News

Despite progress on homework goals, majority of Paly students say they're still given too much

Survey results describe only part of the student experience and the extent to which the district is meeting or missing its homework policies

Palo Alto High School students socially distance while eating lunch on campus on March 10, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Palo Alto Unified School District found an unexplained disparity between Gunn and Palo Alto high school students who felt they are being given "too much" homework, based on a survey conducted in the past year at the district's five secondary schools.

At Paly, 59% of students said they're given too much while only 35% of Gunn students agreed.

"Even as progress has been made, we're not close to compliance yet with homework policy," said district board member Kenneth Dauber, during a board meeting on Tuesday. "We still have a lot of work to be done."

As part of a larger survey conducted by Panorama Education to measure the district students' "social-emotional learning" competency, about 5,000 middle and high school students responded to 16 questions revolving around homework — from their feelings on how much is assigned to how meaningful the assignments are in a certain subject such as English or math.

A majority of students within almost all secondary campuses found the workload this past year acceptable, and most students at every level surveyed indicated that they finished homework within a time frame the district has determined is optimal for learning and for social and emotional health.

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About 2,900 respondents, or 58% of secondary school students, marked "Just right" to the question of how much they'd been assigned, while 38% said "too much" and 4% said "too little."

The glaring disparity between Gunn and Paly students who felt there was "too much" homework came despite the fact that similar percentages of students (21% at Gunn and 28% at Paly) report receiving more than three hours of homework per night.

Source: Palo Alto Unified School District 2020-21 Panorama Survey

For Gunn, the 35% of students who feel overwhelmed by the workload represents a consistent decline, based on the 2017 and 2019 Challenge Success surveys, which differs in some ways from the Panorama Survey in the data collected.

From 2017 to 2021, Gunn saw a 21% decrease in students who said they were getting too much homework -- from 56% in 2017 to 47% in 2019.

Survey data for the 2019 year at Paly is unavailable, but the school recorded a 4% increase, from 55% to 59%, of students marking "too much" from 2017.

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"There is a culture of trying to push for more APs or more rigorous classes," board member Jennifer DiBrienza said Tuesday. "Obviously we still have more work to do, it looks like, at all of our sites about encouraging students to set their own limits."

The survey provided some insight also into what students thought the main purpose of their homework is, where they get help, and, one of the more highlighted concerns of the evening, how much time students spent on work outside of school.

"The data … help to establish a baseline from which to work when addressing adherence to the board policy," Sharon Ofek, associate superintendent of education services, read in a statement.

Source: Palo Alto Unified School District 2020-21 Panorama Survey

As one of seven key takeaways from the survey, the board highlighted that a large majority of Gunn and Palo Alto high school students who took the survey said they were given three or less hours of homework. Out of 1,200 Gunn respondents, 79% of them indicated they received zero to three hours of homework per night, while 72% out of the 1,700 Palo Alto High School student respondents said they were assigned that same amount.

It was a brighter spot for the district board since the results showed some abidance to the homework policies outlined in the 6154 Board Policy (BP) adopted in 2012, around the time parents and faculty were scouring for ways to support their children's mental health following a suicide cluster that took the lives of six teenagers.

The survey, however, didn't categorize results by specific grade level nor ask if students were taking more advanced courses — two factors that determine how many hours of homework high school students will get. So it's not immediately clear how well the high schools are meeting or missing their more specific guidelines.

According to regulations, for example, freshmen should expect 1.4 hours of work per weeknight, while seniors should expect two. (Weekend homework is mostly voluntary unless "deemed necessary.")

As Dauber noted during the meeting, the district also allows for Advanced Placement, honors and accelerated courses to assign up to three hours per weeknight or 15 hours throughout the school week.

Board members acknowledged that the district has some distance to go in order to comply with its own policies. But to what extent it needs to improve is not immediately clear due to the limits of the survey data.

"I'd love to see adherence to the homework policy by the end of next year," Dauber said as he asked Ofek if the district will outline more concrete steps and timelines to comply with the policy.

Moving forward, the board agreed that it would be ideal to outline specific "best practices'' to help teachers adhere to homework policies, which will also be addressed in the next school year's Secondary School Pans for Student Achievement.

Ofek said secondary school principals received the data this past spring break and are working out additional goals, including concrete timelines.

Board member Jesse Ladomirak added that she wants to see more quantitative data around what "too much" homework exactly means. For example, teachers could post how long their homework should take as students record how long it actually takes to complete, Ladomirak said.

When asked by board member Todd Collins why the district is having trouble following its own policies, Superintendent Don Austin agreed with the sentiment and said that following the homework policy should start being reflected in site principal and teacher evaluations.

"There is no sense in having the same conversation, looking at the same data, over and over over again, without changing the approach," Austin said.

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Despite progress on homework goals, majority of Paly students say they're still given too much

Survey results describe only part of the student experience and the extent to which the district is meeting or missing its homework policies

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Apr 21, 2021, 9:49 am

Palo Alto Unified School District found an unexplained disparity between Gunn and Palo Alto high school students who felt they are being given "too much" homework, based on a survey conducted in the past year at the district's five secondary schools.

At Paly, 59% of students said they're given too much while only 35% of Gunn students agreed.

"Even as progress has been made, we're not close to compliance yet with homework policy," said district board member Kenneth Dauber, during a board meeting on Tuesday. "We still have a lot of work to be done."

As part of a larger survey conducted by Panorama Education to measure the district students' "social-emotional learning" competency, about 5,000 middle and high school students responded to 16 questions revolving around homework — from their feelings on how much is assigned to how meaningful the assignments are in a certain subject such as English or math.

A majority of students within almost all secondary campuses found the workload this past year acceptable, and most students at every level surveyed indicated that they finished homework within a time frame the district has determined is optimal for learning and for social and emotional health.

About 2,900 respondents, or 58% of secondary school students, marked "Just right" to the question of how much they'd been assigned, while 38% said "too much" and 4% said "too little."

The glaring disparity between Gunn and Paly students who felt there was "too much" homework came despite the fact that similar percentages of students (21% at Gunn and 28% at Paly) report receiving more than three hours of homework per night.

For Gunn, the 35% of students who feel overwhelmed by the workload represents a consistent decline, based on the 2017 and 2019 Challenge Success surveys, which differs in some ways from the Panorama Survey in the data collected.

From 2017 to 2021, Gunn saw a 21% decrease in students who said they were getting too much homework -- from 56% in 2017 to 47% in 2019.

Survey data for the 2019 year at Paly is unavailable, but the school recorded a 4% increase, from 55% to 59%, of students marking "too much" from 2017.

"There is a culture of trying to push for more APs or more rigorous classes," board member Jennifer DiBrienza said Tuesday. "Obviously we still have more work to do, it looks like, at all of our sites about encouraging students to set their own limits."

The survey provided some insight also into what students thought the main purpose of their homework is, where they get help, and, one of the more highlighted concerns of the evening, how much time students spent on work outside of school.

"The data … help to establish a baseline from which to work when addressing adherence to the board policy," Sharon Ofek, associate superintendent of education services, read in a statement.

As one of seven key takeaways from the survey, the board highlighted that a large majority of Gunn and Palo Alto high school students who took the survey said they were given three or less hours of homework. Out of 1,200 Gunn respondents, 79% of them indicated they received zero to three hours of homework per night, while 72% out of the 1,700 Palo Alto High School student respondents said they were assigned that same amount.

It was a brighter spot for the district board since the results showed some abidance to the homework policies outlined in the 6154 Board Policy (BP) adopted in 2012, around the time parents and faculty were scouring for ways to support their children's mental health following a suicide cluster that took the lives of six teenagers.

The survey, however, didn't categorize results by specific grade level nor ask if students were taking more advanced courses — two factors that determine how many hours of homework high school students will get. So it's not immediately clear how well the high schools are meeting or missing their more specific guidelines.

According to regulations, for example, freshmen should expect 1.4 hours of work per weeknight, while seniors should expect two. (Weekend homework is mostly voluntary unless "deemed necessary.")

As Dauber noted during the meeting, the district also allows for Advanced Placement, honors and accelerated courses to assign up to three hours per weeknight or 15 hours throughout the school week.

Board members acknowledged that the district has some distance to go in order to comply with its own policies. But to what extent it needs to improve is not immediately clear due to the limits of the survey data.

"I'd love to see adherence to the homework policy by the end of next year," Dauber said as he asked Ofek if the district will outline more concrete steps and timelines to comply with the policy.

Moving forward, the board agreed that it would be ideal to outline specific "best practices'' to help teachers adhere to homework policies, which will also be addressed in the next school year's Secondary School Pans for Student Achievement.

Ofek said secondary school principals received the data this past spring break and are working out additional goals, including concrete timelines.

Board member Jesse Ladomirak added that she wants to see more quantitative data around what "too much" homework exactly means. For example, teachers could post how long their homework should take as students record how long it actually takes to complete, Ladomirak said.

When asked by board member Todd Collins why the district is having trouble following its own policies, Superintendent Don Austin agreed with the sentiment and said that following the homework policy should start being reflected in site principal and teacher evaluations.

"There is no sense in having the same conversation, looking at the same data, over and over over again, without changing the approach," Austin said.

Comments

Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 21, 2021 at 1:01 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Apr 21, 2021 at 1:01 pm

I would imagine that this past year and a half is a bad time to judge the "too much homework" mantra.

With most students doing most of their schoolwork at home, it must be hard to judge what is homework and what is classwork.

I would suggest delaying any type of decision based on information from what has been happening since schools closed in March 2020.


Maris Janes
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Apr 21, 2021 at 1:21 pm
Maris Janes, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Apr 21, 2021 at 1:21 pm

Homework is absolutely unnecessary as one's time is better spent elsewhere

And teachers who assign weekend homework should be FIRED.

Use the college model...lectures/labs + a reading list + tests (a midterm and final).

That is all that is needed.


Paly Teacher
Registered user
Palo Alto High School
on Apr 21, 2021 at 2:33 pm
Paly Teacher, Palo Alto High School
Registered user
on Apr 21, 2021 at 2:33 pm

Just some quick thoughts to maybe jump start a discussion or two.

1) Here's a quote from the last night's board docs: "Homework, based on results of research, is intended to be a formative assessment... Formative assessments are not graded and should only be used to guide next steps in learning." So what the district is saying is homework should not be graded. How would you parents and students feel about homework, which often is used to pad students' grades, not being included in the semester grade?

2) Teachers don't give homework because we like to waste students' time. We give it because it helps students develop skills, helps them perform tasks on their own. Does someone get good at sports or musical instruments without practice? Of course not. And a rebuttal to the typical argument of "well those are optional" is the amount of homework students have to do is often optional, too. Families opt in to have students take more APs and honors classes than is healthy for them and thus they have more homework to complete.

3) How is "how long a homework assignment should take" going to be quantified? Should it be the median about of time? 80th percentile? Either way, there will be students who take longer than the advertised amount of time. Students are diverse and take varying amounts of time to complete tasks.

4) How is time spent doing homework defined? Are we talking about time without distractions and uninterrupted by push notifications and phones vibrating? My suspicion is that this is not the case, and thus if students actually fully focus when completing homework, they'll take less time than they do now.

Bottom line: teachers give homework to help students learn and perform tasks independently. If you feel like your student is spending too much time on homework, let them take easier classes. They'll be happier for it.


S. Underwood
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Apr 21, 2021 at 4:14 pm
S. Underwood, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Apr 21, 2021 at 4:14 pm

I want to echo "Bystander"'s comment. This survey is all about the strange Covid-era homeschool experiment. It's essentially meaningless and incomparable to the broader trend.

Time and again, this district only uses data to drive and justify whatever agendas are already in place. Data/surveys/input become a Rorschach Test onto will everyone projects whatever they were already going to see. JBD will say parents need to chill out, Austin will say we are repeating the same conversations proving the need for his singularly steady-handed wisdom, teachers will make reasonable comments (like the one above) that go largely ignored, folks like me will write posts like this, and on and on it goes.

My Rorschach Test projection is that our homework "ramp" makes no sense. We go from zero to zero to zero to 100 when you hit high school. I don't know if we have a target for that ramp, or if so what it is, but what we are doing in reality is quite silly.


Clarification
Registered user
Palo Alto High School
on Apr 21, 2021 at 4:18 pm
Clarification, Palo Alto High School
Registered user
on Apr 21, 2021 at 4:18 pm

Ah, the perennial "teachers suck" homework article. Anything new or actually constructive to add to the same tired discourse pitting teachers and students against each other? Any actual solution to the diametrically opposed and incompatible, yet equally strong demands voiced by the community? Anything more than saber-rattling or anti-teacher fueling commentary from the board?


The Voice of Palo Alto
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Apr 21, 2021 at 7:07 pm
The Voice of Palo Alto, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Apr 21, 2021 at 7:07 pm

I do not understand how a student opinion survey about student feelings regarding how much homework they are getting prove that teachers are/aren’t following the mandated homework policy? Some students are taking more advanced courses than others. Some students think any homework is too much, some students may always want more homework than they are getting. There is too much variance to draw conclusions from this data and I don’t even think the survey connects to teacher adherence to the district homework policy anyway. The district has to come up with another metric to measure this. If the homework survey was strictly for the purpose of checking in with students as part of a bigger push to check in with their mental health then that’s what the survey should be used to measure.
@Maris-What teachers assigned homework on the weekends? What are you talking about? The article does not say teachers assigned weekend homework. Also, teachers can’t follow the “college lecture and lab” model unless it is approved by the district or else they can actually get fired for not giving homework and following the homework policy of the school board. This seems like the typical “fire PAUSD teachers” nonsense. How can you blame the teachers when they are trying to do their best to follow a district board homework policy that currently has no identifiable metric to measure if they are following it correctly?
Finally, when I was in school kids weren’t given a survey which allowed them to voice their opinions. Back in my day, students just did or didn’t do their assignments. I am not exactly sure why student opinion would shift everything around unless the kids are completely overwhelmed with a ridiculous amount of work. Their current jobs are to go to school, learn, and do homework. You can’t tell your boss on the job, “sorry boss this is just too much.” I wouldn’t want too much homework to effect a child’s mental health, but it should be homework, chores, then bedtime.


Reality Bytes
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Apr 22, 2021 at 7:07 am
Reality Bytes, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Apr 22, 2021 at 7:07 am

>> Teachers don't give homework because we like to waste students' time. We give it because it helps students develop skills, helps them perform tasks on their own. Does someone get good at sports or musical instruments without practice? Of course not.

√ Your point is valid BUT using this analogy, some athletes and musicians don't particularly care about practice because they are either naturally gifted and/or indifferent about excelling in a particular endeavor.

Thus, homework and practice should be OPTIONAL and an individual choice.

This would be akin to forcing a Bill Gates to turn in computer science homework or making Jimi Hendrix practice guitar scales just for the sake of it.

It's the FINAL product that counts.


The Voice of Palo Alto
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Apr 22, 2021 at 9:11 am
The Voice of Palo Alto, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Apr 22, 2021 at 9:11 am

@RealityBytes
Your premise for an optional homework policy is a big stretch. First, based on your premise for an optional homework policy, the assumption is that Palo Alto is teeming with the next Hendrix and Gates. False. There is nothing particularly special about the thousands of Palo Alto children. These children are just regular children like anywhere else. They are not all naturally gifted. They will not all be the next Gates or Hendrix.

Next, even if there was a special child or two that can potentially be the next Gates or Hendrix, you don’t make homework optional for everyone to serve the one or two very special children.

Finally, another flaw with your statement is that athletes and musicians that are naturally gifted do not practice. This is simply false. For example, you can argue Lebron James is naturally gifted and he puts hours and hours in on the court and the weight room to improve.

In summary, If you feel homework should be optional that’s fine. Your comment was based on the false analogy of hasty generalization or “the argument from small numbers.” Even if their parents think so, not all or even any Palo Alto children are so special that they will follow the life trajectory of a Gates or Hendrix and should be allowed to choose an optional homework program for themselves. As a reality check, I will also add that a student’s life usually includes going to school and doing homework. These children need to be trained for functioning on a real job in the future. The initial post from the teacher was correct.


Staying Young Through Kids
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Apr 22, 2021 at 4:18 pm
Staying Young Through Kids, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Apr 22, 2021 at 4:18 pm

We are a family of public school teachers (4 generations). We all believe homework doesn't mean much when it's not graded, and returned with mistakes corrected by the student in useful timeframe.

Our high schools ALWAYS offer grades, only sometimes do they offer subject mastery to kids who don't get it on the first try. Our district is among the very best for students who get it on the first try.

Making mistakes and making corrections is learning. Ungraded homework, unreturned papers, and unreturned tests represent the system failing our kids, not the other way around.

Give only as much schoolwork as can be graded, returned, and corrected in a timely manner. That should be an easy rule to follow.


M. Blanton
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2021 at 12:44 pm
M. Blanton, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Apr 25, 2021 at 12:44 pm

Personally speaking, I was never a fan of homework assignments and chose not to turn them in.

In those days, homework was graded and even assigned on Fridays, like give me a break!

On the other other hand, I kept up with the reading assignments (in Social Studies and English) and that was good enough for me.

Since homework only accounted for about 25% of the final grade, if I did OK on the surprise quizzes and periodic tests I could still manage to pull off a B or B-.

Close enough for jazz as I was content to attend Foothill JC and then transfer out later.

BTW, I graduated from UCLA with a B.A. degree in architecture so the time spent away from doing homework in high school didn't matter one iota.


chini
Registered user
Midtown
on Apr 26, 2021 at 12:52 pm
chini, Midtown
Registered user
on Apr 26, 2021 at 12:52 pm

>> Bottom line: teachers give homework to help students learn and perform tasks independently.

The issue is not "homework" but it is "classwork". The ratio of problems solved in class to homework problems is the fundamental issue. Due to lack of class work, most students (without tutors) find themselves learning on their own, doing research, to complete the homework problems. I find the idea behind "to help students learn..independently" self-serving, and do not understand why students should not depend on teachers to learn? Why should they go to tutors? It sucks away all their "free time".

>> If you feel like your student is spending too much time on homework, let them take easier classes. They'll be happier for it.
Yes, when teachers play "parents", telling parents what would make their child "happier", then that is an indication of a broken system of roles and responsibilities. Not learning anything at school may make the child happier at school and lousy doing homework but that's not why parents want their children to go to school.

Focus on classwork, ensuring students are well-taught well-prepared to handle their homework. Then, homework will no longer be an issue.


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