Fixing a critical leak in the STEM pipeline

Original article appeared in the Mountain View Voice

by Oren Sellstrom and Dana Isaac

Silicon Valley tech companies have come under fire in recent months for the dearth of minority employees in their workforce. There are many reasons for this under-representation, but a key one is sitting right in the companies’ own backyards: school districts in the Silicon Valley that are holding back successful minority students from higher-level mathematics classes.

This critical “leak” in the Science Technology Engineering & Math (STEM) pipeline has been well-documented. A 2010 study of nine school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area found that hundreds of ninth-grade students were forced to repeat math coursework from the eighth grade despite the fact that more than half of these students scored either “proficient” or “advanced” on standardized tests. The impact of this action is long-lasting, as it derails students from a college track by making it exceedingly difficult to complete in four years the courses required to apply to California state colleges and universities. Most problematically, the study found that African-American, Latino and Filipino students are the ones who are disproportionately being held back.

Using documents recently secured through the California Public Records Act, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area is now replicating these findings for individual school districts. Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, for example, is just down the road from Google’s headquarters. The district’s Hispanic and African-American students account for approximately 24 percent and 2 percent respectively of the student body. Yet our analysis shows that the district disproportionately enrolls these students in lower-level math classes in ninth grade — even when their grades and test scores are on par with those of white students. Other districts that we are looking at show similar discrepancies.

Why is this? Why would districts stop successful minority students from advancing? A major source of the problem is that many Silicon Valley school districts — at least one-third by our count — have no set process for determining appropriate math class placement. Rather, districts use a mish-mash of criteria — maybe considering grades for some students, test scores for others, relying on students opting-in to a class, or just letting teachers or counselors make the call. It’s like playing a game where no one knows the rules. And it is precisely this type of loose process that tends most to disadvantage minority students. Because when districts stray from reliance on objective criteria, that is when bias and unconscious discrimination can come into play.

Ironically, of the school districts that our research shows engage in these haphazard and unfair placement practices, many are in the heart of Silicon Valley, a place that prides itself on being a supposed bastion of meritocracy: Los Gatos Saratoga Joint Union, Fremont Union High, Gilroy Unified, Milpitas Unified, Morgan Hill Unified, and Santa Clara Unified.

Fortunately, there are simple solutions to this problem — for districts that are willing to implement them. Just coming up with a written placement policy is a good start. Shouldn’t everyone — parents, students, and teachers — know that if a student gets a certain grade or scores at a particular level on a standardized test, she should be allowed to advance?

Tightly controlling for subjective factors, such as teacher recommendations, is also critical. Some districts that have looked at this issue most closely have come up with an ingenious way to maintain teacher input, but in a positive way: They allow teacher input to advance students beyond what objective factors might indicate, but not to hold them back.

Silicon Valley Community Foundation has made it even easier on districts, producing a ready-made school board policy that can be adopted by any district that wants to ensure fairness and equity for all of its students.

And if school districts can’t take these simple steps on their own, the California Legislature is poised to act. Already, the state Senate has passed a resolution (SR 60), calling upon all districts in the state to “develop, adopt, and monitor a fair, objective, and transparent mathematics placement policy.” And Sen. Holly Mitchell has now introduced legislation (SB 359) to mandate this change.

Intel’s recent announcement of a $300 million investment in training and recruiting of under-represented groups for STEM jobs is a positive sign that tech companies are finally waking up to the need to ensure more diversity in their workforces. We applaud this move, and suggest that a true solution will require fixing all of the “leaks” in the STEM pipeline. Tech companies’ hiring and retention practices are undoubtedly key areas for reform. But we also need to look at the message some Silicon Valley public schools are communicating to our most successful minority students: “Math is not for you.” We need to demand that this message be changed, and that all school districts implement math placement policies that give every child an equal opportunity to succeed and advance.

Oren Sellstrom is the former legal director and Dana Isaac is the Thurgood Marshall Fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR).