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?

ParentChat with Regina: Getting a Handle on What Matters in #Education #parents

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.

ParentChat with Regina: Getting a Handle on What Matters in #Education #parents

The Newest High School Graduation Requirement

The Newest High School Graduation Requirement on ParentChat with ReginaWhat if your state were as progressive as Louisiana? Well, that should get you to sit up and take notice since Louisiana is not usually the state that other states look to for education leadership. And yet, here it is: Beginning with Louisiana’s graduating class of 2018, all public high school seniors must apply for financial aid for college in order to graduate from high school (unless a student submits an opt-out form signed by a parent).

Louisiana students can meet this new requirement, adopted by its Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, by applying either to the federal government though the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (widely known as FAFSA) or to the Louisiana’s state office that provides assistance with obtaining both state and federal aid. According to the Education Commission of the States, Louisiana is the only state with this sort of high school graduation requirement.

An Education Week article by Catherine Gewertz explains that, each year, only about 44 percent of public high school seniors in Louisiana apply for financial aid. The national average is about 55 percent.

If Louisiana could get its rate of applications up to the national average, those students would produce about $54 million in revenue for higher education systems in the form of state and federal aid, according to FAFSA. In other words, students would get financial assistance to attend college, but colleges would get the government dollars that students would bring with them to the campus.

The article points out that, according to the research, “failure to complete financial-aid forms is one of the most powerful stumbling blocks on the road to college.” To be sure, filling out the forms is not straightforward, and a lot of specific personal financial information is required. For many families, the application is daunting—no matter how many times the government claims to have made it simpler.

For that reason, I have always recommended that families use a reasonably priced service (available by telephone) to fill out and submit the form, even though many schools have workshops of all sorts to help families with the process. By the way, Louisiana intends to make school-based help available by providing some funding to organizations that offer that kind of assistance, according to the article.

It is time to take a look at how your school district and your high school address the problem of applying for financial aid, especially if you do not live in Louisiana:

  • All parents: Ask your school board if the board has a policy on whether completing financial aid applications is an important part of your school district’s definition of “college readiness.” Does the policy include providing help for high school seniors and their families in completing those applications? Does the board require that kind of assistance to be available districtwide? Ask the board to discuss Louisiana’s new graduation requirement and to consider whether the board might want to make a similar policy for your school district (that could be done regardless of whether your state has a Louisiana-type 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.
  • High school parents: Whether your school district does or does not have a board policy on completing financial aid applications, ask your principal what financial aid workshops are available at the high school. Who is running those workshops—school staff or staff from outside organizations? What if students and parents need more help than those workshops can provide? Ask the principal and guidance/college counselors to discuss any procedures for advising seniors individually about the financial aid process. How are parents brought into or made aware of the information from those individual sessions? Are you satisfied that, as parents, you are getting the help you need in understanding and completing financial aid applications?

ParentChat with Regina: Getting a Handle on What Matters in #Education #parents

Is the Government Listening?

Is the Government Listening to Parents? on ParentChat with ReginaJust 18 percent of parents think that the government listens to them when it comes to their children’s education. Only about 33 percent of parents polled by a national PTA group said that they understood the changes that the government was making to education.

These research results were reported by BBC News education reporter Judith Burns two months ago. Oh, you thought these results were about parents in the U.S.? The results are from the UK, but they could just as easily have been from the U.S. Although our systems of schools and the way those schools are governed are not exactly the same, the parental complaints seem sadly similar.

No one who just watched the uproar over the implementation and testing of Common Core Learning Standards could disagree. No one who just watched 20 percent of New York State parents opt their children out of the State tests could disagree. The government didn’t listen, lots of U.S. parents would say.

PTA UK executive director Emma Williams was quoted by the BBC News as saying, “The two primary influences on children’s education is that of the school and their parents. However, the parent voice has, up until this point, been largely absent from the national education debate…. PTA UK believes that as primary stakeholders in their child’s education, parents should be consulted and that schools should be accountable to parents.” Yes, of course. Who could disagree with that?

While I am concerned about governmental responsiveness to parents at our federal and state levels here in the U.S., I am more concerned about governmental responsiveness at our local level—that is, in our local school districts, where virtually all of K–12 education actually happens and where so many crucial education decisions are made every day. And, fortunately, it is much easier to make your voices heard, parents, at the local level—much easier to make sure that the government is listening.

The BBC News story goes on to mention that PTAs are often associated with conducting fundraisers for their schools. Are you surprised? Not if you have a PTA in your school district. Indeed, more and more school districts are benefiting from their own related nonprofit organizations designed to do just that: raise money. While raising money for schools can be a useful activity for parents to engage in, I doubt that it is more influential in improving the quality of education in schools than finding a significant way for parents to participate in the decision-making process about curriculum and instruction and assessment—whether that participation is at the district or individual school level. It might be easier for parents to do, but is probably not more influential. It might be more welcomed by administrators, but is probably not more influential. So shouldn’t you spend your time and effort where you can be the most influential?

It is time to take a look at how well your local government education agency (that is, your school district) listens to parents:

All parents: Ask your school board to talk about its current policy on how parents should be involved in important decisions. How does the school board hear parent voices—through surveys, through series of issue-specific public meetings, through advisory committees, or some other way? What is the role of the PTA in the decision-making process? Does the PTA speak for the parents in your district? Do you as parents feel that your voices are being heard?

This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to meet with the superintendent in advance to understand how the board’s policy is being implemented and how it is being monitored for effectiveness.

Ask your principal if there is a separate process for how parents are involved in important decisions that are made at the school level. If there is a separate school-level process, how is it related to the board’s policy? What is the role of your school’s PTA in that process? Does the PTA speak for the parents in your school?

ParentChat with Regina: Getting a Handle on What Matters in #Education #parents