I'm not getting it.
I'm not understanding the objections to schools chief Andre J. Hornsby's instructions that Prince George's County students should have homework on weekends.
I say this as someone who has had many struggles over my kids' homework. I've spent years trying to fit in the vocabulary words with the grandma visit and trying to figure out how a kid can learn to do laundry and other household chores when she is always flipping through three-ring binders filled with school papers.
And I say this as a parent whose kids have had more than their share of what I call stupid homework assignments, which are nothing more than busywork -- the cardboard box castle, the poster illustrating a scene from a book and those endless "word finds" that have kids pick out words from a maze of letters.
As a parent, I have often cursed homework. But it never occurred to me that students should not have homework.
Which is why I was puzzled by a recent article in The Washington Post reporting that many Prince George's parents were upset that Hornsby said kids need weekend homework. Parents quoted in the article said the weekends should be devoted instead to errands, sports and church.
Maybe they don't know what the research says.
One area of research has to do with the achievement gaps between white and black students. Contrary to popular belief, the gaps have not always been as wide as they are today in the United States. In fact, from the late 1960s through 1988, the gaps were narrowing very nicely, and it was possible to believe that they would close altogether. In 1988 that started to change precipitously. No one really knows why.
Ronald F. Ferguson, a Harvard University scholar, points to research indicating that in the late 1980s, a sharp decline was detected in the amount of time African American students spent reading outside of school hours. The amount of time white students spent reading did not drop significantly, according to the research.
By the way, it's not as though white kids in America are reaching stellar academic heights. Any international comparison of 17-year-olds makes U.S. students -- white, black, whatever -- look pretty pitiful. So the goal of the nation and of parents should not be simply to close the gaps between black and white students but to get everyone achieving more -- a lot more.
That is, in fact, what Hornsby was hired to do. As he said in an e-mail, "Homework is not the only answer, but it is a part of a complex puzzle . . . and will allow a system with a significant majority minority population to compete on the levels that I expect."
That is because homework is related to academic achievement. Well, let me qualify that. There isn't a lot of good research on this. But the research that exists indicates a pretty strong relationship between high-quality homework and academic achievement in the upper grades.
There's no evidence I'm aware of that indicates homework helps academic achievement in the lower grades. Students in the middle grades are somewhere in the middle, and no one is quite sure where upper, lower and middle start and end.
Even without evidence that homework helps academic achievement in the lower grades -- let's say through sixth grade -- most experts recommend that kids do some homework. That way, when students get to the upper grades, and homework does make a difference, having it won't come as a shock. Kids who have no practice managing their time and materials when they are younger have a very hard time in high school.
But there's another body of research that has to do with the importance of reading. Like any other skill, reading requires a lot of practice, and kids cannot get enough practice in school. They need to read outside of school, too. I don't want to sound melodramatic about this, but parents should understand that this is absolutely critical to their children's future.
Keith E. Stanovich, a scholar at the University of Toronto, has documented that children who are good readers read a lot and thus acquire a much more sophisticated vocabulary and knowledge of the world than children who do not read much. He calls this the "Matthew Effect," drawing on an observation from the New Testament's book of Matthew that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
I asked Stanovich what he thought of Hornsby's new edict that there should be weekend homework. He e-mailed back: "I am not privy to this superintendent's reasons for requiring it, but it strikes me that there may be other reasons to do so that go beyond learning the specific material assigned: the importance of education, the development of good work habits, the rewriting of one's view of oneself (i.e., beginning to see oneself as a learner/educated person), the time used for homework may be displacing other less helpful/healthy activities, setting an example for younger siblings, etc. And finally, of course, outside-of-school reading would go a long way toward reducing the Matthew Effect."
Which is why I have long held that the ideal homework program is:
* 10 minutes a day of math practice.
* An hour a day of reading.
* 15 minutes a day of keeping a reading journal for copying memorable words, sentences and paragraphs.
If this were the standard homework assignment, it would answer all the objections anyone could have about homework. For one thing, it is hard for it to be stupid. To make absolutely sure it's not stupid, the books and magazines kids read during that hour should be a wide mixture of genres -- science, history, biography, classic novels, science fiction, mysteries, historical fiction, and so forth. Sometimes the books should be assigned by the teachers to fit into the curriculum; other times, they should be selected through free choice.
For kids who are not good readers, the hour might seem like torture, so I'm willing to be flexible. They could cut the time a bit, or break it up into four 15-minute blocks. Some or all of that time could be devoted to parents reading to the kids. Or, if that doesn't work, there is nothing wrong with listening to a book on tape in the car or at home while following along in the book.
The reason reading to struggling readers is important is that it allows kids to expand their vocabularies and knowledge of the world while increasing their comfort with complex syntax, thus reducing the Matthew Effect. It will also get them ready for reading when they improve their decoding skills.
The beauty of my homework plan is that it's something that parents can implement no matter what the school does, with the full confidence that they are helping their children on the road to a better life.
Which is why I recommend this plan for the summer. In fact, I've decided that that is not only the best plan for my kids over the summer but also for myself. My vocabulary could use a little expansion and so could my knowledge of the world, so I'm going to buy a composition book for my reading journal and start with the top book in the stack on my nightstand.
Since this is the last Homeroom column of the school year, I can get started today. But before I do that, I want to congratulate all the high school and college graduates -- you have finished one phase of your education and are embarking on a whole new phase. Just don't forget to read.
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