“Change the joke and slip the yoke”—Ralph Ellison
“If you start off with the wrong premise; you are going to end up with the wrong solution to the problem, every time!”— Mr. Weingartner; (my high school geometry teacher)
It seems that the community and church elders from my Brooklyn childhood all studied from the same playbook. And that game-plan was summarized in my mother’s warning as I was about to embark on my personal contribution to the nation’s school busing for integration program: “Don’t get confused”; she said. “You can’t do, or not do, what those ‘other folks’ are doing or not doing; you will not be treated the same; follow yourself, and use the brains God gave you!” To be honest, I did not like that warning, or similar ones like: “You must be twice as good, just to get a fair chance to compete!” For they challenged my instinctual sense of basic human, ill-informed and idyllic sense of American fairness. But in those 1950-60’s days you had to listen quietly and respectfully; and debated and protested the issue (out of earshot) in your room. And now in my 60’s I have come to realize that the elders of my youth were correct and wise beyond all of the “book-learning” that gave me a false sense of superiority over their knowledgeable advice. Their education was not gained in the halls of a university; but rather, their understanding of race in America, evolved from their lived experience of a brutal system of social, political, economic and violence of pre-civil rights American apartheid.
And so it is this early warning system of my youth that has served to frame my ideas for our national fascination with public educational “faddism”. Social media has made things worse. The fact that all of these ideas either fail miserably, or “succeed” with an isolated and small cohort of very selected students, is perhaps lost on parents who are desperately grasping for any suggestion, regardless of the source, or the sense it makes for their particular child. We are definitely in permanent “band-wagon” mode. We jump on the wagon when a group of entitled and enfranchised parents want to put an end to “standardized testing” (except for: Gifted and talented programs, the specialized high schools admission exams, ACT, SAT, AP, Praxis, MCAT, GRE, LSAT, etc.!) Or, they push back against the “Common Core Curriculum”. But their opposition makes sense; if your child’s school’s strong instructional program is rich with thoughtful and ongoing assessments of an ongoing high quality of instruction; and it is a place where high expectations is the standard; or the standardized exams that identify the need for additional funding for struggling or poor students is not a factor. And of course, if your child’s school is already following a rigorous core curriculum, why would you need anything else?
As these “refound” & “(deformed)reformed” ideas and initiatives are rolled out every year, I wonder do parents of color, or poor parents of any color ever ask one of the most important question I think a parent should ask: “What does this policy, initiative, fad, trend, internet sensation, etc. mean for my child’s academic success?”
(And, how in the world did so many very successful people (past and present) in the world, possibly survive doing homework?)
The issue, a child’s academic success, is not primarily about the homework, rather it is about the quality of the daily class work!
For sure, if as a parent you have a sound “informal educational” (out of school time) evening-weekend plan for your child; meaning: independent fun reading time*, news watching, family current events discussions, educational toys, puzzles and games, art and science kits; your child has access to magazines at home: Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Discover, Time for Kids, Science Spin, Super Science, Science World, etc.; STEM, art, or computer summer camps, after-school creativity-intellectual enrichment programs, hobbies (i.e. stamp collecting, baking, photography, etc.); music, art, dance, acting, martial arts lessons; non-stereotypical sports programs: i.e. fencing, gymnastics, archery
or swimming; study (as opposed to homework) resources i.e. online tutorial programs; a year-round-long plan of visits to: museums, plays, cultural institutions and events, library visits, trips to historical sites, national parks, just to name a few… then I could see where “bad homework assignments” would actually do your particular child more harm than good.
*Possible (depending on the child’s interest and reading ability) independent daily minimum reading schedule:
• Grades 2-3: 20 minutes a day.
• Grades 4-5: 30-40 minutes a day.
• Grades 6-8: 45-60 minutes a day.
• Grades 9-12: 50-60 minutes a day.
And to be honest, just like there is a great deal of bad instructional practices; there is also a great deal of bad homework assigned (After observing more lessons than I can remember, I have found that the two usually go together!) The “bad” problem is made worse in the pre-high school grades where the homework is often, and wrongly “corrected” by the parent; which renders it useless as a way for the teacher to properly assess and address a student’s conceptual “misunderstands”. There is also the problem of these parent-child homework sessions creating unnecessary tension and stress for both parent and child; and could actually do great harm to the parent as informal-education teacher-student relationship.
Much of the criticism of (bad) homework is accurate; but like standardized testing, we should not just get rid of something because uninformed educational policy makers (or in this case school administrators and teachers) don’t understand it, and therefore misuse it. The key is to place the home work activity into its proper pedagogical and most effective role. The ineffective, and in fact harmful “more homework the better” philosophy should end. A school is failing its students if it is seeking to prove its “rigorous profile” to parents through an overbearing quantity of homework; and not through the quality of work that takes place in the classrooms. Fooling parents is never a sound or useful learning objective.
The homework activity should be structured to close the parent “access to resources, knowledge of the English language, parent education, and awareness of the informal education school system– gap”. The homework assignment (HWA) must be a well thought out part of the lesson plan (at least that’s the way it was taught years ago in my curriculum and instruction courses; oh I forgot, teachers no longer need those courses!); it can explain, extend and “seal” the day’s lesson; or it can be a “set-up” for the next day’s lesson.
The HWA (like tutoring) should not look or feel like the school day’s classroom instruction. It should be different and creative in a way that it allows for students to display their creativity; it can be individualized, allowing the child to display some individual interest, talent or gift; the assignment could pull from: home, community and national/current events; it can be a service or “thought” project. What it should not be is an exercise in frustration producing monotonous drudgery; where the child is asked to do 20 of something that they did not fully learn in school.
And particularly in high schools; it should be substituted for study exercises; after of course we teach students how to study; and how it is qualitatively different from “homework”. I personally would like to see the model of deconstructing 3 problems (give the students the right answers, explain why the right answer is right; and why some wrong answers are wrong); rather than give students 20 problems, that take a lot of time, but yield very little conceptual knowledge, only a lot of frustration.
As a profession we absolutely need to clean-up our “homework”! But let us also be careful to not mislead the majority of public school parents into believing that: Learning = School. Learning does not end at the end of the school day, week or year. Many parents, including (to be honest) professional educators have a comprehensive out of school plan for their own children, that will effectively increase the child’s vocabulary capacity each year, empower their linguistic-speaking skills (that thinking-speaking link that Vygotsky speaks of); continually expanding their knowledge of “the world”, making sure that they are strong readers, working to make sure that their intellectual and creative talents are fully stimulated and developed; in other words giving them all of the attributes of what unconsciously, not on purpose, or on purpose, what the educational world has come to associate with “smartness”; which when formally assessed is most often parental influenced. And, make no mistake about it, “smartness” can be grown through parental awareness of informal educational activities.
A professional ethical code we should practice: Do unto other people’s children as we do unto ours…
And so let us design out of school assignments based on what our particular students need. HWA’s that can open students to those important, and usually parent driven, informal learning activities. I have seen too many “prominent” people who advocate for: “child free time” for other people’s children; but then make sure that their children are fully involved in all types of “structured-informal” inspiring, exciting educational activities for their child’s out of formal school time. The elders of my youth did not go for that “okey-doke” advice, or the joke that was designed to be on them, and their children. They were sensibly suspicious of any advice: “To help their children.” And because of that, they were inclined to ask the question, no matter what “new” idea was trending: “What does this mean for my child?” And, “Which children does this idea, help or hurt?”
Michael A. Johnson has served as a public school teacher, principal and superintendent.