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.