Enforce change

Chronicle Staff

We’ve just finished the 2013-2014 workload process, something we do every six years at the midpoint of the school’s accreditation cycle. The process begins with an exhaustive survey that looks at pretty much everything our students do at school. Then the Workload Committee, composed of teachers and deans as well as students and parents, reviews the data and ultimately makes a set of recommendations. For the first time, we’ve been able to survey all grades and let students give voice to their thoughts in the form of free responses.

Compared to the first workload survey in 2001, our students take more solid courses, more AP courses and participate in more extracurricular activities. They get home later from school, do more homework and get significantly less sleep. Almost half of the students in the Upper School report that they generally sleep less than six hours a night during the school week.

Virtually everyone values their academic experience. There is more agreement on this question than any other in the survey. Compared to the 96 percent of our students who value their academic experience, only about 55 percent of our upper school students (80 percent at the Middle School) enjoy it.

Overall, around 90 percent of the middle school students and 75 percent of the upper school students report that they are satisfied with their overall experience at school; less than 5 percent of the middle school students and less than 10 percent of the upper school students report that they are dissatisfied; the other students report neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. We use a measure (distressed behavior) that identifies students who report the highest level of stress and are either dissatisfied with their overall experience at school or miss school because they cannot keep up with the pace of the work. When you combine these numbers, around 20 percent of the middle school students and 45 percent at the upper school are less than satisfied or distressed.

To round out the picture, we asked all of our students what they liked best and least about their experiences at school. In their free responses, students pointed to inspiring teachers, friends and the deep choice of opportunities as what they liked best. On the least liked side of the ledger were homework, stress and competition.

Our kids are doing more than they were when this process started a dozen years ago. Too many of them don’t sleep enough, don’t enjoy what they are doing as much as they could and don’t respond positively when asked whether they are satisfied with their overall experience at school. The free responses tell us that many are struggling with what seems to them an unremitting pressure about college and what comes next. Paradoxically, what our students value most is the source of what they like least.

We have made a series of recommendations designed to address some of these issues without undermining the quality of our academic programs. Here is a sampling.

Work, pressure and competition are part of the package here, but too narrow a focus on achievement as a means to an end can be corrosive and self-defeating. Concern for self and focus on results should be balanced by values such as service that go beyond the self. Some of our sports teams do service projects as part of the team experience. This builds team spirit and is a worthy end in itself. Why can’t our classes incorporate service projects into the curriculum? Why isn’t service a bigger part of what we do? The answer is that there is not enough time, and for this reason we are recommending adding days to the school year. A commitment to service and other non-assessed activities (e.g. field trips, student-sponsored learning activities) simply will require more time than the current schedule affords.

We also believe there need to be enforceable scheduling limits. Too many students load their schedules with an “arms-race” mentality about what colleges want on a transcript. If students are interested in taking solid courses above a set limit, they should be allowed to do so on a credit-no credit basis subject to approval by the department offering the course. This way the load can be lightened without weakening the quality of our course offerings. Our survey indicates that our girls perceive their school experience differently than our boys, reporting that they have more homework than boys, that they get less sleep than boys and are less satisfied with their overall experience at school. We should be at the forefront of addressing this important issue and form a working group to address it going forward.

We have made significant improvement in ninth-10th 12 transition issues over the last twelve years, but there are still departments where the transition is reported as being more difficult than it was in the last survey. The middle school and upper school departments in question each need to review the other campus’ program and resolve any differences in approach. The Sports Council has contributed significantly to easing the friction between academic and athletic programs. The Sports Council should be expanded to become a Co-Curricular Council responsible for oversight of issues including time commitments for activities.

In a school as large and successful as ours, change can be difficult. We have systems in place to implement and conserve the policies which have made our school so successful; however, we do not have a mechanism focused on change. We should create a standing group (including faculty and students and supported by senior administrators) charged with encouraging change through experiment and experience rather than by one-size-fits-all fiat.

The next stop for some recommendations will be the Faculty Academic Commitee; we can expect administrative implementation of others and there will be continued discussion on the question of the extended school year. One of the things that makes Harvard-Westlake a great school is our willingness to listen to our students, closely examine what we do and always look for ways to do better. We hope we have contributed to that process.