The Value of Homework, Revisited

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We’re already into week three of the new school year here in our neck of the woods.  I know it’s been quite a while since I’ve written anything here; last school year ended with little fanfare, and our family had a busy, busy summer break that went by way too quickly.

So now I have: a high school senior, a seventh-grader, two fifth-graders, a third-grader, a kindergartener, and a toddler at home.  Last week my husband and I attended Back to School Night at our kids’ elementary school and listened to the teachers talk about the merits of Common Core, which has officially been rolled out.  I can’t help but wonder how many of them truly are on board with it, and how many are just following the script they’ve been given by the Powers That Be.  In any case, that’s a topic for a whole other post.

What I want to talk about now – again – is homework.  At Back to School Night, each teacher, of course, handed out their classroom Homework Policy.  Here’s the Homework Policy from my third-grader’s teacher:

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I was also chagrined to be given by my third-grade daughter her weekly reading/homework log, which requires MY signature, verifying that I have reviewed my child’s homework.

Ahhh, reading logs!  My fifth-grade twins are also (still) being required to fill out reading logs.  Why?!?  Why does any teacher believe that mandating daily reading of a pre-determined duration of time and mandating that such reading be tracked and documented instills a love of reading?  Why?  If this practice is actually based on a distrust of parents, on a belief that if reading and providing documentation of said reading is not mandated by the school then parents will miserably fail in their “duty” to encourage their children to read, then it is sorely out of line and misguided.

Also, I will not sign anything verifying that I have reviewed my child’s homework.  The teacher states right here in her written policy that she reviews the homework – so why am I being required to review it and declare that I’ve reviewed it?

Some may read this and decide that I am a slacker parent who doesn’t care about her children’s education, who refuses to support the schools.  This is the farthest thing from the truth.  The truth is that I’m weary of doing battle – with my kids, with teachers – over an institution that I do not believe in because the evidence does not support it.  The institution I am talking about is the institution of homework.

There is no intrinsic value in homework.  Homework is not an evidence-based practice.  In and of itself, homework is merely schoolwork done in an environment different from the classroom environment.  One of the claims often touted is that homework reinforces what is learned in the classroom.  So, it’s practice, then.  But that practice, that reinforcement, can and should be taking place in the classroom directly following the lessons, no?  To be sure, practically applying those lessons outside of school is valuable – but there are plenty of organic opportunities for actual, real life reinforcement and practice that do not involve forcing a kid to sit at the kitchen table with worksheets and reading logs.

Another claim is that homework teaches good study skills, self-discipline, organizational skills, and responsibility.  Kids should be learning good study skills in class.  Self-discipline, organizational skills, and responsibility can and should all be taught in ways that do not involve schoolwork being done at home.  This is another example of parents not being trusted to be decent parents, and a perceived necessity of intervention by school.

If homework consists of assignments that cannot be completed at school because of time constraints, then, yes, that homework carries the value of that particular assignment, whatever it may be.  But that’s placing an unfair burden on family time.

Homework has the exact value it’s given by the teacher: if it’s worth a grade, then that is its value.  But that’s extrinsic value, not intrinsic.

The fact is – and study after study backs this up – homework has no correlation to academic achievement in elementary school.  Sadly, the very idea of homework as a given is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it’s nearly impossible to convince teachers and even many parents that homework doesn’t make kids learn more or better, and they can be just as successful – arguable more so! – if homework was not a given.

The fact is, the school has my kids for six and a half hours a day, five days a week.  If that’s not enough time to cover what needs to be covered, then something’s got to give – and sending schoolwork home is NOT the answer.  Dictating how any of our time at home outside of the school day is spent is just not okay.

A friend of mine who lives in another state (Mississippi) shared this with me:

10589875_10204608935249178_1479647968_nThis was sent home by her child’s fourth-grade teacher.  Can you imagine?  Not a one-size-fits-all homework policy that assumes daily homework for everyone is necessary?  Kudos to this teacher!

I’m still trying to decide how to handle my own kids’ homework this year.  So far none of them are complaining about it, so I probably should leave well enough alone.  I will not sign any logs, though, that’s for certain.  And if their homework starts becoming an impediment to peace, harmony, or other pursuits we may have, well, their teachers will be hearing from me.

Meeting With District Superintendent to Talk Common Core

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The superintendent of our school district was gracious enough to meet with a small group of parents over coffee yesterday afternoon to address questions and concerns about Common Core, which is being rolled out in our district and is expected to be fully implemented this upcoming 2014/15 school year.  There was one mom there who is also a college professor and she had nothing but praise to offer for Common Core (which hasn’t even been fully implemented yet), so I’m really not even sure why she was there.

The concerns I raised were as follows:

  • Everything I’ve read about Common Core emphasizes that the standards were not written by educators, anyone with a background in education, nor anyone even knowledgeable about child development.
  • Probably because of that, one of the main criticisms of the Common Core standards is that they are developmentally inappropriate and will set many children up for failure.
  • How will it impact students on IEPs?
  • The one-size-fits-all learning model will also set many kids up for failure.  Kids learn differently and at different rates.  Demanding that every kid master the same standards in the same exact timeline is completely unrealistic.
  • Standardized testing will now start in kindergarten – how is that appropriate?
  • The fact that Common Core is brand new means that we have no idea if it will be good or bad for schools and students, so to insist that it’s this great thing is inappropriate.  Our kids are the guinea pigs.
  • It’s also going to radically change the curriculum mid-stream for any kid who is already a few years into their school career.

Well, our superintendent is a very nice man, but he’s also, to some extent, a politician.  He has to be.  This means that he gives the carefully worded responses.  His district is implementing Common Core; therefore, he must talk up Common Core.  He can’t very well sit there and say, “Yeah, it might be a really bad thing.  What happened in New York?  Could happen here.”

For the most part, each of the concerns raised was met with something along the lines of, “That’s not true,” or “That’s not the case.”  He insists that educators were involved in drafting the standards (when I asked who these educators were, he couldn’t give me any names, but just said, “A lot of educators, including college professors, helped draft the standards.”).  He said that our district will be using the same text books it’s used for the last several years, and “eighty percent of the curriculum will be the same as it has been.”  Huh.  This is so different from everything I’ve been reading about Common Core.  He also said that the concern about the standards being developmentally inappropriate is unfounded, and that Common Core will actually allow for more individualized learning.  Again, huh.  Very, very different from what I’ve been reading.  He further said that it is simply not true that standardized testing will begin in kindergarten with Common Core, but rather, that it won’t begin until third grade as opposed to second grade as it’s been for the last several years.  He said that what happened in New York was unfortunate, but that it was the result of the standardized testing not being “calibrated” properly.  Again, huh.

So, as a parent of (currently) five grade school children and one high-schooler, I am left scratching my head.  If Common Core is so great, what is the basis for all the criticism?  Is Diane Ravitch delusional?  What about Kris Nielsen?  Or Tom Hobson?  Is it all just propaganda?  How is a concerned parent to know?

Common Core – Share Your Thoughts and Experiences

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My school district is in the process of rolling out Common Core, and it is expected to be fully implemented in the upcoming 2014/15 school year.  I’ve read enough about Common Core to have some serious concerns about it.  I have an opportunity to meet with our Superintendent in a couple of weeks to talk about Common Core, and I would like to bring some questions to the table that will foster meaningful discussion.  So I am asking for your thoughts and experiences with Common Core.  If you are a parent or educator who has already dealt with Common Core in your schools, please share your thoughts and experiences here in the comments section.  Good, bad, neutral – I want to hear it all.  If your district has not yet implemented Common Core but plans to, what are your concerns and questions?

I look forward to lots of feedback.  Thank you!

School Districts Should Not Be Judged Only By How Well They Treat Their Best and Brightest Students . . .

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. . . but also by how well they treat their students with disabilities.

I have a five-year old son who has Down syndrome.  In honor of World Down Syndrome Day today, I want to talk about inclusion.

Inclusion is the practice of educating children with disabilities in general ed classrooms, alongside their non-disabled peers, with appropriate accommodations.  Inclusion is a federally sanctified right of children with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Study after study has shown the benefits of inclusion: that children with disabilities fare better academically, socially, emotionally, and developmentally when they are educated in inclusive settings.  Non-disabled students benefit, as well.

Despite all of this, many school districts across the nation still segregate students with disabilities from their non-disabled peers as a matter of course.  My own school district practices segregation.  Our son is only five and in transitional kindergarten (TK) and we have had to fight our district at every turn concerning our son’s educational placement since he turned three years old.  We were told that he didn’t belong in a general ed classroom; that he would do better in a segregated special ed classroom; that the inclusive setting we were after just wasn’t possible.  We finally had to hire an attorney and spend thousands of dollars we couldn’t really afford in order to have our son’s basic legal rights honored.  As it turns out, the inclusive setting we were after IS possible, and he has done very well there.  We have an IEP meeting coming up again next month to discuss his kindergarten placement for the next school year, and unfortunately, we still do not feel that we can attend without an attorney.

This isn’t the way it should be.  Inclusion should be a given for every child; placement in a separate special ed classroom setting should be the exception, not the rule.  No matter what fancy names schools and districts give their special ed programs, if it involves segregation of students with disabilities from non-disabled students, it’s discrimination, and it’s not upholding basic rights provided by law.  Too often, we accept the idea of “special education” as a place – a separate classroom where the disabled kids go.  Special education, however, is how students with disabilities are educated, not where.  Special education can and should coexist with inclusion.

Pointless Projects: The Dreaded Pig Project

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The Pig Project has been a staple of second grade at my kids’ school for several years, and like the Turkey Project, it is one I have come to despise and dread.

The Pig Project centers around a foam rubber pig, roughly the size of a baseball, which the second graders are instructed to dress as a notable historical person, place in a diorama of their own creation using a shoe box, and research/write a report about that notable historical person.

Who came up with this project, and why?  Well, all I know is that it came about because somehow or other, the school acquired hundreds of pig-shaped stress balls from a bank that closed its doors.  I kid you not.  I have no idea why the school would want hundreds of pig-shaped stress balls, but in so acquiring them, somebody came up with this project as something to do with all those damn pigs.

IMG_3635What is it with my kids’ school and their propensity for making the kids dress up fake animals as people?

And of course this is a take-home project, not one that is done in class.

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to dress a spherical object as a person?

I have no beef with learning about notable historical people.  What I do have a beef with is the dressing an animal figure as a person (what is the educational value of that?), the diorama that is to be created at home (the time and expense involved, as well as the age-inappropriateness), and the fact that here we have once again a research project when no research skills have been taught.

I would be perfectly comfortable raising my concerns with the teacher and bowing out of this project like we did the Turkey Project, but my second grader is more concerned about fitting in, doing what her classmates are doing, and pleasing her teacher (that’s a whole other beef I have – when did it happen that kids see their teachers as higher authorities than their parents?).  So, she’s doing the project, with a great deal of help from her older sister (because I refuse to get involved on principle, beyond buying the materials needed for her to make her diorama based on Jane Goodall).  I know very well from past years that the vast, vast majority of these projects which will be on display in the classroom for Open House, will have been very obviously completed by parents.  What is the point of that?

More on Technology

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I wrote a while back about technology in the classroom.  This obsession with technology at school is present even in homework, I am finding, and this parent isn’t happy about it.

I remember back in the day – when I was in school – we actually took typing classes.  We learned the correct finger positions, and we did typing drills to build our speed and accuracy.  That was in high school.

Today, elementary school students are expected to type reports.  The problem is, there are no typing classes given in school anymore – not in high school, and certainly not in elementary school.  I guess that the powers that be just assume that every kid is a proficient typist because every kid has a computer at home that they’ve been using since they were babies.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  Some families cannot afford a computer – yes, in this day and age.  Some families, like ours, do have a computer, but have not been allowing their children to be on it since babyhood.  Also, the fine motor skills required for proficient typing is often absent in young kids, so what you end up seeing a lot of is hunting and pecking.  A single paragraph might take an agonizing hour to type for a little kid.  Which means, of course, that Mom or Dad often ends up typing Junior’s papers for him.  Which is counterproductive on numerous fronts.

My fourth-grade twins were recently given an assignment whereby they each had to research a certain aspect of California missions and type a short paper about their findings – just a paragraph or two.  The teacher then wanted their work products emailed to him.  We bought a MacBook for the kids this year, specifically for them to use for school work, because frankly, I was getting tired of sharing my laptop with them all the time.  (I am very aware of how fortunate we are to be able to own more than one computer, when some families cannot afford any.)  In order to save costs, however, we only installed Pages on the kids’ laptop to use for word processing.

So the girls hunted and pecked their way through each of their mission papers.  As neither of them have email accounts at nine years old, I attempted to email their papers to their teacher to no avail.  I tried multiple times, and the attachments failed every time.  I printed the girls’ papers and told them to just turn in the hard copies.  they were told by their teacher that he required them to be emailed to him, and that if they were not emailed to him, they would receive zeros on the assignment.  I confess this is what my daughters said; did their teacher really say that?  I don’t know.  If he did, I think that’s pretty appalling.  I then put the documents on a thumb drive and attempted to open them in Word from my laptop.  No go.

By now I was fuming.  Why weren’t the hard copies enough?  Why was their assignment creating so much work for me?

In the end, I retyped both papers in Word on my laptop and emailed them to the girls’ teacher.  And not with a smile, either.

Kids need to be taught how to type in school, and there needs to be much less of a reliance on and requirement for the use of technology for homework.

Is Homework Done At School Still Homework?

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An acquaintance recently contacted me to talk about issues she’s having with her child and homework.  She wanted to know what I’ve done to deal with homework.  She has a daughter in grade school who has recently been diagnosed with a learning disability, and homework has become a nightmare – it’s just too much for her daughter after being in school all day (which, really, I think can be said of the majority of kids, learning disability or not).

So, I told her what I’ve done.  I told her all about the battle I took on last year with the district, and how I didn’t get anywhere, and how finally at the beginning of this school year I just put my foot down and wrote each of my kids’ teachers a letter setting down the limits I was going to stick to with regard to my kids’ homework.

Consequently, she landed in a back-and-forth with her daughter’s teacher.  She tried setting down limits, but apparently the teacher wasn’t willing to budge, making all the usual arguments about the value of homework, blah blah blah.

In the end, apparently the teacher has decided to just have this student complete the homework assignments at school.  I’m not sure what this means – is the student therefore missing recess or other instructional time in order to complete homework assignments during the school day?  I mean, how is the teacher managing to fit this into this student’s daily schedule?

My real question, though, is: what is the point of this?  If “homework” is not actually being done outside of school, then it’s not homework, it’s extra school work.  And that raises the question: what is the value of homework anyway, for crying out loud?  The usual arguments in favor of homework say that homework is reinforcement for material learned in class, that it teaches good study habits and responsibility.  Well, if “homework” is being done at school, doesn’t that invalidate those arguments?

There seems to be this belief that simply the act of doing schoolwork in a setting outside of the walls of school has intrinsic value.  I say BS.

Technology in the Classroom

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I came across this article about the current technology boom in schools across the nation, and it’s spurred me to write about my own concerns about technology at my kids’ school.

Our district is all about technology.  For several years, there was a 1:1 laptop program at my kids’ school for sixth graders, which meant that in sixth grade each student had his or her own Mac laptop.  I’m not exactly sure how it worked because we moved our oldest son to a K-8 school in the district when he entered sixth grade, and that school did not participate in the “Laptops for Learning” program at that time; my general understanding/recollection is that parents could purchase a laptop for their child that met certain specs, or they could lease one from the district, paying a monthly fee, or they could apply to borrow one at no cost based on financial hardship.  The district was actually sued over the program because requiring families to pay for public education is illegal.

In any case, now laptops are passe, and we’re all about iPads.  Our school now has a 1:1 iPad program in the sixth grade, so all sixth graders are required to have an iPad.  This program differs from the previous laptop program in that families can choose whether to purchase or borrow an iPad from the school, and no proof of financial hardship need be presented.  We opted to borrow an iPad from the school for our sixth grader this year – not because we can’t afford to buy an iPad, but because, frankly, we don’t take that kind of purchase lightly, whether we can afford it or not, and frankly, I’m not sold on the benefits of this type of technology in the classroom at this grade level.

The first problem that arose when the iPad program was launched this school year was a lack of iPads.  For the first several weeks of school, there was not actually an iPad for each student – rather, there was one iPad for six or eight kids.  We are talking about the iPad Mini, so you can imagine what it’s like to have six or eight kids crowded around one iPad Mini, trying to utilize it for educational purposes.

When all the iPads finally came in and were distributed to the students, there was a firewall problem.  Despite reassurances that the iPads would be unable to access websites with restricted content, kids were, in fact, Googling butts and boobs and having no problem accessing adult websites.  Apparently the firewall either wasn’t actually installed, or it wasn’t properly installed.

There is an ongoing problem of time wasted in the classroom while waiting for apps or websites to load; it often takes a while for everyone to arrive at the proper destination on their iPad.

Some kids, thinking it funny, have been known to take inappropriate photos with their iPads, sometimes involving other, unsuspecting students.  At our school, our principal is pretty useless in dealing with these types of situations (as in, he tends to chuckle about them and not do anything else).

Some parents that I know feel that technology like the iPads are often used to “babysit” the students while the teacher involves herself in some other activity.  Perhaps this allows teachers to multitask in the classroom, I don’t know, but I could certainly see it becoming a crutch if actual engagement with the students is not required.

There is also a concern about how wireless classrooms may impact children’s health.

What I’ve noticed is that there is this big push for technology at the elementary school level, and then it’s not really used in middle school or high school.  My oldest son did not need an iPad in middle school, that’s for sure.  They didn’t use them in the classroom, and he didn’t need one for homework.  We did end up buying him a laptop for eighth grade graduation so that he would have his own computer on which to type papers in high school, and that’s been the extent of its usefulness for him for purposes of his high school education (he’s a junior now) – basically, it’s replaced a word processor.  So all that elementary school technology seems like a pretty big waste.

How high-tech is your school?  Do you feel it is mostly beneficial, or mostly not?  What are your concerns about technology in the classroom?

 

Let’s Talk Turkey

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Two full days after I sent that email to the Second Grade Team, I had not received any response.  I was irritated – as a parent, my questions and concerns surely deserve the courtesy of some kind of response, even if the “team” disagrees with me, right?  And surely if the project actually has value and merit, the teachers should be able to tell me what that value and merit is, right?  I sent a second email on Friday morning asking again that my questions and concerns be addressed.

Early Friday evening, I got an email from my daughter’s teacher apologizing for not responding sooner, but it had been a very busy week (teachers can be too busy to respond to parents’ emails, apparently, but parents can’t be too busy to do ridiculous projects), and if I wanted to chat about my concerns, I was welcome to stop by the classroom one day the following (this) week.

Sigh.

Really?  Now this warrants a face-to-face meeting?  Can’t you just respond to my email?  Tell me what’s so educational about this project?

I waited the weekend out, respecting that everyone deserves a break over the weekend, and sent her an email Sunday night telling her that it was not going to be possible for me to schedule a time to come to the school to chat with her this week.

(By now, I was onto what was really going on: I’ve learned enough in our dealings with the school district pertaining to our son, Finn, who has Down syndrome, that there is an unwritten policy that admin and school personnel will avoid written communications when possible, because written communications leave an inarguable record.)

As expected, I received a phone call from my daughter’s teacher early yesterday evening.  Let me just say up front that this teacher is an extremely nice lady, and she’s pretty non-confrontational.  The conversation was fine: I again raised my questions about the value of dressing a large paper turkey in human clothing, the difficulty of completing such a task by the average second-grader, and my concern that my daughter was being asked to undertake a research project when she has not even been taught how to conduct research.  I explained that the entire project places too much of a burden on parents, and I said to her, “You do realize that probably 90% of these projects that are turned in are actually done by the parents and not the kids, right?”  She chuckled and said, “Yes.”  “What’s the point of that?” I asked.  She really couldn’t come up with any real value to the project except to say that the team thinks that it can be a fun way for kids to learn a little bit about their heritage.

In the end, she said that Lilah is doing well in class and that she’s a conscientious student, so she’s really not concerned if Lilah turns this project in or not.  I told her that I would leave it up to Lilah.

On the one hand, I feel validated that I took a stand on this.  I really do believe that projects like this should be done in class with the teacher’s guidance.  If an assignment or a project is going to be sent home, it’s absolutely valid for parents to question its value.

On the other hand, I feel frustrated that I expended this much time and energy on such a silly, pointless project.  I could have just done the damn thing myself in less time than it took to engage in this back-and-forth with the “team” about it.  And there are undoubtedly lots of people out there who are rolling their eyes, wondering why I bother – the teachers know best, just do what you’re told – or something like that.

All I can say is: nothing will ever change if people don’t speak up.

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