How Homework Overload Affects Students For Liberty

Student success at Barrington High School, among the highest-performing schools in the nation, may have a hidden cost.

Richard Salit Journal Staff Writer richsalit

BARRINGTON, R.I. — Student success at Barrington High School, among the highest-performing schools in the nation, may have a hidden cost.

A survey commissioned by the School Department recently found that students are stressed-out, sleep-deprived, overloaded with homework and willing to cheat.

Among the survey's findings:

• Three out of four students say they are often or always stressed by schoolwork.

• Students sleep an average of 6.75 hours per night, versus the recommended 9 to 9.5 hours.

• Nearly two-thirds of students report getting "too much" homework, including one-third who say many or all of their teachers hand out "busywork."

• Nine out of 10 students say they cheated at least once in the past year.

When it comes to results, Barrington gets them. U.S. News & World Report ranks the high school second in Rhode Island (behind Providence's Classical) and 400th in the nation. More Advanced Placement, or AP, courses are being offered and more students are taking them to help get into selective colleges.

"We're thinking, 'This is great. Our AP numbers are good. The kids are scoring well,'" said Principal Joseph Hurley. "And now you get this data and say, 'Wait a minute. These kids are too stressed.'"

That raises a key question, Hurley said.

"What are we going to do about it?" he said. "It's not an easy fix."

The survey grew out of a series of forums the high school held on school-improvement topics. One was on reducing stress.

"The kids, that's all they wanted to talk about," Hurley said.

Then the school learned about Challenge Success, based at Stanford University. Denise Clark Pope, a co-founder of the organization, was asked to launch the program after she wrote a book, "Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students."

Challenge Success developed the survey because "we wanted more than anecdotal evidence," Pope said in an interview. The data is used for research and to develop reports for the schools that take it.

Nearly 100 schools have taken the survey since its inception in 2009. Barrington, where 863 students took it, is the first in Rhode Island. 

Schools that take the survey receive a nearly 30-page report. In follow-up discussions between Challenge Success experts and school officials, little time is spent on comparisons among schools.

"Many schools have similar problems," said Pope, and the goal is "not to be the best of your peer group. Every school is different."

The hope, she said, is that communities will decide for themselves which survey results are concerning and then take steps to address those issues. Schools can repeat the surveys to track their progress.

Some schools have moved up midterm exams to before the midyear holiday break to allow students to relax during the holiday recess, Pope said.

One school required teachers to indicate how many hours of homework their courses will require. Students then meet with guidance counselors and their parents to add up those hours, along with extracurricular activities, to ensure they are not overbooked.

In Barrington, the survey has focused attention on the relationship between homework, sleep and academic integrity.

The most common cheating involved copying someone else's work or working with others on individual assignments, as opposed to cheating on exams.

"Those numbers were really high. It's more than we'd like to admit," said Laura Clancy, a rising senior who is her class representative on the School Improvement Team. "That's something to look at, why that's happening. Do students not have enough time to do the homework they have?"

Students report having nearly three hours of homework a night — especially juniors and seniors — while experts at Challenge Success say "there are diminishing returns after two hours," Hurley said.

The message from the Stanford experts, said Hurley, was this: "Don't think all of your kids are amoral or are doing bad things. " The problem may simply be that "they have too much on their plates."

Regarding sleep, school officials had already addressed making the start of the school day later, as some studies recommend. But the plan, to start classes 45 minutes later, was delayed until the 2017-18 academic year amid opposition and concerns about needing more time to make the change.

— rsalit@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7467

On Twitter: @RichSalit

Barrington barometer

What high school students said in the Challenge Success survey:

28% have less than 40 minutes of free time on weekdays.

64% feel they have too much homework.

66% don't get enough sleep due to schoolwork.

46% miss more than one day of school due to stress-related health or emotional problems.

35% of seniors say they copy someone else's homework.

87% never cheat on an exam.

56% text or use Snapchat while doing homework.

31% spend more than 10 hours a week on extracurricular activities Monday through Friday.

Source: Report of Challenge Success, based on survey responses of 863 students

Taking the survey

Any school can administer the survey taken by Barrington High School students.

The survey is offered by Challenge Success, based at Stanford University, which provides a variety of services to schools to address the well-being of students. Its website is ChallengeSuccess.org.

The least-expensive package costs $2,750 and includes setup and assistance in administering one online survey, a written report summarizing the results, and a post-survey call with Challenge Success officials to discuss recommendations.

Challenge Success also offers conferences and professional development on best practices in education regarding mental health and wellness.

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