In my five years on the school board, the most persistent (and justified) complaint that I have heard about our school district is the way we manage our math program in the middle schools, particularly for higher-level students. Primarily, parents have been puzzled by the lack of consistent approaches between our two middle schools with respect to the criteria for placement into higher math courses and how such courses are taught. In addition, there has also been anecdotal evidence — and a feeling among many parents — that San Carlos does not push its students enough into these higher level math courses relative to neighboring districts. This issue has come up periodically over the last few years, but honestly I can say we did not give it the requisite attention it deserved. And ironically, it’s a relatively easy problem to solve. This year finally it was placed on the front burner for a number of discussions, and at last night’s board meeting I believe we had a breakthrough.
By way of background, Central Middle School and Tierra Linda Middle School have been taking different approaches to higher math courses, meaning Algebra in 7th and 8th grade and Geometry in 8th grade. CMS has historically been more aggressive than TL in the number of kids placed in these higher math courses (with one exception this year). In addition, CMS has more of a “tracking” system, placing kids in 6th grade, for example, in an accelerated class, while TL has a “differentiated” program, where the teacher customizes instruction to multiple levels within the same class. Lastly, CMS has its own Geometry teacher while TL sends 8th graders across the street to Carlmont High School to take the Geometry class. These different approaches were not really by any design, but rather accidents of history and inertia from individual choices made some years ago.
As per the Board’s request from a prior meeting, last night the administration brought data comparing the differences between our schools as well as comparing San Carlos to other districts. The data proved that our hunches were correct — San Carlos is quite conservative in terms of the % of kids it sends to these advanced math courses. For example, on a percentage basis, we send less than half as many kids to 7th grade Algebra than does either Belmont or Menlo Park (ironically, the side effect of being more selective in which kids get accelerated is higher test scores…so this a is a great example where test scores shouldn’t be the goal!). So, it was universally agreed by both administrators and board members that we should not be an outlier and need to be more aggressive in this regard. So there was general agreement on a few things: (a) we should have a goal (the number 20% was discussed) for the number of 7th graders who go into Algebra, (b) we need to employ the same methodology for placement at both CMS and TL, and (c) we start this for next school year, meaning assessments done this Spring will follow a new protocol.
There was a bit more discussion around the other differences between the schools, mainly the “tracking vs. differentiation” issue and the use of Carlmont High School for TL Students. Although many in the room argued that both approaches can work, I pushed back on that assumption. In my opinion, Math is the most “linear” of all subjects, meaning that many concepts have to be grasped in a specific order (unlike History or Science where there are many paths through the curriculum). And as such, it feels counter-intuitive to me, that notwithstanding having great teachers (which we do), we can properly accelerate and prepare advanced students in mathematics using only a “differentiation” approach. Although I said I was open to being convinced otherwise by our educational experts in the districts, I had a strong bias toward taking Central’s approach to use across the district. With regard to using Carlmont for Geometry to TL students, I was equally strong in my convictions — it is time to end that practice. Particularly if we push more kids into higher math, we will certainly have more than enough kids to have our own teacher and our own classroom. The current practice is suboptimal on so many levels, and again, it’s an easy fix. Although I don’t know for certain, I suspect we will all ultimately agree on these two points.
There’s one last piece to this discussion. The district will need to communicate very clearly our new approach so all parents understand, and particularly understand (and embrace) the fact that this approach may likely reduce our math test scores, and that is not only OK, it’s actually a desirable outcome.
The next step is for Dr. Baker and his administrative team to come back with the final proposal in terms of our overall goals as well as the consistent implementation of methodology between the schools. But in any case, I was very excited about the conversation, and frankly I do accept some blame for not pushing this years ago. But we are here now, and it’s about time!
At last night’s school board meeting, we reviewed the initial work of the facilities master plan being developed by the school district. This is the result of work done over the last few years by staff members informed by community committees and board discussions. Although the plan itself (and our overall needs for new capacity, building 21st century schools, etc.) is needed regardless of how we will fund them, clearly the pending Measure H bond measure has accelerated the need for the plan.
As we have discussed over the last year or so, the current plan is to build two 4th-5th grade schools, one each on the TL and Central campuses. This would relieve overcrowding at the existing elementary schools without changing school boundaries, build new modern schools that all students in the district could attend, leverage the existing resources on the middle school sites, and avoid having to purchase expensive new land.
Although last night we didn’t get into the specifics of the potential projects outside of the two new schools, we discussed that the intent was to address a number of deferred maintenance projects that exist at each of the school sites.
The discussion focused on the potential phasing of the projects and the hope that any construction would be managed such to minimize impact on students (i.e. not displacing them into temporary facilities for a year, etc.). We also discussed one key lynchpin question, which is whether or not Charter Learning Center (CLC) should move to the Heather Campus. CLC has expressed that it is neutral regarding which location would be better (which makes sense given it is the only school which has no neighborhood boundary), and the board was not unanimous in its thoughts here. Although not perfect, I believe moving CLC to Heather is a very elegant solution for two main reasons:
- Heather has the lowest density of any school site (by an order of magnitude) in terms of the number of students relative to the size of the parcel
- As we have discussed many times, the traffic issue around TL is one of our biggest issues, and with overall enrollment growth, the adding of 4th grade onto the campus, and the expected growth at Carlmont High School, this is poised only to get worse. Of course, moving CLC to Heather will create additional traffic near Heather, but the issues will be minor compared to what will happen at the TL/Carlmont corridor.
There is still much work to do on our master facilities plan. The next step is to hire an architect and get more specific plans and budgets around all of these projects. As expected, the main challenge will be financial. Of course to accomplish any significant subset of these projects, Measure H must pass. But even if it does, Dr. Baker stressed that it is our intent to find additional sources of money beyond that as our needs far exceed the potential bond proceeds. This can be accomplished a number of ways, including partnerships (e.g. working with the city of San Carlos on fields, working with tech companies on infrastructure, etc.), seeking grants, and potentially even borrowing from other sources (e.g. loans to fund sustainability projects, the savings from which fund the payback of the loan itself — such as solar power). We also have to be creative in leveraging resources we have, both in terms of shared facilities as well as using existing land that requires the least amount of prep work.
But overall, these are very exciting times. It’s the first time in many years that the district has had such a master plan which lays out a way to meet our needs for many years to come. Of course, there will be many more updates on this subject, but in any case remember to vote for Measure H!
Today EdSource published a white paper I have been working on for a while called “PURSUING MODERN AND IMPACTFUL PUBLIC POLICY TO RETHINK CALIFORNIA’S K-12 PUBLIC EDUCATION IN THE 21ST CENTURY.” It is, in many ways, the summary of all of the issues that we have discussed locally in San Carlos as well as the many issues and frameworks presented by other educational leaders.
The purpose of the paper is three-fold:
- To broaden our thinking about what defines a “21st Century Education” and understand that although technological changes were largely the catalyst for our new world context, it is not the technology alone which will create the modern educational experience. Rather, it is the elimination of the virtual and physical restrictions we have created for learning and the opening up of new, previously unavailable (or costly) resources to enhance teaching and learning.
- To acknowledge that one can be both be a staunch defender of public education and also recognize that to move forward, we must change almost everything.
- To appreciate that in order to accomplish even a fraction of what I suggest, significant public policy changes at the state level need to be made.
Here are the links to my short blog post on EdSource introducing the topic as well the white paper itself.
Special thanks to Craig Baker, Tom Keating, Ted Lempert, my colleagues on the San Carlos School Board, and colleagues from the San Mateo County School Boards Association who all helped shape (in some cases knowingly and in others unknowingly) many of the ideas and concepts in the white paper. I hope it is useful as a framework for our future discussions!
I have been spending a lot of time lately studying, reading, thinking, and writing about 21st Century Education. In fact, a new whitepaper that I have written will be published in EdSource later this month (I’ll post the link when it’s up). Not just about enhancing technology in schools, 21st Century Education means many things, including (a) changing both the content of our curriculum and the process of teaching and learning, (b) redesigning the physical environment both inside and outside of “school,” (c) redoing the human resource model to best leverage talent, and (d) altering the structure of the school day, school year, and the “categorization” of children. These are big, meaty subjects, which I will elaborate upon in the upcoming whitepaper, but I had the opportunity to visit an organization today which provides one very interesting way to approach a couple of these areas.
I was invited to a presentation and open house by Citizen Schools at their new local office in Redwood Shores. (In full disclosure, the Executive Director of Citizen Schools California is Joe Ross, who is a candidate this fall for the San Mateo County Board of Education, and I have endorsed his candidacy). Citizen Schools is an organization that partners with schools to expand the learning day for children in low-income communities across the country. They have a model that trains new educators and places them in schools to both work alongside the school’s regular teaching staff during the day as well as teach in what we traditionally think of “after school” time — essentially expanding the regular school day up until 6pm. This allows for both deeper learning in the “core” subjects but also expansion in the number of subjects themselves (some may call “electives”), ones that particularly a low-income school would likely not be able to deliver on its own in our current fiscal environment. They combine a strong training and credentialing program with the framework and management to allow individual schools to both expand learning time and bring in significantly more resources. This is critical for a state where we have one of the lowest adult-student ratios in the nation.
One principal from a school in East Oakland spoke to the group, and talked about the incredible results at his school, where it has effectively doubled the of number educators he has. His school is 100% families in poverty, with an average family income of $12,000 per year. There is no way otherwise this school could provide the level of instruction and support for these kids who otherwise have little support elsewhere. His talk was truly inspiring.
But as I thought more about what we learned, it led me back to 21st Century Learning and the breaking down of the “walls” that have constrained public schools for over a century. Clearly Citizen School’s approach is centered around the longer school day — breaking down the barriers of time — but it also breaks down the barriers in our traditional human capital model, which has been a single category of educators who lead teaching and learning. Their model speaks to a much broader concept of the need to re-think how we apply human resources in education. I have said many times that if we were to start over and design a public school system from scratch today, would we have a series of equally sized “classrooms” with a single teacher assigned to single room and a few dozen students? Would we not leverage all of the worldwide — and local — resources available to us to enhance learning? Wouldn’t we use time, rather than achievement, the constant in our formula? Would not the roles of our “educators” be much more varied? We must rethink all of the former walls that no longer exist. The Citizen Schools model is more akin to a teaching hospital, where there is a combination of more adults, varying levels of experience and roles, and much deeper on the job training.
Citizen Schools targets lower income schools where the need is the greatest, and I applaud them for that great work and making a difference. But I also wonder on how a public policy level, we can better understand work like this and apply it to break down the walls — both physical and virtual — of our public school system. Stay tuned for that white paper!