The Mountain View Whisman School District had what seemed to be a slam-dunk plan to improve student performance: a tech-savvy math program called Teach to One.
The school district, faced with one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation, would adopt a comprehensive, computer-based math program for its sixth-graders that would use algorithms to tailor lessons to each students' needs. While the program would be expensive -- about $521,000 in total costs to the district for this school year alone -- district officials relied on an assurance that a corporate donor would pay the bill.
By the first day of school in August, however, that well-heeled local company -- Google -- had turned down the district's solicitations. Mountain View Whisman rolled out Teach to One anyway, only to drop it abruptly in January, amid vociferous complaints about the program from parents.
The corporate donor "fell through," Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph told the board at a post-mortem study session on Jan. 17, and the district failed to adequately prepare for the program in August in time for the start of the school year. The company that created Teach to One, an East Coast nonprofit called New Classrooms, rarely stepped in to help with the challenging implementation, leaving it up to district staff to resolve one problem after another.
Rudolph announced in Jan. 12 that the district would immediately drop Teach to One and revert back to teacher-led instruction, blaming mixed results on math tests. But district emails obtained by the Voice through a California Public Records Act request reveal a different story.
Although the district acknowledged publicly last month that confidence in Teach to One had eroded and philanthropic donations were no longer available to pay for the program, email correspondence between the superintendent, New Classrooms and a local contact who promised to broker a deal with Google to pay for Teach to One shows that the district began implementing the expensive program before it had any assurance of philanthropic funding. And when it became clear that Google was unlikely to pay for the program, district officials chose to move full-steam ahead anyway.
Teach to One was adopted by the district at the start of the 2016-17 school year as a broad pilot program for all sixth-grade students, and essentially replaced the existing math curriculum. Teach to One quickly became a target of complaints by a large group of parents, who called the program flawed, incoherent, poorly paced and a poor replacement for teacher-led instruction. The district attempted to walk back the program in December by having students and teachers spend only half of math class time on Teach to One, only to announce that it was dropping the program altogether a month later.
Behind the scenes, decisions regarding Teach to One happened at break-neck speeds. In early April of 2016, district officials toured a charter school in Oakland using Teach to One, and just weeks later, announced that the district would move forward with the pilot program for the 500-plus sixth-grade students at Crittenden and Graham middle schools. After the buy-in, the district was contacted by Aila Malik, the founder of Venture Leadership Consulting, who would act as the main conduit between the district and high-ranking staff at Google and other tech companies being asked for funding.
Malik told Assistant Superintendent Cathy Baur that New Classrooms employees needed to fly in from New York between April 28 and 29 to start preparations for adopting Teach to One, and that a "simultaneous" strategy for "leveraging Google" would start in early May. Subsequent emails between Malik and Google's public affairs team show that she tried to sell that idea that Teach to One expanding right into the company's backyard would fall "very much in line with Google Inc.'s initiatives around STEM and increased diversity in the tech workforce."
Malik told the Voice Wednesday that she was hired by New Classrooms as a consultant in hopes of spreading the use of Teach to One in California. During the first half of 2016, she said she also worked with school districts in Oakland and the Central Valley.
Early signs that the school district wasn't going to lock in a corporate donor in time for the start of the school year began popping up in May. Staff from Google indicated on May 18 that no deal would be brokered until a replacement could be found for Davis White, the previous public affairs director for the company. Malik sent a more urgent email to Google staff in June, pointing out that the district was already planning to train teachers and reconfigure class space for Teach to One.
"We cannot do the partnership without an anchor funder because the start-up costs are so significant," Malik told the Google staff member. "I am wondering if you think that investment from Google is likely or whether we need to halt the partnership. We have been looking at other funders, but many of our biggest partners (Start-Up Ed. through Zuckerberg, Gates, etc.) have been funding at the national level and are not particularly interested in Mountain View. They see it as Google's turf."
These worries subsided in July, when Malik told Rudolph her meeting with a member of the Google's public affairs team went so well that the district "should go for more of an ask." She also stated that she would begin soliciting for donations from Microsoft and LinkedIn to fund other parts of the district's new five-year strategic plan under the assumption that Google was going to pay the bills for Teach to One.
Despite the assurance, in August Malik met with John Igoe, Google's real estate director, to make another appeal for Google's support. She urged Igoe in a subsequent email to "put in a good word" for the district at the company.
"We are taking a leap of faith that Google will support this request, which is the first major step towards carrying out the district's strategic plan," she said to Igoe in an email.
The bad news that Google wouldn't fund Teach to One came on Aug. 15, the first day of school in the Mountain View Whisman district. A member of the company's public affairs team told Malik in an email that "issues" arose with the company's budget and that it could not commit to any funding until at least early 2017. The next day, Rudolph said the implementation plans would not change in light of the news.
"We are still moving forward," Rudolph said in an email. "(We) just need to create a little peer pressure for Google."
Malik said her consulting services for New Classrooms ended in June, so any engagement she had after that month was done simply as a community member and as a way to "pass the baton" to New Classrooms and the district. She said she doesn't know what efforts were made after June to secure philanthropic funds.
The first apparent call for a contingency plan came from a New Classrooms employee, who told Rudolph in an email on Aug. 17 that while she "appreciates the push with Google," that they need to "discuss finding alternatives as well as what the district can support" in the meantime.
The Voice was scheduled to interview Rudolph about the emails Wednesday morning, but Rudolph and the district's public information officer, Shelly Hausman, both fell ill and canceled.
During this lengthy, months-long process of seeking a corporate donor -- which ultimately fizzled -- the Mountain View Whisman School District and New Classrooms began adopting the new math program without a contract in place. The earliest mentions of a contract in email correspondence between the two parties started in August and continued even after funding from Google fell through.
The first draft of the unsigned contract, which publicly surfaced at the Dec. 8 board meeting, included two major costs: $128,250 for a per-pupil licensing fee, as well as $350,000 in service fees to New Classrooms. The contract states that both parties will "put forth best efforts to raise philanthropic funding" to pay for the service fees. In the event that this donor money doesn't materialize, the agreement will be amended "to reflect an obligation by Mountain View to pay all of the service fees." The contract was pulled from the agenda without a vote, and the district is currently renegotiating the terms.
The contract was ready for approval sometime in early November, but Rudolph delayed having the contract come before the board. In an email to New Classrooms staff, he said, "We have a new board coming on (in December) and will take it to the new board."
Although the terms of the contract -- figuring out what the district ought to owe for four months of a program riddled with problems -- are still being renegotiated, the district's first interim budget report shows a Teach to One expenditure line for $521,000, roughly one-fourth of the district's entire curriculum adoption costs for the school year.
Because the Jan. 17 study session on Teach to One took place immediately following the announcement that the district was ditching the program, the meeting served as a chance for Rudolph to explain what went wrong and what could have been done differently. He told the board that the district was eager to move forward on plans to reduce the achievement gap, and that Teach to One seemed like an obvious first step. He described Google dropping out as a funder as the "first canary in the coal mine" signaling that the district should have slowed down.
"It should've been sort of a concern of ours, and it's no fault on Teach to One or the district, but it's something that should've been thought about over the course of the process," he said.
Although things clearly didn't work out with Teach to One, Malik said the community ought to rally behind Rudolph for his progressive attitude and his willingness to find new ways to improve student performance.
"Ayinde is an awesome superintendent, and he comes with a wealth of experience and a really great vision for equitable teaching across all of Mountain View Whisman School District students," she said.
Next week, the Voice will explore the technical problems that plagued the rollout of Teach to One, and other major issues that prompted parents to revolt against the program.