Survey: Less homework, less stress for MVLA students

Feedback shows most teachers are following new limits on homework assignments

Thousands of teens at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools say they have benefited from a new homework policy aimed at bringing down homework loads, reducing stress and freeing up time during weekends and breaks, according to a survey released earlier this month.

The surveys, which were conducted during the latter half of the 2016-17 school year, are the first glimpse into how the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District's new homework policies are working on a practical level. The policy, which took effect last year, set weekly limits on the number of hours of homework assigned per class and established homework-free breaks throughout the school year.

Among the 754 students surveyed at Los Altos High School in January, 74 percent reported that all or most of their teachers followed the homework policy's limits on weekly homework, which is three to four hours for college preparatory classes each week and four to five hours for Advanced Placement classes. Just shy of half of students reported feeling "less stressed" compared to last year as a result of the new homework policy, and three out of four respondents said they felt either a "lot less" or "somewhat less" stressed because of limits on weekend homework.

A subsequent, anonymous survey of 37 Advanced Placement teachers found 100 percent compliance with the requirements for homework-free holidays including Thanksgiving and winter break, and nearly two-thirds of the teachers didn't assign homework over spring break even though it's not required under the new policy. This differs slightly from the Los Altos student survey, which found 86 percent of teachers abided by limits on homework during the Thanksgiving break.

Early results from the Advanced Placement tests during the last school year show a slight improvement in the number of tests taken and a high passage rate of 82 percent, which should dispel any concerns that the policy forced teachers to cut content due to time constraints, Associated Superintendent Margarita Navarro told school board members at a Sept. 5 meeting.

"If the question is, 'Did this policy have a negative impact on our AP results, enrollment or number of tests?' we would probably safely assume it did not," she said.

The 2016-17 school year was the inaugural year for the new homework policy, AR 6154, a response to growing concerns that academic pressure and hefty homework loads were taking a toll on the district's 4,000 students. Board members frequently referred to teen anxiety and stress as a top concern for the district, and agreed to address the problem by laying down ground rules for how much homework is too much.

The surveys showed widespread compliance with the homework policy, assuaging fears that the lack of a strong enforcement mechanism might lead some teachers to ignore the new policy. But school board members were uneasy with some of the results of a second survey, conducted late in the school year at Mountain View High School, indicating that the burden of homework is still a problem and that the homework was of questionable value.

A majority of the 1,500 respondents at Mountain View High said they still had "too much" homework, only 37 percent reported a reduction in daily homework load, and only 42 percent said they felt most or all of their homework was "meaningful." Although there are no previous surveys to compare the results to -- and both schools were asked different questions -- the figures don't exactly inspire confidence.

"The fact that 42 percent felt that most-to-all homework was meaningful meant that perhaps 58 percent felt that it was not," said board member Phil Faillace. "That suggests that the homework is not only not efficient, it's possibly not at all effective."

Among those surveyed, 35 percent said they felt that "many" or "all" of their classes assign busywork, and 32 percent felt that none of their classes assign homework that is useful to learning the course material. Student trustee Varunjit Srinivas, a junior at Mountain View High, said that the results of the survey don't reflect the experience of him or his friends, and that he finds most of his homework useful.

"I definitely don't think the majority of people feel that most homework is not meaningful," he said.

Navarro later told the Voice in an email that the survey results are an early "check-in" on the implementation of the homework policy, and to expect a full evaluation in the near future.

"The data we have collected thus far, being survey or anecdotal data, will help us identify areas for further discussion whether it be in departments, course teams, sites or district-wide," she said.

Throughout the meeting, Faillace repeatedly expressed concerns that academic rigor could potentially take a back seat because of restrictions on weekly homework under the policy. Performance on Advanced Placement tests may still be strong, he said, but those students are going to go the extra mile and make sure they pass the test regardless of how many hours of homework are assigned. Faillace was more worried about the students in college preparatory classes who only get three hours of homework per week to cover complex topics like physics.

"That's like 35 minutes a night -- 35 minutes a night to master a subject like physics," he said. "I don't think I could learn regular physics in 35 minutes a night. I don't know how it's done. That's not even time to do two hard problems."

While it doesn't sound like much, board member Fiona Walter said homework time can quickly add up to several hours a night with a full schedule of classes -- particularly when a few Advanced Placement classes are thrown in the mix. Add in extracurricular activities like music and sports, she said, and there's simply not enough hours left in the day. During the lengthy public feedback for the homework policy, several parents argued that their children have been forced to sacrifice sleep in order to get everything done.

Faillace said the one-size-fits-all approach shouldn't take into account non-academic activities.

"What they're going to do with the rest of their time is their choice," he said. "I don't see why we have to make the decision for everybody so that some people will have time to be musicians and athletes."

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19 people like this
Posted by Sarah1000
a resident of another community
on Sep 15, 2017 at 2:56 pm

I'm so grateful that the MVLA administration, staff and Board are capable of working together to help reduce anxiety and stress in our students. Thank you for being proactive in improving our children's mental health.

7 people like this
Posted by Rossta
a resident of Waverly Park
on Sep 15, 2017 at 3:00 pm

I agree this is a good direction to move - less homework and less stress for our students. But, is MVLA continuing it this year? My freshman seems to have several hours of homework every night and last Friday worked 6 hours on an assignment to finish and turn it in by the 11:59pm Friday deadline.

16 people like this
Posted by MVHS parent
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 15, 2017 at 3:53 pm

@ Phil Fallace: Are you saying that Marching Band, Chamber Orchestra, Madrigals, Football, Golf, Soccer, etc are not important?

Do you think your job is to only make sure that students are doing academic classes?

We vote for you to take care of our students - and part of that is make sure there is academic rigor when kids want it, but also to ensure that kids who want to take some AP classes still have time for A LIFE OUTSIDE HOMEWORK!

They need to sleep 8 hours a day; they need to be social inside and outside of school, to spend time with their families.... They need to learn balance.

I am VERY surprised to hear you say that! You were hired for ALL students, not just the ones who want a 5.0 and have no other life.

8 people like this
Posted by Parent with #3 in MVLA
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Sep 15, 2017 at 4:58 pm

I have not had a big problem with Fallace on the importance of academics. I agree with him - the main public school function is academics, (say UC / CSU A-G Requirements) with other activities as a lower priority. This "academics" is also Special Education, Alta-Vista High, the Adult School GED and so on. Marching Band, singing groups, sports teams are ALL VERY GOOD SUPPLEMENTS. It is up to the families to determine how important (translate how many hours-per-day) that the child should devote to these RATHER THAN ACADEMICS.

Free choice. I think MVLA should limit AP classes to NO MORE THAN 3 per year absolute max (that is 3 hours of homework during the weekday + other homework and other activities). I have seem too many pushy parents, start to ask for less academic time- because 4-5 hours of homework limits their "3-4 AP" kid to less elective time.

Let the family beware - MVLA standard academic courses are very challenging and competitive - and AP classes "totally" prepare your student to compete academically at Stanford etc. at an honors program level!

6 people like this
Posted by Parent of ninth grader
a resident of Waverly Park
on Sep 16, 2017 at 8:58 pm

This is our first year in HS and the homework has not been as huge a workload as we expected. Now I know why. I am a firm believer of homework's value in learning, but agree that it must be meaningful work. That is something much harder to measure than compliance. I'm interested to see how the reduced work affected test scores but think it would be a stretch to draw any conclusions, given that the previous year had an unexplained, "precipitous" drop in scores (making it more likely that 2016-17 scores could look good by comparison). See article 2016/11/01/high-schools-grapple-with-lower-test-scores

8 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of The Crossings
on Sep 17, 2017 at 5:14 am

Our kid at LAHS is taking 2 AP classes (Calc and Physics) and is doing a fall sport. Getting everything done when you also factor in the other classes is a challenge. Homework is going well beyond the 35 minutes per class that is mentioned above, to the point where I was reading that thinking, is this a joke? AP Physics is well structured. But AP Calc (as with Honors Trig), they've flipped the classroom, to the point where the teacher does not teach the material to the students. And the students attempt to explain (teach) homework problems to the class. If we're concerned about rigor, unflip the classroom. The justification for not teaching, as explained to a classroom full of parents, was that AP Calc scores went up. Not rigor. Not understanding of the material. AP scores went up. The rest of us parents were left wondering what is going on with that class?

9 people like this
Posted by Cleave Frink
a resident of Willowgate
on Sep 17, 2017 at 8:37 pm

Cleave Frink is a registered user.

As the parent of an recent college graduate who attended an AP academy and a current middle schooler, I'm a bit shocked to see some of the responses here. My experience is that 3-5 hours of homework per week is more than plenty for a teacher who's doing the job right. There are many ways to manage a classroom so that students aren't forced to do law school style homework hours (something like 3 hours per class per day). I'm further surprised to see people downplay the importance of music and sports in schools. As a youth basketball coach, I can tell you that there are hundreds of parents who are making sure their kids are great students and fabulous athletes that may get scholarships to great colleges. The reality is that sports and music scholarships are 100% legit and widely available. Students should be able to strategize toward those goals if that's within their reach without having to feel like their grades or their athletic or music performance might suffer. We can do both if we're paying attention.

5 people like this
Posted by m2grs
a resident of another community
on Sep 18, 2017 at 11:21 pm

I think this is ridiculous. Having school policy based on such survey is complete abdication of school's responsibility!

No pain, no gain! Students should not be pampered. They should be challenged. No wonder why our next generation will not prosper as their parents and grand parents. They are spoiled, indoctrinated with a sense of entitlement.

I think much of the stress comes from ill-designed endless retake policy. By allowing students to submit homework assignments way past deadline, and to retake tests, MVHS are telling these kids timeliness is not important, that serious learning is not important.

But when these students meet the real society challenges they will be utterly unprepared. There is no retake in colleges, or in real life. There is such a thing called deadline.

8 people like this
Posted by Thad Smith
a resident of another community
on Sep 19, 2017 at 6:58 am

Mastery of a subject in high school is not the point. 35 min per night is more than ample if you have an extracurricular activity plus 2-3 other classes you need to work on that same night (never mind the fact that what is really being discussed is 4-5 other classes per night).
More does not equal better. If someone is concerned about AP scores going down they should remember that "college" level courses should require extra work aside from what is assigned by the teacher, along with the fact that he school can say whatever they want, but they courses aren't really the equivalent of a college education.
Besides, do you really want your child's face stuck in homework all day every day. That isn't what real life should be.

6 people like this
Posted by Mp parent 2
a resident of another community
on Sep 20, 2017 at 2:53 am

3-5 hours of homework on a school night is not real life. I'm a director in tech and might work 1 night a week for an hour or two. My team is the same.

Teens need 9 hours of sleep plus time with family, for meals and chores, and just resting.

NEA recommends 10 minutes per grade level, so your 9th grader should be doing 90 minutes of homework, not 240 minutes. That's INSANE.

8 people like this
Posted by m2gr
a resident of another community
on Sep 20, 2017 at 4:32 pm

The article says three to four hours of work each week, not every night.

Those who spend more than three hours on homework every night probably are taking too many APs that are beyond their limits. It is not school's fault, although counselor can make suggestions to help them adjust by downgrading or dropping some courses.

But over I find the tone of this article is completely wrong. What is "meaningful" homework? What is "busy work"? How can you let students tell experienced teachers what they should or should not do for homework? When a football player practices his acts does he complain to the coach that this is "not meaningful" or just "busy work"? This sort of student "empowerment" mentality is sheer nonsense.

3 people like this
Posted by Friendly Neighbor
a resident of North Whisman
on Sep 21, 2017 at 2:41 pm

I'm glad that the report states that homework load has lessened to help cope with stress that students are facing, especially in this well-known competitive Silicon Valley area we all live in. One of the comments above seem like they still live in the 60s and wish to impose pain for gain instead of addressing the real issues, that is stressing out our poor kids to the point where education becomes forcefully imposed and getting a result out of it. No pain-no gain onl works in the gym so if you feel like pumping out a few reps at the bench press, then by all means go for it.

I have kids who have extra-curricular activities that consume are large amount of time and eat up a lot of their "homework-hours" at home. When they get home late in the evening, they're still doing their homework up until midnight. I think they're used to the fact of staying up late now since they've been used to it when their homework load was quite more than it is now. I wish they can sleep earlier and get a min. of 7-8 hours sleep but it continues to be a constant struggle. I know for a fact that the body is stressed out depriving it of sleep, but my kids seem to have adapted, although a bad habit to have.

The main point is to make sure that the kids understand the material that is being taught to them rather than imposing this due date and stressing the kids more as a result. Not everyone has the same learning curve (some learn faster/slower than others).

8 people like this
Posted by m2grs
a resident of another community
on Sep 21, 2017 at 10:43 pm

@Friendly Neighbor, it is up to the student, with guidance from parents and counselors, to balance out his or her priorities among extra-curricular activities and academics. Don't blame teachers for "too much" homework. It is "too much" because the students spend "too much" energy doing other things, or are simply too ambitious to take a hard course.

Teachers know what is needed to achieve the best results. A student can choose if he or she wants A+ or just a passing grade, and doing homework accordingly. Don't blame the teachers.

And due date is extremely important. It builds character. It is the real world. It is about responsibility, about planning skills, about facing consequences of bad actions, about performing under pressure. It is an essential part of the learning experience.

MVHS is already stunningly bad on enforcing homework due dates. Allowing of test re-takes is also incredibly nonsensical. Any more watering down of the homework and grading system will be disastrous.

3 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Parent
a resident of another community
on Sep 22, 2017 at 9:49 am

@m2grs, I am delighted to read this article, homework for both my (now college) kids in Palo Alto was ridiculous. My son had 2 hours of homework a night in MIDDLE school. Back when you have pretty much no choice in the classes you take, so it wasn't a question of taking too many AP classes. As Cleave Frank pointed out, extracurriculars are important also. They are often the reason a student gets into a particular college or gets a scholarship or both.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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