The introduction to "Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids," a new book from the Stanford University Graduate School of Education research group Challenge Success, begins not with research or analysis but an example of a high school student's daily schedule.
The student starts the day at 6:15 a.m.; takes classes such as AP calculus, honors Spanish, biology and art history from 7:50 a.m. to 3 p.m. (breaking for a student council meeting at lunch); heads to a service club meeting after school; and then goes to a two-hour swim practice before heading home at 6:45 p.m. for a shower, dinner and three to four hours of homework. The day ends at 11:30 p.m., give or take, when the student goes to sleep to prepare to do it all over again the next day.
This example isn't representative of all students, but it's certainly familiar in Palo Alto, where Challenge Success is currently working with the district's two high schools to shift both bell schedules and school culture.
Since its start as a stress-reduction program in 2003, the Challenge Success team has felt it "had to speak out against an increasingly fast-paced world that was interfering with sound educational practices and harming kids physically and mentally," the introduction to "Overloaded and Underprepared" reads.
Challenge Success has since worked with almost 800,000 students, faculty, administrators and parents throughout the United States and across the world on efforts like changing bell schedules, reforming homework policies, shifting to alternative assessments and encouraging project-based learning with the goal of creating "healthier and more productive pathways to success."
"Overloaded and Underprepared" is a detailed documentation of those efforts, offering a practical, research-based road map to students, teachers, parents and school administrators on how to implement similar change at their schools.
The Challenge Success team initially wrote "Overloaded and Underprepared" as a sort of "reform blueprint" for the school communities it couldn't reach for geographical or logistical reasons, said co-founder and Stanford senior lecturer Denise Pope. (The process includes sending a team to an intensive conference and working with a dedicated coach to develop, implement and evaluate a school action plan.) But the group realized that its decade's worth of research and on-the-ground work likely has a broader appeal, and packaged it in the new book, released today, July 27.
Through research and case studies from schools that Challenge Success has worked with, many local, each chapter in the book explores a different area with potential for change, from bell schedule and homework policy to grading practices, wellness and school climate.
Palo Alto Unified School District is profiled in two chapters. A chapter on schedules shows how after years of contentious debate, the district in 2013 moved high schoolers' final exams before winter break. A majority of the more than 1,385 high school students, 3,600 parents and 520 teachers of all grade levels who returned a questionnaire after this change was piloted in Palo Alto said, "If I controlled the school calendar, I would want first-semester finals to occur before winter break"; this included more than 85 percent of the high school students, according to Challenge Success. Many said that giving students a "schoolwork-free winter break" was the most important factor to consider when designing the yearly calendar.
The same chapter also explores school-start times, a topic of heated debate this year in Palo Alto after Superintendent Max McGee decided to eliminate academic classes during the early-morning zero period at Gunn High School.
The case study for this topic is Menlo-Atherton High School, which several years ago changed its school-start time from 7:55 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. (and 9:25 a.m. on Thursdays to allow for staff meetings). M-A also partnered with Stanford University to create an award-winning program to teach teens about the importance of sleep.
The authors of "Overloaded and Underprepared" advocate for some form of modified block or non-traditional bell schedule that allows students to start school later in the morning, have work-free breaks and more time for hands-on learning and collaboration. Gunn will be leaving behind its more traditional schedule five or six classes that meet for almost an hour each day to a new 75-minute rotating block schedule this fall. Challenge Success is helping the school make that shift.
"The good news is that the hard work seems to pay off: We don't know a single school that has made these scheduling changes and then reverted back to a traditional schedule," the book reads. "Most of our schools find that the decrease in stress for students and faculty, the increase in engagement and time for deeper reflection, and the less frenetic pace are all worth the extra effort of modifying the school schedule."
The third chapter in the book, "The Homework Dilemma," profiles Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School's efforts to reform its homework practices.
With the help of Challenge Success, JLS Principal Sharon Ofek several years ago created a "Shadow Day," during which teachers would go through a full school day shadowing a student and then attempt to do the student's homework afterward. They were asked to reflect on the day: "Did they have a lot of homework? What was their experience like? Were the directions clear?"
"Teachers admitted that they were often overwhelmed at the end of the shadow experience and that the school was asking a lot from the students each day," the book reads. "The Shadow Day project created a willingness for the faculty to participate in a dialogue about homework, and it allowed the student voice to grow strong, ironically through the mouths of faculty members [who were student shadows."
As a result, JLS revised its homework policy, provided its teachers more professional development and encouraged them to try new strategies, including not giving homework at all, which at least one teacher did, or giving ungraded homework assignments.
Challenge Success also makes the case that project-based learning can be an antidote to the high-stakes, high-stress environment of some more traditional classrooms. To show project-based learning in action, the book features in depth the efforts of a sixth-grade history and social sciences teacher from Palo Alto's all-girls school, Castilleja School.
In a unit on Ancient India and China, Laura Docter asked her students to research a particular topic and then create iMovies in which they pretended to be historic individuals or contemporary archaeologists and inventors. Later in the year, they participated in a mini National History Day presentation for which they designed exhibition boards with thesis statements, process papers and annotated bibliographies on ancient Maya. The book includes sample materials from another class unit and project on Rome during which Docter transformed her classroom into a 2,000-year-old Roman ruin with cardboard and fake Roman busts.
"In short, PBL (project-based learning) can make teaching and learning exciting and can lead to long-term retention of material and foster important professional and personal skills," the book reads. "Students who participate in PBL-designed curriculum believe that what they are learning today will help them later in life, which increases motivation, effort, and interest in the subjects being taught."
Challenge Success also documents Castilleja's efforts to completely rethink how to evaluate students, with a shift toward mastery of "21st century skills" like self-direction, curiosity, willingness to make mistakes, flexibility, creativity, empathy, collaboration, social consciousness and communication. (For example, in a computer programming class, the teacher highlighted the need to evaluate communication skills, and asked students to not only develop an app, but make a convincing pitch to a panel of venture capitalists. "Students were skilled in the development of the app, but many of them lacked practice in how to explain the app in a way that would entice the venture capitalists," the book reads.)
"Overloaded and Underprepared" also offers examples of schools, including Waldorf High School of the Peninsula in Los Altos, that use standards-based grading, which emphasizes feedback over grading. Within a traditional system, a student might do very well on one section of a test but not in another, receive a B- and no feedback on how or where to improve. With standards-based grading, students receive feedback and/or different grades for different concepts covered in a test or paper rather than a cumulative grade. Students can also retake parts of the test or redo parts of the paper or project once he or she is ready to show mastery.
"Overloaded and Underprepared" joins an increasing number of voices expressing concern about the future of the stereotypical high school student of today the one with the non-stop schedule who is overstressed, anxious, not getting enough sleep and locked into rigid definitions of success that don't leave room for genuine engagement, critical thinking skills and creativity. (Former Stanford dean of freshmen and Palo Alto parent Julie Lythcott-Haims paints a similar picture of college students in her recent book, "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.")
But the book's value is in its practicality. Dedicated to "schools that are making real and lasting changes to improve their students' lives," "Overloaded and Underprepared" makes Challenge Success' sought-after school reform services widely available to anyone interested in doing the same. (In that vein, all of the authors' proceeds will directly support Challenge Success' work. An anonymous donor has also agreed to contribute $5,000 to Challenge Success if 500 copies of the book are sold within the first week of its release.)