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.