Hanover Research, an independent firm hired to report on course and department alignment in the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD), released a report of its findings in July, highlighting areas of success and improvement.
Hanover reported back to the district in July after conducting research on Palo Alto High School and Gunn High School during the 2014-2015 school year. Research tactics included surveys for students, parents and administrators, a series of student focus groups and comprehensive reviews of course documents such as syllabi and homework calendars.
Hanover research’s main goal was to evaluate alignment in PAUSD courses and departments by comparing the levels of difficulty and workloads of similar courses between Paly and Gunn and those taught by different teachers within the same school.
In evaluating alignment, Hanover discovered that the Math departments at PAUSD high schools had the best levels of alignment, while the Social Studies department was least aligned. This finding was supported by document review of grading policies, assessments and homework practices. Despite noting similar course formats between high schools, Hanover found discrepancies between grading policies at Paly and Gunn. Gunn math teachers require students to have 90 percent in a class to receive As, while most Paly math teachers require students to have 88 percent in a class to receive As.
According to Paly math teacher Herb Bocksnick, the Math department attributes much of its alignment to frequent communication between instructors teaching the same course. Teachers teaching the same course assign the same homework and alternate writing assessments to ensure alignment.
Science courses within Paly appeared to have similar course documents and comparable work loads, consistent with what PAUSD outlines in its homework policy. However, the Science and Math departments were found to underestimate the amount of time required to complete homework assignments, which students claimed, on average, to be over three hours in actual work.
In English and Language Arts, Hanover noted differences in course setup in underclassmen courses. Gunn offers two semester English courses for 9th and 10th graders, while Paly offers a single, year-long course for 9th and 10th graders. Also, Gunn students typically read three to four books per semester in their English classes, while Paly students tend to read only one to two books per semester. These discrepancies, however, subside in AP Literature courses, whose reading list was mirrored across both schools.
According to the Hanover report, “History and Social Studies courses display the greatest degree of variability by instructor both within and across PAUSD high schools.” Varying homework assignments, assessments and projects attributed to the lack of departmental alignment.
After outlining PAUSD’s areas for improvement, Hanover’s report then offered solutions to increase vertical alignment — alignment in courses across grade levels — and horizontal alignment — alignment of classes within the same course or grade level. These suggestions included additional meetings about horizontal and vertical alignment, followed by revisions to course curricula and developing “curriculum maps,” visual representations of curricula.
Hanover additionally released many responses to survey questions from both high school staff members and students in regards to current alignment and ways in which to improve alignment in the future. Many teachers agreed that there should be more time dedicated to meetings to facilitate discussion about alignment.
“If we had less of our subject area collaboration time taken over by WASC meetings, etc, it would be easier to collaborate,” an anonymous teacher wrote. “Also, a commitment to giving teachers teaching the same courses a shared [preparatory] period to meet too would work. Generally the main obstacle is just time.”
Some teachers, however, criticized the pressure to align their courses. They feel that alignment stifles teacher and school autonomy in PAUSD.
“Our initiative in such an innovative district is to remain innovative,” another teacher wrote. “However, when you align everything, it prevents people from being innovative because people will be afraid of not being aligned.”
Hanover additionally polled students regarding their suggestions for teachers to improve alignment. 42 percent of students polled suggested that teachers need to better understand additional constraints on their time. Many other students complained of “test stacking,” where a student has multiple tests scheduled on the same school day.
“They think we have infinite amounts of time to do homework assignments, projects, and study,” one student wrote. “We do not.”