A new study from the Brookings Institution places the metro area of San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara as No. 1 in patent filings per capita in America. Certainly, the distinction is reflected in the fabric of our economy and the high price of housing. It would follow somewhat logically that this honor must also demonstrate the effectiveness and innovation in our public schools, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in most schools, districts and classrooms in Silicon Valley. The state Board of Education voted as expected in January to move away from the 1998 policy that directed all 8th grade students into Algebra 1. Now the state will only test for math content in 8th grade consistent with the Common Core standards—a lesser course—as most states are planning to do. California was a strong outlier in its staunch support of teaching Algebra 1 in 8th grade, but the effort did not prove successful.
More advanced math and problem solving begins with a successful understanding of Algebra 1. The successful completion (A or B Grade) is a gateway to success in high school, college and career for STEM majors. When it comes to the teaching of Algebra 1 in 8th grade, California is taking a step backwards. Emmett Carson, executive director of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, agrees with this and he has funded a new report titled, “Held Back: Addressing Misplacement of 9th Grade Students in Bay Area School Math Classes.” Mr. Carson is one of the community leaders pushing the public school system to be smarter and demonstrate equity for all its students.
Every principal in Silicon Valley must examine their individual school data to ensure equity for enrolling similar percentages of students of color in the highest math sequence. Every superintendent and elected trustee must demand a reporting of the data disaggregated by race/ethnicity to be sunshined at a public meeting for discussion. The data are available on the CDE.org website by district and school. However, it rarely gets discussed with an action plan and evaluative feedback loop.
Far too often, as the new study from SVCF observes, successful students of color are misplaced in lower tracked math classes. It is too often the case that subjective data is used rather than quantitative measures (e.g. test scores) for placement. On the acknowledgements page, the report states: “Encouraging successful students to excel at every level should be fundamental to our educational systems. To hold back any student without a legitimate and equitable basis is an infringement with life-altering implications.”
I have been an outspoken advocate for equity for all during my career. But the system can beat you up for trying to do right by all, especially children of color. Many times a complex system, like our public schools, cannot be reformed from within. We must have strong voices of dissent to help move us to where we must be.
The CEO of the SVCF, Emmett Carson Ph.D., is that powerful voice today and fortunately he has some deep pockets, with $2 billion in assets. I congratulate him for his advocacy for equity. He writes the following in his Dear Colleague cover letter to the report:
“We asked the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area to determine whether these placement disparities are a potential violation of state and federal law. The answer … is a clear and resounding yes. … The conclusion is simple: districts that do not act to address placement disparities are at high and immediate risk of legal action.”
If I’m a school board president of one of the 31 districts in Santa Clara County, I would be requesting my superintendent to bring the last five years of quantifiable data relative to the issue of this column to the next board meeting for discussion and a plan of action. Dr. Carson’s report lists a series of action steps for school districts, parents and community advocates and attorneys.