Back to school headlines – do your homework

Stories in the news like this drive me crazy: Kids have three times too much homework, study finds; what’s the cost?

It starts out:

Nothing quite stresses out students and parents about the beginning of the school year as the return to homework, which for many households means nightly battles centered around completing after-school assignments.

Now a new study may help explain some of that stress.

The study, published Wednesday in The American Journal of Family Therapy, found students in the early elementary school years are getting significantly more homework than is recommended by education leaders, in some cases nearly three times as much homework as is recommended.

I agree with questioning homework. Alfie Kohn makes the case in his book, The Homework Myth better than I ever could. (If you want to read a summary of his thoughts on homework, try this article from Principal magazine.)

So I start reading the CNN article with a personal bias towards agreeing with it, and hoping it makes good points that parents and teachers can really act on. The article says that kids are being assigned too much homework, even in kindergarten, where no homework is the recommendation of experts across the board.

However, I’m soon disappointed. First, they cite the “10 minute rule” from the National Education Association and the National Parent-Teacher Association. (10 minutes per grade level per night, starting in first grade.) However, if you click on the link, it takes you to an article on the PTA website, Hints to Help Reduce Homework Stress, which does not provide any information or research support for this rule. Poking around the sites shows a link to studies by Harris Cooper, PhD, such as this article Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement?: If So, How Much Is Best? with a sidebar summarizing his own analysis of homework research:

“The authors found that all studies, regardless of type, had design flaws. However, both within and across design types, there was generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement. Studies that reported simple homework-achievement correlations revealed evidence that a stronger correlation existed in grades 7–12 than in grades K–6 and when students, rather than parents, reported time on homework. No strong evidence was found for an association between the homework-achievement link and the outcome measure (grades as opposed to standardized tests) or the subject matter (reading as opposed to math). On the basis of these results and others, the authors suggest future research.”

While this is hardly strong evidence (especially in early grades), Alfie Kohn decimates even this, “For starters, there is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school.  For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement.  At the high school level, the correlation is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied.  Meanwhile, no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits.”

So, to me, there’s controversy about homework being worth ANY time, even the “10 minutes per grade”.

But even if you decide that some homework is a good idea, where does this “10 minute rule” come from? In her book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices that Support Diverse Needs, Cathy Vatterot says “origin unknown”. It’s just something that’s been “long endorsed” by the NEA and the PTA. So it’s a rule that’s become a rule because lots of people repeat that it’s a rule. Vatterot also provides a long and interesting discussion about the limits and contradictions found in research on homework.

But back to CNN – to their credit, they forge on to present evidence that homework doesn’t help students, that homework stress is directly related to real medical problems, and that homework discriminates against families where parents are poor, less well educated, or speak limited English.

Then comes the “what can parents do” part of the article. Instead of suggesting that parents use the evidence that homework is useless, they quote experts about “solutions” like finding a quiet spot, and encouraging your child (but with vague warnings about not helping them too much).

If that doesn’t work, parents are encouraged to communicate with their child’s teacher to “problem solve” together. Is the problem solving about getting rid of homework? No, it’s about how to get the child to do the work, perhaps in less time or with fewer tears, but to still do the work.

So how about helping parents fix the actual problem – the homework. Why not suggest that parents take on the “10 minute rule” because it’s bogus. Why not suggest that teachers push back on homework policies in their districts – isn’t this the age of differentiated instruction? Don’t we care about research? This is especially true in schools where the 10-minute rule has morphed from “no more than 10 minutes” to “10 minutes every night”.

This is what bugs me. Articles for parents are always about fixing the child, or the environment, or their own attitudes. Even when studies show that the problem is the educational practice, parents are being told the problem is them and their children.


Back to school already?

When I was a kid, back to school meant Labor Day in early September, and for most of the U.S. before the 1990s, that was true. But no more.

Data from MDR (a school data and marketing company) shows that “…roughly 25% of schools open sometime between Aug. 1 and Aug. 15 and another 25% before Aug. 31. Though every state has a number of early and late opening schools, early openings are concentrated largely in the South (AL, GA, KY, LA, MS, TN) and Midwest (IN, MO, OK, NE) along with AZ, HI, NM and roughly 45% of California’s schools. The majority of schools in MA, MI, MN, NJ, NY, OR, VA, WA and WI open after Aug 31.” (source: Anne Wujcik)

But how did this happen? CNN answers that question here: Back to school: Why August is the new September.

  • Testing: Since most standardized testing happens at a fixed date in the spring, starting earlier gives time for more test prep, and less time after the tests to “waste”. The trend to earlier openings started in the 1990’s along with No Child Left Behind.
  • Semester breaks better aligned to holidays: Starting in August means the first semester can end before the winter holidays. There can be a longer fall break in September or October, and spring breaks that fall more cleanly in mid-semester.
  • Alignment with college calendars: Colleges tend to end the year around Memorial Day.

One other reason that CNN didn’t mention is that in locations with a large immigrant population, many families go home to celebrate Christmas and need extra time for travel and traditions. In Mexico for example, the Christmas celebrations extend to January 6. Giving families an extra week off after New Year’s makes it more likely that all students will be back in school for the start of the second semester.

While it’s a shame that once again, testing is driving educational decisions, there is no magic formula for when school should begin or end. It’s changed over time in the U.S. and will likely change in the future. Here’s a fun list of school start dates around the world.

Is “Design Thinking” the new liberal arts?

Is ‘Design Thinking’ the New Liberal Arts? (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Short answer: NO

Long answer: First, I hate the fact that this article is not available publicly, because it might be interesting to actually read. And it’s totally not fair for me to critique it based simply on the headline. That out of the way, let me expand on the short answer. No, “design thinking” isn’t the new liberal arts.

How about this headline, “Is this Harvard course on Jane Austen the new liberal arts?” or “Right triangles – the new geometry?”

That’s not to say that Jane Austen and right triangles aren’t interesting things to study and students could certainly go deeper than current curriculum practices tend to do. But let’s be clear. Design thinking is a way to “schoolify” the process of design, and to focus on a narrow slice of product design.

Now – you can tell me that this school or that curriculum gets design thinking “right” and I’d probably agree. A teacher who cares about design and has agency over his or her classroom can take the process of design thinking and do amazing things. (See Design Thinking, Computational Thinking, and Making in the Classroom – Good, Bad, Worse for my thoughts on this.)

Unfortunately, a lot of design thinking goes back to school dressed up in way too much process – too much planning, too teacher-managed and teacher-directed, too focused on “the market” as a driver, too much delivering a report “about” a product, and not enough actual doing.

It’s human nature to look for the new new thing. And I heartily applaud teachers looking beyond the back of the textbook for things that engage students fully – head, heart, and hands. I suspect that the willingness to try new things as a teacher is the best indication of the thing’s actual potential as a game changer.

Hopefully this headline was followed up by a more nuanced article – it could happen!


In the face of disaster…

Last week many US and Caribbean schools, including some of our own Generation YES schools were closed while people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Our thoughts are with you at this time, and we hope that things get back to normal as quickly as possible.

In times of crisis, young people need facts of course (see Hurricane Sandy resources) and they need reassurance that the world is a good place with people who care. As schools resume, it’s never more important for educators to first be caregivers.

Mr. Rogers told stories about his own mother who would point out the helpful neighbors who appear when bad things happen. Volunteers, firefighters, doctors, utility workers – most people are helpful and generous. Disasters like this provide opportunities to find those people and learn about what they do or to even pitch in yourself.

But even more so for those directly affected, young people need to talk about their experiences and share them with others. The digital world provides new avenues for these kinds of collaboration like this one: The Natural Disaster Youth Summit Forum 2013 hosted by iEARN.

This is a year-long event with the theme: Climate Change and Disaster Reduction – timely, eh? Events, forums, sharing, activities and much more are planned for the entire year.

Another idea is to create your own digital space for student sharing, perhaps in collaboration with other educators near or far.

Read about Quakestories, a collaborative writing project for students to share their stories after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March 2011.

Kim Coffino, one of the project organizers writes, “Quakestories is a collaborative project connecting several international schools in Japan to collect and share student-created works (writing, multimedia, visual arts) about their experiences during and after the earthquake. First, all student-created works will be posted on a central website. Then, once we have a diverse collection of student work, we will select certain pieces to be published in both a paper and electronic book, with the proceeds of both going towards Tohoko relief (to help those most directly affected by the tsunami).”

And finally, don’t forget the power of play. Gerald Jones, cartoonist and author of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, says “When something troubles children, they have to play with it until it feels safer.”

Smashing, crashing, and playing at being a monster or the super-hero who saves the day can help kids whose lives have been smashed and crashed.

Be safe –


2012 election resources

The election is a national teachable moment — don’t let it go by without your students diving in!

Other lists of election 2012 resources for teaching and learning:



Hurricane Sandy resources for the classroom

Students across the US have been listening to news about Hurricane Sandy, or perhaps even experiencing it live! There is no better way to introduce subjects than to start with students’ own experience. Here are some sites from Edutopia – Eight Classroom Resources to Help Teach About Hurricane Sandy.


Research to action: 5 must read bullying research briefs

A recent post by danah boyd, social media researcher announced some new resources in the effort to combat bullying, created for the new Born This Way Foundation, created by Lady Gaga and her mother.

“The Foundation wants to create a kinder, braver world so that youth can be the change-agents that we all need them to be. For youth to be empowered, the Foundation recognizes that 1) youth need to be safe; 2) youth need to have skills; and 3) youth need to have opportunities.”

danah, along with many other notable folks, are working with the new foundation. In her post, she announced a working paper series, starting with five new resources that synthesize research for the Foundation – and help schools and communities easily get the best, accessible advice to inform their local efforts. Best of all, the foundation and these working papers emphasize that youth empowerment needs to be a main focus for these efforts. This kind of insight and commitment is admirable – this is NOT a feel-good celebrity cause for the cameras.

This working paper series offer practical, ground-level resources based on the best available research. The first five documents are:

They are looking for comments and feedback on these documents –  send them to


Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

“Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” has just been released by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The report includes recommendations such as: adopt evidence-based teaching methods; diversify and broaden pathways to STEM degrees; focus on the “underrepresented majority” (women and members of underrepresented groups now constitute approximately 70% of college students while comprising a minority of students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees.)

Check it out: