Students are increasingly stressed, harried, and sleep-deprived and rates of teen suicide are on the rise. One of the very top high schools in the nation has decided to take the revolutionary step of challenging the increasingly enormous homework load that is leading students to burn out.
After much thought and deliberation, Dover-Sherborn High School, in suburban Boston, has declared Thanksgiving vacation “homework-free.” Dover-Sherborn High School is a very competitive school that was recently ranked by Newsweek as the 16th best high school in the country. This revolutionary act was meant to allow students to relax and spend more time with their families. It’s also part of a broader district effort to reduce stress and anxiety in an extremely overburdened student population.
“We noticed over the past few years an increase in students feeling so stressed out and feeling overwhelmed and not able to cope,” said Ellen Chagnon, director of guidance at Dover-Sherborn. “We had to figure out something better than Band-Aiding the problem.”
The solution the school came up with is an innovative program called Challenge Success. Challenge Success works with school communities to rethink attitudes about achievement and reduce student workload. Challenge Success believes that our society has become too focused on grades, test scores, and performance, leaving little time for kids to develop the necessary skills to become resilient, ethical, and motivated learners.
“We’re challenging that narrow notion of success,” said Denise Pope, the founder of Challenge Success. “Your value as a parent is not measured about where your student gets into college.”
In addition, more and more research is pointing to homework not only being harmful, but even of any actual benefit.
A survey meant to examine student well-being revealed a student population that was harried, anxious, and didn’t know how to slow down.
“Our sleep numbers were the most alarming,” said Pam Webb, the parent of a current 11th grade student. She noted that on average, students reported getting 6.4 hours of sleep per night.
Schools and communities are finally waking up to the fact that overachieving students are creating perfectly polished resumes, but their day-to-day well-being is being sacrificed.
At one school that Pope studies she noted, “The students were hurting themselves, they were not resilient. I wouldn’t call that working in terms of what you want every school to aspire to.”
Since 2007, Challenge Success has worked with 120 schools, including Needham High School, to rethink attitudes about achievement and reduce student workload. One of the main areas of focus is homework.
Many studies agree that there should be a cap of two hours of work per night in high school. Beyond this cap students might be losing sleep, but aren’t improving academically. Students in many schools, especially very competitive ones where lots of Advanced Placement classes are offered, often do much more than that.
“On an average day, I go to practice, come home, eat dinner, take a nap, and then right off to homework,” said Andrew Mallett, a senior at Dover-Sherborn High School who is taking three Advanced Placement classes and said he usually goes to bed around 11:30 p.m.
“Teachers feel they have to give homework because they’re confusing the notions of rigor and load,” Pope said.
The Challenge Success team has been working with teachers at Dover-Sherborn to emphasize quality over quantity in homework assignments and creative ways to reduce students’ workload. Strategies being implemented are homework-free weekends, encouraging teachers to economize on assignments by, for instance, assigning fewer practice problems in math (10 can serve just as well as 25), and creating a centralized homework calendar that will allow teachers to coordinate big assignments, so that kids don’t end up with a lot of tests or projects due on the same day.
Dover-Sherborn is demonstrating outstanding leadership by addressing the homework and student stress issues head on. Hopefully other schools with follow suit.