The hasty roll-out and abrupt ending of Teach to One, the controversial digital math program adopted by the Mountain View Whisman School District, has raised questions about oversight and accountability. Without the approval of the board of trustees, or a signed contract, district administrators implemented a program valued at $478,000 this school year. When in December the Teach to One contract was finally presented for approval by the board, which has an obligation to oversee school spending, it was tucked away on the consent calendar, where noncontroversial items are voted on as a group -- without public discussion.
As previously reported by the Voice, district emails obtained through a Public Records Act request revealed a steady stream of teacher and parent complaints about Teach to One leading up to its abrupt termination in January.
In the aftermath of the program's termination, several trustees agreed that there was a significant communication breakdown between the district office and the board, a failure to properly vet the pilot program, and a sense that the Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph tried to move too quickly on a pilot math program that needed years -- not months -- of review prior to its roll-out.
Teach to One, a math program developed by the New York-based company New Classrooms, promised the school district a digital, personalized learning platform for students, offering a way to teach both high-performing and low-performing students at the same time. The appeal is easy to see, given that the district's achievement gap, measured using criteria based on students' family income and English fluency, is one of the largest in the country, according to a recent Stanford study on test scores.
In January, district officials opted to kill Teach to One, which had replaced the math curriculum for all sixth-graders, after 180 parents signed a letter in December demanding the program be ended. Among other things, the parents said the program had an abundance of technical glitches, errors, and math content that was "a mile wide and an inch deep," and turned off their children to math.
According to school board president Jose Gutierrez, that's how the vetting process for the pilot program is supposed to work. Gutierrez told the Voice that the district tried the new math program as a trial balloon for all sixth-grade students, and the board heard loud and clear in December that a large number of families weren't happy with the program. Other families, he said, approached him and said they liked Teach to One, and were excited by it.
"We saw both pros and cons, which is exactly what a pilot program does," Gutierrez said. "I'm glad we're having this conversation now, and I'm glad we're getting feedback from parents, the teachers and the district in determining whether this was a good decision."
Board member Ellen Wheeler, on the other hand, said getting negative feedback after the program has been tested for months on hundreds of sixth-grade students is not the way the district ought to be running a pilot. Comprehensive vetting needs to happen ahead of time, Wheeler told the Voice, so the community isn't spotting flaws and bugs in a program that's already live.
"Everyone should have been involved earlier. Teachers should have been involved, parents and board members should have been involved," she said. "If we had done a slower and more deliberate process, which is what a typical pilot process is, we would get a better result."
The board's policy on pilot programs states that a new curriculum can be tested using a "representative sample" of classrooms over a period of time during a school year to see how well it meets the district's academic standards. The policy requires the district to seek feedback from teachers piloting the material, which "shall be made available to the board" prior to adoption as part of the curriculum. Guidelines from the California State Board of Education also call for a rigorous vetting process for piloting new curriculum, including a "representative committee" of parents, teachers and administrators at all grade levels.
Steve Nelson, who served on the board during Teach to One's implementation, said in an email that he believes the district parted ways with its own policies on curriculum adoption with Teach to One, and that the responsibility lies solely with the board president and the superintendent. Nelson argued that the district also failed to get feedback from teachers and parents in accordance with state guidelines.
Emails between district staff and the board that were obtained by the Voice show that board members were left in the dark about recurring problems with Teach to One, including a wave of opposition by families that came to light only when board members received the letter signed by 180 parents late last year. At a Jan. 17 study session on Teach to One, Wheeler said she felt uninformed about what people were saying about the program.
"We didn't get any feedback," Wheeler said. "What did the principals think of this? What did the teachers think about this? We had no idea."
Big questions linger over contract
The good news is that the district won't be on the hook for the full $478,000 in fees for Teach to One. Following a closed session meeting Tuesday, Feb. 28, the board voted 4-1, with Greg Coladonato opposed, to finally approve a contract with Teach to One that shaved the total bill down to $149,000. An earlier contract that was originally supposed to be signed by the board at the Dec. 8 meeting included $128,000 for "student licensing" costs, as well as a $350,000 service fee. That original contract had also stipulated that Mountain View Whisman would be responsible for the program's full cost, regardless of whether the district terminated it before the end of the school year.
The $149,000 bill doesn't represent the true cost of Teach to One, which is closer to $275,000. Superintendent Rudolph said the program prompted the district to hire more instructional aides, who are still working in the classrooms, as well as "copying costs" associated with the program. It's not clear whether the instructional aides will continue to work at the two middle schools, Crittenden and Graham, but anecdotal evidence shows teachers appreciate the extra help.
"The qualitative feedback we got from staff shows it's a real benefit to sixth-grade students to have those additional hands there," Rudolph said.
But both versions of the contract -- the original and the revised document -- came to the board after teachers had been using Teach to One in the classroom for months, which didn't sit well with some board members. Wheeler said the board's role is to review and approve contracts ahead of time, and that Teach to One has been the exception to the rule.
"We're not supposed to be rubber-stamping work that's already been done," she said.
Board member Greg Coladonato told the Voice in an email that it is "unacceptable" for major contracts like the one with New Classrooms, which originally cost nearly half a million dollars, to show up on the consent calendar -- a part of the agenda designated for items that are "routine" in nature and not expected to generate board discussion.
"I do not agree that a contract for $478,250, presented four months after services began on a grade-wide and year-long curriculum pilot rife with problems, is of a routine nature," Coladonato said.
Rudolph told the Voice Wednesday morning that district officials are already working to address these concerns.
Going forward, the board will be deviating from its old practice of approving contracts on the consent calendar, starting as soon as the March 2 board meeting. Several contracts on that meeting's agenda are now listed as individual action items.
The meeting also includes reviewing new guidelines for pilot program adoption, which includes the creation of an "instructional materials review committee" staffed by teachers, administrators and community members. The committee will set up several aspects of the pilot program including its duration, metrics for success and the review process, and will ultimately present its recommendation to the board.
Now that Teach to One has been out of the classroom for over a month, Wheeler said she believes it's time to learn from the mistakes and move on. Even though the program ultimately failed, she said she still believes Rudolph is an "excellent" superintendent who would benefit the district by sticking around for the long run.
"I think he, and all of us, have learned a lot of lessons in this," Wheeler said. "Going forward we're all going to do better, but I also want Dr. Rudolph to stay in his position."