Friday, November 30, 2012

Sahlberg and Spencer on Education

Pasi Sahlberg wins a $100,000 prize for his book, “Finnish Lessons,” on education reform. John Spencer says that “Homework Should be Optional.” These articles highlight what I’ve often said which is that organizational structures are central to the quality of education and the welfare of the child.

Sahlberg argues that teachers should be better educated and better respected. Under those conditions, they should have large amounts of authority in the class. Think about it: You see a doctor. You respect the doctor. You know the doctor has had years of education. You don’t want your doctor “treating to the test,” but, rather, exercising judgment in your best interests.

Spencer says that kids should own their free time, while adding that parents own the home. We all know that children need direction so owning one’s time comes with some limits. But should those be limits imposed by teachers who are not even trained to give homework? Or should those be limits through the supervision of caring parents?

I don’t think effective educational reform will take place unless we shore up and support the natural structures children need to grow and learn. And those structures require that teachers defer to parents as the ultimate decision-makers in their homes.

But if you and your child are homework trapped, the time is now. You can’t wait for society to take the approaches that Sahlberg and Spencer suggest. You need solutions for tonight that will keep you from battling with the child you love. If you are in that position, visit The Homework Trap website for more information.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Teacher Evaluations

ASCD sends out a daily e-newsletter called SmartBrief. I rely on at as one of my sources for education news and for topics for my daily blog. Today's SmartBrief is a special edition that focuses on teacher evaluation. I encourage everyone to read it.

I'm a critic of homework policy but not a critic of teachers. If anything, I believe teachers need more support than they currently receive, with a  major proviso, a better recognition of the boundaries between home and school. I think that the problems teachers face with excessive evaluation and a societal wide tone which has placed them under-the-gun, has significant parallels to the issue of homework, where parents are getting judged and evaluated by teachers, as if they are agents of the school. This interferes with family life. It burdens children with responsibilities beyond what they should have. And, it interferes with the learning that naturally takes place, at home, under the care and supervision of parents.

I think we are better equipped as homework critics if we are also empathic to the pressures teachers feel and support them in being free to use their skills without excessive and damaging review, while maintaining a distance from the activities of the home.


Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

 I recommend giving copies of the book to the teachers at your child's school. Discount purchases are available through Wyndmoor Press. Single copies can be purchased at Amazon.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Abusive Teacher in China

There’s a story going around about a teacher in China who repeatedly slaps 5 year old children for missing math problems. Horrible. The Washington Post puts it in the “you-can’t-make-up-this-stuff category.”
Well, what do you think happens when we repetitively “slap” (at least symbolically), students (and their parents) for not getting their homework done? There is a category of kids (I estimate from 10 to 25% depending on degree) who are getting pressured and put down, night after night, to do work they cannot do, at least in a reasonable amount of time. We threaten their parents with ominous warnings that their children will fail, now and later on, unless they get their assignments done. These warnings become self-fulfilling prophesies because of the grading system.We don’t stop to see why these children can’t do the work, and, unlike this featured kindergarten teacher who will come and go in these children’s lives, we continue this behavior throughout the child’s life. In fact, our system encourages teachers, year after year, to continue to taunt and punish our homework trapped kids.

Before we just throw stones at others for what is obviously inexcusable behavior, let’s look at ourselves and ask if we are endorsing harm on an institutionalized basis to at least some of our kids.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Knowing that you are in the homework trap

Here are ten questions to ask yourself to find out if you are in the homework trap:
  1. Do you spend hours every night fighting with your child over homework that does not get done?
  2. Will your child endure almost any punishment rather than complete his homework?
  3. Even when your child tries, does he seem to get very little done?
  4. Does your child push you away when you try to help?
  5. Does your child come home from school without his assignments?
  6. If your child does his homework, does he fail to take it in?
  7. If he takes his homework to school, does he fail to turn it in?
  8. Was he once eager and interested in school?
  9. Do parent-teacher conferences get you nowhere?
  10. Do you think about homework nearly all the time?
If this describes your life, read the different articles on this blog and visit my website, The Homework Trap.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Homework Research

Alfie Kohn has written a thoughtful response to recent research that seems to support homework. I commented on the study in my November 20 blog, and encourage you to read Alfie’s article which is published today on Valerie Strauss’ WashingtonPost Blog. I’d like to add some personal thoughts to what he says and to what I’ve already said regarding this study.

The study focuses on homework in math and science. As it is, I happened to have been a math whiz. I excelled in high school, majored in math in college, and entered Columbia University’s doctoral program in mathematics before changing my mind to study psychology. My oldest son is a math whiz, too. He excelled in school and is now working as a software engineer at a well-known internet company. My daughter could not get math at all. She graduated a college that was equally prestigious to the one my son attended, and has gone on as a youth worker and budding film maker. Without doubt, my son’s career choice is in greater demand, brings in more income, and coincides with our national STEM priorities than the work my daughter does. Yet, the realities are clear, both in talents and in preferences.

If we go to the issue of homework, I would say my daughter did a lot of math homework in high school, which in no way correlated to her math grades. Perhaps, she did more because she had a math whiz father who could sit over her for hours trying to help her learn math. I was not successful and her grades reflected my lack of success. But if we go by time spent doing the homework, I’m sure she spent more than either my son or I did, at least at the high school level. Yes, I did spend many hours working on higher levels math when I went to graduate school, although in college, my math courses were easy. I spent much more time on my philosophy and psychology courses than I did in math.

So it makes sense that math drills might bring standardized scores up a notch or two, but it also makes sense that time spent on math homework will have no correlation to the grades one gets.

I don’t know that it matters at all for my daughter to have learned math. She is very good at what she does. But if it did, it would not happen through educational approaches that banked on at home drills to make something happen. It would have to come from educational techniques developed by skilled educators (not proficient non-educators like me), who found ways to teach math to people who simply did not naturally “get it.”
If you think about, I’m a mechanics non-proficient person. I’ve sometimes taken on some of my own auto repairs. I take pride in what I was able to do, but, frankly, the work was not very good. It didn’t matter. I don’t really care. My teachers did not care. Society did not care. No one cared if I knew how to fix a car. But we had a shortage of auto mechanics, I can guarantee you  that the solution would not have been to pile auto repair homework on people like me with the hopes that I’d someday become a mechanic.


Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

 I recommend giving copies of the book to the teachers at your child's school. Discount purchases are available through Wyndmoor Press. Single copies can be purchased at Amazon.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

ADHD, Criminal Behavior, and Homework

A recent study was cited that shows that late teens and adults with ADHD who continue treatment with psychostimulant medications are less likely to commit crimes than those who do not continue those medications.

It is clear to me as a practicing clinical psychologist, that (despite an obvious over diagnosis of ADHD) there are people with this condition who cannot function, when young, in normal classroom environments. They need medication and, according to this study, they need to continue as adults and late teens. So let’s ask a different question, “Under what conditions will a person with ADHD be willing to continue medications?” After all, the point of this study is moot if the person won’t take the meds.

I have seen large numbers of people who were treated for ADHD as kids, resent their treatment, and refuse to continue once they are old enough to make their own decisions. They often gravitate to illegal, attention-enhancing drugs, but they won’t take prescribed medications. So we need to understand what goes on in the mind of the child to pave the way to distrust adults when they grow up.

I’ll start with homework. The typical child with ADHD takes medication to manage what is otherwise a difficult school day. He’s successful there, but then goes home to more work and more medication, having less time to run around and play. The medication interferes with appetite and sleep, and his daily experience is of being pressured by his parents to keep working without relief. He resents what is happening and this sows the seeds for refusing medication later on.

If we believe that children who stop their medication in their late teens and early adult years are placing themselves at risk, and that risk includes criminal consequences (something I see often in my clinical practice), then let’s begin by considering not only what works, but what will cause those children to believe in the interventions we use.

I was born with congenital heart problems. I have had surgery twice, once as a child, once as an adult, and have had to see cardiologists all of my life. As a youth, I may have resented the condition I had, but I never questioned my need to see doctors and take care of my health.  I was given protection and relief, including the opportunity to rest after school. I was not pressured to do things I could not do.

Children with ADHD have a different experience. They feel controlled and they feel pressured, and that’s a dangerous combination when we think about their future. Now, we’re being told that this increases the chance that they might go to jail. Let’s medicate them during the day. Let’s let them off the hook when they come home.


Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

 I recommend giving copies of the book to the teachers at your child's school. Discount purchases are available through Wyndmoor Press. Single copies can be purchased at Amazon.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Homework Story in Canada

I came across this extremely important article, Hamilton Parent Declares House a Homework-Free Zone. It highlights several points that have been central to the positions I've been advocating in my model, The Homework Trap.

I've been saying for a long time that parents must be recognized as the rightful heads of their own homes. In this case, the parent has looked at his situation and made a thoughtful decision about what he thinks is best for his kids. He did not do this willy-nilly and he did not do it ever intending to buck the school. He sent his children to school fully expecting that they would do what they were told. His decision followed his frustrations and experiences and a recognition that he needed to take steps in the best interests of his kids.   Interestingly, this natural right of being a parent is supported by the school. There is a person, Pat Daly, referred to as the Catholic board chair (the school appears to be a Catholic school) supports the school's homework policy but recognizes that that opinion does not override parental authority, stating, "My own view as a parent is that I’m not sure that’s in the best interest of the child, but every parent has to make that decision in the best interests of their own children." The school authority also focuses on what works, not just on what is assigned, stating, "he’s not familiar with Young’s situation, but if the no-homework arrangement is working, 'that’s great.'" One of the points I make in my book and have spoken to widely is that, if parents make their best decisions and make them clearly and definitively, teachers will be inclined to work with them. I frequently hear concerns that if a parent limits homework to a fixed period of time (my general recommendation) the child's grades will suffer. But in this case, the parent made his decision, the school accepted it, and his children's grades did not decline. It is also instructive that the school has its own policy that limits homework to the standard ten minutes per night per grade. Yet the parent here came to his decision to declare his home a homework-free zone after his child had five different assignments for the weekend, including one that the family make a pizza. The child is in 5th grade and it is unlikely that this assignment will really take only 50 minutes (and it is also unclear if the standard is meant to cover all seven days of the week). Mr. Daly comments that the number of complaints he receives about homework are few, and that makes sense, but there may be a reason for this that is important to note. First, it is likely that few of the complaints actually reach his level but are being made directly to teachers and by parents who don't feel strong enough to override teacher decisions. The complaints are there. They just don't move up the administrative line. But it is also possible that the complaints are few because not all kids work at the same pace. I've mentioned often that I raised three children but only one was homework-trapped. I would not have become a homework critic nor written my book if I only had two. It's not that I was wild about homework, but my general inclination, like most parents, to support the school overrode any mixed feelings I had about the practice. It was only with my third child that I realized how destructive homework could be, and this has to do with pace. My son had poor handwriting and was simply unable to complete assignments in that required ten minutes per night per grade. Until the school adds provisions to insure that the time is measured by the clock, not by the teacher's best estimate of how long it should take, it will be a guideline, not a standard, and continue to harm a significant number of kids


Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

 I recommend giving copies of the book to the teachers at your child's school. Discount purchases are available through Wyndmoor Press. Single copies can be purchased at Amazon.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


There's an article in the Huffington Post about cheating in school. I wrote a comment with my thoughts about how homework policy entices parents to "cheat" because they do not have enough decision-making if they feel the work exceeds what their child can or should do. A reader replied to my comment drawing an analogy to industry suggesting that children who are given homework relief won't be able to function when they grow up. I wrote a reply.

I'll reproduce my two comments. I won't reproduce his here only because that could be a violation of copyright law to republish what he said without permission. If you are interested in his exact words, follow this link.

Here is my first comment:

Good article. I would emphasize the issue of homework, and focus on the distinction between rigor and load, and the importance of parents and teachers modeling honest behavior. I would also point out that the recommendation that teachers keep these points in mind when assigning homework leaves out the all-important concept of parents keeping these points in mind when "accepting" homework. I emphasize accepting because, although we typically focus on cheating in high school and college, the building blocks start in elementary school, and the fact that parents are usually perceived as helpless to decide whether or not to accept homework assignments starts the foundation in which cheating gets modeled. The parent, who should be the head of the home and is the person most responsible to protect the child, is often faced with a dilemma when the assignments appear excessive, in general or excessive for that particular child, yet the grading is out of that parent's control. The parent does not mean to "cheat" but the parent has limited choices, when the choices do not include telling the child to just not do the work. I think the comment about getting rid of zeros goes a long way to help out, but still, it is critically important that we respect the boundaries between home and school and recognize that, at least for children prior to high school, it is the parent who must have the final say at home.

Here is my reply to the comment made on my comment:

Thanks for commenting on my comment. I agree that the purpose of education is to prepare kids for adult life, so if I thought current homework policy achieved that goal, I would agree with you. Unfortunately, the opposite takes place. Unrelenting pressure to complete assignments that one cannot get done in a reasonable amount of time teaches the opposite lesson, to dislike school, to rebel against authority, and in many cases prepares the child for a dysfunctional life.

The industry analogy falls apart when we look carefully at what happens to certain kids. In industry, there are guidelines that prevent one from working beyond what they are paid to do, yet a child can be forced to work hours on end for mediocre grades. In industry, you have organizational structures that give authority to middle managers to implement the goals that higher ups give, and they have the opportunity to give feedback their bosses feedback if the job cannot be done. Further, those middle managers do not have additional and separate roles with their employees with different levels of authority (as parents with children do).

I’m a psychologist who sometimes tinkers on the weekend doing home repairs. Give me a piece of “easy to assemble” furniture and I’ll labor for hours carefully reading the instructions. Give it to my neighbor and he looks at the picture on the package and quickly puts it together not needing the instructions at all.

I’m like that in math. My classmates were not. Certainly, kids need to learn math. But to assume that they will benefit from spending hours every evening trying to get those problems done, ones that I thought were fun and only took me a few minutes to do, is misguided. In fact, some of those kids might be better prepared for adult life if they had more free time to work with their hands, with their parents having the freedom, as we do for adults under federal law, to put a time limit on how long they had to work. When you don’t give parents that power, they feel boxed in a corner and that’s when cheating becomes an option.


Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

 I recommend giving copies of the book to the teachers at your child's school. Discount purchases are available through Wyndmoor Press. Single copies can be purchased at Amazon.

    Tuesday, November 20, 2012

    Recent Study Giving Some Support for Homework

    There is a new study regarding the effects of homework on performance in math and science (When is Homework Worth the Time? Evaluating the Association Between Homeworkand Achievement  in High School Scienceand Math). The study measures homework by the amount of time spent doing it and shows little association between homework and grades, but a positive correlation between homework and standardized test scores. The study has made the rounds in the homework debate with different people weighing in with different points of view. The study is featured in this morning’s Washington Post Education blog.

    As a homework critic, my first inclination is to look at the study to see how it is wrong or to discount it as relevant to the homework debate. Perhaps, it overemphasizes test performance, already a topic of controversy and debate. But I’ll resist that natural inclination and take a different stance. Perhaps, it’s true. Perhaps, homework has value and perhaps this is what it does, raises scores on standardized tests. If so, it does not alter some basic tenets of my model, TheHomework Trap.

    First, teachers need to be educated in the theory, research and practice of homework. I have yet to see a course in a catalog of a school of education titled “Homework.” I peruse teacher websites and blogs and find a dearth of scholarly discussion on the topic of homework. In 2006, I participated on Etta Kralovec’s homework panel at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference (the largest educational conference in the country each year). There was Dr. Kralovec’s panel (which I understand was the first such panel the conference had), and, if I recall right, a couple of papers on research studies by Professor Harris Cooper’s students. That was it! Although this conference covered a wide range of issues for the teaching profession, it left the topic of homework, virtually undiscussed.

    Second, there is the issue of parental authority. When I was a youth, my parents could have sent me to a Stanley Kaplan course to prepare for the SATs. They did not, and I did okay. My wife and I did not send our children to such courses, although she did spend time with our oldest son reviewing a list of “SAT Hot Words.” Whether or not we should teach to the test, during time at home, to give a child a “leg up” is questionable. But the point is, parents make voluntary decisions on their children’s behalf, all the time, whether it involves tutoring, learning centers, scouting, music lessons, religious studies, or simply some relaxed time playing a family game.

    So, rather than jump on one side or the other regarding this recent research study, I’ll respond with a shrug of the shoulder and think “that’s interesting,” in the back of my mind. But let’s get back to the two, fundamental issues we need to know about homework.
    1. If homework is given, teachers need to be trained in the technique.
    2. As an activity that traverses the boundaries between school and home, regardless of homework’s value, parents must be recognized as the final decision-makers and the natural heads of their own homes.


    Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

     I recommend giving copies of the book to the teachers at your child's school. Discount purchases are available through Wyndmoor Press. Single copies can be purchased at Amazon.

    Sunday, November 18, 2012

    ADHD and Homework

    I found this video on You Tube today. I have two comments:

    1. The parents observed the child's behavior and showed it to him with the hopes it would help him do better. It did not work. In my model, The Homework Trap, I recommend that parents be observers rather than enforcers. Although it might be helpful to share those observations with the child, it is more important to share those observations with the teacher, and have the teacher make modifications in light of the difficulties involved. For a child with ADHD, it may be possible to contain behaviors during the day with medication, but that can also give the teacher a false impression of what the child can do during the afternoon and evening. Medicating the child after school is not a particularly good solution.

    2. The second important point to make is that the child is doing well in high school. Maturation is a significant factor in human development. We make the mistake of thinking that the child must do the work now or he'll do poorly later on. The key is that we must not create so much negativity in the child's life that he turns off to school later on.

    Here's the video:


    Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

     I recommend giving copies of the book to the teachers at your child's school. Discount purchases are available through Wyndmoor Press. Single copies can be purchased at Amazon.

    Saturday, November 17, 2012

    Recommended Article on Homework

    I came across this article, "What About Homework," by Dr. Jane Bluestein. I recommend reading it. It's quite good.

    There were a few points in the article that I thought were worth commenting on. They are as follows:

    Dr. Bluestein refers to a student who says "I don't know what I'm good at. I know it's not school." The student goes on to discuss responsibilities he has because his stepfather is in jail. Those responsibilities include fixing the roof and the electrical system, handling a problem with the plumbing and fixing the door." The article goes on to talk about how the child has many responsibilities and that we are "myopic about the importance of the content we teach."

    These are good points but I'd like add something. The kid doesn't know what he's good at! What about fixing roofs, repairing doors, handling plumbing and electrical problems? It's pretty sad when a young person talks about the things he can do as if those talents do not count.

    Later in the article, Dr. Bluestein mentions moms being upset about a policy at school which gives children, in first grade, two hours of homework a night. I don't know the policy of that school, but I have two thoughts. First, it is possible that the school does not think it's giving that much homework but that it is taking some of the kids two hours a night. This speaks to a concept I discuss in my book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers, the under-the-radar learning disorder. Since homework has no boundary, the child's work pace plays a substantial role in how much work that child has. The child who is taking two hours to do first grade work (unless the school really intends to assign two hours of work) may have a problem, perhaps a minor issue with auditory processing or handwriting, that is being overlooked. If we back off from making the child do the work and observe the child instead, we might see that we're asking him to do something he cannot really do.

    But the other issue that is important here is the question of parental authority. Why are the moms upset? I think because they feel powerless to make their own best decision. If they felt they were in charge of their homes, as parents of young children ought to be, it wouldn't be a problem. So what if the teachers thought two hours of homework made sense? It just won't happen, end of issue. We really have to reevaluate the notion of who is in charge of activities in the home, the parent or the school. Once we make it clear that the home is the parents' domain, conflicts will reduce because homework can be assigned but will only be done with the parents' consent.

    Later, the author says, "I've met a number of teachers who do not assign unless the student needs practice on a particular skill." There's a problem here that should be considered. If the child is not developing the skill, then it calls for more attention by the teacher in school, not in the home. Forcing a child to practice something he does not understand and pressuring his parent to get on his case is a set-up for defiance and one which may compromise the child's long term prospects.

    My comments notwithstanding, please read the article. It is good.


    Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

     I recommend giving copies of the book to the teachers at your child's school. Discount purchases are available through Wyndmoor Press. Single copies can be purchased at Amazon.

    Thursday, November 15, 2012

    An Experienced Teacher's Opinion on Homework

    Homework: It Fails our Students and Undermines American Education. Here is an interesting article about homework by an experienced teacher. I agree with what he says although I do believe that we should respect teachers, even those who do not agree with the anti-homework movement. As I've said before, I think the issue has to do with power and authority more than homework philosophy itself. Is homework being given with the consent of the parents or does it override parental authority? Here's the comment I posted to that article:

    I don't think the issue is whether homework should or should not be given. It's a matter of whether parents have authority over their own homes. I don't mind teachers giving homework. I have a problem with teachers enforcing homework over my objections (at least when my kids were young). I have three grown children. For two, homework was okay. For the third, it proved a major problem. I was surprised to learn that I was rendered helpless to make my own decisions about what took place in my home.

    I think professional teachers will have disagreements among themselves about what homework should or should not be assigned. Some teachers, like the author of this article, will change their minds as they proceed through their careers. That's okay. That's part of developing as a professional.

    The problem has nothing to do with differences in philosophy. It has to do with having the absolute power to enforce one's decisions, made in the classroom, over activities in the home. In the end, parents must have the final say. Once we accept that, I think we will find a great improvement in parent-teacher relationships and we will see more thoughtfulness in what homework gets assigned.

    Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

     I recommend giving copies of the book to the teachers at your child's school. Discount purchases are available through Wyndmoor Press. Single copies can be purchased at Amazon.

    Drugs and Homework Policy

    I saw this article "Parents learn about youth subcultures, substance abuse," and it made me think about the issue of our current drug problem, the power of youth subcultures, and how homework policy can drive certain youth into unhealthy subcultures. Here's the comment I submitted to the paper:

    One can never underestimate the importance of subculture among youth. It is why adolescents get involved in drinking and drugs. It is why some kids navigate through those years with some experimentation but come out okay on the other end. It is why nice kids in violent prone urban environments find their lives in shambles even though they are not, is essence, any different from kids that do well.
    I have seen this happen for many years through my work as a psychologist. Although there are many entry points with which one can look at teen behavior, the one that I've focused on the most has been homework policy.

    It seems to me that our obsession with homework, our willingness to punish noncompliance so severely, and our policies that exclude kids from the mainstream who don't get their homework done (particularly through athletic eligibility rules), based on misconceptions about why they don't do the work, has been a significant factor driving a subset of youth away from healthy peer groups and into negative subcultures.


    Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

     I recommend giving copies of the book to the teachers at your child's school. Discount purchases are available through Wyndmoor Press. Single copies can be purchased at Amazon.

    Tuesday, November 13, 2012

    Are teachers trained or born?

    In today’s Washington Post Answer Sheet, there is an article “Are teachers born (not made)?” which question the emphasis being placed on teacher education. The article suggests that there is something inherent in an individual, something that person possesses from a very young age that destines them to be a good teacher. I get that in a way. I think I was born to be a mathematician. I excelled in math throughout school, majored in math at Tulane University and won the Glendy Burke award for being the top math student in my college class. I went on to obtain admission to Columbia University as a National Science and Woodrow Wilson Fellow for graduate studies in mathematics. There is no doubt that much of what I understand and could do was a gift, not something I was taught in school. Of course, I could never have succeeded at Columbia without having had courses in mathematics, and the fact is, today, over thirty five years later, I don’t recall a lot of what I learned. I doubt that I could solve theorems like I did before. I chose to become a psychologist and it is clear to me that there is an underpinning of the natural mathematician in me in my work as a psychologist. I see things from a different angle than some of my colleagues and I can root that in my prior experience as a mathematician. That said, I could not function as a psychologist without the training I had in graduate school and I could not have functioned as a mathematician, if that is what I had chosen to do, without courses in mathematics. And the reality is, there are lots of people in math or math related fields who may not have been as natural at it as me, but still work in those fields and contribute with what they do. After all, we don’t just need great teachers, we need a lot of good teachers, too. We need trained teachers, and along the way, we’ll get a few great ones.

    But let’s get back to teacher training and the specifics of what teachers do, and on that score, I am shocked and dismayed by the dearth of preparation teachers get in the theory, research, and practice of homework. Perhaps, your child’s great teacher was just born with a gift for relating to kids in a very special way. God knows it’s not me. I may be bright, but if I taught school, I think I would need to work at it hard. 20+ kids in a room every day, I’m booking the other way. That doesn’t mean I could not have learned and adapted to the setting with time. But it’s not what I chose nor what I think would have been natural for me.

    But let’s take that “great” teacher, the natural-born one. How does that teacher know what to do about homework? I’m sure there are many excellent teachers who have learned over the years that homework has less value than it was touted to have and that it has some truly negative effects on children.  But what does that teacher do on the first day of class of the first year he or she is teaching? The fact that she may be destined for an excellent career which will evolve over time does not mean she is excellent that first day. She needs to know what to do and she needs to know what to do about our general societal expectation that she give out homework assignments. And as she proceeds down the path of a sterling career, she is vested with huge amounts of power to make decisions about what will go on in her students’ homes.

    As those who follow my writing know, I’m a psychologist, not an educator, and I focus on homework since that is the primary issue related to school that comes to my attention. People don’t bring their children to me because they had trouble with a subject in school. People come to me when they are pulling out their hair, sandwiched between their child’s insurgency and unrelenting demands that are coming from the school. So there may be many issues that are critical for the budding, albeit natural-born teacher, to learn in school to get her up to speed. Please, let’s start adding homework to the curriculum and let’s wise up teachers to the fact that no matter how important you think tonight’s assignment may be, you are still operating on someone else’s turf.


    Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

     I recommend giving copies of the book to the teachers at your child's school. Discount purchases are available through Wyndmoor Press. Single copies can be purchased at Amazon.