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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

MIT Brain Study: Back-and-Forth Talk Key to Developing Kids' Verbal Skills

From WBUR 90.9 FM's Blog

By Carey Goldberg
February 14, 2018

New MIT research finds that for children's brain development, parents don't just need to talk to their kids — it's important to talk with them, in back-and-forth exchanges.

"What we found is, the more often parents engaged in back-and-forth conversation with their child, the stronger was the brain response in the front of the brain to language," said Cognitive Neuroscience Professor John Gabrieli.

That stronger brain response, measured as children ages 4 to 6 lay in a scanner listening to simple stories, reflects a deeper, more intimate engagement with language, said graduate student Rachel Romeo.

On average, a child from a better-off, more-educated family is likely to hear 30 million more words in the first three years of life than a child from a less-well-off family.

That finding from 1995 helped explain some school achievement gaps. Now, the MIT researchers have illuminated howmore talking actually changes a child's brain — and it's not just about the number of words a child hears, Romeo said. It's about interaction, the number of conversational "turns" that parents and preschool-aged children took while wearing recorders that taped their every word over two days.

And the effect didn't depend on parents' income or education, she noted, so it's not as if lower-income children are "doomed" to weaker verbal abilities.

"It seems to suggest, instead, that if they're provided with a rich verbal environment early in life, that that can predict great language and cognitive outcomes," Romeo said.

The finding is an important addition to work over the last 20-plus years on language development, said Dr. Marilyn Augustyn, a behavioral pediatrician at Boston Medical Center who was not involved in the study. She praised its use of brain scanners and recording devices to move the research forward.

A previous study turned up similar MRI findings on children who were read to by their parents, she said, "But what's really revolutionary about this study — and why I think it's really important — is it did both: It looked at the conversations, the words that children heard, and then also looked at the brain activation."

It strengthens a two-part message, she added. "One, we need to talk to our children from the moment they're born, and probably in utero. And two, that language needs to come out of a relationship — and that's what this study really cements.

It isn't about streaming tape to a child through the course of a day with thousands and thousands of words, because those become meaningless. It's really about the relationship."

The next step in the research, Romeo said, will be to study an early intervention that gives toddlers more back-and-forth conversations.

"Obviously a two-year-old is not going to debate philosophy with you, but just a back and forth with them, whatever their capabilities are, is really valuable," she said.

The study found a broad range in how many conversational "turns" parents and child took in the course of an hour, from just 90 to as many as 400, Romeo said.

Families under more stress — say, with parents holding down more jobs — may have a harder time changing their conversational interactions with children, Gabrieli acknowledged. "But it is a thing — a very specific thing — that any of us could do with the right encouragement and support," he said.

Passively watched screens clearly do not bring the same sort of interaction as real conversation. But could a smart speaker use artificial intelligence to develop a child's brain much as a conversational parent would?

That question will require more study, the researchers said. Some initial research suggests that if devices can really respond to what a child says, they may offer added benefits, Romeo said.

But Dr. Augustyn is skeptical. Children can become very connected to technology, she said, but even if they develop some sort of relationship with a smart speaker, ultimately, "Alexa doesn't have a lap."

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Few Parents Plan for Future of Children with Disabilities, Study Finds

From DisabilityScoop

By Courtney Perkes
February 22, 2018

Many parents of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities are not doing enough to prepare for the prospect of their children outliving them, according to a new University of Illinois study.

Jessica Clark, right, who has Down syndrome and is also legally blind, reaches
in to hug her mother Joann Clark in the kitchen of the home they share in
Glen Mills, PA. Joann Clark is worried about what will happen to her daughter
after she is gone. (Michael Bryant/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Nearly 400 parents of children ages 3 to 68 responded to a national survey on what steps they’ve taken to ensure future care for them. Only 3.6 percent of parents had completed a full list of 11 tasks that researchers asked about including establishing legal guardianship, power of attorney and securing a residential placement. While 32 percent had done a moderate amount of preparation, 12 percent had taken no action, the survey showed.

“We know that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are having longer lives and beginning to outlive their parents,” said lead author Meghan Burke, a professor of special education in Champaign, Ill. “When a parent can no longer provide care or passes away, that’s a crisis situation for the family. We have to start planning for the future and that transition.”

The survey found that barriers to long-term care plans included cost, lack of time and stress. The biggest reason, cited by 61 percent of parents, was a lack of residential, employment and recreational services.

“I’ve had parents contact me and say, ‘One of the reasons why I haven’t planned is because there are no services,'” Burke said. “You can’t just keep putting the onus on parents. We also need some systemic changes in our delivery service system.”

Burke, who has an adult brother with Down syndrome, said other concrete planning steps can range from writing a letter of intent describing protocols and routines for care to establishing a special-needs trust. Among the tasks that parents were asked about, locating a knowledgeable attorney was the most commonly taken step, with 58 percent of parents reporting doing so.

Brian Rubin, a Buffalo Grove, Illinois attorney who specializes in special needs planning, said making preparations can be overwhelming for parents because their lives are often so hectic.

“You are dealing with what’s going on tomorrow at school,” said Rubin who has a 37-year-old son with autism. “I’ve got this doctor and this therapy. You’re dealing with the day-to-day and it’s not so much intentional that you would have your head in the sand, but there’s only so many hours in the day.”

Thirty-nine percent of parents reported a lack of information as a barrier to future planning. Rubin said he recommends that parents attend free talks put on by nonprofits such as The Arc to help them get started.

“Where is this child going to be living and with whom can be the hardest question for some parents,” Rubin said. “Is this child going to be living independently with some assistance? When we try to determine how much money they’re going to need, it depends on where they’re living.”

Burke said children should also be included in the planning process.

“We’ve been encouraging families to talk to their family member with a disability and not just make it about the parents and the siblings,” she said. “Maybe just talking about it informally at first because it’s such a big, loaded topic.”

The study will be published in the April edition of the journal Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Supporting vs. Enabling

From the Child Mind Institute

By Julia Johnson Attaway
February 20, 2018

How to tell what's helping and what's not when a child has emotional or learning challenges.

Why do parents spoon-feed babies, but expect healthy fourth graders to feed themselves? Because babies aren’t able to do the task alone, but older kids can. One of the basic ways we distinguish support from coddling is by assessing what children are capable of doing. The normal progression moves from complete support to coaching or teaching to self-reliance.

Yet what is relatively clear with a typical kid becomes murkier when a child struggles with learning disabilities or mental health issues. It’s not always easy to figure out what counts as supportive and what is enabling when a child’s mood, anxiety, distractability, and behavior vary from day to day. How do you know if you are being considerate of your child’s difficulties… or limiting his growth by taking on tasks he can do himself?

What is support?

“Life will throw all kinds of challenges at kids,” says Dr. David Anderson, a psychologist and director of the Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, “And the goal of support is to build up resilience and develop coping strategies.”

So let’s start with a rule of thumb: support should always empower your child to move forward toward greater stability and more independence. Support will acknowledge difficulties yet not eliminate them. It’s about working with your child as he learns to overcome obstacles, manage fears, and build confidence.

Thus it is always supportive to:
  • Learn about your child’s disorder and treatment, so you are clear about what is helpful for healing and what is not
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings, validating how hard it is to be scared, sad, uncomfortable, embarrassed, or struggling
  • Provide simple human comforts – snuggles, hot chocolate, a shoulder rub, sensory tools, anything that brings the stress down — and practical assistance that helps her push through strong emotions
  • Model healthy coping skills for handling frustration, disappointment, anger and anxiety (or model perseverance if you are still learning how to do this)
  • Provide structure at home in the form of appropriate rules, schedules, and positive consequences so your child can experience success with his behavior
  • Notice and comment upon small steps forward, praising effort and perseverance in addition to results
  • Discuss house rules and consequences in calm times, so you don’t find yourself inventing them on the fly
  • Coach your child through problems she cannot handle without assistance
  • Set clear boundaries for the personal health and safety of all members of the family (including yourself!)
  • Advocate for your child at his school, so he has accommodations for his disability that level the playing field
  • Seek professional help for any member of your family who is struggling.

If your child is already working with a therapist, you can support the work done in session by asking for “homework” that reinforces skills being worked on. The therapist may also provide guidance on strategies you can use in handling specific problems.

How Enabling is Different

To enable is to inadvertently reinforce an undesired behavior. All parents do this to some degree, because it’s only natural to want to shield our children from pain, fear, failure, difficulty and embarrassment.

Research suggests it’s best to delay exposure to the big risks like drugs, sex, and alcohol as long as possible, but as Dr. Anderson notes, children shouldn’t be protected from all risk-taking. Smaller risks are where kids build coping skills and confidence.

As parents we have to learn to tolerate our own discomfort at seeing kids struggle if we are going to help them grow.

Enabling undesirable behavior also occurs when we give in to complaints or demands because we desperately want to avoid conflict. This avoidance is generally a short-term fix that’s at odds with helping the child make long-term progress.

It is usually enabling to:

  • Allow your child to avoid all uncomfortable situations
  • Cover up for things your child did, forgot to do, or did poorly
  • Speak up on her behalf instead of letting her learn to express her own thoughts and feelings
  • Enforce house rules inconsistently because you feel bad about your child’s struggles or are afraid he won’t like you
  • Overly react to non-violent tantrums by engaging in long lectures or emotional fireworks of your own
  • Intervene with other adults to prevent your child from experiencing disappointment, rather than helping her work through her feelings
  • Protect him from the natural consequences of his actions.

When Matters are Not Clear-Cut

Unfortunately, mental health symptoms vary from day to day, so what’s possible for a kid to do one day may be impossible the next. A depressed teen may, for example, muster the energy to do homework on Tuesday, then climb into bed overwhelmed by sadness on Wednesday.

An anxious kid might make it through the school day but then explode in the safety of home. This shifting ground between ability and disability can make it difficult for parents to know what constitutes support and what enables mental health challenges to retain their grip.

Gauging what your child can and can’t do will always be a matter of observation, parental judgment, and trial and error. However, your accuracy in predicting success will improve if you keep track of the circumstances surrounding when success occurs.

Often the good days are a function of basics, such as:
  • Did your child have a solid night’s sleep?
  • Did he eat enough food and drink enough fluid?
  • What else happened this week? (bullying at school, change of routine, family strife, etc.)
  • What’s on the horizon? (upcoming exams, unpleasant anniversaries, stressful situations)
  • Has medication has been taken regularly, or has there been a recent change in medication?
  • How calmly have you been able to respond to your child’s anger or distress?
  • How consistent have you (and your partner) been in sticking to house rules?
  • Is there any physical issue going on? (hormonal cycle, headache, incipient stomach bug, or other)

As you build your database of insight, you will get better at assessing whether your expectations are impossible, difficult-but-possible-with-help, difficult-but-possible-with-time, or not a problem.

Drama vs. Reality

Kids with emotional challenges are refreshingly like every other kid on the planet when it comes to trying to get what they want… and avoid doing what they dislike. Sometimes the strategies they use involve capitalizing on a nugget of truth, like exaggerating a legitimate emotion.

This is normal. Like most of us, kids tend to plead being overwhelmed when they simply fear being overwhelmed, and think “I can’t!” when they really mean “I don’t want to!”

Any parent who has logged hours of worry over their kid is likely to find this incredibly provoking. The prospect of heading into (yet another) downward spiral is anxiety inducing. This can make determining how much of your child’s protest is due to inability and how much is an overlay of drama extra tricky.

Try to avoid falling into the either/or, can-she-or-can’t-she trap. Almost all situations fall somewhere between can and can’t, and the way to find the sweet spot is to validate your child’s feeling and move things forward from there.

For example, you might say:
  • “I know you don’t feel up to it, but I’d like you to come anyway. If you’re still too exhausted once we get there, we don’t have to go in.”
  • “Yes, this will be challenging, and yet I’m pretty sure we can find ways to help you manage it.”
  • “Aww, I can see you’re tired! That often happens when you haven’t had enough fluids. Let me get you a cup of juice and see if that helps perk you up.”
  • “It’s normal to be nervous about something like this. What’s one thing you can do to pull your anxiety down to a more manageable level?”
  • “Hmmm. I can see it seems intimidating, yet I’m pretty sure it’s not entirely What could we do to make it merely very difficult?”

What you’re looking for is the middle ground, the wiggle room, the tiny step of progress. If you succeed – great! If you don’t, the information you gather in the process will equip you for the next round. Talk to your child’s therapist, collaborate on strategies, report back on progress… and move forward.

With patience and insight, time and wisdom, professional help and at-home parental support, your child will make progress.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Gap Between the Science on Kids and Reading, and How It is Taught

From nprEd
How learning happens.

By Claudio Sanchez
February 12, 2018

Mark Seidenberg is not the first researcher to reach the stunning conclusion that only a third of the nation's schoolchildren read at grade level. The reasons are numerous, but one that Seidenberg cites over and over again is this: The way kids are taught to read in school is disconnected from the latest research, namely how language and speech actually develop in a child's brain.

Seidenberg is a cognitive scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In his latest book, Language at the Speed of Sight, he points out that the "science of reading" can be a difficult concept for educators to grasp. He says it requires some basic understanding of brain research and the "mechanics" of reading, or what is often referred to as phonics.

I talked with Seidenberg about what it will take to improve reading instruction. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

National Assessment of Educational Progress assesses student performance
in reading at grades four, eight and 12 in both public and private schools.
Achievement levels define what students should know and be able to do:
"Basic" indicates partial mastery of fundamental skills, and "proficient"
indicates demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter.

So how do you explain this to teachers?

Success in reading depends on linking print to speech. There's a massive amount of behavioral research, neuroimaging research, on brain organization and brain development, which conclusively shows that skilled reading is associated with children's spoken language, grammar and the vocabulary they already know. It's about teaching kids the correspondence between the letters on a page and the sounds of words.

And you're saying that teachers don't know this?
This basic science does not go into the preparation of teachers. More often they're told it's not really relevant, that the science is sterile and has no connection with what teachers do in the classroom.

What I point out in the book is that in order to grasp the research, [teachers] need basic scientific literacy to be able to understand it. They can dismiss [what I'm saying] or they can share my outrage.

Is that the reason you wrote Language at the Speed of Sight? Outrage?

I was motivated by accumulating frustration. I've reviewed the science of reading and documented how little impact it has had on educational practice, and I think this is bad. It has put kids at risk for failure.

Reading scientists have been talking about this for a long time and tried to communicate with educators and failed. We have not been able to get the science past the schoolhouse door.

In your book, you wade into the reading wars and argue that the debate over phonics vs. whole language is largely to blame for the poor reading skills of American students. But you say it's not a question of "either/or." Kids need to be exposed to great books and rich literature and they need to know the symbols and sounds of letters. Where are we on that front?

The reading wars are over and science lost. Phonics is just one specific component of learning to read that's important at a particular point in a child's development. The reading wars did not focus on this, so the conflict was set up in a bogus way.

You say the conflict has been political.

The political solution was called "balanced literacy," which called on teachers to use the best of both approaches. But it left it up to teachers who had been trained to dismiss phonics and brush off the science.

One interesting recommendation you offer is that college graduates who sign up for Teach for America be hired not as classroom teachers but as an army of reading tutors.

Yes. They could be trained to provide supplemental reading instruction, one-on-one or in small groups. That's what wealthy people do. They pay for tutors. Poor people can't.

So I would say yeah, put more people in the classroom or after-school programs who focus on reading and language. This would be helpful.

What about legislation like what Michigan passed recently that prohibits schools from promoting third-graders to the fourth grade unless they can read at grade level? Educators have been supportive of the new law but say the funding for it is sorely lacking. Do you think such a mandate is a good idea?

I don't think its a good idea if they merely passed a law that says, "You better read." That's punishing the kid. There have to be programs and investments to support teachers, students and parents.

You insist that the training and credentialing of teachers is also inadequate, and you single out colleges of education.

It's clear that ed schools are setting teachers up to fail. [The teachers are] plopped in the classroom to learn on the job because the ideology in ed schools is a "learning by doing" philosophy. I think it's really a mess.

At the end of your book you recommend that schools of education overhaul the curriculum to make sure newly minted teachers leave with a basic understanding of linguistics and child development. You say states must change their teacher-licensure requirements. And, finally, you want school districts to vastly expand tutoring for children who are struggling to read.

Yes. It's necessary to get all these folks on board. And indeed, one could see how parents and community leaders would also get on board. I don't pretend to know how to approach them. What I can do is explain how reading works, how children develop and how we can teach children to read better.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

For Children: Sleep Hygiene and Sleep Debt

From NESCA News & Notes

By Rebecca Girard, LICSW, CAS
February 19, 2018

For many students, teachers, and families in Massachusetts (and several other states throughout the country), this week marks a vacation and a time for rest. In that spirit, this week on NESCA News & Notes, we are highlighting the importance of good sleep hygiene for children, a vital element of wellness, mental health, and learning.

Check out this short TEDx talk by Roxanne Prichard of the University of St Thomas about the importance of sleep for children. Highlights of the talk include:
  • Sleep is an essential for a healthy brain;
  • United States school children are ranked 1st among nations with academic problems directly attributable to sleepiness;
  • A 2014 Sleep in America poll found that fewer than 1 in 5 teens is getting the minimum amount of recommended sleep.

Benefits of a good night’s sleep include:
  • Better regulated vital systems including growth and immune responses;
  • Better memory and ability to retain new information;
  • Boosts mood.

Tips for good sleep health (according to the CDC):
  • Be consistent. Make sure your child goes to bed at the same time each night and gets up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends (as much as possible);
  • Make sure the bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature;
  • Remove electronic devices, such as TVs, computers, and smart phones, from the bedroom;
  • Avoid screens 30 minutes before bedtime. Promote reading, drawing or another quiet, non-screen activity to wind down;
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine, and sugar right before bedtime;
  • Make sure your child is getting some exercise. Being physically active during the day can help a child fall asleep more easily at night.

So how much sleep does a child need?

For more information on Dr. Roxanne Prichard as well as sleep hygiene, visit the following web sites:

About the Author

Rebecca Girard, LICSW, CAS is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in neurodivergent issues, sexual trauma, and international social work. She has worked primarily with children, adolescents, adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their families for over a decade.

Ms. Girard is highly experienced in using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) as well as Socio-dramatic Affective Relational Intervention (SDARI), in additional to a number of other modalities.

She is excited to provide enhanced psychotherapy to children with ASD at NESCA as well as to provide therapeutic support to youth with a range of mood, anxiety, social and behavioral challenges. Her approach is child-centered, strengths-based, creative and compassionate.

Most States Shortchange Public School Students Despite Growing Evidence that Money Matters

From the Education Law Prof Blog

By Derek Black
February 22, 2018

"The stark reality is most states still fund their public schools based on pure politics, not on the cost of delivering quality education to all students."

From the Education Law Center:

The seventh edition of Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card (NRC), released by Education Law Center today, again shows public school funding in most states is unfair and inequitable, depriving millions of U.S. students of the opportunity to succeed in school.

The nation's continuing failure to sufficiently invest in public schools stands in stark contrast to a growing body of research demonstrating that increased funding leads to better outcomes for students. Studies show that school finance reforms that increase spending in low-income districts result in improved student achievement in those districts and a narrowing of achievement gaps.

In fact, these benefits have been shown to last into adulthood in the form of greater educational attainment, higher earnings, and lower rates of adult poverty.

The National Report Card (NRC) uses data from the 2015 Census fiscal survey, the most recent available. The NRC goes beyond raw per-pupil spending calculations by analyzing factors crucial to educational opportunity: whether states provide a sufficient level of school funding and then distribute that funding to address greater student need, as measured by student poverty.

The latest NRC results confirm a disturbing trend: almost no improvement since the end of the Great Recession in those states that do not provide additional funding to districts with high student poverty. There is also no change in the vast disparities in levels of funding for K-12 education across the states, even after adjusting for cost.

The states with the highest funding levels (New York and Alaska) spend more than two and a half times what states with the lowest funding levels spend (Arizona and Idaho).

Key findings include:
  • Funding levels show large disparities, ranging from a high of $18,719 per pupil in New York, to a low of $6,277 in Idaho.
  • The ten states with the lowest funding levels - less than $8,000 per pupil -- include Florida, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. Three of those states, Arizona, Idaho, and North Carolina, provide less than $7,000 per pupil.
  • Many low funding states invest a low percentage of their economic output to support public education. These "low effort" states include California, Utah, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
  • Seventeen states, including Connecticut, Maryland, Maine, and Illinois, have "regressive" school funding. These states provide less funding to their higher poverty school districts, even though students in these districts require more resources to achieve.
  • Students in the South and Southwest face a "double disadvantage" because their states provide low funding with no boost in funding for high poverty districts. States with flat or regressive funding include Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida in the Southeast, and, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico in the Southwest.
  • Only a few states, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Wyoming, provide high levels of school funding and distribute more funding to their high poverty districts. Notably, New Jersey and Massachusetts are the top performing states on student outcomes.
  • States with low or flat school funding have poor results on resource indicators crucial for students to succeed in school. In these states, access to early childhood education is limited; wages for teachers are not competitive with those of comparable professions; and teacher-to-pupil ratios in schools are unreasonably low.

"The NRC released today is a sobering reminder of why unfair school funding is the most significant obstacle to improving outcomes for our nation's public school students," said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director and report co-author. "The stark reality is most states still fund their public schools based on pure politics, not on the cost of delivering quality education to all students."

"School finance reform is long overdue," said Bruce Baker, the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education Professor who developed the report's methodology. "It's long past time for states to develop, and then fund, finance formulas built on the costs of providing essential education resources, accounting for diverse student needs and local fiscal capacity."

Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card is coauthored by Dr. Bruce D. Baker of the Rutgers Graduate School of Education; Dr. Danielle Farrie, Education Law Center Research Director; David Sciarra, Education Law Center Executive Director.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Advocates Caution Against Autism Connection In School Shooting

From DisabilityScoop

By Michelle Diament
February 20, 2018

Chloe Leffler, 14, left, and Dominique Cornwall, 15, during a Florida PTA
statewide vigil in Coral Springs, Fla. to honor the victims of last week's
high school shooting. (Carline Jean/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

After news reports indicated that the school shooter in Florida may be on the spectrum, autism advocates are working to dispel links between violence and the developmental disability.

Reports indicate that Nikolas Cruz who shot and killed 17 people at a Parkland, Florida high school last week had been diagnosed with autism, among other conditions.

“But an autism diagnosis does not explain this horrific act of violence,” reads a statement from Autism Speaks.

“Autism affects each person differently, and misconceptions can increase prejudice toward the vast majority who are peaceful and productive members of society,” the group said.

Autism Speaks is one of at least three advocacy groups that issued statements in recent days in response to the Florida shooting. Others came from the Autism Society and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

All three nonprofits noted that research has shown that people with autism and other disabilities are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.

“We ask that those reporting about this tragic event not suggest or imply any linkage of autism and violence,” reads the Autism Society statement. “Implying or suggesting that a person who is diagnosed with autism is violent is not only wrong but hurtful to the over 3.5 million individuals living in the United States and any other individual with an autism diagnosis.”

School Funding Fairness

From the Education Law Center
at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education

February 22, 2018

The ability of state school finance systems to fairly deliver resources to students is an essential precondition for the delivery of high quality education. States must provide a sufficient level of funding that is fairly distributed to address the additional needs generated by poverty, English language learner status, student disabilities, and other special needs.

Schools educating students with these needs require additional funding to support the programs and services that will provide all students with the opportunity to succeed.

Rigorous school finance research is needed to provide convincing evidence that fair school funding is the central building block of an effective school system. Such research needs to clearly establish the relationship between state funding systems, the equitable distribution of school resources, and student outcomes.

In recognition of this need, researchers at Rutgers Graduate School of Education and Education Law Center created the “Is School Funding Fair?” project to:
  • provide tools for advocates and policymakers to effectively communicate rigorous research to influence positive changes in state school finance policy;
  • provide researchers with open access to the datasets that are the foundation of the school finance research on this site and encourage further exploration;
  • build consensus on the methods for evaluating and comparing state school finance systems and the resulting inequalities in resources and outcomes.

On this website you can find: the award-winning report, “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card” and all related materials, such as interactive reports, press releases, and media mentions; related publications on school finance equity; and open access to compiled data sets and code for further analysis.

7th edition of "Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card" available now.

New report "The Real Shame of the Nation" available now.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Top 10 Reasons Homework Should Be Banned

From ListLand

By James Atwater
November 1, 2016

Homework is one of unique evils that all of us can relate to. Whether it plagued our evenings or weekends – or, for those unfortunate enough to be homeschooled, every waking hour, – for each of us homework evokes an individualized and vivid set of memories.

Mine tend to consist of horrendously early mornings spent either trying to disentangle apparently impossible mathematical equations, or frantically scribbling a series of unsubstantiated (though passably well-articulated) ideas and interpretations for a humanities assignment.

On a particularly bad morning, I’d have to do both.

Looking back, constantly leaving my homework until the last minute was no more than a matter of course. For a guitar-obsessed teenager who would invest more time in the PlayStation than in any given chemistry or biology textbook, homework was always going to take a back seat, as it did amongst my peers.

Indeed, I look back with fondness on friends whose constant failure to even attempt the set homework was matched only by the constantly poor excuses they offered to the teacher: ‘some homeless guy on the bus’ (who presumably had a profound interest in long-shore drift) ‘stole it’ remains my personal favorite.

As a teacher my relationship with homework has taken on a new dynamic. Working in Italy, I am obliged to set (and of course grade) increasingly large amounts of homework: most of which is completed by my female students, little of which is even attempted by my male students. While the dynamic has changed, however, my view has not.

Homework does not help. Instead of contributing to learning, it only threatens to blacken the association young people have with education.

Here are 10 reasons it should be banned.

10.) It encourages conflict.

Homework provides an endless supply of screaming! Ban it!

The sheer fact that the Internet is abound with websites trying to resolve homework-related conflicts and advising parents on how to get their children to do sit down and do it clearly highlights its inherent dislike by children. Parents are, however, in a difficult situation when it comes to appeasing the school and enforcing its completion.

For those who believe in the educational benefits of homework (see the concerned parental response above), there isn’t too much of an issue. For those who don’t, however, and whose children attend a school that sets it in large amounts, they find themselves in a position where they are obliged to police their children and ensure it gets done; going against their own principals and presumably those they would undoubtedly like to instill in their children.

These homework apologists may recognize the fact that homework to a large extent serves to compensate for the failings of the school system. As we’ll see later, work that doesn’t get done at school – often through no fault of the child’s – is set as homework. The idea that it is the child’s responsibility to make up for this, however, is one that parents have to feel comfortable with before they can preach to their children about doing it.

We’re shortly going to look at the negative health effects homework can have on children. Before doing that, however, it’s worth suggesting that one of the most insidious ways in which homework damages children may be psychological.

Not only does it put children off learning through the boring nature of the work, but it also has the potential to create negative cognitive associations between learning and conflict in general – especially where there are family arguments over the amount of time and effort spent doing it.

9.) It favors the few.

Great, another thing that favors the 1%.

Speaking at Paris’ Sorbonne University in 2012, the incumbent French president Fran├žois Hollande suggested banning homework outright; the place for learning, he suggested, should be in the classroom and not at home.

This part of Hollande’s address was entirely in line with his liberal principals. As president of France’s Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party), Hollande recognizes homework as an anti-egalitarian instrument that benefits children who come from wealthy backgrounds, who have healthy working environments that are conducive to learning, and who have parents willing to lend time and energy to helping them.

France is an excellent comparison for the US, for its education system is broadly similar: the school day lasts roughly from 8:00 a.m. – 16:00 p.m. though with the difference that most students have Wednesdays, Saturday afternoons and Sundays off. With children of both countries spending a similar amount of time at school, this means that Hollande’s proposal could readily be implemented, if not at least seriously debated, in the US. So why is it not?

The reason is that homework favors society’s elites, and these elites want to maintain the status quo. It favors the children of the wealthy and educated not by educating their children, but by ensuring they tick boxes, achieve grades and are taught competition.

There will always be parents who’ll ask for more homework to be assigned and who’ll rally against attempts to curtail the already almost impossible workload, confident in the belief that stunts to their children’s development, their short-term suffering, will be compensated by their future prosperity. Homework encourages competition, and parents will pay to get the edge with private tutors. Trust me. I’m one of those tutors.

8.) It doesn’t test anything.

Memorizing doesn’t help with critical thinking skills.

Without wanting to be completely utilitarian, it’s our duty as educators, parents and general enforcers of homework to question the merit of what we’re asking our children to do.Homework is about memorization not education, and there is a case to be made that if you were able to do the homework it never needed to be done, whereas if you weren’t able to do it, you haven’t learnt anything so the whole exercise was pointless.

Here are a few such examples of pointless homework. In a recent tutorial, a 16 year-old Italian student of mine had to write a two-page critique in English of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner – a poem so archaic that even I as a mother-tongue English speaker struggle in parts.

I’m not for one moment questioning the value of studying literature, but writing an essay on Romantic English literature when your spoken English is too elementary to accurately verbally communicate seems like a waste of time. In the end, to justify my pay, I dictated it.

In another tutorial, a student’s homework was to translate a page of dense grammatical explanations (meant for advanced adults) about the third-conditional into Italian; an exercise that astounded me not only because of the dastardly difficulty and pointlessness of the task, but also because my students English-comprehension was so low that it soon became apparent that the nervous boy sitting before me had absolutely no idea what he was reading.

His mum, however, had paid for this ‘tutorial’ and expected results. So within the allotted time we struggled through together, fulfilled the homework’s crazy criteria and merrily learned nothing.

7.) It covers what teachers couldn’t get through in the lesson.

One thing that teachers won’t like to admit is that, with so many arbitrary targets, rigid curricula and time constraints on those in our profession being set across education systems worldwide, high homework rates are inevitable.In fact, the last 23 years have seen an increase from two hours 38 minutes to three hours 58 minutes in the time spent doing homework each week: something that all-too conveniently mirrors trends in governmental target increases.

Unfortunately, when it comes to content, instead of encouraging reflection on the topic covered in class, or curiosity-led research into further facets of the subject, homework tasks often constitute new material that could not be covered in class.

Not only does this mean that we’re unable to tailor homework to the student’s specific academic needs, but it also means that the homework material has often not been pre-taught – something that makes the more conscientious in our profession feel incredibly guilty as we feel we’re letting our students down.

The prevalence of this practice is confirmed by data, which shows that the amount of homework set by teachers is relative to their level of experience. Indeed, as revealed in a 2007 MetLife study into US schools, only fourteen percent of teachers with over 21 years experience assign more than an hour’s homework a night compared to 14 percent of teachers with between zero and five years experience.

This, in part, must be explained by the more experienced teachers’ ability to condense their lessons to fit the curriculum – a good working-system for achieving grades, but one not suitable for education in its own right.

Short of introducing an outright ban, a more effective system at least would be for us to invest more time coordinating amongst ourselves to make sure that we’re neither setting too much homework at the same time nor overlapping on test dates. Anyway, that’s all I have time to say on the subject. There’s grading to be done.

6.) It takes time away from a child’s development.

There was a period during America’s Progressive Era (1890-1920) in which education was viewed as a means to cultivate the creative, artistic and emotional aspects of individual children rather than to encourage uniformity and vocational preparation. A return to this view of education is popular among many parents and educators now, however rigid testing systems – along with increasing amounts of homework – are likely to ensure that this doesn’t happen for some time.

Children landed with lots of homework are often compelled to make a choice; invest more time in extracurricular hobbies and interests or continue to satisfy the requirements dictated by the school. Of course, there are extracurricular activities deemed suitable: and special mention, or even dispensation, may be given to students who excel at a particular sport or instrument (often because of the prestige they bring the school).

Students whose hobbies do not fit into these narrow categories can expect no such dispensations. It will be a long time, for example, before reading one’s way through a literary canon, making Airfix models, socializing with friends; even playing videogames (some of which have been recognized as having enormous educational potential) are accepted over commitments such as a football match or cello recital when it comes to the hierarchy of excuses for uncompleted homework.

It doesn’t, of course, have to be this way. Precedent could be given to indulging in creative arts outside school. In Finland, homework is kept to an absolute minimum, children are encouraged to play outdoors – even in the biting winter – and they are internationally considered to be some of the happiest and highest-achieving children.

While we continue to push our dogmatic beliefs about the benefits of homework, however, it’s unlikely our children will be considered in the same category.

5.) It’s rarely enjoyable.

If homework instilled a love for learning or cultivated a passion for acquiring knowledge, there would be little problem with it.More often than not, however, homework comes in a form that is pointless, mindless and in such vast quantities that there can be no time for absorption or reflection.

Memorization, not rationalization’ is perhaps the most depressing mantra to reflect this; extracted from a concerned father’s 13-year-old daughter when asked whether she understands the garbled, and frankly over-complicated, notes she’d been asked to make for an Earth Science test.

The phrase hits the nail on the head, embodying the main problems recently outlined by pedagogues Mike Horsley and Richard Walker. For it not only captures homework’s remarkably repetitive nature but also exemplifies a learners verbal knee-jerk reaction to being challenged over the complexity of the task being set for them and therefore the validity of its prescription.

The father and author of the remarkable piece from where the quote comes – in which he takes on her homework load for the week – laments at the end that educators almost unanimously favor enormous amounts of homework.

His preference, presumably along with all other rationally thinking parents, would be for his daughter to read a book for pleasure, ‘or write a story or paint a picture or play the guitar’, but rather than being at liberty to indulge in fun and enjoyable activities after a long day at school, children are expected to engage in a poor imitation of the administrative drudgery of adult life.

4.) It encourages bad learning habits.

Muddled studying leads to muddled learning.

You might remember from the introduction that I’m not much of an ambassador for good homework practice. Though I don’t remember much about homework at elementary school, I doubt I was much better at doing it then than I was in high school (though presumably there was less to do). More often than not I’d have something to hand in, and it was usually of a decent standard considering the groggy fog under which it had been written.But I was always tired.

In fact, I was so tired that at any opportunity I would sneak naps in between lessons, which was hardly a productive use of my time. For the most part, my years spent at university (where I actually loved what I was studying, although the paucity of contact hours meant that all work was homework) knocked this habit out of me. But I knew many people who continued to treat their university studies as they treated their school studies, just as I know people who have taken these habits with them into the working world.

These people learned their bad habits early, but not in the classroom. In the classroom, there was the potential to avoid doing work but there were also proportional repercussions. They learned these habits at home, where there was no immediate punishment for procrastination (at least that wasn’t parentally administered).

If not for discipline, there is no reason why school practices should invade the home environment, especially if you can monitor, and if necessary tweak, learning habits in the classroom. School exercises have no place at home; in fact the distinction is required. For if you can create the distinction between work/study-life and home-life early, this sets a good tone for establishing a healthy work-life balance later in life.

3.) It’s a nightmare for teachers.

‘Homework’, according to Canadian talk-show host and political commentator Tommy Schnurmacher, ‘is cruel and unusual punishment. Banning it will improve the life of students, parents and teachers in one fell swoop.’

Indeed, contrary to the idea that teachers derive pleasure in reciprocating the same homework-related misery on their students they once had to deal with, many in our profession view homework as the most unnecessary of evils.

Firstly, there’s the grading. Not only is it often painfully repetitive – at best marking formulaic, short answers; at worst trying to decipher assignments written in such a way that makes the Rosetta Stone look like a walk in the park – but it also takes up time that could be better spent planning lessons to optimize their effectiveness. But we do it, and we do it assiduously.

This is not only because, and believe me when I say this, one of the last things you want is to do is to tell your students that you haven’t had time to grade the homework that they (certainly reluctantly) took the time to do. It’s also because we believe it our duty to provide feedback that will make their pointless undertaking of the task in some way worth its while.

2.) It has detrimental health effects.

Homework takes a toll on kids’ health.

In 2014, the University of Stanford published the results of a study showing that high school students who exceed the upper limit of more than two and a half hours homework a night were more likely to show negative health and stress related symptoms. This correlation is hardly surprising, but deserves to be teased out in a little more detail.

The most clearly affected area, as attested in a Chinese academic paper, is a child’s sleep patterns. Hours of homework eat into time that could be spent resting for the school day ahead – where, let’s not forget, there are trained professionals to monitor and address first-hand the students’ educational needs.

Stress is another major factor that’s easily induced by unrealistic workloads. Fifty-six percent of students from Stanford’s study reported homework as a root cause of stress, while 33 percent mentioned the immense pressure to achieve good grades. Of those sampled, less than 1 percent didn’t consider homework a stress factor.

But don’t just take statistical evidence; browse any message board or comment section on this topic and you’ll soon find parental anecdotes about their children crying until the early hours over unmanageable expectations.

It’s worth briefly returning to Stanford’s study to look at the pooled data.The survey looked at 4,000 students attending 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle class Californian communities – where the median income fell above $90,000. A staggering 93 percent of these students attended college after graduating and reported doing over three hours of homework each night.

This, in itself, is instructive, and reveals a socio-economic trend that needs to be questioned: why do wealthier parents often want heavier workloads for their children.

1.) There are no academic benefits.

A TIMSS (Trends in Math and Science Study) survey, conducted in 2007, revealed that fourth grader students in countries that set below average levels of homework were more academically successful in math and science than those in countries that set above average levels.

In Japan – ranked second in the results table – only three percent of students reported a particularly heavy workload of over three hours a night while a staggering 20 percent of Dutch students – whose scores were in the international top 10 – claimed to do no homework whatsoever. This is in stark contrast to countries like Greece and Thailand, where higher workloads have done nothing to rectify lower scores.

These results are not alone in debunking the myth that homework in any way benefits the academic performance of elementary students. So why, we should ask, are policymakers and educators so hell-bent on enforcing it? In his 2006 publication The Homework Myth, prolific author and outspoken critic of the current educational system Alfie Kohn set out a well argued and evidentially attested thesis saying that the purpose of homework is twofold

Firstly it’s meant to instill an air of competitiveness in children, not only within the physical classroom, but, because of the quantitatively driven approach of policy experts, within the global classroom – against China, Singapore and Finland, for example.

Secondly, homework is used as a weapon to combat adults’ inherent mistrust of children, keeping them busy so they don’t run riot.This latter suggestion may baffle belief, but a concerned parent’s response to the suggestion that homework be banned (‘we have to have homework… otherwise the kids won’t have structure and they will just come home and fool around’) attests to its current orthodoxy.


The thing about homework is that is doesn’t work. As shown by numerous studies, it brings no educational benefits, acts as a root cause of conflict between children, parents and teachers and has detrimental mental and physical effects on children that, by the fact that they’re avoidable, are absolutely inexcusable.

Children are not the only ones to fear the evils of homework though. Teachers, under increasing amounts of pressure to meet targets, cover curricula and achieve grades, are incentivized to set more and more of it and grade more and more of it; something that wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t so aware of its utter pointlessness.

The most important problem, however, is that homework is more closely associated with punishment than with pleasure. Made to be completed during time that should be spent engaging in creative, playful and recreational pursuits, homework doesn’t even have the courtesy to be enjoyable by nature – as is completely apparent from my students’ faces when I fulfill my duties to the school in setting it for them.

And such truth is not surprising when you consider that for homework to be enjoyable, it would have to be everything it’s not: optional instead of mandatory, creative rather than prescribed and objectively appreciated instead of subjectively assessed. Improvement to our children’s education, until we redefine what our definition of education really is, can only be achieved through one thing, its removal.