Curriculum expectations and teacher autonomy
January 7, 2022
One possible response to student stress is to eliminate some of their workload by decreasing the difficulty and length of assignments and curriculum content. Teachers are able to choose, for the most part, how much work to give students.
According to Meyer, teachers at the high school have a unique amount of control over the curriculum they teach for their subject.
“There is a long history of faculty autonomy. We trust teachers to make good decisions. I don’t explicitly say to faculty, ‘You need to limit your homework,’ because each department is different. There are different levels of courses and expectations,” Meyer said.
Mason said that the administration chooses not to interfere with teachers’ decisions. According to Mason, the staff have always had freedom to individually assign any work that they see needed. Mason said he isn’t worried about the difficult homework levels that this policy might unintentionally create.
“Teachers should give homework when it’s necessary and it’s going to add to the learning,” Mason said. “That guidance is not new to this year, although perhaps people have a higher sensitivity to it.”
Dean of Student Support Systems and social studies teacher Brian Poon said he has to balance his own expectations for how far his classes get in the curriculum and the significance of giving students enough time so that they can truly learn the material.
“Part of the question is: what are our values around preparation? What is lost if I give kids work that they can’t really appreciate? I have both content and skill goals. If I just put pressure on them for those goals, will they be prepared to demonstrate those goals in other circumstances? My hope is, yes. If I crush them with my work expectation, what’s the cost of that?” Poon said.
Poon said grades are an important part of the conversation around student stress. If a teacher were to make their class easier by removing some of the required work, then they might help some students’ immediate mental health needs. However, it could also hurt them later on in terms of standardized tests and other parts of the college application process.
Poon acknowledged that some students would benefit from learning in an environment that doesn’t assert grades as the ultimate motivation to work hard. But he argued that the system that only gives an A to the highest-performing students strengthens the skills that will be necessary in college and many careers.
“If I said to you, ‘just show up and I’ll give everybody an A,’ some people would be happy. But the nerdy people are like, ‘I’m gonna be an engineer. I need this stuff,’” Poon said. “So there’s a grander philosophical conversation around all of our values: what are we willing to give up and what do we deem as essential?”
To address student stress, Poon said there are benefits and losses to making school work easier. According to Poon, material taught in school is part of the preparation students do before taking the SAT or ACT. But he wonders whether the teaching work assigned is hurting students more than helping them. Poon said he, as a teacher, struggles to balance students’ mental health and educational needs.
“The question that I’m thinking about is: what do we value in our education? At what cost? I’m feeling that the cost might be too high right now because I don’t think that students are prepared to do what we’re asking them to do. And if that’s the case, how do we need to adjust? But there’s an overcorrection that fails to give our students the education that we want for them,” Poon said.