Opting Out of Homework?

Opting Out of Homework on ParentChat with ReginaParents, did you ever consider opting your kids out of homework? Did you even know that was a thing? I have to admit that I did not, though there were times in the lives of each of my three children when I wished I had.

Most of those times had to do with dioramas. You know what I am talking about. How many times did you have to find an empty shoebox so that your third grader could make some kind of scene in it with little handmade paper figures to represent a book that had been read or an event in history that had been studied? Decades ago, my mother used to complain about having to buy poster board and Magic Markers constantly so that I could make yet one more big poster about something we had studied in class.   And how about the time my daughter had to make a book on the history of dance (in the interest of full disclosure, she went to a ballet boarding school), but the grade depended as much on the artistic presentation of the information as on the information itself? (By the way, you can make a timeline out of toe shoe ribbon.) Yes, this is my pet homework peeve: teachers who turn too many assignments into art projects when the information that the students are learning is not really enhanced by making it into art. Would I have opted my kids out of dioramas? I might well have.

Before you all think that I disapprove of homework (when I actually disapprove mostly of dioramas), let me talk about one type of homework that I think is indispensible—even though it is going to seem so old-fashioned that I imagine some parents would opt their kids right out. It is the memorization of a variety of things that are important for kids to learn and that, unfortunately, cannot be learned without taking the time to memorize them outside of class time. Here are some examples: famous poems, spelling words, vocabulary words in foreign languages, the conjugations of verbs in foreign languages, the genders of nouns in some foreign languages, measurement equivalents within and between the metric and customary systems, addition and subtraction facts, and multiplication and division facts. BBC News reported on January 3 that all 11-year-olds in England will soon be tested on the multiplication tables (up to 12 x 12) in a timed, on-screen format. There will be a lot of memorization homework for those Brits, I predict, and I am okay with that.

Last fall, I read an article entitled “More parents, students saying no to homework.” What interested me most was that the article came with an Associated Press byline from Ardmore, Pennsylvania—home of the school district I graduated from quite some time ago, Lower Merion. Lower Merion, a long-time great suburban school district just outside Philadelphia, prided itself (and, I assume, still does) on sending its graduates to top colleges—just as many excellent suburban school districts do.

How could Lower Merion parents be having a problem with homework? Evidently, some parents have said that enough is enough. Their kids are stressed out, staying up way too late to complete assignments and having too little time left for after-school clubs and sports teams, for outside-of-school pursuits (e.g., dance lessons, music lessons, volunteer activities), and for family life.

As educators and researchers weigh in on both sides of the homework debate, some school districts are looking for ways to lighten the homework load and to improve the value and quality of homework assignments. According to the article, for example, an elementary school in Maryland has given up homework in favor of having kids read for 30 minutes each night. Nonetheless, some parents are simply taking matters into their own hands and opting their own kids out of homework assignments.

To tell you the truth, I am not sure I think that is a great idea. I am not sure what message that sends a kid when all of his or her classmates are handing in homework or getting their homework checked, especially in the elementary grades. I am not sure most kids want to feel that different from their classmates. I would rather see the problem solved districtwide for all kids.

As someone who believes strongly in the notion that the job of school boards is to make policies that guide administrative actions in the schools, I would like to think that a reasonable policy on homework could be arrived at after meaningful discussions involving parents—a policy that the teachers and administrators in a school district would find educationally beneficial for kids and that the parents in that district would find appropriate. I read Lower Merion’s Board policy on homework (it is available online). It has some guidance in it, but leaves an enormous amount of discretion to the superintendent to make the regulations that govern what principals and teachers actually do about homework at the school level. For some parents, my guess is that the policy leaves too much discretion to the schools and that it does not provide enough guidance—including guidance influenced by parent input. Unfortunately, this is a typical problem with board policies in lots of school districts.

It is time to take a look at how your school district and your child’s school address homework:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to discuss the thinking behind your district’s policy on homework (most districts will have one). Look at how much guidance the superintendent is given in making regulations to govern the homework that is assigned in the schools. Does the policy include a statement about the purpose of homework? Does the policy provide guidance about the amount of homework or the types of homework to be assigned at different grade levels? Does the policy provide guidance about times that homework should not be assigned (e.g., on weekends, over winter or spring break)? Does the policy provide guidance about whether homework should be graded and whether homework grades should be counted when figuring students’ report card grades? Does the policy describe an appropriate role for parents in supervising, monitoring, or assisting with their children’s homework?

Talk with the board about how parents and principals and teachers were involved in arriving at the board’s homework policy. Are there provisions in the policy for having parents opt their children out of completing homework assignments? Should there be?

Ask about the implementation of the policy. How does the board know that principals and teachers are following the policy?

This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to get the input of the superintendent before the meeting.

  • Elementary school parents: Ask your principal to talk with parents about the implementation of the board’s homework policy in your school. How does the principal monitor the homework that teachers are giving? Have there been complaints from parents about homework assignments? How do teachers feel about giving homework? Do students usually complete the homework that is assigned? What happens when a student does not complete homework assignments? Are there specific things that parents should do to support their children in doing homework?
  • Middle and high school parents: Ask your principal to talk with parents about the implementation of the board’s homework policy in your school. How does the principal monitor the homework that teachers are giving? Have there been complaints from parents about homework assignments? Have there been complaints from students about homework assignments? How do teachers feel about giving homework? How do students feel about doing homework? Do students usually complete the homework that is assigned? What happens when a student does not complete homework assignments? How is homework graded, and is it graded the same way from department to department and from teacher to teacher? Are there specific things that parents should do to support their children in doing homework?

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The Example of Cursive Writing

The Example of Cursive Writing on ParentChat with Regina #education“Yes, that’s been a hot topic,” said the Board of Education President in response to my friend’s question at a school PTA meeting. My friend was asking about the teaching of cursive writing in his daughters’ elementary school—or rather the lack of the teaching of cursive writing (or script, as some parents call it).

My friend explained that he had gone up the chain of command—just as parents are asked to do in most school districts. He had asked his question of the classroom teacher and of the principal, and he had not gotten a straight enough answer.

Coincidentally, the Board President was at that PTA meeting to introduce herself and to let parents know the procedure for coming to a Board meeting to ask a question of the Board. You might guess that a Board meeting quickly became my friend’s next stop.

When he arrived at the Board meeting and asked his question about the teaching of cursive writing in the elementary grades, the Board turned the question over to the superintendent and assistant superintendent to answer—or not answer. “We’re working on it. On a timeline,” they replied. My friend followed up, “Will it take two months or 10 years?” “Oh, not 10 years, I hope,” the assistant superintendent continued.

Now, that is where things went awry. The Board remained, for all intents and purposes, silent. Had the Board already given any direction to the superintendent about this “hot topic,” as the Board President had described it? Had the Board already debated the merits of including cursive writing in the curriculum? Did the Board already know the history of the teaching of cursive writing in the district? Did the Board already have a policy on the teaching of cursive writing? I got the feeling that the answer to all of those reasonable questions was likely “no.”

And that’s too bad. Because my friend’s question is the kind of curriculum question that a Board and an administration should be listening to parents about. Not only parents, but also the rest of the taxpayers supporting the public schools and hiring the products the schools produce. Undoubtedly, at least some of those taxpayers would like to hire employees who can read and write in cursive.

Those of you who are interested in the debate over cursive writing might want to look at a piece done by Ruth Graham last April 5 in The Boston Globe: “Fighting to save cursive from the Common Core.” It is an interesting read and presents both sides of the issue. She also mentions several state legislatures that have at least encouraged public schools to teach cursive (which sounds a bit wishy-washy, for my tastes). By the way, let me say for the record that the Common Core in no way prevents an elementary school from teaching cursive writing.

As my mentor used to say to me, “Don’t get lost in the example.” While I believe that the issue of whether to teach cursive is a legitimate curriculum issue and worthy of discussion and debate, I also want to point out that my friend’s story is just one more example of Boards turning over curriculum decisions to the professional staff. As I have often written, curriculum decisions are the Board’s. The Board speaks for the taxpayers—including all of the parents—and must represent and weigh their views in making curriculum decisions. Of course, the professional staff weighs in on those decisions, too, before the Board makes them and must help the Board understand any constraints that have to be considered (like federal law or state education regulations). But the final decision should be the Board’s. That’s what local control is about.

But, let me get back to the example of cursive writing.

It is time to take a look at how your school district and your elementary schools address the teaching of cursive writing:

  • Elementary school parents: Ask your school board if the board has a policy on teaching cursive in the elementary grades and, if so, ask the board to discuss the policy and its implementation. Ask the board to discuss any state standards or regulations that constrain the policy.

If the board does not have a policy on teaching cursive, ask the board to consider the adoption of such a policy. What are the opinions of parents in the district? What are the opinions of other taxpayers in the district? What are the opinions of teachers, principals, and central office administrators?

This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to get the input of the superintendent before the meeting.

Absent any board policy, ask your principal about the teaching of cursive in your elementary school. Ask your principal about any district standards or regulations that would impact the teaching of cursive in your school. Ask your principal about the opinions of the parents and teachers in the school. Offer to help gather the opinions of parents if that has not already been done—for example, by calling parents to encourage them to complete a brief questionnaire put together by the principal and a committee of parents and teachers.

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How To Teach Reading

It turns out that kids would be better readers if teachers would just teach them stuff. By “stuff,” I mean content—for example, information about things, facts and theories, people and places, and the like. Even though some of that stuff might end up being forgotten in 30 or 40 years, there are still a lot of things that most parents want their elementary school kids to know—for example, how the 13 colonies won their independence from England, what civil rights are, where the continents and oceans are, what makes up our solar system, how the human body’s systems work, what happens during an earthquake, and so on.

How To Teach Reading on ParentChat with Regina

So, what’s the question? The question puzzling researchers and experts is whether students can become better readers by teaching them reading strategies and skills (like skimming, re-reading, and summarizing) or by teaching them content. While it is probably obvious to every parent that kids likely need to be taught both reading skills and subject matter content, some teachers have been following the skills approach at the expense of content. That has now become a problem.

Susan Neuman, a New York University professor of literacy education, was quoted in Education Week as saying, “You have to have background knowledge to read. It’s not just decoding. But how do you activate what you don’t have?” (See Liana Heitin’s recent article: “For Reading, Knowledge Matters More than Strategies, Some Experts Say.”) Professor Neuman noted that missing background knowledge is a particular concern for lower-income students, who often do not have as many enriching out-of-school experiences to draw on as their classmates do. Of course, teachers who teach a curriculum full of content can help make up for those missing experiences, some experts would argue.

A colleague of mine once went to a talk for educators by Nobel Prize winner James Watson, known for his work as one of the discoverers of the double-helix structure of DNA. Someone asked Watson this question: “What kind of student becomes the best scientist?” Many teachers in the room probably thought that he would say something like “the student who is the most curious, who is most able to collaborate with his peers, or who is the best critical thinker or problem solver.” But what he said was this: “The student who knows the most science.” It turns out that knowing a lot of science—vocabulary, facts, figures, theories, laws, lab procedures, and so on—makes a student most able to advance in the study of science and to go on to discover the next thing. At least according to Watson. As I am fond of saying to teachers who are interested in producing critical thinkers, “You can’t think about what you don’t know.”

And evidently, now researchers are saying that you can’t read about what you don’t know, either. Well, you can, but just not as well. You know this from your own reading. Even in this Internet age when students can find information in a flash by searching it out electronically, it still pays to know some stuff—at least the fundamentals of all of the subjects that kids study in elementary and secondary school, so that students can continue to improve their reading ability and so that they are ready to do the demanding reading they will meet in their college classes or on the job.

It is time to take a look at how your school district and your school teach reading in the elementary grades and literacy in the middle and high school grades:

  • All parents: Ask your school board whether the board has a policy on reading instruction, which it should, given the importance of reading to most parents and to most elementary school teachers and administrators. Ask the board to discuss its policy with you. Keep in mind that the board will speak in policy language, which is designed to guide the superintendent in overseeing the creation of a reading program for the district. The policy should leave room for the superintendent, central office instructional staff, and perhaps principals and teachers to make and implement more detailed decisions about reading instruction. This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to get the input of the superintendent about the policy’s implementation before the meeting.
  • Elementary school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss your school’s reading program. How does it carry out board policy? How are reading skills taught in each grade? What materials are used? Is reading taught using subject content from other subjects, like social studies and science? What evidence is available to show that reading instruction in your school is successful?
  • Middle and high school parents: Ask your principal and teachers to explain how literacy is taught in English language arts, math, science, and social studies in your school. Is literacy taught in other school subjects as well? How do these practices carry out board policy? What evidence is available to show that literacy instruction in your school is successful?

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Parlez-vous français?

There are probably 20 reasons why U.S. schools should be teaching more foreign languages more effectively. At least that’s my view. I would be interested in yours, parents. (By the way, foreign languages are now often called “world languages,” which makes sense, or “languages other than English,” which makes sense, but is a bit awkward, I think. I am using “foreign languages” here because I believe that is still what most parents would say.)

Parlez-vous français? | ParentChat with Regina | There are probably 20 reasons why U.S. schools should be teaching more foreign languages more effectively. At least that’s my view. I would be interested in yours, parents. You might want to read up on the subject in two thought-provoking articles in Education Week, written by Global Learning blog curator Heather Singmaster, assistant director of education at Asia Society—“Bilingualism: Valuable for the Brain and Society” and “Foreign Language Policies: Is Everyone Else Really Speaking English?”:

She talks about economic, socioeconomic, cultural, cognitive, and national defense arguments in favor of increased attention to language study in U.S. schools. She talks about reasons that are important to our country and reasons that are important to individual students. She talks about language learning requirements in other countries and how we stack up—or don’t.

Some of it is common sense, and some isn’t. For example, here is something I didn’t know, and it should be especially interesting to parents of elementary school children. Ms. Singmaster writes about Jared Diamond’s book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies:

An entire chapter is devoted to the importance of bilingualism and multilingualism, and the development and spread of languages. In traditional societies [like those in New Guinea and the Amazon Basin], multilingualism was (and is, for the very few that remain) widespread. While many in the West fear that our children will be confused if they are exposed to more than one language at a time, kids in traditional societies begin learning additional languages from birth—and not just one or two. Diamond can’t think of a single person he has met in New Guinea that speaks fewer than five languages (and yes, they are all “mutually unintelligible languages,” not dialects).

We have been told that the early years are the best for learning another language; it is one argument that has been used in favor of elementary school foreign language programs for a long time. But Diamond’s work in New Guinea takes that argument to a whole new level.

I recently returned from a visit to a school district in a Far Western state. The state awards scholarships for college study to its high school graduating seniors. Among the requirements are two years of foreign language study and three years of math and three years of science in high school or no foreign language study and four years of math and four years of science. How does that make sense? In what world are two years of foreign language study equivalent to a fourth year of math and science, regardless of which you think are more important? If those were college distribution requirements, no college in the country would agree to that swap.

While I am not arguing against the value of a fourth year of math and science, I am arguing that studying a foreign language (or more than one) provides students with a completely different kind of intellectual and cultural experience—one that students shouldn’t miss out on in high school, especially if they are not going on to college and this is their last chance to learn a second language as part of their formal education. It goes without saying that being able to communicate in a second language—even at a fundamental level, which is all a student is likely to get out of two or even three years of high school study—could be a big help to students as they enter the working world, especially if they live in or move to a location that has a large population of workers who speak other languages, as many urban and rural areas do.

Furthermore, there are still quite a few colleges, including some of our best colleges, that are expecting to see foreign language study on their applicants’ high school transcripts. Two years of foreign language study would be the minimum that they would be looking for. Some great colleges are expecting three or even four years—typically of the same language.

Parents, the fact that your state might not require any foreign language study for high school graduation or might require just one year’s worth (as New York State does) does not mean that your school district cannot require more (just as your district might require more of any given subject than your state requires)—that is, more foreign language study to ensure that your children are, literally, college and career ready.

It is time to take a look at both your state’s and your school district’s requirements for studying a foreign language:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to talk about your state’s requirements for foreign language study in order to earn a high school diploma in your state and then about your school district’s requirements for foreign language study in order to earn a high school diploma in your district. Are those requirements the same or does your district require more years of foreign language study (it can’t, of course, require fewer)? What is the school board’s reasoning for the foreign language requirement in your district? What was the superintendent’s reasoning for recommending that requirement? How were the specific languages offered in your district chosen? What do labor market statistics or other indicators say about the value of learning various specific languages (e.g., Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin)? When does foreign language study start in your district? If you are not lucky enough to have foreign languages in the elementary schools, why not? What does the school board think is more important? What community input was obtained when all of these decisions were being made?

This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to meet with the superintendent, assistant superintendent for instruction, central office specialist, principals, department chairs, and/or teachers to find out exactly what the district’s decisions were based on and to determine whether there are any grounds for rethinking any of those decisions if you are not satisfied.

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