Interview: Supt. Don Austin on credit/no-credit grading, district’s plan during school closure

Kira Sterling, Managing Editor

The Paly Voice spoke with Don Austin, Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent, to learn more about the district’s response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic and how it plans to continue serving and educating students during this time. 

This conversation came on the heels of a press release yesterday from the Office of the Superintendent announcing that middle and high School students will receive credit/no-credit grades this semester, and an order from the Santa Clara County Office of Education mandating the closure of Bay Area schools through May 1.

Below are excerpts from the interview, which have been edited for length and clarity.

Credit/no-credit grading

Don Austin: So, a couple things are going to go out today. First of all, we’ve sent out the move to credit/no-credit for this semester. Later, all students are going to receive some guidance and direction about Zoom behavior, including things like recording. We’re really going to need students to honor that, or we’re going to have issues, which is part of the reason why we tried to move slow into this. I really wanted to make sure that we didn’t run out ahead of our capacity to learn and do it right. 

I want you to know that your instructional leads were awesome and total advocates for students around this shift to credit/no-credit, Paly had really strong leadership in that area as usual. And the teachers union also was fully on board. So we’ve worked through that and everyone’s with you, trying to help out.

And I think that the other counties are all going to follow. I was on a meeting with the other county supes, and they all have the letter, and I think you’re going to see just an avalanche of people following in our footsteps. 

The Paly Voice: Given this switch to credit/no-credit grading, how will students who did poorly last semester be able to demonstrate some sort of improvement during second semester?

Don Austin: Great question. Right before I logged in with you I was on the phone with Stanford again, and the Stanford Dean of Admissions told me it’s going to be important to describe those things in the narrative portion of college admissions. And every college is going to have to rethink this semester, because every school in the country is shut down, for the most part, in the state for sure. So they’re just going to want you to explain it. And you do that through your own personal letters, through letters from counselors. 

The UCs are going to have a harder time with that unless they really change their admissions process. But you’re not going to be penalized, I think for every student that had that experience, there’s probably a student that was having the opposite experience, [who] may have been having a tough semester. 

Trying to think through grades in the middle of a pandemic was just a loser. It was not going to be fair to students, it is definitely not fair to students with disabilities or access issues. It’s not fair to teachers that are trying to not only learn how to interact with students, but then how to push out work, how to give feedback, grade, get back to students in any meaningful way.

So really, the concept of a grade — think about people that have battled the difference between an 88% and trying to get that A-, that 2% — can you imagine doing that in this time? Right now, with the first three weeks being flexible, and after that, trying to figure out some grading system, it just wasn’t practical.

Sometimes people are just looking for someone to go first. And I had every indication that as soon as we go, everyone’s going to jump on board with us. So we’re not going to be alone with this.

Student dual-enrollment

TPV: During this time, will students be allowed to take classes outside of PAUSD (for example, at local community colleges)? For those classes, will students also receive credit/no-credit scores, or will they be allowed to receive letter grades?

DA: I’m going to be talking with the president of Foothill and see what they’re going to do. Two of my own kids who are in college, one has already converted to pass/fail. And the other still has letter grades, but thinks that that’ll fade. So it won’t surprise me if Foothill doesn’t follow suit here also, and go to credit/no-credit. So if they don’t, we’ll have to figure that out. We don’t need to figure it out today, but we’ll have an answer for everybody.

Implementing credit/no-credit grading, GPA calculations

TPV: With this change, how will GPAs be calculated? Will one semester simply be left out of students’ transcripts?

DA: That’s exactly right. Some districts, there’s a default that a credit or a pass goes to either a C or a D, we just disabled that completely. That’s not an inherent pro or con. It is what it is.

TPV: What is it going to look like in terms of how letter grades would match up to a pass or fail grade? What is going to count as a credit/no credit in this situation? 

DA: I’m letting your teachers work through that right now. I try to always stay in my lane, and my lane is to work with the board to set policy and for my office to set direction, but then the principals to work with teachers as far as implementation and the fine points. So for me, what I did is work with the school board. I have emergency authority during the time of shutdowns, during this virus time. And then additionally, we have a board policy that allows me to determine grading mechanisms.

But as far as what percentages are, what it’s gonna look like, I’m putting that right back in the hands of our teachers, where it belongs, and I’m going to stay out of that. So your teachers will be working through that together and I will ask for consistency, at least in the spirit of consistency, but they’re going to work through that with you.

TPV: Will their implementation and planning include how past and upcoming assignments from these two quarters contribute to the final credit/no-credit score?

DA: Yeah, they’ll do that. And you’re still going to receive your third quarter grades. You’re gonna have a pretty good sense of where you were at that grading period, but those will never be officially posted anywhere. They will not be part of your permanent record.

Distance Learning

TPV: Moving from grades to learning in general, how do you expect flexible learning to change in response to the extension of the shutdown?

DA: We’re looking right now for some tools to help teachers. When you go to distance learning, you have synchronous and asynchronous learning. Even schools that were built to be online tip heavy into the asynchronous, and we’re going to do the same. 

So though there will not be any expectation that our teachers will go to full lecture mode and interacting fully like a school day, it’s possible that some teachers will feel really comfortable in their areas and be easier to implement that method. But you’re going to see an increase in asynchronous [learning] across the district, we’re trying to look at some tools to help teachers bridge this gap. 

You have to remember, a few weeks ago teachers had spent an entire career in a classroom with students. That makes sense, right? And now, you know, we’re in office spaces that are houses and kitchens and trying to work this through. So it’s a total change for everybody.

TPV: The district has said that flexible learning in general was never meant to fully replace in-classroom learning. Is the district doing anything to accommodate for the last quarter of instruction?

DA: After spring break, you’re going to see a step up in the amount of interactions and the amount of asynchronous assignments, and that’s by plan. But you’re asking a much more complicated question. You’re missing instruction. But let’s just be real honest with each other. We are not going to mirror it. It’s not possible. If it was possible, we’d just run an online school.

 So we’re gonna have some gaps and holes, and our teachers are trying to work through to say, okay, what’s most essential moving forward. But this isn’t going to be a one quarter impact, this is going to be an impact that we’re going to feel for years.

 Our seniors aren’t saved from this either. There’s material right now that we wanted to get to you at the highest level before you head off to college or whatever’s next for you. And we’re going to do the best we can. 

But the reality is, it’s not going to be a mirror. Every school district in the country’s in the same boat. After spring break, we will be top tier in the state for how we’re handling this and operating. I just wanted us to go slower in the beginning, but regardless, there’s no making up for what you’re missing being face to face with your teachers. 

Plans moving forward

TPV: Are there any plans to extend the school year into the summer?

DA: No, the school year will not be extended. I think that already extending into May, and we’re a school district that ends the first week of June, if there’s another extension, I don’t see how we can come back. 

Closing is the easy part, reopening a school with a couple weeks left would be much harder than it was to close, especially as we see anticipated peaks in coronavirus spreading. If it happens, great. I think your teachers would be excited to see everybody, but I think we shouldn’t underestimate the anxiety that would be attached to coming back with a couple of weeks. 

TPV: Do you foresee any modifications to classes next semester to accommodate for instructional gaps being created now?

DA: It’s a really fair question. When we were in phase one, we were trying to plan for this phase two, which we’re in right now. In phase two, we’re planning phase three, which is spring break till we return at some point; that’s going to be posted hopefully Friday. 

But what you’re asking about is beyond phase three, which is the start of next year. Until we get phase three running, we can’t even put resources behind thinking about it. But it is the next question once we get our phase three plan out there and feeling good about it. 

Clearly, we’re not going to reopen summer school if we don’t reopen during this year. But could we have a summer bridge program with high-end, at least the highest end possible online curriculum? Yeah. So we’ll do the best we can, but it’s gonna be tough.

Supporting students with special needs

TPV: Going back to what you said earlier about students with special needs or IEPs, or students who need additional monitoring or guidance; how is the district working to accommodate these students and continue to provide the same level of support during the school closure?

DA: Our team’s working tirelessly on that one right now, they have been for a couple of weeks, we’re close to being able to push that all out. It’s another reality question though. Some students have accommodations and needs for support that we are going to be able to push out very soon and feel good about. 

Some others are getting much more challenging, for example, if you’re medically fragile or if you have therapeutic needs, that’s going to be hard to impossible for us to replicate. 

We already know how much time and energy this district puts around dyslexia and topics like that. Now as you’re looking at your asynchronous material that requires reading to be able to learn, now you’re going to take some students that have reading issues to start with, it’s going to make that access even that much more challenging. All the more reason for shifting over the grading practices.

We have 1,205 students across the district on IEPs. I have to think of, you know, first graders and actually P-K students that are special needs kids, that’s even harder to support in this setting. So we’re working on it.

It’s not a cop-out, but we’re going to start with the low hanging fruit, first the ones that we can solve easily and with it, the best chance of a guarantee. And then we’re going to work our way to the most challenging.

TPV: In the past the district has worked on the Shaywitz dyslexia screener, which found over 500 students who had some sort of dyslexia and were receiving monitoring or specialized services prior to school closures. Are these students being accommodated for now, or is this likely to happen in the near future? How would that be done?

DA: That’s a good and fair question. It’s one that I would say is a little more technical and in the weeds than I have personal knowledge about right now. There are teams dedicated to doing exactly the stuff you’re talking about, that while they’re working directly with teachers and students, I don’t have all those answers at my fingertips. That’s one specifically I don’t have.

Course credits and graduation requirements

TPV: Could this shutdown change requirements for students who were planning on taking required courses over the summer such as Living Skills, for example, juniors who don’t have space in their senior year schedule?

DA: I don’t know what it’s gonna do with Living Skills. I’ve asked our team to start looking at things like, can we use this time to help students who are credit deficient, mitigate their deficiencies. I fully expect this to be a reduced load compared to showing up every morning, working through your day, and then having a ton of homework at night. This might be a chance for some students to make up some credits. 

So as soon as we get the right tools in place, we’ll start going there. As far as graduation requirements, like Living Skills, I don’t know, I haven’t thought about that. So I would say everything’s on the table. So I will think about that..

TPV: On the note of Living Skills, at Paly specifically there were two planned CPR training sessions for graduating seniors who haven’t yet fulfilled their CPR requirement. Are they going to have a way to make that up, or will seniors be exempted from this requirement?

DA: I saw that question earlier. And Ms. Ofek, who is our associate superintendent of ed services, is supposed to get me an answer here shortly. So we’ll have that out to you guys real soon. 

Trailblazing for public schools

TPV: As far as you know, are we the first public school in the state or country to make this decision? 

DA: I don’t know about the country. And I can’t say with certainty first in the state, but everyone I’ve spoken to at the decision-making seats, thinks that we will be. That’s not a hard-fast fact that we’re first, but that is our understanding. 

TPV: What’s your confidence that others will follow? 

DA: I’d say as confident as you can possibly be. So I have literally no doubt that this is going to happen. I think you’re going to see that this week, districts will jump on board. Some, I know, are working on this. They were waiting for our letter, to go back and see how to do it. Will more than half of the state do it? I don’t know. But some big percentage of districts will. I think this will explode. 

TPV: What is it about Palo Alto that makes it sensible for us to go first, and for others to watch us this way?

DA: In times of crisis this is different, right? This isn’t we’re just bumping along, everything’s good one day, and we get a great idea, let’s go change an entire system and see if the state follows us. This is totally different, conditions change. There is a crisis situation. And people are looking for people to lead. 

In this case, the way it was described to me from one of the big national experts in this area, is in many circles, we are the equivalent of Harvard when it comes to public schools. Harvard was more than happy to go first on saying that they would be fine with admissions coming in this way. They’re waiting for a Harvard equivalent to come in next as a school district and say, yeah, we’ll go. 

So in this particular case, I had no problem doing this. I don’t think it’s reckless in any way. There is no debate about our authority to do this one. But it’s not different than us saying that we weren’t going to do the statewide testing. It is not an accident that the state canceled testing, we drove that one. 

Response from higher education

TPV: Harvard and some other private schools have announced that they will be willing to accept credit/no-credit grades as well as require fewer standardized test scores from applicants in the fall of 2020. But public schools, especially the UCs, seem to have more strict requirements when it comes to grades and tests. Have the UCs, as far as you know, released anything that indicates they’re willing to accept credit/no-credit classes as well?

DA: So we reached out to Berkeley, and [they said], “As long as the whole student body, not individual students, is assessed and graded the same way, I’m sure Berkeley and the rest of our sister campuses will recognize the courses a student completes during the spring 2020 term.” 

At one point in time we were considering allowing for students to either say, okay, I want the credit/no credit or the grade. This made it really clear for us not to, and then I confirmed that with other colleges. 

This [message] is from Stanford, Richard Shaw is the dean of undergraduate admissions. And you can see clearly they’re going to go with whatever we come up with, they totally understand and be flexible, and they hope that we come up with the best and most rigorous programs we can because our school district has a great reputation. But those are the kinds of things we’re getting.

We have similar communications from Vanderbilt. And we work with a lobbying group, Capital Advisors, which had a conference call with top colleges and universities including UCLA, USC, and tons of private schools. Basically, it is a no-risk move for us to do this.

Getting students up to speed

TPV: The Department of Education doesn’t seem to have released any guidelines regarding what schools should do as they close, but they must “make every effort” to provide services after schools reopen, by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Are there any plans yet for how PAUSD plans to catch up on whatever lost instruction there was during school closure?

DA: I want to be clear on this one, that I am not saying that we’re not reopening. But what I am saying is we’re planning like we’re not going to reopen. In our planning right now, we’re trying to get services to students right now. The federal guidelines are essentially waived right now. Nancy DeVos said that districts were saying that they could not do things like distance learning, because if they did, Special Education Requirements had to be implemented 100% or you’d have to have IEPs for every student after 10 days of being out of a traditional school. 

What that meant is we are free to not honor IEPs right now. I think that’s an awful mindset to have. So our mindset is, the students who needed us the most three weeks ago need us even more now, not less. So we’re trying to balance that to the best of our ability. The guidelines are a lot of times communicated to us by people that don’t understand them themselves. What does it even mean to say when you get back, get everyone up to speed? That doesn’t even make sense. So we’re trying to do the best we can on the front end.

DA: Hang in there. We’ll come out on the other end. We’ll have great stories somewhere down the line.