Written by Helen Nguyen
On March 8, the Board of Education held a special meeting for a laning board study session with the purpose of clarifying common language, deepening understanding and discussing the why and the what, research, practice and some pros and cons regarding ability grouping, laning, tracking and access.
The study session was driven by the district’s strive for increased equity, opportunity and choice through Strategic Plan Initiative A3. The purpose of the initiative is to significantly raise the achievement of historically underserved students by ensuring equity of preparation, access and support.
Superintendent Dr. Max McGee said that the historical precedent for de-laning happened at Palo Alto High School (Paly) when they combined English 9 and 9A two years ago. “Before I arrived—when Dr. Kevin Skelly was superintendent—they had a board presentation regarding combining English 9 and 9A at Paly and apparently not everything went as planned,” McGee said. “Hearing about this presentation and the follow- up from some of the board members at the time, it seems to me that perhaps there really wasn’t enough background knowledge or big-picture information presented.”
McGee said that the board’s recent information session was held in order to look at existing research and hear opinions. He stated that the study session was really driven by Gunn’s proposal to combine Algebra 1 and 1A and the opportunity to look at the effects of the combination of English 9 and 9A at Paly.
As a follow-up, Gunn will bring forward a proposal to combine Algebra 1 and 1A at the April board meeting.
McGee noted that the term de-laning is probably a misnomer. “Combining Algebra 1 and 1A is not about de-laning; there will still be plenty of lanes in math—even freshmen year,” McGee said. “This is really just combining Algebra 1 and 1A.”
Math department Instructional Supervisor (IS) Kathy Hawes doesn’t view the combination of Algebra 1 and Algebra 1A as de-laning either. “I see this combination of courses as a delay of laning,” Hawes said. “By placing all Math 8 students in the same Algebra class, we are giving students an opportunity to experience high school before deciding which math lane is more appropriate, either the advanced lane or the college prep lane.” Hawes says this is especially important now that Gunn is allowing open enrollment.
Hawes says the advantage of laning is that it allows students to study math according to their interest level and workload. “For students who are not interested in Science Technology Engineering and Math fields, taking a college prep level class allows them more time to focus on other interests,” Hawes said. “For students who have a strong interest in math and mathematical problem solving, the Advanced and Honors lanes provide a more in-depth study and a greater homework load.”
Hawes said that the main disadvantage of laning occurs when students are locked into the wrong track at an early age. “This is why we call our course offerings lanes and allow students to change lanes each year when choosing courses,” Hawes said.
McGee said the feedback from the community during the March 8 meeting varied. Most of the parents who spoke, McGee said, were afraid of the idea of de-laning. “Their assumption is that you are taking something away from the kids who are accelerated or advanced, and we made it very clear that this workshop and any further conversations about de-laning was not about removing top lanes; it was about combining lower lanes,” McGee said.
Moving forward, McGee wants this decision to go to the board. He believes it’s better to take the community’s opinion into account for this matter, and wants to ensure that everybody has the opportunity to be heard—he is especially eager to hear what students have to say.
According to Paly English Department IS Shirley Tokheim, a few years ago Paly recommended that all incoming freshmen take 9A, so for the past two years, all freshmen have taken 9A. “The result of having heterogeneous classes is that all freshmen learn solid, fundamental skills so that when they do have to choose an accelerated or honors course, all students have the opportunity to do so,” Tokheim wrote in an email.
Tokheim said that educators know from research that students in lower lanes rarely uplane. “We also know that given the choice, students choose their lanes based more on what their friends choose rather than on ability,” Tokheim said in an email. “We know that students in lower lanes are often not as prepared as students who have access to a more rigorous curriculum.” She said that at Paly, they believe in providing all students the opportunity to experience a rigorous curriculum—without limiting their options. Accoridng to Tokheim, having all students take 9A has been a big success, and she would never support dividing students the way they did in the past. “Heterogeneous classes best serve all students, and as a teacher of 9A, I can say that it’s fantastic to help build those skills with all students together,” she said in an email.
Junior Juan Santos agrees with the fundamentals of de-laning that McGee brought up. Although he doesn’t view this as a necessary change, Santos believes it will encourage students to academically experiment and challenge themselves. “Putting everyone in the same situation could allow for more experimentation,” Santos said. “I think it would be beneficial for lower lanes because it encourages kids to strive for the higher lane and progress. It gives them the environment to truly evaluate themselves and see where they can go.”
McGee hopes that over the course of the next few years, electives and Advanced Placement classes will have a more proportional representation from historically underrepresented groups. “Hopefully we will have more students overall who feel like they can succeed in these more challenging classes,” McGee said.
Hawes explained that the purpose of combining Algebra 1 and Algebra 1A is to address one of Gunn’s Western Association of Schools and Colleges goals to increase achievement for all learners, especially historically underrepresented populations. “In the past, only Algebra 1A students have been able to take Geometry over the summer to bridge to Algebra 2/TrigA as a sophomore,” Hawes said. “With this schedule change, all students will have the opportunity to make this bridge if taking calculus in high school is important to their interests and career goals.”