Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Back to School: Get Back to Basics

This week marked the first day of school for many students and parents. Time to get back in the groove. Teachers, by the way, have been at it for a few weeks, ahead of the start of the semester.

I just came across an astounding story in the next issue of Time Magazine. And I want to construct the proper context in which this tale is told. In Texas, public schools continue to struggle, despite the No-Child Left-Behind good-intentions, literacy initiatives and some genuine education success stories.

It’s still not enough…yet, there’s a sinister undercurrent still eroding the basic pillars of education: elbow grease, brain power, and homework.

The University of Michigan studied 2,900 kids a couple of years ago and discovered the time spent on homework is up 51% since 1981. The Associated Press and AOL ran a poll earlier this year and found elementary school kids are spending an average of 78-minutes a night on work outside the classroom.

Interestingly, a Duke University study concludes "homework does not measurably improve academic results for grade school students." (Note—there’s that metric issue again: how do you measure success in public schools?) The Duke study also found homework to result in slightly better ROI for middle- and high-school students, but more than 2-hours a night yielded lower test scores.

Apparently, this correlation is universal.
The Time article notes that many of the nations that outperform the U.S. on student achievement tests--such as Japan, Denmark and the Czech Republic—have lower homework loads, but low-scoring countries like Greece, Thailand and Iran really pile on the books.

Homework is more than about learning the course material. Homework also builds study habits, self-discipline and time-management skills. At what level, however, is too much homework a detriment to kids' interest in learning. At what point does the path to knowledge become a drag on discovery, and undermine natural curiosity?

Critics of public schools’ addiction to homework are seeking radical solutions, like a default no-homework policy, exceptions being tasks like interviewing parents on family history, kitchen chemistry and family reading.

There is another harsh reality in that 71% of mothers of kids under 18 are in the workforce. Some are talking about extending the school day or year beyond its agrarian-based calendar, which would allow students to do more work at school and save evenings for family and serendipity.

That theory looks good on paper.

But when many fractured families have defaulted to entertaining kids with TV, it is doubtful much “quality time” is going to be spend in familial serendipity. That gambit is more likely to result in more TV viewing time.

Should there be a sensible homework policy, perhaps 10 min. a night per grade level?
Depends upon the quality of those minutes spent in study.

What about a nightly time limit, a policy of no homework over vacations, no more than two major tests a week, fewer weekend assignments and no Monday tests?
Sounds like the inmates are taking over the asylum.

The sad truth is that many of today’s parentswho are advocating no-homework are, in fact, yesterday’s struggling students. They’re intimidated by homework they themselves wrestled with a generation earlier…and so are capitulating their responsibility as parents to augment the role of the schools in teaching their kids the finer points of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

This self-defeating attitude is a first cousin to the mentality that schools were the place to send unruly kids to teach them how to behave socially, as self-indulgent parents abdicated their responsibilities as role models. The catch-22 came when schools tried to discipline out-of-control kids, and the parents came to the defense of their children, even when the students’ behavior was clearly wrong.

I know this for a fact, listening to my father’s horror stories as a High school administrative principal in the 70’s, and my mother’s experiences as a classroom teacher into the 80’s. The policies of those decades are now coming home to roost in the 21st Century.

Mixed message to kids: anything goes, but don’t break the rules, which schools could not enforce.

Clear message to teachers: your sense of values and boundaries better not cross the line parents refuse to enforce.

No wonder we’ve got Columbine’s and Jonesboro’s staining the libraries and schoolyards of our public schools. Johnny can’t read or write, but he knows how to make a bomb and draw up a death list, and manipulate the system with the help of absent parents and the ACLU.

Are there homework assignments that are really ridiculous, and should be re-thought?
You bet.
That stupid project to build a self-propelled car with paperclips, thread spools and rubber bands was an impossibility for my 8-year old daughter, and an immense frustration to my bride and I. The outcome was a sense of defeat for the student and outrage for us. That was not a positive learning experience. It would have been a challenge for a high schooler.

Just as punishment should fit the crime, so should homework assignments find a balance between enrichment and creation of character and good study habits. It’s no replacement for quality time in the classroom, or at home.

1 comment:

RAY said...

Hey Brent:
It's amazing how schools and curriculum are different from when you and I attended. Homework was loaded down back then due to teachers in high school not communicating with one another . This was the fault of individual departments not conversing wiith the other,therefore it was not uncommon for a student to have 2 book reports and 2 tests due on the same day. The parents of today remember the load,with the burden of working at the local grocery store or fast food joint. They do not want their child to have that burden. The down slide is a cutback in subject material being taught. Todays problem is worse with the TAKS test. A good idea gone bad. Now the test is being taught not tthe subjects. The pressure is on schools to perform, the teachers to perform and the judge is the TAKS test. It robs the student to perform,and to learn. Teachers are blamed for poor TAKS scores,when it is the system itself to blame. Teachers in some instances are allowing some cheating to take place among themselves for fear of losing a job,along with some principals.Honesty becomes a casualty,and students are the taught it is okay to cheat by those who are charged with setting an example . My wife being a teacher,myself having worked in a classroom witness burnout from those charged with teaching our youth due to the many regulations rather than the basics in teaching. We have trouble keeping the good ones due to the low pay,and the increasing lack of respect from students with no consequences being offerred by the school and most importantly at home. This leads to less homework being tendered,because there are fewer expectations that it will get done. The basics include discipline mentally and emotionally. The "board of education" worked then,now it collects dust and the students are not challenged to take responsibility for their actions. When an educator takes a stand in regards to this, they are ridiculed., Recently a Principal at a local high school was reading out over the PA the percentages of student groups (African American) who performed low on ther TAKS test and SATS. The parents raised objections that they were singled out and demanded the Board fire her. The Principal was not new,and had been in education for 25 years. In the end the Board had her apologize for being insensitive and then removed her from her post "pending assignment". She was white.
So don't blame the teacher, the Principal,blame the school boards on the local and state level for allowing politics to interfere with education. The victims are the children whether they know it or not, plus parents who do not wifh to fulfill the responsibilty in being a parent. My wife and I work with my 10 year old step grandson who has autism on his homework. The results have paid off,and he made the honor roll last year.Three years ago he was in a special education class.We took an interest and fought for him against the school district who wanted to continue him outside the main curriculum.We took the time to teach him how to talk, write,and comprehend. We won,the bureaucrats lost. My step Grandson won in a big way because his brain became unlocked and he was hungry to learn. My wife has that battle everyday not just at home but in the classroom as more regulations come down,that look good on paper but fail in reality. Her classification as a teacher is not included in what budget is allocated,because she is Special Ed. Her speciality is always among the first to feel the cuts,so Homer at the local High School can play football,and not crack open a book. We can talk about this all we want,but until we get the politics out of education and do what is truly needed on all levels,plus show appreciation for those who chose this profession,with better pay, better benefits, we will end up spinning our wheels allowing the rut to grow deeper.