Michele Somerville is the mother of three former NYC DOE public school students, as well as a writer and an educator.

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bored-o-Ed: Rein in the Tyranny of Homework and Extend the School Day

It wasn't until I became a parent that I came to see the extent to which homework can siphon the harmony out of family life. I'm a big fan of academic rigor for children. Children should work hard in school, but all too often I watched my own children bolt reluctantly from informal, impromptu dinner table lessons in order to complete homework. Very often homework foreclosed on the opportunity to continue on in discussions of politics, art, reason, faith, table manners and global events. Too often meaningless homework kept them from finishing that discussion of Walt Whitman's work as a medic in the Civil War, the Protestant Reformation, black holes, a mayoral race, or why--really--a four-year old could not have painted that Picasso. Drawing, playing guitar and recreational reading often took a back seat to homework.
I currently tutor in an after-school program where I help students (grades 1 through 12) with homework, and much of the homework I see appears to be busy work. Having been a classroom teacher, I know that there is a certain amount of pressure from school administrators and school systems to assign a certain amount of homework each night. Sometimes the talent of teachers and schools is even measured, in part, by the volume homework assigned.
Many of the secondary school students I know receive three or four hours of homework each night. Excessive homework all but does away with recreational reading. Students who consistently fail to keep up with homework are more likely to give up on school entirely because a quotient of humiliation often attends with unpreparedness. When their school days are done, adolescents and children should be otherwise occupied; they should be exercising their bodies, and learning to dance and to play instruments. They should take part in organized sports, meal preparation, and household chores. They should play, interact with family and friends and engage in community service.
Homework should have a clear purpose, but too often it does not. Reinforcement of skills and concepts already apprehended is the proper goal, but I see plenty of homework, each week, that demands the involvement of parents or helpers. Help is not a bad thing; but it can muddy the waters. If a homework assignment is designed to allow a teacher to gauge proficiency, extra help is likely to interfere. If the aim of homework to diagnose, extra help can create an erroneous impression of mastery.
In institutionally racist school systems extra help increases the imbalance between the haves and have-nots. It goes to reason that children who benefit from standardized test preparation and private tutors can expect to have an edge. A decent high school tutor earns upwards of $100.00 in New York City. Middle-class children who attend public schools in New York often receive lots of extra help; poor children--not so much.
Teachers who are forced by school system policy to teach curriculum (and not students) have little choice but to send some students home with work they are unable to complete independently, because even in tracked classes, students learn at various and often unpredictable rates. Students with whom I work sometimes report that "the teacher didn't teach" something, when what they really mean is that they failed to learn something. Even very young children do this, and they frequently appear to feel as if not knowing how to do the homework is their fault. No kid likes homework, but those who continually receive assignments they can't complete wind up feeling stupid.
Usually a period of feeling out of place, incompetent, inadequate, or unsuccessful exists for a while before a student finally decides to throw in the towel. Students drop out of school for many reasons. In my opinion, feeling stupid is at the top of the list.
If I were queen of the schools, I would have students do homework in school.
Schools should remain open later, and especially those attended by children living at or below the poverty line, should make homework help and enrichment programs available to all students.
At one school building in my own middle-class neighborhood, the corporately supported "elite" (recently co-located school) school hosts after-school programs for its students, but the three (black and brown) schools in the same building, for the most part, do not. The "elite" students use the building's pool and basketball courts after dismissal, but the black and brown non-elite students do not. Why?
Poor parents and guardians in New York often encourage their children to return home directly after dismissal. Some are afraid to have their children at large during early evening hours in their own neighborhoods. They cite fear of gangs, fear of problems in transit, fear of kids "hanging out on the streets," and fear of the police. In New York City, the more prosperous the school, the more likely it is to host a variety of after-school programs, because it is parents who tend to fund and work in these programs. Most middle-class families, whether in cities or suburbs, enroll their children in clubs, lessons and organized sports. Their children grow up presuming they will attend college and learn early that both extracurricular and curricular experiences influence college admission outcomes. This thinking, the expectation of college and academic success, is less prevalent among poor students in struggling schools, the very ones who most need longer school days. after school enrichment, homework help and tutoring.
I often hear people blame parents (who putatively fail to impart discipline and civility at home) for the failure of schools. I happen to believe this widely cast aspersion is facile and inaccurate. Furthermore, not nearly enough is said about how difficult this type of criticism makes it for parents, guardians and caregivers of children who attend hell-hole schools to become more involved. We know that parental involvement improves schools, yet the schools most in need of it tend to have the least parental involvement. Why? Because parents in struggling schools are often discouraged from getting involved. When parents feel disparaged by school personnel, they steer clear of their children's schools. Parents living in poverty, uneducated parents, grandparents rearing grandchildren, homeless parents, partners of incarcerated parents, undocumented immigrants and English language learners are less likely to feel welcome in schools their children attend, but there can be no doubt that these parents have plenty to contribute and that their children's schools need their help.
Let's say, for argument's sake, that it is true that schools fail as a result of the breakdown of the nuclear family and problems associated with crime and poverty. Is it not in the best interest of taxpayers, cities and school systems to step in and create more home in school? Are children whose guardians are not able, for whatever reasons, to serve as their educational advocates and learning partners less deserving of the kind of support the children of college-educated, middle-class parents receive? Does a responsible citizenry and public education system faced with this problem just throw up its hands and consign these children to the schools-to-prison pipeline, or to a future on Public Assistance? Or do we acknowledge that more is needed, and resolve to expand the role schools play in the lives of students. If home is a big part of the problem and we all want schools that truly work, we must recognize the obligation of school systems to step in to do some of what home ought. If we refuse to do this, we "cut off our noses," as my very smart mom used to say, "to spite our faces."
When my mother was a child growing up in a large family in uptown Manhattan during the 40s and 50s, she and her siblings all attended after school programs in the parochial school they attended. There they attended dances, worked on neighborhood projects and learned to play basketball. Every school in New York City should be hosting secular versions of this model. School buildings should be used at night--by students. Teachers should be available for tutoring after dismissal, and the school day itself should be about three hours longer.
Free school breakfasts and lunches are outward signs that we already grasp, on some level, the importance of stepping in, at school, to do what is more properly done at home. We acknowledge that hungry students do not perform well and that it is in the best interest of all taxpayers to graduate as many healthy, well-educated, workforce-ready students as possible. We give food away; why not give away tutoring, swimming instruction, second language instruction, vocational training, and instruction in the arts?
Keeping schools open at night would make it possible for struggling students to have more of what middle class children have--whether that be homework help, nutritional snacks, guitar lessons, or studio art. It would foster community, allow students to work more seriously in the arts and would go a long way to alleviate the pressure on parents who, whether due to homelessness, poverty, illiteracy, trauma, illness, youth, disability or lack of English language fluency, are not able to help with homework, afford lessons or coach sports teams. Students would come home with less homework, less stress, more energy, more positive feeling about their educational experiences, lighter book-bags--and, who knows? Maybe with enough time to curl up with a good book.
This would cost more--in the short run, but the alternative to doing school right will prove far more costly.

Michele Somerville has worked as a teacher in New York for 20 years. She is the parent of three children who have attended NYC DOE schools.

Follow Michele Somerville on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NYpoet

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