96 percent value academics, but only 55 percent enjoy classes, study finds

Noa Yadidi

Although almost all upper school students find their academics valuable, only half find them enjoyable and only a slight majority of students are satisfied and not distressed, according to the workload survey’s culminating report finalized April 24 and released to faculty and staff via the faculty portal April 25.

Some 95.9 percent of upper school students reported that they find their academics valuable, but only 54.5 percent reported that they find them enjoyable. The report also states that just over 60 percent of upper school students are satisfied and not distressed, while nearly 85 percent of middle school students are satisfied and not distressed.

The committee’s final report consists of observations made from the data collected from the survey, which was administered to all grades in November.
Upper school science teacher David Hinden and middle school Dean of Faculty and Latin teacher Moss Pike led the committee, which has analyze the data from the workload survey and provided recommendations for the school’s direction.

Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts and President Rick Commons will decide who at the school is in the best position to act on these suggestions, Huybrechts said.
Huybrechts said she hopes that all these elements will be acted upon by this time next year.
“I’m not saying that there will be totally fleshed out solutions or plans from a year from now, but every one of these items will be further examined,” she said.

The biggest changes during the last 12 years were that typically students were taking more courses, juniors and seniors were taking more AP classes and were getting significantly less sleep, she said.

The survey found an increasing trend towards taking more academic solids. 71.2 percent of students reported taking five solids, 22.6 percent took six and 2.3 percent took seven-eight in 2001. However, in 2013, 58.6 percent reported five solids, 34.1 percent reported six and 7.2 percent reported seven-eight.
The mean number of AP courses taken by the junior and senior classes also rose from 2.5 in 2001 to 2.9 in 2013.
“Our students’ interest in the next level of their education is natural and spurs achievement,” the report reads. “The quality and rigor of our academic programs need to be preserved; however, some of the pressure and negatively perceived competition so often mentioned in the survey responses comes from too narrow a focus on achievement as a means to an end.”

The report suggests that the school should look further to “promote a value beyond the self” through different methods of service to the community.
Huybrechts said that a more integrated service component in the school program —like a focused day of all-school service—could be implemented.
Although the report suggests that service should be “at the center of how we teach and what we do,” Huybrechts recognized that an intellectually vigorous academic experience is also at the center of what we do.

“A soup kitchen is different from a school, in that that’s its central mission,” she said. “That is not our central mission and it’s probably never going to be, but we can improve in this area.”

The report suggested increasing the number of school days in order to provide “additional time for service projects, academic enrichment including field trips and other activities focused on learning and interest rather than assessment and faculty development.”

There are several ways to increase the school year, Huybrechts said, for example, by starting earlier and ending later.

However, there are many possible ways to get more time out of the school year without starting earlier, including reorganizing the midterm schedule and the AP program, she said.

Another feature of the report is the recommendation that the school move towards enforceable limits.

Huybrechts noted that there are many ideas as to how to implement such a system. One possible example would be to assign a point value to every academic course and extracurricular activity and impose a maximum limit.

The report also considered allowing students to take some courses on a pass-fail or credit-no credit basis subject to departmental approval.

The committee also found that girls perceive that they have more homework than boys, get less sleep than boys and are less satisfied with their overall experiences at the school. However, not one free response from those surveyed referenced an issue of gender discrimination.

“Obviously teachers are not assigning more homework to the girls,” Huybrechts said. “Girls tend to be less confident than boys. Boys tend to be overconfident, which is also not a good thing, but there’s quite a gap. There are ways to help girls become more confident and maybe this figuring out how to do that would help in this perception problem.”

Huybrechts confirmed that they will again do an extensive workload survey six years from now; however in the meantime, a new, permanent entity would be established to continually examine and assess workload at school.

“I think one of our challenges at this school is that it’s the sophisticated, well-run school can sometimes not be nimble enough and so I think that this recommendation is an excellent one,” Huybrechts added.

Similarly, taking the report’s recommendation of educational leadership into account, Huybrechts hopes to establish the Harvard-Westlake Teaching and Learning Center in the next few years to use school resources to research educational issues and communicate ideas to others by running workshops and being a leader in the field of education.

“We’re not going to hold you back. They can because they think they can,” Huybrechts said echoing the school’s motto.