The New York Times asked me to write an op-ed about a high school teacher who was assigning homework to his students’ parents. But the op-ed was killed after the School Board publicly disavowed the teacher’s actions. Here’s what I submitted:
Teachers: Don’t Assign Parents Homework
by Sara Bennett
Damion Frye, a ninth-grade English teacher in Montclair, NJ, suddenly found himself famous a couple weeks ago for assigning mandatory homework — not to his students, but to their parents. His school board has since expressed disapproval of the mandatory aspect, but Mr. Frye may want to do a little homework of his own before finding new ways to keep parents involved in their children’s education. While all parents want their children to develop — socially, emotionally, and intellectually — school-imposed assignments on parents are not going to help. Instead, such assignments cut into, or even eliminate, the few cherished evening hours or minutes that parents have with their children — time better spent lingering at the dinner table, for example, engaged in a good conversation.
In fact, unlike homework, there is a strong association between teens who regularly sit down to dinner with their families and academic success. Family dinner also leads to better psychological adjustment and lower rates of alcohol use, drug use, sexual behavior, and suicidal risk. Needless to say, teens’ diets are healthier as well.
When my co-author and I researched our book on homework, we discovered that most teachers, and I bet Mr. Frye is one of them, don’t know that. I’d be willing to bet Mr. Frye isn’t aware of studies finding little or no correlation between homework and achievement in elementary or middle school. Even in high school, “overloading [students] with homework is not associated with higher grades.”
My co-author and I also never found a teacher who had taken a course on homework nor a school of education that offers such a course. No wonder Mr. Frye says he took his idea for family homework from a kindergarten teacher, rather than from research-based practice. Too bad he doesn’t at least learn from teachers like Phil Lyons, an Advanced Placement economics teacher in Palo Alto, California, who assigns no homework at all but whose students love his class, love learning, and ace the AP exam.
If Mr. Frye had children of his own, he’d know that the needs of kindergartners and high schoolers are vastly different. And while the kindergarten teacher shouldn’t be assigning homework to parents either, or to her students for that matter, at least she knows that her students are incapable of doing the work on their own. But if some of the stated goals of homework are to be realized — fostering responsibility, self-discipline and motivation — then high schoolers must do their homework themselves.
Mr. Frye should be applauded for wanting to learn from his students’ parents, but rather than seek their opinions of Franz Kafka or Walt Whitman, he’d do better to listen to what they know as parents — that their high schoolers would be better off with more time to sleep, more time with friends and family, more time reading for pleasure, more time pursuing their passions. As the Palo Alto teacher discovered, students do best when they have the time to balance schoolwork with intellectual pursuits of their own choosing.
Mr. Frye has a lot to learn about the families themselves as well. Most parents are already overwhelmed. It must be hard for a young, childless teacher to imagine how there could be nightly struggles over homework or why his homework might be unwelcome. After all, he’s not juggling the demands of the workplace with grocery shopping, cooking, and laundry for a full household, nor is he trying to squeeze in time to spend with each of his children.
Moreover, isn’t it a little presumptuous of Mr. Frye to assume that he knows better than parents how they can best communicate with their own children? We’ve had our children’s entire lives to establish our own unique relationships.
So why do so many of Mr. Frye’s parents comply — ostensibly happily? My guess is fear. Fear of the threatened lower grade, fear of being labeled a troublemaker, and fear of being seen as anti-education, uninvolved, or uninterested. Further, most parents, regardless of their own educational background, assume that teachers know best when it comes to academics, and fail to rely on their own common sense.
The executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals has gone on record as calling Mr. Frye’s idea “great.” So what’s next? Before you know it, we’ll be factoring quadratic equations, writing speeches, building bridges, and doing abdominal crunches for all of our children’s teachers. If that’s the case, while I’m getting to know my children through homework, their teachers can get to know my children better, too. Mr. Frye: By next Monday, I’d like a short report on what you learned as you drove them to their practices and performances, ate dinner with them, and chatted with them before bed. Just two paragraphs will be fine. After all, I have two children and I know there are other families who will be making the same request.