Homework Policy and Annual Goals on the School Board Agenda

I hope you had a great summer break. With the first week of school behind us, the school board's first regular meeting of the year is Tuesday, August 25. This post highlights some of the key issues for that meeting, and looks forward to the 2015-16 annual goals.

Homework Policy

This Tuesday's school board meeting includes several pieces of good news about the district's homework policy. The policy, adopted in 2012, sets time guidelines and standards for homework purpose and content. (I sat on the district committee that drafted the policy). The time guideline is roughly 10 minutes per grade per night: for example, homework for 8th graders should not exceed 80 minutes per night.

Unfortunately the policy languished after adoption, as district staff didn't follow up with implementation, and the school board didn't ensure that it was actually being put into place with appropriate supports and feedback. That began to change during the last school year. I pledged during the school board campaign to make implementing the policy a priority. Superintendent McGee wrote a memo to teachers communicating that the policy would finally be implemented. The district also contracted with Hanover Research to evaluate consistency across courses and schools, a charge that included looking at homework practice. That report will be presented at Tuesday's board meeting. It includes a wealth of data about homework, including teacher expectations of homework load by subject in the high schools (I'll focus on this Hanover data in a subsequent blog post).

Tuesday's board meeting also includes two concrete steps towards full implementation. First, on the consent calendar is a change to close a loophole in the current policy, which exempts honors and AP classes at the high schools from the time guidelines. The change sets an overall limit of 15 hours of homework per work for high school students, including all classes. Dr. McGee set out that expectation in his memo to teachers, and Heidi Emberling and I incorporated it into a recommendation from the Board Policy Review Committee to the full board that was discussed in June and will be voted on Tuesday.

Second, the district's draft goals for 2015-16 include implementation of the homework policy, including gathering data from student end-of-course surveys and other means. Designing a method that provides teachers useful, timely feedback about how long students are taking on homework will doubtless take focus and time -- and partnering with teachers -- but we will now have accountability in place for this change. The universal use of Schoology beginning now, agreed to in the union contract negotiated in the spring, will also be a big help in tracking homework load.

Annual Goals

On the school board agenda for Tuesday, August 25 are draft goals for the 2015-16 school year. The board held a retreat in June to begin the process of drafting goals, and met again last Friday to discuss and revise the latest version.

Key goals include:

  • Stronger emphasis on instruction designed to meet the needs of every child, including students in special education. A program review of special education will occur in October, with opportunities for community input.
  • Implementation of the recommendations of the Minority Achievement and Talent Development task force, aimed at closing the achievement gap. These include efforts to achieve parity in areas such as Algebra completion in 8th grade (in fact, I advocated in the spring that the district move towards enrolling all 8th graders in Algebra, so this is a positive step in that direction).
  • Initiatives to improve social and emotional health of students, including two steps that many have long advocated: addressing "test and project stacking" that results in work pileups for high school students, and an analysis of counseling at Paly and Gunn to determine whether they are delivering comparable services to students.
  • Progress on joint planning with the City on Cubberley. At the board's retreat on Friday board members asked the Superintendent to meet with City Manager Keene to define a clear process and milestones to achieve this year, as unfortunately no real progress on joint planning was made last year. That needs to change.
  • Adoption of an enrollment management plan, potentially including a 13th elementary school and 4th middle school. I advocated for the need to address overcrowding in elementary schools in particular during the 2014 school board campaign, and I look forward to the district committee's report. At the board retreat, I emphasized the need to be ready to execute a plan by year's end.

In discussing the 2015-16 goals, I emphasized the need for to track how programs (such as the new Teachers College writing program) result in changes in teaching practice. Building up the district's capacity to use data is a key requirement for making positive progress for our students. That effort is being ably led by Director of Research and Assessment Chris Kolar, who is making excellent progress towards a vision of data that relevant and accessible for teacher and administrators.

I will keep you informed on progress on developing these goals, and I invite your input while they are still at the draft and discussion stage.

Seeking advice from FPPC on "conflict of interest"

You may have read in the Palo Alto Weekly that I am seeking advice from the California Fair Political Practices Commission about whether I have a conflict of interest with respect to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR). I don't believe that I have such a conflict, but I am seeking clear guidance to resolve this issue. For more information, see my blog post on this topic.

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