Does high school stress have to be a bad thing?

April 27

I am both impressed and annoyed by the work of Denise Clark Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education who has become a leading national expert on the causes of stress for high school students.

Her award-winning 2001 book “Doing School” vividly revealed the pressures that interfere with U.S. teenagers’ getting an education. She rightly counsels families to discard the notion that the most selective colleges provide the best education. She has won the Stanford education school’s outstanding teacher and mentor award three times.

But when she talks about reducing student stress, she seems to dismiss the value that millions of Americans like me put on the hard assignments we endured in high school. For many of us, stress in school and in life has brought excitement and fulfillment, no matter how much we might complain about it.

Pope’s eagerness to change the minds of those of us who embrace detailed assignments and high-stakes tests is evident in her latest paper, “Non-academic effects of homework in privileged, high-performing high schools,” co-written with Mollie K. Galloway of Lewis & Clark College and Jerusha Conner of Villanova University.

The paper challenges some of my most cherished biases, but it is still a must-read.

I have never seen researchers look so closely at the effect of heavy homework in the affluent, competitive public and private high schools that are so common in the Washington area. Nationally, high school students average less than an hour of homework a night. The 4,317 students at 10 high schools in upper-middle-class communities Pope and her colleagues surveyed have an average of more than three hours of homework a night, close to the load of many schools here. Four of the schools in the survey were public, and six were private.

“We find that more time spent on homework is associated with greater stress; more compromised health; and less time for family, friends, and other extracurricular pursuits,” the authors conclude. “Students who completed more hours of homework per night were at greater risk for these negative outcomes; they were also more likely to drop activities or hobbies they enjoyed in order to focus on their academic work.”

The researchers provide many quotes from harried teenagers, who might not be the most reliable judges of what stresses are good and what aren’t. Some scholars note that such heavy loads are rare nationally, and most parents have no problem with the homework their children receive. Making students go to bed at a certain hour can backfire. One of my daughter’s high school friends told me the most stressful time in her life was when her father insisted on an 11 p.m. bedtime. She did not have enough time to finish her work, and he eventually backed down.

I don’t question the value of getting detailed responses from students on this issue. Kids might exaggerate their pain, but who doesn’t? Pope told me she agrees that some stress is good. She didn’t question the fact that the increased emphasis on writing and thinking — all stressful activities — at my alma mater, Hillsdale High in San Mateo, Calif., is a good thing, after I noted many of the changes were made by Stanford education school graduates.

That kind of stress is invaluable, but “many schools confuse rigor with load,” she said in an e-mail. The Challenge Success organization she co-founded has teachers who “have had great success cutting down on homework and on the number of assignments, and their students have done just as well in terms of grades and final assessments,” such as Advanced Placement tests. The organization offers research, coaches, action-planning guides and parent education.

Is more efficient homework possible? The angst-filled hallways of Washington area high schools could use some relief. If parents and students keep talking about it, that might happen.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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