I rarely feature guest posts from those outside my own school, but when I read my  NAIS & edleader21 colleague Chris Thinnes’ piece about Race to Nowhere and the vexing issue of homework, which I have written about here before, I offered to post it.  Chris articulates very particularly and effectively my similar thoughts about this topic, and I am pleased to be able to share it here. 

Race to Nowhere Has Some Homework to Do

Chris Thinnes is a parent and an educator who lives in Los Angeles. He is the Head of the Upper Elementary School & Academic Dean atCurtis School, a member of the Advisory Group of EdLeader21, and the director of the Center for the Future of Elementary Education at Curtis School (CFEE), which recently brought together educators from 103 schools and districts for “Transforming Elementary Education: An Evening with Sir Ken Robinson.”

In its latest emailed, tweeted, and web-based blitz encouraging schools to ban weekend and holiday homework, an impassioned group of self-styled activists has once again leveraged 21st century tools to provide a 20th century ‘solution’ to a 19th century problem: the overloaded assignment of dull, mechanical, and ineffectively designed homework exercises to millions of our nation’s youth. However, the similarly dull reasoning of their examination, diagnosis, and prescription (a ban, very simply, on weekend and holiday homework) will inevitably provoke irrelevant, unjustified, and blanket contempt for schools’ practices the rest of the year as well.

Race to Nowhere‘s activist arm, EndTheRace.org, swipes any reasonable analysis off the table with its burly forearm, before any of us — educators, parents, and students — have the chance to sit down to talk. In short, this campaign overlooks important dimensions of a complex discussion about the purposes of education and the needs of children, ignores forward-looking strategies about the appropriate design of learning opportunities at school and at home, insinuates a lack of professionalism and responsibility on the part of educators, and threatens further to divide, rather than to unify, educators and parents of children in our nation’s schools.

“The research on homework is clear and unanimous. Most homework does not increase learning, raise scores, or prepare students for the future.” -EndTheRace.org

If this were an accurate assessment of research ‘on homework,’ it would be compelling. However, this statement misrepresents the fact that only research on the overload of homework is ‘clear and unanimous’ in its findings: namely, that homework should be limited to developmentally appropriate workloads of 10 minutes per grade level per day. [http://today.duke.edu/2006/03/homework.html]

EndTheRace.org’s more sweeping assertion, though, suggests that all, or nearly all, assigned homework serves little or no purpose — which may be true in schools that have given no thought to its design or scope, but challenges the integrity of fundamentally different approaches to instruction and enrichment that might require‘homework’ but redefine it — approaches that have been explored, implemented, and proven for well more than a decade. Research on thedesign of homework and the assessment of homework is far more complicated and compelling, should EndTheRace.org seek to contribute to a solution, rather than define a long-familiar irritant.

Furthermore, EndTheRace.org’s appeal to the lowest perceived denominator disregards the interests of children with special needs or learning styles, many of whom require and deserve the opportunity for, and derive a measurable benefit from, the introduction, development, refinement, or review of concepts and skills outside of school. There are also many students who enjoy the opportunity to pursue further inquiry, discovery, and learning outside the bounds of the school day and the classroom, and many teachers who cultivate this engagement by carefully scaffolding and providing enrichment material, on a low-stakes basis, to such students who thrive on it.

Finally, there is no mindfulness in this sweeping call for a holiday and weekend ‘homework ban’ (which will be followed, predictably, by a call for a general homework ban) that entertains the importance or value of students’ contributions outside of school to the goals of project-based learning, challenge-based learning, blended learning, or ‘flipped teaching’/reverse instruction. Schools that are implementing such strategies, or just merely considering it, now have EndTheRace.org to thank for what they’ll find another and unnecessary challenge to responsible and appropriate innovation in our schools.

As for a mindfulness to psychological research on children’s most commonly preferred mode of learning new ideas (online, on one’s own schedule, using tools of one’s own preference, and in isolation [read ‘at home’]) and children’s preferred mode of applying new skills (at school, in context, in person, and in collaboration [read ‘in class’]) — EndTheRace.org suggests no relevance or regard whatsoever.

“By pledging to work toward homework-free weekend and holiday breaks in your school, you support a cultural shift that values balance, family time, sleep and health for our students.” -EndTheRace.org

Far more recklessly still, EndTheRace.org clearly implies that a school’s failure to honor this demand to ban weekend and holiday homework would be incompatible with an authentic commitment to “balance, family time, sleep and health for our students.” Sign our petition if you really care about children.

EndTheRace.org should understand, if only because Race to Nowhere is largely to blame, that we live in a culture in which the nation’s schools and their teachers have already received a humiliating drubbing by cultural bullies; such insinuations about educators’ sinister motives are not just unkind but, at this stage, redundant. Both Race to Nowhere and its equally stunted step-brother, Waiting for Superman, have already misled much of the nation to understand that the ‘problem’ in education is ‘bad schools,’ ‘bad teachers,’ ‘bad unions,’ and now, ‘bad homework.’

Continually pandering to this baseless anxiety that educators don’t really care about children (in this case leveraging that cynical suspicion to force schools’ hands to sign off on EndTheRace.org’s myopic policy) deprofessionalizes schools and their employees, disregards the majority of research-based findings on children’s learning, and invites antagonism — perhaps most disturbingly — between parents and schools. To wit: parents throughout the nation are forwarding EndTheRace.org’s emails to school administrators throughout the country today, often with provocative or incendiary notes demanding that they ‘take a stand’: a serialized and confrontational buzz for which EndTheRace.org’s fractious dares, and not these parents’ heartfelt hopes for their children, are primarily responsible.

Guaranteed: this ‘conversation’ will be steered in the coming days, weeks, and months, to inflame parental skepticism not just about the value of ‘homework’ in general, but about unrelated and sound educational practices between Monday and Friday as well — without regard to their forethought, design, impact, or intersection with transformative, research-based practices for student learning at school and at home. This is the crucial, and inevitable, discussion for which EndTheRace.org, and the parents it has incited, remain not ill- but mostly uninformed.

In an old episode of The Simpsons, Apu applies for American citizenship. When an examiner asks him to explain the causes of the Civil War, Apu begins to analyze the convergence of a fading agrarian social order in the South with nascent industrialism in the North, the vexing questions of states’ rights and federal authority, and the developing conflicts of race relations in an increasingly urbanized North, when his examiner abruptly cuts him off: “Slavery. Just say ‘Slavery.'”

Similarly, all of us — parents, educators, and policy makers — are examiners in a national debate about education, trying to identify the cause of the conflict and to imagine a tenable solution. Waiting for Superman: “Just say ‘Bad Teachers.'” Race to Nowhere: “Just say ‘Bad Homework.'” The implied solutions (fire them; ban it) demean our collective intelligence, and diminish our responsibilities to our country’s children.

Really the only position EndTheRace.org is legitimately advocating, is that children shouldn’t be assigned too much dull, repetitive, and poorly designed homework. This doesn’t require a nationwide petition, the willful slander of educators’ motives, or the incitement of outrage among parents. It deserves a nationwide “Duh.”

Impossible to believe as it may be, many of our schools and districts have typically, and for many years, suspended homework on holidays and breaks, limited homework on weeknights, monitored the impact of student homework on student learning and student welfare, and regularly solicited input from children and their families about the student’s experience at home. There is no ‘space’ inEndTheRace.org‘s campaign, or its attendant propaganda, to entertain the prospect that such policies might be familiar, or that this path has long since been tread.

What responsible schools and districts have actually been doing — since well before the screenings of Race to Nowhere or the petitions of EndTheRace.org  — is exploring the pressing demands of the century in which we actually live. Pioneering research — real research; the kind that has proven results — has already demonstrated the benefits of a variety of transformative practices inside and outside the classroom.

This research can be reviewed. Schools have been working to develop healthier parent-school partnerships to include a range of perspectives in their strategic decisions about their programs. This strategy can be adopted. Schools have been implementing dynamic new approaches to the design of learning environments, learning strategies, and learning communities, some of which invite and require (if only because children prefer and in some cases demand it), an extension of children’s learning outside the classroom.

This transformation, underway across the nation, is plainly visible for anyone who wants to look. Were Race to Nowhere to represent, and were EndTheRace.org to recognizethe actual state of affairs in contemporary, 21st century education or its single most common and compelling goal — not to raise grades or to improve scores, but to prepare students for their future in meaningful ways — the film and ‘the cause’ might help to generate some more healthful movement forward.

Seems like EndTheRace.org has some homework to do. How about this weekend?