On April 16, the San Mateo Union High School District Board of Trustees voted 3-2 to adopt credit/no credit grading for this spring 2020 semester. The actions being taken as a result of this vote, as well as the pros and cons of this decision, can be found on the SMUHSD website.
I am a parent of a past, current and future high school student in the district and am the varsity lacrosse coach at Burlingame High School. I had the honor of serving as the chair of the citizens’ action committee supporting Measure L, the recently passed school bond measure which raised money to repair classrooms, update learning technology and make essential safety improvements to our district high schools. This has provided me with a wonderful opportunity to meet many of the dedicated administrators, teachers coaches and support staff who design and implement the educational curricula and who work with our students regularly.
The decision regarding credit/no credit has been made, and now it is time for the entire educational community — including the students and parents — to pull together to support the district during this complex transition. It is important to recognize the urgency of the current situation — the proverbial train left the station weeks ago, and the educational system needs to be completely redesigned on the fly. The newness of this approach— the blank slate — means that there is an important opportunity to shape education for years to come, by thinking beyond the confines of the current approach.
Questions that have been raised by the district’s trustees and others include:
• What is the purpose of grades in our educational system? We should develop an evaluation approach that considers the particular skills and interests of each student, taking into account the differentiated objectives of each individual post high school. More importantly, the grading system should evaluate progress and guide collaborative efforts to meet the true goal of inspiring our students to attain the knowledge required to continue on in higher education, to pursue a career and for life in general.
• What is the role of distance education going forward? Is this just a one-time event, or can/should distance learning be available as option to supplement the comprehensive high schools, Design Tech, Peninsula, middle college and independent study that are currently available? For most students, this has been a difficult time. On the other hand, others have found online learning as an epiphany. As always, one size doesn’t work for everyone. To design and implement any new program, first we have to understand what we currently have in place, and it is crucial to get input from the teachers, administration and students. There is also an opportunity to evaluate and potentially leverage currently available resources such as the University of California graded, for credit, distance learning called UC Scout, and to consider approaches taken by other high school districts in California and across the country. For any potential distance learning options, training and resources would have to be provided to the teachers to ensure the success of this effort. The current situation has made it clear that we also need to have additional products and services available so that all interested students could participate, regardless of their economic situation.
• How can we design equitable educational and grading systems, taking into consideration the district’s socioeconomic diversity? A public education system anchored by strong high schools and led by the most skilled and well-supported teachers is of the utmost importance for the long-term success of our society. Our diverse student body is one of the many strengths of our community. A key mission of SMUHSD is to ensure that the multiple educational offerings must be available for our diverse learners. The grading system needs to reward success and identify opportunities for growth, while remaining as fair as possible. Any distance learning programs must be available for all of our students, enabling them to achieve their personal goals and objectives.
On April 16 more than 1,300 people remotely attended the special meeting of the SMUHSD Board of Trustees, and we heard the important voices of our educators and community. The recent decision by the board enables an opportunity — especially given the difficult current situation — to support the district’s efforts to create the best solution for the remainder of the current semester and beyond. Together, we can — and I am confident that we will — come together and urgently fill in the blank spaces, creating a better outcome for our students and our community.
Neal Kaufman is a Burlingame High School parent and chair of the citizens’ action committee supporting Measure I.