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This article first appeared on Educating Modern Learners in March 2015

Last month, a story from New York's PS 116 went viral: the school sent a note home to parents, explaining that it had stopped giving homework so that kids could do something else with their time after school - play, for starters. According to news reports, parents rebelled - some threatening to remove their children from the school. "I think they should have homework - some of it is about discipline. I want [my daughter] to have fun," said one parent, "but I also want her to be working towards a goal."

Do parents want more homework or less? Why would they want more? Why might they want less?

This debate is just one example of the battles over homework: how much, if any, is appropriate? How do expectations about homework change with age? What should homework look like? Why should students do homework? What's the purpose? Does homework actually matter? If so, how? Does it lead to better "outcomes" (and what do we mean by "outcomes")? What's the expectation for parental involvement when work gets sent home from school? What's the expectation about all sorts of resources at home? What are the presumptions and assumptions when homework is assigned about what students' home life actually looks like? Is it a place where "work" can be done? ("Is there WiFi at home?" is a crucial question, no doubt, but it's just the beginning because even access to WiFi is hardly sufficient for "home" to be a safe and conducive place to "work."")

Questions about the value of homework have debated in education circles for a while now. (Or at least, to a certain extent, in some circles.) Some educators will invoke Alfie Kohn, for example, and his arguments about "rethinking homework." That is: homework makes kids frustrated because homework simply asks them to repeat the tasks they did in school. Homework takes away from time for other activities. (That's part of the PS 116 argument). Homework doesn't actually do much for achievement. And so on. But the data isn't 100% clear. Some kids do benefit from homework - but the studies are based on pretty traditional measures of what we mean by "benefits."

No matter the arguments for or against homework, it's worth asking: how successful have we been in convincing parents of any of this? The PS 116 example suggests "not so much."

Why not?

With all our talk about modern learners and modern leaders, how much are we pulling parents into these conversations? Are they seen as stakeholders in these discussions, or as obstacles? How many parents are modern leaders and modern learners?

What do we have to convince them that the future of education doesn't look like their experiences in the classroom?

This is one of education's biggest obstacles to change, I would argue. We all went to school. We know what school looks like. Or, at least, what it looked like when we went to school. We know what assignments, assessments, tests, homework should look like. Or at least, we know what they looked like for us. And that's the thing: our experiences in school were deeply personal. We know what worked and didn't work for us. But all of this - our assessments about the good and the bad and the ugly and the important and the extraneous of school work and homework - largely depends upon where and when we went to school, not to mention where we fit in that school's profile - that is, what our school expected from us based on race, class, gender. Parents carry forward these experiences and expectations with school when it comes to their children - for better or for worse - and all of this shapes how they prepare their children to deal with education institutions. Are schools and teachers something to be feared? To be trusted? To be admired? What does it mean, in light of all of this, when work comes "home."

Here's my own lesson as a parent, as a learner: What I experienced as a student isn't universal-izable. I did okay in school. My son hated it. I managed; he refused. And even recognizing and comparing what he liked with what I liked, none of this is it is necessarily relevant to what my son needs to learn today. The economy, the labor market has changed.

That's not to say that parents' demands should be ignored. Indeed, if we look at the history of public schooling and race and class, certain parents' input has been almost completely neglected from conversations about what education should or could be. Certain parents have had very little say. Parents who could spend more time and spend more money have more say. With that in mind, parents' demands (alongside parents' fears) are worth listening to. All parents - not simply affluent parents. Parents (mostly) want their kids to excel, to move up in socioeconomic status.

Already we see a vicious circle, in part because how much homework someone does, or how well someone does on the SAT or the ACT or in college doesn't really mean that someone can ascend to the middle class. Nevertheless, that's the promise: parents want their children to perform well enough in school - whatever that means - to get into a good college. (That's what society deems "excelling" right now - even that is a conversation worth having to unpack that verb, that expectation.) That means scoring well on standardized tests like the SAT or ACT. It means getting good grades. It means having a robust profile of extracurricular activities. It means immense pressure on students to conform to the expectations that schools lay upon them - colleges and K-12 schools alike.

You'll often hear people say "school hasn't changed in hundreds of years." Some invoke that to demand change; some to insist that schools haven't changed at all. The latter is highly debatable. Plenty of things have: demographics, expectations, assessments, for starters. Nevertheless, there's a sense that school is a traditional, unchanging, unchangeable institution. School carries forward both curriculum and practices - it keeps certain things relevant: being quiet in the library, forming an orderly line and waiting your turn, raising your hand until you're called upon, and so on.

How do we help parents to become modern learners, if not leaders? How do we help leverage parents for change - progressive change, not simply change that benefits their own children? What does that look like?

Because convincing parents of a change isn't a policy issue. We can't simply demand that parents spend more time reading progressive education books or blogs. We can't demand they spend more time reading futurist visions for college or work. We can't approach them with fearful stories - or at least, that's not the angle I would take - that the future is full of robots, unemployment, and a dwindling middle class. We can't ask them to not prepare their children for a very traditional future - can we? I mean, how many parents - and parents from what demographics - would respond to a "don't go to college" mantra? (The answer isn't politically progressive.)

What's the angle we can take to help parents become modern learners (and by extension, modern leaders)? How do we help them see their own role in reshaping the future of schools and other public institutions? How do we do so without coercion or condemnation? How do we do so with equity in mind - that is, not simply appealing to parents who have time? Parents are a key to change in education, but how do we make that change not simply about selfishness - about what their individual children will be able to do?

A whole school saying "no" to homework is just the first step...

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Audrey Watters


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