Palo Alto school district homework policy roll-out stalls

Efforts underway to collect more concrete data on implementation

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."

Related content:

Do Palo Alto's high schools give too much homework?

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19 people like this
Posted by Paly family
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 30, 2015 at 8:19 am

I think it's fascinating that a Gunn teacher filed a union grievance against complying with the district policy about homework, in terms of stating the amount of time to finish an assignment, which is called for in the regulations, but done by almost no one. The public needs to know what is going on with this, as teachers need to respect district policy. If they don't think they have to, then we need to put it in their next union contract explicitly. Teachers want to be treated like professionals, but then they go all union on us and reveal their true outlook on their job, at least some of them.

19 people like this
Posted by Private Parent
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 30, 2015 at 10:19 am

"...who eventually filed an official grievance through the teacher's union."

I am so disgusted with the Gunn teachers on this.

It is nearly impossible for any enterprise to be successful when a painfully simple request for information about an essential part of your job ends up in a serious dispute.

Telling your boss how you are doing your job is a basic part of the real world--an absolutely and completely normal part of life. It's embarrassing that it came to a union-level dispute.

Completely indefensible by the teachers.

16 people like this
Posted by Gunn mom
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 30, 2015 at 11:02 am

Thanks to Lettie Weinman and Ken Dauber for serving on the homework committee and now trying to get it actually implemented. The failure of the policy to be implemented reflects mismanagement and cynicism in the prior administration. Hermann needs to be able to take control of Gunn from a militant minority if teachers. I hope the Board and the Superintendent will back her up.

6 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 30, 2015 at 12:13 pm

I also served on the homework committee and am frustrated that nothing has been done with the regulations so far. There is so much to be addressed from the bottom up... in terms of different homework assignments in each individual classroom, different policies that are unique to each teacher (of the same course), different grading rubrics unique to each teacher (of the same course), and so on.

My children have been enormously frustrated based on these inconsistencies alone... and they end up blaming it on unlucky teacher assignments or personal bias... which whether true or not, is not a healthy environment. Any parent of teenagers knows that it can be impossible to shift their conclusions (regardless of any facts presented) when they are in the daily grind and feel like things are unfair.

1 person likes this
Posted by paly parent
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 30, 2015 at 12:17 pm

Regarding the reporting of Hanover's plans/study: they need to review Infinite Campus to see actual grading, which can be different from what's stated in course syllabi (which, moreover, might lack details).

11 people like this
Posted by Paly parent
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 30, 2015 at 12:25 pm

I think an underlying issue is that Schoology is not used well or consistently. Some teachers don't post at all, even though it's supposedly required school-wide, or the assignments are posted late at night before it's due, which negates the communication or planning "benefits".

3 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Jan 30, 2015 at 1:02 pm

If we start instead by establishing clear boundaries between home and school, and make options for people who want homework and those who don't (see other articles on this subject today by Elena Kadvany), the complex issue of trying to enforce a time limit on homework for a range of individual children goes away. One choice will overtly accept a lot of homework, and another choice will overtly choose a no-mandatory-homework project-based path. The former will still engage in discussions about what is appropriate but the urgency goes away as those kids will have a high-quality (not "dumbed down") option where they might even get a better education should they decide that option is not for them.

In my opinion, choosing to limit homework is kind of the classic choosing to be a little bit pregnant problem...

6 people like this
Posted by Parent 1
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 30, 2015 at 7:21 pm

There's a pretty easy and straight forward solution on this.. No graded homework allowed period. Additionally, limit on number of pages of reading allowed. Put certain periods on certain days: A/B/C periods on Tue/Thurs, D/E/F on M/W, no Friday, no weekends. Combined reading (ie: as measured by # of words), max 1 hour per day.

Its not OK to put the policing and measurement of number of hours of homework per night in the hands of the students, who then have to COMPLAIN (ie: make a stink, call attention to themselves, etc, only ratcheting up the stress level!) to get enforcement. So a combined limit becomes arbitrary, teacher honor system, which is dependent on the collection of what every other teacher coincidentally requires, and is subject to individual student capability on everything they're trying to get done that night! It can't be enforced, it can't be measured!

10 hours of homework per week in high school? Come On - that's 2 hours per night. That is utterly unreasonable. That should be against child labor laws. They're already at school 7 hours per day, how many hours per day are minors in the united states allowed to be compelled to work in one work day?

College students spend no more than 2 or 3 hours total per day in class, and get assigned homework from only 4 classes in a semester (if they're taking a normal full load). OUr kids are getting homework every night from every class they take, and spending 7 hours per day in class.

So in this scenario, teachers can provide practice problems or worksheets to supplement for understanding, but may not collect, may not include homework in the grading, only use for facilitation of tutoring or on request.

For those parents who say their kids thrive, their kids are OK, their kids want to full court press the academics. I say congrats. Go for it. But your drive is ruining the balance, and pushing the competition level too high, These over achievers should be encouraged to get their that academic pressure fix elsewhere.

Like this comment
Posted by "start your copiers"
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 30, 2015 at 10:24 pm

All Ken and Lettie did was copy the Menlo Park homework policy nearly word for word: Web Link

Hardly a lot of effort. They might have determined, first, how badly it's been received before thrusting it on PAUSD. You know, considered actual data.

The reason it hasn't work is because it doesn't work.

We need a proper homework policy that is fair to all students and relieves stress instead of promoting it. The current policy doesn't do that.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Jan 31, 2015 at 1:21 am

Didn't Cooper actually end up essentially refuting his own work about the strength of his conclusions about homework that so many people defend so much homework with?

5 people like this
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 31, 2015 at 7:19 am

I think a number of critics of the homework policy have focused entirely on one narrow aspect: the 10-minute rule.

In fact, if you read it, there are a number of other key points that HAVE ALSO NOT BEEN IMPLEMENTED.

For example it asks for teachers to ensure homework is a review of what is covered in class .( The No New Concept Rule ) this is intended to prevent teachers from pushing new instruction from the class to the homes. This aspect of the policy is either skipped over or misread intentionally. I have heard teachers misinterpret tho as "oh, we cannot ask kids to read a new section of the textbook"

No, that is not what it means; it means you cannot assign problems or projects from sections that haven't been explained in class. It means you cannot assign an essay about literary devices in To Kill A Movkingbird without teaching literary devices.

Why not?

Because self taught children have many misconceptions and confusions which makes homework take five times longer, and very frustrating.

In summary, much of the homework policy that is ignored actually addresses the causes of excessive homework time. The 10-minute rule just exposes the symptoms.

I guess the homework committee assumed the teachers would use the 10-minute rule as a starting point to problem solve WHY a particular assignment is long.

Instead it is dimly applied as some absolute rule in absence of a problem solving context. Those who complain it is unworkable may be looking to misread the intent of the policy, or may not have the faculties to examine WHY something took long.

4 people like this
Posted by how could they get it so wrong?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 31, 2015 at 7:32 am


You've just given another reason why the current policy is unworkable. Now every individual teacher in the school district needs to do their on interpretation and parents are left with a policy that is even more opaque.

The 10 minute aspect was already indefensible. The additional arbitrary nature makes it unworkable.

The board needs to send this one back. They also need to make sure anyone involved in the development of the current policy doesn't have any input into a real one.

7 people like this
Posted by Dead enders
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 31, 2015 at 7:44 am

The homework policy was adopted by the school board almost 3 years ago. The fact that it hasn't been implemented is a fact about the previous board (which refused to exercise oversight) and the previous district leadership (which wasn't). We don't need to reargue the question of whether to have it and what it should say. We have a new superintendent who recognizes the necessity of actually implementing policy and a new school board with members who will actually follow up to make sure policy is implemented. Both Dauber and Godfrey campaigned on implementing the homework policy. Dead enders can fulminate in TS but blocking the policy is going to take winning a school board election. Good luck with that.

Like this comment
Posted by Hahahaha
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 31, 2015 at 7:59 am

[Post removed.]

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Posted by flog a dead horse, much?
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 31, 2015 at 8:10 am

The policy is 3 years old. The policy has been rolled out. The policy doesn't work. Time for new blood and new people on the board that can make change happen and actual care about our kids.

Like this comment
Posted by rtfm
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 31, 2015 at 8:26 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

9 people like this
Posted by Charles in charge
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2015 at 8:55 am

Charles Young, Associate Superintendent, was in charge of developing a homework policy in 2012. He traveled to most schools and used 3 x 5 cards as the basis of collecting data. He should be the public front of this renewed interest in the homework policy. He should be showing leadership and support of Denise Herrmann, the latest Gunn principal who has tried to act as a principal, only to have the teachers's union, the PAEA, actually take the time to file a formal grievance. What's next for Herrmann if she doesn't demonstrate a fear of PAEA. A threat of a vote of no-confidence like Katya Villalobos received? PAEA only rears its head in two situations, asking for more money (coming soon) and trivial power plays against principals who dare to act like principals. Charles Young needs to publicly demonstrate that he is in charge as the number two administrator, or he needs to find employment elsewhere. There is a crisis like no other right now, and now the homework policy is involved, and hiding in the background is not acceptable.

15 people like this
Posted by Reason
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 31, 2015 at 10:21 am

Reason is a registered user.

Charles Young has no leadership skills. He will not stand up for the Principals.

This is the fundamental flaw in the Site-based doctrine: nobody has accountability at the district, so they have no responsibility to stand for what is right.

If Principal Herrmann needs some back, just post notice - we'll send a posse.

The sad thing is that PAEA resisting community pressure to fix homework stress is driven by a minority of complaining teachers (most actually care about students and want to have a conversation about homework).

The other sad thing is that these few teachers are using PAEA in a way that is giving the entire teaching community a bad name. This is a strategic disaster just before an election on parcel tax.

Principal Herrmann is doing the PAEA more than a favor by pushing for reform - without it, many people have already given up on improving this school district. I for one, am voting against the parcel tax. Precisely because I see no reform on issues that matter to me:

- excessive student stress
- poor quality homework, poor quality instruction
- mistreatment of students.

These are minority issues - it is a few teachers doing this to a few students. Yet, this is the nature of the most extreme cases of student anxiety and depression. It only happens to a few. But that still does not make it right. The nature of this reform must be to isolate the few teachers that are really making life hell for students.

PAEA is resisting this.

That's why I am voting against the parcel tax. To send a message that I actually care what happens to ALL the students.

(And I am sure there will be many replies, indicating how Billy had a great time in school... it's not all the teachers... Johnny had a great teacher..... parents don't appreciate teachers enough.... blah blah blah. Okay, full disclosure: I have had great teachers. I have given them Christmas cards, thank you notes, Starbucks gift cards. But that does not excuse the SYSTEM from reforming the worst practices of the few that still continue to make life hell for students.)

When the good standby and allow the worst to do their will, everyone is complicit.

Like this comment
Posted by if the shoe fits
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 31, 2015 at 4:37 pm

But Billy DID have a great teacher.

1 person likes this
Posted by Reason
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 31, 2015 at 8:43 pm

Reason is a registered user.

"But Billy DID have a great teacher."

Great. Can we get a few more then? Why not a great teacher for all the kids?

14 people like this
Posted by concerned parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 1, 2015 at 8:14 am

Very frustrating that a homework policy has been in place with no one doubling back to check on implementation. I have been an involved parent and still feel like my volunteer hours can't effect the lack of leadership in the district on this issue. The workload begins in middle school and nobody is facilitating the amount of work teams of teachers are giving the kids. They try, but it's hard to 'police' each teacher's individual assignments. Administrators say, "Oh yes, the workload is shocking to 7th graders as it's their first exposure to a higher level of work, delivered by more teachers". "They settle in to it by 8th grade". Why should our children have to settle in to 2-3 hours of work per night? After a full day at school, then sports(or other interests), why should they have 2-3 hours of work waiting? After a full day of work(8-5)... would you like to have 2-3 more hours after dinner? Our children are being robbed of family time, down time, friend time. If the past is any indication of the future no one will successfully address or solve this problem in the near future as we have to have more studies, committees etc...This has been an issue for at least nine(9) years that I can remember. Alfie Kohn's book, "The Homework Myth" was one of the springboards to this conversation. Let's make an effective, accountable change today School Board and administration.

2 people like this
Posted by Easy
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 2, 2015 at 11:10 am

If you think there is too much homework - don't do it!
I probably skipped readings and homework assignments several times a week in high school. Improv during class conversations, fake it; hey it might even become the next education fad in ten years.

Or parents and students go to the Board and request that homework be removed from any grading - students are only assessed on tests and essays. Isn't that 'college prep' anyways???

12 people like this
Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 2, 2015 at 11:16 am

PAUSD sets up an advisory committee, the committee comes back with it's reccommendations, PAUSD approves them, and then ignores the policy.

Teachers don't want to put in a little extra effort and file a grievance.

Principals don't want to keep teachers accountable to the policy.

Sounds like a failure from top to bottom and the only one that truly suffers are the students.

PAUSD can send out as many letters to parents/students preaching how much they care about the students. But, until the get out from behind their desks, stop hiding behind the union and start actually doing something to support the students, and it's all just a bunch of words.

10 people like this
Posted by Where'sTheLeadership
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 2, 2015 at 4:52 pm

I think it is appalling that the legacy board members did nothing to follow-up on the homework policy. Shame on Camille, Melissa, Heidi (and Dana and Barb).

But I also think they knew full well that this would be weakly implemented and driven with no oversight. That is probably why they did not ask what happened to it. They knew full well what was going to happen to ANY policy they pass - nothing. It is pretty clear that this group abdicated responsibility years ago, and the teachers ignore the Principals, the sites ignore the district, and the district ignores the Board. The Board ignores the community. It's a chain of incompetence from top to bottom.

And the Board knows that most of it's policy is treated as optional; advisory; to-be-ignored.

The real test is whether the recent spate of publicity around this issue will light a fire [portion removed] to make them take a look at WHY they are so irrelevant.

Maybe, just maybe, they will choose to become relevant. We are all waiting...

4 people like this
Posted by Charles in charge
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 3, 2015 at 8:59 pm

Step up, Charles Young. This is your homework policy. Own it and enforce it, or ditch it. But get out of the shadows, reactivate your Twitter account, and lead. Stop taking our money and doing nothing.

2 people like this
Posted by cynical from experience
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 4, 2015 at 10:27 am

He's not doing nothing. Don't worry, you'll get your lovely printed table all the many reasons he couldn't do whatever it was (most of which wouldn't stand up to factual scrutiny, luckily for him, the clatch in the office will do nothing).

6 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 6, 2015 at 12:17 pm

I agree with what Gunn Parent said here: I actually don't think kids have too much homework. I think they just need to take reasonable amount of difficult courses or take courses based on their aptitude. I have two nephews (in 4th grade and 3rd grade) who go to two different private schools and they do 2-3 hours of homework a day and weekends too! That compares to almost zero homework for my 6th grader at Terman, and that's about the same amount of homework my high schooler has! If high school becomes too easy, how are our kids going to handle college? AP and honor classes are designed for kids that have aptitude in those subjects but nowadays many parents/kids treat it as a normal level class which of course puts a lot of stress on the kids. If we should change anything, it is not to change what high school offers, it is to change college admission criteria. If colleges stop counting AP classes, then I am sure many kids won't be taking AP classes anymore. I think Gunn is great to offer so many AP and honor classes which essentially meets all our kids' needs. We as parents just have to be brave enough to tell our kids not to overload on honors or AP's.

3 people like this
Posted by Where is PAEA?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 7, 2015 at 4:13 pm

Charles Young is nowhere to be seen. Max McGee recognizes his unpopularity and rarely rescues him in board meetings like Kevin Skelly used to. Your best bet is to draw PAEA out as the power player that they are if their members are spending their time listing excuses why they cannot reduce homework and still maintain rigor in the classroom. Contact PAEA on their web site and ask them what they are doing about it. See if you get an answer and share it with us.

Like this comment
Posted by Sherri
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2017 at 11:23 am

We are experiencing similar problems in Mill Valley. They are eliminating homework from our schools, especially in fourth and fifth grades. How can we effectively effect change for our children? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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