Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Don’t sign the homework (part 2)

There is an awful lot of talk lately about “helicopter parents,” who, we’re told, hover over their children and micromanage their childhoods. Teachers, understandably, find such parents particularly bothersome. Yet I’m struck by how closely schools now hover over kids and micromanage them—and even want me to help with the hovering, way more than I want to.

For example, all three of my daughters now have teachers who require them to obtain a parent’s signature on their homework, planners, tests, and/or reading logs. My wife sits at the kitchen table in the morning as the kids bring their papers for her to sign, like secretaries presenting paperwork to the boss.

My wife is willing to sign them, but I’m not. Here are my objections:

First, the parent signature requirement robs the students of autonomy over their own school work. I want my kids’ school work to be their business. I want them to get experience with being independent and taking care of their own affairs. I think that kind of autonomy is a key ingredient in building a sense of agency and competence. I wrote more fully about that reason in part 1 of this post.

Second, it’s demeaning to make kids prove to you every day that they’ve done their homework. It sends the message that you don’t trust them to be independent, and don’t think they’re capable of handling their school work on their own. It presumes them to be slackers until they prove themselves otherwise, over and over again. It encourages them to see themselves as doing the work to satisfy others, rather than to make it their own. The many kids who would do the homework on time without this intervention are robbed of the opportunity to prove that and to take pride in it. As I wrote in part 1, I think I would have become a juvenile delinquent if my parents had insisted on policing my school work the way parents are expected to today.

Third, it elevates rule-compliance over substance. Do the homework correctly, turn it in on time—and you’ll still lose points if you haven’t gotten your parent to sign it. There are kids at our junior high who routinely get Fs on that aspect of their homework, and it affects their course grades—never mind how well they know the material. Is the grade supposed to measure what they know and can do, or how obedient they are?

Fourth, it’s presumptuous. It would be one thing if a teacher asked parents if they were interested in signing their kids’ homework all the time. I would still decline the invitation, but at least my kids wouldn’t get a misimpression of how to ask politely for someone’s assistance. Instead, the typical approach is simply to tell the kids they must get the signatures, or to tell the parents they must provide them. (For example, “You will sign the log sheet to show the reading has been completed.”) Isn’t it rude to assume that someone will not only agree with your intervention, but actively participate in it, and that you don’t even need to ask nicely?

Fifth, the practice sends bad—and factually inaccurate—messages about authority. It’s hard to think of a more basic principle of justice than the principle that the government cannot punish you for someone else’s acts. If anyone wants to explain to me how it would be constitutional for a public school to penalize a child for a parent’s refusal to sign homework, I’d like to hear it. Yet, when my wife has been away and I’ve told my kids that I won’t sign the homework, they have always been anxious about getting punished. One thing the school has taught them well: No one should ever disobey the authority figure.

I’ve written notes to each teacher explaining that I won’t sign the homework when my wife is away; fortunately, they’ve been understanding about it. But, needless to say, not every parent who doesn’t get around to signing the homework writes a note explaining why. Lots of kids are getting the impression that the teacher has authority not only over them but over their parents as well, and can punish them for their parents’ conduct if they choose. I sometimes remind my kids that the schools are there to serve the public, not the other way around. I’m afraid they don’t learn that very well in school.

Why has the practice of requiring parent signatures become so common? What does it say about what schools now value? Stay tuned for part 3.


Karen W said...

Sigh. Chris--it only counts as "helicopter parenting" if they would prefer that you weren't doing it, otherwise it is "parental engagement" or "parental involvement."

It is hard to understand what legitimate purpose all the signing might serve. If the teacher is going to check to see that the homework is done and put a mark in the record book, why does the parent have to check it also? I guess I could see asking parents to do this as an intervention for kids who are struggling, but why every kid?

Anonymous said...

My 2nd grade child went so far as to attempt to forge my signature on his reading log because he was so afraid of getting a negative note written on his behavior sheet for the week.

Of course, I got a long email from his teacher informing me of his sin. She claimed she found his forgery to be more upsetting than the fact that he had forgotten to get his log signed...except that both actions carry the same mark of shame on the behavior sheet, so it's a bogus claim.

My mantra to my children re:behavior at school -- please behave respectfully, but please don't worry about being perfect. I prefer to discuss the mixed message that the elementary school sends to my kids -- you're all "leaders"...but you better keep your mouths shut for the next 7 hours.

LAB said...

Last year, in his first months of kindergarten, my son was punished (had to put his head down on his desk, didn't get a prize from the prize box, was told he couldn't participate in PE) because the teacher accused him of forging my initials on his behavior chart. Nevermind that he could barely write at that point, and that I highly doubt he even knew my initials. He also had absolutely no record of lying or cheating or forgery--he was five! On top of that, the chart showed that he had been on "green" all week (as usual), meaning his behavior had been good--so why would he need to cheat? I had initialed the chart myself (of course), but I guess written my initials a little sloppier than usual, leading to the teacher's suspicions.

When my son came home from school and told me about all this, I called to speak to the teacher. She was gone for the day, so I spoke to the principal. She said she'd like to "get the teacher's side of the story." Wha?! There was no "other side" to this story--the teacher had written right on my son's behavior chart that he had forged my initials. So (a) the teacher accused my kindergarten son of cheating, lying, and forgery, and (b) the principal refused to believe my son was telling the truth about what the teacher had done. I never received an apology from the school, though apparently the teacher said something to my son about the "mix up" the following day.

Jen Marshall Duncan said...

As the parent of a 7th grader, all I can say is that I wish they continued the signature requirement past elementary school. All we get from our son when we ask him if he has homework is, "Naw. Already did it." But somehow his grades this year have not reflected any homework completion!

Teachers in junior high and high school don't publicize assignments--it's up to the kid to sink or swim. It definitely teaches the student to make choices for themselves and deal with consequences. For me as a parent, it is frustrating that for the first time in his schooling I have no clue what is happening. There are no newsletters, no mailings, and some teachers don't even post their assignments on PowerSchool. My son is not learning to keep track of his stuff, and is paying the price. At home, we can't seem to help make him more accountable because we don't know what was assigned.

Trusting kids to handle things on their own is great if you have the kind of kid who can learn to do it before the consequences get serious--like falling behind peers, getting frustrated, dropping out of classes, or dropping out of school. My son is case and point here--he is no longer able to take a class for those reasons. I think the signatures at elementary school are meant to get students used to being accountable so that in junior high when their parents ask, "Do you have any homework?" they're actually used to giving an answer. But the sad thing is, at least in my son's case, it didn't work.

To be honest, I don't think the signatures are a bad idea; but in my own case I think all the elementary school training in the world couldn't have prepared my son to be in a building with 8 class periods with 8 different teachers, lots of raging hormones, and hundreds of new peers to impress. As a parent, I long for the old days of signatures on homework. I'd rather sign that then the drop slip that came from junior high any day.

Chris said...

Jen -- Thanks for the comment! My eldest is in junior high, and they *do* continue those signature requirements there. To me, the older the kids are, the more infantilizing the requirement seems.

I assume that there are some parents who like the process of reviewing their kids' homework every day. I still don't understand why parents couldn't insist on doing that without a teacher requirement, or why the teacher couldn't make that process optional for those parents who like it, or why teachers tell, rather than invite, parents to participate.

But your comment raises another important question: why ask kids to do things that they can't do without their parents' help? Isn't that practically the definition of an age-inappropriate assignment?

Nancy Flanagan said...

Great blog. Inspired me to write my own follow-up, reinforcing what you said (in the blog and comments) about there being a time when kids need to jettison the "scaffolding" of parent oversight and learn to fly on their own:


Thanks. This is a terrific blog.

Lisa Morguess said...

Wow! Amen! So many good points in this post. I'm so tired of being "required" to sign off on my kids' schoolwork, I'm tired of my kids fearing consequences if I don't comply, and I'm tired of the school being seen (by itself and by my kids) as the ultimate authority.

Anonymous said...

Jen, if your kid isn't doing his homework, how is asking you to sign it going to help? He still won't do it.

I remember when I was young, having the parents sign homework was reserved for kids who not only weren't doing the homework, but were also doing poorly on the tests, thus proving that they probably did need the extra practice. Failing to do your homework might earn you a low grade, but so long as you passed the tests you were spared that particular punishment, which was one small step away from having to take home a daily report card on your conduct.

C Baker

Sue W said...

I think there is a balance that can be struck between autonomy and "guidance". Our daughter is in 8th grade and I can count on one hand the number of times we've actually seen her do homework this year. (She told us she gets it done in study hall.)

Every month or so we check PowerSchool, and if there are any NHI'S (Not Handed In) or F's (at times there are) we encourage her to take a look at Powerschool herself and make a plan (which we never ask for) to address anything SHE thinks might need to be addressed...Oh, and not to bother trying to log onto Facebook until the NHI's go away and she gets the class average to a B, which she is always able to do within a week or so. Allowing re-dos on F's is up to the teachers and our daughter to work out, if that's part of HER plan. I won't sign off on homework, but I will sign off on FB.

Doris said...

Hi, Anon. You wrote this: "I remember when I was young, having the parents sign homework was reserved for kids who not only weren't doing the homework, but were also doing poorly on the tests, thus proving that they probably did need the extra practice. Failing to do your homework might earn you a low grade, but so long as you passed the tests you were spared that particular punishment . . . ."

I've said this kind of thing before but I'll say it again now: if anything, these kinds of "punitive" practices of surveillance can simply exacerbate the problems faced by struggling kids (many of whom may religiously do homework but still not do well on tests).

If Jen thinks that it would improve things in her household if a homework signature page were sent home, I absolutely do not dispute that because I know what she means about the experience of worrying about the consequences for your kid of his or her failure to meet expectations that you don't know about and don't perceive your kid is prepared to meet.

But at the same time, self-esteem issues are often huge for struggling kids, and you don't improve that by making them feel even less trusted and respected and capable than their peers. So the question of the nature of parental involvement of necessity needs to be very individualized.

To stay on my soapbox a bit longer: Under the current test-driven, standardized system, instead of sensibly recognizing that children, like adults, have different strengths and weaknesses, instead what we have is a system that enforces a message that every child must excel at A, B, and C or else be branded "behind." If a given kid struggles with math, for example, he or she has to be subjected to endless hours of remedial work when maybe the more sensible move would be to allow the kid to focus even more time on areas of strength and accept that the math will progress as a much slower rate.

Prudence said...

I'm chiming in here as a 7th grade science teacher. First of all, I usually hate giving homework in the first place. It rarely does anything beyond sift kids into two groups before the day even starts: those who did it and those who didn't. I hate checking to see if they did it - it wastes class time. I hate thinking of an assignment that is not too challenging for my low kids but is useful to the high kids. And I really hate having to spend class time signing anything. This sounds like I hate a lot of things. I love teaching, and I don't think homework usually has much to do with teaching or learning.

Christy said...

I really appreciate reading all these comments. It saddens me that there seems to be a fundamental lack of trust in our schools. I think some teachers feel that students are not to be trusted and will take every opportunity to game or cheat the system (hence, parents must sign off on homework). While I know that must happen, I lament the fact that many classroom and homework rules are built around that idea as a given rather than an exception. I work with college students preparing to be teachers and I try to emphasize that, without trust in a classroom, there is no learning. Teachers must set high expectations for students...and trust they will aspire to them. Students see those high expectations as a vote of confidence...and trust that the teacher has his/her best interest in mind. Thus, the student takes risks with his/her learning and the teacher can, in turn, challenge the student beyond his/her comfort level of learning.

This post and the comments make me realize why kids hate school and often see their teachers as glorified prison guards. I, like Chris, do NOT sign my 7th grade daughter's reading logs. And then we look at her grades on Powerschool and we have a discussion about which ones are assessing her knowledge or learning and which ones are assessing her compliance. The Fs that pepper her coursework in the class with the reading log don't bother me and they sure don't bother her. Many people have cautioned me that I am setting a bad precedent--that I am teaching my daughter that she can pick and choose what she wants to do for homework. I believe I am teaching her ownership of her learning. I certainly know this could backfire but I have yet to see any serious fall-out (although, like Sue W, she has lost some tech time (I take her iPod) when she needs to be "reminded" of her responsibilities).

Anonymous said...

My son’s 6th grade teacher insists on a weekly reading log , 30 minutes a day plus a parent signature turned in every Monday. If it is not turned in on time or the parent signature is missing, it will be marked as an F in his grade book.

My son proves to be a reader , as the teacher admitted that alone in the school library he checked out 22 books this semester and he does a book report every 3 weeks on a new book.This doesn’t even include the books we check out at our local library.

My son didn’t have a reading log since 3rd grade and would read with me or alone, but since he is supposed to log, I have noticed, that he will count out pages and look at his watch constantly and not enjoy his reading , but it has become a chore for him and he will not log until the Sunday night.

I am appalled by the thought, that he would be graded on me having to sign. I don’t police my son’s reading. I want him to read on his own time and to get into a book, which should be a reward in itself. He hates the reading log exercise, which in my opinion is just busy work.

Most of my son’s friends admit that they either not read at all, but construct the reading log to get a good grade or forge the reading log in some way to fit the teachers criteria. She only gives As or Fs !!!

I asked the teacher to excuse the reading log exercise for my son , as I am not willing to sign his reading logs anymore. We went so far as to have a meeting with the principal and he said it was up to the teacher to make the call.

Apparently in our school district there is a million word challenge and the only way to participate is to log and have the parents sign. The teacher insists that this logging business is an authentic way to measure the reading done by students. I feel this million word challenge has become a million word fraud !

She gave him another F , while we were in discussion over this issue and announced that she will giving him Fs , if I don’t sign. I feel violated in my rights as a parent or a person.

Isn’t there a law which will protect me to have to sign a contract every week , that I believe is counterproductive and hindering my son’s development ????

Amdus talton said...


You have NO idea how pleased I am to have found your blog about "signing planners". Not only did you STATE my case that I had to fight in court over. You helped me prove in a few ways I am NOT alone.

Independent study is the essence of teaching our children not only independence but REALITY. That life you will HAVE to fail and try again, fix and repair, learn and re-learn.

Thank you. I hope you have more insights about "independent study" and more comments about "signing planners". Both are JUST two reasons i lost custody of my boys. The school (they were attending) instigated a custody battle. They (in emails) suggested my boys' dad FIGHT for custody. Only b.c I didn't sign in.

Please do me a favor and check out our page.

You have helped my depressed state [although you have NO real relevance] to feel just slightly better.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the reason some middle school children are now not completing their homework is because they were not taught how to on their own in elementary school. I hate signing off on my 2nd graders homework. She comes home and expects me to pull our her notebook, tell her what to do and sign off on it. She becomes very anxious about the consequences of me not signing off on her work, but not the consequences of rushing through her work. It is all about doing the least amount possible to get my signature and she is done. I would prefer that she have to keep track of what her homework is rather than an assignment sheet that she believes to be more my responsibility than her own. I would like for her to learn organizational skill and time management skills in elementary school so that in middle school she can complete her work without my hovering. I trust my child to do her work, I am involved when I need to be, but the idea of homework is to see if the child can complete it on their own outside the classroom environment, not to see if the parents can complete it. I have her do her work alone and then we review it together. I could go on and on, but bottom line - my child should be responsible for her homework and take the consequences if she doesn't complete it. My signature should have nothing to do with any of that.

Hienuri Kayleuetski said...

I've been lucky enough to have never- or only very rarely- have to obtain a parent signature on my homework- that is, on those few occasions when I actually did have assigned homework (no I do not live in the US). The one gripe that I have is getting parental consent forms signed for things that are meant to be compulsory, like our school's athletics carnival, because I'll give the form to my mum and tell her to sign it, and then she'll get sidetracked, and then I'll forget about it, and the next day the same thing will happen etc. Luckily I've pretty much always managed to hand the forms in on time. The thing is, as has been pointed out, if these things are compulsory and we could end up with a detention or whatever for not handing in the form on time, it is kind of forcing the parents to sign something that they may or may not want to sign and punishing us for our parents' forgetfulness or non-compliance. Often I feel like it'd be easier just to sign the damn thing myself, but no, I'm still a minor.

The ironic thing is, at my school, everyone (particularly in the upper grades) throws a mass sickie on the day of the athletics carnival, so all of the forms are rendered pretty much useless anyway.

Chris said...

Hienuri – Thanks for commenting. Requiring parent consent for activities that are mandatory reminds me of the “behavioral contracts” that some schools make kids sign – as if the kid’s forced agreement somehow legitimizes the enterprise. (See posts here and here.)

Anonymous said...

Exactly what is the point of the parent signing it? That the kid did it? We already know if they did.

I'm confused-- the whole practice makes no sense. It seems like just another way of harassing kids.

steeve said...

Either this practice works or it doesn't. If it works, they should be able to show that to you, with real numbers and everything.

But of course chances are that nobody actually sat down and objectively analyzed if it works at all. They probably don't even have the faintest clue what metrics would determine if it works.

Chris said...

Steeve -- Thanks for commenting. I agree that there has probably not been any objective analysis of the effects of this practice. But I disagree that any given practice either "works" or doesn't, because I think that's too reductive and is likely to lead people to ignore the many possible effects any school practice may have. What if it works to get kids to turn homework in more often in the short-term, but in the long term teaches authoritarian values and prevents kids from taking responsibility for their own work? I'm afraid that reducing everything to a question of what "works" just ends up distracting people from discussing the underlying value questions that practices like this one pose.

Anonymous said...

Exactly. I'm fighting(figuratively, not physically, of course,) about this very thing with my fourth grade teacher's policy. I didn't sign a stupid paper saying my child has a vocabulary test next month. He now has a 54% in the class, because apparently that stupid piece of paper is worth 40% of his grade. This is how we assess now? Whether or not someone signs a paper saying you'll have a vocabulary test in 3 weeks counts for that much? Unbelievable.

Apparently she feels justified in this because, well, I'll quote:

> I am sending a letter home with Zach explaining why he is being held accountable for getting a test notice signed.
> It is a simple enough homework assignment and it is my only way of knowing whether or not parents are aware of
> upcoming tests. When I don't receive the notice back in a timely manner then that is telling me that you are unaware of
> the test.
> The reason this has such an impact on his current grade is because there have only been 2 assignments that I have graded
> for Social Studies. So when one of those assignments are not completed it makes a major impact on the grade.
> Obviously, I am aware that Zach knows the material for social studies as he proves this in class as well as on his tests.
> He is a well mannered young man and hard worker and I enjoy having him in class.
> What Zach does need to work on is turning in papers in a timely manner. I remind the students each morning to look in
> their take home folders and give me any signed papers, notes etc.
> Sincerely,
blah, blah, blah.

My response stopped just short of calling her stupid, but it's implied. (I doubt she's bright enough to figure that out, though).

It's not like fourth grade grades really matter, but come on, the sheer stupidity of the policy is what's annoying me. Who the hell cares if I sign a test notice, shouldn't the assessment be over the actual test?

Anonymous said...

My son just got a 0 out of 10 points because I forgot to sign the worksheet we worked on together for the past couple of days. I completely forgot to sign it and even emailed his teacher that it was totally my fault. She said she can't give him any credit because it would be playing favors. So I guess I just got a 0 out of 10 in a 5th grade class. I'm 43!!!! I hate parent signatures.