Friday, June 15, 2012

Consensus over Homework

This coming Wednesday, the Race to Nowhere Team will be submitting a petition advocating healthy homework guidelines to a special pre-convention meeting of the National PTA. The petition has about 15,000 signatures and represents a significant step toward defining homework practices as an important concern for PTAs around the country. I personally signed this petition and have supported it here on my blog before.

As much as I support this movement, we all need to understand that as homework becomes a topic for school boards and PTAs, there will still be hurdles to overcome. Among them is the reality that parents are simply not of like mind. In one study, it was shown that the number of parents seeking more homework is about the same as the number seeking less.
On April 1, 2012, the Los Angeles Daily News published an op-ed I wrote: “Homework hang-ups: Why consensus is so hard to find.” I wrote the article in response to a debate at the Los Angeles Unified School District over whether to limit the weighting of homework to 10% of the grade. Many parents and teachers were up in arms opposing this reasonable effort to cap the ill-effects homework can have. I wrote this piece to throw some light on the reasons why parents differ so much and am republishing the article here.

Homework Hang-ups: Why Consensus is so Hard to Find

As the Los Angeles Unified School District engages in a heated homework debate, the rest of the world is also reconsidering this standard feature of public education.
A group of French parents and teachers is calling for a two-week homework boycott. They've garnered 22,000 visits to their anti-homework blog. In March, parents and the media mounted a successful campaign to force Great Britain's education secretary to back down from what they considered to be excessive homework guidelines.
Los Angeles is at the forefront of this movement to reevaluate homework, and is being watched by homework critics around the world. Interestingly, California was a leader in the anti-homework movement at the beginning of the 20th century when the state Legislature banned homework in 1901.
I don't think anyone will ever arrive at complete agreement on how much weight to give homework. Teachers value their independence. Parents differ in their experiences with homework in their homes.
For some, homework is fine and they don't mind giving their children extra points for what they do at home. For others, homework is a daily nightmare, and one from which they beg for relief.
I'm a psychologist, but I'm also the parent of three grown children. My opinion of homework was influenced by how many children I had. If I had stopped at two, I would have supported the pro-homework camp.

If you don't have a homework problem in your home, you don't see why others complain. Yet, 10 percent to 25 percent of all children have serious homework problems to the point that the system hurts them more than it helps.

I differ from other homework critics, such as Alfie Kohn, in that I take no position on what teachers should do. Educational practice belongs to teachers to work out among themselves as a professional art. Although teachers should understand the valid criticisms that have been made of homework, in the end children will benefit if their teachers are free to use their skills, with limited constraints.
Homework creates an odd situation in which assignments are sent from the school to the home. In effect, an authority outside the home is creating conditions in another person's zone. I don't have a problem with teachers assigning homework. I have a problem with an excessive expectations supported by severe consequences that it must be done.

Now honestly, most parents will support the teachers as long as everything is going reasonably well. With my oldest two children, I was fully on board. But sometimes, things just don't work out, and when that happens, the parent needs to be in charge.

Parents, whose children face heavy penalties for work that is not done, lose their freedom to analyze the issue and make decisions in the best interests of their children. That is a truly devastating state of affairs, for the child, the parent, and the family. Children need to know, above all, that their parents are the ones who are in charge.

So, here's the policy I recommend that Los Angeles schools adopt:

1. Vest teachers with full authority to assign homework. Let them decide how to factor homework in to the final grade.

2. Develop an in-service training program that ensures that every teacher understands the research on homework, its limitations as an educational tool, and has some awareness of how much harm it can do.

3. Create a preamble to the homework policy that asserts the fact that the parents are fully in charge of their homes. Make it district-wide policy that homework is given with tacit permission from the parents, permission the individual parent can withdraw.
4. Create time-based norms, such as 10 minutes per night per grade. Encourage parents to stop their children from doing more homework once they've reached that established time.

5. Establish a 10 percent option for parents to employ if, in their best judgment, their child will be harmed when homework is given a higher weight.
School districts will get much further establishing a policy that resonates with the natural hierarchies between school and home than it will if it hopes to get all to agree. My approach calls on teachers to adjust their thinking about homework compliance. They can still assign; they just can't coerce. They'll have to persuade, rather than dictate. In the end, most parents will agree with what they seek.

Dr. Kenneth Goldberg is a clinical psychologist with 35 years of professional experience in dealing with many different psychological issues. He is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers and currently works in his own private practice.

Visit the website
Read book reviews of The Homework Trap
What is The Homework Trap?
A Roadmap to Success
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