Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Homework in the News 2/29/12

I found several articles referring to homework in the news today. Here are the articles and my comments.

Cedar Grove Board Awards Construction Contracts
It appears that a parent in Cedar Grove has been trying to get the school board to create a policy that will prevent kids from getting zeros for work handed in late. This has caused an uproar and the principal has been asked to propose a policy. I agree that zeros for work not handed in is an unfair and excessive penalty when you consider it has two and a half times the impact of a grade of 60, an ordinary F. My problem with the notion of handing the work in late is that, if the child cannot do the work by the assigned day, we are only piling up more and more work for that child to do. I think the answer is to place time limits on how much the child needs to do, reduce the penalties, and vest parents with ultimate decision making. This way, those parents who object to such allowances are still able to set the norms they have in their homes while giving this irate mother the freedom to raise her child in the way she feels is fit.

Homework before fun.
The author here is advocating for a concept that suggests fun is less important than education, not realizing that play is an aspect of education as well. Children learn through their play. But that notion aside, I don't want to discredit the value of education.  Education is certainly a top priority for children and something we need to take seriously. The problem is not the importance of education but "education creep," outside the boundaries of the school and into the rest of the child's day. For your information, I am writing this blog post at home after my normal work hours, because it is what I want to do. It's fun for me.  My wife did not tell me I had to do this.

If I Ace the Test, Will I Be the Best?
My compliments to this young man for taking this stand.

This is the type of common sense, good advice that, unfortunately, gets misperceived as a panacea for all parents to apply in all of their homes. I rile when I read it because, as simple, seemingly rational, and straightforward as it may seem, it gets used to simplify and overlook the real issues behind what is happening with the child who is persistently homework noncompliant.
Here's a teacher's post in the The Chronicle Herald
The teacher talks about children who have problems with math having to buckle down and do more homework, lest they fail. Keep in mind that in high school, kids are having to balance assignments from five different major subject teachers. Then, those kids are not all math whizzes. Telling them to buckle down only runs the risk of leaving them feeling overwhelmed and directionless. Again, time limits to how much work the student must do will actually mobilize that student to do more, and more effective work, than moralizing and lecturing about what that child should do. Although I'm a psychologist, I was a doctoral student in math before switching to psychology and definitely a math whiz.  The kid who lived two doors down from me used to work on his motorcycle and car after work (he would clean his bicycle when he was younger). Thank God I wasn't forced to do automotive repair homework when I was his age. I would have certainly failed school.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Today's Homework Articles

Today, I am introducing a new feature to my blog. Every day, I look through the news for articles on homework. At times, I post comments to those articles. From now on, I plan post regular homework news updates. I'll find articles where homework is an issue and offer my comments here.  Today I have three articles on which I will comment.
This article refers to school board business in Watertown, Wisconsin.  Along with its routine business, the principal tells the board of an education (it is not clear if this is a goal or a policy) that no child will fail simply because that child fails to do his homework. The concept appears connected to the fact that the district has numbers of disadvantaged students who do not have a good home or other setting in which to do homework. I applaud the principal in making this statement. I think he should go further (if he has not already) and insure it is a policy. And finally, I don't think it should be specific to disadvantaged circumstances. It think it is good policy to diminish the weight of homework and not fail children for homework noncompliance. Rather, we need to look at the reason for the noncompliance, which in this case is presupposed to be the environment, but in most cases is an under the radar learning problem. 

You Can’t Bribe to Make Your Child Comply
This is an article on parenting. It is very good in that it shows how authority stems out of the relationship between parent and child, not from coercive techniques. What I found most interesting in this article are these words used by the author, "Sure, we establish ground rules, bed times, and provide homework supervision."  It is interesting the distinction between the rules we set and then the expectation to provide homework supervision. I would like to see our understanding of homework requirements changed so that the author, in the future, would say, "Sure, we establish ground rules, bed times, and our own rules regarding what homework the child must do."
This blog entry refers to research that shows that parents who do homework projects for their children are actually not helping them. I agree that where homework requirements are reasonable and doable, the parent should not take them over for the child.  There are certainly those parents who are driven to make sure their kids do the best projects ever. That said, there are other parents who "help" their children out of desperation because that child is in danger of failing.  Those children, in my estimation, have under the radar learning problems. They are forced to do things they can't do, and their parents get panicked and do the work for them.  For these parents, the problem is not that they have some hidden need for their child to excel that they cannot control, but that they have been terrorized by their lack of control over what is required to take place in their own homes. These parents desperately need to employ the concepts of The Homework Trap.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Preschoolers given homework

This post appeared in a New York Times blog.  My comment is as follows: 

The situation described in this article is quite disturbing, not just because if involves a preschooler, but because it highlights the fear parents feel dealing with the school. And while the pre-school’s parent who finally spoke up got an understanding response from the teacher, that won't be the case in the later years. As Alfie Kohn says, we require too much of a bad thing. Yet, for many kids, they manage that bad thing and their parents accept it as part of school. Why would teachers give it, if it wasn't really needed? But for other children, the demand is a nightmare, and their parents, unfortunately, have no option but to talk with the school, and it's always as the one with the "problem child," along with the implicit message that if the parent did better, the child would succeed. This is nonsense and it is dangerous because countless children and their parents get trapped in a system that does them great harm. They may not be vying for placement in the top schools, but they are ordinary, average kids who want to behave, and (although their teachers overlook this), are quite motivated learn. In the end, parents need the authority to make decisions, including the right to overrule teachers when homework difficulties arise. I feel sorry for these preschoolers. But it's what happens later on that worries me the most.


Monday, February 20, 2012

What do homework noncompliant children and pregnant women have in common?

I came across an article in the New York Times, Sunday Magazine that started me thinking about what might prove to be another aspect of homework non-compliance (or at least another way to explain it).  For years, I have been saying that homework noncompliance is an educational, not a moral or a behavioral problem, and that "bad behavior" is an adaptive strategy children use to manage situations they cannot otherwise handle. Efforts by parents and teachers to come together only reinforce that strategy, further increasing noncompliance.  In the end, both parent and child are trapped in a situation they cannot resolve, and one that calls for a reduction in what the child is required to do, a modification of the penalties, and full respect for the parents' authority in their homes. 

Yesterday, the New York Times published an article entitled, How Companies Learn Your Secrets.  The article talked about how Target Stores specifically targets pregnant woman in their second trimester. The practice rests on the idea that people form strong habits. Even though Target sells a range of products, customers do not typically go there for most things they sell. Rather, we associate certain items with certain stores.  If we want a carton of milk, we don't drive to Target, we get in our cars and, without much thought, automatically drive to the same supermarket or convenience store we have always used.  It is very hard to break those habits, and standard advertising has a limited impact.  To get customers to change their behaviors, Target needs to get them in the store for a particular purchase, at a time when they are likely to make additional purchases, and in the process reprogram their habits.  Target has found that pregnant women in their second trimesters are more likely than others to capitalize on the convenience of buying everything in the same place, when they come to the store.  So their goal is to identify women who are pregnant and direct their advertisements to that group. From there, the article has more to do with the science of identifying these women than the psychology of their buying behaviors.

The article specifically points to laboratory research in which it is noted that as habits are formed, brain activity is actually reduced.  The individual operates on automatic pilot with little thought directing his or her behavior. I think this is what happens with homework-trapped children.  The battles involve lots of energy, but very little thought.  Reactions are habitual, not rational, and continued pressure on the child has no possibility of altering behaviors. The notion that we can reason with the child once those habits are set in, is out of the question. Rather, we need to reinforce homework-doing behavior (not punish homework noncompliance) if change is to occur.  I don't think there is any difference in the underlying psychology. It's just that Target has a strong financial incentive to alter behavior, without making it a moral question that one "should" shop in their store.  There is something here for us to learn about behavior (and more importantly the prospects for success) when dealing with homework trapped children.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Three components to a coherent homework policy

Here's a comment I made when I learned that a school district was looking to create a new policy on homework.

I think there are three components to a coherent homework policy which are absolutely essential. First, homework "time" should be measured by the clock, not by the assignment. Adults work fixed hours. A child's school day starts and stops with a bell. No child should have to work an open-ended period of time.The prevailing standard is ten minutes per night per grade, M-Th, with the weekends off. Your school district may want to tweek those numbers, but under no circumstance, should any child be required to work more than that amount. If the child is having trouble getting the work done, observe the child, identify the problem, and teach the child to use the time well.

The second critical component to a coherent homework policy is to modify the penalties. Homework, depending on the grade, should take about 10% of the child's education day (school and homework time combined). So homework should not account for more than 10% of the grade. Further homework should not pull grades down below an ordinary F, so there should be a penalty floor (60%) below which the homework grade cannot drop even if nothing at all has been done.

Third, there needs to be a clear understanding that parents are the heads of their homes and that homework is assigned with their tacit permission. In the end, when homework difficulties arise, teachers should defer to parents in deciding what to do.

Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D. Author of The Homework Trap.

Should mother let child drop out

I read a blog post from a mother questioning whether she should let her child drop out and earn a GED. Apparently, the child was doing well in school but got sick with mono and asthma, and also became uncomfortable around other students. I don't know that her question is related to homework issues, but it is related to exercising parental judgment in the face of a child having a problem that seriously threatens her academic success. I offered the following thoughts.

I have three children who are adults. Two graduated high school and college and are doing very well. One dropped out, got his GED. I wish he had graduated, but he's doing much better this way than he would have if he had to continue going to school day in and day out facing unrelenting negativity and pressures.  The truth is we didn't really have an alternative to letting him drop out because he wasn't going to show up and pass anyway. The problem started long before we reached the point of having to make the decision. In our case, the problem was almost completely due to the unrelenting nature of the homework system. Our child liked school, but hated homework from a very young age on. We got sucked into a system that acted as if homework was the end all, and be all of being successful at school. Penalties for homework not done were so severe (zeros for the missed assignments, 25% of the grade), that homework terror dominated our lives. It pushed us off center from being able to parent (and address our child's problems), using our own judgment, in a rational way. I am a psychologist, so at the same time this was happening in our home, I was privy to stories from other parents with similar problems, and from adults who were in this "homework trap" when they were children. I've written a book, The Homework Trap ( with the hopes that it will help other parents. In our case, it was very clear that we needed to take charge and have full control of the decisions to be made in our home if our child was to be successful at school. And unfortunately, the system is set up now where parents have high levels of responsibility to make their children do the work, with little authority to control the assignments, and that leaves them powerless. I don't think my experience is the same as that of the writer of this question except to the degree that, as a parent, the writer needs more authority to access the situation, figure out what her daughter can do, and then tell the school what her decision is. This parent should be able to say to the school, "My daughter has been sick. It's hard enough for her to get to school. You have to reduce the assignments, let her do what she can do, pass her for learning enough to graduate, and get off her back. We need a solution that gives her a pathway to graduation, not blind demands that she either conform or fail."


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Teacher advises parents not to do second grader's Valentine project.

Here's a post I made in response to an innocuous seeming article by a second grade teacher. Let me know what you think.

Kelley Tenny is right that a second grade project should be done by a second grader, not by the parent. Undoubtedly, there are some driven parents who do the projects for their children. But I think Ms. Tenny is missing the larger issue which is that homework takes place in the home and that parents are in charge of that space. For sure, teachers should have the freedom to teach in their space, the classroom, without undo parental interference. Similarly, parents should run their homes, as they see fit, using their own judgment. There are a number of reasons why parents may choose to do the project for their children. Some may be good. Some may not. But I believe strongly that teachers should view the use of the home as an extension of the class, only with the permission of the parent. Most parents give implicit permission for reasonable amounts of homework. But the point should never be lost that the space is the domain of the parent, and the parent alone. Once we accept that, we'll see that there is a need to reduce penalties for homework not done, or, at least, defer to the parent as the final authory when homework problems arise. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Mentoring Programs

This article reports on a local college volunteer mentoring program.  Here is my comment:

Programs like this are essential for kids, largely because interest in school gets built around relationships with older youth. There is a backside to this lesson which is that all learning takes place in a supportive context with positive feelings. This is why it is so important to begin reducing our dependence on coercive after-school techniques, i.e. homework.  It is one thing to energize a child with an interesting assignment and have that child feel enthused and share that enthusiasm with someone he looks up to and values. It is another to place unending demands on that child and then expect that the parents enforce compliance.  One key ingredient to the success of this program is its voluntary nature. One reason why homework is so harmful to some kids is the way in which it is forced on them, and, more significantly, the way in which their parents are forced to shift from their roles of revered authorities, loving adults, and wise leaders to mindless agents demanding compliance for behaviors of which they have no real power to modify or limit. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D. Author of The Homework Trap.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Response to kindergarten parent

I just read a question to an advice columnist in the Washington Post from a parent concerned she was not being a responsible parents, because she did not have time and energy to help her kindergarten child with homework. Here is my comment to her question:

To the parent of the kindergarten student who has concerns about being a responsible parent, let's start out by asking ourselves what does a 5 year old need from her parent. Five year olds are the stage of having "the best mommies and daddies in the world." They idealize their parents and need to feel secure that their parents are the ones they trust and are making decisions for them. As parents, we vary in our decision-making skills, but, the child still needs us to make the best decisions for them that we can. So, I ask the writer, what decisions have you made regarding you child doing homework? Do you want your child to be doing homework after school? How much homework do you want your child to do? Do you agree with the amount the teacher has assigned? Whatever your answer, being a "responsible" parent means making those decisions for your child, not leaving them in the hands of someone else. There are several problems with homework policy today, but, perhaps the most important one is that teachers are making decisions regarding what should take place in the parents' home. For sure, most parents will trust teachers to teach their children, and will generally follow suit with the recommendations those teachers make. But let's always make sure that homework is given with the permission of the parent, and is never allowed to override that parents' judgment. Does your child really need to do that extra assignment? Or maybe, just maybe, she'll benefit greatly from having parents who are fun, calm, and relaxed. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D. Author of The Homework Trap.


Response to parents concern for privacy

A parent expressed concerns that teachers might retaliate against parents who fight homework policy.  Here is the response I wrote on Facebook.  I hear your concerns, but I hope and expect that the day will come when this is not an issue. One of the points I make in my upcoming book is that parents who are feeling trapped by the homework system need to come together and form a group. It is true that for every parent who wants less homework, there is another parent who wants more homework. My guess is that the parents who want more homework tend to be on the PTA and have more contact with teachers, so their voice is better heard. The ones that want less homework are butting heads with the school and tend to meet with teachers (or with a team of teachers and school personnel) by themselves.  If your child has a homework problem, your privacy is protected, and that is a double edged sword, as there are other parents who are also meeting with the school with similar complaints, but for whom you never have contact.  My first step in writing my book is to highlight some fundamental misconceptions schools have,  not just about homework and its general value for kids (Sara has done a great job on that score), but how it is particularly detrimental to certain kids.  Once the book is out (looks like it will be available about March 1), I then want to address the question of how parents can come together, and organize within a single school district.  It think that is the key. Otherwise, we can be talking to each other from different places across the country. But if there is no organized effort within the individual school district, you'll feel all alone. There are instances throughout the country of specific school districts tackling this issue and specific groups of parents coming together to insist on change. However, for the majority of parents in the majority of schools, there is still a feeling of being all alone.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

My Comment on NYTimes Blog Post: I Hate Homework. I Assign It Anyway

Two important points to make about homework are: 1. Research does not support it. 2. Teachers are not trained in how to do it. Homework is a policy, not a professional practice. If homework were that important, schools of education would have courses in how to use the tool. But they don't. I also think that if homework is given, it should be given with the permission of parents, not overriding their say. Most parents accept what the school requires, because they want to instill respect for authority and respect for education. But when parents are put in the role of having responsibility for making sure the assignments get done without the authority to decide what to do when it gets to be too much, it makes them middle managers of the school with respect to their children. This is a devastating position for the parent to be in. It is also unhealthy for the child to have a helpless parent flailing around to enforce rules that that parent did not create. Homework should be time-bound, not assignment-based. Penalties should be reduced so that no child fails (or suffers a serious loss of credit) based on homework alone. And parents should be the final arbiters when it comes to homework problems. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D. Author of The Homework Trap.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Millburn School District parents up in arms over homework

On Jan 29, frustrated parents spoke up at the Millburn School District Board of Education's forum on strategic planning for the future.  They want a policy on homework and want it now.  Who can blame them?  After all, the realities for their children are today, not next year or a few years down the line.  In the spirit of helping them out, let me suggest a preamble to whatever policy they come up with.

"We, the members of the Millburn School District Board of Education, in creating a homework policy, assert the following principle.  Since school work takes place in the class, and homework takes place in the home, on matters of classroom education, teachers have the final say, and on matters of homework, parents have the final say. We recognize that most parents trust and support the schools and their children's teachers in the efforts they make to teach their children.  We also recognize that families differ from each other in their attitudes, beliefs, and norms, and that children differ from each other in their personalities, interests, and skills.  On that basis, all homework must be given with tacit approval of the parents, who have the right to limit and waive assignments and limit the consequences limits and waivers have on their children's final grades.

With a preamble like this, the school district can then go on to define particulars: perhaps, a time limit norm (the standard 10 minutes per grade per night), a content expectation (homework must be meaningful), in-house guidelines to school personnel (e.g. that they must have inservice education on the research and practice of homework), and a penalty cap (e.g., no more than one-half grade lost on the basis of homework alone).

One key issue is to recognize that the school district will not arrive at consensus. At least as many parents want more homework as there are wanting less, and that what may be good for one family, may be quite harmful for another.  This preamble supports the parents right to act on what they believe is right for their child in their home.  It supports teachers in making professional decisions on where homework fits in their educational philosophies. And, it sets new parameters under which teachers must work in making those educational decisions.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Homework Abuse

Yesterday, I noted an article telling about a mother getting charged with child abuse for beating up her child in a battle over homework. The charges were reported by the child's father, and the authorities got involved. Obviously, no child should be beaten up the way it was described in this report.

I responded by posting a quick, and probably overly flip response, suggesting that assigning too much homework might be a form of child abuse, and that I've sometimes thought I should call child protection authorities when that happens. That is not a good position, and one I said in some haste.  But there is a larger issue behind my comment that I feel is important to make.

The assault reported in the paper is an extreme case of something that goes on at probably sub-abuse, yet, nevertheless, harmful levels everyday.  As a parent of three children, one who was homework-trapped, I know that my parenting style for that child differed dramatically from how I treated my other two children.  The level of conflict, pressuring, nagging, and arguing that ensued, often throughout the evening, was not fair to my child.  Yet, it was done under tremendous pressure from the school to get my son to do something he was not going to do. As the process unfolded, I realized that, underlying the situation, he was being asked to do something he could not do.  Asking him to complete all of his assignments at the expense of play was not much different from, say, having a wheelchair bound child and demanding that he ascend the stairs without a handicapped ramp.  He might be able to do it, on the ground, pulling himself up with his hands. He might be able to do it every day.  But if I made that demand, I'm sure my neighbors watching from their windows would have called DYFS on me.

Children are children and need balance in their lives.  I don't have a problem with children having a reasonable amount of productive homework that enhances their education. Frankly, I don't have a major problem with children having a reasonable (and time bounded) amount of, what seems to me to be, unproductive homework (if that's what the teachers believe is important for them to do). But to dominate one's evening at the expense of everything else a child needs to do, and, even more importantly, the things that parents, as heads of the household, want to see happen in their homes; I think that's abusive.

As a clinical psychologist, I meet with many people every week. These are not typically high achievers whose lives are filled with activities, are doing their homework, but need time to rest and refuel, but children who are suffering at school, often failing, and their parents are at their wit's end, desperate to see their children succeed, yet watching their education (and sometimes their lives) go down the tubes. These parents are demanding, at the school's insistence, to make sure that every assignment is done, and in the process, they have their children doing (or battling over) homework, for hours all night long. That's abusive to the kids. And it's abusive to the parents.