As a Palo Alto resident who has worked with countless Paly and Gunn students, I have followed the mental health situation with rapt concern and attention. In accordance with my 80-20 rule (research/learn/consume 80% of the time, create 20% of the time), I have published multiple blog posts on this topic, including:
I am far from the only concerned resident. I have been impressed by the efforts of Save the 2,008, which have included research, outreach and drafting an open letter to the Palo Alto school board and superintendent.
I was recently asked my thoughts on Save the 2,008's six commonsense proposals to reduce stress and discouragement. The short answer is that I am about 90% in agreement, but I see a little room for improvement.
In the spirit of academic discourse, I would like to add my advice and opinions on each point. My response comes from my background in psychology (I did my BA and MA at Stanford); my experience as both a student and alumni interviewer for Phillips Exeter Academy; and the conversations I've had with my students in the Palo Alto Unified School District.
1. Shrinking the largest classes to a friendlier size. Classes at Gunn and Paly are routinely, impersonally, at 30 or more teenagers per room—much too crowded. Of all the ways to invigorate campus life, right-sizing classes is the most powerful, because it's “knowing that my teacher cares about me as a person” that makes each student feel inspired to learn. In classes that aren’t overbooked, more hands get called on; homework is returned sooner, with richer feedback; more one-on-one “mini-lessons” occur. With their teaching loads on a more human scale, faculty would have time to go to their students’ concerts, plays, and sports events—extracurricular caring that inspires even more learning. Is money an object? Backers of the Cubberley “super school” were ready to help us to the tune of millions.
Couldn't agree more. There are probably a hundred well-documented, research-based reasons why smaller class sizes make sense, including those cited by Save the 2,008.
I would like to add a personal anecdote that really underscores this point for me.
I once worked with a student who attended The Mountain School, a selective independent semester program on a farm in Vermont. When I asked her what she liked most about the experience, she told me this:
"I didn't do my homework because I wanted to get an A. I did it because I didn't want [my teacher] Bruce to be disappointed in me."
Smaller class sizes allow students to truly connect with their teachers. It gives them the chance to be inspired by an adult in their life. And given the wealth in our community, I see no reason why reducing class size should be an issue.
Springtime at The Mountain School.
2. Giving students a voice in homework loads (which can be drags on morale or on a good night’s sleep) via a new, confidential, teacher-friendly app. It would nightly crunch the numbers on actual minutes worked, would be the missing tool to implement our homework policy, and could be built by our very own whiz-kids. Faculty could use it to avoid “test-stacking” and to compare their homework practices with colleagues’. And every morning, flashing on our schools’ electronic marquees, would be the Average Minutes of Homework Done by the Entire Student Body Last Night.
I like the sentiment expressed in this proposal, but I see a few problems with it.
Specifically, I am skeptical about the execution of this app. It would collect data either by monitoring student activity -- which many students may object to due to privacy concerns -- or by self-report.
Quite frankly, I don't trust students to honestly self-report the time they spent on their homework. At many of the most competitive schools and colleges, there is an immense pressure to make your achievements appear "effortless." At Stanford, we call it the "Stanford duck syndrome" -- you look calm and graceful on the surface, but are paddling furiously underneath. At the University of Pennsylvania, it's called the "Penn face" -- the practice of acting happy and self-assured, even when sad or depressed. At Duke, they call it "effortless perfection" -- and studies show it is felt must acutely by women.
(This is further reflected by social media hashtags like #Blessed, #luckygirl, #nofilter, and #iwokeuplikethis.)
I'm just not convinced that students would honestly report their homework hours -- and seeing those results flashing on a marquee could be demoralizing.
Here's what I recommend, instead:
Let's assume proposal one is adopted, and Palo Alto students now have smaller class sizes. The best thing you can possibly do for these students now is to move towards discussion-based classes and class participation-based grades.
This is how classes work at Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the top prep schools in the world. At Exeter, everything -- even art, science and math -- is a discussion. While there are papers, tests and assignments due every few weeks, nightly homework is basically assigned as such:
Here are the problems/prompts/pages. Spend an hour (or however much time) working on it. Put in an honest effort, and bring your results to class for discussion.
(This system, of course, depends on mutual trust and respect between students and teachers -- something that can be developed only in a small classroom.)
The next day in class, the teacher will start a discussion -- perhaps by asking a question about the reading, or asking someone to put the first problem on the board. From there, students take over. The teacher is there to guide, but not necessarily lead, the discussion.
So say you spent an hour on the homework, and you only got through the first three problems. Be prepared to walk the class through how you solved those problems. Be prepared for someone to tell you you were wrong -- and to argue your point with evidence from the text. Be prepared to be skeptical of how others solved the problems, or to walk through the problem no one got -- together.
(After all, collaboration is the only way innovation can happen in the digital age -- there is simply too much information and technology now for a team of, say, neuroscientists to solve a problem. They're going to need a chemist, an electrical engineer, a programer, a psychologist, and a data scientist on their team to learn something we don't already know. Read more >)
Discussion-based grades and classes will alleviate the pressure to be perfect. It will reduce the amount of time students need to spend on homework to get something meaningful out of it. And it will actively teach students skills that will help them thrive, in the university and beyond.
It will also drastically reduce the pressure to cheat. (See Proposal 6.)
3. Requiring guidance counseling prior to enrollment in multiple APs. Not a red light, just a flashing yellow light of caution—to remind students and parents that: a) APs gobble up family time, friendship time, playtime, and the sleep-time so indispensable to teen health; b) APs offer no proven edge for college admissions; and c) there are hundreds of colleges and universities across the land that offer excellent life prospects. (Who knew about little Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, cradle to eight Rhodes Scholars?)
I love this! It's a great compromise between those who want to limit AP enrollment for student mental health, and those who believe students who want a challenge should have the chance to be challenged.
Personally, I somewhat support capping the number of APs a student can take -- in a district like Palo Alto, where there are so many resources and opportunities, I think it is kind of a waste of time for students to be taking classes anyone in any school district in the country could take.
Moreover, I don't know if I'm amused or annoyed that pretty much every student I've ever worked with has taken AP Environmental Science, despite a complete lack of interest in environmental science. (It's the "easiest AP.") This is a completely meaningless reason to take a class -- and one of the requirements for a happy life is a sense of purpose and meaning.
I support explicitly telling students that there is no evidence that APs increase you chances of admission. I support explicitly telling students about the incredible opportunities available at schools across the nation.
Finally, to the students who believe they have a "right" to "challenge themselves" because they "love the challenge," I would say this:
If you are truly so motivated to learn and challenge yourself, you will find a way to do so -- APs be darned! You live right next to Stanford, which hosts amazing, free talks that are open to the public every week (I love the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series, which happen on Wednesdays at 4:30 -- but also regularly attend talks in the School of Education, Stanford Law School). You have a computer, so you can literally start taking courses at Duke, Stanford or MIT -- right from your living room. For credit, or for fun.
So on a scale of 1-10, I am zero worried about your ability to challenge yourself in the absence of APs.
4. Undoing our kids' schoolday involvement with texting and social media—by requiring that phones be turned off, first bell to last (as we do at our middle schools), and by making our campuses more companionable. Even during class-time, surreptitiously, our kids answer to the siren song of their phones—which bring them social comfort, connect them to Twitter and Snapchat, but also leave them prey to gossip and bullying and the approaches of strangers. For our teens, distracted learning is as shaky a proposition as distracted driving.
There is no place for cell phones in a high school. None.
In addition to concerns about bullying, cheating and general distractedness, your phones are undermining your ability to truly connect with those around you. They are keeping you from fully immersing in the experience you're having right now.
By quantifying something that, once upon a time, could only be qualified (your sense of popularity relative to your peers), phones create social anxiety, insecurity, and disconnectedness. And they are making you boring.
Finally, to all the students who think they are "great multi-taskers": you're not. The best multi-taskers are people who seldom multi-task. See also:
5. Curbing the bombardment of grade-reports—recently upped from every nine weeks to every three. This is information overload, pushing our kids toward perfection even as what they most need, more often than we think, is a little time to heal—to rescue themselves from an adolescent setback, a romantic rejection, a parental rift, a humiliation on social media, or from any bad case of adolescent blues for which “doctor’s orders” would be “Just take it easy for a while and you’ll recover.”
I've got mixed feelings about this, and here's why:
Bad news is better than no news.
Psychology studies show that sick patients would rather receive bad diagnosis than no diagnosis. Humans are horrible at dealing with uncertainty.
Moreover, Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper, whose contributions to our understanding of motivation are unparalleled, once told me, "The people who understand motivation better than anyone else... are those who design video games."
Indeed, one reason we find video games so addictive and enjoyable is because we absolutely never have to wonder how we're doing. At any given time, there are several metrics for our success and performance flashing across the screen:
That said, another reason we love video games, even when they get challenging, is that there is always another chance to succeed after a set back. You go back to the checkpoint. You go back to the last place you saved. You get to try again.
After all, it's "Game Over -- Try Again?" not "Game Over -- You Failed. You Can't Try Again. Better Luck in Your Next Game."
Having one opportunity to get a good grade often discourages students from taking feedback to heart, which undermines one of the main arguments in support of smaller class sizes. Without opportunities to improve, all that matters is the grade.
So rather than eliminate or reduce feedback, I would say provide more, richer feedback -- along with chances to improve. I'm not saying force students to improve. If they don't want to read the feedback and are happy with their grade, fine. Their loss.
But if they want to learn from their mistakes, they should have the opportunity to do that.
I mean, that's how real life works, right? You release a new version of a product, and then you fix the bugs? You create a prototype, and then you revise and iterate accordingly? Why should school be different from real life?
Moreover, there's a delicate balance between "giving kids a chance to recover" and "coddling" them. In One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self Reliance, feminist philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers and medical doctor Sally Satel walk readers through a mountain of research that shows that:
1) People -- even/especially children -- are resilient.
2) Treating people -- even/especially children -- like they are helpless and fragile undermines their coping skills, their expectations for themselves and their sense of autonomy.
Moreover, in Julie Lythcott-Haims' bestseller, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free From the Overparenting Trap And Prepare Your Kid for Success, former Stanford Dean Julie discusses the importance of letting your children "fail" sometimes. Failure is just as important to our confidence and self-esteem as success. And it's a crucial part of developing resilience and coping skills. (If you haven't read this book yet, do it ASAP.)
For these reasons, I'm reluctant to hop on the "give the kids a break" train.
But. I will say that, as a DI athlete, I was "tested" on the ergometer every two weeks, and I found that to be extremely stressful. So I can absolutely relate to the sentiment of this proposal.
I think a happy compromise is the one I outlined above: more, richer feedback accompanied by chances to improve.
6. Eliminating the misery-inducing cheating that is committed by some 75% of our overburdened youngsters. Academic dishonesty is the degraded atmosphere they feel obliged to breathe, just to run the race of school. Worsened by outsized workloads, continually countenanced, cheating erodes self-esteem and churns up so much angst—paper after paper, test after test, all four years—that it’s an issue of mental health.
This is the proposal I like least. On the one hand, I academic dishonesty disgusts me. On the other, teenagers these days are experts at cheating. There is no way teachers and schools can "clamp down" on cheating. Whatever you do, the students will always be one step ahead of you.
That's just the facts.
I had a student who wrote his Common App essay about cheating in his school (Monta Vista, for the record -- not Paly or Gunn) once. In it, he quotes a classmate as saying, "It's just survival of the fittest. We cheat in order not to be disadvantaged by our integrity."
The solution to cheating isn't better detection or harsher punishments. To me, the most effective solution is (once again) discussion-based classes.
It will become obvious pretty quickly who has actually done the homework -- can you contribute, or not? Can you back up your argument with a quote from the text? In the case that you didn't finish all the problems, did you have a great question about why? Can you walk us through the parts of the problems you did understand -- and can anyone explain where you went wrong?
Obviously, there is a concern that louder students will contribute more or shyer students will be disadvantaged in class discussions -- and it will be up to the teacher to navigate this complicated dynamic. (Obviously, this hinges on teachers having the support and mentorship they need when they run into problems -- something that isn't a part of this proposal, but is something I think PAUSD should be able to ensure, given their resources.)
Moreover, with smaller class sizes, there will be more trust and respect between students and teachers, hopefully disincentivizing cheating. Remember: people rise (and fall) to meet the expectations you set for them. If you ask them to complete a homework assignment, they will complete the homework assignment (honestly or otherwise). If you ask them to contribute meaningfully to a class discussion, they will (hopefully) show up at class ready to both teach and learn from their peers.
Once again, I think Save the 2,008 is a great idea. I love this letter. I (mostly) love the proposals they're making. I signed the petition, and encourage others to do the same.
But I also wanted to add my voice to the conversation, because even the best-laid plans have room for additional ideas, tweaks, and improvements.
Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.