Remarks to Parents at Upper School Curriculum Night:

Good Evening and Welcome to Curriculum Night for the Upper School.

Education is a balancing act, and I think it is helpful  when thinking through our educational goals, principles, and values  to identify where the key tensions lie in that balancing act, and then consciously work to reconcile them as best as we can.

One of these critical tensions is student workload, and particularly homework:  How much is enough; how much is too much?

Last spring, we screened the popular documentary, Race to Nowhere.   That film has many messages, and they are not entirely consistent with each other.  At times, the film seems to say bluntly that there is far too much homework being assigned to students, and that this creates a huge pressure on our kids that is destructive to their social and emotional well being and unnecessary to their preparation.

At other times in the film, the message seemed rather that we should ask students to work hard, but take greater care that what we ask them to do is meaningful, rich in thoughtfulness and creativity, more relevant to real-world applications and allowing for more choice and more student-driven initiative.

For myself as an educator,  I much prefer the second message, and I think we at St. Gregory do a good job at fulfilling this second idea, that work should be meaningful, engaging, rich, inquisitive, and creative rather than exclusively rote, monotonous, and replete of memorization and regurgitation.   But that I think we do a good job doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to do a better job.

But let’s engage the first argument expressed in Race to Nowhere, and let’s  underscore the importance of students working hard.  Last spring a book was published which has caused quite a commotion in higher education, a book entitled Academically Adrift, Limited Learning on College Campuses.   After a thorough evaluation of student progress in areas of critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and written communications,  it found that some students are learning much more than others (and unfortunately far too many are not learning at all), and it sought to identify the key characteristics of those students who did grow significantly in these critically important academic skills.

Four keys to success stand out to this reader, keys particularly pertinent to secondary educators, and I think at a college preparatory school like our own, where we have every intention of providing a pre-collegiate education which is closely comparable and parallel to a university education, we can take strong signals from what was discovered in this college study.

First, students who worked more learned more, considerably more.  “Studying and doing homework has stronger and more widespread positive effects than any other measure.”

Second, students who had more demanding coursework did dramatically better in their learning growth.  Demanding coursework is defined as having at least one course in a semester which requires a minimum of 40 pages of reading a week and 20 pages of writing a semester.  (It is striking to learn that more than  half of college students do not have this minimum level of expectation placed upon them).   I have shared with St. Gregory teachers this message: that true college preparation requires us to ensure our students experience in the upper years courses with this level of demand.

Third, high faculty expectations as perceived by their students make a big difference.  I know you will see tonight the very high expectations our teachers have, and I think it is fair to ask them how they communicate these high expectations on a regular basis to their students.

Fourth, and this one, I have to say, breaks my heart a little bit: hours spent studying alone have a high correlation with academic success, but hours studying in groups has an inverse effect: the more time students spend studying with peers, the smaller their improvement.

Why does it break my heart?  Because I believe, in my heart of hearts, and from my personal recollection as both a student and a teacher that good, organized, disciplined, purposeful group study enhances student learning  and develops important skills for our students in collaboration and problem-solving.

I should say that the authors allow for the possibility that the problem isn’t group study in and of itself; it may be that too often group study is poorly organized and severely undisciplined: it might be too much of the time just goofing off, the authors of the study acknowledge.  We as parents and educators need to be cautious about recommending group study, and only encourage or welcome it if it is to be conducted in a reasonably serious and structured manner, but I am not willing to accept that we should avoid group study altogether.

St. Gregory has a proud and strong tradition of preparing students for great accomplishment in colleges and universities; it is something  our recent graduates consistently tell us when they share with us their college experiences.   This comes from the high expectations and extraordinary instruction that our teachers provide every day, and which you will learn more about tonight, but let’s not forget that this preparation for collegiate success is also very much the result of our students working hard, reading at length, and writing frequently, in their high school years and continuing to do so in their college education.

We all want our students to be on a healthy and meaningful  journey to somewhere great, not a race to nowhere, but let’s remember that a critical part of that journey is a fair amount of good, hard, thorough, rich, intense academic work in high school.

Enjoy your evening, and thank you again for coming.


For more about Race to Nowhere: