As a parent, teacher and citizen, I’m concerned about persistent achievement gaps in Minnesota schools, as described once again in Tuesday’s newspaper (“Scores in reading, math fail to budge,” Aug. 8).
While we are looking for new solutions, I propose that we let go of some old obsessions that we now can say clearly have not worked.
For this parent of three kids, the big one is homework, especially the mindless yet stubborn insistence on “10 minutes per grade, per night.” That piece of silliness never was backed up by solid research, and all it has done is drive a wedge between school and home as school personnel, with good intentions at heart, preach endlessly to parents about the importance of creating a space just for homework and offering “a guide by their side.” But that, we can now see, is so much hogwash. As a parent, I would love to stop worrying about it, until my children reach the upper grades. Last year, in 10th grade, my oldest child took command of his own home study. I consider that a sign that home study has begun to do him some good.
A second questionable mantra is that a child has to be organized before he or she can learn. Given that babies are born already learning, it seems obvious that no amount of organization is needed in order to learn. We must stop holding children back from other pursuits until they can tie their shoes, or clean out their desks, or remember to bring papers home and back again (which will be less of an issue once we’ve dispensed with homework). I’m all for quiet study environments, but not all day, every day. Talent goes to waste while we wait for 30 children to stand in a neat line, sit in their squares on a carpet or produce fresh notebooks all year long because we wanted them in five designated colors back in September. Learning is messy, and we only harm ourselves by insisting that it appear neat and orderly.
And while we all know that children learn best at certain hours of the day and that they should sleep and eat according to millennia-old circadian rhythms, most of our schools continue to demand that teenagers “get up and learn” at hours of the day when they should be fast asleep. It may well be that business hours could also use some adult adjustments, but at this point we should be offering young children their intense exposure to learning environments early in the day and elementary kids a little later, and then letting teenagers rest — with proper nourishment and supervision — until midmorning.
All of these wrongheaded obsessions contribute to our achievement gaps by race, class or other divisions, because all of them require added resources at home. A family that can pay for tutors and other supporting adults can meet these obsessions and get their kids through the hoops at school; a family that struggles with multiple jobs at inadequate pay has a much harder time doing so.
The first two obsessions would be easy to drop, and we should do so sooner rather than later. The third one would require significant public investment, but maybe if we all stopped buying so many school supplies, and backpacks to haul them around in, we could afford some added paraprofessional staff members and bus drivers to meet our children’s needs for sleep, nourishment and healthy recreation.
Anne Holzman, of Bloomington, is a substitute teacher and freelance writer and editor.