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Brad and the Homework Wars

Some day, you grandchildren may ask you, "What did you do during the Homework Wars?"

Well, I'm a grizzled veteran of the homework wars. I fought in the trenches of the homework wars for 16 years. And the story is fresh in my mind, right now, because one of Slate.com's writers tackled the subject yesterday: Emily Bazelon, "Forget Homework: It's a Waste of Time for Elementary-School Students." (Slate.com, September 14th, 2006.) When it came time to fighting the homework wars with regard to her kid's school, she first fortified herself with the best research for and against giving homework at all, let alone lots of it, and much of the article consists of her book reviews and therefore a review of the research pro- and con-. It's absolutely entertaining reading. Even if you're not a parent and have no interest in educational theory, I'm sure you have your own homework wars stories to tell.

Forgive me if I tell mine. I think you won't be bored; it's also a Jim Hicks: Man of Concrete story.

I was the subject of an educational experiment on my mother's part. Mom was curious just how early a child could be taught to read. So she developed her own fascinating improvised combination of Pavlovian conditioning with whole-language learning. I can't say whether it would work on anybody else, but in my case it had me reading about as much of the newspaper as most people read (first few pages, first page of each section, and the funnies) by age 4. Twice a day, actually; I remember that back then, the Post-Dispatch had better reporting and better funnies, but the Globe Democrat was worth reading because sometimes they had columns by that really funny new guy, Pat Buchanan, and back then I couldn't get enough of him. (No, really. We're talking 1964 here.) So it will not surprise you that, by the time I started grade school at age 6, I was just a wee little bit ahead of the other kids in my class. One of the manifestations of this was that I absolutely, flatly, refused to do homework on subjects that I already knew. It seldom came up with my first grade teacher, because I missed almost that entire year for medical reasons. But my second grade teacher refused to take that answer, and constantly responded, "And how am I supposed to know if you know the subject if you don't turn in your homework?" I replied, confidently, "Test me."

This little dance happened day, after day, after day, after day, without change. Finally, the teacher complained about it to the principal often enough to force a parent-teacher conference on the subject. When my parents were summoned to the principal's office, they were flatly told to get a babysitter and leave me home. The did get a babysitter -- for my kid sister. The Man of Concrete bluntly refused to have a discussion of something that closely related to my life and my experience without having me on hand to consult. This lead to a small confrontation when we got there that evening, because the teacher flatly refused to discuss it in front of me. After much debate, it was settled that the discussion would at least begin without me, in the principal's office. I was left outside to wait. I said it wouldn't be a problem, I'd brought the day's newspapers to read. That should have said something to the teacher, since it was largely because of her opinion that I was profoundly mentally retarded that I was spending half of each day in special education, but her own preconceptions got in the way. Perhaps she thought I was going to color on them or something.

After a while, I got summoned in to join the conference. The stumbling block was that Dad had asked the teacher if she had asked me why I wasn't doing my homework, and what I'd said in response. She wouldn't answer the question. She didn't concede its validity. As far as she was concerned, I had to do the homework, it was an order. My reasons were irrelevant. She didn't flat out lie and say she hadn't asked me; she just refused to concede that there was any point to having the information. After much intense back-and-forth between her and Dad, the principal interrupted them both and said, "Fine, then I'll ask him. Brad, why won't you do your homework?" I replied the way I always did, only in more detail. I explained that it had been explained to me that the purpose of homework is to help teach the material, and this was all material I'd learned three or more years ago. The teacher, outraged at hearing this in my usual precociously calm adult-sounding voice, reflexively snapped at me again, "And how am I supposed to know if you know the stuff if you won't turn in your homework?!?!?" And before I could even answer, Dad cut in and replied, "Test him."

He put his foot down on the subject, too, and refused to discuss whether or not they as parents were responsible for forcing me to do homework until it was settled whether or not I needed to do that homework. So they tested me. But the teacher was determined to win this fight, so she played dirty. She threw the standardized test at me. The high school graduation state-standardized achievement test. At a 2nd grader. In special ed. Not that I knew what it was. So I did feel that some of the questions were unfair and covered things I couldn't reasonably be expected to have read yet, but I did my best. My best was better than she would have done. I tested at college level in every subject but math, and in math I came in at mid-10th-grade level. At age 7. This had many interesting consequences, but among them was that it gave me a trump card that I continued to play all the way into and through college. While I was willing to do projects or term papers outside of class, the rest of my out-of-class time was mine. And that time was important to me, too -- I had reading of my own to do. Like Mark Twain, I have always gone to great lengths to make sure that my schooling didn't interfere with my education.


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 15th, 2006 11:01 am (UTC)
then what?
I'd love to hear how your teacher reacted to the test results. Did you skip any grades? Did your teacher ever try to get revenge? Was the principal thrilled at how well you did on the test, etc?
Sep. 15th, 2006 11:09 am (UTC)
The Man of Concrete flatly refused to have a discussion of something that closely related to my life and my experience without having me on hand to consult.

I admire this a lot.
Sep. 15th, 2006 02:31 pm (UTC)
My parents generally didn't include me in the meetings where they were forced to tear the administration a new one. In retrospect, I think I would have been terrified of my mom if they had. She's sweet and gentle and sensitive: a real teddy bear. And, like a bear, it's not a good idea to threaten her cubs....
Sep. 15th, 2006 11:36 am (UTC)
From a teacher's perspective: I believe that most parent-teacher interviews should be conducted with the student in attendance, though I will usually spend some of the interview alone with the parents. To the best of my knowledge, that's becoming standard procedure starting around grade three or four, at least in Ontario.

The homework I give is usually about finishing classwork. So, if students had a math exploration to do and haven't finished it by the end of class, it's homework. I also sometimes give drill sheets for homework when students are falling behind or have missed several days' worth of multiplication drill, for example. For assignments that take longer than one class period, I'll figure out how long they should take, then give the students two-thirds of that amount of time to work on them. I always, always check to see how they're doing before it's sent home, so that if it goes home barely started and comes back finished and fabulous, I can start asking questions. After all, Mommy presumably already passed grade five.

I have never yet had a kid surprise me on an evaluation the way you surprised that teacher. I would love to have it happen. Most of the time, the little try-out assignments at the beginning of the year let me peg the kids to within a fairly small range. But then, testing methods and teaching methods have changed a lot since that grade two teacher.
Sep. 15th, 2006 02:30 pm (UTC)
One of my favorite HS teachers and I had a little game. My geometry teacher would assign a reasonable amount of homework -- little enough that most of the class could finish a good chunk of it during class, enough that they actually had to work and learn the stuff. The game was that, if I finished the problem set before class was over, she'd show me something cool related to the class. I suppose that only works on kids who like math, though. :-)
Sep. 15th, 2006 11:46 am (UTC)
Goddamn, you lucky bastard.

I had a similar reaction to homework, but my parents were firmly on the teachers' side. So despite knowing roughly 15% more about any given subject (except foreign languages) in grade/high school than the average student in my class I got some pretty awful grades.

My favorite was my first high school English class. The teacher had an anal percentage-based system for figuring out the grades, and mine always looked like Test: 30/30, Pop Quiz: 15/15, Paper: 22/25, Homework 1/30. And yet he told me with a straight face on more than one occasion that I wasn't any good at the subject, and pointed at the combined percentage to "prove" it. And was one of, I think, seven or eight teachers to publicly berate me in class at some length about my complete lack of interest in practicing material I didn't need to practice.

Fun times.
Sep. 15th, 2006 12:04 pm (UTC)

s/through/threw/ (in the last paragraph). :)

otherwise fascinating, though - are you familiar with the idea of unschooling? you also may want to read John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education; it’s available in its entirety online.


Sep. 15th, 2006 12:56 pm (UTC)
Apologies on the typo, corrected. I was having the weirdest trouble with homonyms when I was typing this up last night. I blame the head cold. I'm more than a little dubious about unschooling for most kids, especially more so with most parents.
Sep. 15th, 2006 12:08 pm (UTC)
Holy crap...
This entry's getting forwarded to my mom, because she has an entirely different perspective on some conversations that were damn near word for word.

My parents simply read books with me from the day I came home from the hospital. When I was two, they thought I'd memorized the books we owned, until they bought more books and...oh. When I was in kindergarten I tested on somewhere between a 6th and 8th grade reading level (I don't really remember).

In 2nd grade they started pulling me out of the regular classroom for Gifted ed sessions which lasted through sixth grade.

In 4th grade, I was bored out of my wits and just stopped doing homework for the same reason as you. Problem is, for me it was less of a logical decision and more of a rationalization for what I remember as laziness on my part, and not doing my homework was not a good habit to get into later in life. My mom tells it as an inexperienced 4th grade teacher trying to sledgehammer a square peg in a round hole, but we've all got our perspectives. My mom was a teacher, teachers were ostensibly beyond reproach, so the fault must be some failing on my part. (Come to think of it, I still suffer a bit of that with authority figures to this day.)
Sep. 15th, 2006 01:16 pm (UTC)
Re: Holy crap...
Leave out the gifted classes (cuz I don't think my school actually had any) and you've just told my story almost word for word, lol....

What truly annoyed my father was test scores vs my grades; he KNEW I could do the work and get straight A's if I wanted to. There was a nation-wide study I was part of in 7th grade that compared above-average 7th grade SAT scores with 12th graders; never having seen algebra, I still managed a 1360. Then when I finally dropped out of school and took the GED, I again got A's on all the test parts... he was livid, lol.
Sep. 15th, 2006 01:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Holy crap...
Similar situation here, except at the time they lumped "gifted" in as part of "special education"

I decided sometime around sixth grade that school was nothing more than something to be endured until college. I also somehow decided that grades were unimportant to college admission, just SAT and ACT scores so I calculated the minimum work I could do each semester to get a passing grade and did exactly that much. 2.001 average, all the way.

I read through every class in Junior High and slept through every class in High School. Then aced my ACT and SAT scores. (I think my lowest score was a 92 percentile, another was 97, the rest 99+) I was shocked, shocked I tell you, when MIT did not kick down my door and shower me with scholarship money.

Amazing that I could be so smart and so stupid simultaneously.
Sep. 15th, 2006 02:35 pm (UTC)
I, too, usually blew off homework at my little school in the middle of a cornfield. Through high school, the only classes I really understood giving homework in were math (and, even then, I wish there was less mandatory drill; if I understood the concept after problem 20, going to 50 was a waste of time) and foreign languages (which should be moved to elementary school instead of high school; there's some studies that show that after age twelve or so it's harder to learn a new language.) I wish that when the teachers told us to read a chapter out of class we wouldn't end up reading it aloud in class, anyway, though. It's a waste of time, in my opinion, and it was so much slower than actually reading the chapter. But one of the absolutely stupidest "homework" assignments came in eighth grade.

My class was the test class for a new reading program. There was a set of books in the library with assigned reading levels and point levels. The student read the books in his or her level and did simple tests on the computer to show that s/he read them. I learned to read very early in life and continued to read quickly and on an unusually high level. (I tested post-high-school reading level on the initial test for the reading program.) Now, all of this so far was fine with me; I had my quota filled before the end of the second week. After that I tried to go back to the normal books in the library, since the program book selection wasn't that big at that point and there really weren't that many I was interested in. The librarian wouldn't let me get non-program books out of the library, claiming that I should try to get more points even though I had enough for an A+, so I was forced to spend my 40 minutes of reading class time getting points that would vanish at the end of the quarter. (I was pretty meek at the time and accepted it, although I should have argued and/or asked my teacher, who was pretty cool.) As a result, I got something like 500% in that class the first quarter, and by the beginning of the last quarter I had read and tested out on all the interesting books and ended up finishing out my quota with a handful of books from the very bottom of my range, including the Rolad Dahl books that I'd loved in, oh, first or second grade. (My permitted range at post-high-school level was fifth grade and up. Odd.) The next year, my sister's friend (very intelligent, but at that point very lazy) purposely flubbed the computer-based test and got to read a handful of what amounted to picture books for her A+, and her reading teacher didn't mind her reading fashion magazines or working on other homework.

Thinking back, most of high school comes off as a waste of time. Pretty much the only thing I enjoyed were the music, art, and physics classes; the experiments were fun. Otherwise, there's only a handful of really good teachers that I can think of, and just as many bad ones. (Ironically, my "advanced English" teacher my junior year was one of the worst; the students in normal English learned more and did more than we did. Not surprisingly, I refused to do the rote regurgitation worksheets in that class and ended up in normal-level English for my senior year....)
Sep. 15th, 2006 03:13 pm (UTC)
My parents read to me a lot when I was little. I demanded it. I started reading at age 2 -- my parents realized I hadn't just memorized things when I brought them a driver's manual and started asking what words meant.

In first grade, they would take my reading book away, because I would read ahead during class. Nevermind that I could keep up with what was going on while reading.

In third grade, they wanted to put me in a remedial math class because I was failing. My parents suggested a novel approach that, while technically illegal, benefitted everyone. They swapped my pretest (90+%) scores for my posttest (40-%) scores. By the time I had done the homework, I was too bored to care about getting it right.

Throughout elementary school, I was punished for correcting teachers. Even when they obviously were wrong, like when they misquoted the textbook. Eventually I learned to keep my mouth shut.

After 7th grade, I scored well enough on the ACT to get a full scholarship at the local college.

I wish I'd had the chutzpah bradhicks displayed when I was young enough for it to have done me some good. It wasn't until much, much later that I discovered the fundamental differences between a good teacher and a bad teacher, including the idea that a good teacher doesn't mind questions.
Sep. 15th, 2006 04:06 pm (UTC)
Your story reminds me of a friend who moved from England to Scotland for professional reasons, taking his wife and two boys. The younger of the two boys was in about his second year of school and extremely bright, able to read fluently and so on. He was doing very well in his English school. At the Scottish school, he refused to talk to his teacher, wouldn't read aloud, nothing. Cue many meetings with the head to no avail. Then one day the district nurse happened to be visiting the school, and someone mentioned the boy to her as one of the kids awaiting an appointment with the educational psychologist for the district. "Has anyone asked the boy why he won't speak to his teacher?" said the nurse reasonably. Nope, in about eight weeks, no-one had. So she had him called in and asked him. His answer? "Because the books she gives me are too simple, and it's insulting." He got moved up a year, and the problem was solved.
Sep. 15th, 2006 04:44 pm (UTC)
I felt that my solution to this conundrum as a 2nd grader was brilliant.

The homework assignments for the year were supplied to us along with several books. A few of the books needed for the second semester weren't, but were available in the library.

I did the entire year of homework for all subjects by the end of September. (It wasn't hard, just tedious.) I attempted to turn in the ENTIRE YEAR to each subject's teacher in a row, then (because they would not accept it), to the assistant principal and finally (by appointment) to the principal of the school.

He didn't accept it either. But he told me what to do. Make a file at home of the completed homework for the year, by month and day, and bring in the completed homework each day as it was due.

I was amazed. Then he dropped the bombshell. Just him and me in his office, with me sitting in a leather chair I could barely fit into.

"Not all the lessons you need to learn are printed in the textbook. You will be dealing with people a lot dumber than you are, for many years to come. Good luck."

In retrospect, he was SO right. My first lesson in bureaucracy.
Sep. 15th, 2006 09:00 pm (UTC)
Heh. *That* was a worthwhile lesson.
Sep. 15th, 2006 06:48 pm (UTC)
Wow. That was nearly exactly the same as my experience in first grade. The teacher flatly refused to believe that I understood the material even though I aced every test they threw at me.

The grand showdown was a bit less organized, however. Finally one day, the teacher had been completely fed up and called my mother to come pick me up because "I can't get him to do anything!". When mom arrived, the teacher had bundled me and my things up and met her out on the sidewalk. She exlaimed in a loud and obvious "what an idiot this kid is" sort of voice that I refused to do homework at all. My mother calmly turned to me and asked why. My response was, in that aforementioned well articulated adult voice (which, due to a fascination with British humor probably even had a bit of a snotty english lilt to it), "I fail to understand the reasoning behind boring and repetitious homework when I already completely understand the material at hand!"

Mom simply looked at the teacher and said, "Well. There you go." and pulled me out of that school the same day.
Sep. 15th, 2006 08:55 pm (UTC)
Wow. I'm envious. I was also an early reader, but never thought to question homework.
Sep. 15th, 2006 09:34 pm (UTC)
My parents drew a firm line, unless he is failing the class tests on the material, don't talk to me about homework. If you fail him, I want to see his test scores that show that he does not know the material. I frustrated several teachers.

I had a wonderful first grade teacher. (I was there for her first year.) She and my fifth grade teacher got together and started the gifted program for the school district. Because of me.

I hold the same line for my children. My third grader is behind in reading and spelling. She is way ahead in math. I work with her on reading, and figure that spelling will come when she is interested. Unfortunately, the only homework she is interested in is math. I ignore the stack altogether and have conversations with her about school subjects. I think if she gets interested, homework won't make a difference.

My children are the fourth generation that does not do homework. (At least, that I am aware of...)
Sep. 15th, 2006 09:49 pm (UTC)
Your story inspired an entire post from me, but I thought I'd post my response here as well:

For my international readers and for anyone from a state that does not give a hojillion standardized tests to students, let me give you some background. Pretty much every year, or every second year of my elementary and junior high education, I, along with my entire grade level, had to take some kind of standardized, multiple-choice test with an alphabet-soup name, that was designed to see how much I had learned and how well the school curriculum was teaching me.

How well the students did on the tests (i.e., how well the school was teaching them) determined state and/or federal funding. Remember this, it's important later.

I DESPISED these tests, for much the same reason that [info]bradhicks didn't do homework; they were absolutely irrelevant to my learning process.

By the time I hit my senior year of high school, I hadn't had to take one of these tests for a while. Oh sure, I'd had the SAT and ACT, but these standardized tests scores are what colleges look at, and I could see the relevance to preparing for, taking, and scoring well on them.

The spring of my senior year of high school, the school hit us with another fucking standardized test. Except that this one wasn't going to be administered to the entire grade level, just a "random sample." I was one of the lucky ones picked, and walked in to the library that morning to be greeted by my entire advanced calculus class. Remember earlier how I said the tests determined funding?

I went up to the test proctor, who was also my guidance counselor, and in the politest terms possible, called bullshit on him, and requested to be excused from the test. Ten minutes of debate and it was clear he wasn't budging, so I sat down and got ready to take the damn thing.

Their mistake was administering during spring of senior year. I'd already gotten admitted to my first choice college, so I had nothing to lose. And I quite deliberately threw the test. I marked the multiple-choice answers so they made a pleasing pattern on the Scantron sheet, and wrote one sentence on each of the essays. Took me about 20 minutes or so. Then I turned in my materials and enjoyed the rest of my day.
Sep. 16th, 2006 06:46 am (UTC)
Iasked my parents to teach me to read before school, but they refused because they tried with my (blonde) sister and messed it up, and it never occurred to me to teach myself. In school, we started learning the alphabet, and by the time we got to z I could read.
My first grade teacher was great: we'd sit in those little reading groups, going around the circle. I'd get bored and read ahead. When it was my turn to read aloud, I'd ask her where we were, she'd tell me, I'd read my paragraph and then they'd go on. I was always disappointed she never let me read two paragraphs aloud.
As far as I can remember, there was never any homework in grade school. (I'm old.)
I mostly did my homework in jr. high and high school. We didn't have annual acheivement tests in my day, we had nearly annual IQ tests. They don't give you results on those usually. I do know approximately what I got on the one in sixth grade because my "best friend" at the time was the school secretary, who had twin daughters my age. She told me what one of them got and said I scored higher.
In high school my best friend (my age) and I always sat together when we took tests and always scored almost the same. So, when we went to take the SAT, they apologetically said, "We know you're not cheating but since you score so close, we need to sit you in separate rooms." So, we not only sat in different rooms, but apparently had different questions on the test. We came out with scores that were not close, but identical! we were just well matched.
Sep. 18th, 2006 07:47 pm (UTC)
Since everyone else is sharing, I'll hop on board. I never challenged the homework system directly; but I definitely had related problems in school.

As a young child, I desparately wanted to read and write, but my mother purposefully didn't teach me - Adult literacy is her specialty, and she didn't want to push me into anything too quickly. However, I did get enrolled in full-day kindergarten when I was only 4 years old, and I learned to read there. I rose to a highschool reading level by the time I was 7.

As a child, I didn't mind most homework. In general, I'd whiz through it pretty quickly, especially if it involved lots of reading. If it interested me, I'd do homework days or weeks ahead of schedule. If I had questions, I was going to ask my parents (an English/reading teacher and an engineer), not wait until we covered the material in the classroom.

As a teenager, I did the opposite of what others here described - I generally did all my homework, but couldn't be arsed to pay attention in class unless the teacher was actually covering something I hadn't seen before. Instead, I would read fiction or take a nap. I got put into one or two "remedial" classes for just this reason - it didn't matter that my grades were good, the teacher wanted to punish me for being a nuisance. Usually in the remedial classes, the teachers couldn't care less what I did at my desk, since I obviously knew the material, and they had bigger problems to deal with.

One teacher finally explained it to me in a way that made sense: "Anitra, I know you know the material we're reviewing in class. But the other kids see you sleeping or reading, and they assume they can goof off too. Please try to stay awake and look like you're paying attention?"

In hindsight, my homework habits really helped me when I started college - unlike many of my "smarter" friends, I was already in the habit of doing homework. And unlike highschool teachers, university professors know that homework should not simply be a re-hash (or pre-hash) of their lectures.
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