Moms and Dads on a Mission – Sharon, Connecticut

Fred Baumgarten, the father of two daughters in public school in Sharon, Connecticut, began talking to other parents in his daughter’s fifth grade class about homework after he read The Homework Myth, by Alfie Kohn, a college classmate. Fred, who has a M.S. in Education from Bank Street and is currently a director of Foundation, Government and Corporate Relations at Sarah Lawrence College, has a blog, Homework Headaches, where he recently posted the letter he wrote to the Fifth Grade parents at his daughter’s school. In addition to reading his letter, you should visit his blog, where you can follow his organizing attempts.

Dear Fifth Grade Families & Friends:
by Fred Baumgarten
Sharon, Connecticut

I’ve spoken with a number of you individually in the last few months about problems with fifth grade homework that have had an impact on our family and on our daughter’s attitudes toward school. Many of you have shared similar stories.

Recently the Principal sent out a letter addressing some of these concerns and reiterating the school’s homework policies and attitudes, but this letter proposes no substantive changes and fails to get at the heart of the problem.

There are really three homework problems, in my view:

(1) Quantity: Even if it’s true that our students are spending an average of an hour a day on homework assignments, it would still be too much; it means that some days it takes a lot longer; it doesn’t take into account afterschool activities; and it takes away from time legitimately spent in family activities, relaxing, reflecting, reading for fun, going outdoors, etc. Most of all there is the relentlessness of homework – every night, and on weekends too, which also relates to the second point, below.

(2) Content: With very few exceptions, fifth grade homework assignments have been repetitive, unengaging, and one-dimensional – literally the same thing, night after night.

Virtually every assignment, from every subject – social studies, language arts, science – involves the same type of exercise: vocabulary, labeling, regurgitating “facts,” or summarizing texts. (This also has the effect of rewarding a very limited range of learning styles.) Math assignments are invariably worksheets or textbook pages of problems. Assignments are often unnecessarily difficult and not well prepared for in class. There is little or no room for creativity, thinking and reflection, or personal inquiry on topics that might interest our children as individuals.

(3) Grading: The near-obsession with grading, particularly in math, turns every assignment into a mini-test, with all the pressure that entails to get the “right” answers, rather than an opportunity to overcome challenges, learn something new, take risks, or simply to derive pleasure from doing homework. It also means that there are no breaks from homework, not even for vacations or sick days, because every assignment must be “counted.”

This state of affairs is unacceptable. In less than a year my daughter has come to see school not as a place to learn but a place to do work – an endless, often boring, sometimes difficult and confusing series of repetitive taks. As a result, homework and school have become a struggle. I believe that many other students and their families are going through the same thing.

What you may not realize is that this situation is completely unnecessary. There is a severe lack of evidence that homework accomplishes the goals it is supposedly designed to accomplish. Homework has not been persuasively shown to raise test scores or class grades, help students retain what they learn in class (i.e., “reinforcement”), or even instill “good work habits” (unless by that we mean learning that work is something unpleasant to be done under duress). In fact, about the only thing conclusively known about homework is that it causes family conflict and a loss of interest in real learning. In addition, there is considerable evidence to suggest that homework, especially when it is graded, causes students to take fewer risks, when risk-taking – making the educated guess, trying something new, tackling more difficult problems – is the way children inherently learn.

Please don’t just take my word for it (although, in the interest of full disclosure, I have a background in elementary education, work in higher education, and have a M.S.Ed. degree from Bank Street College of Education, one of the top teachers colleges in the country, and one of the most progressive). Try this experiment: Go to Amazon.com and type in “the case for homework” (notice the wording). What you will come up with is a list of books mostly against homework. “The case for homework” is very shaky.

What I would like to ask from you: The purpose of this e-mail is to ask for your support in demanding changes from the school administration in two areas:

(1) Reduce the homework load

(2) Vary the nature of homework assignments to allow for more creativity, make them more engaging, and allow for alternate styles of learning

The Principal’s letter asked us to contact our “child’s subject area teacher” if we have concerns. Personally I find this suggestion impractical, frustrating, and counterproductive. There are few assignments that don’t concern me, and I don’t have the time to maintain four or more individual conversations.

In November, I met with the Principal to discuss my initial concerns (when the problem had already become apparent) and to gauge how she would respond. While she has been generous in offering to help our daughter through “her” homework difficulties, there has not been any move to address the larger issue. Again, other parents have reported similar experiences.

At our meeting, I made a few modest suggestions that I believe would at least begin to ease the homework grind, while not insisting on a radical change:

(1) Instituting a homework “holiday” one night a week

(2) No homework on weekends, or at most 1-2 weekends per month

(3) Requiring teachers to assign different kinds of assignments, such as ungraded assignments, projects that require work over several nights and that incorporate creative thinking or research, collaborative projects, answering one thought-provoking question, etc.

It is also reasonable to ask the school to provide solid evidence that homework makes for “valuable practice of academic content” – and, if it does, what this “practice” accomplishes.

Please let me know if you support making changes. I also welcome your feedback and additional suggestions. If you do support this effort, I am assuming your permission to count you – so that I can demonstrate to the Principal how many families are in support of making changes.

Thank you very much for reading through this e-mail. I hope you will consider supporting this effort, especially if you have experienced similar difficulties, but even if you have not. To borrow shamelessly from Shakespeare and Bubba, the fault lies not in ourselves – or our children. It’s the homework, stupid!

Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.

14 Comments on “Moms and Dads on a Mission – Sharon, Connecticut”

  1. PsychMom says:

    The letter certainly is thorough….if all of that is going on, how can parents possibly not be noticing problems for their kids? It would seem obvious to me that this pace cannot be sustained.

    It’s good to hear that more parents are recognizing that children hating school should not be the default and should not be accepted. Why do we send our kids to a place they hate every single day? It’s no wonder peers become more important in kids’ lives….the only pleasant face all day is your friend’s.

    I hope Fred got a group together.

    February 8th, 2010 at 8:40 am
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  2. Fred Baumgarten says:

    Hello Sara — thank you again for posting this letter. And hello and thank you for your comment “PscyhMom” — you may be interested in reading some of the followup on my blog. You would think this would be a cause for anxiety for most or all the parents, wouldn’t you? Yet you’ll see from some of the subsequent developments that it’s not always so. Many families accept the status quo and accept on faith the efficacy of homework, so they apparently find ways to “acclimate.” I think some parents also read into my missive a “radical agenda” (and maybe they’re right), and ours is a fairly conservative town. Anyway, I’ve gotten a small cadre of supportive parents, and I’m working hard to convince others to question.

    February 8th, 2010 at 9:15 am
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  3. PsychMom says:

    I read your blog Fred and tried to post a comment but was unable to figure it out…..

    As for parents asleep at the wheel…I think they are…..asleep at the wheel. The unseen pressure that kids are under just compounds the obvious pressure but somehow it’s all become accepted as a rites of passage and shared misery. School is supposed to be awful. Kids are supposed to dread it.

    But doesn’t anyone find close to 50 % skipping rates in high school alarming? Kids are leaving high school early in alarming numbers….that’s a bad thing. How can it be the kids’ fault? If we say they’re not responsible adults til they’re 18, who’s responsible?
    You know, if elementary kids had the option…I’d bet more younger kids would skip school than currently recorded. You’d see 5 and 6 year olds choosing to go somewhere else if they had the option.

    February 8th, 2010 at 9:28 am
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  4. FedUpMom says:

    Fred (can I call you Fred? You can call me “FedUp”!) — I wish you all the luck in the world. At the same time, my experience with the public schools makes me deeply pessimistic.

    Parents are completely disenfranchised in the public school system. The teachers answer to the principal, the principal answers to the board. A parent with a complaint is seen as a temporary nuisance. Principals have carefully worked out methods to keep stringing parents along without making any actual changes.

    I would caution you against asking teachers for more assignments that involve “creative thinking” — in my experience this can result in excruciatingly dumb projects that use up a lot of crayons. As soon as a project is assigned and graded, real creativity is pretty much impossible anyway. Even art schools take the position that creativity can’t be taught, only technique can be taught.

    It’s interesting to me that everything started to fall apart in your daughter’s 5th grade year. That was our experience too. Apparently a lot of schools feel that it’s important to ramp up the pressure in 5th grade “to get the kids ready for middle school.” Then middle school is universally acknowledged to be a horror.

    Have you looked into the alternatives? Are there good private schools in your area? Is homeschooling an option? The chances that you will be able to make real changes in the public schools in time to make a difference in your daughter’s life are very slim.

    In the meantime, you may need to make unilateral decisions. Set a time limit for your daughter, and don’t let her keep working beyond it. Tell the teachers it was your decision and you don’t want your daughter to be punished.

    Good luck, and please keep us posted!

    February 8th, 2010 at 10:00 am
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  5. Fred Baumgarten says:

    Thanks again, PsychMom. It looks like I might need to change a setting on my blog. I’ll try to work on it tonight.

    FedUp, thank you too. Short answers: (1) My kids started in a private school for several years; it was wonderful and they loved it; but for a number of reasons we can’t send them back at this point — and also, beyond fourth grade, there’s no assurance it is much less “traditional” than the public school. Other alternatives are also prohibitive in distance from where we live. (2) At our school (K-8), fifth IS now “middle school” in structure, which is exactly part of the problem — a very abrupt and premature change without even a transitional year. (3) By “creativity” I didn’t necessarily mean in the artistic sense, but in a more global sense — something more individualized, which ought to be possible in a school where class sizes are no more than 10 or so!! (4) Much of what you say about public school is true, and I’m not overly optimistic, but I don’t feel I have a choice at this point except to try. (5) We have won some concessions and help from the teachers, including the option of time-limited math homework, which has helped. But we can’t really opt out on a nightly basis — they just send her home with a “homework slip” to make up whatever wasn’t finished — which just piles on the pressure. There’s no indication they will change that since it’s the homework “policy.”

    February 8th, 2010 at 10:15 am
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  6. FedUpMom says:

    From “Bad Teachers”, by Guy Strickland:

    ********
    School districts don’t really care what parents want, especially if they are chronic complainers (i.e., any parent who complains more than once.) The principal knows that the school district will back him up against a complaining parent…

    Even if the parents do pursue the problem, the principal might be able to stall until the end of the year, at which time the problem “solves” itself.
    **********

    February 8th, 2010 at 10:25 am
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  7. Fred Baumgarten says:

    What’s the line from “Gatsby”? “And so we paddle on, boats against the current…” or something like that? 😉

    February 8th, 2010 at 11:18 am
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  8. Another mom says:

    While I’m not a fan of the public schools, I see the problem not with homework but with very poor teaching in general. There are some wonderful teachers, but few of those. I don’t have problem with the “traditional” school if only the school would teach what they taught traditionally. These days, schools aren’t even doing that. I’d recommend you look into Stanford’s Online High School which goes middle school and up.

    Best luck.

    February 9th, 2010 at 10:40 pm
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  9. Literacy Lady says:

    I was curious in regards to your reactions of Marzano’s beliefs as stated below:

    Point A: Homework provides students with the opportunity to extend their learning outside the classroom. However, research shows that the amount of homework assigned should vary by grade level and that parent involvement should be minimal. Teachers should explain the purpose of homework to both the student and the parent or guardian, and teachers should try to give feedback on all homework assigned.

    Applications:
    * Establish a homework policy with advice-such as keeping a consistent schedule, setting, and time limit-that parents and students may not have considered.
    * Tell students if homework is for practice or preparation for upcoming units.
    * Maximize the effectiveness of feedback by varying the way it is delivered.

    Point B: Research shows that students should adapt skills while they’re learning them. Speed and accuracy are key indicators of the effectiveness of practice.

    Applications:
    * Assign timed quizzes for homework and have students report on their speed and accuracy.
    * Focus practice on difficult concepts and set aside time to accommodate practice periods.

    As a public school educator (elementary level) I personally did not assign homework unless it was on work that wasn’t completed in the classroom after adequate instruction and practice. Students were expected to read a minimum of 20 minutes every night (Mon-Fri), and get their daily agenda signed by a parent. If they had an upcoming test parents/students were given at least a week to 10 days notice with information about the content of the test for study guidelines so students could study as they had time around family activities. We would also spend those 7-10 days before the test in class reviewing.

    Some teachers go overboard with homework thinking “gifted” students or low performing students need more. Some parents liked having their child bring a little bit of homework home because it kept them involved in their child’s life, while there where other students whose caregivers could care less whether they had homework or not.

    Homework has its place, but there needs to be a balance. I agree that the learning styles of children need to be taken into account, and time spent with family is just as important (if not more important these days) as the work brought home from school.

    The issue of homework is a hot topic these days. Good luck.

    February 16th, 2010 at 10:09 pm
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  10. Ct Pest Control says:

    I think the teaching style should be addressed too and not just the homework. It’s hard to keep kids interested in learning so teachers should make learning interesting. And probably make homework an interesting activity as well that kids will look forward to answering them. Parents and teachers should work hand in hand to achieve this.

    February 18th, 2010 at 8:48 am
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  11. April says:

    @ Literacy Lady
    Personally, I wouldn’t have as great an issue with homework if I felt it was meeting those standards. But requiring a diorama for a book report? That’s just ridiculous. I was told by the teacher that it’s supposed to be “fun” for us to do together. I have my own ideas for what fun projects I’d like to do with my kids, thanks!
    My 8th grader has been given these staircase assignments for her vocabulary. Here’s an example:
    example
    e
    ex
    exa
    exam
    examp
    exampl
    example

    And that’s for 25 words. It takes her over an hour just to complete that! She hates it, and I hate it.

    She once had a teacher that assigned one composition page per night of free write with maybe a theme thrown in. She loved it, and I loved it. But that was only one year. Unfortunately, most of my daughters’ homework is more of the rote memorization variety.

    February 18th, 2010 at 6:37 pm
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  12. FedUpMom says:

    April, what could possibly be the point of the staircase assignment? Have you talked to the teacher about it? Have you told her it takes your daughter an hour of her precious time?

    If a teacher gave my daughter that assignment, I would tell my daughter not to do it. Then I would explain to the teacher that my daughter doesn’t do homework unless it meets my standards. The staircase assignment is both pointless and time-consuming, which I don’t allow in my home.

    I really see this as an issue of parent’s rights. These are our children, in our homes! We have a right to determine how our kids spend their time with us.

    February 18th, 2010 at 7:57 pm
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  13. Matthew says:

    April, FedUpMom…we had a similar “spelling” assignment in either 3rd or 4th grade for my oldest son, but it was called Sailboat Writing (i.e. it formed the shape of a sail). He did it once and then I wrote a note to the teacher and said never again. My youngest son is getting “spelling” assignments where they’re supposed to find their spelling words out of a code supplied by the book (A=7, B=8, etc.). I could almost see something worthwhile in that if it weren’t so tedious, so again I wrote a note after the first time saying we wouldn’t be doing that anymore.

    Generally, when I write notes for this type of work I tell the teacher I see no education value in the work giving them the opportunity to quote some research that supports the assignment.

    No teacher has ever done so.

    February 19th, 2010 at 7:43 am
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  14. Sara Bennett says:

    April–I thought I’d seen examples of pretty much every kind of bad homework, but I’ve never seen that staircase spelling assignment before. I agree that it’s time for a polite note to the teacher.

    February 19th, 2010 at 9:28 am
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