Friday, September 29, 2006

Fore the Teachers

In a couple of days, I will be playing in a charity golf tournament for the teachers at Julie and Z's school. Desi will be attending the luncheon and wine tasting that are taking place in the clubhouse while Joe, John, Eric, and I (and close to 100 other golfers, I hope) are hacking our way around the course.

The whole point of all of this fun (and it is a ton of fun!) is to raise money for the professional development of our teachers. By working in a Catholic school environment, these dedicated men and women forego something like 20% in salary and benefits (and I am probably understating their true sacrifice).

So what are we do to as a community, from a social justice point of view? Well, for the past eight years we have raised money (through the golf outing and other events) to provide our teachers with opportunities to pursue graduate degrees, attend workshops, and otherwise advance themselves professionally. In the end, it is our children who benefit each and every day from being surrounded by such a motivated and qualified group of mentors.

So while I might be narrowly focused on whether my drive will make it over the hazard on #18 (of course it will!) and whether I can sink yet another birdie putt on #2 (of course I can!), the real key is the broader purpose of the day.

Thank God for our teachers!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Homework Wars

Do your kids get enough homework? Do they get too much? If homework is an issue in your household, don't worry...you are not alone. Here's where we are...

Julie is now in 6th grade, really enjoying life in the middle school wing. She has five regular teachers, and a regular boatload of homework to do each night.

For Z's part, he is finding 4th grade to be the tipping point. Before this year, homework was sporadic and pretty trivial. Now, though, it is routine and has some real substance to it.

And don't forget about Desi. As a teacher, she is on the assigning end. It turns out, however, that she gives her high schoolers very little homework. You have to understand the kinds of students she is generally in the classroom with...They wouldn't do it anyway, so why bother
assigning it?

But, in the end, we are all just foot soldiers in the larger homework wars that have been fought in an on-again, off-again way for a hundred years or more. What is the purpose of homework? Do actual assignments effectively achieve their stated purposes?

As usual, I come at questions such as these from an empirical point of view. What do the data say? Here's what one of our foremost experts on homework has to say. Since he's a professor at Duke, you can take his findings to the bank. (Let's Go Devils...clap, clap, clap-clap-clap!)

There is some evidence that students in elementary school can derive benefits from homework. But these benefits accrue only under certain circumstances. For example, test scores improve when students are given short assignments on basic skills that relate directly to the unit materials.

What about when students get to middle school and high school? A key lesson here is that more than an hour and a half of homework a night for middle schoolers is not only devoid of academic benefit, it may in fact produce negative results (e.g., turn kids off to school and learning). The same holds for high schoolers once they get beyond about two hours of homework a night.

So what are all of us in the trenches to do? Above all, we should recognize that the evidence just cited holds in the aggregate. Some teachers are undoubtedly better at crafting effective homework assignments than others. And some students can clearly benefit from homework more than others.

The lesson? There is no substitute for being involved in your child's education. The better you know your child's capabilities, and the better you know your child's teacher, the better you can serve both as a parent.

Or...when your 5th grader is up late at night working on a math sheet...you can fall back on the claim made by the American Child Health Association in 1930 (this is true!): homework is one of the "chief causes of the high death and morbidity rates from tuberculosis and heart disease among adolescents."

Try that line at your next parent-teacher conference!