Parents in the Mountain View Whisman School District are still uneasy about the handling of a controversial digital math program.
In comments to the board and in emails to the Voice last week, parents roundly criticized the district for refusing to acknowledge deep flaws in the roll-out of the Teach to One program last year. While the district is is putting forth a new protocol for new and experimental pilot programs, emphasizing a need to listen to everyone teachers, parents and community members alike parents say they're not confident that the new strategy is going to bring more quality assurance to a process that ultimately failed students during the first half of the school year.
Some board members, on the other hand, argued that it's time to move on, and that dwelling on the problems with Teach to One digital math amounts to beating a dead horse.
At the March 3 board meeting, Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph laid out a new process that injects more public accountability into pilot adoption. Any new experimental curriculum will have its own advisory committee, which will develop a timeline and duration for the pilot, metrics for success and a review process. The committee will give the board a final recommendation at the end of the trial period.
The policy is less clear on how the community gets a say when new pilots are initially proposed and cleared for launch, which is done by the superintendent "or designee" and formally approved by the board.
Up until now, the district had pretty meager guidelines for trying out new programs a single paragraph nestled within the board policy on curriculum adoption that allows administrators to pilot programs 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 proposed changes come on the heels of Teach to One, a math curriculum pilot that aimed to give students a personalized learning plan using algorithms and online course materials. The district piloted Teach to One for all sixth-grade students starting in August, but dropped the program in January after major flaws, technology glitches and a projected price tag of over $500,000 sparked vocal opposition from parents.
Although the new policy was billed as a way the district can get past the controversy surrounding Teach to One, parents were skeptical that Rudolph and board members had learned from the mistakes and won't run into the same problems with future pilots. Much of the consternation at the meeting stemmed directly from a March 2 letter to parents from Rudolph and board president Jose Gutierrez, who strongly defended the district's actions in implementing the ill-fated program.
Among the claims in the letter, Rudolph and Gutierrez wrote that the original cost of the program which was projected to be $521,000 in December, according to the district's own interim budget report was "inaccurately reported." The district never signed the contract, and on Feb. 28 was able to negotiate down the costs of licensing and service fees to the New Classrooms Innovation Partners, Inc., the company that developed Teach to One, to $149,000.
Additional staffing and "copying costs" brought the total cost of the Teach to One program up to a little over $275,000, according to Rudolph, although that fact was never mentioned in the message to parents.
The letter goes on to say that Teach to One was thoroughly vetted and reviewed, and that district staff worked "tirelessly" throughout the four months of the program to have open communication about how the program was going. As soon as it was clear the program was "not working for a majority of MVWSD sixth-graders, it was discontinued," the letter states.
Emails between Assistant Superintendent Cathy Baur, and teachers, parents and principals at Graham and Crittenden middle schools which the Voice acquired through a Public Records Act request revealed that big problems with Teach to One began as early as August and September, even though the program continued through January.
The letter may not have had the effect that Rudolph and Gutierrez had hoped for, after several parents commented that the email was tone-deaf, misleading and failed to acknowledge problems with Teach to One.
"I really don't think there has been sufficient ownership," Stevenson parent Brigitte Cash told the board at the March 3 meeting. "I don't think the language or the tone has been satisfying or shows any sort of real dialogue."
Graham parent Vince Brown, whose son is in sixth grade, told the Voice in an email there's no way a program so riddled with glitches, technical problems and poor content was properly vetted, and that Rudolph and Gutierrez chose to hide the problem and deflect any criticism.
"I think it's time for them both to take accountability and admit they made a mistake," Brown said. "I haven't heard such an admission yet."
Graham parent Alan Wessel, who helped publicize the problems with Teach to One in December, urged Rudolph and the board to stop sending out emails with counter-factual statements, and said it's "ludicrous" for the district to claim it followed district and state guidelines for pilot adoption.
"I don't know why the district insists on sugarcoating the issue," Wessel said. "If we want to get over this as a community ... there has to be some real accountability, and we have to find out what really happened."
One big question that the new policy does not address is what constitutes a "representative" sample of students in pilot programs, and whether families can opt in or opt out of the experimental curriculum. Teach to One was heavily criticized by parents for including all sixth-grade students on a mandatory basis, and Rudolph indicated at the meeting that the district simply doesn't have room to negotiate the scope of pilots.
Rudolph referred specifically to a pilot program called the Sobrato Early Academic Literacy (SEAL) program a program the district is considering piloting right now which has strict guidelines on how many classrooms and how many grade levels must participate. If the district can't settle for the outside organization's requirements, he said, the pilot can't happen.
Pete Gelbman, a Graham parent, said that the district needs to pilot new curriculum using a smaller subset of students, and strive to make it voluntary going forward if it wants to avoid making the same mistake it did with Teach to One.
"One hundred percent of the district's sixth graders were in Teach to One. That's very far from any common-sense definition of a pilot," he said. "If that didn't come out loud and clear in all of the debacle that we've been through, that should be obvious."
Board member Laura Blakely said she is optimistic about the new policy, and that the district should do what it can to involve the advisory committee as early as possible, giving the community a chance to select and vet programs before any formal decision is made to try it out. She insisted that the board and the district administrators have heard enough about the problems with Teach to One.
"At some point I feel like that horse has been beat many, many times," Blakely said. "I want to learn the appropriate lessons, but I feel like we have."