Weekend Reading

1. Given Kathryn Schulz’s prodigious talent, the New Yorker’s future is bright. As frightening and superbly written as anything I’ve read in a long time. The Really Big One. Subtitle—An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when. Made me want to buy in Bend, Oregon.

2. By Emily Oster, What’s the Optimal Speed for Exercise? Last pgraph:

“If we take this research at face value, we learn a few things. First, some exercise reduces your risk of death. Second, the optimal walking/jogging exercise is light to moderate jogging. The optimal speed is between 5 and 7 mph, and if you do 25 minutes about three times a week, you’re all set. Nothing in the data suggests that running more — farther, or faster — will do more to lower your risk of death.”

3. From the Wall Street Journal, The Sane Way to Cycle Competitively.

4. Pathetic to the point of sad. From LetsRun.com, Lehigh Valley Got it Wrong: The Evidence is Conclusive: Mike Rossi—The Viral Boston Marathon Dad—Is A Marathon Cheat And Should Never Have Been On The Starting Line in Boston.

Homework Wars

French president Francois Hollande wants to ban homework. Borrowing from Slate:

Hollande suggested the take-home-study prohibition as part of his plan for education reform. The recently elected socialist party leader said “an education program is, by definition, a societal program. Work should be done at school, rather than at home.” He added that the homework ban was a matter of equality, since wealthier children have parental support at home and poor children do not.

When writing previously about teacher-parent relations, I failed to pinpoint homework as a major source of frustration and conflict. Even the GalPal and I, former public school teachers and teacher advocates, get frustrated with the constantly shifting nature of our daughter’s homework. Last year in 11th grade she spent two to four hours on homework nearly every night. This year, in 12th grade, with just a slightly less rigorous courseload, she typically has no homework.

Even though two-thirds of France opposes Hollande’s ban, he’s right that homework complicates equal educational opportunity. In schools that lack academic rigor and parental involvement, teachers start out assigning homework, overtime though, when a majority of students don’t do it, they quit assigning it. Which partly explains the achievement gap.

I’ve also observed in schools in poor communities where teachers sometimes only have one set of textbooks, meaning they can’t leave the classroom. In stark contrast, in the interest of back health and extended learning, a few of my daughters’ teachers checked out two texts per student so they could keep one at home and one in their school locker. So much for equal educational opportunity. And for equal opportunity more generally, the supposed lynchpin of American life.

You’re thinking let’s figure out how to raise the homework floor not lower its ceiling, and of course that makes more sense, but how do we raise the floor if a lot of children don’t have even one adult who knows and cares about whether their homework is completed?

To defuse the growing teacher-parent-homework divide, schools should stop leaving homework decision-making up to every individual teacher to do as they please. That’s what leads to extreme unevenness. Elementary school principals should help grade-level teams decide together on a philosophy of homework. Secondary principals should help academic departments do the same. Then grade-level teams and academic departments should work towards a consensus on a school-wide “Philosophy and Practice of Homework Guide” for parents and students.

And to reduce the number of tearful late nights, it would help if every teacher took time before the end of class to do the first ten percent of so of the assigned homework with students to make sure everyone understands it.

What’s the right amount of homework? The guideline I’ve always liked is ten minutes per night per grade, so an hour a night in sixth grade, and two hours in twelfth. However, parents will adjust to more or less if its purposes are clearly and convincingly communicated and they know what to expect in advance.

The sort of “Philosophy and Practice of Homework Guides” I’m recommending would also help parents make more informed decisions about where to enroll their children. Different guides will resonant with different parents’ educational philosophies.

I suppose there are two other ways to defuse the homework divide. One is to return to the 1970’s of my youth and build a “study hall” into students’ school schedules. Another is to put a proposed ban to a vote of the nation’s students.