Monday, September 18, 2006

Homework Debate Part 1562

Via Kevin Drum over at Washington Monthly: Connor Clarke at the American Prospect thinks the recent debate over homework an exercise in futility. He connects the homework debate to the achievement gap.

When it succeeds, homework is, in those rare instances, the poster-child example of an educational policy that overwhelmingly advantages rich students with well-educated parents. This shouldn't come as a shock, since homework, as its name implies, is usually done in the home. That is where differences in class, education, and family structure are starkest. As Richard Rothstein details in Class and Schools, those differences are not slight: Disadvantaged parents are less likely to help their children and, when they do, their help is likely to be less valuable. Affluent children are likely to have rooms or workspaces of their own, while many underprivileged students must carve out a nook in more crowded housing. And when they do so, they aren't apt to have computers or reference books on hand to help.

The point here is not that debates about educational policy are always a bad thing. Abolishing or reforming homework might be a worthwhile project, and it will doubtlessly increase the aggregate happiness of a certain demographic. But such reforms are always doomed to have a limited effect; the developmental impact of wealth and family is simply too great to ignore. So go ahead and scrap homework. (And, while you're at it, build me a time machine back to high school.) Just make sure you get rid of economic, social, and racial inequality, too.

A couple of comments.

My complaint of homework is completely seperate from my views on improving education and the achievement gap. I do think that the same methods that would improve school for low all performing groups, would also eliminate much of the need for hours of homework, but my main concern is that homework wastes precious time in a busy busy world.

I also think that he underestimates the heredity of iq and overestimates the influence of "early social context" and cultural experiences in childrens achievement.

In the end he sums up:

But such reforms are always doomed to have a limited effect; the developmental impact of wealth and family is simply too great to ignore. So go ahead and scrap homework. (And, while you're at it, build me a time machine back to high school.) Just make sure you get rid of economic, social, and racial inequality, too.

I think this is a case of putting the egg before the chicken. To many people think that if they could eliminate social inequities that the achievement gap would fix itself. I say that if we fix/improve education first, we can reduce the achievement gap, while raising the performance of all students. This would in turn improve the SES of the currently low performaning groups. Of course it will take a generation for us to see the results, but the last 40 years of helping hand social policies haven't succeeded either. I am not a right wing conservative. I believe in a nationalized healthcare system, that people should be taxed on a progressive scale, public education, and yes I think that some forms of welfare are necessary. Unfortunately, I think there is too much wishful thinking being done by parties on both sides of the political spectrum and not enough realistic solutions.

On another note... Emily Bazelon at Slate also agrees that there is too much homework, and I bet she doesn't even have five kids.

My Kids 3rd Grade Math Book

Image from Mathematics: The Path To Math Success! by Sivler Burdett Ginn page 60.

I promised I would post an image of my 3rd graders math book. Hopefully I don't get in trouble for copyright infringment. The page is on "acting it out as a problem solving method". I suppose thats one method. On closer examination of the text book, I confess that its not as bad as it could of been. I do have some problems... it skips around from geometry to multiplication to estimations to division. There is way to much review at the beginning of the book. It also ends with one digit by two digit multiplication and division. I would think that most 3rd graders given proper instruction would be able to move beyond this by the end of the year given better instruction.

Update: I realize its hard to read the image. The problem is about three kids tossing the ball in a circle. Who has the ball after the 12th catch. The suggested solution, act it out.

Update #2: I found a great site that reviews math books. My 3rd graders book is Mathematics: The Path To Math Success! from Silver Burdett Ginn. The review is of its 2nd grade version is over here at

Overall Evaluation [3.4]
Students using this program have a reasonable chance of moderate achievement levels. On the other hand, this program is not seen as supporting high achievement levels. It is possible that a skillful teacher could overcome some of the limitations of this program and use it more effectively. The heavy reliance on models and the potential confusion in the treatment of perimeter are examples of areas where an effective teacher could improve upon the student learning supported by this program.

Thank god I already supplement my kids math skills. I would be interested in learning which books other people with elementary school kids are using.

"Crtical Thinking, Not Standardized Tests" in Context

KDeRosa has a great post up on the latest editorial “Critical Thinking, Not Standardized Tests” over at the Los Angeles Times. He does such a great job, that I am not going to even bother covering the content of the editorial…

Of course, as you may suspect, I am a master googler. Using my awesome skills, I decided to look at the background of the author who would write:

In fact, test scores (on the annual standardized state test) are like the closing prices on the stock exchange. They fluctuate for any number of reasons. A bad breakfast, a case of the jitters or skipping a line and filling in the wrong bubbles can wreak as much havoc as not knowing the difference between "abjure" and "adjure."

Of course our first instinct is to assume that he is making excuses for his students. I mean after all he does work at an elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He probably works in a failing inner city school comprised of Hispanic immigrants and poor African Americans. I am sure his school has no money for field trips or school supplies… right?

WRONG! With a bit of googling this is what I was able to find out.

Jeff Lantos actually works at Marquez Charter Elementary School in Pacific Palisades. Yes… that’s right, Pacific Palisades, enclave to the rich. Its medium house value is $1,759.500, and the average medium income is $133,000.

And of course Jeff Lantos doesn’t worry about standardize test scores. Why worry when your schools scores are well above the national and state averages. His students parents can afford to supplement the liberal education that they are being given.

Oh, I know… how do I know that he provides a liberal education. Well, it is an assumption on my part based on his biography located here at his schools website. To quote:

His teaching philosophy is to reinforce
the reading, writing and math
with as much music, art, drama and
dance as possible
. His goal is to
make the classroom a place of delight
and joy; then learning will seem an
extension of that. When learning is a
joy, everyone benefits.

Dance??? He teaches 5th grade… and he supplements math with dance! Maybe they learn algebra while doing the electric slide. Certainly sounds child-centered to me. Yes, it’s easy to ignore the basics when you are teaching privileged rich kids who take field trips to Boston and Big Bear.

Now rich people have a right to education just like everyone else. I am glad that their kids are getting an excellent education, but it’s all too easy for the spoiled teachers who instruct them to take for granted the importence of things that are a given (such as his students test scores). What would his tune be if he worked at Hyde Park Elementary School. It’s all a matter of context. I want success for all students, and I am more likely to take someone serious if they work with average or below average students.

Ironically even his successful high scoring students could probably do a lot better if they had proper instruction. Successful is relative when your in a system full of mediocrity.