When people talk about homework in Palo Alto, they often wonder: What, exactly, is the district's policy on homework?
Adopted in 2012, the policy was the culmination of an advisory committee's year-long deep dive into research and best practices on homework. It follows well-established thought that homework is appropriately limited to 10 minutes per grade per night, Monday through Thursday, for elementary and middle school (so a fifth-grader would max out at 50 minutes per night) and to seven to 10 hours per week for high school students.
An oft-cited 2008 meta-analysis of homework studies by Duke University Professor Harris Cooper, who is considered a leading researcher on homework, states that homework benefits plateau at about two hours per night at the secondary level. The study suggests that somewhere between 90 minutes and two-and-a-half hours per night is optimal for high school students.
In Palo Alto, Advanced Placement (AP) and honors courses are exempt from limits, with the policy acknowledging that advanced classes "may require more extensive homework."
"Effective homework practices do not place an undue burden on students," the policy states. "The Board (of Education) recognizes the value of extracurricular activities, unstructured time and adequate sleep for a student's success in school."
The policy also includes administrative regulations with recommendations on outside-of-class projects ("these tasks should not require group meetings outside of class, significant assistance from parents, or costly materials"), weekend homework ("if deemed necessary, the amount should not exceed a regular day's assignment") and winter break, which is supposed to be completely free of homework assignments. It also breaks down the type of homework that should be given at different grade levels and offers guidelines for teachers.
After receiving the board's stamp of approval in June 2012, the policy was disseminated to all of the district's schools and left for school leaders to implement that fall.
At both of Palo Alto's high schools, this effort was reportedly unfocused and eventually lost in the day-to-day shuffle.
"The sites were supposed to follow through on some of those administrative regulations in terms of just examining homework practice, and I think at some level, everybody did," said Gunn teacher Lettie Weinmann, who served on the homework committee. "But at least at Gunn, it wasn't really an orchestrated effort at that point. I think that's just because we had a lot of other things going on."
Paly Principal Kim Diorio, who at the time was the assistant principal, said teachers had many questions about the policy that went unanswered.
"There were a lot of questions. ... 'What does it mean? What exactly are they saying? What is this language implying?'" Diorio said many teachers asked. "There was a lot of uncertainty, and our current principal at the time was unable to provide a lot of answers to those questions. There was a lot of 'Let me go talk to the district.'"
"Quite honestly, it really was just kind of put aside," she added.
"There was not a publicly discussed, district-level process of implementation as far as I remember," said school board member Ken Dauber, who also served on the homework committee. "I don't think that there is a clear picture across the district or even within schools, certainly not one that has visibility beyond the site level on this.
"There are anecdotes either way," he continued. "I've heard people say, 'Oh yeah, it's better;' Others have said, 'I don't see any difference at all.' And they may well both be true based on where they happen to be."
Dauber also said that when the committee came to an end, he and other members felt there was more work to be done.
"How much of a student's grade should be comprised of homework? What about late policies? How do we prevent homework from becoming something that can sink a student's grade and put them in a place where they can't get a good grade in the class?" Dauber said. "We suggested to the school board that there be a follow-on focused goal to deal with those things and also to deal with implementation. That didn't happen."
Dauber said he has asked that a review of the status of the homework-policy implementation be placed on the school board's agenda.
Community and board members alike raised the topic numerous times at this week's board meeting, calling for implementation with focused fidelity.
"We need to align the homework policy and administrative regulations with actual practices, which involves teachers and administrators working together and this includes a district responsibility, this includes my responsibility to ensure that we have professional development for this," Superintendent Max McGee said. "We can't just put a policy out there and say, 'Go do it.'"
Efforts are also underway at both the school and district levels to collect more concrete data on homework.
Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann this year asked teachers to post the estimated amounts of time for all of their homework assignments on Schoology, the district's online schools management system. This touched a nerve for some teachers both as a mandate-from-high and a time-consuming task who eventually filed an official grievance through the teacher's union. It has since been resolved, though details surrounding the resolution and its implications have not yet been publicly disclosed.
Weinmann said she complies with Herrmann's request, but she understands why other teachers are reluctant. Schoology is a clunky, far-from-user-friendly tool, she said.
"I think it would be better if it were a better tool, but it's all we have right now, so let's use it and it will help us to understand homework a little better," Weinmann said.
One AP Biology teacher at Gunn is asking for feedback directly from students, according to junior Hayley Krolik. The teacher this year added a line at the bottom of all assignments on which students are to write how long the homework took them.
"I think that just letting the teacher gauge based on (how long) the students are taking and not setting expectations is best," Krolik said.
Both Paly and Gunn surveyed students on homework this year as part of their Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation processes, which occur every six years. The result of the in-depth WASC process is an action plan with set goals for the next six years.
The district also recently contracted with the Hanover Research Group, a global firm, to analyze Palo Alto's K-12 practices in the four main academic subject areas (math, science, history/social science, English) as well as world languages. Hanover will be surveying students and staff as well as analyzing syllabi to look at homework, grading practices, forms of assessment and curriculum.
Dauber hopes the resulting data on homework will be the first step toward assessing the implementation of the board's homework policy.
"We want schools that are designed for learning and we want to assess the pedagogical practices to see if it's what they're achieving," he said. "All kinds of aspects of what we do in schools, just like anywhere else, can take on a kind of ceremonial quality where we don't dig down and say, 'What's the real payoff for this?' I think homework is due for that kind of an assessment."