It sounds like a perfect fit for a school district based in the heart of Silicon Valley: a "smart" math curriculum -- administered almost entirely on computers -- that uses algorithms to tailor lessons to individual students. But for the Mountain View Whisman School District, taking a deep dive into so-called blended learning for math this school year has become a hotly contested decision, with more than a hundred parents calling for dismantling the program as soon as possible.
The program, called Teach to One, is an all-encompassing digital math platform with lessons, exercises and assessments designed to adjust to a student's performance. The company that created it, New Classrooms, touts the program as an "adapted personalized curriculum" that enables students who quickly master math concepts to go above and beyond without having to sit through remedial lessons, while struggling students have more time to catch up.
A 2014 study from Columbia University found some promising signs for the Teach to One model, noting that students performing well below the national average saw major improvements in the first two years of using the program, ultimately exceeding the national averages by roughly 47 percent by the end of the second year. After taking a field trip to Oakland schools to see the program in action last year, district officials agreed to pilot the program in sixth grade at both Graham and Crittenden middle schools for the 2016-17 school year.
Since the program's launch, however, parents at both schools have voiced major concerns that the curriculum is a haphazard mess, jumping between remedial math and overly challenging course content, and that the primary role of the math teacher has been relegated to managing the program rather than to providing direct instruction. Worse yet, some parents say their sixth-grade children have become frustrated and unhappy with math under Teach to One, and are turned off to the subject entirely because of the pilot program.
Under Teach to One, students use two of three teaching styles -- teacher instruction, group activities and independent work -- and end math class with what's called an "exit ticket," or daily quiz, to see how well they understood the day's lessons. The quiz results determine what lessons each student will get the next day. But when parents started reviewing daily lessons to see what their kids were learning, many were troubled by what they called incoherent, poorly constructed content.
On Dec. 7, 180 parents of fifth- and sixth-grade children -- most of them from Graham -- signed a letter calling on Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph and Assistant Superintendent Cathy Baur to discontinue Teach to One before spring, calling it a fundamentally flawed program that should not have been piloted on such a large scale in the first place. Among the criticisms, parents noted that the program's topics are taught in an incoherent order, and are riddled with mistakes and incorrect answers, illogical questions and link errors.
"This is further complicated by the fact that there is no textbook, so when a student struggles with concepts in the homework, they are left to looking for answers online," the letter states.
Graham parent Robin Linsenmayer Colman, one of the signatories, said she had heard a lot of individual one-off complaints from parents starting in the fall, which eventually culminated in the letter last month. She said fundamental math skills are no longer being taught, and many parents are now either relying on tutors or spending lots of time helping their children through math. Although teacher instruction is included as a learning "modality" in Teach to One, Colman said teachers hardly get to provide classroom instruction now, and play more of an administrative role.
"When they do teach, they are given a lesson right beforehand and it's spit out of the computer," she said. "And the computer says 'this is what you need to teach the kids today.'"
Graham parent Alan Wessel, who has a doctorate in mathematics and has taught classes at Santa Clara University, noticed troubling shortcomings in the program when he looked through his child's exit ticket following lessons on statistics and probability. When he reviewed the questions, he said, he realized that his daughter was getting complex math problems on probability, conditional probability and dependence that far exceed what a sixth-grader ought to know. His daughter, like many other students, had swiftly and inexplicably moved out of sixth-grade concepts and into eighth grade and beyond.
"If I gave that exit ticket to the statistics class I taught at Santa Clara University, about a sixth of the class would fail it," Wessel said.
Seeking some kind of justification, Wessel said, he contacted the district office and asked why some of the "crazy difficult" problems were being assigned. His email was forwarded to a New Classrooms staff member who claimed the problem was solvable based on seventh-grade standards, but did not respond when Wessel challenged him to solve the problem using the cited seventh-grade standard.
Wessel also argued that the algorithm that determines what lessons students receive, and when, is "bizarre and deficient," jumping from one subject to another and choosing subjects seemingly at random, all while circumventing any logical order normally found in a traditional textbook.
"It's extraordinarily annoying, and it's very difficult to help your child," Wessel said. "It's very demotivating for a lot of kids to get an exit test that's impossible to take, or an exit test that doesn't even have a correct answer."
New Classrooms did not respond to the Voice's request for comment.
Around the time parents were circulating the letter opposing Teach to One, the district office conducted a survey asking students and parents to weigh in on the pilot program. Of the 187 parents participating in the survey, 67 percent of Graham parents and 48 percent of Crittenden parents said they do not believe the program matches the needs of their children. A similar number, 62 percent of Graham parents and 46 percent of Crittenden parents, believed Teach to One has not improved their child's ability in math.
Although some respondents voiced optimism, supporting the idea of students moving at their own pace and using online resources to supplement instruction, the survey opened the floodgates for a torrent of negative responses. Parents demanded that the district throw out Teach to One, and allow teachers to go back to actually teaching in the classroom. One comment simply reads: "Bring back the teacher."
At the Dec. 8 school board meeting, board members were set to vote on a contract with New Classrooms that would continue the pilot program through the rest of the school year, but Rudolph pulled it from the consent calendar. Among the terms of the contract, New Classrooms would provide the math platform, instructional content, program schedules and assessments, and the district would provide the teaching staff, the laptops and other required technology to run Teach to One. Add up the cost of licensing and service fees, and the contract was expected to cost the $521,000, according to an interim budget report.
Shortly thereafter, the district office announced that it would make cutbacks to Teach to One, intended to strike a balance between the new pilot program and traditional math instruction. Under the revision, only half of math time will be designated for Teach to One.
Rudolph told the Voice that Teach to One, like all pilot programs, will be constantly assessed to see how well it meets the needs of the students. He said the survey indicated to the district office that students and parents value the program for giving students the opportunity to learn at their own pace, but also value face-to-face time with teachers -- which ultimately led to the decision to split class time in half for both.
"It's one of those things we'll continue to work on and work with," Rudolph said.
It's possible, Rudolph added, that the concerns about course work being too difficult is a perception problem more than anything else. Before Teach to One, parents of high-performing students would complain that math classes were moving too slowly, he said. But now that the digital platform gives parents access to all the course material students learned that day, the same parents are fearful that the classes are moving too fast.
When asked about the contract that Teach to One has been working under until now, as well as the fate of the future contract that was pulled from the consent calendar at the Dec. 8 board meeting, Rudolph said he could not comment pending negotiations with New Classrooms.
Colman, in an email response to district administrators, said she doesn't see a reason why Teach to One should be kept at all, and that students stand to lose an enormous amount of instructional time under the proposed 50-50 split. She pointed to recent benchmark assessments showing that math performance among district sixth-graders had declined compared with last year, which she said bears out the parents' concerns about Teach to One.
"Given declining student performance and broadly shared negative experiences with TTO, I see no reason why the district would insist on continuing TTO during 2017 for all students," Colman said in the email.
Crittenden and Graham are two of only a few dozen schools in the nation to adopt Teach to One, and there's a striking demographic difference between Mountain View's schools and the other early adopters. The Columbia University study that found major gains among students participating in Teach to One states that virtually all of the students surveyed in the study were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, attended schools in high-poverty, high-needs communities and were predominantly black and Hispanic.
"We cannot state definitely that Teach to One caused the above-average achievement gains," the study states. "Adding to the ambiguity is the fact that the norms against which TTO students were compared were based on student samples that were on average academically and demographically far more advantaged."
A more comprehensive study on Teach to One, funded through the U.S. Department of Education, is currently being conducted by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, which will explore how Teach to One's individualized instruction affects math performance. The study won't be complete until May 2018.
Wessel said the Mountain View Whisman School District is well off compared with districts using the program and cited in the Columbia University study, and needs to take advantage of the strong teaching staff and existing, well-funded programs rather than abdicate the responsibility of developing math curriculum to Teach to One.
"If we had horrible teachers, maybe this would be a better option, but we have wonderful teachers," he said.