We have a strong and well-deserved reputation for high academic achievement in our schools. Our students are among the best in the state of California and even nationally. Like many similar districts, however, we also struggle with a reputation for high levels of unnecessary academic stress among our students. Building into our schools a conscious focus on student health -- social, emotional, and physical -- can make a real difference for our kids.
What does "academic stress" actually mean? Concretely, it means homework that stretches late into the night for many of our students. It means students and parents spending large amounts of time and money on tutors in order to enhance college applications. It means kids without enough time to be kids, at increasingly younger ages, as the pressure pushes down into middle and even elementary school. It means an excessive focus on grades and competition over grades, rather than on the joy of learning. It means a rise in cheating and plagiarism as students react to the pressure to produce, as Stanford Education School senior lecturer Denise Clark Pope showed in her study "Doing School." As Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg has noted, many teens are even suffering from physical maladies such as headaches, stomach aches, and fatigue as a result of excessive stress.
As I’ve talked with students at many of our schools, I hear them say that they feel that no matter how hard they work or how much time they put in, it’s not enough. A student graduation speaker at Gunn this year made headlines by openly acknowledging this struggle. When my daughter was a student at Gunn a few years ago, I remember many nights when she was up after we’d gone to bed, doing homework -- and her friends were the same. Our kids and our parents are missing the down time, play time and family time that is part of childhood and adolescence. The costs are clear: the 2011 Developmental Assets survey found that 47% of Palo Alto teens are "vulnerable or at risk."
Some people say that this is the cost of high academic achievement. But research reveals that is a false choice: social and emotional well-being and academic achievement go hand in hand. Healthy, well-rested, well-adjusted kids learn better and achieve more than kids who are stressed and sleep-deprived. Just think about your own life -- do you do your best work when you are happy, relaxed, and stimulated, or when you are juggling too many tasks in too little time? Many studies have found a connection between sleep deficits and reduce academic performance. (For more about the academic research on academic stress, see this annotated bibliography).
What can we do to make things better? I have advocated strongly that PAUSD should make reducing unnecessary academic stress a top priority. As a direct result of that work, the district adopted this as a focused goal for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years. One part of that work was a district committee aimed at setting guidelines for the purpose and volume of homework. I served on that committee, which included parents, teachers, and administrators from schools across the district. We reached unanimous consensus on time limits for homework, for the first time in Palo Alto school history.
We already have a blueprint for what to work on next to reduce unnecessary academic stress. Section P-8 of the Project Safety Net Plan, called "Supportive School Environments," lays out a set of topics to combat the "stress and distress" affecting our teens in particular. These include "finals prior to winter break [done with the recent calendar change, which I supported], revised test and project calendars, revised homework policies addressing purpose and volume [partially done], academic integrity concerns, tutorials and advisories, and social and emotional skill development." Setting priorities among these topics should be guided by data gathered from our students by the Development Assets and California Healthy Kids surveys.
Many of these changes are challenging, because they require altering current practices, rather than adding on new programs. In fact, Project Safety Net points out that "all elements of the educational system, including core principles, curriculum, policies, training, strategic plans, hiring and other practices" need to be addressed to create a supportive school environment. The homework committee is a great model for how to address this challenge: bring the community together, base discussion on the latest research and on data about what’s happening in our schools, and work out solutions that everyone can agree with.
This focus on improving the social and emotional health of all of our students is an essential addition to our strong success in identifying and supporting students who are suffering from depression and other mental health issues. Efforts through organizations such as Adolescent Counseling Services and the HEARD Alliance have yielded more adults who can recognize students who are at risk and intervene effectively. We should continue this important work by revitalizing partnerships such as the SHARE (Student Health Awareness Resources and Education) Committee and PADACC (Palo Alto Drug and Alcohol Community Collaborative).
Healthy bodies and healthy minds. A simple but powerful step that we can take to support the health of our students is to improve our school lunch program. Many school districts around California and the nation are recognizing that children are better learners when they are nourished with healthy, well-prepared food (for example, Berkeley, San Diego, Clovis, and Oakland all have initiatives to bring local food into their schools). The benefits are manifold, and extend well beyond better nutrition. Lunch can become an integral part of a curriculum that also includes school gardens to teach children healthy eating habits, environmental awareness, and the cultural significance of food. Serving children food that tastes good and nourishes their bodies and minds is also a powerful way of expressing our caring for them.
I invite you to work with me and other members of the school and larger community on these important issues. I ask for your vote in November.
Kenneth R. Ginsburg, Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings. American Academy of Pediatrics, 2011.
Denise Clark Pope, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. Yale University Press, 2003.
Madeline Levine, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. Harper, 2008.