Editorial: Around teen well-being, the vocabulary changes

Finally, an acknowledgment that school climate and student stress contribute to mental health crises

In the last three weeks, two significant yet relatively unnoticed mindset shifts have occurred that may have major positive impacts on the social and emotional environment for our kids.

First, the two mental health professionals who have been the key communicators with the public and advisers to school officials on teen depression and suicide since the first suicide contagion in 2009 have decidedly changed their message.

Stanford adolescent psychiatrist Shashank Joshi and Palo Alto Medical Foundation pediatrician and internist Meg Durbin, co-founders of an organization formed to address local adolescent depression called the HEARD Alliance, have now openly acknowledged that the environmental stresses facing teens in achievement-oriented Palo Alto are among many "co-factors" that can increase the risk of severe depression and suicide.

Durbin first publicly used the term "co-factors" Jan. 29 on the KQED Forum radio show less than a week after the most recent suicide of a Gunn senior.

Her message was clear: Teen depression, stress and anxiety must be "contextualized" in the environment they live in, and while the schools should not be blamed, some school practices and the community culture are creating unhealthy stressors. When combined with natural adolescent impulsivity, this "can be a fairly concerning brew," she said.

Dr. Joshi, who serves as the school district's consulting psychiatrist and who has consistently steered away from raising school-climate issues when communicating about teen depression and suicides, made an even stronger statement at last week's school-board meeting.

"Environmental factors must be examined closely and are often highly influential in any student's well-being. Peer, social, family, school and other influences such as living in a high-achieving culture where a teen's self-worth is perceived to be measured solely in terms of grades, sports, music performance or elite college acceptance can increase the risk of severe psychological distress on individuals, depending on the situation. These environmental influences can also be quite protective if they are positive or supportive in nature," Joshi said.

These statements are overdue and come in response to increasing parent frustration over the lack of leadership in articulating how chronic stress in a teen's life can lead to depression and despair. In a powerful opinion piece in today's Weekly, Palo Alto child psychiatrist Maria Daehler offers additional valuable perspective on the relationship between stress, sleep deprivation and depression.

As medical experts are changing their message, Superintendent Max McGee is taking bold action to change practices that are among the "co-factors" to which Durbin refers.

McGee and Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann are fast-tracking the implementation of block schedules at Gunn, a widely adopted high school practice that has been in place for several years at Paly, where classes meet for longer periods fewer times a week.

Another priority is elimination of weighted grading at Gunn to remove the grade incentive of enrolling in honors classes, where receiving an A counts more than 4.0 in calculating grade-point averages.

Requirements of a more careful review of student workloads when taking multiple AP classes, looking at limiting the number of AP classes, are also on McGee's agenda.

And a consultant study now underway will soon provide data on the inconsistencies in teaching methods, expectations and grading practices in classes identical in name, one of the most commonly expressed stress inducements among high school students.

Perhaps most significant, however, is McGee's determination to fully implement the homework policies adopted by the school board after a long, inclusive process in 2012. The policies have been widely ignored by teachers, to the frustration of students and parents, and McGee has issued a detailed four-page memo to all faculty, clearly and firmly directing that they be followed.

The actions of Durbin, Joshi and McGee are the kinds of steps that the community has been asking for, and we are grateful that these leaders are listening and acting with urgency.

There is much more work to be done, but tangible reforms, accountability for following district policy and a change in our mental health vocabulary are critical steps forward.

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10 people like this
Posted by Paly family
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 20, 2015 at 8:03 am

Thank you, thank you Dr. McGee for your leadership. This feels like a tipping point for the real possibility of needed improvements overall in our district. We especially appreciate your expectations relating to advanced courses, as there has to be an outer limit on what is reasonable. This is going to have such a huge impact on students' lives, and it's already starting to happen. Again, thank you, thank you, thank you!

3 people like this
Posted by a parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2015 at 8:27 am

This is indeed a step in the right direction

Someone needs to let Charles Young know about the block schedule because at an event about the role of sleep at Mitchell Park library last night, he said that a committee was going to "look into" the block schedule and appeared to leave it open to the committee's decision, not what is reported here a "fast-track implementation."

Homework was also a topic which was going to be looked into, but he said that PTA had thought of the 10 minute per grade. Is that true? Given that he was in charge of the homework committee three years ago and he said he is also in charge of professional development, it's concerning that the schools are using a PTA rule and that this topic is not serious enough, or that it could end up with more of the same.

Not to be nit picky, but this article is about vocabulary, Young mentioned school rankings "in the magazines" in his comments last night. I think we can probably banish our rankings for the time being and not bring them up in any context, ever. Another speaker suggested the problems with parents pressuring certain universities. Aren't magazine rankings and college reputations the same values?

In other words, what is being reported here is very encouraging, but will the same old, same old debates prevent real reform. I don't want to read in two or three years that nothing changed.

27 people like this
Posted by Aren't you forgetting something?
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 20, 2015 at 9:18 am

Thanks is most of all due to Ken Dauber, and the many dedicated parents who worked with him such as Sally Bemus, Becky Beacom, Barbara Slone, Kathy Sharp, Amy Balsom, Wynn Hausser, Rajiv Bhateja, and dozens of others, for talking about this four long years ago, when the school administration was not as progressive as it is today. Dauber never gave up but continued to care about making our schools a better place for all students. He was always clear, respectful, and accurate in citing the scientific evidence. He never backed down from the important effort to reduce stress, limit homework, and give our kids a better life at school. The test of a true leader is being willing to stick to the truth even when it is not popular or safe. Ken was willing to run for office even though he was slandered relentlessly. His victory, running on this issue more than any other, publicly demonstrated that the voters and parents are with him. Thanks to his willingness to run in order to send that message, we can see that the district leaders and consultants are willing to follow suit. Dauber made it safe to be "for" reducing stress. He gave it a voice and a face and a leader.

The Weekly editorial should have given credit where it was due not only to Ken but to the social movement for reduced stress that he started and that has finally brought common sense and science to our discourse.

16 people like this
Posted by Gunn Father
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 20, 2015 at 10:14 am

Finally, a recognition of what has been obvious since '09 [portion removed.] Now that the denial period has ended, hopefully the implementation process and healing process can begin. Too late for many , and for those now graduating , but better late , than never. Amazing it took years to go to a block schdl and years to go address the homework situation . Could lives have been saved? Probably , but again, better late than never. Best of luck to future attendees of Gunn and hopefully the administration will week out the teachers who dont care as there are a painful number in that High School

12 people like this
Posted by GraceBrown
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 20, 2015 at 10:24 am

GraceBrown is a registered user.

I also want to acknowledge the teachers who have worked quietly and with great intention to create classrooms that serve students first, who are mindful in their instruction, and very much welcome this conversation - many of those teaches, as well as administrators, are active supporters of this new board.

11 people like this
Posted by Paly mom of 3
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 20, 2015 at 10:24 am

@ a parent
I'm assuming that Dr. Young was referring to the National PTA in his comments about the PTA and the homework policy. Ken Dauber presented the National PTA and National Education Association's endorsement of the 10 minutes per grade homework rule to the school board in 2011. See Web Link The recommendation was subsequently adopted by the board in the 2012 homework policy. See Web Link

The National PTA also recommends that children regardless of age spend no more than 8 hours a day in class and on homework. They recommend spending one hour of downtime before bedtime to help with sleep. This is why implementation of the homework policy is so critical. Last night over 60% of the audience through a clicker survey rated homework among a list of 5 or 6 choices as the first or second impediment to sleep for teens.

The NPTA says "Ask your child's teacher and principal to honor family time by limiting daily homework, especially on weekends and school holidays." Last night both Dr. Young and Paly counselor Susan Schultz echoed this sentiment. Students and parents need to give teachers,counselors and administratiors feedback for successful implementation of the policy if homework is taking too long or otherwise not working for the student. Susan said that it is the counselor's job to assist students with academic problems including homework overload.

I hope this editorial is correct about fast tracking the block schedule at Gunn. I remember when it was implemented at Paly. There was a lot of trepidation among parents and teachers but luckily leaders like Susan Schultz pushed forward. The Paly community loves it and would never turn back. It allows time in class for in depth discussions and alleviates some of the homework stress as students only need to focus on 2-3 academic classes per night.

It's been a long time coming but it appears that we finally have alignment among school and community leaders to get the important work done.

10 people like this
Posted by muttiallen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 20, 2015 at 11:14 am

muttiallen is a registered user.

This is a very long-term problem. My son dropped out of Gunn in 1993 because he couldn't take the pressure. We sent him to a small private school instead where he thrived, graduated from college and then law school. My daughter graduated from Paly in 2001 feeling like she was a dumb poor student. After a year at college her whole perception of herself had changed. All my 5 kids found PA high schools too stressful, but found college work easy. Is that a blessing in disguise? And it's gotten much worse since my youngest graduated in 2003.
Do the seniors at Paly still do the "Rejections Wall?" I thought that was so healthy! They post their college rejection letters so that everyone can see that not everyone gets into every top school -- or even every 2nd tier school. You are not a life-failure because of a rejection letter or two. You are a real person who will always have to deal with ups and downs in life.

4 people like this
Posted by Suicide: Win lose or tie?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 20, 2015 at 12:05 pm

[Post removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by confused
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 20, 2015 at 12:44 pm

This is indeed a step in the right direction and I am grateful to Dr. McGee and Dr. Herrmann, as well as all of the parents who have been dedicated to this cause for years now.

But I'm confused as to how eliminating the weighted grade will help. Since many colleges calculate their own gpa anyway, given which courses they will accept on your application, I don't see how this particular policy changes anything. Maybe one of you can explain. Thanks.

Like this comment
Posted by C
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 20, 2015 at 3:40 pm

"Do the seniors at Paly still do the "Rejections Wall?" I thought that was so healthy! They post their college rejection letters so that everyone can see that not everyone gets into every top school -- or even every 2nd tier school. You are not a life-failure because of a rejection letter or two. You are a real person who will always have to deal with ups and downs in life."

They do, in a sense. They changed the name to the "Colleges Missing Out" wall. The Paly Voice and Campanile both endorsed an editorial against changing the name (Web Link) but it's been called that since, sadly. If I remember correctly a group of parents thought having the wall could contribute to student stress and complained about the name because it was "harsh."

11 people like this
Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 20, 2015 at 3:44 pm


7 people like this
Posted by Clear Voice
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 20, 2015 at 3:56 pm

Didn't the teachers union file a grievance against against Dr. Denise Herrmann's request that they use Schoology?

Guess their next grievance is going to be against Dr. McGee's memo.

The union is a real obstacle to positive change. They just go merrily along ignoring district needs, management directives, happily collecting salaries and vesting pensions.

14 people like this
Posted by Finally
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 20, 2015 at 4:38 pm

Perhaps we are at the end of the beginning. 5 years after the suicides began, 4 years since Dauber started a parent movement for change. Next steps: convincing holdouts in the schools that they really do need to follow district policy. Consolidating the change on the school board by electing new leadership next year, to replace members who have not acted with urgency. Supporting McGee as he cleans house of ineffective senior administrators. Finally it looks possible that this will get better for students.

26 people like this
Posted by Let's look in the mirror
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 20, 2015 at 6:23 pm

One major cause of stress for students in this town that is rarely mentioned in this forum is the role of parental expectations and, frankly, the lack of responsible parenting. I was absolutely thrilled at the parent meeting in Spangenberg last month when the Superintendent asked parents to look in the mirror when considering the source of stress for their students. He suggested that they ask themselves "is it really a good idea for your student to sign up for 5 or 6 AP classes each semester, in addition to two traveling sports teams, five clubs, and all the other extracurricular activities?" It is parents, not teachers and administrators, that should be monitoring and setting limits on the load their children are carrying.

Moreover, if a teacher needs to adequately prepare students for an AP test that assesses content knowledge for a year-long college-level class, who are we to decide exactly how the homework load should be limited? How many of you took 5 or 6 classes each quarter or semester in college? That's the sort of course load that many of your students are taking! And how many of you tell your physician, or your lawyer, or your accountant how to do their job? Parents, if you don't want your student to have a heavy homework load, then please limit the number or level of courses in which they enroll. Take an active role in parenting your children, and make an effort to check in with them about how they are doing.

It's not the schools, but rather the mindset of our community (both parents and students) that has been responsible for replacing love of learning with an over-achieving treadmill. Take Dr. McGee's advice and take a look in the mirror, then talk to your children and let them know that you'd like to start measuring their success by including their health, happiness, and well-being in the formula.

6 people like this
Posted by a parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2015 at 8:31 pm

As long as the schools allow parents to do what you describe, it will be done by those looking to game the system.

It's very common to blame parents on these threads, by the way, but it's not honest to say everyone is doing what you describe. Those of us who can't afford the tutors, club fees, or whatever else is involved to game the system are likely the majority. There are many "in the middle."

Anyway, it's time to provide data for what you describe (5-6 APs), and how much of this has been OK with the schools because of school rankings?

But we could also move on - and please just make the changes for the students.

2 people like this
Posted by rosie
a resident of another community
on Feb 20, 2015 at 8:45 pm

rosie is a registered user.

Wow, I was wondering when someone would notice that one of Palo Altos high schools would eventually not be known nationally as an outstanding school, BUT for the eleven teen suicides within a few years. Notorious!
That is a mental health epidemic, an alarming symptom of what is going wrong for these 15-18 year old kids trying to exist in a world we didn't know growing up in PA in the 60s--and we did pretty well at Walter Hays, Jordan etc but our parents wanted us to be healthy and well-rounded kids. We played outside after school. We biked around Palo Alto or walked. We still took Latin at Jordan and had accelerated classes but the pressure was not extreme.
Too many AP classes (5?) is exactly like being a 16 year old kid in a university like UC Berkeley and 18-22 year olds are better prepared for that, and don't have the 5 hours of homework and activities after their classes!
Sacrificing a child's only years at home are not worth the extreme classwork, AP classes, and too many activities. It is obviously not the recipe for success, in the way that I mean it: emotionally happy, time for socializing, and having a decent job...

12 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 20, 2015 at 9:01 pm

Dear Palo Alto Onliners,

The Weekly's coverage today, including this editorial, of issues of teenage wellbeing is first-rate, and they have taken shrewd notice of this consequential shift in the winds.

I agree that the shift is overdue. It would seem obvious that, for every living thing, environment plays a role.

A young tree may have a disease eating it on the inside, but surely that tree’s survival also depends on the soil it’s rooted in, the wind and weather, and especially on what a climate should have in abundance—especially at a school: fresh air and sunshine and calm.

Our teenagers aren’t potted indoor plants. They live in the world—and it is a world that we largely fashion for them, for good or ill.

This shift in the winds is invaluable, because it opens up a different line of inquiry into what we can do to help ward off desperate, self-destructive teenage acts. If we think of the school itself as of consequence to student optimism or despair, there is much we can do to make it a healthier, more forgiving environment.

It's much more desirable for any young person—especially someone whose mind is in turmoil and pain—to live in an environment characterized by trust, personal connectedness, meaning, focus, and energy than in one characterized by distrust, disconnection, meaninglessness, distraction, and fatigue.

"Co-factors" all, these are basic conditions that we can change.

Smaller class-sizes would bring more trust and connection, with each teacher providing more attention, feedback, and support to each student. Trust at school will be amplified, too, once cheating is driven from the campus.

Distraction will go if we have the adult courage to require our kids to turn off their phones during the schoolday (just as at our middle schools). Meaning will flourish if students aren't just piling up APs for the sake of their G.P.A.s, and if the fusillade of grade-reports is toned down.

Energy will bloom when kids are getting more sleep—which will come about once we give them a way to dialogue with their teachers about homework loads, and once we've reduced their multiple anxieties—about their invisibility to their teachers, about cheating, about ongoing upticks and downticks in their G.P.A.s—that cause our young people to nightly toss and turn.

All of these "co-factors" can easily and quickly be addressed; they are already the profound concern of "Save the 2,008"—a community initiative to bring a healthier life to school.

(For details, see and

My thanks to the Weekly for continuing to be a steady light, spreading illumination through some very dark times.


Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Co-founder, "Save the 2,008"

10 people like this
Posted by Pat Burt
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 20, 2015 at 10:23 pm

I hope that readers will review the linked memos by Drs McGee and Joshi, Web Link, Web Link. Along with the related recent actions summarized in the editorial, these represent a welcome sea change by the district that will result in real improvements to the well-being of our students.
Now is the time for us to focus on where we go from here by supporting Dr McGee and the board in their implementation of these long awaited changes and to complement their actions with others in the community and our families.

13 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 20, 2015 at 11:43 pm

Look in the mirror,
My middle schooler isn't taking any AP's or honors courses. There is too much homework. We don't place undue expectations and for just one or two missed assignments for good reason this semester with otherwise good grades on assignments, there are C's and D's on the report card, and at one time even an F. You know what? That feels really stressful to some kids. It's downright punitive and serves no purpose for focus, rigor, organization or better learning the material, it just makes otherwise smart hardworking kids feel like failures. Education should be about learning, not about a constant parade of score cards for compliance.

We were yelling at our kid until we realized the problem was how intrusive the homework was in our home life, and how we could just never plan. It was affecting our ability as PARENTS to get the sleep we needed, among other things, because of this intrusive and unpredictable presence of school in our lives. It wasn't to get better grades, we were over the top because we realized we were instinctively trying to get our kid to set the boundaries between home and school that we all needed.

So you see, you are wrong. You are trying to scapegoat parents and children for the fact that our school district offers an extremely narrow kind of education with an unhealthy measure of success, and refusal to respect family time and place predictable boundaries on the school program. My middle schooler is bored, WANTS more intellectual challenge, and does high-level work outside of school that is frankly compromised by useless homework. These kids in this district are smart kids, and if you read about mental health and gifted kids, it's actually stressful and depressing when they are made to spin their wheels and sit in intellectual boxes without being challenged and creative. I see that happening with many families, and I never see THAT getting dealt with, in fact, I just see a train wreck in the offing as people like you CREATE more stress for kids like this with some misguided mix of low expectations and ugly, wrongheaded stereotypes of local families.

It's easy to conjure the parents as bogeymen, but as a member of more than one school community, in reality, what I see in this district is a really amazing diverse group of unusually involved, generous, smart, caring people, it's one of the reasons I love living here. A very small number of parents fit that stereotype, far fewer than in some of the schools I was in growing up (where there were no suicide problem). We really have it great here, and it's ugly, destructive, and uncalled for to constantly tear parents and kids down like that.

If you want the hierarchical Prussian model in education, you are in the wrong place. Even the state Ed Code discusses education as a collaboration with parents. We are also in a new open source world. Innovations come from users. The potential in this community if we had district personnel up to collaborating with families is out-of-this world. If anything, the failing of parents is not rising up and booting out the element in the district prone to blaming them and maintaining unhealthy control and status quo.

24 people like this
Posted by Aren't you forgetting...
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 21, 2015 at 12:40 am

Councilman Burt, thank you for posting. I hope you will consider running for school board. We need more board members with your perspective. I have been very disappointed in Melissa Caswell. I voted for her mostly because she sounded smart during the campaigns and described herself as a seasoned manager but it she has done nothing during this suicide cluster to address these issues. Her backing of Skelly was particularly awful. She voted against finals before break. She doesn't get it. She also did nothing about bullying and that causes stress and suicide too. I can't wait until her term is up and I can't think of a better replacement. Please consider it, your community needs you.

parents, if you support this idea, make sure to "like" this comment. Perhaps we can draft Mr. Burt.

15 people like this
Posted by Hardly a victory
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 21, 2015 at 9:31 am

The PAUSD homework policy is from 2012 and was led by Charles Young, Associate Superintendent. Young should have written the Glenn McGee, Superintedent, February 3, 2015 memo in 2012, and McGee should have written it back in the fall, and I noticed he used the word required after being criticized in these forums for weakly encouraging the teachers to follow the homework policy. I wonder if he was encouraged by Ken Dauber to do that. Either way, while the memo is a good move, it is not representative of excellence. It's just good, like a B. Have we lowered our standards and expectations so low after seven years of Kevin Skelly and Young? Based on the above posting, the community still seems starving for leadership, and any form or level is welcomed. The memo is a good move, but dozens of such moves are needed right now. Other posters have suggested that McGee needs to encourage Young and others to move on, and I agree, but only with Young. I have read no supportive comments of Young in months, but worse, his performance at board meetings and events continues to smack of the Skelly years, specifically his over reliance on cliched, canned reponses to concerns that seem like they are meant to delay and divert rather than lead to any meaningful dialogue or direction. We are spending over a half a million dollars on McGee and Young, the four-page memo was good, but I expect many more proactive steps, not just ones due to the pressure of student suicides, from McGee, and Young either must demonstrate that he belongs in this district as he ends his fourth year or McGee must encourage Young about next steps.

5 people like this
Posted by Jesse
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 21, 2015 at 10:43 am

AT LAST this is being brought out in the open.

The parents have stopped this because I fear that we all hoped OUR REAL ESTATE PRICES WOULD FALL IF THIS SCHOOL DISTRICT BECAME KNOWN FIRSTLY FOR ITS SUICIDES rather than for its admissions to Stanford!

PaloAltoOnline censors anything that may talk down prices!

Its we the parents to blame.

Look at the kids minimal facebook pages (they now wisely on snapchat where its not posted for the world and their grandmas to see) and then look up their parents. Its the parents who boast about the ivy league entrance of one child only to show up the other one at their ordinary college. Do they think how that makes their kids feel? Its the parents who sanitize their lives to look falsely perfect. Its the parents for whom the investment in Real Estate is to be paid back by an ivy admission.

We have to admit that Palo Alto is most famous for its suicides and stop the pressures and fake values that created this.

6 people like this
Posted by Concerned Retiree
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 21, 2015 at 11:54 am

One question which has been haunting me: Why don't the many private schools and in particular, the parochial schools which also have strong academic reputations experience the same suicide rates?

[Portion removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Not so subtle
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 21, 2015 at 12:19 pm

[Post removed.]

8 people like this
Posted by Homework
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 21, 2015 at 1:51 pm

Dr. McGee’s memo Web Link to staff states:

Homework is an important part of a student’s education, and there is a research base behind these design principles. As we remember from our own experiences of doing homework when we were students, however, some assignments were meaningful and others were just busy work. Thinking about homework as something we design and not just assign is a valuable practice. Stanford’s Challenge Success team is working with both high schools, and attached is a short, informative piece worth reading, “Changing the Conversation About Homework from Quantity and Achievement To Quality and Engagement”.

Great news that both Paly and Gunn are working with Challenge Success to implement the homework policy. The Challenge Success white paper on homework Web Link gives context to the research based study that informed the PAUSD homework policy. Every teacher, administrator, parent and secondary student should read this white paper.

Alfie Kohn’s research is cited in the paper. Web Link To echo Dr. McGee’s comment about homework design, Kohn states:

Homework isn’t limited to those occasions when it seems appropriate and important. Most teachers and administrators aren’t saying, “It may be useful to do this particular project at home.” Rather, the point of departure seems to be, “We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week). Later on we’ll figure out what to make them do.” This commitment to the idea of homework in the abstract is accepted by the overwhelming majority of schools–public and private, elementary and secondary. But it is defensible only if homework, per se–that is, the very fact of having to do it, irrespective of its content–is beneficial.

Kohn’s statement is echoed in the home work policy in the word “when”:

As a guideline, WHEN teachers choose to assign homework, students might reasonably be expected to devote the following amounts of undistracted, focused time to weekly homework, including time devoted to long-term projects and test review: Grades 9-12 :7-10 hours weekly average M-F

The Challenge Success white paper focuses on four arguments that have been used to promote homework, the first being that “students should do homework because it’s good for them.” After evaluation of this argument the paper concludes:

“Even though these arguments have been around since the late 1800s, the assumption that homework is beneficial continues to garner attention in the media (Chua, 2011). In our review of the research on homework, we find no concrete evidence, beyond anecdotes, to support the views that homework is essential for a rigorous curriculum, a sign of a strong teacher, or an effective way to develop a good work ethic or responsibility in our youth.”

Here is what Challenge Success says under Argument 3: Homework leads to higher student grades and test scores:

“Cooper and other authors have found that the association between time spent on homework and academic achievement is not as strong as they once concluded (Cooper & Valentine, 2001; Cooper, 2007). Specifically, they claim that there is almost no correlation for students in elementary school between the amount of time spent on homework and student achievement. In middle school, there is a moderate correlation, but, after 60-90 minutes spent on homework, this association fades. The authors found a correlation in high school, but this also fades after two hours spent on homework. Other studies have evidence that, even in middle and high school, the relationship between the time spent on homework and achievement may not be so straightforward. For instance, a study with over 5,000 15 and 16 year olds of varying income levels and ethnic backgrounds found that the more time spent on math homework, the lower the math achievement scores across all ethnic groups (Kitsantas, Cheema, & Ware, 2011).”

The end of the white paper has a section of recommendations for teachers followed by a section of recommendations for parents. I hope that everyone taking the time to read these comments will take the time to read this paper and forward it to other community members.

3 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 21, 2015 at 1:54 pm

@ Concerned Retiree and Not so suble,

You make good points. One possible explanation is that we are missing an important element that could well be the difference. You can read about one major one that wasn't dealt with the last time in this other paloaltoonline discussion, see the 2nd comment:
Web Link

Another thing we seem to have missed is the discussion about how to best support gifted kids. Our district is full of highly intelligent, gifted children, and I don't just mean the academic superstars. (Personally, I feel talent is universal but interest and opportunity are in short supply, but that's another discussion.) The point is, the more we provide opportunities for ALL children to find their gifts to the world and develop them (as is essentially the vision of our district), the more they will be able to support and respect each other and the less they will be competing with each other based on narrow criteria and educational approach that only some will be good at and even fewer enjoy as their best fit for developing their gifts.

Here's a link from the Davidson Institute about youth mental health and gifted children.
Web Link

It's worth reading and considering in light of our district, especially the points about kids needing "true peers" -- one of the really positive things about this district is all these smart and diversely talented kids can find true peers -- also worth reading: "the myth that gifted children have pushy parents has many negative effects ... causes [education] professionals to ... question parental motivations and to minimize the significance of parental concerns."

Also important is the topic of giftedness and self-esteem. This is really relevant here: making gifted kids choose between optimizing intellectual interests and passions and social development is a recipe for depression. Our district still seems to see AP and very time-intensive pedagogical approach with traditional homework as the only measure of intellectual challenge, and thus those for whom this is the wrong educational approach are told they need to just accept that they must spin their wheels in a less challenging class (that will still take up so much time they can't find other ways to be engaged and shine). This shouldn't be the only choice. Especially for the very creative, self-motivated kids, it's a recipe for depression and rebellion. If you look at our surveys, a high percentage of our kids are bored in school. Today, there are ways to deliver the core material a lot more efficiently and leave time during school for higher level work, projects, and creative endeavors of kids' choice that synthesizes what they learn in class. In order to do this, we have to give up on the idea that education should be a parade of extrinsic judgements and should instead be a path of learning and discovery driven by intrinsic motivation. It would also help if we gave up the wrong and harmful idea that learning is somehow inversely proportional to enjoyment and fun in the process.

Another thing worth reading is the recent Forum Perspectives on children and happiness.
Web Link
If so many of our talented youth are put in a position that they cannot creatively apply their skills to meet challenges, they will not be happy. (Note: this includes the kids for whom a lot of APs is their bliss, we shouldn't take that away, we should give other kids options.) All of our kids should have inviolate personal time that they can count on to develop their friendships, family connections, and other "worthwhile activities" that provide the meaning and engagement so essential to happiness. The district should acknowledge a boundary and priority of personal time during the day first, and think about homework in that context, not make personal time the slush fund for how well or badly we implement homework policies.

It's hard to say why, but Lynbrook High School is in the San Jose system, where kids who don't fit the traditional pedagogical approach can still participate in high school programs of their choice and be integrated in high school life, while using a homeschool-school hybrid approach (for the ala carte model described in Esther Wojcicki's book) , with support from the district. (I can't begin to tell you how helpful it is to feel like district people are on your side and trying to do the best for your kids, versus what we have here when you need help where every interaction is loaded and you have no idea what is going on behind the scenes that you will be smacked with because it interferes with someone's professional ambitions.)

It's also possible that renovations at the schools you mentioned and other environmental differences make the difference, as in the first link.

1 person likes this
Posted by a parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 21, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Parent, JLS

Define gifted for the purpose of accommodations.

New classes, new school, and how are accommodations for gifted different from struggling kids. Who do you serve first. Are the social emotional needs not the same for all kids?

I've observed you suggested a choice program with no homework and independent learning (was that for gifted?), why should that be a lottery?

I think what has been lacking is focus on the middle kids, and the absence of letting kids have mobility/acceptance to be at either end of the spectrum, while still in an environment that supports learning, instead of pure achievement.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 21, 2015 at 6:01 pm

a parent,
I think we are on the same side. Re read what I wrote again. I stated what I meant by "gifted". And me, personally, I feel that if kids are struggling, it's because the school program is the problem, especially in a place where the kids all work so hard. Read what I've written about Pierre Curie in previous posts -- in our current system, he would have washed out and been pegged as a struggling student. (I believe his own mother called him a terrible student.)

I have never suggested a lottery program ever, quite the contrary, I believe choice should be just that. Don't pull out parts of what I say and apply preconceived ideas and take umbrage at that, read what I actually said - we are on the same side.

The spectrum is only the spectrum because the program doesn't provide the support all the kids need. Listen/read what Daphne Koller (start with her TED talk) says about the 2-sigma problem. It is actually possible to solve that. All kids have their gifts and should be supported to develop them. Who are the "middle" kids? If we have kids who feel that way, we have failed to help support their optimal education.

1 person likes this
Posted by a parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 21, 2015 at 8:21 pm

Parent, JLS

Who are the middle kids?

The middle is actually a perilous place to be because it's actually a "hybrid" place, and every day is a struggle. As a hybrid (depending where you are on the spectrum) you are either trying to prevent yourself from falling any further, or trying to recover. It can be hellish either way when there are a large amount of kids who are academic athletes.

2 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 21, 2015 at 10:35 pm

a parent,
Why should we subject kids to this playing field when our responsibility, per the district vision, is to optimally educate all of them? A better analogy is that we have a few mountain climbers who love mountain climbing and excel at it, and we are making all the other kids climb mountains, and if they can't cut mountain climbing, we judge them as inferior or tell them they had better cool it and be couch potatoes. Maybe some of those kids would be runners, others baseball players, others curlers :-)

Every child has their gifts. The Prussian model of education on steroids we put the kids through is a good match for a few of them, but not for most, and it's telling that anyone would even see the majority of these talented kids as "the middle" -- to me this is the system failing them.

1 person likes this
Posted by a parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 21, 2015 at 10:52 pm

parent, JLS

I see it differently. I don't see that a "middle" as a "failing system."

I see the middle as the place of greatest opportunity. It's where maybe a Carol Dweck would be able to talk about the growth mindset.

We don't have to agree. I see the middle as a place where supports should not be ignored. It's the place where we are holding on to the kids so they don't fall, and where we can support those who want to soar higher if they choose to do so.

It's the place where every student should feel OK to be in, and still love learning.

It's HIgh School, not a Phd program.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 21, 2015 at 11:01 pm

a parent,

You and I are saying the same thing. Your argument is with someone else. I wish you could see that. All I can do is ask you to please go back to read what I have written here and before, and not make the wrong assumptions you appear to be overlaying.

"It's the place where every student should feel OK to be in, and still love learning. "

This is exactly what I am saying, too. We are on the same side here.

11 people like this
Posted by Experienced Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 22, 2015 at 12:24 am

This is excellent news! Thank you, Max!

Other ideas for stress relief:

Don't require students who miss P.E. to make-up the class.

Don't require athletes to stay and watch the games of all other levels of their sport (ie: freshman play their game, then watch JV and Varsity teams)

Eliminate the annual Campanile list/map of where students are going to college (this is highly stressful for students and should not be open to the public for judging; only their friends need to know).

Allow more "A"s if they are earned (some teachers refuse to give more than 2-3 "A"s).

2 people like this
Posted by Experienced Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 22, 2015 at 12:31 am

I've read postings from Parent (at JLS), MIT alum, on other threads and think she is asking too much of a large, public school district. Perhaps her approach is better suited to a small, private school such as Woodside Priory. In addition, re her complaint about AP homework: On one of the links posted above, it's stated that AP students will only have 15 hours of homework per week (7 days), which seems impossible if the student is taking more than one AP class. Do your homework before posting, Parent.

5 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 22, 2015 at 8:21 am

Dear Experienced Parent from Paly,
The approach I am advocating is being implemented successfully in larger and more diverse districts like SJUSD and Santa Cruz, and has been for decades. It is implemented in our own district essentially, in elementary school.

We just had an article highlighting an AP science teacher at Gunn who gives no homework and found his students' interest increased and their test scores remained high.

Rather than limiting students and maintaining unnecessary homework, we should improve our educational program. If we aren't willing to do that for everyone, we can also make choices available the way SJUSD and Santa Cruz do. The program SJUSD runs makes them money, though they are financed differently, but the point is, it doesn't cost more to use independent study rules - the same ones we already have - to give our program some flexibility and the chance to innovate for kids who would benefit.

The discussion here is not whether you are going to refund me the six figure some I will pay in property taxes between now and graduation so I can choose pripvate, but hiw we help our kids in our public school system now. The proposals I have suggested are working in other places - and even here, already - and can be refined and problems solved in dialog.

I have said all along, I think there are people like you who resist change, or apparently, even being open to thinking about things differently, and benefit from the status quo. I'm not trying to take what you have away. That isn't an argument even worth having, because I think what some reformers fail to appreciate is that for some kids, that kind of intense every-minute education IS their bliss. They should be able to keep it. But they shouldn't impose it on everyone else for whom it is destructive, antiquated, limiting, and depressing, as it is for ours and many we know.

The proposal I have suggested is being done in public schools, can be done here and tailored to meet our needs and limitations so we meet the district's vision. Nor your vision, the district's vision, of optimizing every child's education. The program at SJUSD was brought in by techies wanting better options for their kids, as we have here. Ther was a recent article in Wired talking about the droves of techies homeschooling to take advantage of new educational opportunities, followed by an article chastising them for abandoning public education rather than working to improve it for everyone. I am trying to do the latter, in a way that has already been proven to work for decades in other public districts nearby, but tailored to our needs. The greatest barriers are not logistical, but in the minds of a few people who hold the power.

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Posted by aren't you forgetting...
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 22, 2015 at 8:28 am

@experienced says "AP students will only have 15 hours of homework per week (7 days), which seems impossible if the student is taking more than one AP class. Do your homework before posting, Parent."

The limit of no more than 15 hours per week for AP/honors students comes from Superintendent Max McGee in his recent 4 page letter to teachers telling them what the homework limits for this district are.

18 people like this
Posted by Melinda McGee
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 22, 2015 at 9:51 am

As a former Paly parent, I began a campaign SLEEP, Start Later for Excellence in Education Program, in partnership with a parent at Menlo Atherton. The goal was a later start time, based on the long-known sleep science about adolescent sleep needs. It was a huge battle with school administrators. Some progress was made but not enough. Sleep deprivation can slide children [and adults] into depression, that depression is often medicated, instead of dealing with the underlying problem. A side effect of meds is more depression, suicidal thoughts [and action]. Getting 9 hours of sleep each night for all our children, is the first place to start, regardless of homework, sports or other extra-curricular activities. Parents, do you job, get technology out of the bedroom and make sure your kids sleep. It's as important as making sure they are fed. Dr. McGee, step up to this and lead. Look at the sleep education program at Menlo Atherton.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 22, 2015 at 1:27 pm

Thank you, Melinda, for everything you did that the rest of us benefit from - I know what you mean about the battles and how hard it is to advocate for our kids in this district.

If you are ever up to it again, there is an issue that would ensure a healthier relationship in the future, and that is giving the parents some kind of input with the school board, equivalent to referendum and initiative at the City level, or even like the abilities of members of the PTA to hold leadership accountable when there are concerns.

It shouldn't necessarily be easy for parents to get an initiative through, but it should be possible. An example is our math curriculum. When we had those math debates, 800 elementary parents signed a request for the district to put off the decision for 1 year to consider a program they favored but hadn't been considered because of a "mistake". The publisher was going to provide the materials for free. Yet the district said no. No one was usurping any ability by educators to make the choice, they just wanted the other program as part of the choice. Textbook decisionmaking is big business and some checks and balances by parent is probably in the best interests of kids. It never made any sense that the district said no, and parents should have had recourse at that point. (Full disclosure, we had high hopes but the program they chose turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for us.)

School boards are pretty autonomous legally, so giving parents SOME say when things go wrong would probably involve a state law. The other way it could happen, if you are savvy legally, is to get the school board to make such rules for themselves, as they are allowed to do.

Just a thought, if you ever are inclined to fight for the kids again. Advocacy is really hard when you don't have any lever at all to make for checks and balances when things go really wrong.

3 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 23, 2015 at 1:21 pm

Having grown up in Palo Alto, I graduated from Gunn High School in 1980. When I read the initial denials, from various
sources, that the recent suicides had nothing to do with academic pressure, I almost cried. Of course the current
climate here in Palo Alto has something to do with these students taking their lives. Of course, it is not only academic pressure, but to deny that the current culture in our town does not have something to do with it is misguided.

I am relieved that "the vocabulary" has changed. I would like to thank everyone that has helped to bring about
this change.

1 person likes this
Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 24, 2015 at 10:07 am

Palo Alto,
You make really good points, and I almost cried for the same reason. Because I have seen how adults in the district office have twisted themselves into pretzels, doing damage to many, many lives, in order to keep their worlds the way they want them for their own professional ambitions or shortcomings.

The "culture of the town" is kind of a broad brush. I hear things about our "culture", and I believe it must exist for some people or they wouldn't complain, but at least on the family level, have not experienced pressure from the "culture". In fact, it's quite the opposite. The kids here have none of the pressures of many other places to wear exactly the right clothes, have exactly the right makeup and hair, carry exactly the right notebook, paper, pens, ride exactly the right bike, or not ride at all, be carried to school in exactly the right car. When I heard "pretty much no one cares what you wear" I thought, This is Nerd Utopia! Something I have thought many times as I have marveled at what we do have here that is positive and unique.

Having myself gone to a high school where being interested in anything except partying, sex and drugs made you a pariah, and having gone through feeling so isolated until I got to college and was among peers who were like me, I not only cherish this community, I can see how much better off the kids are for it.

The amazing families here are what keep me here. These are families who value education. At least the circles I am in, parents sacrificially give of their time and money, and truly care about the world and all the kids. Let's offer an education equal to the love these families have for education and for their children. ALL of their children. Not some kind of sick sorting system that makes most of them feel they can never measure up, and puts parents and the most vulnerable children in the impossible position of using their home time dealing with it.

Imagine a program in which every child's gifts were supported. Imagine this: "We support all PAUSD students as they prepare themselves to thrive as global citizens in a rapidly changing world. We develop our students' knowledge, critical thinking, and problem solving skills, and nurture their curiosity, creativity, and resilience, empowering every child to reach his or her full intellectual, social, and creative potential."


It is our district vision. And if the reality of district personnel actions in any way supported that, I believe we wouldn't be having these problems.

2 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Stanford
on Feb 24, 2015 at 11:26 am

very sad to see how unresponsive the teachers and administrators are to their own homework policies and to pleas from their community. They are isolating themselves and going backwards. Many students are being pulled into their vacuum of endless discussions. In two years if they can not be in compliance with their own homework policy, how are they going to teach children in this day and age. So much time is wasted discussing everyone's view that little is agreed upon and kids sit motionless in their chairs, working on completing random rubrics that have no meaning to the moving world ahead of them. Policy about homework is such minutia- the real effort should be in improving the level of instruction at least up to other districts. maybe the admin. could go on a field trip to Los Gatos or Cupertino schools and try to understand that they are professionals that cater to their students and are mostly responsive to rules set out by their administration or are let go. so many good teachers but so many out of compliance makes for a nice salad with rotten fruit mixed in

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