First Person

Ask an Expert: Too many worksheets

Educator and mom Kathleen Luttenegger preps a parent for tough conversations with her son’s teacher about an abundance of daily worksheets and concerns about the education he’s getting.

Q. My son’s first-grade teacher uses lots of math and literacy worksheets in her class. Sometimes 5 to 10 come home each day. The weekly homework packet is also made up of worksheets. With parent-teacher conferences coming up, what’s the best way to bring up the fact that I think she relies too heavily on worksheets and my son finds this kind of work boring?

A. First, let me say that children – especially young boys – need active and engaging learning environments. Sometimes worksheets are unavoidable and are necessary to provide practice in mastering skills. But, 10 worksheets a day is overkill.

Why worksheets?

There are so many factors that may be contributing to this teacher’s overuse of worksheets. I think it is important to understand some of the factors that may influence how you respond to this problem. With schools focusing primarily on student test scores, many teachers are under enormous pressure – even first and second grade teachers – to get students prepared for TCAP testing.  Unfortunately, this often means worksheets.

Some schools have adopted strict guidelines requiring teachers to use specific curriculum in specific ways. Teachers in these schools may have very little say in how many and what kinds of worksheets they are required to use with their students. In these schools, every first-grader would likely have the same homework every night.

Another contributing factor may be increased class sizes. With school budgets stagnant or even decreased over the past several years, class sizes have risen in many Colorado schools. A teacher with 30 kids in the class may resort to using worksheets with students – other kinds of approaches may be more difficult with larger numbers of students.

Is this a school issue or a teacher issue?

If your son attends a school that has a great deal of pressure to raise test scores or that has been impacted by larger class sizes, the worksheet problem may be school-wide.  Have you spoken to other parents? Is this a problem that they see as well? Is this a problem at all grade levels? If so, the best chances for change include getting involved with the school and expressing your concerns to the administration. My guess is that one parent complaining about too many worksheets will not impact school-wide change.  However, if there are many parents expressing this same concern, you might be able to influence school policies in some ways.

If this is a school-wide problem, you may want to consider if this school is the right match for your son. Not every school is a good fit for every child. You still have time to look around and see if there is another school in your area that provides a more active and engaging environment for all students. For example, many districts now have STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) magnet schools. These types of schools often provide more hands-on types of activities that may suit the learning style and interests of your child. There may be charter schools in your area that are better suited to your son (e.g., expeditionary learning, Montessori, etc.). Even a different neighborhood elementary school in your area may provide a learning environment better suited to your son’s learning style.

Choosing to change schools is not easy. However, if it seems like this is a school-wide issue, it is not likely to change quickly. You and your son may both be happier in a different setting.

How should I approach the teacher?

It can be very challenging to address concerns with a teacher. Since you mentioned parent-teacher conferences, this is a good time to prepare your thoughts and be ready to discuss your concerns in a positive, proactive manner.

I would begin the conference by letting the teacher know that you are excited to hear about how your son is doing in school. Also let the teacher know that you have a few specific questions that you would like to ask, so to please leave a few minutes of time for these questions at the end. Be sure your body language and tone of voice show engagement and interest. You don’t want to put his teacher on the defensive.

Listen to what the teacher has to say about your son. Is he doing well in school? Is he making progress? Does she talk about him getting into trouble (mischief) at school?

After you have listened closely to the teacher, I would suggest sharing some positives about how your son learns best. Have there been any examples of activities this year (or even in the past) that have really engaged him in his learning? If so, share these with the teacher. Some examples might be:

  • I have noticed that my son learns best when he is able to move around a lot. He loved the game in math when students got to hop as they were working on math facts.
  • I have noticed that my son really enjoys working with partners or small groups at school. He couldn’t stop talking about sharing his writing with his friends in class.
  • My son talked a lot about the science experiment that you did in class with the students last month. He really seemed to enjoy the hands-on nature of the activity.
  • We really enjoyed the research project we worked on as a family last semester – it gave us time to look at books closely together.  And, he really enjoyed using the computer to create his poster.

After you have shared some examples of how he learns best, you can ask: “I am wondering what other opportunities my son will have to engage in more of these types of activities?” This will allow his teacher to highlight any similar kinds of activities planned for the upcoming weeks. If the teacher said that your son sometimes gets into trouble at school, you can use this opportunity to say that you notice he tends to be more on-task when he is really engaged in his learning. It is not uncommon for kids to make trouble when they aren’t really engaged at school.

Another approach you might take is to talk about homework. You can ask if there are there other ways he can show mastery of learning. For example, if he is working on basic math facts, could he practice them through computer/iPad games?  You could say: “I’ve noticed that my son has a worksheet each night practicing math facts. He seems to learn math facts more quickly using interactive games. Could we do 15 minutes of math games in place of the math facts worksheet?”

When is it time to talk with the principal?

I hope that your son’s teacher is open and willing to discuss your concerns. Some teachers will respond positively to this type of conversation and some won’t. I would suggest that if you try working with the teacher and nothing changes, you may want to set up a time to meet with the principal. Let the principal know your concerns, again focusing on the needs of your child. And, I would really focus on making sure that your child is placed in an active and engaging classroom for second grade that better meets his needs. By focusing on your child and his future needs, you will maintain a positive working relationship with the school, which is important if you expect to be there long-term.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.