Monday, January 27, 2014

Home visits vs. reduced homework

In the Washington Post, there is an article by Jay Matthews, “Students won’t learn? GoVisit their parents." The article starts with the difficulties teachers have in high poverty school districts getting their students to complete homework, and reports on a program in which teachers are trained to visit the homes. The teachers are paid for the visits and the schools are reporting increased scores in reading and math. Sounds good?

I know nothing about this program except what I just read, so my comments are based on limited information. But I have some thoughts about this program’s success and invite the author to comment if he likes.

It seems that the central aspects of this program may have little to do with home visits per se, but more to do with training and empowering teachers. On the training front, the teachers have been taught to interact with parents in a different way, one that involves listening under conditions of respect. On the empowering front, the teachers are given tools to counteract frustrations they feel about their work, as they face pain and despair without clear solutions.

Even if this approach has merit, there are problems with it. First, it involves one-time or possibly sporadic contact with parents, whereas teachers see students every day, which I think is where their power really lies. Second, it may be hard to reach every parent. Even if some show improvement, we don’t really know how many visits were completed and how many children were affected by this approach. Third, there is the intrinsic question of authority over the home vs. authority over the school. In the end, it is the parents’ role, not the school’s, to make decisions about how to run the home. I think it is great that teachers are being taught to listen. I’d like to hear what they do if the parent says, for whatever reason, that homework is disruptive and cannot get done.

Taking the notions of training and empowerment, I have my own ideas about what would really work, and that involves: Teacher training on homework rather than on parental visits, and empowerment through homework reduction.

The sad fact is that homework, despite its widespread use, is poorly taught (virtually not taught at all) to educators as a teaching technique. I am not aware of any school of education that has a course for teachers called “Homework.” A review of teacher development, continuing education courses will show a virtual absence of courses on homework. I’m a psychologist, not an educator. If you came to my office, most likely, I would offer you a psychotherapy session or administer a psychological test. You can rest assured that over 35 years ago when I was in school, I had lots of courses on counseling, psychotherapy, and psychological testing. I have access to numerous continuing education courses as a practicing professional on those topic. You assume your accountant studied accounting, and your lawyer studied the law, when they were in school. You would be shocked to learn that teachers don’t study homework. At the least, it is critical for teachers to receive education on the theory, research and practice of giving homework.

The other issue is empowerment. Teachers in high poverty school districts understandably feel frustrated. The fact that they are trained in an action (visiting the parents) and are experiencing some success is important. But why place their bets on visits to parents, when engagement with children may be their true trump card? If you read stories of turnaround, high poverty school districts (I have), the central elements are always the same: a visionary principal, an energized teaching staff, and a sense of excitement created for the children in school, during school hours. I have never seen mentioned in any story of a school district like this, homework.

All the training and energy that has been placed in the home visit program could be redirected in positive ways, if teachers gave up the sacred cow of homework. They have over 6 hours a day with the children, and do themselves a great disservice spending any of it fretting over the half hour assignment they wish got done at home.

There’s a mantra that is used in addictions treatment that has great applicability to all aspects of life. There is serenity in accepting what is out of your control, power in acting on what you can truly do, and wisdom in understanding where the differences lie. Our teachers are extremely misguided banking their success on behaviors outside of their control (what happens in the home), when they have in their hands important and direct relationships with children, in which they can share their true love of learning.

For more information on Dr. Goldberg's model, read other postings on this blog, visit his website, The Homework Trap, or read his book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Response to homework blog

The following comment is given in response to a post on a blog titled Autism From the Lighter Side.

Your story appears to have had a happy ending, but I would like to use it as an example about what is wrong with the system. The fact is that you got your child back on track with a fairly simple punishment, which is fine, as long as the punishment need not be used again. The problem with homework punishments, and punishments in general, is that they are only good if they work, and the only way to know that a punishment works is that you don’t have to use it again. Unfortunately, there are many parents who get caught in the cycle of using the same punishments over and over again, and that is not good. So let’s consider what happened here.

The teacher enacts a penalty, low grades despite the fact that your child is learning and can do the work. The penalty impacts you more than it does him, so you employ a punishment that he responds to and gets his work done. He does it in 15 minutes, so it takes little effort for him to comply. What if the assignment took him an hour or two hours, and what if he was a child who had trouble with work, not just the occasional missed assignment or foray into ordinary teenage life? That child would not be able to do the work on a continuous basis, so for that child, no punishment would get him going.

Now, let’s look at the teachers and what “homework” they have done. In reality, teachers are not routinely taught homework in schools of education and teachers do not have continuing education courses on homework. Teachers are generally not acquainted with the research, theory and practice of homework unless they make special efforts to look into it, and those efforts are not easy to do because teacher training does not demand it. In effect, your child faces potentially low grades (Ds despite A levels of competence) for failing to do something that is not clearly needed for learning and is not adequately studied by those who give it out.

Hopefully, this will be the end of your child’s “homework problems.” Unfortunately, it is not the end for many youth. And for kids with autism spectrum disorders, it can be a double-edged sword.

Most kids, who have trouble with homework, have problems with pace. Pace involves the speed at which one can work, typically impacted by difficulties with working memory (think attention) and processing speed (think handwriting). If a child cannot work quickly, he has two choices: do the homework and give up socialization and play; don’t do the homework and get poor grades. Typically, the more social and sometimes more athletic kids will accept the bad grades to play with their friends. The more awkward and socially isolated youth will do the work at the expense of play. But they cannot do both. There are only so many hours in a day.

My own recommendation is to limit homework to time by the clock. In the case of a child who can do the assignment in 15 minutes, there is no real problem. For the child who cannot accomplish this goal, it is quite important to place limits on what he has to do. I would also prod teachers into doing their “homework,” their own study about homework, too.

For more information on Dr. Goldberg's model, read other postings on this blog, visit his website, The Homework Trap, or read his book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Homework and Concussions

There is a recent item in the news of a research study that shows that homework can beharmful to kids after they suffer a concussion. As someone who is critical of homework and follows homework news, it would be easy to add this to a list of research that builds the case against homework. In reality, there is a lot of research that throws modern homework practices into question and there is some research that tends to support it. I would say, on balance, that the research supporting homework is weak. But that said, I want to resist the temptation of looking for more and more reasons to oppose homework and consider the broader implications of this study.

There are probably thousands of studies that could be done, and have not been done, which highlight specific situations in which homework might be harmful. Here, it is post-concussion; tomorrow it may be something else. I think a good study on kids with ADHD will show that homework demands for them need to be reduced. I’ve proposed that in my book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity ofParents, Teachers, and Students, but I haven’t conducted a controlled study. Yet, I would still advise parents of children with ADHD to resist the temptation to medicate children through the afternoon and into the night with the hopes that they’ll get their homework done. Rather, set reasonable expectations for your child, based on your knowledge of your child, about what must be done.

In the end, we are talking about parental judgment. Studies are fine as they inform doctors, psychologists, and teachers who may then go on to offer good recommendations for parents about how to proceed. But there is still that fine line between recommendation and requirement that is at the core of the issue.

When I was in my teens, I was hit in the head by a batted ball and lost consciousness for a brief period of time. I was sick and unable to function for about two weeks. My parents did not have to be rocket scientists or well-versed in the research on concussions to know that I needed to rest until I got better.  As it is, the concussion happened during the summer so I did not have to go to school. But even if school was in session, I would have stayed home for a couple of weeks, and, hopefully, would have been fully excused from homework requirements. When I got back to school, the rational focus would have been on having me “catch up” in the sense of learning, not in the sense of performing and getting every assignment done.

So, in looking at this study let’s keep in mind that, on a day-to-day basis, it will have no applicability for most parents. The lesson is not restricted to concussions but relevant to the need for someone in charge (and that must be the parent) to make thoughtful decisions about what’s best for the child.

For more information on Dr. Goldberg's model, read other postings on this blog, visit his website, The Homework Trap, or read his book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Blogging again

I haven't blogged about homework for a while, but I thought I would start up again -- maybe not every day like I did before, but once a week. I still receive a Google alert on homework every day so I can keep abreast about what is going on. Today, I came across this page from a fourth grade teacher's website and thought I would use it as a basis for comment. It seems likely that this is a very committed and conscientious teacher who is trying her best to teach her children well. Yet, I find some things questionable in this approach (which I think is representative of the ways in which may teachers think).

First, although it seems reasonable for students to participate in organizing their weekly planer and I have no objection to the notion that they will write down their assignments, I don’t get why they would stay in for recess if they can’t complete the assignment. Recess is there for a reason. We give salaried workers legally mandated 15 minute work breaks twice a day, because we know they need breaks. Similarly, we give kids breaks because we know they are good for them. Why we would take breaks away from a child who struggles to meet the requirements does not make sense. This is school, so if the child has trouble doing something the teacher considers important, it would call for an educational, not a punitive intervention.

Second, we have the question of why a child would not get his or her homework planner organized for the week, assuming 20 minutes is a reasonable amount of time. Does the child have trouble focusing? Does the child need help learning this strategy for organization or does the child need to develop an alternative strategy? Does the child have trouble with handwriting? Is the child hungry first thing Monday morning and not ready to proceed? Maybe the child has trouble sleeping on Sunday night, making the adjustment from a weekend to a weekday schedule? I don’t know the reason for any particular child, but, as with any behavioral requirement, failure to meet the expectation is an opportunity to assess why, and engage in an intervention, an opportunity lost if we blindly assume the child can do what he or she is asked to do and use a punitive response when the child does not. And keep in mind, even if the teacher doesn’t see keeping the child in for recess as punitive, the child’s experience is still one of negativity, not one that is conducive to further learning.

Third, let’s consider the overall volume of work. Educators typically say ten minutes per night per grade. This teacher seeks 25 minutes per night reading, which would leave about 15 minutes for other work. Looking at the volume of the remaining assignments, it seems unlikely that most children can complete them in that period of time. Is there are agreed upon amount of time that children should be spending on homework? Is it more than 40 minutes per night in this teacher’s mind? And if so, how much? 50 minutes, an hour, an hour and a half?

Fourth, let’s assume these requirements are consistent with the overall philosophy and approach of this school and represents what children in the fourth grade there are expected to do. Children don’t work at the same pace? Children may not all be able to hit the ground running and use their homework time productively. Children may not all be able to read what they wrote? They may not all remember what the assignments were about? They may not recall what was taught in class, the basis for understanding what they need to do? It is not uncommon for children to take twice as much time or more to complete what the more proficient students can do? Are we looking a situation in which some kids will need to spend two hours a night on this work? Perhaps, just to get by? Are we looking at kids who are going to face mounting demands in subsequent years, without developing positive attitudes toward school and their own competencies? In my experience between 10 and 25 percent of all students, to differing degrees, have the experience of moving through the grades with increasing demands that eventually overwhelm them and cause them to fail.

Finally, what is the relationship between the teacher and the parent? I’ve often highlighted how homework involves a usurpation of parental authority by the school. It involves decision-making by the teacher over activities that are to go on in the home.  Where did that authority come from, and should we leave it unchallenged? What I find interesting here is that there is a clear threat to parents that, if they don’t use the information in the way the teacher meant them to; if they take the information given, look at the child’s homework planner, and make their own best decision how to best help their child, this website will be taken down.

I’d like to advise the teacher to rethink her homework policy and make the following adjustments:

1.      Establish clear time expectations for homework.

2.      Advise parents to stop their children from working after those limits are met.

3.      Advise parents of their ultimate authority to modify expectations as they see fit for their children.

4.      Ensure that grading policies do not create situations in which children fail because of homework difficulties.

For more information on Dr. Goldberg's model, read other postings on this blog, visit his website, The Homework Trap, or read his book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Homework Advice Articles

I came across an article this morning entitled Setting the Stage for Homework Success. It includes what I consider to be common fare good advice, and includes statements that are generally true. The problem is that is also perpetuates some misconceptions about homework.
The article cites a research-based association between homework and good grades, which is good, but deceiving, since homework is factored very heavily into the grading system. We could say that baseball players who hit home runs make more money that those who do not, yet, it is unlikely that any of us can will ourselves to hit home runs, let alone play well enough to be in the major leagues. This may seem an extreme analogy, but we make an error when we assume that all children are able to do their homework, at least in a reasonable amount of time.
There is a major fallacy in our thinking when we forget that the school day is marked by a clock while the homework day is marked by the assignments. Kids can succeed at school because they go in and out at the same time, regardless of their varied abilities. Homework is a fixed assignment that necessarily takes some kids longer to complete than others. One could argue that the children who are most successful at schools are the ones that did virtually no homework in elementary school because they were getting their assignments done in class while the slower-working children finished theirs. They got lots of recognition but did very little work at home.
This article mentions the idea of doing homework at a fixed time of the day. I fully agree. The key to helping children who have trouble with their homework is to make sure that fixed time is truly fixed time and that, when the time is up, the child is fully excused, whether or not the assignment is done.

I assume we are going to have a proliferation of these homework-advice articles as we approach the next school year.  If some people find it useful to read them, that's fine. I hope people start to realize that these ideas over-simplify the problem for the homework-trapped child, and misdirect parents and teachers to engage I inappropriate responses.

For more information on Dr. Goldberg's model, read other postings on this blog, visit his website, The Homework Trap, or read his book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers. 


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Chilling Research on School Dropout

I came across an item that has direct relevance to my homework trap model, even though I’m sure that most people will miss the point. The article is entitled, “Dropout Indicators Found for First-Graders.” It suggests that one can actually predict future school dropouts as early as first grade. In my model, I talk about a life-span problem that starts in elementary school and progresses through middle school and high school in predictable steps. I agree. One can see the pattern as early as first grade.

I’ll quote from the article:

“Similarly, elementary schools very rarely handed out punishments as severe as suspensions, but more subtle behavior cues, such as report card notations of incomplete homework, more accurately signaled future problems for elementary children.”

I think most people will read this paragraph and draw the conclusion that we must ratchet up our efforts to insure that these kids get their homework done, so they can be successful in the later grades. This pressures parents to oversee the work, with the parents getting blamed in similarly subtle ways. The problems with that approach are that it rarely works and it fails to understand why some children have persistent homework problems.

Children go to school for the same amounts of time. They take home the same volume of assignments. We fool ourselves if we think this is equal treatment. The school day is defined by the clock. The homework session is not. Why do we understand that children who work slowly do not have to stay for a longer school day, but then demand that they work longer homework sessions? Homework trapped children can only thrive if the homework session is a fixed amount of time. Once we expect the slow working child to get all the work done, we set that child up for likely failure. It is this misguided expectation that is at the root of the “report card notations,” to which this article refers.

I hope that researchers, teachers, and readers of this article realize that the most rational step following this chilling research is to let up on kids. Don’t let them fail because the homework does not get done. Don’t let them get these negative notations. Teach them in school. Forget about behaviors that are out of the teacher’s control. Families are different. Environments are different. Circumstances are different. Children are different. Don’t try to make parents fit a certain mold. Use the time you have to teach the child in school. And if homework is really important, please, bound it by the clock.

For more information on Dr. Goldberg's model, read other postings on this blog, visit his website, The Homework Trap, or read his book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Who is in charge in the home?

I came across this article that broaches the issue of who is in charge of the home. It includes a common omission that I comment on. Here's the link to the article.

Here's my comment:

I would like to highlight the comment "Who is in charge of your house? You or your nine-year-old son?" and rephrase that to "Who is in charge of your house? You, your nine-year-old son, or your nine-year-old son's teacher?" The sad part of this common dilemma is that the authority of the teacher to assign and demand homework goes unquestioned. In reality, homework is controversial, teachers do not study the research, theory and practice of giving homework when they are in school, and they frequently miss the point about why an otherwise bright child does not do his homework. The key is almost always found in the issue of pace and that has to do with problems of attention, reading speed and handwriting speed. Children work with time containers at school, but with the expectation that they will keep working, without limits, until the work is done at home. This is unrealistic and unfair, and at the core of what I call The Homework Trap. But whether you agree with my analysis or not, take stock of the oversight in discussing whose in charge of the home, omitting the powerful authority teachers are given over what happens in an individual home.

For more information on Dr. Goldberg's model, read other postings on this blog, visit his website, The Homework Trap, or read his book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers.