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."