The Fine Art of Delay – An Open Letter to the SMUHSD Board

The day-to-day business of the SMUHSD goes on while a big question is shelved for over six months.

Over six months ago on 3/8/2018, I addressed the San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD) Board.  I described the negative impact that the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) had on what was previously an excellent regular (non-AP) physics program at Aragon High School, and tried to get more information about why the District moved ahead with this curriculum change when there were no NGSS standards-aligned textbooks available.  An upcoming state science test was the stated reason according to some administrators, but this reason was not the causative factor according to others I spoke with at the District office.

Board President Dwyer requested that a discussion about this problem be placed on the agenda for an upcoming meeting.  Six plus months later, this item is still in the pending agenda item list while many other items have been added to the list and then acted on.  The District continues to ignore this issue and forge ahead with the new NGSS program.

Since addressing the Board last March, I continued to tutor regular physics students through the end of the last school year and was dismayed to find that the final exam review sheet for regular physics had a very significant number of questions (possibly close to a majority) about earth science!  This resulted from the District’s decision to follow one NGSS option and integrate earth science into the other three traditional science classes (physics, chemistry, and biology) instead of selecting the second NGSS option and providing it as a separate class.

In years past, high school students who were not quite ready to master AP (i.e. college-level) Physics had the option of first taking an excellent regular high school physics class.  This class also served as a fall back option for those who began AP Physics but decided early in the year that it was too hard for them.  Now the only fall back option is a class which has almost reverted to being a general science course without a textbook.

Today I noted with interest that the upcoming agenda for the 9/27/2018 Board meeting has agenda item “O.1. Adoption of Resolution for and Approval of Certification: Textbooks and Instructional Materials.”  The gist of this agenda item says:

As required by Education Code 60119, 60422.1 and 42605, in order to be eligible to spend funds under Instructional Materials Funding Realignment Program, the District must comply with the following provisions:

The District’s Board of Trustees shall hold a public hearing and shall make a determination, through a resolution, as to whether each pupil in each school in the District has or will have sufficient instructional materials in each subject that (are , sic) aligned to the academic content standards and are consistent with the content and cycles of curriculum frameworks adopted by the State Board of Education.

This is clearly not the case with the NGSS-aligned science classes!  According to the attached documents for this agenda item, only a new AP physics text has been purchased recently.

Nonetheless the Board is being asked to rubber stamp a lengthy report once again despite the fact that there is a pending agenda item that contradicts this report.

I have great respect for the time commitment and hard work that the Board undertakes, but I repeatedly come to the conclusion, when looking at each upcoming meeting agenda, that the Board’s time is constantly diverted by administrative matters such as approving contracts, etc., and, consequently, the big question of whether or not we are providing a quality education to our children gets lost in the time crush.

After I spoke to the Board last March in the initial public comments section of the meeting I stayed for the remainder of the meeting and noted with particular interest two important agenda items.

One was a discussion of a student survey on mental health issues noting that about 20% of the District’s students admitted to being “sad.”  The other was a discussion of how to close the ever-present achievement gap between Asian/white students and disadvantaged minorities.

I could not speak to these two issues at this session and just sat there and listened politely, albeit a bit incredulously.

There is no doubt in my mind that the reason many students are “sad” is because of the overwork created by AP class rat race that I have written about extensively on this blog.  I deal with this daily in my work, and continue to be amazed at the unwillingness to address the 800 pound gorilla in the room.  Instead we talk in general about mental health, the “S” word, and “homework policy.”

Regarding the achievement gap, I have read articles in the education news lately about providing increased access to AP classes to minority students, via financial aid, etc., as a way to close the gap.  Of course, the College Board would love this solution as it continues to rake in close to $100 per test while performing its sorting function for Ivy League schools.  Whether this really leads to a good education for the general public is ignored.

I am NOT saying that AP classes aren’t suitable for some students.  Unfortunately they have come to be seen as the only way to get ahead in life, and consequently students who do not have the background for them feel compelled to take them.

Well-to-do Asian and white students get through AP classes by frequent use of tutoring which is an expense that many minority students can not afford.  This system is in direct contradiction to the American value of free public education for all through high school.  Furthermore, even with the use of tutoring, I have written elsewhere that I believe the quality of learning in AP science and math classes is poor.  Extending the AP program in an attempt to aid minority students is a recipe for disaster.

Instead of promoting the AP program further, it is essential that high school districts also provide excellent high school level science classes, and the NGSS actions taken last year by the District are counterproductive in this regards.

I continue to assert that students at Aragon HS (I can not comment on the other high schools as the vast majority of my students attend Aragon now) would be better served if the school reverted to the previous regular physics program which was developed over many years by a now-retired master teacher.  This should be done at the very least until new NGSS textbooks are available.  I also believe that the decision to integrate earth science into the three traditional science courses was mistaken and should be reversed.

I continue to hope that the Board will put a discussion of this problem on the agenda as requested over six months ago by President Dwyer.  It is a complete waste of my time to make 3 minute comments during a public comment section when the Board and school administrators are not allowed to respond.  Instead, I am sending this article to the Board with the hope that it will be considered and action taken.

We need to have a dialogue on this issue soon!

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired scientist, teacher, bioinformatician, IT director, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist (7690 miles and 724,300 feet of climbing in 2015), backpacker, you name it! Current avocation is tutoring high school students near San Mateo, CA in mathematics, physics and chemistry. Please see the Bio link in the right sidebar for my detailed background information.

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