I'VE PUT two daughters through Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools.
It's had its ups and downs.
Among other things, in many cases the homework load put on their young shoulders was several hours a day beyond what I consider reasonable for anyone trying to live a well-rounded life. It sometimes had an adverse effect.
I join other parents in telling you this point blank, beyond a shadow of a doubt. It's a very common refrain and I'm far from the first to say it.
When School Board President Jolene Byrne recently pushed for the district to reevaluate its homework load, she didn't just base her thinking on feedback from local parents.
She based it on state of the art research indicating that too much homework can actually harm retention and be counterproductive to learning.
So in the world of Things School Board Presidents Say, Byrne didn't say anything remotely controversial at all.
However, as is often the case, that didn't keep it from becoming a controversy.
I'm usually very hesitant to go public with media-on-media violence. Readers aren't interested in journalistic inside baseball, and I'm guessing the last thing you want to read about is a bunch of self-important media people sniping at each other.
But I feel compelled to write about the Great Homework Controversy mostly because of the inexplicably mean-spirited tone directed towards Byrne in a weekend editorial in the local daily paper.
Snappily headlined "Byrne Flunks Homework," the piece assaults her suggestion that the district revisit its homework guidelines, insinuating that Byrne overstepped her bounds in seeking to influence classroom policy.
I know a lot of folks who work at the Savannah Morning News, and I have tons of respect for them all. But I'd be remiss in letting this one pass without comment.
There's plenty of room to disagree on this issue. But not only was the editorial's tone strangely petty and frankly somewhat misogynistic, more importantly I feel the piece completely missed Byrne's point and deserves a solid rebuttal on the merits.
There's a body of research that says beyond a certain level, homework not only interferes with proper sleep, physical exercise, extracurricular activities, and family time, but with the ability of young minds to retain that much information.
There is growing national sentiment to reduce homework, a movement which has made front-page news in the New York Times and is supported by literally dozens of studies.
A recent Stanford University study pegs the ideal total amount of homework at about two hours a day—the equivalent of a single class worth of daily homework in many local schools—with sleep deprivation being cited as a serious chronic result of over-assignment.
A Penn State study shows that around the world, higher homework loads correlate with lower test scores.
And several studies have made the case that homework isn't even effective at all until the last three years of high school.
The most fertile ground for debate on this issue might be that higher-performing schools, i.e. specialty academies and charter schools, tend to push homework more strongly than "at-risk" schools.
Perhaps there is a case to be made that more, not less, homework should be featured at lower-performing schools.
Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that the number of students who have no homework at all is significantly underreported.
Maybe that's where everyone should focus their energy?
Regardless, instead of taking the scholarship seriously, your daily paper went with the old trope that Byrne must be just another soft-minded liberal who wants to encourage mediocrity and shelter children from the "real world"—even making fun of her use of social media!
I could almost feel the pat on the head myself.
Of course, the same crusty dudes finger-wagging at what they call Byrne's "reckless and careless" suggestion to reduce homework would probably be the first to say that back in their day they had much less homework than schoolchildren do now.
And that families were knit more closely together back then, by God.
(A 2004 study showed that homework volume has increased more than 50 percent since 1980, with most of the increase borne by elementary school students.)
As Byrne herself has said, in very conservative-sounding words:
"Traditional values like having dinner with the family, playing outside and playing sports, going to youth group or scouts, and getting enough sleep each night are being replaced with worksheets."
In short, Byrne finds herself in the same no-win situation facing many strong women in important positions: Called weak and feckless while at the same time also called overreaching and pushy.
It's well within her mandate as School Board President to bring these issues up -- especially when she had already discussed them with Superintendent Thomas Lockamy well beforehand.
Let's be real here, folks:
We have elected officials in Savannah who have declared multiple bankruptcies... who call for boycotts of businesses that cooperate with police... whose legal residency is questionable... who fall asleep at Council meetings and call each other "asshole" at those meetings.
But we're now supposed to think that our School Board President's effort to keep abreast of the latest educational research is the thing that is "reckless and careless?"
If I'm being absolutely candid here—as a father who over the years has developed pretty fine-tuned radar for sexism—I can't imagine the daily paper using such a condescending, dismissive tone toward a local businessman, or to any male elected official whose name isn't Obama.
(As anecdotal evidence I give you their recent obsequious, glowing treatment of local homebuilder Jim Turner as his company filed for bankruptcy, leaving dozens of vendors unpaid who will now sue homeowners that will likely end up paying twice for the same work. The very definition of reckless and careless, one could say.)
I'm sure our "rookie" School Board President will make her share of mistakes.
And we'll be here to call her out on them, hopefully in more reasonable language.
But this isn't one of those mistakes. She's right, and she should stick to her guns. cs