Homework for Parents

The New York Times has a story on a novel approach to teaching high-school English: assigning homework to parents:

So far, Mr. [Damion] Frye, an English teacher at Montclair High School, has asked the parents to read and comment on a Franz Kafka story, Section 1 of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" and a speech given by Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Their newest assignment is a poem by Saul Williams, a poet, musician and rapper who lives in Los Angeles. The ninth graders complete their assignments during class; the parents are supposed to write their responses on a blog Mr. Frye started online.

If the parents do not comply, Mr. Frye tells them, their child's grade may suffer -- a threat on which he has made good only once in the three years he has been making such assignments.

I first encountered this via an indignant post on a friends-locked LiveJournal, but my first thought was "That's a really cool idea."

My second thought was "I bet you wouldn't get away with that in a math class."

As the Times notes in passing, and as is extensively documented at various web sites like this one from Education Week and this report from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory among others, parental involvement has been shown to be a very large factor in student learning. The more involved the parents are in their child's education, the better the students do. Or, to crib from Michigan's PDF flyer on parental involvement (or the Google HTML version thereof):

Family participation in education was twice as predictive of students' academic success as family socioeconomic status. Some of the more intensive programs had effects that were 10 times greater than other factors.

To the extent that Frye's parental homework gets parents who otherwise wouldn't've taken in interest in what their kids are learning to actually get involved, this is a great idea.

Now, you can argue about how big a concern that really is for families in one of the top ten "affordable suburbs" of the New York metro area, and say that Frye is really just imposing an additional hassle on affluent suburban parents who are already doing a fine job. But then, you might be surprised at the lack of involvement on the part of people who ought to do better.

The article isn't all that specific about the length of the pieces he asks parents to read, or the length of the comments he expects. The short list given in the piece doesn't seem like all that terrible a burden, though. The official statement from the school also disputes the claim that students are punished for their parents' failure to complete the assignment, which seems to be the main source of outrage over the article. (Aside from one person who is offended by the class implications, and evidently didn't read to the second page of the article, where most of those concerns are addressed-- all of the parents do have Internet access, and Frye does make accomodations for those who don't have English as a first language, or who don't like to use computers.) I don't think he's asking anything all that unreasonable.

As I said, I think that this is a really clever idea, and I'd love to see somebody try it with a science or math class. I suspect that the "How dare he make parents do work" reaction would be a whole lot stronger if math were involved, but if you could get parents to go along, it might do some real good, particularly if the problems were chosen carefully to demonstrate the importance of science and math in modern life.


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It is certainly a clever idea, and parental involvement is crucial, so any creative idea should be welcome. However, I am not sure I am so impressed by this specific idea. The ratio of work to benefit seems a little high- I can see some dinner table discussion developing if both parent and student did similar homework, is there anything else? and as Chad notes this could work only in a very narrow range of topics.

With math and science, I would think you could involve the parents in some level of problem solving or at least data collection.

Off the top of my head: I wouldn't expect typical parents to be able to perform a student T-test, but they could at least help gather the information (say, pedestrian traffic entering through different mall entrances) that the student will analyze.

By Harry Abernathy (not verified) on 05 Oct 2007 #permalink

Yeah, I don't think you'd get away with that in math. Part of it is, to read something and comment on it, the parent just has to know how to a) read and b) write a comment. To do the math there's a crapload of other concepts that have to be learned, and at least in the NYT article there's no mention that the parents are actually being required to learn the literary concepts, whereas if they were being required to partake in their child's Algebra homework (even Algebra I, I would wager) a good number of parents would have to re-learn some forgotten math concepts to do so.

In short, in a sense, there IS more work involved if you ask the parents to do something like that with math or science.

But I do like the idea given by #2 Harry Abernathy about involving parents in smaller ways--like data collection and stuff like that.

My seventh grade algebra teacher solicited word problems from the parents of students related to the jobs they did. This had two purposes, the first getting the parents involved in education and the second pre-empting kids' questions on when would this math ever be useful in the real world.

Well, AS PRESENTED, the guy is acting if he's authority he doesn't actually have. That's bound to upset people if they are ornery, or don't feel the time is worth the investment, or just don't feel like they have time to make for this. After all "if I'm doing this, what am I paying taxes for"...

I suspect that the "AS PRESENTED" is key, here, and that the presentation in the article is somewhat exaggerated. That's certainly what the school claims, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if things were slanted a little to make it sound more interesting. I suspect that I probably corrected for that without even thinking about it, when I first read the article.

I read the article. I have nieces in NYC. I've been following the schoolwork situation among the haut bourgeois in that city for some time. Parents are already passing enough of their own work off as their children's. It isn't just college essays. The parents are doing all sorts of essays, art projects, take home tests, science projects and so on.

Do we really want to encourage this? Many children in this environment can't even distinguish their own work from that done by others for them. It's not that the children can't do the work, it's just that a 40 something college graduate with 20 years of job experience can do it better. Does it help the children learn? I doubt it. Do the children get higher grades? I'll bet they do!

Some parents probably enjoy this kind of involvement. It's like going back to replay that big high school football game again. You get all the fun, adult perspective, better skills and no real pressure. To be honest. If my school system tried this sort of thing, I'd seriously consider home schooling.

Considering I have just spent my entire Thanksgiving holiday helping my 6th grader do projects that are due on Monday, requiring parents to do homework is definitely not something I would support. My child has to be at school at 9am in the morning and doesn't get home until 4:45pm at which time he has to do more school work. We then rush through dinner because I don't get home from work until 6:30pm, when we get dinner going and finally eat if lucky by 7:00pm. The stress and pressure put on children and parents nowadays is ridiculous...and requiring parents to do homework is ludicrous. Why don't the teachers take more time in explaining assignments so that the parents CAN help their children. How about if the teachers spend more time discussing homework and assignments with the other 3 teachers that also are assigning homework, projects and tests so that our children aren't completely turned off by school.

One deals with this problem, of student and parental time on homework assignments, based on one's answer to the deeper question: "what is an educated person?"

Based on that, and assumptions about the degree of education of the parent and of the teacher, how does a given homework assignment advance the student towards being an educated person?

To get a full Teaching Credential as a public school teacher in California, exacerbated by the horrendous unfunded Federal policy of NCLB (No Child Left Behind), one must take a battery of exams, pay thousands of dollars and jump through many, many bureaucratic hoops, over a period of at least one and a half years in one of certain designated teachers' colleges.

One sub-hoop is to write and submit an essay on one's educational philosophy. Actually, you have to do this twice. The first time in the application package for the teachers' college; the second time in a course in the first quarter. It took me 4 completely different version (not re-writes, genuinely different papers) before I finally had one okayed by the professor of "Introduction to the Teaching Profession." The earlier ones were rejected as being too autobiographical (I see that you are not surprised), too Math-oriented, and too much a reply to the repellent racial-genetics words of James D. Watson. The successful essay was a survey of two millennia of answers to "what is an educated person?" and my personal answer.

There are also required essays on Philosophy of Diversity. And more, many more. Does this solve the problem? It's too soon for me to tell.