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Op-Ed: Change in Our Schools Starts With Us

Hewlett-Woodmere Central Council PTA presidents details what residents can do.

On Nov. 31 and Jan. 22, Hewlett-Woodmere Central Council PTA hosted showings of “Race to Nowhere,” which sheds light on how the current education system is stressing students, parents, and educators alike. Almost 500 people, including district educators and even people from outside the community, ultimately attended. 

We invited everyone to join us on Jan. 23 to continue the conversation and have an open discussion about the film and how it relates to the Hewlett-Woodmere community. To an audience of about 50 people on the 23, my co-president Mitchell and I posed three questions:  What are the challenges in our community? What can we change as individuals? And what changes would we like to see in the district? Mostly parents, teachers and school board members commented while school administrators intently listened.

Some challenges to our community are similar to other communities, such as state standardized tests and mandates from the state and federal governments. It was suggested by many participants that, as individuals, we need to decide whether test scores and rankings are important. Rather, we should be empowered and set our own standards. A theme of the night was that parents should contact local, state, and federal leaders and band together with other PTA’s. Central Council engages in these activities all the time — and we send out requests for our members to do the same. Next time you see one, do it!

Ric Stark, an AP teacher at Hewlett High School and the teacher’s union president, asked that members of the audience write to the governor asking to get rid of the new APPR requirement.  APPR, which stands for “Annual Professional Performance Review,” rates a teacher’s performance, 40 percent of which is based on students’ standardized test scores. Although not currently in place for School District 14 for contractual reasons, it would take effect with the new contracts in 2013.

Another issue we heard about is the school culture and peer pressure to take AP classes. Students still need to stay competitive enough to get in to good colleges. Parents need to give their children good guidance and discuss what the pressures and demands are and decide what is important. Audience members suggested that people redefine what “getting in to a good college” means and understand that there is a school out there for everyone.

We found that the list of what individuals can do to get off the “Race To Nowhere” was only slightly shorter than the list of things the audience felt the school district should change. Many people asked that there be a district homework policy. The movie stated that studies show that homework does not make children smarter and does not lead to better understanding of a topic.

Hewlett-Woodmere parents suggested examining how much homework is given at each grade level, with the possibility of none at the elementary school level, no homework on weekends and vacations, and eliminating graded homework. Two elementary school teachers had already made changes to how they assign homework the day after seeing the first showing of the movie.

Mrs. Bialt, a third grade teacher at Hewlett Elementary, hands out a packet at the beginning of the week that lists all homework expected to be done by the end of the week. This allows families to discuss and pace the workload around their extracurricular activities and family time. Mrs. Bialt said that she feels that her students are more relaxed and laugh more and that children who, in the past, struggled to get their homework done on a daily basis are now able to get more accomplished. Parents have seen a difference in their children too. Several parents reported that the “homework wars” at home are no longer an issue. We applaud Mrs. Bialt and hope that other teachers follow her lead.

Parents asked that there be communication between the teachers of different subjects at Woodmere Middle School and Hewlett High School to coordinate their demands and workload and also be responsive to feedback. It was stressed that children should be given time to think and socialize and be taught critical thinking and communication skills — to not have a “one size fits all” approach and to not “teach to the test”. 

Every building PTA has offered the funds for each individual building to show “Race To Nowhere” to their entire staff.  And the conversation is not stopping here for us. We are forming new committees at each building level for the purpose of making solid recommendations to school administration for change. Anyone interested in these committees should e-mail us at mgates@optonline.net and mgreebel@aol.com. We are thankful to all that have already shown their commitment to education and to the students of Hewlett-Woodmere Schools. As we have said before, change won’t happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere and it has to start with us!

Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D. February 01, 2012 at 08:02 PM
I applaud you for opening this discussion about educational policy, and homework, in particular. As you note, the research is scant regarding the positive effects of homework. Further, and not as well known, homework-giving is not actually taught in schools of education. It would seem that if the practice is truly important, teachers should have more training in how it is used. As you note, some teachers changed their policies after seeing the film. One reason they made the "change," is that they were probably not introduced to homework research, theory, and practice in school. It's not their fault, but worth taking pause that so much emphasis has been placed on a practice without better professional support. My own thoughts, in formulating your school district's homework policy, is to incorporate three recommendations. First, whatever time limit you set for homework, e.g. ten minutes per grade per night is standard, make sure time is defined by the clock, not by the assignment. Kids who work slowly are truly harmed when they are required to work until the assignment is done. Then, of course, the next step requires modifying penalties for work not done. After all, the only way that parents will back off and let the child stop doing the work is if the child does not get penalized harshly for work not done. The final step is to recognize that parents are the heads of their homes and make the final decision. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D. www.thehomeworktrap.com.
Stephen J. Bronner February 01, 2012 at 09:20 PM
Thanks for the comment!

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