I Hate Homework. I Assign It Anyway.

The New York Times

I hate — hate — homework.

I hated homework when I was a student, I hate the battle of wills I have with my second-grader and I hate seeing my middle-school-age son miss out on the afternoons of his childhood.

But most of all, I hate being a hypocrite. So it’s time to come clean: I am a teacher, and I assign homework.

I have always assigned homework because that is what teachers do; if I didn’t, word would get around that I am a pushover, or don’t care enough about my students to engage their every waking moment with academics. When I first started teaching, I assigned homework liberally and without question, and scoffed at my students’ complaints about their workload. I expected them to keep quiet, buck up and let me do my job.

But 13 years later, I find myself at a crossroads. My son Ben is in middle school, and homework is no longer an abstract concept. I can’t just assign it and forget it, and I will no longer sacrifice my students’ right to their childhood so easily.

I am not the only parent — or teacher, for that matter — questioning the value of homework. It’s the subject of heated debate in school meetings and Internet chat rooms across the country. Even elite private schools in New York City are vowing to lighten their homework load.

The popular media tempest surrounding homework formed in 2006 with the publication of two books on the subject: “The Homework Myth,” by Alfie Kohn, and “The Case Against Homework,” by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, followed by Time Magazine’s The Myth About Homework by Claudia Wallis. Last year, Vicki Abeles’s documentary “Race to Nowhere” joined the fray. In her film, Ms. Abeles claims that today’s untenable and increasing homework load drives students to cheating, mental illness and suicide.

So is homework worth it or not? I went directly to the source. I asked my students whether, if homework were to completely disappear, they would be able achieve the same mastery of the material. The answer was a unanimous — if reluctant — “No.”

Most echoed my son Ben’s sentiments: “If I didn’t have homework, I don’t think I’d do very well. It’s practice for what we learn in school.” But, they all stressed, that’s only true of some homework. “Bad” homework — busy work and assignments that don’t do anything but eat up precious evening hours, is (as one of my more opinionated students put it) “a stupid waste of my time.”

Fair enough. If my students feel that quality homework is worth the effort, I’m keeping it. With one caveat. All assignments must pass the “Ben” test. If an assignment is not worthy of my own son’s time, I’m dumping it. Based on a quick look at my assignment book from last year, about a quarter of my assignments won’t make the cut.

Children need time to be quiet, play, read and imagine. Teachers who sacrifice these vital elements of childhood for anything less than the most valuable homework assignments are being derelict in their duty to their students and the teaching profession.

As Students Return to School, Debate About the Amount of Homework Rages

Photo

Discussions on blogs like GreatSchools.org or StopHomework.com reveal a belief that the workload assigned to students may be too heavy. CreditAlex Federowicz for The New York Times

How much homework is enough?

My daughter, Maya, who is entering second grade, was asked to complete homework six days a week during the summer. For a while, we tried gamely to keep up. But one day she turned to me and said, “I hate reading.”

I put the assignment aside.

That was my abrupt introduction to the debate over homework that is bubbling up as students across the United States head back to school.

This month, Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher in Godley, Tex., let parents know on “Meet the Teacher” night that she had no plans to load up her students’ backpacks.

“There will be no formally assigned homework this year,” Ms. Young wrote in a note that was widely shared on Facebook. “Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.”

Other conversations about homework are humming in town halls and online. Some school districts, including one near Phoenix, have taken steps to shorten the summer break, out of concern that too much is forgotten over the summer. But discussions on blogs likeGreatSchools.org or StopHomework.com reveal a belief that the workload assigned to students may be too heavy.

“How many people take home an average of two hours or more of work that must be completed for the next day?” said Tonya Noonan Herring, a New Mexico mother of three, in an article on GreatSchools.

The National PTA and the National Education Association endorse a 10-minute guideline: Time spent on after-school work should not exceed 10 minutes a grade level a night. “That is, a first grader should have no more than 10 minutes of homework, a sixth grader no more than 60 minutes and a 12th grader no more than two hours,” the National PTA says.

The National Education Association said those recommendations followed general guidelines from the research of Harris M. Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and the author of “The Battle Over Homework.”

“The horror stories I hear from parents and students about five or more hours spent on homework a night fly in the face of evidence of what’s best for kids, even what’s best for promoting academic achievement,” he wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times.

Have expectations about homework changed this year at your school? Leave us a comment with your thoughts.

Principal: What happened when my school ended useless homework

The Washington Post

By Valerie Strauss March 18, 2016

Anyone who closely follows the debate about the value of homework at different grades knows about a famous meta-analysis of previous research on the subject, published in 2006 by researcher Harris Cooper and colleagues, which found that homework in elementary school does not contribute to academic achievement. You might think that educators would have taken that to heart, but because research rarely informs educational policy, it didn’t.

Today, children in preschool — that’s 3- and 4-year-olds — routinely get homework in the form of dull worksheets. A February 2016 report on New York City’s pre-kindergarten program reported this:

Out-of-school enrichment activities was another way pre-K programs engage parents in children’s learning at home. Homework most often consisted of worksheet packets and reading with the child or instructions to practice with children what they are learning at school. Parents in the focus groups voiced strong opinions about homework, with some favoring it and others feeling it was not age-appropriate for preschoolers to have homework; some felt their children had too little and others too much. On the positive side, parents enjoyed engaging with their children and saw homework as a window into what they were learning at school.

On the other hand, some parents felt their children had too much homework and preferred their children to spend more time at play. Most felt the daily requirement of reading a book to the child was important and key to their child’s reading and vocabulary progress. One parent pointed out that some of the content of the homework is beyond the child’s knowledge so parents are almost “required” to teach it at home. To encourage children to enjoy reading, one center loans each child a book every week that parents are expected to read with their child.

In Cambridge, Mass., one principal faced the homework issue and did something about it. She is Katie Charner-Laird, principal of Cambridgeport School, which educates students from what it calls “junior kindergarten” through fifth grade. Charner-Laird is a progressive educator who wrote the following piece about what happened when she led her team to reevaluate homework and whether it was important to assign. This appeared on the website of the nonprofit organization National Association for the Education of Young Children, and I am republishing it with permission.

By Katie Charner-Laird

In 2014, I found myself in one too many meetings with discontent parents talking about homework. Some parents felt the homework was not meaningful. Others were upset because they felt there was not enough feedback from teachers. Still, other parents wanted teachers to be individualizing homework more. In each of these meetings, it became uncomfortably clear that I really didn’t know what was happening across the school with regards to homework.

By the end of that year, I had made one firm commitment both to myself and to several parents. We would spend some time as a staff, before the next school year started, articulating our beliefs and approach to homework, and develop what some might call a homework policy.

Over that summer, I read a number of articles about how we have to get better at homework, the argument being that homework is a problem for children and families because it is tedious and doesn’t ask children to think critically and creatively. While I didn’t completely disagree with these articles, I also didn’t find a strong rationale for why we give homework or how much homework we should be giving.

I had heard of Alfie Kohn’s book, “The Homework Myth,” but in truth, I was avoiding reading it. As a former teacher, I had always felt that homework was a critical part of children learning organizational skills and responsibility and a way to practice newly developed skills. Moreover, the idea of getting rid of homework seemed a bit too unconventional. But when I finally did pick up “The Homework Myth,” I couldn’t put it down. One by one, my reasons for considering homework an essential part of the elementary school experience were dismantled.

Time management and organizational skills: Kohn points out that rather than teaching time management to students, homework actually requires parents to do more to organize children’s time.

Newly learned skills: Kohn argues that it is rare that all students need the same practice at the end of a lesson. For some, additional practice may be confusing, while for others, it may be unnecessary.

What the research says: Kohn scoured the research to find that there is no evidence that homework in elementary school leads to an increase in student achievement.

At our opening staff meetings last August, I asked teachers to read excerpts from “The Homework Myth,” and discuss the article with grade-level colleagues. Many teachers were as dumbfounded as I was when challenged to think about their long-held beliefs about homework. I asked each grade level team to decide on a common homework approach for the coming school year. While I knew where I stood on the homework issue at this point, I felt it was important for teachers to make these decisions themselves after I had provided them with research and the opportunities to discuss it. As I met with each grade-level team, I also felt it was my responsibility to ensure that there was some semblance of a trajectory from kindergarten through fifth grade.

The School’s New Homework Policy:

Last school year for the first time, I knew the homework expectations for each class in the school!
In kindergarten, students dictate stories to their families on a regular basis, but with no official due dates. Parents were encouraged to read to their children, but there were no set expectations for how much or how often.
Starting in first grade, students were expected to read nightly and this included families reading to children.
Most grade-level teams opted out of reading logs or other accountability structures, noting that these often devolved into a meaningless checklists lacking accountability altogether.
Third graders were asked to write nightly. Students determine the content and form of their writing, which is not graded. Third graders are also expected to practice their math facts based on both grade level expectations and personal levels of mastery.
In my experiences as both principal and teacher, parents often voice two significant complaints: homework either took too long, or not long enough; AND parents didn’t understand the homework, so they couldn’t help their child. These issues have been addressed in our new approach to homework. All homework is now open-ended enough to avoid these common complaints.

Teachers give parents information about other elements also taught in class so they can be supportive of the related homework. When a teacher asks students to read for 30 minutes, some students may read 10 pages, and others may read 30. Parents can help children find a regular time to do that homework because the time needed is consistent. Moreover, if a parent wants a child to do more homework, it is quite simple to just have them keep reading. There is no “wrong way” to do the homework. And this has led to many families reporting that the level of stress in their household has decreased dramatically.

So in 2014, Cambridgeport became “the school that doesn’t give homework,” yet I heard repeatedly from students, teachers, and parents about the significant, meaningful work they are doing at home. A fourth grader begged to take home his writing notebook on the third day of school so he could keep working on the story he had started in class. A class of fifth graders requested additional practice problems to take home with them. A father-daughter pair showed me the model they created of the setting of the book they were reading together.

Our school may be giving less homework but we have more students engaged in more meaningful learning activities at home than ever before.

Homework: A New User’s Guide

NPR

SEPTEMBER 19, 2015 7:03 AM ET
It's Homework Time!

LA Johnson/NPR

If you made it past the headline, you’re likely a student, concerned parent, teacher or, like me, a nerd nostalgist who enjoys basking in the distant glow of Homework Triumphs Past (second-grade report on Custer’s Last Stand, nailed it!).

Whoever you are, you’re surely hoping for some clarity in the loud, perennial debate over whether U.S. students are justifiably exhausted and nervous from too much homework — even though some international comparisons suggest they’re sitting comfortably at the average.

Well, here goes. I’ve mapped out six, research-based polestars that should help guide you to some reasonable conclusions about homework.

How much homework do U.S. students get?

The best answer comes from something called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. In 2012, students in three different age groups — 9, 13 and 17 — were asked, “How much time did you spend on homework yesterday?” The vast majority of 9-year-olds (79 percent) and 13-year-olds (65 percent) and still a majority of 17-year-olds (53 percent) all reported doing an hour or less of homework the day before.

Another study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that high school students who reported doing homework outside of school did, on average, about seven hours a week.

If you’re hungry for more data on this — and some perspective — check out this exhaustive report put together last year by researcher Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institution.

An hour or less a day? But we hear so many horror stories! Why?

The fact is, some students do have a ton of homework. In high school we see a kind of student divergence — between those who choose or find themselves tracked into less-rigorous coursework and those who enroll in honors classes or multiple Advanced Placement courses. And the latter students are getting a lot of homework. In that 2012 NAEP survey, 13 percent of 17-year-olds reported doing more than two hours of homework the previous night. That’s not a lot of students, but they’re clearly doing a lot of work.

That also tracks with a famous survey from 2007 — from MetLife — that asked parents what they think of their kids’ homework load. Sixty percent said it was just right. Twenty-five percent said their kids are getting too little. Just 15 percent of parents said their kids have too much homework.

Research also suggests that the students doing the most work have something else in common: income. “I think that the debate over homework in some ways is a social class issue,” says Janine Bempechat, professor of human development at Wheelock College. “There’s no question that in affluent communities, children are really over-taxed, over-burdened with homework.”

But the vast majority of students do not seem to have inordinate workloads. And the ones who do are generally volunteering for the tough stuff. That doesn’t make it easier, but it does make it a choice.

Do we know how much homework students in other countries are doing?

Sort of. Caveats abound here. Education systems and perceptions of what is and isn’t homework can vary remarkably overseas. So any comparison is, to a degree, apples-to-oranges (or, at least, apples-to-pears). A 2012 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development pegged the U.S. homework load for 15-year-olds at around six hours per week. That’s just above the study’s average. It found that students in Hong Kong are also doing about six hours a week. Much of Europe checks in between four and five hours a week. In Japan, it’s four hours. And Korea’s near the bottom, at three hours.

How much homework is too much?

Better yet, how much is just right? Harris Cooper at Duke University has done some of thebest work on homework. He and his team reviewed dozens of studies, from 1987 to 2003, looking for consensus on what works and what doesn’t. A common rule of thumb, he says, is what’s called the 10-minute rule. Take the child’s grade and multiply by 10. So first-graders should have roughly 10 minutes of homework a night, 40 minutes for fourth-graders, on up to two hours for seniors in high school. A lot of of schools use this. Even theNational PTA officially endorses it.

Homework clearly improves student performance, right?

Not necessarily. It depends on the age of the child. Looking over the research, there’s little to no evidence that homework improves student achievement in elementary school. Then again, the many experts I spoke with all said the same thing: The point of homework in those primary grades isn’t entirely academic. It’s about teaching things like time-management and self-direction.

But, by high school the evidence shifts. Harris Cooper’s massive review found, in middle and high school, a positive correlation between homework and student achievement on unit tests. It seems to help. But more is not always better. Cooper points out that, depending on the subject and the age of the student, there is a law of diminishing returns. Again, he recommends the 10-minute rule.

What kinds of homework seem to be most effective?

This is where things get really interesting. Because homework should be about learning, right? To understand what kinds of homework best help kids learn, we really need to talk about memory and the brain.

Let’s start with something called the spacing effect. Say a child has to do a vocabulary worksheet. The next week, it’s a new worksheet with different words and so on. Well, research shows that the brain is better at remembering when we repeat with consistency, not when we study in long, isolated chunks of time. Do a little bit of vocabulary each night, repeating the same words night after night.

Similarly, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, Henry “Roddy” Roediger III, recommends that teachers give students plenty of little quizzes, which he says strengthen the brain’s ability to remember. Don’t fret. They can be low-stakes or no-stakes, says Roediger: It’s the steady recall and repetition that matter. He also recommends, as homework, that students try testing themselves instead of simply re-reading the text or class notes.

There’s also something known as interleaving. This is big in the debate over math homework. Many of us — myself included — learned math by focusing on one concept at a time, doing a worksheet to practice that concept, then moving on.

Well, there’s evidence that students learn more when homework requires them to choose among multiple strategies — new and old — when solving problems. In other words, kids learn when they have to draw not just from what they learned in class that day but that week, that month, that year.

One last note: Experts agree that homework should generally be about reinforcing what students learned in class (this is especially true in math). Sometimes it can — and should — be used to introduce new material, but here’s where so many horror stories begin.

Tom Loveless, a former teacher, offers this advice: “I don’t think teachers should ever send brand-new material that puts the parent in the position of a teacher. That’s a disaster. My own personal philosophy was: Homework is best if it’s material that requires more practice but they’ve already received initial instruction.”

Or, in the words of the National PTA: “Homework that cannot be done without help is not good homework.”

Are Students Overworked? Research Offers Insights

Independent School Management

Vol. 14 No. 5 8/6/15

PSN eletter Vol14 No5 childstress

With extracurricular-driven“superkids” and homework horror stories driving media headlines, it begs the question: Are today’s students truly overworked to the point of mental and physical health risks? Research suggests that the rigors through which we push many students are not enough to warrant panic, though that may not be true across the board.

In 2006, three researchers—Joseph Mahoney, Angel Harris, and Jacquelynne Eccles—evaluated whether students truly were overscheduled. They hypothesized that the pressures from families and schools to succeed academically and professionally would push the average student to overextending his or her commitments, leading to health and social adjustment problems. Theirstudy encompassed some 5,000 families nationwide with students ages 5 through 18 from a broad socioeconomic range.

The study found that there was, in fact, “very limited empirical support for the overscheduling hypothesis.” Only 3-6% of students spent 20 or more hours a week participating in extracurricular, organized activities. The average American student, in comparison, spends about 5 hours weekly enjoying organized activities, and 40% of studied students spend no time in extracurriculars at all.

The researchers also found that those students who spend 20 or more hours in an organized activity tended to be at least as well adjusted socially as “youth who did not participate” in extracurriculars. This finding runs counter to the image of highly motivated students as isolated hermits, scribbling on papers from dawn until dusk after five hours of soccer practice.

The study went on to verify the commonly held belief that participation in extracurriculars is good for a developing child’s well-being, including “academic achievement, school completion, post-secondary educational attainment, psychological adjustment, and lowered rates of smoking and drug use, to the quantity and quality of interactions with their parents.” Plus, the more a student participated in organized activities, the researchers found that the benefits of those activities either accrued or plateaued—not decreased.

The research team revisited their conclusions in 2012. They found that not only did their original conclusions continue to hold true, but also continued into early adulthood. Heavily involved students from the first study exhibited “lower psychological distress, and higher educational attainment and civic engagement” later in life.

Of course, not all studies concur with the conclusions drawn by Mahoney and his compatriots. In 2006, Dr. Shawn Latendresse, professor at Baylor University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, ran a similar study specifically examining the relationship between affluence and parenting styles and its subsequent influence on students’ social maturity.

His conclusions indicate that, on average, students from affluent families gradually became less socially well-adjusted over their academic career, with some cases showing greater maladjustment than adolescents in low-income, high-risk neighborhoods. Dr. Latendresse further demonstrates correlations between overbearing parenting styles—including overscheduling of extracurricular activities—and an increased risk of impeded social development.

So while overscheduling may not be a problem for the majority of students (even students coming from higher socioeconomic backgrounds), the possibility of overburdening students exists and should be considered when discussing the benefits of extracurricular activities and challenging courses with families.

Your school’s schedule plays an enormous role in enabling students to challenge themselves while maintaining a healthy, happy lifestyle. If your current schedule seems constrictive or burdensome, consider a new format that includes breaks, extended periods for increased engagement and information retention, and opportunities to seek assistance from advisors and teachers. ISM can help you customize a new schedule that’s designed with your mission, resources, and school community in mind.

Push, Don’t Crush Students

Photo

CreditKeith Negley

PALO ALTO, Calif. — PALO ALTO HIGH SCHOOL, one of the nation’s most prestigious public secondary schools, is sandwiched between two stark and illusory paths. Across the street to the west, Stanford University beckons as the platonic ideal, a symbol of the road to Google, the White House, the mansion on the hill. To the east, across a bike trail, are the railroad tracks where three boys from the school district have killed themselves this year.

Suicide clusters are relatively rare, accounting for about 5 percent of teenage suicides. Startlingly, this year’s is the second contagion to visit this city. Five students or recent graduates of the district’s other high school, Gunn High School, killed themselves beginning in 2009.

Experts say such clusters typically occur when suicide takes hold as a viable coping mechanism — as a deadly, irrational fashion. But that hasn’t stopped this community from soul searching: Does a culture of hyperachievement deserve any blame for this cluster?

The answer is complex, bordering on the contradictory: No, the pressure to succeed is not unique, nor does it cause a suicide cluster in itself, but the intense reflection underway here has unearthed a sobering reality about how Silicon Valley’s culture of best in class is playing out in the schools.

In addition to whatever overt pressure students feel to succeed, that culture is intensified by something more insidious: a kind of doublespeak from parents and administrators. They often use all the right language about wanting students to be happy, healthy and resilient — a veritable “script,” said Madeline Levine, a Bay Area psychologist who treats depressed, anxious and suicidal tech-industry executives, workers and their children.

“They say, ‘All I care about is that you’re happy,’ and then the kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’ ” Ms. Levine said. “The giveaways are so unbelievably clear.”

Denise Pope, an education expert at Stanford, calls this gulf between what people say and what they mean “the hidden message of parenting.”

But here, and in lots of other ultrahigh-achieving communities and schools, Ms. Pope said that children are picking through the static to hear the overriding message that only the best will do — in grades, test scores, sports, art, college. “In everything,” she said.

“I hear students tell me that if I don’t get into X, Y, Z college, I’ll wind up flipping burgers at McDonald’s,” said Ms. Pope, who is working with Ms. Levine to counsel at the high schools.

Ms. Pope said that wrongheaded idea becomes an emotional and physiological threat when multiplied by at least three other factors: technology that keeps teens working and socializing late at night, depriving them of essential rest; growing obligations from test-prep classes and extracurricular activities; and parents too busy to participate in activities with their families.

“We are not teenagers,” Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School, wrote in an editorial in the local paper in response to the suicides. She described students as “lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition” and wrote of going to the emergency room to deal with stress, missed periods and having “a panic attack in the middle of a 30-person class and be forced to remain still.”

There has been lots of talk in the community about what to do, she wrote, but action has not followed. (The district is providing counseling services, offering a suicide-prevention kit and urging teachers to limit homework hours.)

“Please, no more endless discussions about what exactly it is that is wrong with our schools, and, above all, no more empty promises,” she wrote, and noted: “We are the product of a generation of Palo Altans that so desperately wants us to succeed but does not understand our needs.”

THIS curious idea of a rhetorical divide came up in a number of recent discussions with parents and their children. In one conversation about the suicides, a mother at a Bay Area school in a similarly high-achieving community told me how little pressure she puts on her teens and noted by way of an anecdote how she had succeeded: Her daughter, she proudly recounted, was so well balanced that she decided last year not to go to the best college she got into but, rather, the school that best fit her passions. The school was Vassar.

In this subtle linguistic slip, Vassar qualified as a second-rate school.

Esther Wojcicki, the teacher who oversees the Palo Alto High School newspaper, lamented the competitive environment but noted seconds later that the school paper had just won a “Gold Crown” award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and that the two dozen students sitting at computer terminals at 4 p.m. that day were thrilled to stay until 9 p.m. to put out the school magazine because they have so much fun doing it.

Alan Eagle, a sales director at Google whose 17-year-old son, William, is a junior at Gunn, was frank about the distance between what he tells his son and what he means.

“I can say all I want that it doesn’t matter where my son goes to college,” Mr. Eagle told me.  But “I’m sure that as much as I preach that, I’m not being 100 percent authentic and frank.”

He added: “I personally went to Dartmouth and it did help. I look at the economy, the difference between haves and have-nots, and I believe a college education is critical.”

And a rich high school experience, too. A few minutes later, while acknowledging that his son had given up playing on the basketball team to study more, Mr. Eagle noted that “at least he’s still got track.”

Glenn McGee, the district’s superintendent, also seemed to struggle to walk the line between celebrating the exceptional nature of this area while urging students to relax. Sitting in his office and looking across the street at the Stanford campus, he mourned the fact that some parents feel that such a school is the only acceptable outcome.

“In many cases, people have made a big sacrifice to live in this community,” Dr. McGee said, referring to exorbitant housing costs (the median housing price last year was $3.3 million, making it the fourth most-expensive ZIP code in the country, according to Richard Florida, an academic who studies demographic trends). Characterizing the attitude of many parents, Dr. McGee said, “To be blunt, what is my return on investment?”

“My job is not to get you into Stanford,” he said he tells parents and students. “It’s to teach them to learn how to learn, to think, to work together — learn how to explore, collaborate, learn to be curious and creative.”

Some parents hear it, he said, but “a lot of families and parents don’t hear the message and say: compete and compete.”

Dr. McGee said he had interviewed 300 students and found that half would be “really embarrassed” to tell their friends they got a B. But the truth is that it’s awfully hard to be the best here, given the curve: The SAT scores are so high on average that a student who finishes in the 75th percentile in the district has a 2,200, the 99th percentile in general for college-bound seniors.

Soon after lamenting the pressure, Dr. McGee raved about a student who was part of a math team that finished first in January in a national competition, and about the new performing arts center under construction, and about the coming $24 million athletic facility funded by a private family foundation.

And why wouldn’t he rave? Why not be thrilled by achievement?

Because the bar for academic success here has become so high that solid performance can feel mediocre.

It puts enormous pressure on a school, or a community, when such consistent, across-the-board greatness becomes a baseline of sorts — what Mr. Eagle described as a culture of “not just excellence but uber-excellence.”

Perhaps that explains some of the doublespeak: Parents are searching for language to encourage their children, even push them, but not crush them.

One solution, said Ms. Pope of Stanford, is “downtime, playtime, family time.” For parents, too. In other words: Take a leap of faith (well supported by science) that downtime will lead to a healthier perspective.

Dr. Morton Silverman, a psychiatrist and senior science adviser to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suggested that another answer is recognizing that the doublespeak also betrays a sense of terror about the future among both students and parents.

With the economy in flux and the income gap growing, parents don’t see a clear path anymore to financial stability — even here, maybe especially here, where things move fast and competition is fierce. In addition, many of the fortunes made here have been based on creating things that destabilize traditional businesses and their workers.

So confront the new realities, Dr. Silverman suggested, urging parents to say something like: “I can’t tell you which path to take or how to get there, but I will support you,” he said. “I’m here to back you up.”

It’s a hard message to hear in a can-do place like this.

Walking near the train tracks where the children laid themselves down, Dr. McGee said this community, if any, should have answers.

“Can we put sensors up there?” he mused quietly to me, maybe to alert the train operators that someone has climbed onto the tracks. “This is Silicon Valley. There ought to be something we can do.”