Homework for Parents

The New York Times has a story on a novel approach to teaching high-school English: assigning homework to parents:

So far, Mr. [Damion] Frye, an English teacher at Montclair High School, has asked the parents to read and comment on a Franz Kafka story, Section 1 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and a speech given by Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Their newest assignment is a poem by Saul Williams, a poet, musician and rapper who lives in Los Angeles. The ninth graders complete their assignments during class; the parents are supposed to write their responses on a blog Mr. Frye started online.

If the parents do not comply, Mr. Frye tells them, their child’s grade may suffer — a threat on which he has made good only once in the three years he has been making such assignments.

I first encountered this via an indignant post on a friends-locked LiveJournal, but my first thought was “That’s a really cool idea.”

My second thought was “I bet you wouldn’t get away with that in a math class.”

As the Times notes in passing, and as is extensively documented at various web sites like this one from Education Week and this report from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory among others, parental involvement has been shown to be a very large factor in student learning. The more involved the parents are in their child’s education, the better the students do. Or, to crib from Michigan’s PDF flyer on parental involvement (or the Google HTML version thereof):

Family participation in education was twice as predictive of students’ academic success as family socioeconomic status. Some of the more intensive programs had effects that were 10 times greater than other factors.

To the extent that Frye’s parental homework gets parents who otherwise wouldn’t’ve taken in interest in what their kids are learning to actually get involved, this is a great idea.

Now, you can argue about how big a concern that really is for families in one of the top ten “affordable suburbs” of the New York metro area, and say that Frye is really just imposing an additional hassle on affluent suburban parents who are already doing a fine job. But then, you might be surprised at the lack of involvement on the part of people who ought to do better.

The article isn’t all that specific about the length of the pieces he asks parents to read, or the length of the comments he expects. The short list given in the piece doesn’t seem like all that terrible a burden, though. The official statement from the school also disputes the claim that students are punished for their parents’ failure to complete the assignment, which seems to be the main source of outrage over the article. (Aside from one person who is offended by the class implications, and evidently didn’t read to the second page of the article, where most of those concerns are addressed– all of the parents do have Internet access, and Frye does make accomodations for those who don’t have English as a first language, or who don’t like to use computers.) I don’t think he’s asking anything all that unreasonable.

As I said, I think that this is a really clever idea, and I’d love to see somebody try it with a science or math class. I suspect that the “How dare he make parents do work” reaction would be a whole lot stronger if math were involved, but if you could get parents to go along, it might do some real good, particularly if the problems were chosen carefully to demonstrate the importance of science and math in modern life.