In Palo Alto, our schools are well known for the high level of achievement of our students. That's true whether we measure in terms of scores on state standards tests (the STAR tests), admission to elite colleges, percentage of passing grades on AP exams or state API levels. I celebrate that accomplishment and will work hard to maintain it.
When we talk about overall achievement, we're talking about averages. But are we meeting every child where they are, and giving them an equal opportunity to succeed? If not, how do we get there?
Building a growth mindset. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has pointed out that ability is not fixed. Instead, both children and adults can respond to appropriate challenges by improving their mastery of knowledge and skills, no matter what their starting point. The role of teachers in this process is critical. First, teachers continually assess students to determine a range of challlenges that are doable but will stretch their abilities. Second, teachers help students to understand both success and failure as reflecting effort and mastery, rather than underlying intelligence and fixed capabilities -- so students see the connection between effort and progress.
This strategy has been shown to work for both high-achieving and lower-achieving students. For high-achieving or gifted students, delivering appropriate challenges relieves boredom and allows continued growth. For lower-achieving students, differentiated instruction provides a path to growth to sustained higher levels of achievement. As a school board member, I will advocate for investment in teacher professional development and curricular improvements to support differentiated instruction at all levels of the curriculum.
Closing the achievement gap? One clear sign that we have work to do in this area is what is known as the "achievement gap": the gap in average levels of achievement between lower income and underrepresented minority students, on the hand, and white and Asian students, on the other. The achievement gap is a real problem in Palo Alto as it is in California and nationally. For example, over the last six years, 38% of African American and Hispanic graduates of Gunn and Paly had completed an A-G curriculum preparing them to attend a UC or CSU college, compared to well over 80% for PAUSD graduates as a whole. Earlier this year the Palo Alto Weekly reported that the Education Trust West, a statewide education policy organization, gave PAUSD an overall grade of "D" for our lack of success in closing the achievement gap for poor and minority students.
Dispelling the myth. Closing the achievement gap does not mean reducing the achievement of high-achieving students. It means that we will raise the floor substantially, but there is no ceiling. Every child should have appropriate challenges that push his or her limits and I will work to make that happen. We should also create artistic, athletic, and research opportunities for all of our students, giving them the chance to stretch as far as they can.
What can we do to raise achievement for all students? The persistence of the achievement gap is not due to a lack of concern in our community or district staff. Closing this gap has been a part of our strategic plan goals for the past 5 years, and the subject is frequently discussed at school board meetings. Last year the district aligned our graduation requirements with state A-G requirements, in an effort to reduce the number of students who graduate from our high schools not ready to attend a public university in California. That change was due in large measure to Superintendent Skelly's sustained leadership, including his efforts to meet the concerns of some who were initially opposed. I supported this initiative in close collaboration with many community and parent groups including the Parents Network of Students of Color, the Student Equity Action Network, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, and the Stanford chapter of the NAACP.
How can we translate our commitment to the education of every child into real and sustained progress? I believe that a key element in a successful strategy is an attention to data, which helps turn a situation that can seem overwhelming and outside the schools' power to address into a series smaller and more tractable obstacles to be overcome. For example, I’ve looked at the achievement data for specific high school math and science courses, using data that can be publicly downloaded from the California Department of Education. What I’ve found is that for some courses, other districts are doing much better than we are in educating lower income and minority students.
For example, in 2011 we ranked 165th in the state for black students on the Algebra I STAR test and 143rd for black students in Algebra II. For poor students, the corresponding results were 192nd for Algebra I and 114 for Algebra II. For white students, by contrast, we were 7th in the state in Algebra I and 10th for Algebra II. The results are similar for 2010, and also similar for Biology and Physics, and for Hispanic students. (I've made this data available as Google spreadsheets for 2011 and 2010).
Learning from others. The fact that other districts are having more success educating similar students than we are can be humbling -- but it’s also a real opportunity for us. It means that a growth mentality that every child can do better, combined with differentiated instruction, has a real opportunity for success. We’re at the top of the state for our overall results -- we should also be at the top of the state for our minority and lower income kids. We have the resources, we have dedicated and high quality teachers, and we have a strong community commitment to educational equity and opportunity. Let's work together to realize this promise.