Bay Area Math Report Deserves Local School Districts’ Consideration

A new study from the Brookings Institution places the metro area of San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara as No. 1 in patent filings per capita in America. Certainly, the distinction is reflected in the fabric of our economy and the high price of housing. It would follow somewhat logically that this honor must also demonstrate the effectiveness and innovation in our public schools, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in most schools, districts and classrooms in Silicon Valley. The state Board of Education voted as expected in January to move away from the 1998 policy that directed all 8th grade students into Algebra 1. Now the state will only test for math content in 8th grade consistent with the Common Core standards—a lesser course—as most states are planning to do. California was a strong outlier in its staunch support of teaching Algebra 1 in 8th grade, but the effort did not prove successful.

More advanced math and problem solving begins with a successful understanding of Algebra 1. The successful completion (A or B Grade) is a gateway to success in high school, college and career for STEM majors. When it comes to the teaching of Algebra 1 in 8th grade, California is taking a step backwards. Emmett Carson, executive director of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, agrees with this and he has funded a new report titled, “Held Back: Addressing Misplacement of 9th Grade Students in Bay Area School Math Classes.” Mr. Carson is one of the community leaders pushing the public school system to be smarter and demonstrate equity for all its students.

Every principal in Silicon Valley must examine their individual school data to ensure equity for enrolling similar percentages of students of color in the highest math sequence. Every superintendent and elected trustee must demand a reporting of the data disaggregated by race/ethnicity to be sunshined at a public meeting for discussion. The data are available on the CDE.org website by district and school. However, it rarely gets discussed with an action plan and evaluative feedback loop.

Far too often, as the new study from SVCF observes, successful students of color are misplaced in lower tracked math classes. It is too often the case that subjective data is used rather than quantitative measures (e.g. test scores) for placement.  On the acknowledgements page, the report states:  “Encouraging successful students to excel at every level should be fundamental to our educational systems. To hold back any student without a legitimate and equitable basis is an infringement with life-altering implications.”

I have been an outspoken advocate for equity for all during my career. But the system can beat you up for trying to do right by all, especially children of color. Many times a complex system, like our public schools, cannot be reformed from within. We must have strong voices of dissent to help move us to where we must be.

The CEO of the SVCF, Emmett Carson Ph.D., is that powerful voice today and fortunately he has some deep pockets, with $2 billion in assets. I congratulate him for his advocacy for equity. He writes the following in his Dear Colleague cover letter to the report:

“We asked the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area to determine whether these placement disparities are a potential violation of state and federal law. The answer … is a clear and resounding yes. … The conclusion is simple: districts that do not act to address placement disparities are at high and immediate risk of legal action.”

If I’m a school board president of one of the 31 districts in Santa Clara County, I would be requesting my superintendent to bring the last five years of quantifiable data relative to the issue of this column to the next board meeting for discussion and a plan of action. Dr. Carson’s report lists a series of action steps for school districts, parents and community advocates and attorneys.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

5 Comments

  1. I looked at this.

    The Silicon Valley Community Foundation is taking credit, but they’re just reporting the findings in the 2010 Noyce Foundation’s Pathways Report:

    http://www.noycefdn.org/documents/Pathways_Report.pdf

    School districts should look at this, but if there was something more substantial, the lawyers at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation would be all over this.

    The key thing that was brought up in the report that I think needs to be looked at first:

    Possible explanations for this include the following:  The eight grade class is called
    Algebra but is not really a high school level Algebra class; the eighth grade teachers do
    not believe they can deliver a high school level class; the grading practices get in the
    way of student accomplishment; students come to the class unprepared to succeed; 
    high school teachers undo the eighth grade teacher recommendations; a belief system
    operates that holds that Algebra in eighth grade is either unnecessary or too early; a
    belief system operates that some students who seem successful in eighth grade will fail
    in ninth grade, or that they will be more successful after repeating the course; a belief
    system that some students are not as deserving of advanced placement as others;
    passive parental involvement; and confusion among teachers about which concepts are
    core and how to measure competence in them.

    I’m inclined to believe that a lot of this is an unintended consequence of requiring algebra in 8th grade.  That’s already something that has been corrected.

  2. Joseph, I commend you for a post related to statistics.  Now it’s time to step up in your elected role on the County Board of Education.

    You write: “Every principal in Silicon Valley must examine their individual school data to ensure equity for enrolling similar percentages of students of color in the highest math sequence. Every superintendent and elected trustee must demand a reporting of the data disaggregated by race/ethnicity to be sunshined at a public meeting for discussion. The data are available on the CDE.org website by district and school. However, it rarely gets discussed with an action plan and evaluative feedback loop.”

    Better late to the party than not at the party at all.

    Under your two-year Presidency of the Santa Clara County Board of Education you chose not to agendize such an item at the County Board, though the County Office employees awarded schools during your tenure for purported math proficiency.  Easy to type on a blog, Joseph.  More difficult to put words and belief into action – real action that doesn’t cower and cavel or put ego or fear first before children’s futures.

    The issue is not primarily about “enrolling.”  It’s about actual proficiency and preparation that leads to “enrolling.”  And it’s about the horrid proficiencies that result too often after “enrolling.”  What’s the “action plan” of which you write?  What’s the “evaluative feedback loop”?  Elementary proficiency leads to middle school enrollment leads to Algebra proficiency or non-proficiency leads to one’s level of math skills when leaving high school.

    Now that I am on the K-12 side of the fence, after eight years on the Community College side of the fence, I see even more clearly that the County Board of Education has the most freedom to lead.  It’s about desire and courage and honor and….duty.

    I absolutely advocate as a new Trustee at Santa Clara Unified School District to discuss our District’s math performance in public. The math achievement gap at Santa Clara Unified is abysmal and a crisis that reveals the pervasive racism that runs through the District.  Yes, as a Trustee, I have written the “r” word about my own District.  We’re beginning to deal with it and the anger and discomfort that accompanies such discussions.

    These data questions often are not welcomed.  Overall, socioeconomically-disadvantaged Latino students at SCUSD have low math proficiency.  The gap shows more in SCUSD than in other districts because we have significant segments of high achievement too.  And, many members of the local Santa Clara power structure prefer that we not discuss these numbers publicly.  Better for some to hide numbers from public view and protect grown-ups’ reputations than to put children first and really disaggregate and discuss data publicly.

    You write “Far too often, …, successful students of color are misplaced in lower tracked math classes.”  So use your power to convene that you and I frequently have discussed.

    You state “Many times a complex system, like our public schools, cannot be reformed from within.”

    You are a lifetime pensioner from your service to public schools.  So, show that you have courage to “reform from within” in your role as an elected official by agreeing with a colleague to agendize regular, systematic discussions of math proficiency data.  The real numbers.  In public.  In depth.  It’s too con-ven-ient to kvetch, and then rely on other outside groups to do the work you seem unwilling to do at your own board meetings

    You write “If I’m a school board president of one of the 31 districts in Santa Clara County, I would be requesting my superintendent to bring the last five years of quantifiable data relative to the issue of this column to the next board meeting for discussion and a plan of action.”

    An interesting start, but I encourage you to refine the question.  Every Superintendent in the County will state s/he already has a “plan of action.”  Every Single Plan for Student Achievement has a “plan of action.”

    We need more than references to a “plan.”

    The first step of courage is to look at the most recent data – in depth by school and by district.  The numbers are online via a large dbf file.  This week I pulled down this year’s statewide spreadsheet of 10,923 rows by 178 columns.  The Santa Clara County portion is 430 of the those 10,923 rows.

    Please Joseph, support a County Board of Education task force.  Not a County “Office” task force.  A County “Board” task force.  Review each set of high school districts’ numbers month by month, along with their nested elementary/middle schools.  The high school districts are Palo Alto, Los Altos/Mountain View, Fremont Union, Campbell Union, Los Gatos-Saratoga, Santa Clara, San Jose, Milpitas, East Side Union, Morgan Hill, Gilroy.  With 11 districts, that’s a perfect fit for a monthly program.

    There is a LOT of room for the County Board to review each month what the numbers REALLY say.  How about a commitment to five years of rolling through one high school district’s math numbers each month, with focus on socioeconomically-disadvantaged numbers, outlying high performers and low performers and public discussion of obstacles to achievement, including and especially proficiency from feeder schools and relevant demographics?

    You might be displeased that I am calling you out publicly, but you also know that I met with you and my County Board representative several times to discuss this during your years as Board President.  Dr. Carson’s efforts at SVEF are commendable.  But those of us in elected office cannot punt to the private and/or nonprofit sectors.  We cannot.  We cannot.

    I hope you will pick up the challenge and use your role to exercise the “power to convene.”

    Collegially,
    Chris Stampolis
    Trustee, Santa Clara Unified School District
    408-771-6858 *  [email protected]

  3. I am new to this issue as the group of students I have the distinct honor in serving are not at this level of proficiency in mathematics. If I may offer my personal experience as someone who went through the SCUSD back in the Sixties and Seventies, math was not considered really that important. Just making sure we could read and write was a central point of my personal experience as a student. I was in “special education” during my first five years in SCUSD do to Auditory and Visual dyslexia and a physical injury I “suffered” in the first grade.

        I was kept back for one year and it was catch up all the way through high school. I am sure there are many other such events that effect students and their progress in their academic career. Learning is an extremely complex and nuanced process, so many facets come into play to achieve success. 

        Personally it took a college professor taking a personal interest in me to instill the importance of math for me to even get past Algebra 1. I am amazed at the success of students now and also concerned of the constant pressure placed on them. One thing I do know, knowledge is imparted to others in community and by creating an environment that fosters the thirst for learning. I know the fine instructors of SCUSD seek to do this on a daily basis in every subject.

        I was able to finish an MBA and the accounting math component with the use of online and alternative / adaptive software. This online and hardware technology helped me to compensate for a sight loss I had recently suffered during my masters program. These adaptations helped me complete a calculus program in conjunction with my MBA. If I could offer any suggestions or help please let me know. Math opens many doors for all students and it is a powerful tool to help our world become a better place to live in.

    With deepest respect Brian Darby ([email protected])

    • Thank you for highlighting the point that “the number” is not the student, and that, because learning is truly lifelong, people are not limited by what they may or may not achieve in high school. There are many people who were washouts at school who went on to significant achievement—one I recently read about was Issac Newton.