Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Homework Gap

You’ve probably already read “Bridging the Digital Divide That Leaves Schoolchildren Behind” in the Technology section of yesterday’s NYTimes. How then do we process Anya Kamenetz’s piece for npr.org published today, “Study in Your PJs? What a High School ‘Work From Home’ Day Looks Like.” While the Times piece (written by Celia Kang) focuses on the homework challenges faced by the 40% of students in the McAllen, TX area who live in homes that can’t afford internet access, Kamenetz’s piece talks about a public school in northern NJ (Park Ridge) that had a voluntary distance learning day in which all of students were encouraged to stay at home. According to the principal of the NJ school quoted in Kamenetz’s piece, “99 percent” of the students in that district have high-speed internet at home. Park Ridge was experimenting with a distance learning day mostly to be innovative, with some lip-service paid to college readiness and future bad-weather situations. Meanwhile in McAllen and across the country, low-income students are lucky if they live in a district that is experimenting with wifi-hotspot-enabled school buses. Otherwise, they have to sit in fast food restaurants for hours using free internet. Burger King: the ideal setting to work on your research paper about Macbeth. Compare and contrast: fast food restaurants and the blasted heath.

At the boarding school where I work, we have had tough discussions about how late at night we allow our boarders to access our (strong, omnipresent) wifi network. We care about equal opportunities to access the web for our boarders and our day students. The conversation can tie you in knots since it requires you to make generalizations about what the parents of day students allow their children to do, or what the parents of our boarders would like us to do in their stead, but we are talking about a situation in which everyone has access to the web nearly all of the time. And even when we turn off the wifi (very, very late at night), many students just stay on their devices using their own data plans.

The Times piece discusses the Lifeline program that (controversially) spends $2 billion in tax dollars to subsidize broadband for low-income households. Hopefully the FCC will re-up this program next month, but much more attention is needed to the so-called homework gap. Students at my school complain (a little melodramatically at times) that they really can’t do any homework any more without access to the web, and in truth, that’s where they look up their assignments and access relevant coursework. Lifeline is a start, but we also need much more funding at the local level for public libraries, which for many school children are the go-to setting for after school internet study time. Wouldn’t we much rather see our kids working in a library than a fast food restaurant or a school bus? How does one even do homework for hours on a school bus, especially after dark and in cold weather? This issue is beginning to sound like it is one part educational access crisis, one part public health crisis.

 

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Family Vacations and School Absences

I enjoyed reading Jessica Lahey’s piece in the NYTimes’ Motherlode blog, “Skipping School for Vacation: Good for Families, Or Bad for Students?” (2.15.16) Lahey’s piece is a  response to a blog post from September by Jeanne Sager in which Sager laments that the public school district where she sends her kids labelled it “illegal” when she pulled her kids out of classes for a family vacation, even though the teachers were given advanced warning and cooperated by sending the kids off with the work they’d be missing. (To be accurate, the entire state in which she resides passed a law declaring such vacations illegal!)

Because of my work in an independent school deans’ office, I often find myself on the front lines of this sticky conflict. Schools want to support their faculty and keep the focus on academics, so they frown on parents taking their kids on vacations that don’t align with the school’s calendar. Lahey makes all of the salient points regarding the challenges these absences pose to teachers, and she provides an even-handed look at the families’ point of view, too. I would add another argument in support of parents who occasionally need to pull their kids out of school for vacation: Many of them have children at multiple schools simultaneously. If you have three kids, ages 9, 12, and 15, they might very well be at three different schools. Perhaps they are all in the same public school district with an identical calendar, but often that isn’t the case, particularly if one or more of them goes to private or parochial school.

Of course in my work I am often on the other side of the phone when a parent calls to say that they are planning a vacation when our school is in session. What administrators appreciate most from parents is honesty and a recognition that some missed work might not be easily made up, and that could affect a student’s academic progress. As Lahey’s piece points out, missing multiple days of a student’s junior year of high school is a lot different than missing those same days in third grade. Like it or not (and I don’t), high schools are put in the position of ranking and sorting students for college admissions, and in the interest of fairness, it’s a challenge for us when a family pulls their child out of school when the major essay is due, or when the huge test is administered. In the independent school world, we are truly eager to partner with parents for the good of their kids. If the family vacation is a priority, be honest about that and approach the school in a spirit of willing collaboration, and we’ll see what we can do to help the student stay on top of their work. What we don’t much like is five phone calls on five consecutive mornings claiming that your child is home with the flu when we have already heard from all of their friends that your family is on vacation in Ft. Lauderdale. (And don’t get me started about the telltale social media posts!)

Lahey also notes that digital distance learning tools are eroding the differences between actually being “in” school or participating remotely. (Here she cites Zach Galvin, an assistant principal from Natick, MA.) It must be a rather joyless experience to take your child on a vacation only to plunk them down in front of their laptop in the hotel room so that they can participate in class through a video chat. I side with the mindfulness crowd: be present where you are. If you flew to Europe to see the Alps, breathe deeply of the mountain air, and turn in the work that you were able to get done when you get back to school.

While schools and parents will continue to come into conflict over family vacations that clash with the academic calendar, both sides need to show some generosity of spirit and work together. For schools, that means not acting like we never reschedule a test or push a deadline in order to accommodate a special situation. We certainly do! Having written policies that reflect reality would be helpful. For parents, please take Lahey seriously when she talks about the challenges that teachers face when asked to package material for a student who is going to be out for a number of days. Our classes don’t just cover material in a textbook. But Jeanne Sager was entirely correct when she felt maligned by her kids’ school labeling her family vacation “illegal.” Save that kind of rhetoric for the Israel-Palestine conflict. We’re just talking about children missing a few days of school.