Paly to get a handle on homework loads | August 19, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 19, 2011

Paly to get a handle on homework loads

Data can be starting point for talks on what's reasonable, principal says

by Chris Kenrick

Concerned about students' workloads, Palo Alto High School Principal Phil Winston this fall will deploy new software aimed at getting objective data on the amount of homework, tests and activities students are juggling.

The software, Rjenda, has been used by some independent schools, including Castilleja, Sacred Heart, Woodside Priory, Mercy High School in Burlingame and University High School in San Francisco.

It allows teachers and administrators to enter assignments and school events into a database and ultimately creates a picture — at the individual student level — of workload and tests.

"So often we work anecdotally — 'My son or daughter spent 'x' number of hours on this assignment,'" Winston said in an interview this week.

"My hope is to provide Paly and our community with some data so we can start having conversations around what's reasonable and what's excessive."

Rjenda describes itself as a tool to "manage student workload and stress."

Founder and CEO Ranvir Wadera said his goal is to help teachers, students and parents "better manage student workload and stress, and facilitate meaningful discussion based on real data."

The software allows teachers to see their students' schedules and workloads from other classes, and students and parents to view their assignments and tests.

Winston's initiative at Paly coincides with concerns about homework loads — particularly at the high school level — across the school district.

A close look at homework policy is likely to be recommended as a district-wide "focus goal" for 2011-12, based on discussion at a school board retreat this past June.

"We are working on the best way to develop a homework policy — task force, principal and teacher work first and then sunshining, student input, etc.," Superintendent Kevin Skelly said this week.

"At this point I can only say that we are working and thinking about this."

Skelly is scheduled to present his recommended "focus goals" for 2011-12 at a board meeting this coming Tuesday, Aug. 23, and a board vote is expected Sept. 13.

At the June retreat, school board members expressed concerns about "test clumping" — the problem of exams from different classes falling on a student at the same time.

Members said they may adopt a specific district-wide homework policy as a nudge to drive change.

But board member Dana Tom warned that, "If it feels like a top-down directive, you won't get much compliance (from teachers)."

At the time, Skelly said the faculties at Paly and Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School already had taken steps to examine homework policy.

To launch its partnership with Rjenda, Paly has turned over test data from last year, Winston said.

"We've exported it, and they're going to input it so we can see what students' lives looked like last year," he said. "It's pretty revolutionary."

Winston acknowledged that, so far, Rjenda depends on teachers and administrators to enter data on tests and assignments.

"In math, everything gets inputted — it gets pulled out of the grade book," he said. "If you're an English teacher, it might be when an essay was due. The system takes it and presents it in a simple, colorful way.

"We're going to have last year's data, and I'm confident it will be solid."

Winston said he plans to ask his department heads to use Rjenda "live" this year.

"As they're moving through the year they'll input when they're giving assignments, and we'll get a glimpse of what students' lives look like. It won't be a full picture.

"It would be cool if we asked students how much time (assignments) actually took them on task. Rjenda is interested in this."

At Castilleja, Rjenda has been used by teachers since 2009 "for major assessment scheduling, to reduce conflicts for students throughout the academic year," spokeswoman Dana Sundblad said.

"The idea is to reduce stress and create a more balanced workload calendar for the girls by allowing faculty to see what's been scheduled by others and to collaborate on grade-level (especially in middle school) scheduling more easily," she said.

Wadera said most of his current customers are independent schools but that he's excited to work with Paly.

The company, which Wadera launched in 2008 after working at Oracle, Business Objects and Hyperion Solutions, charges an annual subscription based on the number of students and size of school.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


Posted by tj, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 21, 2011 at 4:24 am

Sounds like another victory for the "no homework" idiots in the community. Now they'll be able to quantify the damage being done to their kids by homework, and we can dumbdown the curriculum accordingly. Who is pushing this agenda?!

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 21, 2011 at 6:32 am

@tj: is it possible for you to be more ignorant?

Who said no homework?

If you have a student who has gone through junior year at either high school, you'd know what this about. Staying up to 1am four nights a week doing homework suggests that some balancing is required - not elimination or "coddling".

Posted by Bye-Bye-Dana-Tom, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 21, 2011 at 8:03 am

> But board member Dana Tom warned that, "If it feels like a
> top-down directive, you won't get much compliance (from teachers)."

God .. who is working for whom at the PAUSD?

With Trustees like Dana Tom, it's a surprise that the teachers come to work at all! Can't wait to see this guy "termed out".

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 21, 2011 at 10:22 am

@Bye bye - your experience in large organizations is different than mine. Getting buy-in from the front line people is pretty important in my book. For the school board to say "homework in classroom X shall be thus" strikes me as unlikely to succeed, esp when the pressure from parents is often the opposite.

Posted by former Paly parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 21, 2011 at 11:33 am

This sounds like an overly complicated approach. While there IS a problem, this sounds timeconsuming and I have to wonder how much this software cost us taxpayers?! I can't see teachers constantly checking to see what else is happpening out there.
Like most things, a businesslike, commonsense aboveboard approach would go far -with open discussions with stakeholders. I am sure students in past have supplied clear examples. We have a turnover of students and parents (and ADMINISTRATION)so while conditions may change, sometimes issues have to be brought up time and again.
There is some merit to the issue for certain.
I am a bit out of date with Paly, but I think teachers should supply a clear syllabus at the start (this varied), return assignments promptly, keep grading current. The Math department seemed to be able to do all this - other departments were less accountable.

When students and then parents had genuine questions or issues it
was clearly tough to approach many teachers - very hard to connect at all - there is a myth that parents are overbearing - I think it is a FEW, insider parents who are overbearing while the rest of us were excluded from the system. Please don't place all parents in one stereotype.

Why is it always about "we need this special software?!"

Posted by Bye-Bye-Dana-Tom, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 21, 2011 at 12:41 pm

> different oganizations
> Getting buy-in from the front line people is pretty
> important in my book.

Well .. just how successful have those organizations of which you make reference? The Military? Successful organizations .. like IBM, or Intel?

Certainly unsuccessful organizations have a dearth of management, which often is filled by people at the bottom telling the people at the top what they will and won't do .. until the enterprise goes bust.

By the way, here's an example of a "top down" budget cutting exercise that is on-going in the Federal Government. How many people at the bottom do you think will be demanding "by in" before any budget cutting gets done?
Obama asks agencies to identify 5 and 10 pct cuts:
Web Link

VINEYARD HAVEN, Mass. | Thu Aug 18, 2011 6:54pm EDT
Aug 18 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, who wants Congress to boost jobs while also controlling the national deficit, has asked government agencies to identify cuts of 5 and 10 percent in their 2013 budget proposals.

Posted by Try a solution first, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 21, 2011 at 1:13 pm

So instead of trying to solve a problem there will be a study
How about a number of small group meetings with teachers to come to some resolution.
Another education study, give me a break.

Posted by Grandma, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 21, 2011 at 3:44 pm

A neighbor of mine has pulled her youngest child out of the PAUSD, the family has move to Florida for the sole purpose of putting their youngest into a private school.

Why have they done this? They told me that between their eldest child and youngest the quality of education in Palo Alto has gone right down hill. They told me their youngest was simply not being challenged. They felt it was the fault of the Administration bowing to pressure from all the parents who complained about too much work for their kids.

Perhaps we need a two tier system for those who want a high level of achievement so their kids can get into a good college, and those parents who are content to have their kids forever mediocre.

Posted by Paly Alum, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 21, 2011 at 4:47 pm

I completely dismiss Grandma's posting above and am guessing that the family didn't want to admit the Palo Alto mortgage was the issue or they simply wanted to "cash out". If they felt their child was not being challenged, there are solutions here. Palo Alto parents do NOT believe in mediocrity or "easy 'A's". Quite the contrary. There are simply too many stressed-out students in PAUSD high schools and parents witness this. These students who would be top students at most other schools are only normal students here because there are so many intelligent children.

I applaud Principal Winston for looking into this. For college apps these days, students days need to have extracurriculars and take 6-7 classes, and study for the SATs. My child had to forego the sport she played for 3 years due to homework overload. College is actually easier than attending PAUSD.

Posted by Tyler Hanley, digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on Aug 22, 2011 at 8:54 am

Tyler Hanley is a registered user.

The following comments were moved from a duplicate thread:

Posted by Paly Parent, a member of the Palo Alto High School community, on Aug 19, 2011 at 5:09 pm

I am really pleased to hear this, although it is long overdue.


Posted by outside, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Aug 19, 2011 at 5:31 pm

The outside activies of a students mainly matters most .


Posted by Paly Parent, a member of the Palo Alto High School community, on Aug 19, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Phil Winston is a fantastic principal. He sincerely cares about students, listens to parents and is open to change. He's approachable, visible, likeable, and has been productive in his year here so far. We are so fortunate to have Mr. Winston as our principal.

I disagree about the outside activities comment above. While some children are overdoing their extracurriculars (and that's their choice), my child has no outside activities because he would not have time for all his homework (and he is not taking AP classes).

A little grade inflation at Paly would be welcome. If students do the work at "A" grade quality, the grades of "A"s should not be limited. We have so many intelligent children here. A smart, dilligent student who would be a top student at any other school should not be relegated to "B" grades because their competition are psycho nerds. I think it is negatively affecting our college admissions. I'm not even interested in the Ivy League schools, or the highest brand name schools - I'm talking about colleges and universities in general. When it is proudly professed that college is "easy after graduating from PAUSD," isn't there too much academic pressure?


Posted by Really, a member of the Palo Alto High School community, on Aug 20, 2011 at 10:49 pm

It's all P.R.


Posted by Paly Parent, a member of the Palo Alto High School community, 23 hours ago

It may be PR, but this is good PR and I expect it to be eye opening.


Posted by blind, a resident of the Leland Manor/Garland Drive neighborhood, 12 hours ago

It's all smoke and lip service. Nothing will change. They are all politicians.

Posted by former Paly parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 22, 2011 at 10:22 am

Yeah, I don't agree with Grandma. While I can think of reasons to move to other schools/areas, lack of a challenge seems dubious to me...
A certain amount of challenge: stress and "busyness" can be attributed to concentrated competition in certain areas of this country - like here, for example, where people have the $$$ to buy fancy tutoring and summer advantages. It becomes a race and a game. So - that's not real education and learning, though that can also occur here. It's a mixture in these competitive times...I am always looking for genuine learning on the part of the student, solid teaching from teachers (as opposed to peer-group learning) and solid curriculum without game-playing the system such as taking courses at CC before taking for a grade and all that.
I think - though I have no personal contact - from what I read, Sthe oh so highly sought Stanford (admissions) seems to be getting better at weeding out the kids who are "projects" of their parents, though it isn't perfect yet. The ridiculous parent-paid community service at ever more outlandish overseas spots is one example.

Posted by paly parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 22, 2011 at 10:56 am

The new block schedule at Paly has made a difference in the daily homework load - a step in the right direction. I would like to see a focus on meaningful homework, not just busywork for points or to keep parents happy that their student is getting "enough" homework. Coloring, collages and cooking have no place in high school classes outside of art class and foods.

I would also like teachers to think about major projects - are they teaching the subject or are they just a project. Baking in French class may teach you a little about French food, but mostly about cooking. Making a video of a play in French teaches you more about video production than French, the same could be accomplished by performing a play live for the class. Group projects should have ample in-class time to be done or should not be group projects.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 22, 2011 at 11:11 am

"A little grade inflation would be welcomed?" Really?

They are not grading on a curve, they are grading on a percentage scale. In theory, everyone can get an "A" if they score high enough.

I think what you're asking for is to dumb down our standards...

Posted by Q, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 22, 2011 at 11:20 am

Parents .... why not just let Phil Winston do his job? He seems like an administrator that cares about the well-being of his students. He is the professional educator. Why not just be supportive and give this project a chance? At least he is trying to do something to deal with the stress our kids are dealing with. Palo Alto is a place like no other and it's time we encourage and embrace our school employees or the good ones will continue to be driven out. We need to work together and pay respect to these educators for the incredibly hard work they do. If you've never been a teacher or school administrator, you just cannot truly know how difficult the job is. Give Mr. Winston a chance!

Posted by lighten up a little, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 22, 2011 at 12:16 pm

I worked as a parent volunteer with Mr. Winston in his early days at Gunn. This is typical for him. He analyzes problems carefully, develops a strategy to gather and share information with stakeholders (teachers, parents, students, administrators) and then works with them to develop a collaborative solution that encourages cooperation of all parties through implementation. It's an effective way to work in schools.

He is a thoughtful listener, creative problem-solver who loves working with young people and is passionate about high quality education. Paly is very fortunate to have him on board. If you don't want him, we'll take him back at Gunn.

Try working with the guy (with an open mind). Get to know him. You will probably discover that you have a really talented administrator who deserves your support.

Posted by Paly parent, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 22, 2011 at 12:16 pm

So glad something is being done to address the biggest problem at Paly, the homework load. This has always been the issue, not the academic calendar. Private college counselors have said that PAUSD students study significantly more content than other local schools, and our students appear much more stressed as a result. Why is it that many students stay up hours into the night to study for their classes, don't receive A's yet score 5's on AP's (top scores)? We have overwhelmed them with work and taken away their creativity and childhood. It's true that many alums return to say how much easier college is than high school in PA. Shame on us for letting it get to this level. Please try to fix it, school board! Thank you Phil Winston for taking this on!

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 22, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Now I'm curious about assertions that college is easier than attending PAUSD. Any metrics here? Say 80-some Gunn plus Paly seniors each year graduate in the top ten percent of their class. How many graduate in the top 10% of their college class? Or is it that there's just less pressure to be in the top 10%? Do any PAUSD graduates really feel like they are slacking-off in college? Or just directing their time and energy more productively?

I edged into the top 10% of my Cubberley class (generations ago) and got to my college of choice, where I had a tough time staying in the top half. I will say that PAUSD's AP classes AND the example/competition of other AP students prepared me very well for college work.

Any college can be as difficult as you make it to be. But might feel easier if you find a major to your liking, with enthusiastic professors and classmates, where challenging work becomes more like puzzles and play. Good luck to the students out there!

Posted by 2nd Gen Paly grad and parent of Paly and Jordan students, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 22, 2011 at 12:39 pm

I agree with Paly parent (a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis) with respect to the use of collages, cooking projects and claymation to add to the homework load. If a teacher wants to make that approach an option for kinesthetic learners, that is one thing. Kids in High School and Middle School should no longer be graded on coloring between the lines. There is very little evidence to support piling on lots of homework of any kind as a successful method of teaching. We need to give the teachers the chance to teach real content during class time(get rid of teaching to tests imposed by academics who have little or no classroom experience), give only reasonable amounts of homework designed to reinforce or extend classroom learning, and let kids get enough sleep, exercise and time to chill with friends during the other hours left in the day.

Education is not a race, and should not be a punishment. It should be interesting at the least and a joy if at all possible.

Posted by paly mama, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 22, 2011 at 1:24 pm

We have very intelligent kiddos in our community but I agree that the homework load is extraordinary for them. It needs to be brought down to a more manageable level. Principal Winston is to be applauded for his efforts for looking into this big problem.

Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 22, 2011 at 1:36 pm

The biggest problem in our home has always been the group projects and in particular the physics project (which are often done by parents or bought from the previous year's students). Coordinating busy students with different outside activities is practically impossible. Getting rid of these requirements and also various busy work homework projects would make for a much simpler homework load.

I don't want to dumb down the standards, but I question the need for busy work and group projects as being of educational benefit. The requirement to teens who need parents to drive them around town to get to meet up with project partners does not teach them how to get on with others, it just causes family misery. We are talking about teens not college students who are more mature and can suit themselves better because they are away at college not living in a family environment.

Meaningful homework will teach more than all busywork and group project assignments.

Posted by Midtown Resident, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 22, 2011 at 5:03 pm

I have a student at Paly and another who is doing very well at a well known university. I can tell you that both have been deluged with homework at Paly, working most nights until 1AM or later. Even when the homework policy was changed so that homework was not supposed to be assigned on long weekends or vacations, instead, major exams were scheduled the first day after these long weekends or vacations, so the student had the "choice" of not doing homework or studying, but could then flunk the exams. Many of my kids' friends have developed signs of stress such as stomach problems and headaches, as have my own. And yes, my older student found the work easy at university and got straight A's. Thank you, Mr. Winston, for looking at this.

Posted by former Paly parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 22, 2011 at 6:44 pm

I disagree that Paly is "harder" academically than university. From what I see (currently, with a student in a major university), the grading is tough there. Students rush around with little free time. I guess it depends which university, which courses...that is an irrelevant thing to the real situation you are facing at Paly - the homework issue.
It is true there is the anomoly of some Paly kids earning 5's on APs and then not necessarily getting an A in the course. Through my kids I have met bright kids from other areas of the U.S. who earned 5's and ALSO had A's in such courses...realize the Paly kids are penalized for this when they submit college apps.
College admissions are entirely different than they were in the 90's...80's...70's...(I don't know any earlier than that)

Posted by Maureen, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 22, 2011 at 7:41 pm

We are very fortunate to have Dana Tom serving as a Board member in our community. "Bye-bye" your comments were both inappropriate and misinformed in terms of how innovation occurs and excellence is achieved. While there does need to be an overarching goal at the district level that is agreed upon and reinforced and monitored, exactly HOW that is done should not be a one-size fits all approach. Different schools have different challenges. Their response should address what will work in their situation. Phil Winston is a superb principal who in one year has set a completely different and very positive tone at Paly. He is sincere and very thoughtful in his desire to bring out the best in our kids - both academically and as well-rounded individuals. There is substantial research that shows diminishing returns with excessive homework. This does not mean we are dumbing down our kids. It means we are being thoughtful of how they will achieve academic success without squeezing the life out of them.

Posted by Paly Alum, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 22, 2011 at 11:57 pm

@Crescent Park Dad: You are completely incorrect. Teachers do grade on curves. There are teachers who give out few "A"s and it's not due to mediocre students.

Posted by Grandma, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2011 at 9:29 am

Paly Alum says: "I completely dismiss Grandma's posting above and am guessing that the family didn't want to admit the Palo Alto mortgage was the issue or they simply wanted to "cash out"

Just to straighten you out, the family involved sold their business for many millions that is why they can afford to move to Florida and place their child in private school. They are keeping their Palo Alto home to return to when their youngest child completes school

Posted by local gurl, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 23, 2011 at 10:24 am

I dealt with this issue a long time ago by limiting my son's homework on my own. He was allowed 1 1-2/ hours a night in middle school and 2 hours a night in high school, with additional time if he needed to study for a test. He did just fine, and his teachers just had to deal with it. His homework was hardly ever reviewed and graded anyway, so it didn't significantly impact his grades.

Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 24, 2011 at 10:48 am

already got the word that physics this year will consist of lots of group assignments--that labs will be done in groups and lab reports graded as a group. My kid is already stressing about it, she knows what this kind of thing does to her life.

Posted by Grandma, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 26, 2011 at 11:53 am

Paly Parent says: "already got the word that physics this year will consist of lots of group assignments--that labs will be done in groups and lab reports graded as a group. My kid is already stressing about it, she knows what this kind of thing does to her life."

Paly parent, support your kid, I did and he's now a PhD atmospheric physicist working for NASA. He graduated from Gunn and if he had not had that hard work experience and group project exposure he would never have had the background to be where he is today. He feels very grateful to Gunn and the PAUSD for providing him with the AP classes so he could succeed in his chosen field.

If, however, your high school student doesn't want to succeed at this level, take her out of her classes, and let her be an average student.

Posted by @Grandma, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 26, 2011 at 12:20 pm

@Grandma -

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online satff] Your cookie cutter approach is missing the entire cookie to be cut. You just enjoy cutting.

Please change your label name from Grandma because you are definitely not fitting that cookie cutter mold, which typical includes wisdom.

I am beyond pleased and happy with Mr. Winston and his efforts. I currently have 3 paly high school students who are very bright, articulate and even excel in sports.

You have no idea the stresses that they and others go through. Do us all a favor and take your negative attitude to Florida to be with your neighbors.

I love this city, with all of its faults, and I love our schools. I am Proud to be a Paly Parent and am Proud, Beyond Measure, of my children. They will succeed and will never be mediocre because they are well balanced kids who receives mounds of parental support and praise. Key word = SUPPORT
You should try it sometimes.

Why don't you go volunteer at both high schools for this entire year... then share your opinion. AT least it'll be current and beneficial to the needs of our CURRENT children.

Sick & Tired of the Negativity Towards our Kids & Schools.

Posted by littlered, a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm

"Gramma,what a big bad wolf you are".

Posted by paly parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 26, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Grandma - group projects are terrific and teach important skills, as long as most of the group part of the work can happen AT SCHOOL. Trying to schedule 10 hours of time outside of school hours that 3 or 4 kids can meet to work on a project is almost impossible. What ends up happening is one (or two) students end up doing the majority of the work.

Thoughtful, purposeful homework and projects are great. Busy work is not.

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