March 25, 2010
Homework debate going on in Walnut Creek schools about how much, what kind, and the future of those damned 4th grade mission projects
They want to create guidelines to prevent some of the homework horror stories we're all familiar with:
--Kids getting marked down because they didn't apply enough artistic skill to drawing and coloring a map of ancient Greece.
--Fourth-graders and their parents feeling pressure to craft the most architecturally accurate and artistically beautiful replica of one of California's 21 missions.
--Concerns that teachers are assigning homework for concepts not yet covered in class or not checking homework to see where individual or groups of kids are struggling.
A couple years ago, I read up a lot on the homework controversy in today's education. I became acqauinted with some of the books and studies that are often cited in the debate. ( Here's a handy-dandy homework resource guide of those books, studies and other resources from Diablo magazine, which did a special report on the homework debate in September 2008.) Kerry Dickinson, a Danville mother and former teacher--who pushed for the effort to revise the homework policy in the San Ramon Valley District--also writes on homework and other education issues on her blog, the East Bay Homework Blog. Her blog is included in my blog roll.
Aside from the fact homework affects the daily life of my son and our family, this debate intrigues me because it touches on much larger societal issues about education, learning, parenting, and definition of academic and personal success.
Philosophical differences create tensions between parents and teachers and between parents themselves. Between parents, there are those who say they want their kids challenged and don't mind even K-3 teachers assigning homework over the weekends. They say that being a good parent means being involved in your kids' education. Then there are those who say they are involved, but that schools should not dictate how involved parents will be, or how parents will structure the free time of their children.
One dad at Tuesday night's meeting said he didn't mind his kids getting homework on weekends and that schools shouldn't be gearing their expectations to the lowest common demoninator But other parents disagreed. They said they want their families to be able to go away for long weekends and not feel required to make sure their kids are spending part of that vacation completing an assignment.
One basic question that didn't come up at Tuesday night's meeting was whether homework boosts student learning, especially when you're talking about younger kids. Last time I checked, there isn't a lot of hard evidence that homework yields improved achievement among younger students--and that's according to Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor who is considered one of America's foremost homework experts. He is best known for the "10-minute rule" that says that kids should do 10 minutes of homework per grade each night.
He completed a landmark metareview of some 60 studies in 2006. This metareview found "some correlation between homework and achievement in the upper grades, but little effect on students from elementary school to seventh grade," reported Diablo magazine. While acknowledging that the connection between homework and student achievement in the lower grades is unknown, Cooper echoes a view I've heard from many parents and teachers, including some of my son's. It is that homework in the younger grades teaches kids study skills; it prepares them to do homework in high school an college. Under this argument, K-5 kids are doing homework to learn how to do homework.
Wool said the district is not looking to do away with homework--not at all."We want to refine it, to clarify it, and educate teachers who may have never had a class in how to give out homework," she said. Homework should have "purpose" and it should be "relevant" to what kids are learning.
The majority of parents of Walnut Creek Intermediate students who participated in a February survey agreed that homework is important part of their children's education.
Some other ideas that came up in the meeting:
--There should be consistency in the amount of homework assigned; for example one fifth grade teacher at a school shouldn't require a 25-page report for the state report, while another only asks for a page and a half.
--Teachers across disciplines should "calendar" major assignments: the big science project shouldn't be due on the same Friday as the big math test.
--Teachers should differentiate homework according to student ability.
--Establish guidelines and limits for how much time kids, depending on their grade, should spend on homework.
Final personal note on those damn mission projects:
I had the best damn mission in my fourth-grade class at Parkmead Elementary. That's because my DIY dad came up with a clever idea for building my replica of the Santa Barbara mission. Using his saw, he cut up hundreds of tiny "bricks" out of redwood, and he showed me how to lay those bricks. He helped me build the tower, and he used some of his model train landscaping equipment to place miniature trees. Yes, dad designed it; I did the grunt work. If I learned anything about missions and California history in the process, I don't really remember. But, I have a clear and pleasant memory of workinig together with my otherwise shy, emotionally remote ather on something.
I tried to recreate that sort of mission-buiding bonding with my son when he was in fourth grade, but he took the choice to opt out of building one. He is not arts-and-crafts minded, and dreads these sorts of projects. He has also has insisted since fourth grade on doing his homework himself.