Monday, June 13, 2011

Summer reading assignments: Boon or burden?

Jeri Ramsey, a parent at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Sharon Elementary, poses an interesting question:  Do schools have a right to make assignments over the summer?

Ramsey says no.  What set her off was a PTA notice saying next year's fifth-graders should read two novels related to the social studies curriculum, "A Long Way from Chicago" and "George Washington's Socks," and have two-paragraph summaries ready to hand in when school starts Aug. 25.  Students will take part in class discussion and be given a comprehension test the first week of school, the notice says.

In an email to Principal Cathy Phelan and copied to the Observer, Ramsey says she certainly doesn't object to kids reading, or even to schools recommending books.  But this crosses a line, she wrote.

"Summer is a time for the families.  It is not a time for schools to force specific assignments on children," Ramsey wrote.  "Feel free to give a reading list of suggested reading materials, feel free to give a list of writing activities, feel free to give a list of math activities.  Let families choose what they do or don't do.  You are over stepping your bounds when you start telling parents what students must do on their free time.  Do you want children to hate learning?  That is what you are instilling."

Phelan backed her teachers' assignment:  "I can assure you that the fifth grade team of highly qualified educators have stayed abreast of current professional development.  Therefore, they do not arbitrarily assign work to the students that will not enrich or improve their skills,"  she replied.  "They greatly care for the academic and social growth of all of the children.  They would not develop a summer assignment that would hurt the students.  Students that truly enjoy reading will continue to find the value in all of the novels that they read.  Students that normally are not interested in reading will acquire content from the book that will be useful to them during the school year.  This is the second year that the 5th grade team has implemented the summer assignment.  The assignment proved to be very beneficial this school year to all of the children."

But Ramsey suspects the assignments are a thinly-veiled form of mandatory test prep, tied to the new social studies exams CMS rolled out this spring in an effort to create data that will help kids and rate teachers.  She notes that CMS will add 45 minutes to the elementary school day in 2011-12 and suggests schools use that time for additional reading.

"So now it is the parents job to teach to the test?"  Ramsey wrote.  "Last year you started using Value Added measures with the established EOGs and you knew the Social Studies Summative would be this year.  That is when it was decided to begin this new summer assignment.  It is all a way to teach to the test, improve Social Studies vocabulary and knowledge.  It is not bad to strengthen Social Studies vocabulary and knowledge, just do it in the time designated by the state as instructional days."

Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark, who hadn't seen the exchange, said last week that summer reading assignments are common, and parent complaints rare.  "A lot of parents ask for it,"  she said. "We get requests for summer reading lists."

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