Neal Kaufman

Neal Kaufman

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.

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(8) comments


Mr. Kaufman's role as a parent and high school coach gives him a unique vantage point and he uses that position to raise some fundamental questions. The pandemic has give our community and opportunity to re-imagine our educational system and these questions are a good way to frame to issues so we can move forward.


Mr. Kaufman raises many thoughtful points about our current educational system and our SMUHSD district. I agree that we need to use this time to elevate discussions about these very important issues, and potentially do things differently going forward. I was one of the over 1,300 people on the district call last week. In my opinion, in order to engage more fully in the issues that Mr. Kaufman raises, we also need to elevate our SMUHSD Board leadership in order to develop a stronger vision to carry us forward into the future.


This is exactly the type of discussion we should be having about our educational system all the time, not just as the result of a pandemic. There is no "right answer" and, even if there were, there would be many "right answers" based on differing student needs, and they would continually evolve. What are our educational goals as a society, as a community? What are our students' needs? What are the insights of our teachers, administrators, parents and broader community? What are the current and future societal trends and environments that our students must be prepared to thrive in - not just survive in - and how can our educational system fully leverage them? This should be part of all educational planning, as well as the evaluation of our current programs. We need to take the best of what we have today, and blend it with the opportunities of the future, to create an educational system that prepares our students for the opportunities and challenges of tomorrow, but gives them the skills they need to succeed today. Thank you for challenging us to have this conversation and for giving us important parameters in which to have it!

Dirk van Ulden

I agree with Danny. The educational system thus far has brought incredible progress in terms of technology advances and medical care. Why tinker with it? If we are to follow Neal's direction we will see more students rolling out of our universities with under-water-basket-weaving degrees that do not generally produce marketable skills. Instead, we should raise the bar and let students know that it takes hard work and efforts to get ahead. We all like to follow our dreams but unfortunately for them, our economic system is not anxiously awaiting dreamers who cannot contribute much to our needs other than claiming to be pseudo intellectuals.

Danny M

I believe Mr. Kaufman brings some valid questions and comments to the conversation. This is not a one size fits all community and we have a myriad of learners in the pool. My main concern would be the students with specific learning disabilities and where they fit in to the spectrum. If we worried about them falling through the cracks before, then the "new norm" could spell disaster. I personally don't think this will last for long. At some point we must realize that changing the dynamic of our grading system in the blink of an eye was not the recipe for a permanent solution. Democrats have been pushing this socialist type agenda for years, and now using a virus as an excuse to upend our educational system. Why this major change? Why so quickly without debate? California scares me. #calexit

Thank you, Neal, for a clear summary of the opportunity in front of the district, both for current and future students. Also, this is an opportunity to set up a system that works for everyone, students, teachers and parents, not just to get students up to a minimum standard, but to actually help all students fulfill their best potential.


Good article. I believe the best unexpected result of the pandemic and SIP is the opportunity our terribly archaic second class education system in the USA has the potential to scrap the old memorization philosophy and adapt to new models such as design learning or comprehension of content, not just the ability to regurgitate what is in a book or wiki or google etc. This is a real opportunity to get the USA education model the best in the world vs. Competing with 3rd world countries and their level of education. Just as an added point, I am VERY VERY lucky to be the parent of a DesignTech HS student and a Hillsdale HS student and a previous Burlingame HS Student. All 3 completely different learning institutions. I know that there is NO cookie cutter solution for everyone as I can see that each of my 3 children have been able to succeed in three different learning environments. Maybe there can be a positive way to evaluate the learning needs of our district children an theoretically place them at the proper leaning model for their needs....sounds like something a Phd candidate can build for their thesis. Online, Offline, Middle College, dTech, Fusion, many options to help kids succeed today. We are CA and Silicon Valley, we should be the leaders of this as others will follow. I hope Dr. Skelly reads your article....


It would be incredible for each student to have the opportunity to demonstrate their growth in every subject and be recognized for mastery - even if it takes multiple efforts to achieve it. If we are going to focus on learning, we have to recognize differences in interests, learning styles and ability to demonstrate knowledge. This is a golden opportunity to move beyond industrial education and take advantage of the many different educational pathways available in order to help every student see a path to success and journey along it.

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