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. 

1 comment:

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