What do we want from our schools?

In the December 17, 2012 issue of the New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about one of the French President’s more obscure powers; he can abolish homework, and in fact has the intention of doing so. It’s easy to imagine that such a move would win him a huge majority of voters in the 8-18 demographic, but the article goes on to explore the efficacy of homework in general. As I’ve argued for a long time, there is very little reason for homework, and very little correlation between homework and academic achievement. The longest term and most in-depth studies show only a slight connection between homework and success in school, and it’s a connection that draws at least in part on the relative education and income levels of families. There is no study that shows that large amounts of homework make much, if any, difference for students.

I encourage you to read the New Yorker article, as it explores these questions in more depth. But I was more intrigued by a deeper question Menand poses. He asserts that homework is in fact a reflection of the kind of schools that a country and its population perceive that they want. Thus, Finland, the most highly rated education system in the world by Pearson’s global report, has no homework. South Korea, in the number two spot, is legendary for the sheer quantity of study expected by their students. Each approach reveals something about the national character.

And so the question surfaces for us. What kind of schools do we, as a country or a state, want? Especially at a deeper, perhaps less conscious level, what do we as parents, educators, and citizens, want for our students?

I’ll hazard a couple of guesses, in no particular order, but I’d be very curious to hear what others’ perceptions might include.

I believe that Americans in general want schools that are orderly, safe, and serious. Parents are often confused when they see children out of their seats, not utilizing textbooks, having fun, even when deeply engaged in learning. Somehow we carry an image deeply embedded in our cultural psyche that learning means sitting at a desk and being quiet.

Americans want the basics covered. The horror stories of students graduating and being unable to read, or being deficient in foundational math skills, provoke a round of collective disapproval and often blame aimed at the education system.

Surveys also have shown that parents want their children to learn kindness, to get along with others, and to show compassion.

We also want schools that compare favorably to schools in other nations. One of the best ways to get us riled up is by showing how we are lower than others in international rankings.

It’s not a comprehensive list, but it raises the question of where the central focus of the WISN fits with directions in American education.

At the WISN, we believe that the focus on schools should be on encouraging innovation in education in order to identify and share best practices. We also believe that those best practices include a focus on collaboration, creativity, and student-focused instruction. Does this vision fit with the larger direction of American education, and with the image our culture has for schools?

The short answer is that I don’t know, but that I believe a central tenet of our work is to share what we are learning about education, not only with members of our network, but with the public at large. It’s not enough to function within an isolated group. The work of changing education takes place as much in legislative bodies and community forums as it does in schools themselves.

And so our direction in the new year becomes two fold, inner and outer. We will continue making connections between educators, sharing what we’re learning. But we will also work to form and reveal a vision of what education can be, to be part of the debate about where schools are headed.

And if, along the way, we can rethink homework, we’ll have a host of new advocates, drawn from those who matter most— the students themselves.

As always, I welcome your feedback.

-Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director