Imagine that you have a full-time job that requires you to be at the office for seven to 10 hours a day, and your boss tells that you that you will also need to work offsite on nights and weekends. After a few weeks, the after-hours projects are taking anywhere from five to 20 hours a week, and you find that you don’t have a free minute. Your job performance and your home life suffer—you’re only sleeping five hours a night, and you missed a family celebration. Unfortunately, this is the only job you’re qualified for, so you can’t quit.
If you’re a high school student these days, this is your job.
After serving as a high school principal for a decade and a half, I became increasingly concerned at the net effect that homework was having on our students. After hundreds of conversations with students, teachers, and parents, I came to believe we were reaching a tipping point.
Students told me how little sleep they were getting, parents described how stressed out their kids were, and teachers commented on how they spent endless hours grading the very work they had assigned.
And the results from our 2014 Youth Risk Behavior Survey were alarming:
- 61 percent of respondents reported experiencing “somewhat high” or “very high” levels of stress as a result of their academic workload.
- 70 percent reported that they got seven hours of sleep or less each night.
- 12 percent had seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months, up from 8 percent in 2006.
In another survey we conducted on homework with all 1,300 of our students, 51 percent reported doing more than three hours of homework per night. This flies in the face of research showing that the benefits of homework diminish after approximately 2.5 hours a night for high school students.
The Working Group on Homework
With all of this in mind, I decided it was time to make the lives of our students better, so I formed the Working Group on Homework. I wanted to make sure that student voices informed everything we did. They were the ones experiencing the stress and the ones who had the first-hand knowledge of how difficult it was to do the work night after night.
I selected four students with very diverse academic profiles and backgrounds. This diversity is critical. If you do something like this and only pick overachievers and student leaders, they may only tell you what they think you want to hear. One of our struggling students talked about the hopelessness he felt when multiple assignments “snowballed” behind him.
Another piece that was critical to successfully incorporating student voice was meeting with the students on their own prior to the first full group meeting. I knew that with many adults in the room, the students might be hesitant to fully share their experiences. They needed to be coached, so I previewed the process for them, let them know who would be involved, and got them to outline the ideas they wanted to share. We even did some role-playing to practice what it would be like to make a point and how to respond to a follow-up question.
In addition to incorporating student voice, the best thing I did was to make it very clear to both the students and the faculty that there were no preordained conclusions going into the process. The goal was to determine simple steps we could take as a school to help bring the lives of students back into balance.
These key steps were critical to achieving a successful outcome:
- Gather data on the scope of the issue through student and parent surveys.
- Recruit teachers from every department (including guidance counselors, special educators, and tutors, for a total of 14 adults and four students).
- Establish a limited number of meetings to avoid an endless process.
- Provide specific research ahead of time for the group to read.
- Facilitate the discussions using protocols so all voices are heard.
Coming Up With Workable Changes
In the end, the Working Group came up with three recommendations that were implemented school-wide:
- No homework assigned over the weeklong vacations (we have three).
- All homework assignments posted on Google Calendar (we had been using multiple platforms).
- Homework needed to be available before the end of the class period so students could get work done during study halls and before athletics in the afternoon.
Students I talked to in the halls saw these changes as steps that definitely improved their daily lives. And it’s worth noting that the faculty bought in because we didn’t impose time limits on the amount of homework that could be assigned by individual teachers.
Without the incorporation of student voice, I’m sure this effort at making school-wide change would have ended up as yet another committee whose efforts lead to no real change. Because we involved students with different profiles and backgrounds and supported them prior to their engagement with the adults, they were better able to effectively harness the power of their experiences.