Parents or Teachers: Who’s The Bad Guy?

Thomas Friedman's op-ed on parental involvement in schools has been on the top of the most e-mailed list at the New York Times for the past couple of days. Let's talk about it. 

Friedman says that instead of blaming teachers for our failing schools, we should blame the parents. He points to a recent study that found that parental involvement in a kid's education is a huge predictor of performance in school. (Is it more important than teacher quality? I don't know; the op-ed didn't say.)

Monitoring homework; making sure children get to school; rewarding their efforts and talking up the idea of going to college. These parent actions are linked to better attendance, grades, test scores, and preparation for college,” Barth wrote. “The study found that getting parents involved with their children’s learning at home is a more powerful driver of achievement than parents attending P.T.A. and school board meetings, volunteering in classrooms, participating in fund-raising, and showing up at back-to-school nights.

I'm not sure why this op-ed irritates me so much. I spend an hour or two everyday helping my kids with their homework. We read books together. I take them to museums and watch the history channel. Steve and I do all those things. Why should Friedman's op-ed irritate me? 

I guess that Friedman ticks me off, because in this article, the word "parents" is code for "mothers." In most homes where all this school supplementation happens, it's the moms who do this work. I wish he would just be honest about it. So, any critique of parental involvement is really a critique of women, and that is bound to tick me off. 

The problem is that schools have not yet adjusted to the fact that most women work. Their work days are longer than a school day. They don't get a winter recess or half days before Thanksgiving. They can't come into the school for parent-teacher conferences at 11am. They can't watch the chorus production at 2pm. They have to go to work. They can't spend two hours reviewing homework, because they don't get home until 6 or 7 and then have to make dinner. 

Any critique of parents (mothers) has to take into account these limitations on a parent's (mother's) time. Also, schools need to adjust to the fact that it is impossible for many parents to live up to this perfect parental model. 

71 thoughts on “Parents or Teachers: Who’s The Bad Guy?

  1. When I read this, my first impression is that of a kind-hearted UMC man trying not to scream “Everything would be perfect if only poor people were like me.”

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  2. I have to laugh at Friedman’s way of acting like he’s presenting something totally new when the entirety of research and common sense has always said that parents are by far the biggest influencers of child outcomes. I’m really hoping that someday I can score a spot as a NY Times op-ed writer (or NFL football announcer) where my specialty is water-is-wet type pronouncements.
    There is a strain of Americanism that thinks parents and their parenting are beyond reproach. That’s not a totally unjustified attitude since there is a long history of people in power forcing their chosen parenting practices on less powerful subgroups which is sad because there really is so much benefit in intensive parenting guidance.
    I’ve spent the last four years working on early childhood education research and while I think high quality preschool is extremely important for at-risk kids I’ve become convinced that birth to three is the most vital time frame for implementing interventions that will positively impact long-term child outcomes. It’s depressing that by the time they’re three the trajectory of many at-risk kids is already set.

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  3. I’m so glad you tackled this. My son is in public grade 1, after 3 years at a Montessori, and I am ready to scream. I too, read with my child and take him to museums and we love learning at my house.
    But I sat at curriculum night as the teacher explained, very sincerely, to the parents how to asses their kid’s reading levels using the “5 finger rule” (you tick off a finger for every word they can’t tackle with their reading strategies and if you get to 5, the book is too hard) – because “with 19 kids in the class, there is no way I can stay on top of where everyone is at, so please write in the agenda if the books are too easy or too hard” – and I was like seriously? Seriously??
    Because of course as a good middle-class parent I will do that but I am trying to run a _family_. I send my child to school so that his reading levels can be professionally assessed, thanks.
    I kind of think schools are dumbing their professional responsibilities down — and have been for some time, in part due to economic pressure — and this is the result. For some reason it reminded me of this blog post on homework, which for me boiled down to the (at the time very new) idea that teachers use homework to disguise poor time management practices.
    http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=133
    So I think while the research may show this, it doesn’t mean parents should step up (although _of course_ we will) but that schools should be asking what can they do about that?
    My son’s Montessori was very clear about our role with us: They said let him have fun at home and we will educate; there will be a time that will change and we will let you know.

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  4. I don’t think that it’s a critique of women or mothers in particular. I would say that my mother monitored my homework (but not even that much, because my parents knew I always got it done), but my mother and father equally made sure I went to school and encouraged me to pursue university. They both, in different ways, encouraged learning, helped me understand the importance of being curious, took me to places which would be intellectually stimulating, and all that sort of stuff. People work, but to get angry that someone would encourage parents to take an active part in their children’s education is silly. Plus to jump to the conclusion that the author is only talking about women is absurd, because I know that my experiences with my parents are not the minority. Surely the best students would be the ones who had both parents encouraging them academically and not just mothers, right?
    What I can agree with is that the article does feel class-ist, but then again, so does education in general. It is certainly harder to be involved in your children’s education when you have to work extra hard to have food on the table, regardless of gender. There’s also just a culture clash that comes up when dealing with education and different classes. A more in-depth discussion of this is found in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

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  5. Katie, I’m not arguing with you per se but do you have a child in public school right now? Because I think I would have posted that last year, or something similar, before I started getting snowed with the requirements, stated and unstated, for my school. It is _nothing like_ my education in the 70s and 80s.
    We had homework, but the homework was designed for the child, to reinforce learning. Today’s grade 1 homework is designed to teach the parent how to stand in for the teacher. This is quite baldly stated.

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  6. @ Katie F
    How do you know that your experience with your parents is not the minority? What part of your experience was not “the minority” experience?

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  7. Even in middle class households there is often only one parent, or at best one parent at a time because of divorce or work schedules. I don’t think this is sexist until you realize that childhood obesity and diabetes are also the parents’ faults, as is the problem of everyone being sleep deprived.
    Bottom line, along with students there should also be heads of households at OWS.

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  8. From my experience (2 kids under 5, so I’m pretty naive here) there are some really amazing pre-school daycare programs that encourage parental involvement (usually one event a month) while still assuming a full work day. It seems like the only reason public (K-12) doesn’t do this is because of the legacy of a single working parent (mostly father). Why isn’t the school day longer? Especially if the kids are expected to go home and do more school work?

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  9. Current homework is HARD. Aside from time issues, there’s also the cognitive load of the material, much of which I never encountered during my K-12 career. (At our kids private school, I am currently faking my way through 4th grade Latin and learning embarrassingly much from prepping my daughter for her 4th grade science quizzes.)
    In addition, many popular new math curricula are poorly suited for home help. We just had a math curriculum switch at school and both my 1st grader and I often don’t know what the heck we’re supposed to do with it. (This is the supposedly “American” version of Singapore Math. I hate it and explained why at length at the last parent-teacher conference.)
    “with 19 kids in the class, there is no way I can stay on top of where everyone is at,”
    Aside from basic physical safety, there is literally no more important thing for a 1st grade teacher to do. What the heck are they doing all day? (I take it your school doesn’t have reading groups by reading level?)
    “I would say that my mother monitored my homework (but not even that much, because my parents knew I always got it done), but my mother and father equally made sure I went to school and encouraged me to pursue university.”
    I had barely any homework in elementary school (and I ditched lots of it). My mom probably didn’t supervise more than 60 minutes total over my entire K-12 career. Starting with 7th grade, my dad did a lot of math stuff with me. (If my mom had been a single parent, I never would have gotten into a four-year college. If my dad had been a single parent, I’m afraid he would have forgotten to feed us.)
    “…as is the problem of everyone being sleep deprived.”
    Wait–you don’t suppose that has anything to do with the homework schedule we’ve been talking about? Normally speaking, our household doesn’t run into this (with me as an SAHM with an aversion to team sports), but we had our first experiences with this during the fall. It’s nearly 10 PM, why are we still doing homework?
    “Why isn’t the school day longer? Especially if the kids are expected to go home and do more school work?”
    Just guessing here, but I expect the homework would still come on top of that, since much of it requires one-on-one work.
    Afterschool parents, do your kids come home with homework all neatly completed?

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  10. It’s an extremely classist assumption that either or both parents can be that involved in their kids education on a day-to-day basis. Having both parents involved in full time paid work and the time crunch has already been mentioned. Add on top of that ESL families – how are they meant to monitor all this homework?
    Tack on the middle/upper class expectation that your kids are meant to be in all sorts of extracurricular activities, and I am not surprised that even younger kids aren’t getting enough sleep.
    I have a daughter in grade 1 and you wouldn’t believe how over programmed most of her peers are (often two activities after school on the same day). They also have about 30 minutes of homework a day.
    The homework does reinforce class differences between those families who enjoy the luxury of a stay-at-home parent to be the point person for all of this and those families where both parents do paid work, and/or have English as a second language, or single parent homes.

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  11. I’m looking at this phenomenon in China, where there’s a similar trajectory with similar implicitly gendered and class role assumptions, although not in terms of how parenting should occur–in China, there’s often little attempt to beat around the bush (I actually bought a parenting advice book in a Chinese bookstore entitled “Parents Determine a Child’s Entire Life.”) Framed as a move from “quantity” or “test-based” education to “quality” education (as part of a larger neo-eugenics movement to create “quality” citizens), the state has been reframing its slow dismantling of its comprehensive education system and the systematic sloughing off of its former responsibilities onto parents as a step forward by providing the opportunity for families to create “well-rounded” children. Never mind, of course, that the bourgeois activities parents are supposed to engage their children in are totally and completely out of reach to even most white collar urban professionals. (An aquarium, museum or movie ticket costs about the equivalent of US$60-$200 per person, and generally both parents work full time.) As it is, in a family of four wage earning adults (the parents and the paternal grandparents, who are either working or retired with pensions and taking care of the kids), about 50% of family income, or the salaries of two adults, is spent on education and enrichment activities for children. In many large urban areas, the one-child policy is redundant because most Chinese people feel they simply don’t have the economic or time resources to have more than one child (and more and more people are foregoing having any children at all.) Although not always explicit (though it is in the case of prenatal and early childcare, through the “superior mothers, superior children” campaigns), mothers are seen as disproportionately responsible for the outcomes of children. Grandparents, who often raise the children while the mothers work, are seen to be of “low quality” and backward, so it’s considered less than optimal to have grandparents raise children, even though almost all Chinese women use their in-laws to provide free childcare. In this way, there’s a push for women (who are of relatively higher quality) to become full-time mothers, which is totally out of reach to any but the wealthiest families in China.

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  12. I know that my daughter would not have succeeded in school and gotten into a decent college without significant “help” from her parents- not just monitoring assignments, but actually teaching material and acting as a team member to get work done. She had so much work (public school 8th-12th grades, private earlier grades) that often it was impossible to get it done in any reasonable time and get enough sleep. It was the amount, in addition to the complexity. In contrast, I was an excellent student in the mid 1970s, in as many honor classes as possible, in a Catholic school. My homework was about 2 hours a day, Monday through Thursday and maybe 1-3 hours over a weekend. I did not need help monitoring the completion nor finsishing this amount.
    I think there is too much work and too demanding a curriculum, often without sufficient tools taught (e.g. HOW do you write a research paper, what are the rules of grammar) to do well without help. We come from a middle class, rather rural area, and ended up paying for tutors or tutoring her ourselves. I think this is wrong. Parents should not have to shoulder this burden too. It is a paradigm shift from the previous decades and I do think it has elitist/classist implications.

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  13. On this issue, I have a small bit of experience teaching at (and going to) public schools w/low income populations. It seems to me there’s a huge gap between not providing your child with the minimum physical needs (sleep, proper nutrition, proper healthcare, proper hygiene, proper basic materials for study like pencils/paper/quiet space) for them to be successful (which frequently happens–it’s not uncommon for children to show up in urine-soaked clothing, or to got 3 hours of sleep because their stepdad and mom got in a fight after drinking and they share one room with them and 3 younger siblings who were crying, and the electricity got cut off so there’s no light after the sun sets, etc. (7 year olds don’t have great filters)) and spending 2+ hours a day doing your kids homework. It seems like a longer school day where schools provide more amenities might help ameliorate or at least flatten out some of these differences (not that that’s necessarily the goal of those in charge.) If the school day was extended until 5 or 6, with a study-hall/play time break/sports activities after the end of the “normal” school day, if all schools provided at least the option of a free or low-cost nutritious (no, pizza is not a vegetable) breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack/early dinner, and managed basic healthcare (my elementary school worked out a deal with the dental school where we’d get free yearly checkups, plus free sealants in 2nd grade, + we all had to eat fluoride every morning, and free vision testing, etc.), you could ease the burden on all parents and hopefully flatten out some of inequalities. Of course, this would require a significant commitment to funding schools, and also to trusting that they can educate children, which I think is disappearing in a negative cycle as teachers are increasingly hobbled by bureaucratic standards, and who then increasingly slough off responsibilities onto the parents, who increasingly distrust teachers’ abilities.

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  14. I’m with Katie F. Both my parents encouraged and helped me academically, each in his or her own way. (Mostly, perhaps, by reading and talking about books generally.) In our family, I spend much more time helping my daughter with homework than my wife does, because I am better at it.
    Obviously, in divorced families, the burden will fall on the custodial parent, who is usually the mother. Any “sexism” resides in the fact that the mother is usually the custodial parent–so change that–not in the fact that the custodial parent has responsibilities.

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  15. “Aside from basic physical safety, there is literally no more important thing for a 1st grade teacher to do. What the heck are they doing all day? (I take it your school doesn’t have reading groups by reading level?)”
    That was my response too…and I was an ed assistant in a K-6 learning centre/reading centre from 1993-5, so I have some basis for my opinion. At that time, if a teacher had said that, I think she would have faced something disciplinary, even with strong unions. Now, apparently, the research backs it up.
    She sent home a photocopy of the NYT piece in the agenda yesterday.
    As for what they are doing – they are in school 8:45-3:15. They have two 15 min recesses and an hour for lunch. On top of that time, we are combatting childhood obesity so they have 40 minutes of gym every single day. Then they have music (I’m glad; look! arts!) and library once a week each.
    I don’t object to it in principle, all this, but it does mean being really organized in the meantime, or something.
    And the expectations..the second project (all done at home) was he had to invent a useful object, build it, complete a booklet about it, and prepare a presentation on it. We did have 3 weeks’ warning.
    Part of the explicitly stated goals of the project was for our family to learn how to handle projects, and it was stated as an expectation that parents would sit with the child for all the stages. Not surprising, at 6, where my son started from “I’m going to build a world-destroying robot with LASER EYES.”
    It took over 6 hours all told; I kept track. That’s a lot, IMO, in October of grade 1. He got a B. To get an A we apparently should have gone outside the scope of the project.
    We delayed a trip to the art gallery to get the thing done.

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  16. So our choices are “blame the school” or “blame the parents”? How about “blame an economy that no longer supports families for fewer than 80 hrs/week of paid labor”? Isn’t that essentially what we’re talking about?
    Or maybe we could go for “blame the generation that accepted/demanded quality education for their kids but refuses to pay for quality education for later generations”?

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  17. “If the school day was extended until 5 or 6, with a study-hall/play time break/sports activities after the end of the “normal” school day, if all schools provided at least the option of a free or low-cost nutritious (no, pizza is not a vegetable) breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack/early dinner, and managed basic healthcare”
    One of the reasons we don’t do this is that there a lot parents, upper middle class ones, that don’t want these things. They don’t want a longer school day because they want to fill that time with other enriching activities. They don’t want onsite healthcare because they want to have control over who doctors their children. They don’t want dinner provided to their children because they think they can provide a healthier dinner than the school can. For the most part, they’re right, so who can blame them for pushing against these changes. Yet there’s a population of children with home lives that are not an improvement over the care they receive in school and for them school-plus would be very beneficial. It would be nice it the option was there for those students who need it.

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  18. “It took over 6 hours all told; I kept track. That’s a lot, IMO, in October of grade 1. He got a B. To get an A we apparently should have gone outside the scope of the project.”
    That’s absolutely ridiculous. My oldest is only four and I’m already worried about what we’ll do when it comes to homework when he starts school. I want him to learn the importance of hard work, the necessity of completing tasks you don’t enjoy, the sense of accomplishment that comes with practice, and yet, I know I’ll be tempted to let him not complete homework that I view an useless busywork.
    My second grade neighbor boy has an hour of homework every week night, two hours on the weekend, and is supposed to read aloud to his parents half an hour every night. I feel like I’ll have a hard time enforcing that level of what must be a lot of useless homework.

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  19. scantee,
    I agree. I think to make this in any way feasible we need to 1) change cultural perceptions and attitudes towards schools 2) significantly commit resources to them to improve quality. Really, there ought to be no disadvantage to doing homework in a study hall monitored by teachers vs. doing it with a tutor, to playing on the school soccer team to playing on a private league, to taking school ballet lessons vs. private ones, etc. (Of course, if you’re a virtuoso or prodigy it’s a different story and you need extensive private training, but few people are the next Itzhak Perlman or Roger Federer, so I don’t think they make a difference to an overall structure). Also, if school were over at 6 AND all homework were completed, there would still be time for evening extra enrichment, although it might be less necessary.
    Of course, a part of the reason that UMC parents want the status quo is that people in power really don’t want an actual meritocracy. If all students are given an equal chance to excel, that just increases the chance that your child isn’t Harvard material and will be beaten out by some person who before would have been structurally unable to compete. The move towards “well-roundedness” (besides being a traditional way to keep out Jews) is now a way to make college admissions out of reach to poor or even lower middle class. My guess is many UMC parents would blanch if they were told that students would study for tests at school, with their peers and the same access to resources, and then college would be determined on the test results of that test. The problem is that true meritocracy involves downward mobility almost as much as it would involve upward mobility, and downward mobility for their own offspring is not something people who speak the language of meritocracy are fully ready to face.

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  20. “She sent home a photocopy of the NYT piece in the agenda yesterday.
    So, Friedman is helping perpetuate that situation. Nice.
    BI says:
    “If the school day was extended until 5 or 6, with a study-hall/play time break/sports activities after the end of the “normal” school day, if all schools provided at least the option of a free or low-cost nutritious (no, pizza is not a vegetable) breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack/early dinner, and managed basic healthcare (my elementary school worked out a deal with the dental school where we’d get free yearly checkups, plus free sealants in 2nd grade, + we all had to eat fluoride every morning, and free vision testing, etc.), you could ease the burden on all parents and hopefully flatten out some of inequalities.”
    And then Shandra says:
    “- they are in school 8:45-3:15. They have two 15 min recesses and an hour for lunch. On top of that time, we are combatting childhood obesity so they have 40 minutes of gym every single day. Then they have music (I’m glad; look! arts!) and library once a week each. I don’t object to it in principle, all this, but it does mean being really organized in the meantime, or something.”
    I find those two quotes mutually illuminating, showing the difference between theory and practice. BI and Shandra aren’t talking about exactly the same thing, it’s just that if you tack on two hours to the school day Shandra describes, I’m afraid it would be (practically unavoidably) frittered away with non-instructional activities. And then you the parent would still find yourself teaching your kid to read and practicing math facts way into the evening. I know there are schools that are much more disciplined in their use of children’s time in an extended day (KIPP, etc.), but I think it would be very unwise to expect amazing results from extending a normal school day.
    I think there’s some hope that older kids can use “study hall” time at school wisely, but for little kids, there’s absolutely no way. My 1st grader’s homework tends to be a selection of the following: write out 10 spelling words, practice math facts, read 15-20 minutes and do about 4 pages of math worksheets that he doesn’t understand the instructions for even if he could read them. He can do the spelling independently. He can do the math independently when the instructions are straight-forward and not “creative,” but the reading practice and the math facts are a very intensive one-on-one activity. Supervising 2 kids doing homework is like driving 2 cars at once, and I don’t think it’s realistic to think that study hall time for small children will be productive.

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  21. “They don’t want onsite healthcare because they want to have control over who doctors their children.”
    Amen. I don’t want the worst graduate of the worst medical school in the region doctoring my kid. Ditto dentists. I’ve put a lot of effort into finding a good pediatrician and a good pediatric dentist (after a number of failures) and that’s who I want seeing my kids.
    “They don’t want dinner provided to their children because they think they can provide a healthier dinner than the school can.”
    Ditto. I can do a lot better than the lowest common denominator stuff that shows up at school lunch. And the kids are going to eat their vegetables and fruit (at least a little bit) at dinner because I’m going to be watching them. (Meanwhile, the carrots and mandarins and apples that I put into packed lunches seldom make their way into the kids’ tummies.)
    “Also, if school were over at 6 AND all homework were completed, there would still be time for evening extra enrichment, although it might be less necessary.”
    My 1st grader’s official bedtime is 7:30. Any “enrichment” that could happen between 6 and 7:30 would have to take place at home.
    Our optimal family schedule is get home and finish after school snack by 4 something, do as much homework as possible before 5, have dinner at 5 something, finish homework as soon as possible, put 1st grader to bed by 7:30, send 4th grader to take bath (three nights a week), get 4th grader to bed by 9:30.
    The whole extracurricular/mandatory sports thing interferes a lot with that optimal schedule, but that’s the ideal.
    “My guess is many UMC parents would blanch if they were told that students would study for tests at school, with their peers and the same access to resources, and then college would be determined on the test results of that test.”
    You don’t think there would be prep books that could be purchased and studied at home? With SAT math (if things are at all the way they used to be), it’s just a matter of grinding away at it. To a certain extent, the more time you spend, the better you get.

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  22. My grade 1 daughter has similar homework to Amy P’s son – daily spelling quiz words, math worksheets (place value is not the easiest concept to grasp at this age!), and two readers each day. I agree – kids this age will need supervision to complete the work. We end up being home tutors!
    One of the benefits of helping her with her homework for me is feeling more a part of her day-to-day school life. Although I’ll never do it, I see the benefits of homeschooling. It’s built a new part of our relationship.
    y81 – My parents both helped me with my homework and did what in hindsight were enriching activities, especially considering that they were high school graduate immigrants. My mom was a SAHM and my dad had a blue collar job that allowed him to be home by 5pm. Hence both had time to spend with my on homework.
    But I certainly did not have the amount of homework that my daughter does now in grade 1. I believe it’s part of the pushing down of academics as well.

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  23. My kids are in a private, progressive school, and I do not have the issues being described here; there was basically no homework in 1st grade. There were couple of longer term projects, for which we were given lots of warning, but could still be done in an afternoon, and for which my children were perfectly capable of making the decisions about what went into the project. In second grade, the homework packet takes about 1 hour of work a week. We do have to supervise our 2nd grader (in the form of making sure that he has a set time to do it).
    Our 5th grader has about 40 minutes of homework a night, which she mostly handles herself (i.e. we don’t really have to supervise her, and she manages her time herself.
    Reading the comments above, I guess part of the issue is what feels like 6 hours of homework. I think that our 2nd grader spends 6 hours on the projects that get sent home approximately every 6 weeks. This month’s is “ozone.” We’ve already spent a lot of time talking about ozone; he’s built a model and practiced his introductory presentation, and there’s still a poster to be made. He’ll have spent 6 hours on the project, probably, if I were keeping track. But, I don’t, because most of the work has just seemed like things he does with his free time anyway. I also don’t feel like I do any of the work (though I do have to keep poster board and his preferred glue tape around).
    So in our case, the work seems quite reasonable and not particularly tedious or onerous.

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  24. Oh, and nothing is ever graded. This bugs us sometimes. But, we live with it on the grounds that grade grubbing among 2nd graders would make us ill.

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  25. 4th grade homework is intellectually hard, but I’m happier with it than the homework in past years, which was often too heavy to spelling and handwriting. A lot of this year’s homework is just studying, which while involving a lot of mom time, puts a lot less wear and tear on our child. Our 4th grader’s fine motor skills are so-so and she used to demand a minute of rest time after every spelling word (adding insult to injury, she really didn’t need the spelling practice). Normal homework for the 4th grader is a selection of the following: spelling words, some math workbook, studying for Latin quiz, studying for Bible quiz, studying for history tests, studying for science quiz (it’s kiddie physics–I’m learning a lot!), free reading and the occasional book report. I turn over any “projects” (which are mercifully few) to my husband. I think her homework is taking a lot less out of her than in previous years, but it is time consuming when she needs to do four or five of those items every night. But, as I said, we do almost as little as possible with regard to extracurriculars.

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  26. We don’t have the studying for quizzes around here. I don’t think they have many, and that time is built into the day to practice.
    I think our teachers are pretty good at timing how much time it will take an average kid to do satisfactory work, and stay within their guidelines (10 minutes/grade/night). The three issues I see for folks in negotiating the load is 1)kids with significant extracurricular 2) kids with uneven abilities who have to spend extra time — for example with handwriting or with working memory or attention span or arithmetic skills 3) kids who can do average work in the average time but are motivated (either by themselves or their tigerish parents) to do more to do above average work.
    I think that right now (when nothing really counts and there are no grades) I’ve been able to avoid #3 (though I don’t know that my kids will). My kids are evenly skilled, so don’t struggle with #2. We do have a significant extracurricular load that requires planning (yesterday, my 5th grader left home at 7:40 AM and didn’t return until 9 PM — she was picked up from one activity to go to another, and given dinner in between). Our 2nd grader has two days where he’s gone from 7:40 AM to 7:30 PM. So we do struggle with #1 on occasion but are able to manage when we plan properly. Boy, when I write that it sounds scary. But I think they’re doing OK. Will need to double-check.
    I do know that some other teachers don’t have a good feel for how long it will take kids to complete the tasks they assign and I’ve also heard of poor coordination among subjects.

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  27. The article didn’t mention this, so maybe one of you can tell me about the data that the article is based upon.
    How has parental involvement changed over the last 50 years?
    I was under the impression that the quality of education had declined (or has it?) in general, even as parent involvement has increased.
    And no, I don’t think the two are correlated. But I think the calls for parental involvement are in response to a (perceived, at least) decline in the quality of education.

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  28. (Note I’ve only read about half the comments) I read Friedman’s article a little more sympathetically, maybe because I’m a teacher. We can’t put *everything* on the teachers–there has to be some responsibility on the parents. But I get where you’re coming from–much of that responsibility falls on the mother–and I mean I’ve been that person in our house. And just search my blog for “homework” and you can see how much I hate it and how much grief it’s caused me and my family.
    But I tell you, some schools have caught up with the idea that women work, but it’s not usually public schools. We have tons of free periods during the day, plus there are staff after school, mostly in the library, helping kids with homework or just being there. But I do agree that homework is ramped up a bit in terms of difficulty, so it’s hard, especially for low-income and/or undereducated parents. I don’t think you can say that parents should be present more and not provide some support for that. Now, especially, there have to be a ton of parents who’d love to do more with their kids but who are working two or three jobs.
    I’ll say more when I’ve read through the comments.

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  29. “How has parental involvement changed over the last 50 years?”
    It’s way up among middle-middle and upper-middle class parents. It’s funny that the golden age of the American housewife was also a time of low expectations for help with school work (and supervision generally), while our era combines high expectations with the two income model. There were more kids then, I suppose, so the high-input model would be less feasible even for upper middle class families.
    There’s a wonderful scene from the Doris Day movie Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960) where the critic/playwright father of the family (David Niven), after being told how much the public school wants from him and his wife, explains to the principal that the purpose of public school is to take children off their parents’ hands for a certain number of hours, rather than to be a drain on their time. It’s hard to imagine a current movie with a father of the same class saying that, although I can imagine a more blue collar hero saying it to this day (it would make a great Chris Rock monologue).

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  30. As I get older, I get more crotchety. With my eldest child, I was much more likely to do whatever the schools wanted me to do as a parent to support the learning. With time, and experience, I feel free to substitute common sense when the demands are not reasonable.
    @Shandra
    But I sat at curriculum night as the teacher explained, very sincerely, to the parents how to asses their kid’s reading levels using the “5 finger rule” (you tick off a finger for every word they can’t tackle with their reading strategies and if you get to 5, the book is too hard) – because “with 19 kids in the class, there is no way I can stay on top of where everyone is at, so please write in the agenda if the books are too easy or too hard” – and I was like seriously? Seriously??
    My fourth grader recently explained to me that the reading specialist at his former school outlined this rule of thumb to his class last year. As my son was reading _The Lord of the Rings_ at that particular time, he found the advice to be less than useful.
    My personal rule of thumb for reading levels is simple. If they’re able to get lost in a story, they’re fine. Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to scatter a few more challenging books into the mix brought home from the library. We don’t have enough time to build a large vocabulary by teaching each word painstakingly. We must, in my opinion, garner many words by context. If you know all of the words on a page, you won’t encounter any new words.
    Many of the modern early readers supposedly carefully leveled at the limited vocabularies of early elementary school are boring. It’s as if they’re designed to discourage the idea that reading is fun. If you compare an elementary reader to a book written for children from earlier generations, the differences in vocabulary and sentence structure are striking.

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  31. Part of the explicitly stated goals of the project was for our family to learn how to handle projects, and it was stated as an expectation that parents would sit with the child for all the stages. Not surprising, at 6, where my son started from “I’m going to build a world-destroying robot with LASER EYES.”
    Again, in my crotchety old age, I would not be happy about this. Our public school had a habit of assigning such projects. I don’t think they’re useful, if the intent of education is to teach a child something. Let’s see.
    1) Enormous advantage is handed to families who have crafty parents, who own things such as hot glue guns and sewing machines. Or who have old projects from previous siblings, which can be dusted off and handed in. (Yes, it happened at our school.)
    2) Parents end up doing the work. This is known as “scaffolding”. (I’m being sarcastic.)
    3) It’s not a topic of the child’s choosing, thus it’s an artsy treatment of something you weren’t interested in anyways.
    4) The time spent on the project does not come from the school’s supply. This is a positive for the school–look how productive our students are! We are teaching them executive function, by assigning family projects! (sarcasm) It is a negative for the families and students, because there is no incentive for the teachers to exercise restraint.
    5) I would protest an assignment which graded students upon their mothers’ artistic skills. I would also protest a grading system which awards a A to projects which “go beyond” the assignment. That is an incentive for parents to get ever more involved in doing their children’s work. It’s a really, really bad habit to teach families. It’s more destructive than anything else.
    Now, I think you might be able to stop this trend, but it will take organization. If you were able to gather a group of parents–including fathers!!–to beard the principal in his or her office, you might force the school to set guidelines for reasonable expectations. It can’t be seen as one parent’s pet peeve. It must be presented politely, and with proof. It can’t be presented as a complaint about any one teacher. I guarantee you, though, other parents are not happy about the projects.
    A reasonable alternative to open-ended home projects would be to demand that all such projects be designed, created, and completed in school. I know of several schools which have moved to this model, due to suspicions about who was really doing the work on the projects.
    If one follows the rule of 10 minutes per grade level for homework, a first grader should do 10 minutes of homework. (http://today.duke.edu/2006/03/homework.html) I find this to be a reasonable model, which apparently finds support in some studies.
    At 10 minutes per day, a six hour project would take about a month and a half, allowing time to buy the materials, if there were no other homework assigned. A month an a half to do a project, at 10 minutes a day, would be reasonable for a first grader.
    If you don’t speak up, the projects will continue.

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  32. Jonah had six hours of homework last night. (He’s in seventh grade right now.) But that isn’t typical at this school. Most nights, it’s just 30 minutes. When we moved from a average to poor middle school to an top ranked middle school, Jonah’s homework requirement went WAY down. Why? He’s doing more learning at school, and the school is afraid of angry parents. At the old school, I had to reteach some stuff, because the teacher had killed the fun out of the topic or because it wasn’t taught at all at school. Sometimes, he got more homework, because the teachers were so insecure about the bad test scores for the school, they just kept hammering the kids with homework.
    I think that society has been coasting off of free women’s labor for generations. We have taken care of the poor, the disabled, the elderly. We have supplemented educations. We have cooked healthy dinners and packed wholesome lunches. Guess what? We can’t do it anymore!!! So, society is going to have start paying for the very stuff that they want to cut.
    Expect big fights in the future.

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  33. Like Cranberry, I am also crotchety. I hate any kind of homework that involves the parents. I don’t have time for this. This is not to say I mind being asked about homework questions that are stumping the kids. Sometimes S has to write sentences using “key terms” from social studies, and she asks a question and we have a discussion about it. Or E doesn’t quite get what a word problem is asking and needs some help figuring it out. But projects annoy the crap out of me. Anything that means I have to take time away from the zillion things I have to do and spend one-on-one time paying attention to 4th or 7th grade homework is something I am not interested in. I don’t mind questions that can be asked while I’m doing something else.
    One day my husband and I were in the hallway outside the classroom, waiting for a parent-teacher conference, looking at some projects, and my husband was observing how much nicer some of them were than E’s. I said, “You don’t really think these kids did their own projects, do you? The parents did them.” He felt better then. 🙂 We also mentioned it to the teacher and she assured us that the grades took into account the likelihood that parents were involved.
    Btw, one thing I’ve noticed this year for S (she’s in 7th) is that she has become much more competitive about grades than she ever has been. I’m not sure how to handle this because I don’t want her to be a grade grubber, but I like the idea that she feels challenged. I think the key point is challenged to do what. I’d rather her get lower grades and challenge herself more than to figure out what the teacher wants and to make safe choices.

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  34. Thank you, thank you, thank you — for one of the best and most honest discussions on this topic that I have seen for a really long time. I have the kid with ADD who literally CANNOT sit still with mom to make a six-hour art project at the end of a long school day. If you’re interested, back when my kids were students in Fairfax County Public Schools in VA, I coined the term “Homeschooling with a transcript” to describe the situation where all of the actual teaching was “outsourced” to “Mom” (also known as “dear parents” but who are we kidding, really?), since she was regarded as a source of cheap labor with few rights to object to the situation. And I’m pretty sure that in Fairfax County, most of the KOrean dads did the silly busywork assigned by the teachers while Mom took the kids to Kumon. Just saying . .

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  35. Ramble alert . . .
    I had an interesting conversation with another mom in Youngest Raggirl’s half-day kindergarten class while we waited for dismissal. With the two elder Raggirls each getting the two K teachers, this was the one we were “hoping” for for Youngest Raggirl (both were fine, but this one was much better.)
    Anyway, the other mom was ranting for ten minutes over how she hates this teacher (the one we love), and had complained to the principal about her, and now doesn’t even want to speak to her. The crux of the issue appeared to be that the teacher had sent a note home saying the student’s handwriting was not progressing sufficiently. “I’m happy to give extra time to any of my students, but I feel that I’ve done all I can here, and can’t take the time away from the other students necessary to give her one-on-one attention.” She felt like the teacher was washing her hands of it and saying, “If you want you kid to learn how to form letter, teach her yourself.” The mom works. It’s not like the kid is flunking other areas. It’s one thing. The school should handle this.
    When we got a similar letter a few years ago saying that Eldest Raggirl in first grade was supposed to be able to answer 80 single-digit addition and subtraction problems in 5 minutes, but she was only getting 60-65, we ran out and bought flashcards, and drilled her every night until she was back on track. It didn’t occur to us to get angry at the teacher about it.
    I don’t think I have a point, except for this: Parents want their life to be the way they want it to be, and they want the school to be a perfectly fitted puzzle piece to fill in the rest. I live in a relatively ritzy school district, and many of the “working class” parents are unhappy that lots of assumptions are made about parental involvement. I also know our host Laura was unhappy with Jonah’s old (more working class) school district because the homework was often just a bunch of worksheets, and not more “thought” exercises that often require parental involvement. Since UMC/UC parents want less school for more enrichment by the SAH/part-timer mom, and working class parents want childcare and less responsibility to supplement, maybe they should be sending their kids to different schools . . . which they are . . .
    The truth is, if public schools are not set up to cater to the desires of UMC+ parents, those parents will simply send their kids to private school — or move. There’s simply no way to “lock in” parents to not give their kids more than a comparable working class kid will get.

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  36. Just on the topic of my kid’s assignment – yeah I was _not_ a fan of this one. I don’t feel like I have to be a fan of every one.
    The leveled readers bother me *way* more. I hate bad narrative. I agree the rule of 5 isn’t useful except for very beginning readers, and not even then for parents.
    I am doing my year of fundraising and mostly trying to get the lay of the land before getting too super-hot under the collar. None of this will torpedo my son’s interest yet.
    But it has been…an education.
    From when I was in schools 15 or so years ago to now the requirements of parents are very different. And it does, to me, feel like offloading and I do think it’s systemic in my area.
    Ragtime, I don’t agree that parents want school to be a perfectly fitted piece; in my experience most parents (we live in a pretty solidly middle-middle class area), especially at the start, are _very keen_ to work with the school and support their child’s learning.

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  37. I can’t get worked up about the gender issue. Even if a hypothetical world of perfect gender equality, it’s still completely wrong to expect working parents to come home at the end of the day and do the school’s job. (Or SAH parents to pick up the kids at the end of the day and do the school’s job.)
    A few years ago, I read a book written in the late 80s by a social worker involved with a poor immigrant population. One of the author’s pleas was for teachers to understand that the children’s parents were not even literate in their native language and could simply not meet the teachers’ expectations for parental involvement; if the teachers did not adjust their expectations for parents to teach, to organize, to manage homework, they were consigning these children to failure.
    I was surprised that that was an issue back then; I thought it was new, but apparently not.
    As an UMC mother, I found adding the teacher’s workload to my own a giant pain in the neck, but we dealt with it.
    Looking at the big picture, though, what kind of future will we have if the prerequisite to getting a good education is having college-educated parents with the ability and time to teach 1/3-1/2 the elementary school content at night?
    I think it boils down to the point made by the excellent blog linked upthread: it’s evidence of poor time management on the part of teachers, as well as a sense that school should be fun and inspiring and joyful, while the parents can do the hard stuff at home. Before homework is assigned, a teacher should have to 1)attest that the material was indeed thoroughly taught in the class and 2)estimate how much practice should be needed to master the skill and 3) why that practice could not be done in the class.
    If the child needs more than a tidy desk and dictionary or calculator to do the homework, it’s a teaching FAIL. If the parent has to organize and manage the project? Teaching FAIL. If the parent has to actually teach the material before the child can do the work? Teaching FAIL. If the parent has to go to Staples or the craft store for material for an art project? You guessed it, teaching FAIL.

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  38. “The crux of the issue appeared to be that the teacher had sent a note home saying the student’s handwriting was not progressing sufficiently. “I’m happy to give extra time to any of my students, but I feel that I’ve done all I can here, and can’t take the time away from the other students necessary to give her one-on-one attention.”
    Question: Is handwriting something that it’s reasonable to expect an untrained parent to be able to remediate? Kumon has a nice line of handwriting workbooks where the child traces the letters (and I’ve bought a bunch of them), but what if the child’s grip or hand strength or whatever is just wrong? I’ve seen my daughter’s work sometimes where she holds a pencil with the dexterity of a little bear cub. There was tremendous effort, and very unsatisfactory output (with lots of frustration and messy erasures and erasing through the worksheet, etc.).
    I actually think it’s kind of irresponsible for the teacher to put handwriting on the parent if the child needs real, professional help. The teacher needs to at least mention the phrase “occupational therapy.”

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  39. “If the child needs more than a tidy desk and dictionary or calculator to do the homework, it’s a teaching FAIL. If the parent has to organize and manage the project? Teaching FAIL. If the parent has to actually teach the material before the child can do the work? Teaching FAIL. If the parent has to go to Staples or the craft store for material for an art project? You guessed it, teaching FAIL.”
    Amen.
    I have a story about the new fake Singapore curriculum that our private school has been using this year. The old Singapore was totally transparent and our older child breezed through her math homework with almost no assistance–it was that clear. The new American Singapore is superficially similar, but partakes of the familiar problems of American reform math (being wordy and opaque). For instance, in the first few weeks of 1st (!!!) grade, they were asking children to write “number sentences” describing a picture. I’d be fine if they meant “write 3 + 4 = 7” but they really did mean for children to write something like “There were three ducks on the pond and then four more ducks came.” At the beginning of 1st grade, our son was a very minimal reader and writer, so this assignment was just cruel. He is a very mathy child (he took 2nd place at a recent county fair math competition), but he is super conscientious and he was lying on the floor and crying over his work, because it was just so frustrating. And it wasn’t the math (he is quite comfortable operating in two digits and doing square roots and he’s working on the 2nd grade Kumon Geometry & Measurement workbook)–it was the stupid presentation.
    We had similar emotional trauma with a technique the math worksheets use for teaching regrouping. I finally have a handle on it, but initially, I wanted to lie on the floor and cry, too. Here’s an example:
    15-7=
    You think you can just write 8, don’t you? Silly you. Nope. Break 15 into 10 and 5, then subtract the 7 from the 10, and then add the 3 to the 5. Easy! Hey–why are you crying kid?
    Once you’ve done a dozen pages or so of this (as my 6-year-old has now), it becomes second nature, but initially when he brought this home, he had no idea what to do with these problems, and neither did I.
    Homework should be for practicing stuff a kid is more or less familiar with, not introducing new material.

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  40. You guys aren’t going to believe this, but our 1st grader really does climb on his dad’s lap after dinner and says, “Daddy, give me a math problem!”
    So, under the circumstances, it really ticks me off to see him losing his joy in his math.

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  41. “15-7=
    You think you can just write 8, don’t you? Silly you. Nope. Break 15 into 10 and 5, then subtract the 7 from the 10, and then add the 3 to the 5. Easy! Hey–why are you crying kid?”
    This is making me cry.

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  42. Amy P – I cannot begin to imagine how a parent for whom English is a second language or perhaps has only a high school education could help with their child’s math homework.
    Backing up for a second, why IS there so much homework at the younger grades? And why aren’t we more in an uproar at the impact that it has on families and on our children? Are we pushing too much academic work downwards to lower grades? Are parents expecting their kids to be reading at earlier ages as some sort of party trick or testament to the school’s ability to teach?
    And where is the free time for the kids just to play and to be and to get bored? So much important learning happens during playdates and free play – social skills, negotiation (what are we going to play next), creativity, imagination.
    Finland starts their kids in school at age 7 and they still top the charts for education after high school.

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  43. “Backing up for a second, why IS there so much homework at the younger grades?”
    I think it happened like this:
    American students need to catch up with their peers around the world!> The way to do that is with a more rigorous curriculum!> But how will we know how they’re doing with that curriculum?!> Test them!> We need to do good on these tests so that they don’t close our school/fire our teachers/cut our funding!> If we’re to do good these tests we have to start prepping the kids early, in kindergarten!> There’s no way we can cover everything to get ready for these tests so we’ll have to see that the kids are doing additional work at home…

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  44. I agree with the other posters that expecting parents to provide instruction or routinely check homework for correctness is ridiculous. However, my wife has been substitute teaching and student teaching the past couple of years and I get a sense of where this comes from:
    (1.) Teachers are expected to provide active learning activities–lots of hands on stuff. If a principle comes in to observe and a teacher is explaining concepts to the class, lecture style, they are marked down. It is much more time consuming to teach in a hands on/constructivist way. You also cover less material. Since all the important assessments are standardized tests, the material must also be covered in a non-constructivist way. Cue the homework/parents.
    (2.) Children (in Brooklyn at least)are really poorly behaved. My southern upbringing no doubt biases me a bit, but the kinds of things that students say and do is really amazing. Teachers have few resources to deal with discipline issues. Even a teacher with good classroom management skills has to spend a lot of time dealing with the 5-25% of the students who are extremely disruptive. This is a shame because even in the poorest neighborhoods, at least half of the class wants to learn, but can’t because of the disruptive students. So less gets covered in school itself.

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  45. As I’ve said, very little that my kids have brought home qualifies as tedious in my book I probably do have a broader definition of not tedious than some. I think it’s fine to have to show your strategy for 15-7, on occasion and to write words to describe math. I don’t think one should have to do these things over and over again, when you’ve shown that you can translate the math into meaning and know strategies for attacking number facts (and haven’t just memorized them). But, I have told my children not to do work that seems to tedious, or to put in minimal effort. An example: a scrapbook project for Spanish. My kid, though, ended up loving that project. She liked putting her Spanish descriptions together with pictures and making it look nice. If she hadn’t, though, I would have let her slap something together that met a bare minimum.
    Of course, we don’t have grades, so none of it matters. Even if we did, we’ve had conversations of refusing to do work and taking the consequences, if it’s tedious enough. We’ll see what happens into the future, but right now, do think some of the problem is self imposed.
    Of course, my experience appears to be unusual. We’ve been told, for example, to skip the weekly homework essay, if it’s bringing the child to tears. Now, not many parents choose to do that, because it means they worry that their child isn’t keeping up with his peers.
    I do think elementary school teachers know when the work is being done by the parents — even though I don’t think that Harvard admin officers don’t seem to know when essays aren’t written by a 17 year old. The difference between the two is that very few 5 year olds can produce adult level work, while a number of 15 year olds can — just not as many as Harvard thinks.

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  46. Catfish – I hear you on the discipline. My friend switched her smart 8 year old from one private school to another because it took 15 minutes each.class for the disruptive kids to settle down before any teaching could begin. He would come home in tears because he just wanted to learn.

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  47. Ok, here’s the thing. American kids do suck on international tests. We do worse than East Asians, where kids are kept at school all day and drilled (and although this is changing in 1970s & 80s China and the USSR, kids kicked our butts at math and parents had to do minimal or no work). We also do worse than Northern Europe, where kids play a lot and have minimal homework and responsibility. If Finnish first graders can play all day and have no homework, and Chinese first graders are taught fractions and stay at school until 7, and somehow, both end up doing better than us, why the hell are we doing what we’re doing? It’s like healthcare. Somehow, we manage to have the worst of multiple systems, and we spend more than anyone and have worse outcomes.
    I think part of the problem (besides a total disregard for education in American popular culture), isn’t necessarily that we teach to tests, it’s that our tests suck. We’re so afraid of actually pushing kids and measuring them in sophisticated ways, so we do them in really shitty and counterproductive ways. I went to an International Baccalaureate high school, which has a European curriculum and one’s diploma is based on a series of comprehensive exams at the end of junior and senior year (similar to A-levels). My teachers absolutely taught to the test, as the goal was to get us to do well on the exams. However, since the tests required high level thinking and analytic skills, teaching to the test meant teaching us to think in sophisticated ways. Likewise, East Asian teachers absolutely teach to the test as well, however, the tests, esp. math and hard sciences, require being able to do really complex and difficult stuff. As a result, our grad schools in math and the hard sciences are filled mostly with foreign, esp. East Asian, students.

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  48. I talked to my 1st grader’s teacher about my math concerns and from what she said then and from the emails the class got later, I gather that the 1st grade teachers were genuinely concerned about the new textbook and other parents had complained. This is D’s teacher’s first year at our private school and the math curriculum is new, so that was probably an unfortunate combination (the school has a lot of idiosyncrasies that can be daunting for new teachers). D’s teacher said that she and her 1st grade colleague eventually realized that the book wasn’t introducing important material (i.e. subtraction) and in an email we got about a month or two in to the school year, she said that the teachers were realizing that they needed to be more careful in not sending home homework on material that had not been covered yet in class. That sounds kind of like a “duh,” but there are so many different subjects to think about, and the problematic homework probably looked harmless enough when she was putting together the homework for the week. I think the administration initially adopted the new textbook series in the hope that it would be more teacher-friendly (the real Singapore math eventually gets very hard), but from what D’s teacher was saying, with the new series the teachers are having to put a lot of work into supplementing and watching for potholes.
    On the bright side, after a couple years of being in a holding pattern, D’s reading and writing have shot ahead. Good thing, too–he’s going to need it for his math.
    I think my 4th grader is doing fine with the 4th grade math textbook in the series.
    Here’s the series with the bad 1st grade textbook:
    Math in Focus: Singapore Math Curriculum
    http://www.hmheducation.com/singaporemath/
    Here’s the one with the good 1st grade textbook:
    http://www.singaporemath.com/Primary_Mathematics_US_Ed_s/39.htm
    When my older child was doing the real Singapore, I barely needed to think about her math at all.

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  49. Question: Is handwriting something that it’s reasonable to expect an untrained parent to be able to remediate? Kumon has a nice line of handwriting workbooks where the child traces the letters (and I’ve bought a bunch of them), but what if the child’s grip or hand strength or whatever is just wrong?
    Amy — I was oversimplifying to shorten an already too-long post. The issue was, in fact, hand strength. I never knew this was even a possible issue. I don’t know what the proper pedagogical steps are to rectify poor hand strength. But the K teacher was saying, “Your kid’s handwriting won’t improve until this gets fixed, and we’re not going to be spending class time on hand strengthening exercises. I’m happy to train you on what you need to do at home to improve her hand strength,” and the mother was saying, “You’re the teacher, this is school. Do whatever it takes to get my kid on track. Don’t tell me I’ve got to fix it.”
    I don’t know what the answer “should” be in these situations, of if there is a single right answer, but in our district the elementary kids are not divided up by ability (no “gifted” classes) and if you’re not on track, you either work with it at home to improve, or you get sent to a “remedial” teacher during class time. (But there is no remedial Kindergarten teacher, so any problem not fixed now won’t get addressed until next year.) For the older kids, many beg their moms and dads to drill them at home or hire tutors to avoid the offer/”threat” of being pulled out of regular class for “extra help” and get the “poor student” tag.

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  50. “(But there is no remedial Kindergarten teacher, so any problem not fixed now won’t get addressed until next year.)”
    That’s a problem, right there. I bet that woman’s daughter isn’t the only child in that class with handwriting issues.
    I was this close to signing our current 4th grader up for a handwriting camp this past summer (it was cancelled), but I still wonder about the efficacy of a lot of therapy programs, because they often seem just this side of voodoo. We did have a very effective home therapy program when we realized (in 2nd grade?) that our daughter was having a lot of difficulty with buttons and zippers and belts. We (or my husband, mainly) did step-by-step instruction with her so that she’d understand how to get the button in and out of the buttonhole (it’s surprisingly challenging) and then we’d work with her with a stopwatch to get her to improve her times. That was very effective. I wonder about “hand strength” though, as a concept. It seems pretty nebulous (unless you’ve actually got some sort of machine to measure strength), and I wonder if the teacher herself is qualified to instruct the mom in how to improve hand strength. It might be a case of the blind leading the blind, with valuable time being lost.
    Any thoughts, more experienced people?

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  51. Hand strength is something that should be addressed in kindergarten by a learning specialist – it is an OT issue. One of my daughter’s classmates had weak hands and it was interfering with learning to write. She spent some time playing regularly with playdough as a way to strengthen her grip.
    My point being, it’s a learning specialist thing to address once the teacher has recognized it.
    Amy P – the buttonhole teaching reminds me of how many things that we adults take for granted. We know how to do it and can’t remember not knowing so how hard can it be? But if a child is not visual or not coordinated or can’t easily translate verbal instructions into actions, breaking it down into smaller steps would be required.

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  52. “Hand strength is something that should be addressed in kindergarten by a learning specialist – it is an OT issue.”
    Very interesting.

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  53. Let me translate the handwriting problem. The teacher is saying that the child needs OT, like Sandra says. She does not work one on one with any student. If a child needs one on one help with anything, then that’s when the special ed teachers/therapists get involved. The teacher won’t suggest OT help on her own, because it costs the district money. So, she’s signaling to the parent to either hire an OT professional and pay for it out of pocket on their own. If the parent won’t do that or can’t do that, then the parent has to put in a formal request with the principal for those services. If the principal says no, then the parent has to get an outside evaluator to write a formal report that the child has weak hands or whatever. This may force the district to pay for the OT. If not, then a lawyer must be hired. It is much cheaper/easier to hire an outside professional.
    Good handwriting is very, very important. Middle school teachers often grade solely based on handwriting. This problem must be dealt with before 3rd grade, when habits become too ingrained to change.

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  54. Haven’t read all the comments, but: while I generally admire and agree with Friedman, I thought that was 1) classist, 2) behind the times and 3) not the whole answer. My kids are in public school and we do most to all of what he prescribes. Even if every parent did that, though, the kids’ school would still be underfunded, with class sizes that are just that much too big, and with such emphasis on standardized testing that everything else gets short shrift. And they’re in Montessori school, where the teachers are cheery and mostly motivated, the instruction is individualized, and the teachers and administration do what they can to protect the non-testing parts of the curriculum.
    Yes, there are parents who could be doing more, but they’re not the whole answer to the problem by a long shot.

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  55. “So, she’s signaling to the parent to either hire an OT professional and pay for it out of pocket on their own.”
    So it’s like Mr. Incredible’s coded instructions to the little old lady filing an insurance claim? That would have gone over my head. Actually, now that I think of it, it did.
    When C (the 4th grader) was in pre-K, her teacher told me to have her work with Playdoh to strengthen her hands. At the time (being the merest babe in the woods), that went right over my head. If I thought much of anything at the time, it was probably something like, “She plays with Playdoh at home, so we’re covered. Great!” Oops.
    In later years, I had quite a few discussions with teachers about handwriting issues, but somehow (despite doing lots of other types of therapy), we never got around to doing occupational therapy. That sounds kind of negligent, but I think her handwriting is probably around 50-80% remediated at this point. She’s done dozens and dozens of pages of Kumon handwriting workbooks (she’s been working on a new cursive one over Thanksgiving) over the past few years. At this point, while I have some concerns about her handwriting form and speed, her output doesn’t look bad at all. (I am, however, eagerly awaiting the day when the school switches over to allowing typed compositions.)
    While it may be premature to declare victory on this front, I have to mention that another important ingredient to her accidental success has probably been crafts. We’ve bought her weaving kits and sewing kits and an embroidery kit and a calligraphy kit and a balloon animal kit and put her in several machine sewing classes over the summer and she’s been hand sewing pillows all Thanksgiving break. On reflection, all of that may have achieved a lot more for her than just swelling the family’s carbon footprint.

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  56. Here’s a small, accidental evil conservative touch–C has bought herself quite a few of the craft kits and supplies that I mentioned (often with money earned from doing the Kumon handwriting workbooks for 25 cents a page). That has probably contributed quite a bit to her diligence in using and benefiting from the kits. There’s been a lot of anticipation in saving up for the kits and then she works with them for hours.
    Now that I think of it, if I were running a school token-system store, I’d make sure to stock it with that sort of item.
    (I have a similar story of unorthodox success with regard to physical therapy. C made progress in official physical therapy, but she made the most progress after she graduated from the physical therapy and a grandma gave our family a Wii (the skateboarding and other balance exercise were very helpful). Since then, I hear that the Wii has been incorporated into standard physical therapy practice.)

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  57. Shandra- I am surprised by what your child’s teacher said to parents. Even if she wants to get your feedback about the books she is assigning, there’s a much better way than saying, “I can’t keep up with all these kids!” I worked as a public school teacher for a decade at the 7-12 level. It would be unwise to announce that I’m overwhelmed to the parents of the community, (even if I do feel overwhelmed). You can contact the parents that you need to on an individual basis to ask questions. I liked your link- that math teacher is right about that kind of “practice what you learned” homework. Having said that, aside from being a teacher, I’ve been a homework tutor for kids, usually 9th graders, who can’t handle their new workloads and both of their parents are working. For those who can afford it for that crucial transition year, this is one solution- especially because when you’re not family, the teens are more open-minded.
    In my own situation, my husband is working, but we will need a second income eventually to keep living here. (We live in my hometown in northern NJ.) Managing a home mostly on my own, (he works very late) and working full-time is absolutely daunting… Hopefully I can get more tutoring gigs and help delay the inevitable. But I’m sure, as other working Moms have done, I’ll have to figure out what works for us… (Mess? what mess? dinner? what dinner?)-Tanya
    PS: can anyone recommend a good way to get tutoring gigs? 😉

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  58. Tanya – you’ve got to get into the private school circle. Elizabeth Morrow or saddle river day. e-mail me your town and your resume. I know people.

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  59. Amy P, I love hearing about the vicarious successes with the craft kits and the wii. Just great. And the quarter a page us a good incentive once gold stars or scratch and sniff stickers are outgrown!
    Finally, hearing you describe the play dough recommendation going over your head (and you are smart, educated, not ESL) reminded me to listen at a few different levels and ask lots of clarification questions at my daughter’s parent/teacher conferences.
    I can only imagine all the kids who fell through the cracks in the “olden” days before special Ed and OT. The days when if kids weren’t progressing, they were seen as lazy or not trying hard enough.

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  60. As a former teacher and current homeschooler I’m really not sure why early elementary students need homework other than some drill (spelling words, math facts). Even as the students get older homework shouldn’t take hours of time in the evening, as the students eventually reach cognitive overload and receive very little actual benefit beyond having completed so many assignments or filled out so many worksheets.
    I think part of the problem is a failure in educational philosophy which allows parents and teachers (because you see this in homeschooling circles too) to replace actual understanding of the material and ability to use concepts learned to understand new concepts with the idea that “Johnny has completed the workbook so he must have learned the material.”
    If your educational philosophy basically boils down to “tick off 12 grades and go to college because everyone does” then completing lots of homework for its own sake is reasonable, since it is volume of work that counts not actual learning.
    If however you believe that education is supposed to give the student the life skills and reasoning skills to continue to learn and apply knowledge throughout life whether they attend college or not then homework will only be useful if it enhances the students ability to reason and analyze.
    The same idea applies to testing (and I agree with B.I. that our tests are poor).

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  61. “Amy P, I love hearing about the vicarious successes with the craft kits and the wii. Just great. And the quarter a page us a good incentive once gold stars or scratch and sniff stickers are outgrown!”
    Thanks, Sandra!
    When I realized what was happening with the Wii, it was like discovering America. I eventually called C’s physical therapy office to share my discover, by which time the therapy office had independently gotten a bunch of Wii sets, had done some training, and were incorporating it into their therapy practice.
    Some time after I instituted the cash system (25 cents per page of completed and corrected Kumon workbook), I learned from my mother-in-law (a practicing psychologist) that food rewards and money rewards are traditionally a big no-no in psychology (and I can totally see why with food). So what I’ve been doing is not by the book. But it has worked. 1) C does the work. 2) She always knows how she can make money, so I don’t get pestered with gimmes. 3) The kids buy almost all of their Scotch tape, construction paper and most other art supplies with their own money. This has ended the wasteful craft supply carnage that used to litter my living room with barely used (but now unusable) construction paper and big sticky rolls of wadded up tape. 4) C’s purchases are now almost all things that she genuinely enjoys, rather than impulsive mistakes. When you’re saving up for a $10 item 25 cents at a time, there is a lot of time for second thoughts.
    “Finally, hearing you describe the play dough recommendation going over your head (and you are smart, educated, not ESL) reminded me to listen at a few different levels and ask lots of clarification questions at my daughter’s parent/teacher conferences.”
    These days, a teacher could say something like, watch this youtube video and do that 10 minutes a day for six weeks.
    Then again, as an amateur, how do know that what you’re doing is working, and how do you know when you’re done? Plus, as an untrained civilian, how do keep from boring the socks off your kid and touching off a rebellion? I’m starting to get the feeling that C is just about done with handwriting, but I only see that in retrospect, and it really only dawned on me while I was writing here.
    (Please, nobody take anything I’ve written to suggest just blowing off your kid’s teacher if they suggest doing something.)
    It occurs to me that the marriage advice people often say that a marriage can’t just be 50/50, but 100/100–both parties have to be giving it their best. I wonder if home and school aren’t similar in their relationship with each other.

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  62. Brill paints PS 149 in an unflattering light, and I won’t go into depth here on the debate over whether his portrait is accurate and fair or not. What I will say is that visiting only public schools co-located with the new generation of charters would bias any reporter against traditional public schools. Why? More successful neighborhood schools are better able to resist co-location with charters, both because they tend to be oversubscribed–more parents want to enroll their kids in these schools than there are seats available, meaning there aren’t empty classrooms around for charters to use–and because successful schools also tend to have more politically active and connected parents, teachers, and administrators, who are able to lobby against co-locations.

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  63. Let me translate the handwriting problem. The teacher is saying that the child needs OT . . . The teacher won’t suggest OT help on her own, because it costs the district money. So, she’s signaling to the parent to either hire an OT professional and pay for it out of pocket on their own.
    That’s probably right, although I wonder how formal the thought process is. I am imagining if this was my kid, and I’m thinking that the process would have been: Teacher says there’s a hand strength problem; discussion how to solve hand-strength problem; me in the kitchen playing Play-Doh with Youngest Raggirl every night for a month or two; me checking back in to see if the hand-strength problem has improved . . . Is this a “serious” problem? Maybe so. Is this an “easy” problem to solve? Maybe so, based on our household Play-Doh budget. I think I’d want to see if we could solve it in-house before “escalating” to an OT profession. Maybe that’s naive of me.

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  64. What if Youngest Raggirl gets really fed up with Play Doh after a week (or ten minutes) and doesn’t want to play with it any more?

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  65. Well, there are always issues. Maybe we end up needing to formalize the help. What I’m talking about, though, is the process and the culture of the school district. Do we jump right to “Your daughter needs special help, so we’re going to pull her out of class for 30 minutes a day,” or do you try to work on it more informally first?
    I think the culture of our school district is that the teacher tells you what your kid needs to work on, and then you go work on it. If it doesn’t work, you come back and then try something else. The parent who is currently feuding with the beloved teacher came from a different culture, and got her back up when the teacher suggested that she handle something herself.

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  66. “The parent who is currently feuding with the beloved teacher came from a different culture, and got her back up when the teacher suggested that she handle something herself.”
    I think my preferred solution would be for both home and school to put in an effort to meet the child where the child is, rather than (as in the situation you describe) both home and school pointing fingers at the other and bailing on the kid.
    I wonder if the teacher wouldn’t have gotten a better response if she said something like, “I’m going to be doing ABC with Zoe in class. Can you do XYZ three nights a week at home (here’s a URL explaining what to do), and then we’ll check in with each other in a month?”
    Without some extra niceties, the message the mom may be hearing from the teacher is, “Your child is defective and it’s not my problem.”

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