After an avalanche of parent opposition, the Mountain View Whisman School District announced last week that it will end the controversial new digital math program Teach to One. But questions remain whether the district disregarded its own rules regarding pilot programs, and whether the superintendent erred in agreeing to an expensive, nearly half-million dollar classroom program without securing the funds ahead of time.
In a Jan. 12 email to parents, Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said the Teach to One pilot program, which has been used in all sixth-grade math classes since the start of the school year, will be discontinued, effective immediately. The decision, Rudolph told parents, stems from test results earlier this month showing that fewer sixth-graders are able to perform at grade level.
The adoption of Teach to One has been a hotly contested move. The program is a new curriculum for sixth-grade students, complete with its own lessons, exercises and assessments done on computers. The selling point of the program is that it's a "smart" math program with algorithms designed to adjust to each student's performance, with lesson plans tailored to strengths and weaknesses.
In a lengthy letter last month, parents called on the district to discontinue the program, calling it flawed and brimming with problems. Among the concerns, parents noted that topics are taught in an incoherent and seemingly random order, are riddled with mistakes and outright wrong answers, and students are frequently given math problems that are better-suited for ninth-graders and beyond. Worse yet, many parents say their children are frustrated with math or have lost interest in the subject because of Teach to One. The letter was signed by 180 parents of fifth- and sixth-graders.
At a special school board study session on Teach to One on Tuesday, Jan. 17, Rudolph said he takes full responsibility for the challenges that district staff, teachers and families faced in implementing Teach to One, and that it's now clear that the digital math program isn't the right fit. But from the outset, he said, the program seemed like exactly what the district needed.
In the first few months of the year, district officials were grappling with a new report that found deficiencies across the district's education programs, including big disparities in student performance in math and other subjects. Right around the time the district was formulating a new strategic plan, Rudolph said, someone approached staff with a personalized learning program -- Teach to One -- and they discussed a possible private donor who would pay for much of the cost to pilot the program.
"I don't think that there was anyone in the room (who) didn't believe that this was the right approach for us to have," Rudolph said.
The first major setback came around the end of the year, when the unnamed donor withdrew the offer to pay for Teach to One. The unapproved draft contract between the district and New Classrooms, which developed Teach to One, states that both parties will "put forth best efforts" to raise philanthropic funding to pay for the $350,000 in service fees to run the program. The draft contract, which never appeared on a board agenda until last month, was pulled from the consent calendar at the last minute in order to revise the terms. A bill for $115,000 to cover 90 percent of the annual per-student fees was due last July, according to the draft contract.
The total cost of the Teach to One project is expected to be about $521,000, according to the district's first interim budget report, which was approved by the district board on Dec. 8.
When asked by the Voice what contract or agreement terms have been in place since implementing Teach to One when the school year started in August, district officials declined to provide any details, stating that the contract terms are still under negotiation.
It's no fault of the district or New Classrooms that the philanthropic money fell through, Rudolph said, but that possibility should have been brought up as a concern prior to adopting the program.
Board member Greg Coladonato called it a "bait and switch" to agree to a contract when the money hasn't even been handed over, and suggested that the district avoid doing that in the future.
"It's bad public policy to say, 'OK, we trust that you'll take care of these hundreds of thousands of dollars that we're technically on the hook for,'" Coladonato said.
The nail in the coffin for Teach to One came when a new batch of test scores showed losses in math performance for the district's sixth-grade students. "Internal teacher assessments," and results from what's called Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) data, show that just under 52 percent of sixth-grade students were performing at grade level, which is a drop from 58 percent when the same group of students started sixth grade in the fall. The new information conflicted with previous data showing students performed better on two Common Core-aligned math assessments.
The inconclusive data and mixed reaction from parents, Rudolph said, ultimately led to the decision to cut the program.
"We had parents who were very concerned about the program and we had parents who said that they were in support of the program," Rudolph said. "We had data that said our kids were losing ground, and we had data that said that our kids were making ground."
Before ending the program entirely last week, the district was already planning to cut back on Teach to One. After a district-run survey on the math program yielded hundreds of critical comments -- one parent threatened to switch to a private school just to get away from it -- the district office sent out a notice calling for a 50-50 split between Teach to One and traditional teacher-led instruction. Parents packed the Jan. 5 board meeting and told board members that the concession was not enough, and would effectively waste 50 percent of math class time instead of 100 percent of class time.
Sixth-grade math will now return to the original teacher-led instruction using the previous curriculum, Eureka Math, and teachers and administrators will continue to work on a plan to supplement math instruction with technology and personalized learning.
Throughout the study session Tuesday, Rudolph repeated that many lessons have been learned in trying to implement Teach to One, and big improvements need to be made for the next time the district tries something new and experimental. More communication was needed to reach out to parents and the community, he said, including a real two-way dialogue instead of sending out email updates and FAQs.
"We have to make sure, if we have a pilot, that we engage parents and find more ways to gain feedback" Rudolph said. "We didn't do a good enough job of getting enough qualitative data, we owe it to all of our parents that they have a voice to provide that type of feedback"
But several parents at the study session remained skeptical, pointing out flaws in the pilot-adoption process and problems in the contract with New Classrooms that need to be addressed before moving forward. Graham parent Robin Colman said she found it troubling the district would ever accept a program on an "as is" basis, meaning New Classrooms is not on the hook for any warranties in providing Teach to One. Even more troubling, she said, is a non-disparagement clause in the unapproved draft contract that would prevent district employees from making any critical comments about New Classrooms.
If the non-disparagement clause isn't outright illegal, Colman said, it at least throws into question how forthcoming teachers and district staff can be in openly talking about the flaws of Teach to One.
"It makes this dialogue strange," she said. "I don't know if the superintendent today believes he is bound by that clause, and that's something for the superintendent and counsel to decide, but that's troubling, and that's illegal."
When Coladonato asked Rudolph directly whether they were bound by a non-disparagement clause, Rudolph initially said that the only thing district staff cannot discuss is the terms of the contract that is still under negotiation. But Rudolph later stressed the importance of having a "factual" representation of Teach to One during the study session, and mentioned that staff ran it by the district's legal counsel ahead of time.
Other parents urged the superintendent and the board to foster a far more inclusive process for adopting pilots. Graham parent Alan Wessel pointed out that guidelines adopted by the California State Board of Education call for a rigorous vetting process for piloting new curriculum, including a "representative committee" of parents, teachers and administrators at all grade levels. No such committee was created for Teach to One, and the program would likely have been rejected by parents if they were involved early on, Wessel said.
District resident Steve Sherman encouraged board members not to allow the deep criticism of Teach to One to have a chilling effect on trying new things, and cautioned against taking an overly safe approach to improving the district's education programs.
"We can make this decision that we're scared of impacting our kids' education and therefore we're not going to try anything new," Sherman said. "But if we truly want a district that's willing to innovate, try stuff and continuously try to get better all the time, we need to give people a little bit of room to work and maneuver."