Dear Dr. Courtright,
I’ll keep this short and sweet. This email comes to you from a small independent school. As a gifted educator of forty years, I have long admired and appreciated Duke’s work on behalf of gifted learners. At my school, we pride ourselves on a differentiated curriculum that strives to provide instruction that is both appropriate and respectful of our student population. This philosophy also applies to homework assignments.
Recently, the mother of a very bright second grade student has been very vocal in opposition to our homework policy, which is differentiated and includes twenty minutes a day of reading, daily journal response, and math activity. The spelling is differentiated, but we have made the choices of activities optional as this particular student consistently spells very well. The assignments are given on Monday to accommodate busy family schedules.
Could you please give me advice on how to discuss homework with this parent so that she can come to understand that it is a means of supporting young students as they learn to manage themselves, materials, and time while they become independent lifelong learners?
J.D. in North Carolina
As a life-long educator myself, including twenty years as a district coordinator of gifted education in two school districts in North Carolina, I have heard similar arguments a number of times — typically from parents who want their children identified for and enrolled in the program for gifted students, but don’t want the work that accompanies such a placement. It is absurd for a parent who has an option between regular education (that provides the child with a good fit in rigor and complexity) and gifted education (with a substantially higher level of rigor and complexity) to complain that the gifted program is “too hard” and needs to be “easier” for the sake of their child. And never mind that the other children in the class were well-served by the level of challenge delivered to them by the teacher — or that this rigor was exactly why their parents enrolled them in the program.
In my role as a gifted coordinator, I was always happy to back up the teacher and let the parent know, “You have a choice. But this program is for students for whom the standard curriculum is a total misfit. They need this level of challenge. We will continue to expect this level of performance for the sake of the very children who are in the program and need it. You have a choice to accept the rigor of the program or opt for regular education, where there will be a level of challenge that more closely matches your perception of your child’s level of need for differentiation.”
However, before delivering this message, I also always made absolutely certain that what was being sent home as homework was designed to promote a deeper understanding of the concepts, issues, or themes of the discipline for the day. I made sure that the homework wasn’t just assigned without adequate introduction and practice provided by the teacher before sending the students home to work on it on their own; and that it wasn’t just mindless repetition to fill up a worksheet with “more of the same.” The work sent home had to be meaningful. If not, then the parent would certainly have a legitimate complaint that the homework is unnecessary and meaningless. However, from my point of view, the response to that concern would not be to eliminate the homework (as the parent seems to be arguing), but to ensure that the homework assigned is meaningful in its own right and not burdensome.
Here is a longer explanation of the difference between meaningful and repetitive homework that you may find useful when exploring and discussing this topic: http://www.alfiekohn.org.
I would like to close with the notation that, inasmuch as I am unfamiliar with the particulars of this specific situation, neither Duke TIP nor I are in a position to advocate one particular approach (or one side) over the other in a situation like this. There are many variables to consider, and there isn’t enough known about the parent’s objection to be put in the position of being “the authority” in addressing those objections. However, I hope that my perspective and the link I’ve shared will offer insights to you, the parent, and all other parties concerned.
I hope you are able to come to an amenable resolution of the disagreement, one that finds the outcome that offers the best fit not for you, nor the parent, but for the child.
Gifted Education Specialist