Montclair BoE: Too Much Homework, Equity, Special Education, Field Trips

The Montclair Board of Education

With the difficult budget season behind it, the Montclair Board of Education showed no signs of lightening its agenda in the short term.  The board’s four-hour meeting on April 12 was devoted to no fewer than three major presentations, one made by Montclair High School students.

A group of students led off the evening with a study of homework practices that raised questions.  The students said homework is viewed as a way of reinforcing class lessons, but their study found that students were given too many take-home assignments in too many of their classes, leading to time-management problems, anxiety and sleep deprivation.  The students advocated a professional development day for teachers to help them learn how to assign homework more appropriately and recommended a cap on the amount of homework a student gets.   They were also critical of elementary school homework.  One student even told the board she tutors a five-year-old child by reading to her and helping her answer questions, while the child in question is at present unable to read.

Board member Joseph Kavesh was surprised to learn that high school students spent time drinking coffee to keep awake to study and do homework assignments, while board member Eve Robinson said she agreed with the students’ findings and suggested that the district’s homework policy ought to be fine-tuned.  Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak asked if maybe student development sessions should be in order to help students with time management.  The students said they could possibly benefit from that but added the main issue was how homework affected their community service and extracurricular academic activities, such as clubs, which they need to get into the colleges of their choice.   The board hopes to have a new homework policy in place by September.

Also, Dr. Kendra Johnson, the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Equity, gave a presentation on providing educational equity in the schools, emphasizing the point that equality of access hardly counts as an equal chance of learning.  Dr. Johnson showed how minority students and students with disabilities have been given short shrift due to culturally insensitive instruction and a lack of available opportunities for students in those categories.  Dr. Johnson’s efforts to rectify systemically inequitable education have been underway since the issue of the June 2015 report from the Achievement Gap Advisory Panel.  Dr. Johnson’s office has succeeded in creating curricula to respect and honor cultural sensitivities, increasing Undoing Racism sessions to reduce “micro-aggression,” or forms of unintentional signs of bigotry to minority students, and creating an English as a Second Language (ESL) class for immigrant students and students who are children of immigrants.  She acknowledged that more is needed to be done, such as developing an overall equity strategy and establishing consistent criteria for instituting best practices, but she was confident she could continue the progress.  Dr. Johnson said children needed to be affirmed, either in the classroom or by being offered more opportunities, such as additional instruction for advanced proficiency classes.

Dr. Kendra Johnson

Finally, the Department of Pupil Services (DPS) gave an overview of its special-education program.  The DPS took pride in the fine-tuned organization of the program, explaining how every special-education student was assigned a case manager if warranted, helping to build communication between the school and the home.  DPS also makes an effort to assist students with special needs by looking at data based on specific issues and addressing students’ individual needs through a collaborative process.

The special education program in the Montclair school district serves 1,225 students, 366 of which are in Montclair High School.  Every attempt is made to integrate these students with the general education program, with special classes used only when the nature or severity of the educational disability doesn’t allow a child’s needs to be addressed satisfactorily in regular classes.  Nicholas Del Re, an interim supervisor with DPS, was proudest of their efforts to help special-ed graduates integrate into the community by learning daily-life skills, which he said was part of breaking down barriers for young people.

Challenges for special education in Montclair include more space for instruction and adequately scheduling staff, as well as a greater need for professional development in running reading programs and in handling behavioral interventions.

Kavesh told DPS’s Rebecca Ross that the Individualized Education Program process was “adversarial” from the viewpoint of special-ed parents.  Ross conceded the point, and she reaffirmed DPS’s commitment to help the students.

Public comment centered on the presentations, with resident Paula White saying her own experience as a teacher underscored the importance of equity.  She remembered having difficulty in accommodating a student in a wheelchair for a field trip.  On the homework issue Deirdre Birmingham said the grade level made a difference in the appropriateness of homework, and she wanted to see actual data that elementary school homework, for example, helped students manage their time.  She said she could find no evidence that K-5 homework was academically beneficial.  Sarah Blaine, meanwhile, suggested more special-ed training for general-ed teachers.

Also, Interim Superintendent Pinsak spoke about the field trip policy pertaining to a traditional September science field trip at Renaissance School, saying that the $50 limit on money from parents to the service of field trips makes it impossible for the school’s PTA to raise enough money by September, and she said it illuminated the problem of field-trip equity across the district.  With only Renaissance providing such a field trip, there was a question of equity for similar field trips in all of the schools, and as long as parents are asked for money for the trips, it would come up again and again as an issue.  School Board President Jessica de Koninck said the board had to figure out how to provide such equity, and she hoped they could make a determination on which trips to prioritize by the next board meeting.


  1. Why do these meetings go on so long that many members of the public have to leave before they’re through because they have to get up early the next morning to go to work? Three long presentations at once? This shows a total lack of respect for people in town who are active and interested in public education!

  2. Regarding homework, we have pushed a lot of the curriculum downward, so kids are learning subjects earlier in their school career that they used to. In order to cover the wider curriculum many teachers are using homework to introduce subjects that can’t be covered in class. We had problems in BMS with homework overload, and this was one of the reasons.

    We also heard the same suggestion that students need to learn better time management. That may be true, but that’s nothing new, but it seems this is the canned response, mainly because the teachers and administration still need to get through the 10 lbs of learning that the NJDoE think we need to get into our kids’ 5 lb bag.

  3. While I sympathize with teen aged students when the homework is simply busy work, I do have to wonder how much sleep they’re missing because they’re on phones or computers or tablets until the wee hours every day (but I may just wonder this as I have two teenagers in my house who tend to want to do this…). I agree with SSP that so much of what we’re asking kids to do is based on a very misguided idea of “rigor” that has dominated the Common Core and the supposedly “new and revised” NJ state standards, which are pretty much 80% aligned with the Common Core. I have no doubt that the kindergarten child mentioned has a teacher who would rather not try to force children to read too early but whose hands are tied by the strictures generated none too long ago by corporate ed reformers with no concept of child development.

    I do appreciate that Dr. Johnson’s presentation about how to address the persistent problems of racism and other forms of discrimination in the district reveals many pathways to address our problems. She makes it clear that there is no quick fix or any one magic way of addressing serious social ills and that this will be the continuing work of years, work that the district used to be rather famous for. We need to honor her work and help in addressing discrimination in honest, challenging, and creative ways, as we used to do as a district and as some folks in our district have tried to continue despite some very trying times.

  4. The presentation on Homework appeared to be based upon very few sources. As it happens, I’d recently been looking into the subject myself. I found that the opinions of Kohn’s “conclusions” are far from universally held. One paper which surveyed the literature included:

    “Some of Kohn’s recommendations have merit. For example, it makes good sense to only assign homework that is beneficial to student learning instead of assigning homework as a matter of policy. Many of those who conduct research on homework explicitly or implicitly recommend this practice. However, his misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the research sends the inaccurate message that research does not support homework. As Figure 1 indicates, homework has decades of research supporting its effective use. Kohn’s allegations that researchers are trying to mislead practitioners and the general public are unfounded and detract from a useful debate on effective practice.”

    This is from a paper I handed out to the BOE members at the meeting:

    Cooper has written a couple of papers on the generic merit of homework, the most recent being at . I saved some trees and didn’t hand this one out. This paper referred to Cooper’s 1989 paper on HW which is interesting as it noted a *minimum* amount of homework, less than which student improvement did not appear.

    There’s also reference to a 1996 paper which presented data showing an “optimal” band of 7-12 hours/week for HS students.

    There does seem to be a general complaint about the lack of studies of HW in very early grades (ie. K-2). Since this seems to be the larger source of complaints in the district, that’s unfortunate. More generally, it appears that the volume of HW is increasing most in younger grades (though this could be an artifact of a low starting point). Thus, what’s changing most is what is least well understood.

    I also expected to hand out to the BOE but it turns out that it had already been included in their “packets”. This is a very interesting policy set by the superintendent in Freehold. As I mentioned in the meeting, he addresses not just the conventional question of “how much”, but also how homework should be graded.

    It’s noteworthy that “professional development” was mentioned by a couple of people regarding homework, as one of Dr. Kasun’s changes involved adding PD related to homework and also making the topic a part of their new-hire training.

    Finally, I am left wondering about the nature of “busy work”. How many practitioners of a sport, or players of a musical instrument, have come to excel without practicing the basics of their craft over and over and over? When I was first training to be a pilot, I’d have “flights” that were just takeoff, come around, land, takeoff, come around, land…

    There’s a lot of material out there, and I’m still – achem – doing my homework and digging through it. But it is certainly clear that, at least for older students, there’s little doubt regarding the importance of homework.


  5. Students complaining about “too much homework” to the BOE. Your curriculum is messing with my extracurriculum. Those whiners should just grow some gender appropriate reproductive parts and not hand in the homework that doesn’t fit with their extracurriculars (worked for me).

    This is post-millineal behavior and BOE is enabling, even nurturing it. Eve Robinson caved without a whimper. At least Sup Pinsac had the wit to suggest the complaining students might need to improve their time management after they audaciously suggested should improve their homework assignment skills.

    Was “too much homework” actually first on the agenda ahead of “massive inequity” and field trips?

  6. “Dr. Johnson showed how minority students and students with disabilities have been given short shrift due to culturally insensitive instruction and a lack of available opportunities for students in those categories”
    Assistant Superintendent for Equity Dr. Kendra Johnson

    In Montclair?

  7. I couldn’t agree more with elcamino about the homework issue. Really? Student before the BOE complaining that HW interferes with their um (social life)? Worse thing is it seems their parents support their complaints. And it’s the educational system’s ineptness/lack of knowledge? Really…. Coping skills, coping skills my friends. At least the Super diplomatically said as much. Oh, Montclair.

  8. The homework issue is a thread created by the President of the Board and her agents to divert our attention from the fact that she has been ineffectual at her basic volunteer job. All of Montclair should wonder why it took so long to start the search for a new Superintendent and why we have yet another interim one. The Mayor created this dysfunctional mess. Where is he now? He has a paying job with Joe D. and is busy.

  9. Whether or not too much homework is being assigned is a legitimate concern that deserves a legitimate review. Many of the responses here dismiss the concern out of hand because it comes from whiny post-millenials who waste their time on their iPhones.

    Teens are asked to do many things outside of their studies to impress college admission boards, community service, clubs, sports, etc. Younger children have post-school activities as well to help them become the well rounded individuals we want them to be.

    The board should institute a reasonable homework policy that takes into account the fact that children are children, and shouldn’t be expected to work 50 hours a week just to meet the minimum requirements of their studies.

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