Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Is a homework backlash brewing after teacher’s note goes viral?

Isn’t it strange that after years of groaning about homework throughout childhood, we dread it even more as parents? More to the point: We’re as delighted as kids when someone tells us we’re off the hook.

That’s what happened this week when Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher in Texas, dispatched a revolutionary note to her classroom that promptly went viral:

A gratified parent shared the note on Facebook to a chorus of relief. “Finally a teacher who realizes real life!” one parent posted. “I believe that if there was less homework assignments for the kids to do that there would probably be less drop-outs as kids get older,” another wrote. “Kids need to be kids,” declared yet another.

At last someone — someone in a position of educational authority, in fact, and not a grumbling child — had sounded the alarm on homework for young kids.

It’s long overdue, says Belmont’s Alfie Kohn, a prominent education lecturer and author of “The Homework Myth.”

Kohn believes the very idea of homework is misguided, a reaction to a toxically competitive culture in which “[kids] have to defeat people as if education were an Olympic sport. It’s this whole top-down, corporate-style, test-driven approach . . . which also manifests itself in high-stakes testing and common core, with one-size-fits-all standards — which explains why there’s this push to make kids work harder.”

It’s especially troubling, he says, because that there’s a lack of research to support that homework helps elementary-schoolers in any way.

“No research has found any benefit to any kind of homework below the high school level,” Kohn says. “Why do we persist in making kids swallow this modern cod liver oil and work a ‘second shift?’ ”

Blame it on our already hyper-scheduled lives. Homework has become one more thing to check off the to-do list, alongside piano lessons, sports, tutoring, karate, toddler origami, and who knows what else. Kids have less free time than ever before. According to an article by Boston College psychology researcher Dr. Peter Gray in the American Journal of Play, “[C]hildren’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities” since about 1955.

“We just don’t trust children, and we do not trust them to decide how to spend their time, so we attempt to keep them busy,” Kohn laments. “We force them to be constructive until their heads hit the pillow. We can binge on Netflix or update on Facebook. But children — no, no! School must reach its long arm into the home and compel them to be constructive.”

In a world where free time is at a premium, giving homework just to fill time can be pointless at best and damaging at worst, particularly for already overextended families.

“My thought is that homework needs to be intentional,” says Emily Fialky, a school psychologist in Northampton and the mother of elementary schoolers. “If there was a parent home and a kid came home and relaxed with nothing else going on, and they did some extra practice, I could see that as doable. But we have this parallel world where both parents usually work, and children desperately need downtime because they’ve been learning all day.”

The National Education Association supports 10 to 20 minutes of homework in first grade and an additional 10 minutes per grade level thereafter.

“At the elementary school level, homework can help students develop study skills and habits and can keep families informed about their child’s learning,” it says on the website.

Further, the site notes that “homework overload is the exception rather than the norm, according to research from the Brookings Institution and the Rand Corporation. Their researchers analyzed data from a variety of sources and concluded that the majority of US students spend less than an hour a day on homework, regardless of grade level, and this has held true for most of the past 50 years.”

This might come as a shock to any parent of a child who’s slogged home laden with more books and papers than a frazzled accountant.

Still, the pressure is not always coming from the classroom. Some parents demand homework despite teachers’ reluctance to dole it out, Kohn says.

“For every e-mail I get from a desperate parent, I get an e-mail from a teacher saying, ‘I know homework is pointless. It makes everybody unhappy and diminishes excitement about learning. But parents demand it,’ ” he says.

There’s a perception that homework equates to rigorous learning. Take the parent who questioned the academic rigor of a prominent Boston high school on a local real estate message board:

“However, I must say the academics are not what I expected. My other son attends a charter school, and has much more homework and is learning much more,” the parent wrote.

But if the Texas teacher’s viral declaration is any indication, a homework backlash may be brewing. So what’s a concerned parent to do next?

Rally, says Kohn.

“Talk to each other and organize a group of 10 or so parents. Walk in with a story about your child and say, ‘I’m very sorry, but we will not be participating in a homework program. The bottom line is — what happens in the evening is for families to decide, not schools. Respectfully, we say no, and we opt out,’” Kohn suggests. “This isn’t just about moderation or reduction.”

Because, just like in elementary school, it helps to have friends on your side.


Reaping the Whirlwind at Mizzou: Enrollment Plummets

The Book of Hosea cautions us: “They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.” Student protests on the University of Missouri’s campus, and the administration’s reaction, sowed some serious wind.

Recent news that freshman enrollment is projected to drop 25 percent, creating a $32 million funding deficit for the campus, is the whirlwind. If the university does not clean up its act, who knows what will blow in next?

It should be noted that this shortfall is not a result of legislators in Jefferson City cutting funding. This is prospective students freely deciding that they don’t want to spend their college years as Missouri Tigers; they and their families would rather take their money elsewhere.

That should terrify administrators in Columbia. Will Mizzou go the way of other brands scorned by the marketplace, like Kodak, Pontiac, or Ask Jeeves?

Mizzou desperately needs to get its house in order. Most important, it needs an administration that realizes that protests on university campuses have been happening for decades. In many cases, there is an element of truth to the protestors’ grievances, but it soon gets wrapped up in the narcissism and self-righteousness of 18- to 22-year-olds.

The job of administrators is to separate the wheat from the chaff. They must address the real issues that are affecting students without losing sight of the fact that it is college kids making the demands.

Mizzou’s administration completely failed in this regard. The kernel of truth in the protestors’ anger is that far too few black students are meeting with success on Mizzou’s campus. This is undeniably true. African Americans make up around 12 percent of Missouri’s population, but they make up only 7 percent of Mizzou’s. They are disproportionately enrolled in remedial classes, and they drop out at higher rates than other students do. This is cause for concern, and the administration should address it.

Protesters mixed this legitimate concern, however, with a series of out-there demands. They insisted, for instance, that the president of the University of Missouri system pen a handwritten note admitting his “white privilege,” and they demanded that the school hire legions of staff in a variety of departments to provide services for minority students. Naturally, they offered zero advice on how to pay for all of it. That is the chaff.

If the university does not have leadership that knows the difference between wheat and chaff, or that is incapable of dealing with substantive issues without being derailed by ridiculous ones, a 25 percent drop in enrollment is just the start.

And Mizzou shouldn’t expect the state to bail the school out. It appears that nearly everyone involved in this debacle has lost sight of the fundamental fact that the University of Missouri receives more than $250 million each year from Missouri taxpayers. Many of these people did not attend, will never attend, and will never have any of their children or grandchildren attend the university.

University students, faculty, and administrators are asking the single mom in Cape Girardeau who is struggling to get by working two jobs to pay for their wants and desires. Just because they attend Mizzou or work there does not mean that they have a claim to that woman’s money.

We support Mizzou (and our other state universities) because they provide a service to our state; they educate our citizens and do research that improves our world. If they’re not doing either of those things, they aren’t entitled to a dime of taxpayer cash.

Let’s hope that this enrollment nosedive serves as a wakeup call to the Mizzou community. A strong flagship university can be an asset to its state and citizens. Mizzou has a long way to go in proving that it is ready to resume that role


Once again: Third of Britain's Rio medallists went to private schools

Private schools remain over-represented among Team GB Olympic medal winners, with about a third of medallists in Rio educated at fee-paying schools, according to the Sutton Trust.

Although six out of 10 of this year’s British medallists – including the heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, gymnast Max Whitlock and boxer Nicola Adams – went to comprehensive schools, some sports including rowing and hockey are still dominated by the privately educated.

And while some state schools have enjoyed improved support for competitive sport over the past decade, Team GB’s top Olympians are four times more likely to have been privately educated than the population as a whole, says the Sutton Trust, a charity that works to promote social mobility through education.

Well-funded private schools with their top-quality sporting facilities and highly qualified coaches have traditionally dominated elite sports. The Sutton Trust says the proportion of medallists who attended fee-paying schools was down four percentage points in Rio compared with London 2012.

According to its analysis, 32% of Britain’s 130 medallists in Rio attended fee-paying schools, compared with 36% of Team GB’s medal-winners in London. Of the 13 athletes to win more than one medal, in Rio, 10 were comprehensive educated.

In rowing and women’s hockey, half of the medal winners in Rio were privately educated. In contrast, cycling was overwhelming dominated by those educated in the state sector, with 92% having attended either a comprehensive or a grammar school – among them the triple gold winner Jason Kenny, who was educated at Mount St Joseph School in Farnworth, Bolton.

Other athletes benefited from partnerships between state and private schools, including the gold-winning swimmer Adam Peaty, who attended a state school – Painsley Catholic College in Cheadle, Staffordshire – but trained using facilities at Repton, in Derbyshire.

Sir Peter Lampl, the chairman of the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment, said: “It’s been fantastic to see a growing number of our national heroes coming from comprehensive and other state schools. But alumni of private schools are still over-represented among our medallists.

“Although some state schools have improved support for competitive sport over the last decade, they’re still more likely to benefit from ample time set aside for sport, excellent sporting facilities and highly qualified coaches.”

The Good Schools Guide, which carried out its own analysis, said 45 of the 130 medal winners had been educated at independent schools, while 24% of the Team GB squad were privately educated.

“Many sports are better provided for at independent schools, for obvious reasons,” said Ralph Lucas, the editor-in-chief of the Good Schools Guide, regarded as the bible for middle-class school choice. “Training facilities are expensive to keep running, and the basic but necessary requirements such as grounds staff may be an expense some state schools just cannot afford.

“Independent schools also often employ top-level coaches – former international competitors, maybe even Olympians – who have connections within the national set-up. On top of these benefits, many of schools offer bursaries and scholarships for children with great sporting ability.”

Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI school, a Church of England comprehensive in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, which the silver-medal-winning swimmer Chris Walker-Hebborn attended, said: “We shouldn’t be entirely surprised if a school with a purpose-built rowing lake produces more Olympic rowers than one without. That said, one of the best initiatives of the early New Labour years was to increase investment in school sport through the school sports partnership, to strengthen links from schools into clubs, and to allow schools like ours to develop specialist resources and increased staffing for sport.

“We were thrilled to see the success of Chris Walker-Hebborn winning silver with Team GB in the 400m medley [relay]. We are proud to have other students who are showing exceptional sporting talent in windsurfing, javelin and race-walking.

“To get to Olympic level, it will be the coaching that students get at club level that makes the difference. But what has changed is the way schools like ours – just like the traditional independent schools – now see it as part of our mission to support talented students through mentoring, flexible timetabling, and better links with their all-important coaches.”

Millfield, a co-educational independent school, had eight former pupils competing at the Olympics, five of them in Team GB, cementing a growing Olympic tradition at the school where facilities include an Olympic-sized swimming pool and an equestrian centre. Fees are just under £12,000 a term for boarders.

David Faulkner, director of sport at the school, said: “An inspiring eight Millfieldians took part in the Olympic Games in Rio. Helen Glover (rowing), James Guy (swimming) and Ollie Lindsay-Hague (rugby sevens) came home with four medals between them. An incredible achievement.

“At Millfield we encourage all our pupils to strive to be the best they can possibly be both inside and outside of the classroom and I’m sure that these individuals will inspire the next generation of athletes at Millfield and beyond to do the same.”

Looking at previous Sutton Trust research, the proportion of privately educated Olympic winners matches that of MPs (32%), and is less than senior journalists (51%), top barristers (71%) and Bafta winners (42%). Overall, 7% of the general population is privately educated.


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