Forced to Choose Between Loves

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

You wondered whether people involved in public high schools had experienced forced choices between sports and other activities.

Remember the marching-band issue -- the mandatory marching-band issue? I was one of the original parents of Concerned Band Parents in Fairfax County, and we corresponded with you a number of times about this topic.

At the time, my two oldest sons were in the band and played hockey (my third child, a fourth-grader, does both now). Ice hockey is not an official school sport and conflicts mightily with marching-band requirements. My oldest, an eighth-grader, was basically told he had to choose hockey or band for ninth grade. Which do you think he chose? He did not continue with the band.

However, at the time, my sixth-grader did continue band through eighth grade at Walt Whitman High School. For a number of reasons, we decided that a smaller school environment was better for him, and so he is a freshman at Bishop Ireton, even though we are not Catholic. Not only is he still in the band playing percussion (no marching band there), he was on the school's hockey team and recreational league hockey team, and is on the varsity tennis team. If he had gone to Mount Vernon or West Potomac high schools, he would have been able to participate only in the band (if he accepted the marching-band mandate) and, I suppose, tennis, assuming that he had made the team. However, hockey is his favorite sport, so I can safely say he would have dropped band because the schedules are incompatible.

So, yes, those of us involved in public high schools have seen this again and again. The really sad part is that students are being forced to choose not just among sports, but between music and sports, which is wrong. Haven't the powers that be read the studies about the incredibly positive influence that music has on the brain and the ability to learn math? Shouldn't they be finding ways to keep students in music and sports?

Barbara Steakley

Mount Vernon

I share your frustration with such rules. In my experience, they grow out of the activity adviser's and the school community's understandable pride in previous triumphs and a desire to have only the best and most committed players on the team or in the band. In my mind, this is akin to letting only top students take AP, even though other kids would find their academic skills greatly enhanced by such courses. I hope the professionals who run these activities can enlighten me on what justifies excluding students who want more than just one or two activities while they are in high school.

Dear Extra Credit:

My child will be entering kindergarten in Montgomery County in the fall. I have been to open houses at several elementary schools, and at each school I'm told that my kindergartner will get 10 to 20 minutes of homework most nights, and that this will increase by 10 minutes in each grade. Here is what one school's Web site said:

"Homework is one of the many activities in our students' total school life. It reinforces and extends practice of skills and concepts addressed instructionally. Homework is designed to collect evidence of student understanding and application of what has been taught. Students are responsible for completing their homework in a timely manner. Homework also promotes positive habits of learning in our students."

Help! I'm certain that I have read in your column about research that concludes that homework at such a young age not only does not accomplish what schools tell you it is designed to do, it in fact does the opposite: Children that young cannot be "responsible" for doing the homework, it doesn't help learning and it causes boredom and dissatisfaction with school. What can I do to eliminate homework for children in Montgomery, at least in kindergarten through second grade? Who sets homework policies? Principals, the superintendent, the school board? Is my mission doomed?

Karyn Wendelowski


The research indicates that homework in elementary school neither helps nor hurts. It is not associated with increased achievement. Nor does the research show any significant bad effects. School boards have the power to set homework policy. Some have voted for general guidelines. But most leave the details to individual schools, and principals often let individual teachers decide.

I think if you have evidence of harm, your first step should be to raise the issue at the next PTA meeting and see whether you can get other parents on your side. I suggested in a column last year that schools ban elementary school homework of the usual kind in favor of making sure each child reads with an adult -- reading something the child chooses -- at least 30 minutes to an hour each night. The guideline you quote is very common. Many parents and teachers think a little homework, even for young students, establishes good habits. I know some kindergartners who were proud to get their first homework assignments. It was proof they were big kids now. So if you demand an answer to your good question, I would say yes, your quest is doomed.

Dear Extra Credit:

In Charles County, we have a very poor calculus teacher whose students consistently get scores of 2 or below every year on the Advanced Placement exam. Does the principal reassign this guy to teach low-level math? No! Do the valedictorians and salutatorians struggle and do poorly on the AP exam? Yes.

Does this guy know the material? No. Nothing is being done to him, destroying good kids and making an absolute atrocity of the class. Many parents complain like you-know-what, and the school system and the supervisor turn a blind eye to the shenanigans in this class. It's a huge joke.

Arthur Burke

Charles County

As you say, high school principals must make sure AP teachers are meeting the high standards of those courses. In some inner-city schools, just getting students up to the 2 level (5 is tops) is a difficult job, but given the stronger preparation on average of Charles County students, you are right to expect better results. You did not name the school, but I asked Judy Estep, the county's assistant superintendent for instruction, whether she had heard from you, and she said no. If a principal does not respond to a parent's concern about an AP teacher, or any teacher, Estep is a good person to call. She said she and her staff members often work with principals to help teachers learn to handle difficult courses. She knows of many cases in which teachers such as the one you describe have been transferred from AP to a class that does not require such advanced skills.

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