Look around at our neighboring communities, and you'll find many different visions for K-8 academic expectations. Some areas have become known for high-pressure, competitive academic environments with substantial homework, leading to significant student stress, burn-out, or worse. When MVWSD adopted its latest strategic plan 5 years ago, I was part of the working groups discussing where we wanted our district to go - and what kind of 8th graders we wanted to be sending to Mountain View and Los Altos High Schools. The clear consensus was to focus on producing well-rounded students who are prepared for the world ahead. Solid analytical skills. Socio-emotional skills. STEAM, not just STEM.
So how are we doing?
I'll be one of the first to say that I really wish we had a data point from state testing last Spring. Tests aren't perfect, and they do take time away from instruction, but until someone comes up with a better way to assess the consistency of results across our schools, here we are. The trends heading into 2020 were mixed, with some areas improving, inconclusive results in others, and a continuing achievement gap. But alas, along came COVID, testing was canceled, and we were all preoccupied with just making the basic infrastructure of education do something positive for our kids. In preparing for this campaign, I've spent time talking with parents within MVWSD, parents and staff from other public school districts, and parents of children in private schools. We've reflected on our experience with our own kids as we went through MVWSD's elementary and middle schools. Bringing all that input together, I see a great opportunity to raise the bar for MVWSD and build on what's been done to date.
A few examples:
Homework: If you're a district parent, you know there are days when your student comes home with no more school work to do. Or maybe your middle schooler had 20-30 minutes of work to finish off. It's on to sports, time on electronic devices, artwork, music, TV, or whatever activities your household enjoys. Then exams come around, or the next set of assignments, and you have one of those conversations where you realize that what they've been getting taught just didn't quite stick. They bomb a test. They get stuck on a new subject because they didn't master the foundation that should have been built before that. I look at what students in other schools are doing, and I think we're running a little too light with the follow-up and reinforcement that comes from having enough assigned homework. We don't need to have hours upon hours of it... but we need a little more than we have today. This sounds easy - just encourage the Superintendent to ask teachers, via our principals and academic officers, to assign more, right? Not so fast... I know from personal experience grading homework for classes I taught or where I was a teaching assistant, and from past history with housemates who were teachers, how much work that creates for teachers. If we go down that path, it will take some dialogue about class size, number of classes per teacher, and the type of work (automatic assessments, essays, etc). But let's start that conversation as a community.
Academic Rigor: There are many examples of areas we can do better, and I should probably devote an entire blog to iReady or the rigor of our elementary math programs at some point, but let's talk about one example that I know some of our parents (and former students!) are particularly passionate about: the writing expectations for 8th grade. It's a big leap to go from a 2-3 page essay in 8th grade to the lengthy reports that are expected in 9th grade at our high schools. The MVLA high schools are among the best in the state and set a challenging bar for students. I think that's great. What's not great is when a student, who's likely in the middle of many changes including everything that comes with adolescence, gets that shock entering high school. So let's have a look at that area. Written communication is an absolutely essential skill in our connected world, whether we're writing blogs, research papers, stories, or tweets - and one that needs a deeper look as we embark on the next strategic plan for MVWSD.
The Achievement Gap: MVWSD has tried many things to address the socio-economic achievement gap since we first came to the district. When I was on the District Facilities Committee, we had a great deal of discussion about this, because the decision to split the Dual Immersion program and neighborhood program at Castro Elementary was front and center. Would we carve out the necessary funds from Measure G to go build a new school? What would that school look like? We knew that decision would have consequences for our ability to open a neighborhood school in the Slater area and create a stand-alone permanent campus for Stevenson, so we had to be confident that this move would be the critical step needed to enable the program at Castro to focus. Ultimately, that's the direction the Board decided to go in. Years later, I think we're still trying to get it right at Castro and Mistral. What I've seen from my own experience at Monta Loma is that we can improve areas like reading - RTI, when properly staffed, works. When we build a school community based on mutual respect and compassion, where students from different backgrounds engage with each other inside and outside of the classroom, it creates access and agency for kids who might not have had it otherwise. I want more conversations like one I had with a parent at our daughter's birthday party years ago, where she was beaming over the fact that her child had just reclassified. That kind of pride can go viral - in a good way! So let's get the problems out on the table, shine a spotlight on them at our school board meetings, and encourage our district leaders and principals to be really clear with everyone about how we're going to solve them.
The next board is going to jump in to the middle of MVWSD's process for developing a new 6-year strategic plan for our schools. Ultimately it will be asked to approve that plan. I believe we've got a great opportunity in front of us to raise our expectations, while avoiding the pitfalls that have hit other schools in our area. If you have input on this - whether you agree with the above views or not - I'd love to hear from you!