Our worst year yet, in the best-ranked school district

We moved our three school-age kids from Tokyo to Silicon Valley and encountered more culture shock than expected

Published September 7, 2019 7:30PM (EDT)

An empty classroom (Getty/ martinedoucet)
An empty classroom (Getty/ martinedoucet)

Excerpted from "World Class: One Mother's Journey Around the Globe in Search of the Best Education for Her Children" by Teru Clavel. Copyright 2019 by Teru Clavel. Excepted by permission of Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

It’s time, I thought during our third year in Japan. We need to get back to the United States.

The kids had spent the better portion of the past nine years overseas—which was Victoria’s entire life and the majority of both James’s and Charles’s lives. Sure, we had come back home over holidays and summer breaks, but it was time my kids went to school full time in English in the United States. My goal had always been to have them attend college in the United States, so middle school seemed the perfect time to move back. They could find their way and get adjusted to the US education system during middle school to be fully up to speed for high school, when rigorous academic learning and grades mattered for college applications.

Overall, it seemed they had thrived during every leg of our journey. Maybe they just didn’t know any better. There had been ups and downs for each of us, but the experiences made us more resilient, academically confident (the kids as well as me!), curious, and independent. And our off-the-beaten-path experiences will always bind us. Each of the children hit cultural and language exposures at different times in their development, so they each have different strengths, weaknesses, and attachments to each of our host countries. I will continue to be fascinated to see how this plays out throughout the rest of their lives.

It was especially important to me for my kids to know what it means to be a US citizen actually living in the United States. Throughout our sojourn, I had tried to impose on the kids that it was because of our very US citizenship that we were welcomed by our host nations.

When I mentioned the thought of moving to my kids, they seemed to expect it. No big deal. It had become a way of life for us all. They were game for another grand adventure. Can we live in London now? But while they were fine moving on, I was tired. I didn’t want to face another new language and culture, or learn to navigate a new school system. All I wanted was a hot bath in a home that was familiar. Yes, that would do just fine.

Luckily, Alex was offered a position in Silicon Valley. So after ten years abroad, we could finally come back to the United States.

I scoured the San Francisco Bay Area to figure out where we should live. I needed to find a place (a) where the public schools were great, and (b) the community was safe. I didn’t want to take back all the independence I’d been able to give my children in Japan; I wanted to give them some degree of free rein.

I decided on Palo Alto. There, it was sunny all day, and my kids could bike to and from school with their friends on spotless tree-lined streets—a sharp contrast from the subways and concrete of urban Tokyo. It was also a college town in the backyard of Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley. I figured we were in for a different and intellectually stimulating adventure. More than 40 percent of Palo Alto residents have a graduate degree.

The only thing that concerned me was that the population of Palo Alto itself is quite homogeneous in terms of socioeconomic status, considering the high cost of living in the area. It’s an ideal place for professors, software engineers, and investors to raise their kids, but it’s not accessible to most working-class families. Housing prices are astronomical. According to Zillow, the median listing price for homes in Palo Alto as of 2018 was $3.2 million, and the high property taxes go a long way toward funding the local schools.

I looked at a handful of private schools and even submitted some applications where they could attend school with the children of Silicon Valley’s top executives; 74 billionaires live in Silicon Valley (only New York City and Hong Kong are home to more billionaires, with 103 and 93, respectively). All three kids sailed through the entrance exams and school interviews. But as we toured, I had the same concerns about private schools here as I did in New York City: Silicon Valley was already a world of privilege without adding the private school wealth into the mix.

I considered the public schools as well. I met with parents and teachers, and I went on school visits to get a sense of whether my kids and I would fit in. In the end, I opted for public schools. It was important to me that my children attend schools with a more diverse student body that represented the surrounding community and country. I didn’t want to embed them among the Silicon Valley elite.

* * *

When we arrived, I could hardly believe how exciting it felt. California! The dreamy land of high school movies like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," “Stand By Me,” and "The Karate Kid." Except the movie we landed in wasn’t quite the genre I expected when we’d paid for our tickets. It felt more like "The Twilight Zone."

I was in for a rude awakening. On the first day in the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD), it was 40 degrees, not warm and toasty. School drop-off was filled with dads wearing flip-flops and Google T-shirts, a far cry from the Birkin-toting moms in Shanghai and the PTA moms of Tokyo. I was excited to meet Charles’s teacher, but then tried not to panic when it became clear that she was very pregnant—last-trimester pregnant—and there wasn’t yet a plan in place for her replacement.

Later that week, I attended my first PTA meeting where it was “suggested” that I donate $3,000 to various school funds. Three thousand dollars?! I was even more concerned when I realized that one of the previous year’s line items included a $30,000 expenditure for ergodynamic chairs for the fifth grade.

I planned to overlook the exorbitant fund-raising for quirky chairs, since the quality of the education should be truly excellent. Right? The school district was the best ranked in California, the nation’s largest state by population, according to The district’s recognition gave me the confidence that my children would continue the excellent educational path they were on.

The school district has around twelve thousand students in twelve elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools. Judging by test scores and teacher résumés, the district looks top-notch. I’d seen the numbers bear out before, as in Shanghai’s amazing performance on the PISAs. But I quickly came to learn that I could not put that same trust in, or, or any of the other school-ranking databases in the United States. This “#1 school district in California” was nothing like I expected.

What I learned from my time in Palo Alto is that all data that contribute to any school rankings need to be pulled apart to consider all the variables. One way to understand this is to say that children’s academic performance needs to be looked at holistically and not as a single data point—for example, how much of their score is based on inschool learning versus what the students are absorbing from their educated parents, tutors, summer programs, and peers; extracurriculars; library books; and the like. Sadly, these assessments do not give teachers timely qualitative feedback to understand what makes each child tick, to be able to motivate that child, and to develop a safe, strong, and trusting relationship with her. For actual actionable growth, it’s not the numeric score that matters so much as the explanation.

At the first middle school parent education meeting, I found out that seventh-grade students would read just three books in English class all year and that they were allowed to select any books they wanted for free reading. They could even pick the same book again and again all year long “because they’ll learn something different from it every time”!

In addition, the teacher would critique only three essays in the course of the year because, she explained, “each teacher has 125 students and there’s not enough time.” And this is at one of the best-funded public schools in the country. When I looked for the statistics later, I found that per-pupil spending for 2016–17 in our district was $19,386, several thousand more per pupil than the statewide average of $11,619 for other California unified school districts.

I was dumbfounded by the way teachers openly spoke about how little they expected of students—not because the students were incapable of more, but because it was too time-consuming for the teachers. At a twelve-person parent-teacher council meeting at the middle school, one tenured teacher nonchalantly explained his philosophy on grading: “Well, these kids come in so smart. If they already know everything I’m supposed to teach them when they walk in, then they get an A off the bat.” When I jumped in with disbelief, “Then increase your learning expectations,” the principal quickly moved us on to the next topic on the agenda to avoid the gloves coming off. But these kids would be bored, bored, bored. And why would they ever want to sit in class?

In fact, teachers seemed to realize they were on their own to figure out what was acceptable and what wasn’t; there was almost no oversight because the school was on its fourth principal in four years. At another council meeting, a middle school teacher complained, “None of us knows what’s going on in other classrooms, including grading policies. One teacher could be using mastery based, another could be using letter grades, and we all have different requirements for how students achieve their grades.”

“Teachers aren’t required to use the same grading system,” the principal said. “It’s not recognized by California’s Education Code.” It wasn’t enough to do the right thing; it required a law.

“Oh, I don’t care about grades!” one parent chimed in. “They’re not important.” It felt like no one was paying attention and somehow students were expected to churn out impressive scores despite the lack of instruction or oversight. Yes, to reiterate, this is the top-rated school district in California, the largest state in the United States, in the cradle of the greatest STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) minds in the world.

Maybe it’s just crazy because it’s the beginning of the school year, I thought.

Things got worse, though. Charles had five teacher changes in his fifth-grade classroom. All five Palo Alto secondary school principals resigned within the first year we were there. The superintendent resigned (or was pushed out) after a mistake causing a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall for the school district. But the silver lining? Charles was thrilled to have watched no fewer than ten movies in full at school, including "Rango," "The Lego Batman Movie," "The Incredibles," "Despicable Me," "Megamind," and "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs."

It felt like chaos.

* * *

Somewhere along the line in Palo Alto, the balance of power shifted from teachers and administrators to active families and PTAs. This manifested itself in all kinds of issues, which I experienced in our first year there. I thought that administration often acquiesced to the demands of the most vocal parents rather than prioritizing the requests that could contribute to the learning of all students.

I had never understood the concept of “child advocacy” before — adults advocating on behalf of students. In every other country, I had trusted that the teachers and principal wanted the best for my children and understood their needs. I never had to lobby against a decision a teacher made or ask for my children to be educated at an appropriate level. Here, I began understanding the pushy parents—the ones who were always in the principal’s office wanting something.

In the case of James, my “Welcome to Palo Alto” moment was having to plead with no fewer than five groups of teachers and administrators to place him in the proper math class. He had no track record, so the district was loath to place him in a class two years above grade level.

My persistence prevailed, but I think most others would have given up. It was evident that the district was tired of pushy parents like me. Charles too was far ahead of his fifth-grade math class (there were no upper-level math classes available at his elementary school), so he was told to just read books quietly during class time.

I spoke to another mom about it, and she just chuckled at my learning curve: “Oh, you trusted the school to teach math?”

The schools weren’t doing an exemplary job educating the kids, but the parents of Silicon Valley were. One member of the school board called it the “broken feedback loop,” meaning teachers believe they are doing a great job because their students were performing so well. But Palo Alto parents refused to allow their kids to fall behind. Many of them were highly educated, ambitious, and wealthy. I attribute much of the 100 percent graduation rate to their efforts. They kept up the high enrollment in AP classes. This district’s success came down to one thing: the parents.

Which was both good and bad.

I had mixed feelings about the strategy that parents were employing in Palo Alto. On the one hand, they were supplementing the school’s patchy academic offerings with private tutors and other enrichment activities. They were educated people who were reading and discussing books and current events with their kids and reviewing homework. On the other hand, they were mostly going over teachers’ heads and straight to the principal or superintendent’s office with any complaints or requests.

What happened to following the chain of command? I imagine much of this is due to accessibility—a few clicks, and you can email anybody and multiple somebodies in one fell swoop. I certainly experienced a great deal of frustration trying to work with my kids’ teachers to resolve issues, such as the complete lack of support for new students entering the middle school in the seventh grade and the high teacher turnover that Charles experienced in fifth grade. Communication was limited; parents were supposed to use an email template supplied by the PTA and then wait forty-eight hours for a response. Two days can be a long time in the life of an adolescent. Often I didn’t even receive a reply. It was evident that teachers were stuck in a game of tug-of-war among pushy parents, district mandates, limited funds, and other demands on their time.

I played along and successfully campaigned to get Charles moved to a higher-level math class when he started middle school, but he could have literally learned no math at all that year without this intervention. Teenagers often already think they know everything. At the same time, I thought about the fact that Palo Alto’s parents had social capital and networking skills that parents elsewhere normally didn’t. How many children in other school districts were languishing because their parents didn’t have the time or know-how to navigate the system or because administrators didn’t feel the same pressure to listen to them?

At the student level, the teachers’ catchphrase at the middle school was advocacy (different from child advocacy), which referred to children advocating for themselves. I often wondered if this was more about trying to keep parents out of the classrooms than about helping students develop this lifetime skill of self-advocacy. I couldn’t understand why there weren’t greater efforts for equal and open communication among teachers, students, and parents. Without it, the odds for success are stacked against the child.

One of the hard truths I came around to in California was that I’d been a little naive about the US education system in general. I knew it had problems and there was plenty to work on, but until I was walking through it with three children, I had downplayed in my own mind how deeply rooted and systemic the problems are. Maybe the biggest concern isn’t a lack of dedicated teachers, or parents who don’t value education enough; maybe the most significant problem is that we’ve let the public schools sell out our kids to the highest bidders.




By Teru Clavel

MORE FROM Teru Clavel