A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Homework Therapy?

Doesn’t it strike us that there is something wrong with our schools when we note that a tutoring industry worth $100 billion has sprung up to meet the needs of an overwhelmed generation of students who find it impossible to cope with the academic demands made of them without significant help? So overwhelmed are many of them that the New York Times reports the development of a new niche in the tutoring industry – homework therapy. That’s right – home work therapy sessions costing $200 to $600 for a 50 to 75 minute session.

It has seemed to me that we have confused piling work on to students as raising academic standards. We’ve created a climate in which students can never do enough. Take more courses! Only taking two AP classes? What’s wrong with you? School has become the sum total of too many adolescents’ existence. Rare are the students who find significant hours during week days to just relax, hang out with friends or play non-competitive sports for fun. Those that do carve out some space for themselves tend to be seen as lacking seriousness. You’ve got to build your resume. You’ve got to get into that top college, to get a top job and earn a top salary.

When will we realize that the existence of a burgeoning tutoring industry strongly suggests that we have unrealistic expectations of student performance? When will we see that the work we pile on young people has many of them expressing psychological symptoms that have brought into being coping strategies like homework therapy? When will we remind ourselves that children need unstructured time to play, to explore the things that bring them joy? When we do, we will put an end to the senseless hours of homework we expect of children who have already put in six or seven hours of academics in school.

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Worth Reading and Thinking About

Two articles in today’s New York Times are worthy of note for what they say about the increasing absurdity of contemporary education, both here and abroad. The first is about the broad usage of webcams in Chinese schools that enable parents, or anyone else for that matter, to observe the goings on in classrooms and to comment on what they see. While some schools in the U.S. have experimented with this technology, no place has used it to the extent that the Chinese appear to have, although there will undoubtedly be increasing pressures to do so in our schools. That pressure is generated by the unexamined notion that because we have the technical means to do something, it is probably a good idea to do so. The notorious tiger parents, for whom their children’s success in school is of paramount importance, now have the means to scrutinize their children’s performance minute by minute, all the while keeping an eye on their teachers as well. In a surveillance society, the camera sees everything. No one seems to care that that the presence of the camera profoundly changes what it records.

The other article worth thinking about is one on homework. Some elementary schools in New York City that are experimenting with no homework policies are being hit with a backlash from some parents who are demanding that worksheets and such continue to be sent home. Some less well-off parents that they cannot afford to fill the time previously taken up with homework with enriching activities for their children. Curiously, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to simply let their kids relax, go out in the street to play or watch a movie on TV. Fact – There is no evidence that doing homework in elementary school leads to greater achievement. Fact – There is ample evidence that play is an important factor in human development and that American children have less and less time for it. So, by all means, let’s do away with elementary homework, but let’s not do it in the name of some snooty concept of enrichment. The enrichment our children need is play time and down time.

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Our Kids Know!

I spent the last two afternoons interviewing high school students in Plainview and Syosset for our unions’ Berkowitz Scholarships. The scholarship is name for a psychologist who worked in the Plainview schools for over 40 years and his wife who was an elementary school teacher in Syosset. In both schools I met some of the most academically accomplished kids from both school districts.

When asked to look back on their education and reflect on how they would evaluate it, almost to a person these very thoughtful young people talked about how it seems to them to be all about tests and grades rather than on learning anything. The last candidate I met has just finished her last Advanced Placement exam, one of five she had taken this year. She spoke at some length and with a precision unusual for people her age about how much of what she was expected to know for these exams was already becoming blurry to her. I was struck by how these winners of the competition to be academic top dogs saw the competition as simply an instrument to get to college, the next competition.

What a frightful mess we have made of public education. We bandy about words like rigor, critical thinking skills, inquiry and assorted other verbal subterfuges for the stark reality of test driven intellectual drivel across the grades. Our teachers know it. Our students know it. Increasingly our parents know it. Many of our administrators know it. Yet, day after day, we facilitate the mindless competition that ironically alienates children from learning we claim we want them to experience. The mental health professional in our schools report they are seeing more and more students who are over-stressed, anxiety ridden and in many cases physically breaking down under the strain of the inappropriate expectations we have of them. Is this what we mean by college and career ready?

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