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A headmaster's parting lesson for parents

Original post made on Feb 15, 2013

An overemphasis on college preparation is "extinguishing childhood" for too many of today's kids, says Norm Colb, who is nearing completion of his second decade as head of Menlo School in Atherton.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, February 15, 2013, 12:00 AM

Comments (18)

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 15, 2013 at 9:10 am

I think this is a bit odd coming from the HM at Menlo. Our older kids attended PAUSD, and we left this year for private school due to concerns, ironically, about what we felt was a bad social climate and insufficient attention to social-emotional education, coupled with a mediocre music and math education at Terman. Our son attends the Priory (where the slogan is "every child is known and loved for who they are," quite a switcheroo from Gunn, let me tell you, and where BTW I cannot even imagine having an out of control bullying problem in the middle grades or an unresponsive administration but that is another thread).

I digress. When we attended the Menlo open house 2 years ago, the speakers went on and on about how Menlo (this is MIDDLE SCHOOL) is all about academic rigor and that in the middle school kids should plan to do 2.5-3 hours of homework per night. Menlo was competitive, menlo was for kids who wanted to compete academically at the highest level. My son and I looked at each other and he said, "can we leave? I want to go to Priory." I said "yeah, we can get this for free at Gunn. I don't have to pay 50K+ per year for this lunacy." And we left. Not that it matters but my son is very successful academically and I don't want him under pressure, I want him to be a joyful learner. I thought it was a madhouse. So to have the head of school now lecturing us about how parents should calm down about pressure then that place seemed designed to select for the most competitive, high strung, helicopter pressure parents you could get is just weird. Physician, heal thyself.

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Posted by parent of HS
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 15, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Chris Kenrick,

I logged on to thank you for this report - it would be great if you could post links to the New Yorker cartoons mentioned in the article, if Mr. Colb can share them with us.


It's kind of abrupt to find your post. You contribute so much to the discussions on stress, and often you are funny, but in this case, it feels like an unwarranted burn. I attended a Middle School orientation at Menlo in the past years, and had a different experience from yours. They seem quite aware of supporting their students, and I believe they have a TA system from Middle School, a live adult to accompany a student's social emotional
development. Charging at this article with what I would say is some arrogance, I can't help but suggest, in the most well meaning way, that you take the advice of Physician heal thyself, but more in terms of communicating. Saying the same without it sounding so stressful?

Interestingly, I came away from all of the private school orientations, with the sense that I could get the same for free at PAUSD. But that was for Middle School. For High School, the equation changes, and I often go back and forth about which is better, public or private. Today I'm wishing we would have gone private for HS, but tomorrow not sure.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 15, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Parent - Menlo is competitive, both academically and athletically. To back up Michelle's comment, the following info is from the current Menlo Student/Parent Handbook (keep in mind that PTA and Pediatric guidelines call for 10 minutes per grade, so 6th grade should have no more than an hour).

Approximate homework times:
6th Grade 2 hours per night
7th Grade 2.5 hours per night
8th Grade 3 hours per night

As far as I can tell, high school in almost every local school is about grades and building a college resume, not about learning.

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Posted by PaloAltoDad
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 15, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Palo Alto Mom (no relation ;-) ) was spot-on when she wrote "As far as I can tell, high school in almost every local school is about grades and building a college resume, not about learning." Although a lot of learning takes place, it seems obviously secondary to building their college resumes. A little friendly competition for academic success among schoolmates can be healthy. But there is often far more pressure from the parents than is healthy or constructive.

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Posted by Local Parent
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 15, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Michele... you are right, the physician did heal thyself. He's leaving. Such ideas run contrary to the wants and interest of a board of directors made up of hyper-successful and ultra affluent individuals who are ultimately focused on one goal... achievement.

Norm is going to Reno to remind himself of what the real world is all about and a recognition that it cannot be found in a private school in Atherton, CA, I am sorry to say.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 15, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Hi Parent of HS -- I'm sorry I came off wrong there. I didn't mean to sound arrogant. I was just trying to share my reaction to Menlo School's open house that I attended and why I love the Priory. Let me please try again. When my son and I attended the Menlo open house, we were very disappointed with the way the presentation really emphasized competition, and homework. One student speaker said, Menlo school is for students who want to compete at the highest level academically. We work very hard. We push ourselves. There's a lot of homework, so if you don't want to work at the highest level you might not like this. SInce this was for middle school, I really didn't like that at all. I didn't know anything about Menlo and the only preconception I had was that it was very wealthy and we probably wouldn't fit in socially. When we went to the cookie and lemonade thing at the open house, the Menlo mom we talked to said that she had been desperate for her child to select Priory because of the emphasis on the whole child and she felt the homework was excessive. That's my impression is that it was very agro in the direction of "work, work, work." Having put older kids through Gunn, I've had all I can take of that mentality and didn't like what I was hearing. Then at the presentation, when they started talking about excessive homework (what I considered excessive) my son asked if I would be mad if we just left, because he wanted to go to Priory.

So let me say a few words about Priory and why it is good. Comparing the Open Houses is instructive. They say "At Priory every child is known and loved for who they are." I kind of teared up when they said that. Then they have a whole presentation about "balance in the middle" about how they are looking for balanced opportunities to just be kids. All the kids are friends. There are no cliques. There is no bullying. When this latest embarrassing and horrifying incident broke in to the papers, I asked Elliot whether that happened at the Priory and he said everyone is friends, he doesn't even know who is smart or who is good at sports or whatever. Those kids love school, they love their teachers, they love to go to school and they are happy. This is true through high school. I wish I had gone to Priory, I wish my other kids had gone to Priory and I wish every kid could have what we are getting. If your top priority is social emotional learning I can't recommend it highly enough. I think for girls that GMS is also terrific from what I hear, but Priory goes through 12th grade and that's an advantage. I am sure Menlo has fans and I am sure they will post too. No school is perfect but the Priory is awesome.

So, in sum, I thought that Menlo was the most aggressively homework and competition oriented open house I attended of the bay area private schools. I assume it isn't really that much work but they are just seeking to have applications from families to whom that appeals, unlike us, who literally ran away from it. So to have the HM say that parents need to get a grip after holding an open house like that one (maybe others were different) I think is weird. That's just my view and I would be glad to hear (relieved, actually) that it is not really as high pressure as they make it seem.

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Posted by parent of HS
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 15, 2013 at 4:49 pm


I've heard only great things about Priory, and it would be ideal if the culture at all schools could be managed to turn out like they have it. What may influence Menlo is what someone mentioned, about the parents being overachievers. Palo Alto got this stressful because of similar values.

I actually don't need absolute love, and would settle for no false advertising. If a class is supposed to be 2 hours homework per week, it should not be 4. It all goes back to teachers. And how teachers are managed.

In public school you have less control of the teachers, and steering culture or process in a particular direction. On the other hand, in private school it's probably all about the board. In both, it's about the power players (at Menlo it sounds like its the board).

Speaking of which, we have the district leadership problem at PAUSD, and your focus on the practice of delegating to site based management speaks directly to the lack of a coherent culture driven by 25 Churchill. We now even have the top employee there, hiding stuff. I appreciate what you and WCDB have been pointing out on this.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 15, 2013 at 5:33 pm

I think Ms. Dauber missed the point of the HM statement. He was talking about how over involved, micromanaging, helicoptering parents hurt their children. He was talking about the pressure parents put on kids to excel at everything so they can get into a top tier school.He was not talking about what the academic expectations at Menlo are. Menlo is a private school that can set their own standards. It requires passing a test to be admitted. A child is told up front how much homework they have. They can make the decision just as Michelle's child did to not go there. Hopefully, they have parents who will respect their decision. Unfortunately, there are probably many stressed out kids at Menlo, and I'm sure there are some at Priory, because their parents are pushing them.

I find it naive for Ms. Dauber to think that bullying doesn't go on at Priory since it goes on at every school in the world. Just as teachers in some of the public schools here don't see bullying, I'm sure that there are teachers at Priory who don't see. Kids, even "good" kids, are very good at keeping their behavior under the radar. Her son may think everyone is friends and there are no bullies, but so do many of the children in the middle and high schools in PAUSD.. Just look at the survey data where the majority of kids say there is no bullying at their school, including the school where this civil rights offense occurred. Private schools tend to keep their incidences very private.

As far as social emotional learning goes, I have a friend who has two children there. She said Menlo has consulted extensively with staff at the Nueva school and have implemented some of their programs. Just because a school is academically rigorous, doesn't mean that they don't care about a child's social emotional needs.

I understand that Ms. Dauber is the School of Law at Stanford. Talk about academic pressure. I hope she is helping Stanford decrease the amount of homework and pressure of those students, many of whom are still teenagers.

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Posted by X-Casti Mom
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Feb 15, 2013 at 6:33 pm

You think PAUSD and Menlo are bad, you should check out Castilleja. My daughter had several hours of homework EVERY night, including weekends, holidays, and vacations. Many activities and family events were ruined because she had her nose to the grindstone all the time. After three years of her never having any down time, and having to give up her favorite activities, tennis and horseback riding, we decided to pull her out and put her in Gunn.

She hated it at first, she missed her friends, she felt out of place being a tall blonde. But after a few months of after school sports, she became herself again. Now she chides us for not getting her out of Castilleja sooner. She has since told us that several girls were taking Ritalin, Adderall, and other amphetamines in an effort to sleep less and "cram it all in".

So much for the private education!

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 15, 2013 at 6:59 pm

Parent-- I think you might be confusing "rigor" with "hours of homework" and competition. Priory is rigorous and has many good college admissions. My son is in Alg 1 in grade 6 and will be in Alg 2 in grade 7. But the decision about his placement was made very very thoughtfully by a team that cares deeply about him with an eye toward homework and social emotional needs. All i can say is i think priory proves that you can have rigor without unnecessary stress and for those of you considering where to go right now, its not hype! i feel lucky every day that he is there. The kind of stress I heard about at Menlo just isn't reflected in my experience at Priory. I think it is because of the conscious decision to live by the Benedictine values and focus on the concept of balance in middle school. These kids are happy and they love school. That's really different than gunn or Terman. In terms of Menlo I am only reporting my experience and it seems like some Menlo or former Menlo parents agree. If they are trying to address this that's great but it tends to prove my point that it is a problem to be addressed.
The point is just that Menlo itself needs to change not necessarily the parents. They are a private school and they have the freedom to decide what to do. They don't have to pander to parents who want something bad for kids. And to do that and take the money and seek those parents and then blame the parents for an attitude blatantly encouraged by the school is wrong. Change the school and you will change the parents. Educators stop doing stuff that's bad for kids like ladeling on the stress in order to get the money or raise your career standing. You can't on the one hand claim the status of professionals and on the other abdicate judgement to the market .

Stanford is very conscious of stress -- a change that happened as the result of a large suicide cluster in 2008. The contrast with Stanford's approach and PAUSDs is highly instructive. We're not perfect we're still working on it. A lot of the stress at Stanford is experienced as a result of hypercompetitive behaviors such as cheating that pur undergrads learnt in high stress high schools to be honest. But we're not so stupid as to argue that stress plays no role. P.s. law school is not teens its grad school.

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Posted by overkill
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 15, 2013 at 7:43 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by MLD
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 15, 2013 at 8:18 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 16, 2013 at 1:40 am

Paly Alum is a registered user.

X-Casti mom is complaining about "several hours of homework every night"? We easily got that at Jordan, especially if a child takes a World Language and higher lane math. The math alone takes 1.5 hours.

I've got two who have been through Jordan and it all depends on the teachers (same as everywhere). My first had a rigorous team of teachers in 6th and my second had a rigorous team in 7th. Both had at least 4 hours of homework per night. In 7th, my child had a minimum of THREE quizzes EVERY week, sometimes there were tests or projects in addition to those 3 quizzes. A mom and I shook our heads because our 10th graders had less homework than our 7th graders.

I agree with poster who wrote" "high school in almost every local school is about grades and building a college resume, not about learning." Unfortunate but so true. But they are learning to compete. Just learning isn't enough to become successful. If one really cares about learning, he is on a pathway to community college - not that there's anything wrong with that - they can learn, not care about their grades, and avoid the SAT. It's a less stressful route!

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Priory has 12 students per classroom, which is way too small for us; it's just not real life. And the 40-minute drive? No way.

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Posted by Alisyn
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 16, 2013 at 7:26 am

Alisyn is a registered user.

This community is fortunate to have excellent schools, both public and private. My children have attended Menlo School for 11 years and have found it to be a joyful place with an outstanding Headmaster and excellent teachers. While they do a lot of homework and work hard to get the best grades possible, they have been engaged in their learning and found joy in the process. Norm Colb has done an outstanding job of hiring interesting teachers and supporting students in the educational process. His message to parents is that we don't need to tell our students that an A is better than a B. They are smart and they already know that. As parents, our job is to support our students and not put added pressure on them. Menlo is a supportive community where students are engaged in their learning and where the arts and athletics are encouraged for all.

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Posted by JLS mom of 2
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 16, 2013 at 8:10 am

JLS mom of 2 is a registered user.

Paly Alum, [portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff] 4 hours of homework a night in 7th grade? Middle school is "learning to compete" and just learning isn't enough? If you care about learning you should go to community college?
The PAUSD homework policy is 10 minutes per grade per night. For 7th grade that is 70 minutes, one hour and 10 minutes. If students at Jordan are doing 3 times that there is another serious policy violation going on that district officials should be looking into. Probably the people who should be concerned about it are the associate superintendent Charles Young and the secondary ed director Mike Millikin. I am pretty sure that Charles Young actually ran the homework committee that set the policy.

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Posted by isez
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 16, 2013 at 6:58 pm

isez is a registered user.

The 10-minute per grade level calculations are way off base! So off base, it's laughable.

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Posted by big
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 16, 2013 at 9:57 pm

big is a registered user.

If its the best chance for college you want, your best chance is at Menlo rather than a public school. Gunn does well, I believe, because of a handful of brilliant kids, often faculty kids, and some Asians who entered niddle school having already been through pubery, and who do nothing but work 24/7.

As for Stanford. Its as the guy playing tennis said today. "now we play Stanford rules" - whats that said his partner. "we cheat" he said.

Now its all about appearances, and branding. Doenst matter if you know anything. Soesnt matter if you cheat. Just get into the Ivies or Stanford or MIT or Caltech and you will be set.

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Posted by slc
a resident of another community
on Mar 1, 2013 at 3:12 pm

slc is a registered user.

There's pressure all around, even at the schools that are loving and supportive places, because unless one is hiding under a rock, that's reality. I think it's important for parents to acknowledge the reality and then deal with it by being the balancing, reasonable voice that helps to dispel the pervasive anxiety over test grades and courses and homework and college.

I can't speak for the various public schools in this area but I can say with confidence that Menlo offers every type of support for the student who wants it. If there's pressure, it's to be involved in too many activities, both inside and outside of school and it comes from enthusiastic peers. Sure, some of that is build-a-resume talk but some of it really is genuine. Academic pressure is definitely not the defining characteristic of this school. I am sorry that that's what came across in the middle school open house because honestly, it's not the reality.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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