January 24, 2005

HERE WE GO AGAIN


The head who banned homework
(Amelia Hill, The Observer, January 23rd, 2005)

Spiritualists believe the village of Marlborough, in Wiltshire, lies at the heart of the modern-day crop circle phenomenon. Last week, however, a local headmaster achieved something even more mystical: he made homework disappear.

Had Dr Patrick Hazlewood produced proof that little green men really do come to Swindon to make pretty rings in the landscape, he would have provoked less outrage. After what he had considered to be a perfectly amicable parents' evening during which he explained why he was scrapping traditional homework for Year Seven pupils, the world came crashing through his gates, accusing him of wrecking education and wasting taxpayers' money. [...]

'Traditional homework is boring, irrelevant and all too often the source of family conflict,' he says, crossing his legs at the ankles and propelling himself forward by jutting out his knees in opposite directions like a camping stool. 'I have spent the last four years re-engineering our school's curriculum for the 21st century and one thing I have become very much aware of is that homework is a 20th-century concept whose time has long gone.

'Pupils should not be sponging ideas off their teachers: they should be taught to have their own ideas'.

St John's has been at the forefront of radical educational change since becoming one of the first schools to test a futuristic project by the Royal Society for the Arts that holds the point of school is not to acquire subject knowledge but to encourage pupils to 'love learning for its own sake'.

The no-homework plan is Hazlewood's latest step in this project, seeing his Year Seven pupils (11- and 12-year-olds) encouraged to think around long-term projects at home instead of being asked to complete set tasks.

As he talks, Hazlewood creates his own crop circle shapes in the air: a ring drawn with both hands represents his school's ethos; fluttering fingers sweeping up diagonally from his heart to his head represents progress. Only 'homework' seems to have no accompanying gesture: the mere mention of the issue sends his hands flopping down on to his knees. 'In a traditional classroom, you might get the correct answer but you never get the deep and critical thinking that is the hallmark of a proper education,' he says.

One of the more bizarre facets of post-modern democracy is that just about everyone is convinced he/she is qualified for two tasks. The first is to run the country and the second is to craft the ideal educational system. The childless tend to see themselves as particularly adept at the latter. As comic as this may be, it is probably just as well because heaven help the poor child who is caught defenseless in the never-ending ideological wars and experimentation that animates professional educators and the huge bureaucracies that oversee them.

Dr Hazlewood may think he is cutting-edge, but this is all old hat. Since Bertrand Russell’s On Education in 1926, progressive educators by the thousands have promoted the quirky idea that creative and profound thoughts can emanate from empty minds and that children should only be made to learn as long as they are having fun. Of course, the “deep and critical thinking” they seek to promote usually results in left-wing views and a precocious chippiness towards history and traditional culture. A typical product of this madness is the unpleasant youngster who has strong and defiant views on the importance of the UN, but is completely clueless about the histories and politics of the countries that comprise it.

Homework is simply an extension of the number of hours dedicated to education. Too much, too early can certainly grind down some students, but that fact has no bearing on the screamingly obvious fact that success, excellence and the sublime enjoyment of culture are all functions of work and effort, not fun and emotional contentment. It is amazing and alarming that so many in the modern West have come to believe otherwise and see study as a cruel impediment to learning.

Posted by Peter Burnet at January 24, 2005 7:10 AM
Comments

It's amazing that someone can become a PhD while possessing no ability to intuit the screamingly obvious.

Check that. It should be amazing ...

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at January 24, 2005 7:20 AM

As a parent of a public high school kid who gets virtually no homework, takes only scantron tests and takes open book scantron semester finals, I find myself, finally, left to myself to get the kid educated during evening hours; apparently the teachers unions think PlayStation will get him educated, or they want to keep him ignorant so he'll become a Democrat.

Posted by: Palmcroft at January 24, 2005 7:33 AM

Jeff,

My parents, who were both public school teachers of over 30+ years experience and had the maximum credentials on the pay scale, assured me many years ago that there really is only one education course, they just change the number. If PhDs and EdDs in education were merely handed out as prizes in Cracker Jack boxes, the results would be no different from what we have now.

Palmcroft,

The unions don't make those decisions. They are made by administrators responding to school boards elected by the public. The public wants kids to get degrees but not have to work to get them, and certainly doesn't care if the little snotnoses actually learn anything. Any attempt to introduce academic rigor of even the most minimal sort in a public school will have the parents screaming like banshees with toothaches.

Posted by: Bart at January 24, 2005 8:23 AM

Bart: There probably is a small percentage of parents who, as you imply, don't want their kids challenged, but my experience is that most parents are pretty indifferent to whatever happens at school as long as their kid isn't kicked-out.

I don't think it's a coincidence that scantron tests require zero work to grade and the absence of homework is certainly easier on the teachers than daily homework assignments.

Posted by: JimGooding at January 24, 2005 8:31 AM

Bart: What you left out of your equation is that in most cities and towns the teachers union is the only organization that cares about school board elections and can reliably deliver volunteers and votes. The only exception is when the religious right gets involved and decides to take over the school committee. They usually win relatively easily, but then get ridiculed by the press, slapped down by the courts and, over time, coopted by the administration and the teachers.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 24, 2005 9:59 AM

Jim,

Introduce the kind of rigor in an American algebra class that is commonplace in a French algebra class and watch the fur fly. The pressure to give all kids high grades whether they deserve them or not is quite intense.

Scantron tests are nationally marketed and provide a school with a means of determining if all their 'students' are meeting whatever standard is the flavor of the day. Their application is not a teacher's decision.

In most towns, the school board is a political plum where politicos get to loot the school budget. While the teachers union, a small presence in most communities, has an interest, so do the people who service the schools, sell them supplies, underwrite their bonds etc.

Posted by: Bart at January 24, 2005 11:10 AM

My daughter Lois is in 6th grade, the first year of middle school here, and the first year of getting actual letter grades.

When my wife and I went to our first Parent-Teacher meeting, we were very pleased--and surprised--to hear Lois is getting an A in Math. Surprised, because she has (I'm preparing for the NOW Though Police as I type this) an all too typical feminine reaction when faced with math: the vapors.

In a previous life, I was a military instructor pilot; among other skills that came along with the territory was the learned ability to read upside down nearly as well as the regular way.

Therefore, I could very quickly scan the class gradesheet, despite sitting on the other side of the table. And just as quickly learned every student is getting an A. And, what's more, Lois's A is close to the lowest in the class. Without my updside down reading skill, I would have an entirely different, and incorrect, impression of my daughter's math performance.

[Pause to get throbbing forehead vein under control]

If I don't see more realistic grading at the next P-T meeting, the Principal and I are going to have a discussion.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at January 24, 2005 12:16 PM

Jeff,

You are to be congratulated for your concern about what your daughter is learning.

Math is a little weird though. It is far from impossible for every kid in the class to master the material so thoroughly that all deserve A's. It is also far from inconceivable that all the kids should fail to learn the material thus earning F's. In a freshman calculus class at a quality state university, you will fail between 25-30% and you will give A's to about 20%, that's just the way the numbers fall over time.

The question is whether your daughter learned anything not what grade she got. If the requirements were little more than finger-painting you and especially her got shortchanged, and you should complain. It is easy to know what 6th graders should be learning in math class and you should make your comparison to what is going on accordingly.

The fact that she got A's but didn't like math isn't important. It is our ability to succeed at stuff we hate that shows our maturity.

Posted by: Bart at January 24, 2005 5:04 PM

Bart,
Obviously you have never had to deal with the teacher's union in NYC. This place has fewer than 35% of the employees as teachers; in fact, there are more administrators than there are teachers. The teacher's union holds the city hostage ever contract time. They send notices home with the kids to inflame the parents about the subject. They have even tried to get the kids to picket the city to get their way with the contract. The result is the teacher's union gets its contract and then explains its failure to teach the kids as being that they need more money. They are even now in court trying to force the city and state to give the benighted city education establishment even more money to "improve" the education of the kids. Right now the city spends almost $11,000 per student and that to them is not enough. They want an addition $2000 per student to start. Then when they fail again in their job, they will claim that if they just had a little more money they would succeed. I have lived here off and on for over 35 years and it is still the same story. I think if we could just get rid of a lot of the administrators and make them revert to teaching we might stand a chance. Pending that I would like to get rid of the union.

Posted by: dick at January 24, 2005 8:01 PM

Dick,

My parents were teachers in NYC for over 30 years each and my dad was one of the UFT negotiating team during the Lindsay Administration. Over a 3 day weekend in Vegas, I've probably forgotten more about teachers unions than you'll ever know.

The administrators are a different union from the teachers. The breakdown of UFT members in teaching and not is roughly 2/3-1/3, not 35-65 as you seem to believe.

There are tons of problems with the city schools but almost all of them are the product of local district nonsense and the politicos at 110 Livingston Street. If per pupil expenditure is $11000 and there are 20 kids in a class, and the teachers are making a median of $60000, what is happening to the remaining $160,000. Once you answer that question, you will go a long way to solving the problem.

The answer is that the City BOE bureaucracy has been a plum for hack politicians forever. There are tons of no-show jobs and tons of no-work jobs and tons of bureaucrats talking to other bureaucrats. The procurement system is a nightmare of corruption, there are only 2 companies that build schools and one wins all the contracts in Manhattan and the Bronx while the other wins all the contracts in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. If a third company tried to enter, they would have their legs broken. The BOE buys school supplies from designated politically-connected providers who cause it to pay twice what Staples would charge and probably 3 times what you could get much of them for at Costco or Sam's Club. If a school were to purchase supplies outside the system, the local district or 110 Livingston Street would fire everyone involved.

School districts in Bergen County NJ have a per pupil expenditure of $14000 and in Nassau and Westchester that number is nearly $20000.

Posted by: Bart at January 25, 2005 7:24 AM

Bart:

That grading scale reminded me of Lake Wobegon: all the kids are above average. The fact that I could have walked out of there thinking my daughter was an actual A student in Math, instead of what any rational person would consider a C student means the grading system in use is worse than useless.

It is actually harmful, because providing a mistaken impression of performance eliminates the feedback grades are supposed to provide, and could have, absent my inverted reading skills, prevented me focussing more effort on the basics.

Which she has in sufficient quantity; it is the vapors we have to get over.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at January 25, 2005 7:27 AM

Jeff,

I know exactly what you mean. The point I was making is that there is an objective standard in math at some point. 'Right' answers matter. If you were to take the final exam for first semester Freshman calc which is given at Rutgers or Chapel Hill or Iowa State and give it to the kids at MIT or Caltech, it is likely that virtually every kid would get an A.

You are an intelligent, interested and aware person who takes what happens in school seriously so you are certainly capable of determining whether your daughter is learning anything or whether the teacher is giving what my dad likes to call 'the illusion of education.' The whole 'self-esteem' business is truly dangerous. If we reward every kid for minimal or phony achievement it is like not rewarding anyone. Then, when those kids are out in the real world or in college, where demands are made of them, they are completely unprepared.

Don't get me wrong. There is no shortage of mountebankery in the teaching business, as in any other. If your kid is stuck with a loser, complain to the principal, and if you get no redress, you may have to supplement things yourself. Someone who just lets every kid fly through with nothing is doing them no favors, merely avoiding any rocking of the boat, putting in time and waiting for the pension to kick in. There is also no shortage of 'burnout' cases in the teaching profession because of all the crap they have to put up with.

Posted by: Bart at January 25, 2005 9:30 AM

Bart:

Thanks for those words. I have used the Math class as an example, but the grading in the others is scarcely different.

In this middle school--which is far better than most--everyone is well above average.

Time to rock a boat?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at January 26, 2005 7:27 AM
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