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Homework: Parents' Work, Kid's Work, or School Work?

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Walking through the halls of my child's middle school the other day, I was delighted by how well we ... my child and I ... had done our ... I mean, her, recent homework assignment: creating a poster which illustrated the history of our family's origins. Compared to her classmates' work on the corridor walls, we had held our own. While some of the work had superior graphics or more extensive maps, ours was informative and well executed. I was relieved.

After all, wasn't that what homework was all about? Parents helping their kids complete an assignment to a standard that could be displayed proudly (or at least without embarrassment)? Wasn't that what the teachers wanted? Expected? Rewarded?

Or was it? Was that the point of homework? There was something disquieting about the posters on the wall and the assignment that had produced them. I was aware of my role in helping my child and I was mindful of the level of skill required to produce some of the work displayed. I thought it likely that the work on public view represented the best, or at least the most visually attractive work. I wondered what had happened to the rest: Where was it? What and who had defined the standard? Had the undisplayed work been done with, or without, adult intervention? Did it lack thought? Time taken? Money spent (on color photos and computer-generated graphics)? I knew my child was proud that her effort had had public recognition, but then, what about the children whose work was not displayed; what did they feel?

Homework began to seem a good deal more complex than it had when I strolled the corridors. I began to wonder about its purpose. Was it meant to give children practice? Was it supposed to test if children understood some new idea? Perhaps it was part of a teacher's bag of tricks, designed to alert her to some problem students might be having so she could revise her teaching strategies or repeat an explanation.

I knew from overhearing playground chat that homework--the mere existence of homework--fulfilled important parental expectations. Homework fostered the assumption that children were being kept busy--not just busy, but meaningfully engaged, perhaps even challenged. Thus, homework operated as a subtle method of accountability--a kind of code that reassured parents that something was going on, that there were "standards.'' I knew such an accountability system often resulted in the use of homework as busywork. After all, teachers had to make hard decisions: put energy into creating imaginative homework or focus on classroom instruction.

Over the years, I had observed how unimaginative, even boring, much of the homework was that my own children had been asked to do, particularly the day-to-day assignments taken from textbooks. (Perhaps this served a subtle purpose: Traditional homework allowed for classroom innovation.) It made one wish for the good old days when children were asked to memorize the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, or a poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

On the other hand, the family-history assignment represented a more complex type of homework. Assigned over a period of time, it seemed to assume prior knowledge. For, in addition to the task of gathering information on a family's past, it also required the skill of knowing how to approach a problem or a task, knowing how to marshal time and to pace oneself. I wondered whether teachers had provided adequate preparation and support for the children in order for them to be able to do the assignments on their own. My own child's experience, and those of many of her classmates, seemed to suggest they hadn't.

Furthermore, my experiences as a high school teacher confirmed what I had noticed as a parent: There were kids who could draw on considerable help from parents; there were many who could not. Most of the students in my school came to us with no idea about how to tackle what might be called the subtext of homework: How to read critically, marshal resources, search for evidence, analyze material, and synthesize ideas into a thoughtful, attractive presentation. Still fewer had experienced sitting still long enough to organize one's ideas, use resources, edit and rework a first draft, persist, ask for help when needed, do work neatly, and get it in on time--not to mention, figure out what the assignment meant for them to do in the first place or what the teacher would consider a job well done.

So, whose job was it to teach the children how to learn?

I believe this is a question of central importance, for, although the nature of parental and school responsibility may shift as children move from elementary school to junior, and then senior high, the disturbing questions raised by prevailing practice still remain. What is the role of the school in helping children complete school assignments? And what is fair to expect from the home? What happens if no one at home is able to help?

The issue is equity--equal access to support required to work through the tasks assigned.

Schools in Brunswick, N.J., have developed an exercise in which all 6th graders participate before moving on to junior high. Students are assigned a research project which must be completed in school during a scheduled project week. Quite apart from the intriguing design of this exercise for performance-based authentic assessment, the project has one critically important feature: In an attempt to level the playing field, to give everyone as fair a crack at achieving at their (not their parents') level of performance, the schools insist that no work may go home or be brought from home during the project period. In that way, the schools attempt to see what kids, not parents, can do on their own.

Now I know this isn't a perfect system. Youngsters can, and will, go home and talk to adults about their project. But at least there is a recognition on the part of the school that what they are trying to see is what kids can do on their own.

That understanding, it seems to me, is a critical first step in addressing a school's responsibility to help students learn effectively.

Ann Cook is the co-director of the Urban Academy, a New York City alternative public secondary school that is a member of the Center for Collaborative Education.

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