Todd Groves doesn’t spend his days decoding the nervous systems of marine animals anymore, nor is he advocating national public policy for a local think tank.
These days he’s decoding a different structural system — the West Contra Costa Unified School District.
A longtime district volunteer, who brought WriterCoach Connection to El Cerrito High School and spearheaded the Middle School Math Initiative, Groves says he wants to take the classroom-level foundation he has built and apply it at the school board level.
For Groves, addressing the challenges facing West County schools seems manageable, perhaps because he approaches the table with more than just questions — he has a sort of quasi-scientific method, beginning with the research and a half-dozen testable hypothesis.
Give him a forum and he’s got the experiments in mind too.
Take for example achievement at the middle school level.
“In middle school kids are left out to finish puberty,” he says chuckling. “Middle school is consequential. If you do well in middle school chances are you’re going to persist through high school.”
For Groves uncovering the mysteries of middle schools — the inexplicable trend that West County elementary schools have high API scores, but they’re yielding low middle school scores — is on the top of his list.
The proposition? A Middle School Task force where the district would look into middle school policy across the country and compile a directory of what does and doesn’t work.
“There’s something happening, but we don’t know what that is,” he says. “We have lots of theories, but I need to know what that is.”
Groves speaks like that often. “I need to know” seems to be a staple in his vocabulary.
Perhaps it’s the scientist in him. Groves graduated from Oberlin College in 1986 with a degree in neuroscience, back when he says there weren’t many schools offering degrees in the field.
His emphasis was on nervous systems in marine animals, specifically snail brains.
Three days after graduating he moved to Oakland and began working at San Francisco State as a researcher. Eventually he began working more with public policy surrounding the Americans with Disabilities Act, which led to a run at a local think-tank.
His career choices have required inquisitiveness, a trait Groves hasn’t seem to have lost as he’s entered the field of education.
Take for example college-readiness at the high school level.
Groves says if you take a look at West County students taking the UC placement exams, the remediation rates are much higher than one would expect.
“If they’re eligible for UC they’re in the top third of their class,” he says. “So why are over half of them going into remediation? That’s a challenge. That’s something I want to know. I’ve got to know, I just have to.”
As a parent and volunteer, Groves says he has seen firsthand how the current policies often don’t work.
“We’ve tied ourselves to signatures of college readiness — like A-G, like algebra in eighth grade — that don’t necessarily correlate with academic success,” he says.
Math and science students who fail the first time often end up taking the classes again, but if their level of preparation hasn’t changed, Groves says, how can we expect the results to?
“They end up frustrated,” he says and they develop the mentality of, ‘I wasn’t prepared the first time and no one has done anything to get me more prepared the second time.’”
The key, Groves says, is making sure children have the resources to be successful academically.
“I don’t necessary care if it meets A-G in high school,” he says. “That’s where I’d start. That right there — honesty.”
Perhaps it’s in part Groves’ background in policy that has made him such a proponent of searching for alternatives past the current system.
“I’ve had a reasonable amount of experience looking at policy and consequences,” he says. “You cannot force these things onto people because they won’t work.”
In the district, he says, the state’s policies are creating one size to fit all six million students in California — and it doesn’t work here.
“We’re going to have to fight,” he says. “If it’s not good for our kids we have to fight it.”
Groves sees a lot of potential in West County, in the communities that have approved five bond measures and a parcel tax, in the teachers who he has observed first-hand providing great teaching. It’s the same community he has lived in for 16 years.
He says the district has everything it needs to grow, it just needs the resolve and a splash of leadership.
“I know we can do it,” he says. “It’s not that hard.”
He pauses for a moment. “OK, it is hard,” he adds. “But it’s believing it can be done first and I believe that — and that’s where it starts.”