Interview With Kerry Dickinson, a California Parent Who Successfully Changed Homework Policy in Her District
Today’s interview is with Kerry Dickinson, who has written many times for this blog including here, here, here, and here. Kerry, who has a M.A. in Reading, was a part-time teacher in Michigan before she had children. She now lives in Danville, California, with her husband and 9th and 7th grade sons and is currently in the process of becoming a licensed California teacher. In 2007-2008, she helped convince her local school district to rewrite its homework policy. She just started her own blog.
Interview with Kerry Dickinson
by Sara Bennett
“I encourage parents to be respectfully vocal”
–Kerry Dickinson, parent, Danville, California
What prompted you to try to change homework policy in your community?
Last year, when my older son started eighth grade, he had a really bad experience with an algebra class and he started saying he hated middle school. He had always had a great outlook on life and had always loved school, so I felt sad that he was suddenly saying he hated it. I started looking back on his schooling, and I realized that each year he liked it less and less. At the same time, I had a sixth grader who had been struggling since second grade with tests, school and homework. I focused on homework because I was sick of helping them with their projects and feeling like the homework wasn’t turning them on to school but, in fact, was having the opposite effect.
What did you do?
I got together with my friend Julie Kurtz, who also has 2 teenage boys. and who had faced similar issues about trying to raise well-balanced kids in our fast-paced, high-achieving community. We sent out an email to 10 friends and held an informal meeting at my home.
One of the things that spurred me was The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn. I discovered that Kohn articulated a lot of the feelings I’d been having about education and homework. I shared the book at that meeting and we started talking about how the problem was multi-dimenionsal, from homework, to over-scheduling our kids, to the quality of instruction, etc.
We decided that Julie and I should go to the Superintendent’s office with our concerns. We were going to focus on the quality and quantity of homework with the hope that the district would re-write its outdated homework policy to better address these issues.
Before we went to the Superintendent’s office, we took an informal homework survey of 100 children. When I tallied it up, parents thought that 50-60 percent of the homework was of high quality, which means that 40-50 percent of it was low quality. We also asked the parents to ask their children to describe homework and most had negative things to say such as “stupid” or “boring.” The kids described their best homework as fun projects.
I typed the survey results into a spreadsheet and we took that, along with Kohn’s book, some articles I’d found on the internet, information I’d gotten from you at stophomework.com and a copy of the District Policy, which had been written in 1995.
We met with the Director of Curriculum Instruction, who was a dad with children of his own and had an appreciation of the problem. We felt like we made an impression because within a week, he got back to us, said that the District agreed that the policy was outdated invited us to be on a task force to rewrite the policy.
I eagerly agreed to participate on the task force made up of 19 parents, teachers, and administrators. We met twice a month for about six months and hammered out a revised policy. Sometimes I was frustrated during the meetings, but the upshot is that we have a better policy than we had before which includes a paragraph about the importance of family time that came straight out of Toronto, Canada’s new policy.
Were there things you didn’t get in the policy?
I really wanted an opt-out option, which you recommended to me, and I also wanted a clause that children wouldn’t face punitive measures, such as being kept in from recess, if they didn’t turn in homework.
Were you worried about repercussions for speaking up?
It’s been kind of an emotional roller coaster. Some days I’ll hear positive things from parents about how grateful they are for the new policy. But then sometimes I feel somewhat like an outcast at my kids’ schools. It’s worth it though, so I encourage parents to be respectfully vocal at their schools.
What are you doing now that you have a new policy in your community?
I send out a weekly email that started with 10 friends and now it’s up to 200 people. I write about these issues, send out articles that I think are interesting, and try to encourage parents to email their concerns to the teachers.
Whenever I have concerns about something at either or my sons’ schools, I email the teachers or principals. In the fall, my son’s school instituted a Zeros Aren’t Permitted policy, which required students to finish uncompleted homework during lunchtime. I wrote a detailed email to the principal about why this was such a bad idea, and the program was turned into a voluntary program.
I also asked the district to change the homepage on its scheduling website so that students wouldn’t see their grades as soon as they log on. It may seem minor, but it helps the students and parents to be less focused on grades. I’ve also become an advisor to the film Race to Nowhere. I’ve helped to bring the film to our district, and I keep on thinking about, reading about, and talking about these issues with friends and teachers.
In my own home, I almost never say the “H” word anymore. I do not require my kids to come home and do homework. I encourage them to go out and run around or chill out. I almost never help them with homework. If they ask, I’ll help, but I don’t hyper-parent their homework and tests like I used to. I’ve encouraged my older son not to add an extra class into his high school schedule. I think an extra hour of sleep is more important. And, I moved my laptop out of the kitchen and into our home office. I didn’t want to model working 24/7 and not give my kids my full attention when they were talking to me.