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There is a debate in Mill Valley surrounding the introduction of New Tech Network (NTN) at Tamalpais High School (Tam) starting with the 2014-15 academic year. This letter represents the views of the undersigned, a collection of parents, and community members with a stake in the future of Tam. 

Mill Valley has a history of excellence in education. Families moving to Mill Valley cite the quality of the school system as a prime reason for doing so. Education is one of the hallmarks of our community and a source of tremendous civic pride. Our objective is to ensure the best possible education for our children and to pass that tradition on to future generations who attend Mill Valley schools.

Introduction of New Tech Network to Tamalpais High School 

On April 3, 2014, the Tam administration presented to Tam parents for the first time, their intention to implement NTN’s project-based learning (PBL) system in approximately 50% of Tam’s freshman and sophomore classes in September 2014.

Parents, community member and teachers asked for clarity in how NTN will be implemented and expressed considerable concerns over its appropriateness for Tam. Although the district has delayed approval of the NTN contract for Tam until Spring 2015, it continues to lay a solid foundation toward the future implementation of NTN. A group of Tam teachers attended NTN training in Los Gatos on May 1st and May 2nd, and a further contract with NTN to train teachers in the Instructional Technology Teacher Collaborative (ITTC) program will be presented to the Board of Trustees on May 14th.

The community also asked why NTN was chosen for Tam. The Tam administration claims teachers requested NTN. Our understanding from Tam District teachers is that they weren’t provided any other training options. They were provided the opportunity to enroll in ITTC, a program described as "a two year stand alone program which utilizes problem based methodology in a technologically infused program” without any mention of NTN. Teachers enrolled in this program to receive additional training and compensation, and to satisfy the District’s strong messaging to participate in the program. Michael McDowell, our Assistant Superintendent in charge of our District’s educational instruction, was previously a National School Development Coach for NTN and a NTN High School teacher.

We Support Increased Teacher Development. We applaud and support our teachers in seeking training to further their skills and knowledge. This demonstrates their commitment to excellence through continued learning and development. We understand that teachers receive remuneration for participating in NTN training and believe that teachers are acting professionally and appropriately by seeking new training and opportunities to increase their compensation. 

We Support PBL: And we want to be perfectly clear: We fully support the use of PBL and technology at Tam. Through the use of PBL as an adjunct to the traditional curriculum, students learn valuable communication and collaboration skills that are vital for their future success. And they are already being used successfully throughout many, if not most, classrooms in our school.

We Support Technology: Many of the undersigned are donors to the Tam High Foundation that funds the expanded use of technology to aid innovative teaching in the classroom. We support this. The use of technology, when it facilitates excellent and innovative teaching, is of high value.  We have made donations to foster such teaching at Tam.

To summarize, Tam is an excellent school and we should strive to make it even better. We fully endorse making changes and investments that improve all aspects of the Tam education, whether they are in math, science, language or any other discipline. We support identifying areas for improvement and implementing a program to make necessary changes. 

Background and Information on New Tech Network

NTN’s methodology is to make PBL the complete focus of a school’s teaching approach. We question its “one size fits all” approach for the following reasons: 1) all children learn differently, 2) not all subjects such as math and world languages are appropriate for 100% project-based learning, and 3) college coursework is not 100% project-based learning.  Implementing NTN’s system for a significant portion of the freshman and sophomore classes on a compulsory basis constitutes a pivotal change for Tam. 

 - After almost 20 years, NTN still operates in only 11 of the more than 2000 high schools in the state of California. It operates in less than half of the states in the US. In many states, NTN is only in one or two schools. After nearly two decades, NTN has failed to become a widely adopted program. 

 - None of the top 60 high schools in California as ranked by US News & World Report employ NTN. We believe that Tam should learn from the best schools in the state: none of them are using NTN.

 - The exclusive focus of NTN has been in low performing schools. This does not fit the profile of Tam.

 - The average SAT score for NTN high schools in California is 200 points lower than Tam.

 - The average Academic Performance Index (API) score for NTN schools in California is 100 points lower than Tam. Their average API ranking is 7 out of 10; in comparison, Tam’s API ranking is 10 out of 10.

 - 9 of the 11 NTN schools in California are unranked by US News; another is ranked 417.

 - Redwood High School, a close peer to Tam, is not using NTN for their services.

 - There is no peer-reviewed data to support that the use of NTN’s instructional methods will improve the quality of Tam’s education.  

High school is a critical time when students prepare for college. Tam would be the first top tier high school in California to implement NTN on a wide scale. Since the advantages of the system are not quantified, this constitutes a substantial risk for college-bound students. 

Los Gatos High School’s implementation of New Tech Network:

Los Gatos High School is frequently cited by the Tam administration as a high performing school that has implemented NTN’s instructional methods. However, Los Gatos High School’s implementation of NTN was significantly different than what is planned for Tam.

 - In 2012, a year before it was initiated, the NTN program was introduced to the Los Gatos community. The school administration openly communicated its plan to parents and students early so everyone had the opportunity to learn about NTN and make an informed decision about the program’s merits.

 - In Fall 2013, the Los Gatos NTN Pilot Program began with 100 incoming freshmen who had signed up to participate. This group constitutes just 6% of the Los Gatos student body. The introduction/test of NTN was not done on a wide-scale basis.

 - The NTN program at Los Gatos is completely voluntary. Only those students who wish to participate in the NTN program do so.

 - The NTN program at Los Gatos is open to any student, but it is intended specifically for students who have had limited success in a traditional classroom. Unlike the proposal for Tam, the NTN program at Los Gatos is not intended for all students and will not be used on a wide-scale basis.

We believe the Los Gatos approach is the smart, low-risk way to introduce a new instructional method at Tam. 

We would like to see a rational, risk-managed approach for the selection and implementation of New Tech Network or any material new instructional method. That approach should be shared with the community and include:

1) An objective review of the instructional methods used at the top 20 high schools in California. Any investment in NTN or other instructional methods should be proposed in the context of a plan to make Tam one of the best schools in the state;

2) A thorough evaluation and comparison of all instructional method alternatives including cost / benefit analyses;

3) Proof of concept data that demonstrates that widespread use of NTN or other selected instructional methods will make all Tam students more successful in high school and in college; and

4) A voluntary opt-in pilot for at least one year before NTN or any other significant change to our teaching methods is initiated at Tam. Success criteria should be established upfront, and the pilot should be evaluated against such criteria before its expansion into additional classrooms. 

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We want the tradition of excellence in Mill Valley’s schools to continue. This is part of the bedrock of our community. Let’s work together – administrators, teachers, students and parents – to make smart, informed decisions about our school system so that the children served by Mill Valley public schools succeed.

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