How Can We Reclaim Our Public Schools??

After a long history of failed curriculum reforms, can parents do anything about public education? This is a Call to Action!

It is a beautiful Saturday outside today, and yet here I am sitting at my computer writing this article instead of enjoying the outdoors.

For the last 6-7 years I have worked diligently to help local high school students navigate their way through their science and math course work, but I am increasingly feeling like I am putting my fingers in multiple holes in the leaking education dike.

I think I understand how Martin Luther felt when he nailed his Ninety Five Theses to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, just over 500 years ago.

Our local schools have a long history of educational experimentation.  I have written previously about:

the failure of Whole Language reading, the decision not to grade for spelling in the San Mateo Foster City School District (SMFCSD),the abandonment of grammar instruction,

the failure of Everyday Math in the SMFCSD,


the failed trial of CPM in the Aragon High School precalculus program which was the reason that I started blogging.

Many parents have also related numerous stories of problems with the math curriculum at Borel Middle School in the past.



Last Monday I met with San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD) Superintendent Skelly about the latest “revolutionary” change:  the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) implementation in high school science.

As I wrote recently on this blog, the high school district has embarked on what the Curriculum and Assessment Director stated was “arguably the greatest reformulation of our science curriculum that has ever been undertaken.”

This recognition would hopefully give most teachers a moment of pause before forging ahead, but I was originally told by the curriculum director that an upcoming April 2018 testing deadline by the state was the cause for the change.

I asked if there were textbooks available that were aligned with the new science standards, but was told “no.”  The teachers were not only redoing their lesson plans but also had to develop the course materials and homework problem sets.  They were being given some amount of paid professional development time (the sum of which seemed rather inadequate to me) during last summer and this school year to assist each other with this daunting task.  I told both Director Simmons and Superintendent Skelly that I found it hard to believe that they had found scores of enthusiastic volunteers for this project.

Why hasn’t this created an outcry among the parents?  Unfortunately the reason seems to be that these changes do NOT affect the AP science classes, which are controlled by the College Board, not the State of California, so the most vocal group of parents is not impacted!!

HOWEVER, during my discussion with Superintendent Skelly, he mentioned a trend that I have also seen in almost ALL science and math classes in the last several years.

Teachers are not making much use of textbooks any more in their lessons and assignments.  Superintendent Skelly did not necessarily like this trend, but he indicated that this was why the lack of a standards-aligned textbook was not considered an impediment to moving forward.

I replied that an important goal of education is to turn students into life-long learners.  This means that they should become accustomed to teaching themselves out of books and other primary sources.  If they are not exposed to this practice in high school, it will make it all the more difficult for them when they get to college.

Textbooks are also the source for large numbers of practice problems in science and math.  If a student finishes a worksheet but still feels uncertain about the material, they have nowhere else to turn if they do not have a textbook with worked examples.

It is also unrealistic to expect a working teacher to develop the same quality of practice problems as those found in a textbook that is written by experts and has undergone multiple revisions.

Superintendent Skelly said that NGSS had been adopted back in 2013, that they had to begin its implementation at some time, and “did I not want to change anything?

I cited the many failed experiments that I listed in this article above and protested that California schools always seem to think that they have a license to experiment on our kids with impunity.  I said that this has got to stop!!

I continued saying that K-12 science and math does not change rapidly.  If a district adopts a good textbook series, that textbook series can be the guide as to when things need to change.  Textbooks are always revised over time.  Teachers are always sent free copies from publishers to review, and they should be free to decide when to add new material to their lesson plans.  It is complete folly to throw everything away, as is being done with an excellent regular physics program at Aragon, and start over from scratch!  We need to push back against the steady stream of top-down mandates that have become extremely disruptive to quality education.

I like Superintendent Skelly; he is a very nice, intelligent, and reasonable person, and we had a good discussion about these issues, but I left our meeting feeling like this train had left the station, and the odds of stopping it were nil.

I have been stewing about this all week before writing this article, but now feel that I have no other option than to appeal to the community in the hope that there are other like-minded people out there who still care about quality public education.

Hopefully many of these people will be members of the local teaching staff who are getting fed up with having mandates imposed on them by the Feds, by the state, and by local districts who blindly follow the state.

I tried to reach out privately to some of these people before going to our district but unfortunately received very minimal response.

There are many education reformers these days that simply give up on public schools and try to starve them out of existence by creating charter schools that sap public funds.  While this leads to a few success stories, on average charter schools do not do better than public schools and have at times been riddled with fraud and abuse because of lack of transparency.

During education discussions on our local newsfeed, there are usually mentions of parents withdrawing their children from local schools and putting them in private schools.  This is not an option for many parents, particularly in this high-priced area.

As difficult as it may seem to be, I am hoping to hear from local people who are as concerned, if not more so, than I am about our schools, and might be willing to band together to do something to stabilize the curriculum in our schools and stop the frequently radical education fads that sweep our schools.

I am thinking about renting a meeting room for a brainstorming session if enough people of good will are interested in attending.

If you might be one of those people, please contact me via the Contact page on this blog, and describe your background and how you might be able to contribute to this effort.  If there is sufficient interest I will send you the meeting venue and time.  This is not meant to be a public bitching session open to all, but rather a forum that will explore what, if anything, can be done to improve our kids’ education.

I also intend to send copies of this article to both the SMFCSD and SMUHSD Boards and superintendents, and would welcome their participation.  This is, after all, their responsibility, but the sad history above indicates that large mistakes that have impacted many students have been made several times.

Fortunately we live in an area of great technical expertise.  Perhaps we need to get more of these people to volunteer and sit on textbook review committees as one possible example.  For example, we can’t reasonably expect every elementary school teacher to be an expert in mathematics; it is far more important that they have the empathy and desire to work with and teach children.  But, just perhaps, technical people in the community might be able to offer guidance in the choice of  a good mathematics or science curriculum??!!

Follow-up: An Open Letter to the SMUHSD and SMFCSD Boards of Trustees


Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

5 thoughts on “How Can We Reclaim Our Public Schools??”

  1. This article has already been read 99 times in the less than two days since it was posted this holiday weekend.

    One reader commented privately that elementary school teachers are often frustrated when parents are quick to decide that a curriculum is defective when they don’t take the time to try to understand its methods and goals.

    While I agree completely that knee-jerk reactions are to be avoided, I have been dealing with these issues personally for years now. I also can understand why working parents, who often put in very long hours in the struggle to afford the high price of living here, get frustrated when they come home and can’t help their children with their homework because of some “cute and interesting” new way of doing mathematics that they were never taught.

    This is part of my e-mail reply to this reader:

    “I understand the viewpoint you are expressing and appreciate the teachers’ perspective.

    I think we also have to remember that mathematics IS a language – a symbolic means of communicating. It causes unnecessary problems when kids are taught Greek when their parents speak English. Parents should be able to help their kids with elementary math homework and not have to hire a tutor because they don’t understand some new computation algorithm that was developed by this year’s curriculum fad.

    Everyday Math also had a tendency to try to show several ways of solving a problem, and I am concerned that, for average students with parents who are not as involved as you are, this promotes confusion. We owe it to all children to teach them the basic standard computational algorithms so that they master this common language.

    Elementary teachers often do not realize, for example, how the traditional long division algorithm comes into play much later in polynomial division. I could cite additional examples, but I see in my tutoring work the problems that this lack of mastery of the fundamentals causes.

    The fact that you still feel the need to supplement the curriculum with Kumon concerns me. My parents NEVER had to take such steps when I went through school.”

    I should also note that I have discussed these issues with high school math and science teachers in multiple districts. While they are hesitant to assign blame to a single cause, many acknowledge privately that the lack of fundamental knowledge is a concern to them and complicates their jobs. I have heard the words “we have to take what we are given” on multiple occasions…


  2. I always encourage people to post comments here, but unfortunately people seem to prefer chatting on Nextdoor because they already have accounts there.

    The following two posts were made in regards to this article. I will quote them anonymously here since the reach of this blog is different from our local Nextdoor newsfeed. If the authors give me permission, I will identify their comments by name.

    The first comment stated:

    “Take a peek at Jo Boaler from Stanford to know what you are up against. She has a fair amount of influence in the bay area and wider. Some day when I have a bit more time I do want to talk to you. Some of the “new” really makes sense in terms of different learning styles, but you have a point.”

    And a later reply to the above comment said:

    “Please read Milgram/Bishop essay on Boaler’s research.”

    In response to the first comment, I have looked at some of Dr. Boaler’s articles and website and wrote a short, though somewhat glib, response at here on my blog. I’d be happy to discuss this in person as you suggest. I am not an old fuddy-duddy who never wants to change; when I see a good idea I will immediately adopt it in my teaching. Unfortunately public school teachers are not always completely free to pick and choose if there is a strong orthodoxy that underlies the officially adopted system. I also believe that I know what you are referring to in terms of your different learning styles comment, but would prefer to discuss this if we could get together offline.

    In regards to the second comment, I assume that I could Google this essay, but if you already have a link to an online copy, I would appreciate it if you could post it. I have found, when I have really dug into education research, that it usually can not be properly controlled due to the nature of its subjects and is sometimes conducted by people with financial interests in the method that they are selling to school districts as I have stated elsewhere on this blog. Consequently I take ALL education research claims with a BIG grain of salt until I have studied it thoroughly. If it does not pass the test of common sense, the burden of proof has to lay with the author, but way too often the words “Research says…” ends all debate about an idea by an appeal to an authority such as the Stanford School of Education.


    1. I just Googled “Milgram Bishop Boaler” and ran smack into the following on Jo Boaler’s website:

      She wrote an extensive reply to what she describes as unjustified attacks on her work. This looks like a really hot potato issue!!!

      Milgram has replied at

      It is going on midnight and I’ve been up since 5 AM, so I am going to have to leave this fight for another day 😉


      1. It appears that the essay the second commenter refers to above is supposed to be at

        Unfortunately this link does not work.

        Milgram’s response to Boaler following the link to Boaler’s website above is also of great interest. This whole issue looks like a really sizzling debate with large potential consequences for US math education outcomes.

        It is actually kind of frightening that so much influence on our kids can be wielded by such a small number of people…


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