For Mountain View Whisman School District's elected board members, the cascade of problems that flowed from the ill-fated new Teach to One math program wasn't even on the radar. Every passing week that teachers grappled with technological crises and numerous parents demanded fixes was another week the district office stayed mum about the problems.
But for anyone in the know, the writing was on the wall as early as November that Teach to One was going to fall apart. District officials feared "something ugly" was bound to happen -- whether it be a total revolt by parents and teachers or bad press -- that would kill the program.
Publicly, however, Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph announced that "mixed test results" were to blame when the district abruptly pulled the plug on Teach to One in January.
Last year, district officials decided to run a "pilot project" using Teach to One, a digital math curriculum that promises individualized learning plans for students through algorithms that adjust daily lessons based on each student's needs. The pilot launched at the start of the school year for the roughly 500 sixth-grade students attending Crittenden and Graham middle schools, and it didn't take long for troubling signs to appear.
Using a Public Records Act request, the Voice obtained emails between district staff and employees of New Classrooms, the company behind Teach to One; the emails revealed one major snag in the system after another -- a teacher getting assigned 49 students in her class, identical lessons from one day to the next, week-long tech hangups, math problems for sixth-graders that inexplicably extended into trigonometry, and students with disabilities being illegally denied extra time to finish exams.
The emails show that a deluge of parent concerns would frequently pour into the district office after teachers and district staff sent out messages attempting to demystify Teach to One. After an email blast on Sept. 16 about how Teach to One works, one parent raised concerns that the curriculum was impossible to follow, and made it impossible to know if a student is on track to transition into well-established math courses like Algebra I.
"What are they studying now and by what time is a student ... supposed to get to Algebra I?" one parent asked. "Will they get there if Teach to One is introduced next year in seventh and eighth grade after that, overriding the traditional progression of math courses? These are not rhetorical questions."
Other parents pressed harder, demanding a clear guideline for how to evaluate progress in a program that constantly jumps from one topic to another. One said it was unreasonable for the district to ask parents to leaf through 20 to 30 pages of the state math standards to try to match each one with the skills listed on the Teach to One website. They said that being a parent of a sixth-grade student is like "flying blind," making it hard to support the district's move away from traditional math classes.
Far and away the most common complaint was the rate at which students would be catapulted into higher-level math without the needed foundational skills. Students performing well on Teach to One lessons wouldn't just breeze through grade-level math, they would shoot past sixth-, seventh- and even eighth-grade lessons and begin work on high school-level math by October. In one email exchange, a Graham teacher told parents that their daughter was "overwhelmed," by the Teach to One lessons.
"We are not sure what you mean with '(she) was overwhelmed.' She was confronted with a skill which appears to be at the high school level and out of sequence with other probability topics in her skill library," the parent said. "She attempted to fail her exit ticket (end-of-day exam) so she would have an opportunity to continue working on the skill. Unfortunately, her random selection of 'D' on the last three questions wound up being correct."
Subsequent emails from New Classrooms staff indicate the parents' daughter had gone through every sixth-grade, seventh-grade, and eighth-grade skill, and almost every high school Algebra I skill, available in the Teach to One curriculum. This was on Nov. 8, less than three months into the school year.
Jason Clymer, the deputy director of school partnerships for New Classrooms, admitted in emails that there wasn't much that could be done to satisfy requests to turn down the difficulty level or change the way the algorithms assigned lessons to students, claiming that it would screw up scheduling for teacher instruction.
New Classrooms employees later suggested that parents with struggling students simply let their children tough it out and fail challenging lessons until the algorithms "adjust to a set of skills that are more appropriate."
Parents weren't the only ones with frequent grievances. Teachers reported the quiz function broken for three days straight, students being tested on content they wouldn't learn about until the next day, and identical lessons being assigned to students multiple days in a row.
And then there are the classroom logistics -- one Crittenden math teacher told New Classrooms in September that the Teach to One program assigned her 49 students that day, split between live instruction from her and virtual instruction and "reinforcement" for students in the back of the room.
"There were not enough chairs in the room," she said. "I was not able to teach the task properly because so much time was spent finding places for students and making the proper accommodations for my student in a wheelchair. At the end of the session, I learned that there were seven students next door."
Earlier that day, New Classrooms staff attempted to reconfigure classroom assignments to help that teacher reduce her class size, following complaints that she was being overbooked for math instruction. She had been assigned too many students, and New Classrooms employee Vera Tran said she was making the seemingly illogical move of increasing the teacher's classroom capacity in order to solve the problem.
"I think the best way to adjust this is to up your room capacity to 28," Tran said to the teacher in an email. "I know that this may seem incomprehensible, but this is just one of the unforeseen results of 'locking' teacher locations. We just have to fix and adjust along the way!"
Representatives from New Classrooms, who declined to respond to the Voice's request for comment last month, responded to questions for this story and cautioned against assuming that all the technical glitches were a reflection of Teach to One overall, suggesting that they could be isolated problems with the district's implementation.
Special needs students
Although parents of high-performing students -- mostly at Graham -- were the most vocal with their frustration, Teach to One also proved problematic for the district's special needs students. On Sept. 30, Assistant Superintendent Cathy Baur alerted Teach to One staff that only five of the students with special needs accommodations at Crittenden were able to finish their end-of-term exams, known as "PLD's," the day before. Once the time limit expires, the digital testing platform locks students out and marks all unfinished questions as incorrect. But by law many children with learning difficulties must be given additional time to complete exams.
In emails, Baur told New Classrooms that parent concerns were already reaching a fever pitch, and that the issues affecting special needs students -- those with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and accommodations under section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act -- needed to be addressed immediately. She wrote that the district had contacted its attorneys, and it was clear that they had to provide accommodations for students with IEPs.
"I cannot add more parent concerns about TTO than we already have or we are going to run the risk of full-scale parent and teacher revolt," Baur said. "I knew there were issues of accommodations, but I did not realize how serious the problem was."
Clymer responded on Oct. 11, nearly two weeks later, and said that New Classrooms staffers were hesitant to implement accommodations for students who need more time on tests. He said the company's programmers were still trying to find ways to allow students to take the same exam over a span of multiple days. Even when they did come to a solution, Clymer said, he voiced concerns that such a solution would be "highly unusual," and would allow students with special needs to go home and research answers, thereby invalidating their tests. When asked about the possibility that Teach to One could have text-to-speech for students with disabilities, Clymer said, "We do not have a technical solution for this issue," and suggested nontechnical solutions to the problem, such as having a teacher read everything aloud.
When asked by the Voice about multiple technical problems, New Classrooms responded that the root cause was often the inability of the school district to obtain all the technology -- hundreds of Chromebooks -- in time to implement the program before the start of the school year. The New Classrooms employee, who asked that his name not be used for this story, claimed that most of the IT-related problems were solved within a few days, and they did not impede students' ability to learn.
However, the emails between the district and New Classrooms staff show that major problems continued, including end-of-day exams that failed to work for multiple days straight -- problems that clearly were New Classrooms' responsibility, according to one teacher's email sent in mid-October.
Baur, who frequently dealt with multiple parent and teacher problems at any given time, expressed frustration throughout the four months the district was using Teach to One, as well as skepticism that the program could continue, given the constant barrage of complaints and problems. Requests by parents to have their children pulled from Teach to One began rolling in by October, around the same time the honeymoon period for Teach to One was clearly over.
"I think morale is pretty low here across the board and if we can't get things rolling in a positive direction for more than a day or two I am not sure what is going to happen," Baur said in an email.
By Nov. 30, Baur told New Classrooms staff point-blank that Teach to One likely could not continue.
"I am continuing to face growing frustration and anger from an ever-growing group of parents from Graham, and I do not think we can sustain TTO in its current form for the remainder of the school year," she wrote. "At this point I foresee something ugly happening including bad press, article (sic), parents at board meetings etc."
Out of the loop
Although the program's outlook was bleak by November -- and the district's attempt to have Google pay for the half-million-dollar program had fallen flat, as detailed in last week's story in the Voice -- the district's board of trustees was barely informed about what was going on with Teach to One. Around the same time that district officials were saying that morale was at an all-time low and parent opposition was bubbling over, Superintendent Rudolph's update for the week of Nov. 18 told board members that "our teachers have expressed some really strong positives and some opportunities for growth" for Teach to One, and that "the same is true with our parents."
The problems finally came to the attention of the board after a group of active Graham parents, led by Alan Wessel and Robin Coleman, spent months compiling a list of all the problems and grievances parents had with Teach to One. Wessel described Teach to One to board members at a Jan. 17 meeting as a fundamentally flawed math curriculum designed to skim over concepts and help students answer test questions, rather than give them a deep understanding. That could be why his child blew through all of the concepts so quickly, which he said left her with lessons better suited for college students than sixth-graders.
When asked by the Voice why the board, and by extension the community, wasn't better informed about these problems, Rudolph said in an email that "there are always opportunities for improvement when it comes to communication with various groups, and it is an ongoing focus for the district."
At the board's weekend retreat in January, Teach to One frequently came up. Bill Attea, an education consultant who led the retreat, said there was clearly a breakdown in communication.
"It appears to me that the board wasn't fully on board and fully knowledgeable about what Teach to One was," he said at the Jan. 28 meeting. There's some question as to whether ending the program was due to community pressure or results on their own, he said.
One big question hanging over the board and the district office staff during the retreat was whether the district moved too quickly in implementing an entirely new math curriculum for all sixth grade students when the technology and staffing were far from ready and the funding not in place when school started on Aug. 15. And where was the lengthy vetting process that normally comes with a new curriculum adoption?
Attea said that sometimes slow is better, and a major shift to a curriculum like Teach to One is generally done over the course of a three-year process, with the entire first year devoted to evaluation of the program.
At the retreat, board member Greg Coladonato recalled how it took close to a year and a half to adopt the last math curriculum, with a plethora of meetings held with teachers to compare one curriculum with another. It's a weighty decision, he said, and he figured Teach to One would be part of a "long, public 'everybody knows what's happening' update."
"It didn't occur to me to ask the question," he said.
This is the second story in a series based on the Voice's Public Records Act request about Teach to One in the Mountain View Whisman School District. The first story, "Stuck with a half-million-dollar bill," can be found here.