Needham, Massachusetts, Principal Tries to Ease Burden for High School Students

When I started this blog last summer, one of my first entries was about schools that had cut back on summer homework. There, I wrote about the principal of Needham High, Paul Richards (whom I had interviewed for The Case Against Homework), an educator who’s concerned about the amount of stress today’s students face.

Paul Richards was in the news again recently because he put an end to the tradition of publishing the honor roll in the local newspaper, a move which subjected him to ridicule on national TV. But, according to Richards, high schools stress contributes to increased incidents of suicide, eating disorders, drug abuse, and other self-destructive behaviors.

According to the Boston Globe, Richards recently outlined several new initiatves to combat stress among students, including surveying students about their anxieties; consulting the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital; and forming a stress-reduction committee of students, parents, and teachers. He also said he’d ask teachers to be more flexible in their assignment deadlines, noting that college professors often hand out a syllabus at the start of a semester that list windows of time to turn in projects and reports. And he plans to ask teachers to make sure they clearly state the objective of assignments, so that students are not left feeling they’re doing busywork.

Read the entire article here.

17 thoughts on “Needham, Massachusetts, Principal Tries to Ease Burden for High School Students

  1. As parent of 2 elementary age boys, and former elementary and junior high school teacher, I have seen this issue from many, many angles. This principal’s approach seems well thought out and reasonable to me. My experience and intuition cause me to believe some types of homework can be beneficial for specific purposes. IF the goal is memorization of math facts or spelling words, then 5-10 minutes several days out of the week would likely be more helpful than 15-30 minutes on a worksheet. IF the goal is responsibility (keeping track of the homework and remembering to do it), then the time spent ON the assignment should be minimal. And how long does it actually take for a child to learn this process? Are children really doomed to never being able to complete and turn in assignments on time unless they start practicing that process in 1st grade? IF the goal is really because we can’t get enough done at school or because some parents equate more homework with higher expectations and achievement, then we really need to do some educating of the adults. True professionals set policies based on the best information (ie research) available for the best interests of the children – not based on current public opinion or ill-informed parental pressure. I’m impressed that this principal was willing to make a controversial decision for the benefit of the students and then defend that decision.


  2. As a current junior at Needham High School, I think what Mr. Richards is doing is a good… start. What I have seen in my experiences at this High School can not be explained. Bordom, Stress and Homework (3+ Hours) at this Town leads teens to a form of maniac deppresion, And with 4 suicides any many attempts it only makes it harder for the Students. The main contributer is Social and Perental pressure to be ‘the best’.


  3. Paul Richards has decided to leave Needham Schools for another job overseas. I guess he couldn’t handle the stress. Good riddance.


  4. I’m curious. Why Good Riddance? Was is it about Richards’ initiatives you DON’T like? I’m willing to listen. After all, this was a school that suffered through a few suicides followed by a period of soul searching.

    What about stress reduction, balance, adolescent health and well being do you find offensive? Are you worried that adequate sleep in teens will turn them into sloths? Or that they won’t be prepared for the global economy? Please care to elaborate. Because I submit that when you murder wonder in young people, you have much more to worry about than slovenliness.


  5. Anonymous above, perhaps I misunderstood you. I assumed you were saying Good Riddance to Paul Richards. Were you perhaps saying Good Riddance to all that stress he had to combat at that high achieving school?

    I always like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Because if not, I thought your comments were extremely misplaced.


  6. As a current junior at Needham High School I can say that although Mr. Richards had good ideas, he failed to carry them out. Getting rid of the honor roll being shown didn’t cut stress, it just eliminated some of the bad feelings people feel when parents don’t see their kids on the prestigious list. Stress in NHS comes from homework. The problem is that each teacher considers their subject above all others which leads to confliction between major things. Examples of this are that there are often weeks where students have tests almost every day or even every day, I know I do. What’s worse is that if you go to a teacher to ask for an extension on some work or a break because you have too many tests going on or don’t have time to do it, the response is often “no”. Although they don’t blatently say it, they basically mean “my subject is more important, why don’t you ask one of your other teachers for an extension”. Teacher’s don’t want to work with other teachers or kids schedules to see that things work out. That’s just in school work, now let’s talk about homework. Students often find themselves with anywhere from 3-10 or even more hours of homework every night, not to mention that many teachers also assign busy work (they have nothing to give so they throw a random assignment at you). Most times the homework is on the heavier side. The so called “time management form” states that an accelerated class (honors in most other high schools) receives about an hour of homework a night but it’s ALWAYS more than that. And with student staying up so late to finish homework, they are deprived of sleep the next day and are yet again given a boatload of homework which results in less sleep. It’s understandable that there are many conflictions during midterms and finals but that’s what 2 weeks out of the year. But when you are having weeks like that all the time and teachers refuse to compromise, it’s obvious that it is going to lead to stress. You need to make teachers understand that they need to be able to compromise especially when a kid is having all these tests and projects and lab reports, etc. in the same week. They say one hour of homework per accelerated class, about 45 minutes of homework per honors class, 30 minutes per standard class but they don’t enforce that. Cutting stress requires knowledge of the life of the students and how they feel, and surveys can’t gage that. The surveys just ask how much homework you have, how long it takes you, how much time do you spend doing other things. Why does it matter how much time i spent doing other things, and so what if I say that my homework takes me more than an hour per class, they do NOTHING about it. Hopefully the new principal can do something to cut stress or atleast give student some option when they have a TON of stuff going on. Don’t forget about extra cirricular activities and sports which I haven’t even mentioned. That leaves you with even less time and less sleep and more stress. I don’t think NHS will ever successfully reduce the stress level, we just have to get used to this lifestyle and get less sleep. Hopefully the higher ups get it right someday, all we can do it hope.


  7. I agree with the person above. I am also a junior and I do find that teachers are unwilling to compromise. Although it may seem like an excuse to get less homework, the root of all this stress is actually homework. I’m not saying give no homework but give homework in reasonable amounts and not busy work. I think the school should teach the teachers that it’s okay to compromise and no subjects are better than another. I’m also in agreement that students should have some sort of option as to what they can do when they come to those certain weeks where they are overloaded. From personal experience I’ve learned that even when you drop all extra cirricular activities for that one busy week, you still don’t have enough time.


  8. Don’t have parents and teachers/principals run boards that are supposed to deal with stress because they have no idea about student life. Let students advise them and by advise I mean make the descisions but have the adults okay the descisions because only students know what’s going on. We’ve seen the adults take several cracks at it and we’ve seen no success. Time for them to step aside and let the students take charge.


  9. The students above are telling it like it is. I’m glad they wrote because it lends credibility to our family distress. I’ve been detailing high school homework overload (it started in 3rd grade and has simply gotten worse with each passing year. Okay, 7th was less than 6th and there was that on magical year of homeschooling, the one year I am sure my daughter will always remember most fondly but the rest of the journey has been Homework Hell. It feels interminable and I just want it to stop. Six more months…) for two years now.

    The last student made a cogent point. Put this out to the kids. Talk to them. Because in all these decisions, there is one major stakeholder that is never consulted and they are the most important stakeholders of all. The students, our future. And they are being silenced by their education.


  10. To all the teachers who post and complain that it’s not teachers who are making the rules or causing the students’ stress….read the posts from those anonymous students! It is the teacher who is saying no to individual pleas for rescue from the homework burdens.

    How is a student supposed to “coordinate” what homework teachers assign? The teachers must talk with each other and make life bearable for their students. Stop treating them as if you don’t owe them any respect. Model the behaviour you’re expecting from them and perhaps you’ll get a little of it back.


  11. PsychMom, on free range kids, after Lenore Skenazy posted a yay on the Milleys, an entire homework discussion ensued. One parent (I could have written the same words) lamented that some days her high schooler has a test in every single subject. A teacher responded complaining, I’m busy and what am I supposed to do? Coordinate test schedules, for crying out loud?

    Fortunately, some parents jumped on her. Yes, for crying out loud! We told her, you can’t coordinate with the teachers so the tests are evenly spaced but you expect a fifteen year old to juggle seven courses, extra curriculars, hours and hours of homework and chores and all on little sleep? Please. Model behavior.

    And while we’re at it, why so many tests in the first place? What is the educational value? The student stays up half the night and crams. Give that same test to the student a month later, unannounced, and the results will amaze you. You will find the student retained almost nothing.

    I’m not picking a fight, I want a dialog. We are told the incessant tests and quizzes are for the grade book. But we want teachers to be teachers, not bookkeepers.

    It comes down to this. Teachers have unbelievably unrealistic expectations for their high schoolers. Most of them could never manage anywhere near the workload they demand of their students.

    I used to feel a lot better about teachers. But more and more, I hear how they dismiss student concerns and make kids very very afraid. When the high schooler does speak up, she is shot down and begins to worry, will this mess up my college prospects? Of course it won’t, we need to empower our children to self advocate.

    But we can’t just leave them twisting in the wind. They have the ability to speak up but are powerless. We need to be there for them. Self advocate has become just one morer edu-buzz phrase.

    Principals tell this to the few brave parents who dare to email about homework overload. They are told, your child should talk to her teacher, self advocate, and then the teacher can determine if it is truly too much or just a case of “time management.” Ah, so the teacher, who is not home with the child gets to decide the time management issue and your word as a parent, means nothing? Who was there all afternoon, evening and night?

    Does administration sit in these regular staff meetings and feed that line over and over, “time management?” It’s become the catch all phrase, euphamism for “go away and leave us alone.”


  12. I tried reading all the comments on Lenore’s site..I had missed the Milley posting. But I find I’m running short on patience now with the parents who write in who believe that “a little homework is fine”.
    I guess the way I’m feeling is the way some parents must have felt in the 60’s when they were horrified that children got the strap in school and wanted to see it banned. They would have encountered parents then too who said, “It’s a necessary thing because otherwise how will teachers keep the children under control” and “Bedlam would ensue if principals lost the right to use punishment at school”.

    Now jump ahead 50 years. Children are losing sleep, losing family time, having fights with their parents over homework, are swallowing pills to keep their anxiety and depression in check, and folks are still saying,

    “Those kids will be good- for-nothing adults if they don’t have homework and lots of it.”
    “Anarachy… if all families got to choose whether they wanted to do homework or not.”
    “How will parents know what their children are learning at school without parents being involved with homework.”

    Does it have to take decades before people wise up?


  13. I’m with you, PsychMom. I’ve had it to up to here with some parents too. On the Milley Post (I’ll post it here), one side of parents felt a no homework policy was too extreme (hello. we’re going for optional here. We’ll talk later why some parents get bent out of shape over the “optional.” They fear their children will protest, if Suzy doesn’t have to do it, why should I?), so how about reasonable homework?

    Um, I think we tried that. It’s too hard to police, as we’ve all found out. They can assign ten hours and call it one and blame it on your child’s time management! None is so much easier, especially in elementary school. What this anti-homework movement needs is an all out “assault.” Just Say No.


  14. Here, here sister! In order for there to be a debate/discussion/polemic, opposing views are needed. In a debate, especially, you need to take the extreme view. I’m not usually that type of person, believe me. I’m more likely to compromise on most things mostly because there aren’t a lot of questions important enough that are up for discussion. But, as you say HomeworkBlues, on this topic, a messy middle ground is not getting us anywhere, and it didn’t get the Milley’s anywhere. And kids, who only get one chance to be kids, are important enough.

    There are certain things I don’t want in my home….homework is one of them. Again, two nights this week, my 8 year old has fallen asleep in the car. This is normal behaviour and expected after putting in a completely inappropriate 9 hour day. I can’t do much about the 9 hour day because I have to work at a job outside the home, but I can control what happens in the 4 other hours she conscious with me during the 24 hours.

    When you see that in writing it’s kind of shocking actually. From 12 midnight to the following midnight, parents are with their non-sleeping children only for about 4 hours if they work fulltime. Less if the kids are younger. And I’m including an hour in the morning, which in our lives is stretching it because the kid doesn’t get out of bed on time.

    Why on earth would we want to spend that precious 3 hours in the evening time doing Homework?


  15. PsychMom- You’re right about taking an extreme view. The extremes define the middle. As the 00’s (no one ever figured out what to call this decade) come to a close, it would be great if we could all reflect upon what societal changes we want for the 10’s. Our young people are coming out of college with fewer job prospects. Unfortunately, I think this will increase the hysteria re: “preparing them for the future.” It saddens me to think that the educational landscape might get worse.


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