Moms (and Dads) on a Mission – More from Sharon, Connecticut

About a month ago, I posted a piece by Fred Baumgarten, the father of two daughters in public school in Sharon, Connecticut, who had been talking to the other parents in his daughter’s fifth-grade class about homework. I recently checked to see what kind of progress he’s making.

He writes all about it on his blog, homework headaches.

Should Homework be Reduced – 13 support; 3 opposed; 1 undecided; 4 no response
by Fred Baumgarten

As of today, out of 21 fifth grade families in our school, 12 have indicated their support of my efforts to reduce and improve homework; 3 are opposed (2 of them strongly; one just responded to another recent e-mail thus: “We do not support your movement. I thought lack of our response would have given you some indication”); 1 is provisionally supportive but still researching it; and 5 have not responded to e-mails and phone messages.

In my latest e-mail I invited those parents who are supportive or who had not responded to join me at a meeting with the principal. None have responded positively to the invitation.

Nevertheless, I have gone ahead and scheduled a meeting with the principal. Given that more than half of the families are in support, and greater than 75% of those who responded are in support, I feel I have a pretty strong case for proceeding.

It would be interesting to know whether there are class or other distinctions — to be blunt about it — that affect people’s perceptions and positions on the homework issue. I know the two families who most strenuously reject my efforts (will they actively try to oppose them?) are highly conservative and working class (granted the term is debatable). The author of the quip about my “movement” is a local law-enforcement officer.

Are there differences in education level that affect opinions? Does my having an advanced degree make me more likely to be a critic of homework, or even more likely to have problems with it in my family? In any case, a number of responses I have received to both my e-mails and in informal conversations have inevitably, it would seem, revolved around mathematics.

One parent (of a fourth grader) said that she depends on homework to tell her what and how her child is learning in school, especially in math; she felt that often the math was taught badly, and she used the homework to help correct her child’s understanding. Another parent of a fifth grader, one who was generally, but gently, not supportive of my efforts, told me that she thought there might not be enough homework; but at the same time she felt that the type of work happening in math was too abstract and not practical enough — for example, she said that she thought the students should be doing more drilling of times tables. (I happen to agree with that!)

And several parents, even among those who do support my “movement,” feel that the math homework is still indispensible for “practicing” and “reinforcing” the skills and operations the students learn in class. I have heard several people say that students who have gone through the program with this math teacher, one of the veteran teachers in the school, perform better than their peers at the regional high school.

Leaving aside the question of what type of math education takes place at the high school and how it feeds back to the elementary curriculum for better or worse — the answer to which I don’t know — I have to come back to what I do know: my child’s struggles with the math work, and my own math history.

That’s the part that I hope to discuss a bit further, but for now it will have to wait. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, I am beginning to think of a strategy for my meeting. It is going to be challenging, especially being on my own — and only having a half-hour! But I definitely feel it’s time to “cut to the chase” and be prepared with specific requests (which in all fairness I have made before) and responses to the arguments I expect to hear, from “I will not talk about the policy or “philosophy,” only about your child,” to “We all understand why homework is important….” As I said, stay tuned!

8 thoughts on “Moms (and Dads) on a Mission – More from Sharon, Connecticut

  1. Fred — I feel strongly that the best response to parents who want homework is some kind of opt-out policy. There’s no need to argue with those who want their kids to do homework. Tell them they’re welcome to it. They can get the exact same homework they always got, just as long as we parents who are opposed have the right to opt out.

    When you go to talk to the principal, be forewarned. From “Bad Teachers”, by Guy Strickland:

    When you go to the school principal, you will be asking him to do something he really doesn’t want to do — change. His needs don’t coincide with yours. He wants to keep his staff happy, retain his control over a stable workplace, and look good to his supervisor …

    The principal is not going to do anything for you just because you ask him to. His path of least resistance is to do nothing, and that’s just what he will do unless you give him a good reason to do otherwise …

    The principal’s motive is to keep the teachers happy.


  2. I think too, that the focus has to be your own child, unless there are other parents there. You need to cut your child the deal that will work for your family.


  3. Thank you both for your comments. You may think me naive, but with respect I do plan on pursuing this as a matter that is not just about my child. I have the numbers to back me up, even if no parents actually join me for the meeting. (One is considering it.) If that approach is rebuffed, as it certainly may be, then I will have to regroup and figure out what happens next.

    The school has already taken some steps to help my child, in response to my earlier approaches, including giving her the option of doing timed math assignments instead of completing the worksheets. But this has not solved the larger problem, particularly the terrible content of the homework, and to some extent results in my child feeling ostracized. For the same reason, I don’t think the school would give us an “opt out” from homework generally, nor do I think that is necessarily the right solution, because then it really singles us out.

    I want less homework and better homework, and I’m going to keep fighting until I win, lose, or draw. Aside from having a lot of sentiment on my side, I also have something of an ace up my sleeve, which is that I have publicly defended teachers and the public school system. Now it’s time for them to demonstrate that my taking a stand wasn’t in vain!


  4. I’m with you, Fred. You have the numbers to back you up. When educators like Diane Ravitch change their minds, no reason principals and teachers can’t change theirs.


  5. “I don’t think the school would give us an “opt out” from home work generally,”

    We need to shift our thinking from, we are not asking, we are telling. The entire dialogue on a large scale should not be about getting permission but making wholesale changes across the board so families have a choice. This does not need to be hostile. It’s a statement, backed by research and anecdotal evidence. You come off as an educated concerned parent. I like Sharona’s take on the other post. Take control on day one. You may stun a new young teacher so much with your declaration, he won’t know how to respond. As Sharona says, you have a lot more power than you think.

    Easier said than done, I know. I know. But short of voting with your feet, the needs of our children come first. That’s where I’d like to see the national zeitgeist change.

    In the fifties, we did as we were told. Homework got sent home, no one questioned it, teacher knew best. Homework was reasonable and children still got a childhood so no one thought to challenge the notion of homework. It’s as sacred and entrenched as American pie. But as homework began to creep into every nook and cranny of a family’s life, gobbling up what little free time our children have, things have changed. We know more now. We have research. We have studies. The old archaic way of doing things just doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s not the sixties any longer. We are not in Kansas anymore.


  6. I’ve been commissioned by the Toronto Star to write a piece about the effects of the 2008 Toronto District School Board policy that’s supposed to have reduced time spent on homework, especially for the primary school children.

    I’d like to talk to some parents in the Toronto area who have something to say (positive or negative) about how well the current guidelines are working for their families.

    Elvira Cordileone


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