Monday, June 18, 2012

The Homework Trap and the National PTA Petition

With the national PTA’s convention coming up this Thursday, and with their agreement to receive the Race to Nowhere homework petition on Wednesday, I consider this a good time to highlight how my model, The Homework Trap, fits in with the petition. First, I offer my compliments to Vicki Abeles and the Race to Nowhere team, along with my colleagues, Etta Kralovec, Sara Bennett, and Alfie Kohn for their contributions to this effort. I also support the petition for both its rational proposals and the fact that it defines for the PTA a role in the homework debate.

I have also noted some differences between my proposals and the petition and had promised to highlight them on my blog before Wednesday. Today, I am giving a statement about those differences, in written and video form.

I believe that the key problem with homework goes back, not to teachers, but to teachers of teachers, the schools of education. The sad part about this petition is that it creates a dialogue in PTAs that should have already taken place where teachers are taught. It is not surprising that children face highly disparate homework experiences coming from the 30 to 40 teachers they get during their years in school because teachers are not taught, when they go to school, the theory, research, and practice of homework. Teachers are left to learn about homework from other teachers who have experience and have been giving homework, but have not themselves been educated in how to give homework. This leaves parents, who are the heads of their own homes, compromised in the decisions they make for their children. Parents have high levels of responsibility, to make sure the assignments get done, with low levels of authority, to make decisions about what must be done and what can be waived. In order for parents to be better decision-makers when homework causes problems, they need relief from the penalties their children receive. A child who misses an assignment can get a zero, which counts as a super-F, in a system where homework may factor in up to 25% of the grade. Recently, the school board in Groversville, NY made the very rational decision to limit homework to 10% of the grade and to set a grade floor of 50%. These steps may prove vital in allowing parents to approach homework issues with wisdom and calmness rather than from a sense of panic.

My major recommendations involve time-bound homework, reduced penalties, and recognition that the parents have ultimate authority for matters in their homes. Although the Groversville decision falls short of giving the parents that absolute, final say, it still goes a long way in allowing parents to remain in charge of their homes.

The major difference between my recommendations and the PTA proposal is that I look at the containers rather than the specifics. It is my firm belief that one reason for homework problems is that teachers have an open “line of credit” in creating homework assignments. The school day lasts a specific amount of time, six hours more or less. It is not surprising that schools of education provide courses to teach aspiring teachers how to use that time well. If homework had a container, this would force educators to think carefully about how to use the time, much the way a credit counselor helps a person in debt by cutting the credit cards. It is very likely that, given limits, educators would decide to follow the guidelines put forth in the PTA petition. They might look at the writings of the authors I’ve mentioned, or read Cathy Vatterott’s recent book, Rethinking Homework. However they approach homework policy, they would do it knowing that if they gave more projects, they’d have to give less drills. If they opted for math drills, there might not be time for spelling words. This would stimulate the field to take a more serious and professional look at what it is doing when it makes the decision to give children work to be done at home.

As I said, I support the petition. Frankly, I would still opt for a half hour of silly, meaningless, and unproductive homework that stopped when the half hour was up over seemingly important assignments that occupy the child with no prospect for relief until all the work was all done.

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.

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