learned more from a class than others, when he didn't do that at all.

It's worth some community organization to address this.

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2011 at 10:05 am


"Some people seem to want to stigmatize or otherwise discourage what they view as "excessive" hard work, including tutoring. Seems like a separate issue from what classes are offered - am I missing something?"

I would not want to stigmatize hard work or advanced lanes.

But if the system is unfair to the students who are not on those lanes, as the Math letter does, then we can be sure that course offerings suffer from the misguided priorities.

Posted by parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 8, 2011 at 10:50 am

It seems like the schools have created their own problem by making classes harder and harder in order to differentiate the top students from each other... while the rest of the students are left out to dry. I know this sounds naive, but why?

Why do teachers feel compelled to ration out grades and put top students on a bell curve if they are learning the material in the syllabus? It only serves to push top students to find their breaking points (so that they take classes in advance or get tutors) and the rest are left to feel average or inadequate at best.

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 8, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Parent - I think many of the teachers who make the classes harder and try to limit the amount of top grades do it because they think this makes our school/their classes more "prestigious". These are the same teachers that put items on tests that they did not cover in class because they think the kids should somehow know them anyway.

BTW - based on feedback from my kids and their friends over the years, one of the issues with the peer tutors is that a number of them simply do the homework for the students rather than tutoring them.

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Another aspect,

"It's fine, actually great, to teach a kid the material covered in a course ahead of time. But why should the public pay for the kid to then take the course when he already knows the material? And at the same time make it harder for the teacher to teach and focus on those taking the course who did not learn it ahead of time?

The school ought to offer a much more robust "test for credential" program which will give these kids what they want - credentials for accelerated learning - without contorting the teaching around them."

Your entire post makes a lot of sense to me, but I really like the word contorted. Contorted is where PAUSD is, in Math and Science education.

Until the Board makes the decision to approve the Superintendent's proposal for A-G curriculum alignment, it will be a boring business as usual hum ho day in the ivory tower we live in.

Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 8, 2011 at 2:51 pm

One of the very many fascinating things about the distorting effects of excessive tutoring on the community is its impact on the classroom. If as many as say 20% of students have been previously taught the material through summer school or other methods, then the teacher raises the bar on the material taught in class. The effect of that is that every other kid who can afford it, gets a tutor just to avoid drowning -- whether paid or unpaid. Those who cannot afford a tutor or aren't clued in drop down a lane after doing badly enough to be permitted to do so (at Gunn, it takes D to be permitted to lane change). That means that they had to have an experience of failure for no good reason, very harmful to their sense of themselves as competent learners.

Those who are tutored to keep up are also disempowered by that experience, since they feel that they cannot keep up on their own. And those who are prepped ahead begin to get the first taste of imposter syndrome. All in all, a bad deal.

Meanwhile, teachers do not receive valid information about the success of their teaching, mistaking the high scores of their students for information about their own teaching, rather than for the success of their parents in having the money to provide all that tutoring. And they come to see those who fall behind as "slackers," as the Paly math teachers so unkindly phrased it.

One a child gets on the tutoring treadmill it is hard to get off. If your child is barely scraping that B with a lot of support in Alg2TrigH, they aren't going to get to Calc without that same support without dropping a lane. Every year it ratchets higher. This is what an arms race feels like. And what it feels like to the kids is terrible.

Posted by Huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 8, 2011 at 3:40 pm

@Michelle, your family's experience (if that is what you describe) is quite different from mine. My kids (both at Gunn) have never had tutors, don't ask for them, and do fine - one pretty much all A's, the others A's and B's. I asked them about this distorting effect you describe and they say they are not aware of it - some kids they think get some tutoring, but most of their friends do not, aside from the occasional peer tutor. My kid in AP Chem last year (hard course) said he thought one kid (out of ~35 I think) may have done some of the work before, based on how well he seemed to know it. My kid worked hard, learned the material, no tutor, got an A- in the end. So maybe tutoring is not as pervasive as your example describes.

That factual point aside, it seems like this is more of a teacher issue than a student/tutoring issue. The students are doing what they are supposed to do - learn the material and do well on the tests. Now, if the teacher insists on curve grading even though many kids do well, or teaching the course at an accelerated pace since some kids seem to get it easily, etc., that's a problem - the curve is creating the competition, not the kid. That seems like an easier issue to address - get the Principal and IS to buy-in that the courses should be graded/taught at a standard pace. Hey, no more arms race!

But it does seem wrong to me to criticize or stigmatize kids/families who get tutoring or even review the material ahead of time. That's just hard work in my book and I've got no problem with that.

Posted by small_glass
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 8, 2011 at 3:59 pm

"We're failing miserably by not first focusing on educating the most disadvantaged students (which in Palo Alto is anyone with parents who are not college educated), and especially in more Math and Science. This should be a #1 priority. "
Big picture, I observe the majority of their posts here.

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2011 at 4:00 pm

The distortion is particularly bad because it is in Math and Science. This could easily read District policy shuts out some students from Math and Science.

And what about the advancing ahead of grade level, which the schools themselves are engaged in. 8th grade Algebra is open to 6th graders, and who knows, maybe offered to 5th graders soon.

The Math letter reflects what is common in Middle School, to call regular Math dumb Math.

The only reason it should be called dumb Math is because it leads to practically zero Science in High School.

Posted by Moira
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 8, 2011 at 6:57 pm

My sons are Soph and Senior in PAUSD. They have been here since kindergarten. I'm not naive, but I have made a point not to talk to other parents much about grades, what teachers to take, etc. My oldest has done fine on his own without tutoring, by fine I mean As and Bs, but certainly not a "top" of the top type. I wonder how much better" he would've done with turtoring.

Younger son is struggling in 2 classes and we're now getting a tutor. What has amazed me is in trying to find a tutor, I talked to lots of other parents of kids who by looking at their GPAs have done well. I have learned what a HIGH percentage of kids have achieved this through extensive tutoring and parental help. Is this how you pass your classes at a public high school, only if outside help hired for otherwise normal students?

Posted by kmom
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 9, 2011 at 8:04 am

@Moira, what is so frustrating is that the teachers have come to expect that the struggling student will get a tutor, when the right thing to do would be to better teach the class so that the material is learned in class by everyone. This is not dumbing it down. But getting a tutor has become the only way for a student to pass some classes and yet it is time consuming, costly and makes students feel that they are dumber than their classmates (a stigma they don't want). It is the feeling that our students need to be 'ultra challenged' in their classes from K-12 that is causing this need for some students to have tutors. And it is exactly why some students prepare ahead for certain HS classes. For some it is a way to get ahead in the class, to free up their time for other classes or interests and for others it's a way to avoid having to get a tutor. I imagine it is just a matter of time until this practice trickles into Middle School and down to Elementary School. The only way to stop this is to stop making the classes only geared toward the best students. Get the teachers to teach the student, not the curriculum. If you get your student a tutor, you are just perpetuating the problem that so clearly exists today. I just want you to know that although both my children have graduated from Gunn HS, one was a top student and the other a good student who struggled in certain classes. It was so hard to watch him struggle and yet he refused tutors. Once, I had to force it on him to get through a math class, so the year was not a waste( and it worked). All I can say is that the more we give in to tutors, the more the problem with these difficult classes will prevail.

Posted by End the madness
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 9, 2011 at 11:10 am

Here's a proposed solution for the madness:
Ban bell curve grading.
Go back to an objective grading system.
90+ points on a test is an A.
80+ points on a test is a B....etc..

If kids want to study the material ahead of time, good for them!
If kids wants some extra tutoring help, fine.
But their performance should not adversely affect others if our primary goal is to educate our kids.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 9, 2011 at 11:11 am

My daughters both graduated from Paly in the last three years. The only time we used tutors was for math. And it wasn't be try to help the girls excel, it was just to keep up with the classroom material. My understanding from my daughters was that it would not be necessary if the teachers were effective and interested in helping them learn. Some of their Paly math teachers were effective teachers, and were interested in making sure they learned. No tutor required. But in the case of Predesceau (sp?) and Toma, they were not effective. They were difficult to understand and didn't make an effort to try to overcome the difficulty of understanding them (that their accents caused).

I don't think using a tutor is intrinsically a bad idea. If a student is passionate about a subject, or wants more support etc, I think it is up to each family to decide how to use their resources. But I do have a concern if the district is not offering classes that a student can be successful in with out tutoring. And I have a concern when a teacher decides to not support the "normal" students and teach at an accelerated level, which requires students to use a tutor in order to keep up.

What amazed me was how my daughters would come back from one hour with the tutor and feel like they were "all caught up". I am very disappointed in the Paly math department in general, and several of the "teachers" in particular.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 9, 2011 at 11:31 am

It is true that when a lot of students have tutors or parents at home to help, the teachers get a distorted view of their teaching. But what are we to do when our child is struggling? There is no other option. Tutors cost $50-$100/hour and not everyone afford it. But tutoring has helped lower the stress for my child, so it has been worthwhile.

Jordan has stepped up the pace in math also. They are working the students so hard that they are going to learn to dislike the subject before they get to Paly.

And I agree whith above poster that PAUSD has a great reputation but the colleges are not going to equate a "B" with an "A" from a different school when they see the transcript. Why can't the teachers still teach the rigor but allow more "A"s?

Mr. Toma should be teaching college students, not high school students who are not yet mature adults. I know many students who are too afraid to approach him because of his bad attitude.

Posted by Paly parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 9, 2011 at 11:38 am

I hope Paly math gets the message that they need to change, and that the Paly principal shows some leadership -- where is he in this discussion? He is in charge of the school.

Posted by Former Paly Parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 9, 2011 at 11:47 am

Paly Parent - no one is in charge of tenured teachers, unless they commit an act of egregious bad judgement, scandalous or criminal act that threatens the ability of the school district to raise money.

Posted by Prisoner's dilemma
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 9, 2011 at 2:10 pm

You can point to the parents as the solution to this problem of too much tutoring, and advance preparation, and acceleration and pressure.

But as said above, "There is no other option." It's a prisoner's dilemma: it would be better for all parents if we forced the schools to teach in a way and at a rate that did not require tutors (or outside programs or classes etc.) by not hiring them. But who wants to sacrifice their own child's confidence, enjoyment, academic success, and reputation on the hope that others will act similarly?

Especially since, in PA's very heterogeneous culture, we know not all parents will do this.

Therefore, at least part of the solution must come from somewhere other than the parents. In the long term university admissions programs might become sufficiently sophisticated to sort out this sort of gamed advantage, but that seems unlikely to happen soon.

So the natural place to turn is to the district, the schools, or the teachers. It's now appropriate for parents to get some help coordinating and motivating the optimal parental behavior from these sources.

Otherwise it's in each parent's interest to continue this tendency, which is a bad outcome for all.

That outcome puts grades ahead of learning, and learning for grades ahead of learning for a genuine purpose or interest. And that will stifle development of curiosity and creativity, reward those dependent on others for their thinking rather than independent thinkers, and raise the relative cost/benefit trade-off in favor of cheating in a variety of ways. And at the same time increase the advantage of the advantaged through public education.

Since this is a deep cross-disciplinary problem disproportionately impacting the disadvantaged with potential long term educational impact across the country, perhaps Stanford's Education school can help sort this out?

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2011 at 3:22 pm

Prisoner's dilemma,

There is a solution on the table, which the Superintendent has proposed.

Align the curriculum to A-G.

It's not that complicated.

Posted by Huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 9, 2011 at 4:12 pm

@Prisoners Dilemma, can you help me understand what "too much tutoring and advance preparation" means? Is there also such a thing as "too much studying"? I ask because tutoring is not a form of cheating - the student must master the material as demonstrated by whatever test is used. I have never heard of a case where people complained about *how* the student learned - by themselves, using study aids, with parents, with a tutor, using Khan Academy, "burning the midnight oil" or "it comes naturally" - it is all the same. So how do you define "too much" and "gaming the system"?

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2011 at 4:44 pm


Another aspect may have already answered your question..

"It's fine, actually great, to teach a kid the material covered in a course ahead of time. But why should the public pay for the kid to then take the course when he already knows the material? And at the same time make it harder for the teacher to teach and focus on those taking the course who did not learn it ahead of time?..."

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 9, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Huh and Big Picture - the "too much tutoring" that parents complain about falls into two categories - students who take a class over the summer at an outside school and don't get credit (on purpose), then retake it at Paly or Gunn and are pretty much guaranteed an "A". The other "too much tutoring" issue is that when so many kids have tutors, the teachers assume ALL the kids - including ones without tutors - can easily master the material. They no longer feel the need to teach because the tutors are doing it for them to a majority of the students.

Posted by Disgusted
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2011 at 6:42 pm

@ Former Paly Parent, writing that letter demonstrated egregiously poor judgment on the part of the entire Paly math department. As they took it upon themselves to write this letter, they should be censured by the principal. Further, Paly should not have graduation standards that are less than the California State standards. Any discussion of "waivers" for special education students is a red herring as they have IEPs and are not required to meet A-G as a result.

Ultimately, it boils down to the Paly Math Dept not wanting to be held accountable for teaching all of the students in the district. The Palo Alto community, School Board, Superintendent, and Principal need to hold these teachers accountable and demand equity in education.

Posted by Huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 9, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Thanks for the explanation. Taking the course the summer before sounds pretty rare - my Gunn senior says he would be "shocked" by it and has never seen or heard of it. It might happen, but is it really a big problem? The other category, where many kids have tutors, again sounds unusual (my two Gunn kids say they have never experienced it), but is really more an issue with the teacher, right? In any case, I can't see why a kid having a tutor to help ensure they master the material should be stigmatized or even discouraged.

Posted by Moira
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Huh? I assure you that a significant portion of students have tutoring, I estimate 50%, maybe higher. If you add in SAT/ACT prep and outside college advisors, more like 60%. If you're a low-income kid, you better like the student tutors offered at the high schools (top students but doesn't mean they can teach their peers) because tutors in this area are expensive. The more prestigious the desired college is for the student, the more likely they have had tutoring and test prep help. Again, not illegal or against school policy, but indicative that the students don't seem able to get the grades by attending class and studying on their own,

Posted by Huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 9, 2011 at 10:16 pm

@Moira, thanks, but how do come up with your estimates? I don't have an independent way of telling (not sure anyone does), but my kids tell me they think it is a small number.

SAT prep and college advisers are a different animal I think.

Posted by kmom
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 10, 2011 at 7:13 am

I just think that if tutors are necessary to get the credits needed to go to a UC or Cal State, then the district, in their quest to get these requirements met, should pay for the tutors. Also, why are we paying teachers that can't teach or can only teach the brightest student, when the tutors are doing a better job. As ridiculous as this may sound, it seems that we should just do away with classes and use tutors. But a better idea would be to get the teachers to teach to all the students until they are average student is proficient enough in the subject to churn out an average grade. Failing is unacceptable and if tutors are needed for classes, the district should provide and fund them. When I saw the letter above, at first I though it was from a teacher-perhaps one day it will be.

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 10, 2011 at 11:27 am

Moira - many kids don't want to admit they "need" a tutor and their friends have no idea that they have one. I was surprised myself at a party recently - probably 75% of the parents admitted their kids had math tutors. If you try looking for a tutor - you will find out how many kids use them. And yes, they are expensive - $50 - 75 an hour.

A regular student should be able to take a regular lane class and if they do all the work and attend all the classes, it should be taught at a level that they can understand and pass.

Posted by parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 10, 2011 at 12:29 pm

If 75% of parents at that party said they had tutors for their children, there is something seriously wrong. Even if it's 50%, it's still a problem.

If one considers the educational demographics of Palo Alto and there are still that many tutors necessary (for whatever reason), there is a deep seated problem across the spectrum... with teachers and parents. Teachers only teaching to the top students who may already "get it" ... parents pushing the top kids to find their breaking points... parents helping regular kids trying to hang on to survive... then a lot of kids who just give up and refuse to compete because they're labelled as "slackers". Not a pretty picture.

Posted by Huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 10, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Well, I guess I will ask around. A family we spoke with yesterday said one of their two high schoolers was getting a math tutor, though the same child had needed "math support" intermittently in middle school and even earlier, so not sure it is attributable to the high school. Also, worth noting, that the family had gotten the student bumped up above her recommended lane.

Parent from Old PA, you paint a grim picture, but I guess I don't see the fact that some fairly wealthy people supplement their children's schooling with individual instruction is either so strange or so sad. If the teachers aren't teaching or grading the class appropriately, then that is a problem, I agree, and we should work with the schools to address it. But otherwise, I think each family should make its own decisions about how to pursue academic goals - it is not for us to judge or stigmatize, one way or the other.

Posted by amen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 10, 2011 at 9:33 pm

"Posted by Paly parent, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, on Dec 9, 2011 at 11:38 am

I hope Paly math gets the message that they need to change, and that the Paly principal shows some leadership -- where is he in this discussion? He is in charge of the school."

Where is the principal on this? Is he hiding again?

Posted by Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 11, 2011 at 12:47 am

@Amen: Oh, give me a break! Don't post impulsive, demanding comments targeting someone who is doing a fantastic job. The Paly principal just started here last year and has been well-received, is a leader who is competent and professional and has improved Paly positively. Certain teachers have either retired or will retire soon, the block schedule has been a success, and he has improved the school more than you probably know. He sincerely cares about the students and is open to new ideas. You think he can snap his fingers and demand a solution? Then you aren't really a leader.

Posted by thanks amen
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 11, 2011 at 9:09 am

@Amen, you are right -- this letter is very offensive to the groups identified in the letter as not capable of success, and this debate does not appear to be going away, so you think Mr. Winston would speak out to set the record straight from the Paly administration. Otherwise the inmates are running the asylum -- what next, sexist, homophobic, and other decrees from Paly teachers that are tolerated? Even if the teachers have tenure the system allows for warnings, discipline or at least appointment of a new math department IS, or just making this right behind the scenes. Putting your head in the sand best case means you hope it blows over, worst case means you agree with the letter, that's not leadership. Mr. Winston needs to take a stand in favor of education for all at his school.

Posted by Another mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 11, 2011 at 9:21 am

On the tutoring subject, the ARC tutoring is done by other students, so the teachers have outsourced the actual work of teaching to their students for free with the enticement of extra credit. We could have a host of parent volunteers in the school for academic support, but they won't allow that because it would compete with their union employment of certificated personnel, just try -- as if you need a teaching credential to do tutoring that they have our own students doing for them. They'll say student privacy, but that's a red herring because everyone volunteers in the classroom in younger grades, and parents could sign a permission slip. So then they expect everyone to hire expensive outside tutors. What a joke.

Posted by Prisoner's dilemma
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 11, 2011 at 10:10 am

Re: "each family should make its own decisions about how to pursue academic goals"

Well, if you look at things from a specific point of view of a family, any requests or rules about pursuing academic goals would indeed seem to be too much government. The benefits to the family are clear but detriments seem unclear or out of the legitimate range of consideration ("my neighbor's kid's academic performance is not really my issue.")

The issue can come into focus when you look at an entire school or district. You have to look at the potential, or many now say actual, impacts on the school of this activity.

It's a problem when many kids come into class knowing the subject and caring more about their grade than learning the material. The teacher will appropriately emphasize grades more than learning. The teacher and class hears, "does this count," "does that count," "will this be on the test," etc. and teacher responds to them. These questions are more important than questions like, "why is it easier to solve for 0?"

So the teaching job evolves to a grading/judging/selecting job, which actually inhibits learning from the public school classroom. And the grading is then in some sense unfair if it's done by curve.

Also, students' grades can represent, to those with some impact on their future, an ability to learn from a known resource. This is part of the logic behind admissions selections to competitive universities - how likely is this student to leverage our environment for learning?
They look at past performance for evidence of leveraging school environments toward learning.

Those who have learned the material in a course before taking the course are misrepresenting their ability to learn from a classroom environment.

Posted by small window
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 11, 2011 at 10:31 am

It sounds like students should not be allowed in the library alone. Not funny!

Posted by Huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 11, 2011 at 11:18 am

@Prisoners Dilemma, the tutors aren't creating the an atmosphere of "does this count" that you dislike (to the extent that it exists more here and now than elsewhere) - that comes from the parents. Not sure how attacking tutoring addresses it - do you think it does?

I am skeptical that there are many situations where students learn the material "in advance." While it may happen, my kids scoffed at the idea and could not think of any kids (save maybe one, in one class) who fit that description. And again, isn't this really a teacher issue, where the teachers and instructional supervisors need to stick to their guns and not cater to a minority? Do you really want to stigmatize or restrict students from "reading ahead"?

I'm curious as to where this is all headed. Is anyone actually suggesting that tutoring should be restricted, penalized, or reported (self-reported?)? I have never heard of anything like that or how it would work - and how you distinguish between "bad" tutoring and "good" tutoring. It's ok if it is just venting, but I'm curious what people have in mind.

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2011 at 11:37 am

Does everybody realize that the practice of encouraging covering material ahead of grade level is called LANING?

What parents do with their own kids is peanuts, compared to what PAUSD does to advance certain students above and beyond grade level standards through lanes.

I actually have no problem with laning or with paid or unpaid tutoring. What is highly controversial, or at least should be controversial is the age when laning starts, and the impact it has on the course offerings and options for students who are not in the advanced lanes or modes.

PAUSD could maintain the current system as long as it ALSO has appropriate course offerings which does not shut out groups of students out of more Math or Science in High School (and I would say Middle School as well).

Maybe there should be 2 Instructional Supervisors for Math and Science. Mr. Toma and his Science counterpart can continue to represent the students he prefers to prioritize, and other ISs should be available to look out for the rest of the student population.

Posted by Ted Henderson
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 11, 2011 at 11:47 am

I have often wondered what would happen if Palo Alto parents decided to forgo outside private tutoring for just one quarter. What if we created an opportunity to see if Paly teachers are as amazing as they (and some of us) believe. I wonder if those teachers would continue to think so highly of themselves if they saw the results of their efforts without the support of expensive outside help. Perhaps, if their reputations were on the line, they might consider developing their craft to support motivated students who "just didn't get it". More of them might have to care about their lesser achieving students, if for no other reason than how it reflects on their ability to teach every child who wants to learn.

Ted Henderson
Palo Alto Parent since 2003.

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 11, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Huh? - Tutoring in itself is not an issue -the issue is teachers who don't feel the need to teach because so many of their students have tutors.

Big picture - you have it exactly right "PAUSD could maintain the current system as long as it ALSO has appropriate course offerings which does not shut out groups of students out of more Math or Science in High School (and I would say Middle School as well)." There should be a lane of both math and science that fits the UC/CSU requirements AND is taught to the UC/CSU standards, not some arbitrary, more difficult level that the PAUSD teachers want to teach instead.

As far as the middle school - my daughter was struggling in 8th grade math at Jordan (attitude problem, she hated her teacher, not a true "math" problem). I asked the teacher multiple times to meet with both of us, she refused to meet unless my daughter set it up. I understand teachers wanting kids to self-advocate, but refusing to meet with a parent is ridiculous. We finally got the counselor involved but never got the teacher to show up for a meeting - including the 504 reviews...

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 11, 2011 at 1:54 pm

No wonder the Gates Foundation is taking on the whole teacher tenure system -- I would say merit system, but that seems an oxymoron here -- it's really just an airtight union shop arrangement. The system is entirely dysfunctional if the teachers lack accountability and feel so insulated from consequences that they could write such a letter as the Paly math department wrote, revealing themselves to be frauds masquerading as dedicated teaching professionals. How can we ask our kids to go be taught by them in good faith? Why won't the principal or district denounce this? Is it like the thin blue line, they all just circle the wagons and stick together? What next: [insert what offends you here]. Our kids deserve better.

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2011 at 2:43 pm

PA mom and T. Henderson,

For sure, without the ability to measure effective teachers from less effective teachers, the system can more easily blame student performance. Tutoring makes this more of a problem.

The worst that could happen is that they put the less effective teachers to teach the kids that really need more help. A Mr. Toma may be a great teacher for the competitive Math students, but not for the kids he personally attacks in this letter.

Aligning the curriculum to A-G IS a very good way to solve all these issues.

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Aligning the curriculum to A-G IS a very good way to solve all these issues.

I should say it's a start, to address all these issues.

Posted by Prisoner's dilemma
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 11, 2011 at 2:47 pm

This is a knotty problem with many aspects. Perhaps there can be some clear action that will help mitigate it in some way, such as new guidelines for laning and the courses that result from laning. Maybe it will include better ways to test-out of courses.

"Not sure how attacking tutoring addresses it - do you think it does?"
No. The atmosphere comes from the parents, who are optimizing their children's education. Hence my moniker.

"I am skeptical that there are many situations where students learn the material 'in advance.'"

While I don't have formal statistics or enough data to convince beyond a reasonable doubt on this, I am now convinced of it. I have heard too many parents discuss their tutoring, summer camp, and other academic program goals to be able to dismiss it as co-incidental that I just happen to run into those few who do this. I conclude that the odds of this not representing a broader reality are low, but I've never seen formal convincing evidence.

And I fundamentally agree that tutoring and self learning, even if it is moving ahead in exactly the directions that the schools teach and grade on, is a good thing. It might be better when it follows a direction that would not otherwise be covered in required public school classes, but that's hard to know.

Posted by Ted Henderson
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 11, 2011 at 6:11 pm

I don't wish to attack tutoring. I am a teacher myself and often spend time during brunch, lunch and afterschool giving my students extra help. However, if I were not willing to put in this effort, students would have to depend on outside help to achieve the same results. I've encountered too many teachers who don't offer extra help and because of the outside help some students in this district receive, those teachers never realize how many students NEED their extra time. I teach in a district where students can not afford private tutors. The results of my teaching and ability to motivate and engage students is obvious in the success or failure of my students. With so much outside help, it is less obvious whether or not a teacher is being effective.

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2011 at 9:46 pm

@ Another mom, a member of the Palo Alto High School community

You say:
" We could have a host of parent volunteers in the school for academic support, but they won't allow that because it would compete with their union employment of certificated personnel."

I don't know where you got this information. It is wrong. They welcome adult volunteers at ARC at Paly!! I should know, I am one. I tutor there twice a week as a volunteer.

Any parent who wants to volunteer at Paly is welcome (paid tutors are not allowed on campus however).

As a matter of fact, ARC is looking for more math tutors. They don't have enough. I encourage anyone who wants to tutor as a volunteer to call or visit ARC and sign up. You can do as little as 45 minutes a week worth of tutoring.

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2011 at 12:37 am


Not that we can be picky about volunteers, and as the saying goes - you get what you pay for, but the attitudes you have displayed on this forum in your defense of Mr. Toma make me think -awkward.

Teaching is already out of the school's control thanks to tenure and unions, and volunteer tutoring is obviously out of the school's control.

Before trusting a system with Toma as the potential teacher and Angry parent as the potential volunteer tutor, for my potentially struggling student, I would first want to have curriculum alignment to A-G, appropriate course offerings such as the state standards compliant Algebra II recently rejected by the Paly Math teachers, new and better Math and Science pathways in High School for non-high lane kids, and especially a concerted effort to put appropriate teachers to work with the different lanes.

Posted by Save $
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 12, 2011 at 9:27 am

Why pay for math tutoring when so many math courses are available for FREE online?

Start with Khan Academy
and you can google other courses. Salman Khan is a great, easy to follow math teacher.
He covers math topics from arithmetic to college-level math.

Posted by pamom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm

It seems like a no brainer to add an Algebra II class that is aligned with the A-G requirements. Is the Paly math dept. worried that if we do this, students might take it in droves and get their desired "A"'s without the crazy stress of the other math classes.

Looks like math teachers (and this applies to other AP courses too) make their classes very, very difficult so as to keep the number of A's down. This leads to students getting extensive tutoring or even taking the class somewhere else in order to ensure that top grade. This results in unnecessary stress for these students tying to be the one to get that "A" as well as the normal student seeing that material for the first time.

We've got a very large group of very bright students. Why hold them back? Make the advanced courses cover the material they are supposed to and make getting good grades reasonable to mastering the material.

Yes, this might lead to larger numbers getting that "A" or "B" but this would represent what the student accomplished relative to other high schools. And, it would go a long way in reducing stress and reducing extensive prepping.

Posted by Some Thoughts
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 12, 2011 at 1:07 pm

If you are truly interested in doing more than blowing smoke on some forum that goes nowhere, I highly recommend you do the following:
1) Develop relationships with MULTIPLE teachers beyond the usual politic'ing for your student's grade. You have to get to the point where they'll tell you what they really think. You can start by sending a note about something related to their subject. It will take time.
2) Find some time to individually sit down with these people/teachers and ask them to explain to you how complicated this issue really is. One teacher won't cut it. You need to hear from all the different points of view. Ask your student which teachers might be willing. You might already know which ones because you found them open and caring at Back to School Night.
3) Be surprised at how many teachers (dis)agree with each other (and you!) and have reasonable and valid evidence to support their thoughts. This is an EXTREMELY complicated issue and anyone who boils it down to soundbites (don't assume I'm referring to you unless that's what you're doing), well...they're dooming us to failure whenever whatever over-simplified policy they're pushing gets crammed into usage. If you don't think it's complicated, you haven't done a good job of #2.
4) Consider the lessons we haven't even begun to learn about the calendar debacle. Lessons about support, communication and access. And I was rooting for the calendar change!;)
5) Realize that whatever we decide, it won't be a simple fix unless it is tokenism and that won't actually solve the problem anyway. It will be messy, painful for some and everybody is going to have to give something up--things you might not even be aware of right now. Dispassionate discussion now might allow us to plan for these outcomes to minimize their impact and ensure our success. You can be right AND effective.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 12, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Just a comment on the parents who have said that they needed to get tutors for their kids so they could keep up with their math class:

Why didn't you consider moving your kid down a lane instead?

We did that with one of our kids - went from C's to A's.

Again - this is not rocket science.

Posted by Parent who is starting to be angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2011 at 2:51 pm

@ Big picture

Far from advocating that your child should use my services as a tutor, I suggest that you could volunteer your services or call on your like-minded friends to put in some hours of volunteer tutoring at Paly. This way you would contribute something to the school in the way you think it should be done.

Note also that the persons who run ARC get feedback from the students and will drop tutors who are not satisfactory.

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Some thoughts,

After everything you prescribe is done, the board and district are still the ones charged with setting priorities. At the mention of calendar process, one can shudder at the thought. Counting myself indifferent to the calendar issue, I thought the process was unnecessarily messy.

This A-G issue though is not even close to being complicated when you consider the big picture. Some things are just that big, that you have to do the right thing.

Posted by Big picture
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2011 at 3:18 pm


You would not want me tutoring High School Math, but I apologize for my snide remark about you tutoring.

Tutoring I hope will flourish and continue to serve everyone well, but it does not replace curriculum alignment, and appropriate Math and Science course offerings, which address the opinion letter which started this thread, and to which I've been commenting to.

Posted by Huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 12, 2011 at 3:48 pm

@CP Dad, the one tutoring case I've run into had the same factor at work - the parents were getting a tutor for struggling child, who they'd gotten moved up a lane since his recommended assignment "was patently wrong" in their opinion. Fair enough, but it would seem inappropriate if they then complained that the teacher went too fast and the other students were "over-prepared."

Does anyone see a problem with this approach?

Posted by Some Thoughts
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm

@Big Picture: Oh, I'm all for the "right thing"...but I'm particularly all for the "right thing" done the "right way." Besides, nowhere in my initial post did I suggest we shouldn't institute the A-G requirements as graduation requirements. I assume you are sincere and want such a policy to actually work and serve the students it intends to serve from the outset and not after years of refinement. I don't believe success in this instance can be defined as merely instituting A-G. The proof will come in the implementation and there are a lot of obstacles to navigate which the teachers can help you identify in advance.

Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 12, 2011 at 5:19 pm

There are several "varieties" of "tutoring" being discussed here, with people of various ages and levels of experience in the subject commenting on each, sometimes to a bit of confusion.

Remedial tutoring and peer tutoring at the ARC (at Paly) are fine and may benefit teens in whatever subject. That's routine stuff. That's not the "tutoring" I have noted on this thread. This tutoring has far less to do with the stress of many high school students here, (though someone who needs support may feel some stress, to be sure).

I feel students should be authentic and genuine and do their own work. There is a type of paid parental activity grouped into a category of action called "tutoring" that is for students who are ALREADY reasonably successful in a subjec, sometimes highly so for years. Sometimes it is pretty stunning and "optimized" to raise the successful student to have that super edge to "win" over other top peers. Yet again, not illegal, but taken to the extreme, creates an extremely unfair situation for students who do all their own work and must compete with such "project" kids.

At the so-called labeled "top" levels of students there are the most issues: increased Tiger Mom tactics, students focused on grades -- to the point there is plagiarism, cheating -- which is sad -- /contrived ECs (cynical to the hilt)/competition in ALL things/"competitive" college admissions offers RATHER THAN ALSO enjoying learning, sharing with others, being a pleasant person, trying out courses based on one's own interest,considering an interesting future in the greater world, engaging with peers rather than plotting how to "beat" them.
I also feel, looking back -- and most closely associated with this thread -- that there should be a reasonable atmosphere in our high schools for normal students who wish to attend UC/CSU and not necessarily be Math majors or BME at UC Berkeley - these students will need math and not remedial math and should not be labeled "losers" -- that is outrageous -- but not the uber-top scheme of AP BC Calc finished by junior yr, as is aimed for by many parents of above average kids. To put down such kids as needing to "go down a lane" may not be the correct response -- some comparability (of curriculum) with the rest of California seems reasonable to me.

There are MANY students here who are high achievers, high socio-economic, highly motivated, fully aware of SAT etc. These students "compete" with each other here and earn grades that will be very important in determining future opportunities and college offers, since students are compared to their immediate peers at their HS, not the national average, and there is a cycle where there has been more competition, thereby more apps put out there, ratcheting up of such things as ECs (I write more of the top private universities and colleges, not UC/CSU, with which I am not currently up-to-date). Some follow their own muse, do their own work, learn in class, and do not receive special support and I salute these -- YOU are the authentic students.
I am meantime concerned some of these students are not earning some of their awards and places; they are partly being earned for them. I have been told about these things directly and also witnessed these things for the yrs my students were in school here. Sometimes I was shocked, sometimes angered, sometimes saddened. Certain kids are told "you are the winners" and then they are managed in their entire academic careers here with parental tactics that do not support the notion that these kids have earned their high spots.
Tiger Mom tactics were NOT typical in the past; there IS a change and it means school for a grade and not for learning/education. I find this sad. I also know it makes for stress on natural students who see this happening around them.
When, some PARENTS (I emphasize parents, NOT students) choose and require to have their particular teens follow a carefully planned course of study fully supported to the hilt, it THEN raises the bar and creates a situation where others 1)may choose to follow (IF they can afford it and IF they choose these tactics -- which some of us find unethical: like taking a high level course in advance elsewhere and then taking it in PAUSD at ease for a grade); 2)they may suffer - NOT by failing/dropping down but by having slightly lower grades, wich DOES affect top college apps - a LOT more stress/time devoted to personal study/their OWN EFFORTS.
It does not seem fair or a level playing field and students ARE affected, when these tactics are taken to the extreme I have seen. Having a kid tutored once in awhile(even advanced tutoring for the kid who favors math and desires acceleration)is not at all my concern nor my business; we are discussing a "system" of extreme Tiger Mom tactics that benefits a kid vs. a kid who does not have access to these extreme measures. Such kids, whether they like math or not, greatly advance and can perform well on challenging tests (though try engaging them in discussion - some cannot discuss the material since it is crammed for testing/grades purposes rather than the enjoyment of learning -- some admit they are "forced" (ugh, some will even say, wryly, looking back) into all of this - though they may admit it BENEFITS them in terms of grades/SAT/AP/competitions/university applications.

NOT self-requested, self-motivated - strictly for competitive -short-term advantage purposes and to pressure/beat peers. A kid who is not a genius can be substantially improved on paper to the point of receiving some meaningful "prizes." Others who are authentic may not get appropriate recognition though they did their own work and are perhaps a fraction "behind" the first.
It simply is not a level playing field.
Some of these people are a fraud - I wouldn't want to be them.

Posted by pamom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2011 at 7:13 pm

@former Paly parent, I think you've got some good points. But we can't do much to change Tiger parents. We need to change Tiger teachers. Our advanced courses should cover the material BUT there is no need to turn them into extremely difficult classes. That is not fair to the normal students who are not previously tutored and prepped.

This doesn't mean lowering the standards: the AP curriculum should be covered similar to the way other high schools cover the materials and students here should be graded similarly. If this results in many more students getting higher grades, so be it. When college admissions officers are looking at our students, they would have a better picture of our students' capabilities and preparation compared to students in other high school.

Looks like the pressure cooker is the classroom.

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 12, 2011 at 9:19 pm

First - high school in Palo Alto (and many other places) is about grades and building a college resume. Period.

Second - if you ask any college application counselor or tutor who covers the local area - our AP classes are MUCH harder than other local schools. If you expand to to other areas and compare how many kids get a 5/A here vs a 3/A elsewhere, you will see how challenging our teachers make things

Third - why do PAUSD teacher grade and teach the way they do?

Posted by School Culture, not Tutoring
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 14, 2011 at 8:12 am

In addition to families, our schools put a premium on impressive academic resumes.

There's a culture that academic resume building is the only way to escape from a horrible life, or the only way to succeed.

We ought shift this emphasis on resume building toward an emphasis on learning, and more generally growing academically, and adding value to our local social/educational/professional environment. As opposed to showing how well we can peruse that environment toward our own educational resume-building ends.

It's like the "occupy" perception of Wall-Streeters - these kids are milking the education system for their own benefit rather than helping it. And are rewarded big time for doing so during high school.

Samuel Johnson (a rather well-known man of letters) nailed this. The school culture which looks at academic reputation as motivation for learning is a bad one.

Here's what he wrote about educational approaches 300 years ago:

"[...] By exciting emulation and comparisons of superiority, you lay the foundation of lasting mischief; you make brothers and sisters hate each other."

Here's the context of that comment, he thinks it's worse than whipping or caning.

"I would rather have the rod to be the general terror to all to make them learn, than tell a child if you do this or that you will be more esteemed than your brothers and sisters. The rod produces an effect which terminates in itself. A child is afraid of being whipped, and gets his task, and there's and end to it[...]. [B]y exciting emulation and comparisons of superiority, you lay the foundation of lasting mischief; you make brothers and sisters hate each other."

Posted by Thank you activists
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 19, 2011 at 4:29 pm


"The complaints about tutoring truly seem misguided to me. The data seems to indicate that it is not nearly as widespread as some have claimed based on their anecdotal impressions. And the nefarious impact of this excessive learning seems pretty mysterious to me…."

What is misguided is for the district or anyone to play dumb about tutoring, or to hide behind the impossibility of proving it. Palo Alto's stratospheric combination of money and education,may not necessarily be "data" to prove tutoring, but IS a factor for declaring advantage compared to minority students, minority being anyone lacking similar access. Access to some of the best summer camps in the country, internships, daily expert academic direction from highly educated parents (this adds up), world travel, college application coaches, SAT prep. As Michelle Dauber has pointed out, the tutoring and camp industry exists and grows for a reason. There are also more subtle things of the material nature that can be handy to motivate academically, such as tech gadgets, cars, etc. Collectively, the community's advantage of sorts, can't be hidden just because a group is so pure they don't use any of this.

I don't need irrefutable "proof" about tutoring, and I actually think that tutoring can also have very positive effects. The debate can rage on.

About the nefarious impact - Ken Dauber best explained it .in his post - "What is the effect of tutoring on classroom teaching and learning? The debate above in this thread about the actual extent of tutoring, based on surveys of parents and kids, is happening because tutoring is private and happens largely outside of the view of teachers and other students. Effective teaching, though, depends on teachers being able to use the performance of their students as feedback about the pacing, content, and teaching methods being used in the class. If some of the students are getting taught outside of class by private tutors, their performance won't just reflect the classroom teaching, but teachers have no way of knowing that. From a teacher's perspective, the higher performance of tutored students produces a misleading signal that the course is paced correctly, and the performance of untutored students becomes a fact about those students rather than a fact about the class as a whole."

In an interesting twist, you point to the root cause of what you term "competitive" environment. That may actually be the best way to look at tutoring, it's about competition and as you explain.

"My impression (no data here!) is that the tutoring issue is a red herring. The root cause is the pressure that parents feel due to low admission rates of high-reputation colleges (which it terms is driven in large part from the demographic surge of high school grads) and anxiety about future economic opportunity, which translates into the competitiveness (largely parent driven) we see in the schools. That competitiveness causes worried parents to lash out at those they view as taking away the scarce opportunities - in this case Tiger Moms and others using "unfair" or "excessive" methods like tutoring."
Ironic that if it's about stiff competition, the entire Math department can attack minority students on this very issue.

My two cents is that irrespective of tutoring, the district can serve all students as equally as possible. Holding out that school is still about learning, not just competition, fair learning can be reflected through the right course offerings for students of different achievement levels, lanes that are not imbalanced in favor of one group, or other arbitrary goals.

Your suggestion for people to get "comfortable" that kids will be fine, as long as we love them is nice; some suggest, just level the tutoring playing field with free online options. Both would be a way out for the district, to not to fix the lanes, the inequitable math and science course offerings as I've posted before, or the festering Math arrogant school culture (exemplified by the Math letter), towards students who are not in the most competitive lanes which hurts all students. These all have solutions.

Posted by Huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 19, 2011 at 11:21 pm

@Thank you - I didn't fully follow your post, but on the the last bit, I'm fine with trying to improve the school issues you mention. I do feel it is hard for outsiders, like all of us, to know the right changes to make. But it is reasonable to raise the issues and try to get the administrators, who I think generally do care and want the best for our children, to improve what they have. My guess is that Phil Winston would really like to see the Paly Math department change its mindset, and who knows, he may already have plans in place to accomplish it. Hard to know.

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