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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I Had Few Tests and Little Homework

I had little to no homework when I went to elementary school but managed to become a reasonably literate person able to earn a decent living at work that I thoroughly enjoyed. Before my parents forced me to attend religious instruction after school, I was free to spend from 3:00 to 6:00 P.M. each day playing with friends, either in the neighborhood school yards or in a wonderful after school center in my elementary school supervised by Mr. Kraft, a fifth grade teacher at our school who kept us all in line without almost never having to even raise his voice. Our respect for him was all that was necessary to keep our mischievous natures in check.

Evenings were spent over family dinners that began each evening with listening to the 6 o’clock news on the radio. After the news, family talk occupied 45 minutes or so of leisurely eating. With television, after dinner we all moved to the living room where the one TV set was installed which we watched together, engaging in conversation all the while.

School was seen by my parents as my job to be conducted largely during school hours. Today’s elementary students do more homework than I had in high school. They spend their afternoons at lessons of one kind or another and endure enough homework that it’s a wonder how any of them come to enjoy learning, their days being so over-loaded with academic tasks. Ironically, they are pushed by their parents into a rat race to build resumes to qualify for some elite college, a frenetic piling up of organized activities that supersedes the cultivation of the interests that make a college education worthwhile.

Somehow, my teachers used our school hours together to teach me to read efficiently, to do basic mathematics, some history and science, music, arts and crafts, phys ed and an appreciation of citizenship, even teaching us Roberts Rules of Order and arranging meetings for us to participate in that required them. For a few pennies a day, from second or third grade on, we bought the New York Times or Herald Tribune, and received lesson in how to read them, even on the subway. We discussed articles from those papers every day. When President Eisenhower was inaugurated, school work stopped as we listened to his first speech as president. While there were little quizzes from time to time, I recall no instance of being drilled for any test. There were standardized tests from time to time, but I never had the sense that they were determinative of anything important to me. I don’t recall a single kid being upset by them. We never knew when they were coming, never knew what was done with the results. No big deal. Looking back, it seems to me that much of my early school experiences were designed to help us explore our world and our place in it.

Somehow without being burdened by school, without everything being organized around some examination, I managed to get educated and to acquire the skills to enter and succeed in college, going on to a tour in the Peace Corps in Ghana, a career in education with a parallel one in public sector union work. I believe I received an education far superior to the one the children in our school district are getting. Somehow, with little researched based knowledge of child development, my teachers fashioned an infinitely more appropriate learning environment than our teacher’s today are able to provide, my colleagues increasingly being forced to do things they deem inappropriate and in many cases detrimental to the children in their charge. Tests and homework were not confused with rigor, and learning was respected for its own sake and not an economic instrument.

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Kid Deserve Time to Eat and Relax

As I do most mornings, I check on the Long Island Opt-Out Facebook page to see what members are up to. This group and its leader Jeanette Deutermann were responsible for organizing probably the largest boycott of state high stakes tests in the nation last year. In my district, Plainview-Old Bethpage some 20 percent of the kids skipped the exams.

This morning there was a post about how some districts are cutting lunch periods short and skipping phys ed in elementary schools to get more test prep in. A parent from my district reported that her child often returns from school with her snack which she says she didn’t have time to eat because students had a “working snack” period, and she didn’t feel she had enough time to finish the assignment and eat.

In our high school students are made to feel guilty if they take an unassigned lunch period. A publicity driven superintendent of schools hungry for the notoriety provided Newsweek or other pop-culture vehicles who rate schools in part on how many kids take AP classes. Teachers who know that in one way or another they will be judged on their test scores pile on the homework to the point where anyone who care to know realizes that even if high achieving high school students do homework until past midnight, they still need to get to school early to have time to grab what they couldn’t possibly finish from someone who has it. Those with better organizing skills, arrange for a division of labor on the assignments with a group share in the morning. While some lament the dishonesty in all of this, the greatest dishonesty is subjecting young people to a kind punishingly long day, more arduous than most of their college days will be, and more about endurance than education. If we can’t tell that something is seriously wrong when even little kids report that they don’t have time to eat and relax, then we have abdicated our responsibility to care for our young.

What a sorry state of affairs when there needs to be a rebellion to ensure that every child has 4o0 minutes or so to eat and talk with friends.

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