Editor's note: This cover story on homework by Weekly Staff Writer Elena Kadvany was prompted in part by a lengthy discussion among community members on the subject, begun in December on Town Square, the Weekly's online forum. (See "What gives the school the right to give my child homework). The topic generated hundreds of comments, among the most active discussions in the forum's history.
With the death by suicide last weekend of a Gunn High School senior, many people have questioned the role of excessive homework in causing stress and even depression in some students. It is not our intention with these articles to make a connection between homework and suicide, and in fact, the parents of the Gunn senior stated this week that they do not believe academic pressure was a factor in their son's death.
There is clearly a desire within the Palo Alto community to grapple with the effects of high school homework loads as well as parse the complexities of the district's policy and its implementation in schools. This story aspires to contribute constructively to that community dialogue.
Many Palo Alto high school students report feeling overworked, overburdened and overstressed by unrelenting workloads and expectations.
"Junior year I prioritized homework and studying over sleep," said Palo Alto High School senior Jack Brook, who plays varsity soccer, writes for the school's Verde magazine and is taking four Advanced Placement (AP) classes. "Staying up past midnight was routine, and I often woke up an hour early to continue what I couldn't get done the night before."
Gunn High School sophomore Martha Cabot took to YouTube late last year to publicly question the unrealistic demands that she said her peers face.
"Is it really expected from a student to take that many APs, maintain good grades, do after-school sports, have positive social life and finish homework on time?" she asked in a video that quickly went viral.
And it's not just the students who are bothered; parents say their family time and family dynamic is often impacted by "the homework wars," as one Palo Alto parent and Gunn teacher calls it.
"I am a veteran of the homework wars," said Lettie Weinmann, who's taught at Gunn since 1989. "When my son was younger, it was a frequent battle. We tried bribing him with M&Ms, impounding his LEGOs, and every support strategy in the book. ... The end result may have been that the homework was completed, but I think it also had an effect on our parent-child relationship. It set us up as his adversaries instead of his support system."
Other parents complain that the constant studying infringes on family life.
"I want to draw better and healthier boundaries between the school day and family time, better and healthier boundaries between school and home," wrote one parent on Town Square, the Weekly's online discussion forum, noting that schools appear to be crossing those boundaries unrestrained.
The parent asked for an explanation of the legal basis for homework, and the resulting thread, started mid-December, has garnered nearly 500 comments.
But while students and parents have been the ones voicing their complaints, teachers have not been ignorant of the outcry. In an effort to change the culture around homework, and at the same time improve students' learning, more and more Gunn and Paly teachers have begun taking a different tack on homework, experimenting with blended-learning models, "flipped" classrooms and innovative educational strategies that challenge traditional notions of homework.
Two years ago, longtime Gunn High School science teacher Eric Ledgerwood "flipped" his AP Environmental Science course. Instead of lectures in the classroom and traditional homework assignments, his students now watch 10- to 15-minute interactive video lectures at home that Ledgerwood has created. During class, they ask questions about the content, engage and grapple with each other over the topics and work on long-term research projects. In theory, the flipped classroom offers less rote instruction and homework and more time for deeper, collaborative learning.
"I don't give anywhere near as much homework as I used to," Ledgerwood said.
"I think the real beauty of it was and this is the whole idea of flipped learning I can do more things in the classroom with the kids when I'm not just talking at them," he said.
In Paly's new Social Justice Pathway program a "school within a school" that starts sophomore year project-based learning and collaboration reign, and homework is treated as something to be completed at home if it is not finished in class.
Homework is graded for completion, rather than performance. Overall grades are not A's, B's, C's or D's on homework but rather "mastery," "proficient," "competent" or "emerging."
"The idea is that we're really trying to get them to focus more on the learning as opposed to the grades, but those are difficult things," said history and social sciences teacher Eric Bloom, who has been at Paly for 17 years and created the Social Justice Pathway with longtime English teacher Erin Angell. "Especially in Palo Alto to say, 'Don't worry about the grade. Just worry about the learning.' And they're like, 'Yeah, OK, but what am I going to get?'"
Bloom and other teachers are hoping to chip away at that attitude, as conversations at both high schools move from how much homework to give to what kind of homework to give.
"Are we measuring student learning, or are we measuring compliance?" Palo Alto High School Principal Kim Diorio asked. "Those are the big philosophical questions we're having as a school."
"We want kids to be excited about school and excited about learning," Diorio said. "So what are the systems that we have in place that are getting in the way of that? Is homework one of those systems?"
Since Ledgerwood flipped his AP Environmental Science class two years ago, the role of practice has been shifted away from homework and into the classroom.
His first tools in this shift were short YouTube videos that students were required to watch, take notes on and do some related bookwork on at home.
This year, he's using EDpuzzle, a free platform with video-editing software and tools so teachers can embed questions or quizzes in the video lectures and block students from skipping ahead in videos to reach the quiz and a searchable database of related educational videos from sources like the Khan Academy and LearnZillion.
Despite the shift and reduced homework load that comes along with it, Ledgerwood acknowledged there will always be a need for "certain content acquisition" through homework.
"Sometimes what we call 'drill and kill,' where you have to do 50 math problems at the same time, or for language, you just have to memorize your verbs or whatever it is I think that's always going to be a subset of what we do," Ledgerwood said. "I think that's where the homework will reside."
But, "As far as homework when you're doing process-driven things, I think it will really shift."
Though as Gunn's only environmental-science teacher, Ledgerwood was able to transform this one class, the same changes are slower moving for a course like chemistry, which is taught by multiple teachers who work together to make sure their curriculum and assignments are similar.
"I didn't have the opportunity necessarily yet to do something really revolutionary for chem," he said. "It's on my agenda."
Another teacher at Gunn, Phil Lyons, gives no homework, even in an AP-level course, and claims not only more intellectually engaged students but ones who still score high on the AP exam. Lyons, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is quoted on a 2008 blog post by nationally known education speaker Alfie Kohn, author of "The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing."
"Each year my students have performed better on the (A.P.) test. ... I would feel justified encroaching on students' free time and I'd be willing to do the grading if I saw tangible returns, but with no quantifiable benefit it makes no sense to impose (homework) on them or me," Lyons told Kohn.
Kohn, who gave a talk earlier this month on achievement and learning at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, is staunchly anti-homework.
There is "one more contributor, one more practical issue that we could get rid of tomorrow with the damage that it does," Kohn told the crowd of mostly parents but also educators and Palo Alto district administrators. "It is making kids work the equivalent of a second shift." (At this, the audience burst into applause.)
"Homework is literally all pain and no gain," Kohn continued. "What it produces is frustration, exhaustion, family conflict and nagging, less time for kids to do stuff they care about when they get home and loss of interest. Homework is the greatest extinguisher of curiosity that we have."
Lyons told Kohn that after eliminating homework a decision he came to over the course of his career students became visibly more curious, independently bringing in news articles relating to what they had learned in class. (Other Palo Alto teachers, too, have said that as they've become more experienced, they've given less and less homework.)
Similarly, a 2013 study on the nonacademic effects of homework in privileged, high-performing high schools, co-authored by Denise Pope of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and nonprofit research group Challenge Success, found that more homework does not equate deeper learning.
"Although we found that students completing more hours of homework also tended to report greater behavioral engagement in their schoolwork and classes (as measured by students reporting they often or always try hard, pay attention, and complete assignments), this connection does not mean these students were deeply learning the material, enjoying the work or finding it meaningful or helpful," the study reads.
"If there was an easy fix, it would have been done so long ago," Pope said in an interview. "But I do think there can be a better understanding on the part of educators and parents as to the proper and effective role of homework. There's a big confusion between rigor and load."
Paly's Bloom agrees that the debate over homework should not be about the number of minutes assigned but rather the quality of those assignments.
"I get that minutes are the symptom and by controlling around minutes we can have this conversation, but it's not the minutes," he said. "It's the assignment that is the question and whether or not this should be homework, and what is the function of homework and how do you add value to it?"
Kohn argues that homework should be the exception, not the norm. Teachers should talk with students openly about the work they're being asked to do and "meet a high burden of proof" for students to work that second shift at home, he said.
But teachers, and many students, in fact, recognize that for some classes, there is a value to that second shift.
"I don't think homework is ever going to go away," said Gunn physics teacher Lettie Weinmann. "I think students need to think about the world around them outside of class if they are going to understand it, especially in science. It's all around you. We want our kids to know that physics happens outside of the classroom as well as inside."
This could be swinging on a swing to understand forces or looking at shadows to learn about light, she said.
Paly senior Tira Oskoui said she has the most homework this semester from her AP Calculus BC class, the highest level math course offered at Paly. Her norm is about two hours per assignment, but that can jump to four hours "on the really bad nights," she said. The class' description in Paly's 2014 course catalog offers an estimation for hours of homework, as many do, of four to six hours per week.
But, Oskoui said, "The class moves at a really fast pace, so if we weren't given a lot of homework, I don't know if people would be keeping up with the class."
Paly senior Brook had similar feelings about AP U.S. History, which has the notorious reputation as being Paly's most demanding class. Usually taken junior year, the course requires reading over the summer before the class starts and annotated reading linked to quizzes that are usually given two out of the three times a week the class meets.
Though Brook described the class as a "soul sucker" homework-wise, teacher Jack Bungarden made it "one of the best classes I've ever taken."
"It was a worthwhile class," Brook said. "Most of the work we had to do was very helpful, even though there was just so much."
Even this rigorous course has recently shifted slightly, with Bungarden now offering students three chances to opt out of the regular reading quizzes if they for some reason can't get it done. Many teachers do offer this kind of flexibility, making some or even all assignments optional. At Paly, for example, AP Psychology has started making homework (primarily reading), test corrections and pre-test review optional.
"So far I've done basically everything that was optional, but it's less stressful knowing if you do badly on it, it's dropped, and if you end up not having time, it's fine," Oskoui said.
Four Paly teachers also piloted last fall a homework-pass program in the hopes that offering an olive branch of flexibility would open up the lines of communication between teachers and students about homework. In exchange for either a free extension or excused assignment, students had to meet with their teacher over lunch with the goal of having an open, judgment-free conversation about their workload.
The passes were the product of a school-culture hackathon, hosted by the Stanford University d.school, that Bloom and a small group of teachers and students who form Paly's school-climate committee attended one weekend. They were tasked with answering the question, "What could you do to make school better?" (And in the vein of an action-oriented hacker mindset, "How can you accomplish that on a small-scale by the time you go back to school on Monday?" Bloom said.)
The pilot passes were offered to about 250 students. About 35 students used the passes and about two-thirds opted for an extension rather than an excused assignment, Bloom said.
"The idea is that (students) wanted just a little bit of flexibility so that they could make mistakes," Bloom said. "And then it was this piece of, 'Well, I could talk to you about it and we could do this, but what about these other teachers that are not as flexible?'
"That's where we learned, it's not the homework. It's all these other factors. Homework is just this symptom."
At least in some classes, homework is relatively low-stakes, Oskoui said, so the pressure is not as great. In most of her classes at Paly, it's been weighted only 5 to 10 percent of the grade. But it still can induce stress if it makes students feel like they won't be ready for a future test.
"When I'm doing the homework, if I find it's really hard, I'll be like, 'Oh my gosh, what's the test going to be like?'" she said. "In math especially, if I really struggled with a homework assignment, I'll get stressed thinking about the test in the future."
Weinmann said she's also seen the overall homework load at Gunn increase as more students enroll in more AP and honors classes.
"I think I have whittled back on the amount of homework I assign," she said. "I can't say that other teachers necessarily have or have not, but what I have seen is that more students are choosing to take the AP and honors courses than ever before."
She said that when she first arrived at Gunn, the science department, for example, offered only AP Biology and AP Physics B, with a total of five sections of classes. About 12 percent of the study body enrolled in an AP-level science course, Weinmann said.
Today, Gunn offers 16 sections of AP science courses and has added AP Physics C (calculus-based physics), AP Chemistry and AP Environmental Science to the roster. About 22 percent of Gunn students enroll in these classes.
Despite the pockets of innovative teaching practices cropping up at Paly and Gunn, Weinmann said that widespread change will require providing teachers more time to collaborate.
"Individual teachers plugging away at it in their own classrooms, which is happening right now, is not going to be nearly as effective as when we have an opportunity to work together towards this common goal," she said.
A district-wide review of homework practices is likely to appear on the Board of Education's agenda this year, with newly elected member Ken Dauber in particular pushing to keep the issue at the forefront of his colleagues' minds. Dauber has asked that staff review the implementation of the district's homework policy, which was approved in 2012 and was reportedly rolled out unevenly at schools (Read: District homework policy roll-out stalls).
"We shouldn't assume that there is some part of a student's day that is somehow dedicated to homework and the job of the schools are to fill it," Dauber said in an interview. "Just like everything else, we should be able to demonstrate the educational payoff for the time. And if we can't, then we don't have a right to use it because kids have other things to do with their life after school."
"It really needs to be assessed on its merits of, 'Is this providing an educational benefit?' both in terms of its content and also its quantity," he added. "We need to be willing to modify our practices based on what we learn from that."
But as the often-slow wheels of government turn, Alfie Kohn, for one, urges teachers and parents to be the agents of change when it comes to pushing for structural changes at their children's schools.
At his talk this month, Kohn urged teachers to not feel restricted by the grade they're required to give at the end of a semester and to use their time to shift students' focus from assessment and performance to learning and engagement. He told a worried mother in the audience, frustrated by the educational options for her almost-kindergarten-age son, to organize with other parents to put weight behind her concerns.
"You don't have to wait for the school to move in order to do some good," Kohn said.