On Tuesday night, the Palo Alto School Board will vote on a new English Language Arts curriculum that a number of teachers who served on the district’s English Language Arts Pilot and Adoption Committee said should be scrapped.
Tuesday’s session follows a special hearing session on May 4 at which the board heard 22 speakers, most of whom opposed the 41-member committee’s recommendation to adopt the program. Of the 25 teachers on the committee, 20 chose not to vote at all, they said.
The district has sought to eliminate educational inequalities for underserved students and those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia.
Established in August, the board includes parents, teachers, professionals and administrators from all elementary schools and grade levels. Members were tasked with reviewing eight ELA syllabuses for kindergarten through fifth grade, three of which were tested for three to four weeks this school year.
The Committee recommended that the Board adopt the Benchmark Advance/Adelante syllabus for reading and the Teachers College writing syllabuses. They also recommended a complementary curriculum, Haggerty Phonetic Awareness, to help students, including those with dyslexia, become proficient readers. The Haggerty curriculum would complement an existing program, the Orton-Gillingham methodology, which focuses on teaching phonetics, the committee said.
But many teachers speaking during the May 4 board meeting said the district should step back and consider additional curricula that may better suit students. Some teachers said the $2.7 million award for ITE and supplemental materials for the 2022-2023 school year would be better spent on other programs or strengthening existing programs.
Other committee members, including parents, said while the curriculum isn’t perfect, it’s time to adopt something rather than extend the search indefinitely.
Angeline Rodriguez said as a teacher on the ELA adoption committee, she did not vote on the recommendation. She couldn’t in good conscience choose between three teacher-centered one-size-fits-all offerings that go against everything she’s learned about effective literacy.
“Having to choose between three underperforming literacy programs does not deliver on the PAUSD promise. How can you, as a member of the Executive Board, move forward with a clear conscience? Knowing this, I am asking of you tonight for more time, more time to evaluate a rigorous and developmentally appropriate curriculum that is student-centered and based on best practice. Making such an important decision in a hurry will only be detrimental to the very students we are here to serve… We should not rush and move forward with the curriculum as 85% of the committee did not support,” she said.
Christina Nosek, another teacher on the Reading Adoption Committee, also said she did not vote.
“My job as a teacher is always to do what is best for the children I serve. I couldn’t look my colleagues in the eye or myself in the mirror at night (if I voted) for something that is not good for my students, especially the students in my classroom who are supported by IEP plans (Individualized Educational Plan ) are cared for. I had to look for alternative texts and teaching methods outside of the benchmark syllabus so that they would have access to learning for each lesson. … I’m afraid (of the benchmark curriculum) it’s going to really hurt our kids for years to come. Please make the right decision and give us more time,” she said.
The teachers also received support from Teri Baldwin, President of the Palo Alto Educators Association. A survey of its members found that 49.7% of those surveyed said it had low to very low morale that year, and 36.4% said it was “just so-so.”
A factor that consistently surfaced was the lack or ignoring of teacher input into school goals, decisions, curriculum, and changes in district policies. The teachers who didn’t vote had many reasons, Baldwin said.
“Those reasons were collected at the committee meetings (but) were not included in the board package,” she said.
“They were constantly told that it was their job as a committee to select a curriculum. Shouldn’t the task have been to find the best curriculum for the students? And if the vast majority of the teachers on the committee didn’t feel any of the three were good, shouldn’t they be able to recommend extending the process by another year and testing more?” she said.
Many teachers have told the Palo Alto Educators Association that they will no longer serve on district committees going forward because they feel their input doesn’t matter, she added.
However, the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education in Palo Alto (CAC) strongly supports the proposed curriculum, they said in a May 3 statement to the school board.
“It’s just unrealistic to think that we could pick and buy an off-the-shelf curriculum that perfectly meets our needs without adjustments. But the products available to teachers are structured to relieve much of the planning burden, giving them time to think about how to teach rather than what to teach and allowing them to focus on the needs of individuals children,” said the CAC.
Lucille Nixon Elementary School CAC representative Kimberly Eng Lee asked the board on May 4 to approve the recommendations of the ELA adoption committee.
“Parents depend on a coherent system. Adopt the new standards and coordinated materials, reduce arbitrary teaching. This is the only way children can be taught consistently across dozens of rooms and grade levels,” she said.
The school district boards also had a different opinion.
“I’ve looked at this carefully and it appears to me that this adoption process has faithfully followed board policies and the bylaws, so I don’t think we have a process issue, at least in terms of how the process was conducted . ‘ said CEO Ken Dauber.
But he said there had been a compliance issue, which he believes is critical.
“This syllabus was never adopted by the board as required by state law. I’m honestly not sure if this syllabus could have been accepted by the board if there had been an acceptance process. But the fact that the district is not in compliance with our own board policies and with the bylaws is a critical issue in my opinion and adds to my sense of urgency. … The current curriculum has not served our students well. And that’s really the fundamental point… It’s not an acceptable situation for us, we’ve been trying for all these years to use a curriculum that doesn’t serve our students, especially our struggling students.
“This for me is where the rubber hits the road in terms of justice and systemic racism ensures we have curricula that meet the needs of students. I’m disappointed that we haven’t met that standard, at least in , and I look forward to a curriculum discussion that’s really focused on getting to a point where we can serve the students well.”
Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza compared the curriculum decision to the pandemic when 100 teachers called her asking schools not to reopen. They did what Superintendent Don Austin had taught them: “Stay in their lane” and follow the experts. In this case, they listened to the public health experts who said it was fine for schools to reopen. In hindsight, it was a good decision, she said.
But now the experts on the ELA curriculum are the teachers. In previous syllabuses, DiBrienza said her vote represented the position of the majority of teachers.
“I think that was easy for me because they are the experts in this example. They are the ones with our kids and they are the ones making it happen. It’s certainly not the five of us up here.
“And if we don’t listen to them, then who do we listen to? Who makes this decision? Who are the experts here? I think it’s really important that if it’s a public health decision, we listen to public health, and if it’s a law, we listen to the law, and if it’s about is a curriculum pedagogical decision, we listen to the … people we asked to serve on a committee for a year and do the work,” she said.
“I can tell my colleagues that there is no way this can be a successful adoption without these guys on board. So I don’t know exactly why we are moving forward now. I appreciate the process. I appreciate the timeline that’s been put on it, it feels like it’s not ready yet… If we’re going to adopt a new syllabus, it certainly should be a syllabus that the majority of the pilot committee agrees with and is willing to adopt are willing to follow. … Next week unless I hear a compelling argument from you or the staff. I’m a no vote for that,” she said.
Board member Shounak Dharap said because the 20 teachers did not vote and their views are not all known – at least four are said to have abstained out of intimidation – it is not known if the opposition to the syllabus is as strong as it appears to be .
Dauber agreed that the abstentions do not mean that the committee did not make a recommendation. He also noted that senior staff – Danaé Reynolds, director of literacy education, and Anne Brown, assistant superintendent for primary education – support the recommendation for Benchmark’s adoption.
“I’m very aware that Benchmark is imperfect. I’m very aware that the process has been imperfect. But that being said, for all the reasons I’ve said before, I think the staff’s recommendation to move forward now rather than delay , is reasonable. I understand that people disagree with that. I understand that … the process could become more perfect if we waited, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable in the sense that it means something is that wrong with the process was that the board had to step in and say, ‘Employees, we’re ignoring your recommendation,'” Dauber said.
Reynolds expressed his dismay at the committee’s conflicting advice.
“I was really disheartened to hear that four of our teachers shared that they felt intimidated or uncomfortable by their peers and therefore chose not to make a recommendation. That’s something we’re learning from and we’ll be working together to make sure something like this doesn’t happen in future pilots. … We want our students to feel safe. We want our teachers to feel confident as professionals in all situations,” she said.
The session on May 10 starts at 18:30. The public may attend the meeting in person at the district boardroom located at 25 Churchill Ave. or watch a live stream at midpenmedia.org.