Guest opinion: What really makes Menlo-Atherton a distinguished school

by Joseph Rabinovitsj on March 2, 2013

Note: In addition to Joseph Rabinovitsj, Samantha Henze and Annalise Deal contributed to this editorial about the high school they attend.

The California Distinguished School Award is given out every two years, and since 1987, Menlo-Atherton High School has received this honor.

Schools with California Distinguished status must have growth in their Academic Performance Index (API), which is primarily determined based on standardized test scores, in the 90th percentile for the state. After analyzing and approving a school’s API, delegates from the California Department of Education (CDE) come to the candidate school to observe classes and confirm the appointment of California Distinguished status.

Last Tuesday – February 26 – delegates from the CDE came to observe M-A and finalize the school’s California Distinguished status.

With hopes to impress observers, teachers ‘took out the china,’ altering their usual routine and trying to teach to what they believe the CDE is looking for. This includes methods taught by Direct Interactive Instruction (DII), the program that M-A has chosen to use for their professional development this year. DII methods include clearly stating objectives in the class, teaching to state standards, creating an interactive class experience (as opposed to just lectures), and the use of equity cards.

However, on a regular school day, teachers often do not teach in strict adherence to DII methods, but instead they tailor their class structure to the material taught, their personal teaching style, and the personality of the class. This tailoring gives each class a unique flavor, making students excited about different subjects for differing reasons.

When the CDE delegates came to M-A this past Tuesday, the experience of most classes became homogenized, losing their individual flavors. Although CDE delegates observed teachers succeeding in conducting their classes to the standards of DII, for which they most likely gave M-A high marks, they did not see the uniqueness of classes that really make the experience of attending M-A great. In other words, although M-A is most likely going to receive California Distinguished status this year, they will not be receiving the award for the qualities that actually make M-A a great school.

In our minds, the qualities of the academic experience at M-A that make M-A a great school (i.e. the uniqueness of classes) should be the basis upon which M-A is appointed California Distinguished status, not the homogeneity of DII standards. Thus, it seems that as it stands, California Distinguished status reflects very little upon the actual quality of a school, but rather upon the ability of teachers to homogenize their classrooms for a day, conform to a checklist of tactics, and ultimately depersonalize the education experience.

With regards to the award of California Distinguished School status, M-A is quite fortunate considering that it reaps the benefit of prestige that comes with having California Distinguished status and it has high-quality and engaging classes. However, for other schools, it seems as though the California Distinguished School award has the potential to do more harm than good. For example, a school that has engaging, rigorous, and high-quality classes could be deprived of its well-deserved prestige and state funding simply because it either fails to teach by homogeneous means or lacks high standardized test scores.

Photo of M-A by faculty member Betsy Snow

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