Parents throughout the five boroughs are debating the value of homework and whether their children should have more or less of it. Many parents think their children are burdened by excessive take-home assignments, while others believe the homework reinforces important concepts and flags comprehension issues for the teacher.
“The consciousness around homework has definitely changed. Once you start to name a problem, people think about it differently,” Sara Bennett, Brooklyn co-author of “The Case Against Homework,” recently shared with me.
Both Bennett’s work and Alfie Kohn’s book, “The Homework Myth,” cite statistics indicating that there is no correlation between increased homework and academic achievement. Bennett tells me that convincing parents of this can be difficult, since many have believed otherwise for so long.
Kohn also claims that there is a connection between excessive homework and a loss of interest in learning, and that nothing more than “folk wisdom” supports the belief that homework teaches self-discipline, good study habits, or responsibility.
Reports from the homework front
Chevion Weeks, whose children attend a lottery school in Queens, tells me that she likes her children to be challenged, as “homework will give them a better future.” She is “so pro-homework” because she believes that homework helped her do well academically and is “a necessary evil which will help children compete globally.” Weeks also believes that the teachers need to give homework, so they can get through the new core curriculum and that kids will naturally “veg out” without it.
“Practice makes perfect,” she tells me, although she won’t condone “busywork.”
Lyss, a Manhattan mom, agrees that it is important that her children do their homework and also believes in its value.
Last year, Diane Butler’s third grader had almost two hours of homework per night at her charter school in the Bronx. Her daughter sometimes gets frustrated and is fearful that she will get detention if it is not completed.
Tracy from Staten Island says, “If the teachers are doing a good job, they shouldn’t be giving [the kids] a ton of work.”
Tamara, a Manhattan mom, notes a disconnect between a parent and teacher, or between a teacher and child, when the homework is overwhelming and the issue is not being addressed. She is one of many parents who understand that the solution can only come from a partnership with the teacher.
Author Bennett indicates that good teachers should be able to reinforce important material during the school day, conceding that homework may occasionally provide a bit of reinforcement, despite the statistics disassociating it from direct academic success.
In her book, Bennett stresses, “Teachers receive little training in devising truly educational and meaningful assignments,” focusing attention not just on the excessiveness of assignments, but on their substance.
“I never saw a decent, worthwhile homework assignment, and I don’t know if there is better homework [than what is now being assigned],” she says.
Parents are frustrated, too, when teachers only spot-check homework or fail to provide feedback after a long night’s struggle to complete an assignment.
Still, moms like Tamara, who remembers her homework as “drudgery,” views her first grader’s homework as “appropriate, inventive, and creative.”
Without hesitation, Bennett indicates that she would support a homework ban. Her colleague Kohn agrees, especially with respect to elementary school. At a minimum, he tells me he would advocate for “a no homework default policy,” where the norm would be homework-free evenings with families deciding how to spend the time, and where a rare assignment is only permitted if it is absolutely necessary and fosters students’ interest in learning.
Vicki Abeles, director of the groundbreaking film “A Race to Nowhere” would favor a ban, as well, telling me, “We haven’t sounded the alarm loud enough when it comes to the long-term health consequences of the ‘busy-trap’ lives of our children” and that “we are depriving them of the growth that comes from having a job, making dinner with their families, reading for pleasure, and pursuing their own interests.”
Both the National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association recommend up to 10 minutes of homework from Kindergarten to second grade, and the National PTA recommends an additional 10 minutes more per grade thereafter. These guidelines seem to be echoed on many of the school’s individual websites, which often include nightly reading. Unfortunately, most of the parents I contacted were unaware of their school’s guidelines.
In the meantime, absent a ban, Kohn, Bennett and Abeles have helped to draft a petition for Healthy Homework Guidelines they hope the National PTA will adopt. For more information, go to www.change.org/healthyhomework.
Parents speak up
Unlike years ago, when parents pressured their children to finish all of their homework, no questions asked, schools today expect more parental supervision and are looking for more open communication with parents. Several schools’ homework guidelines even encourage parents to write a note if their children are unable to complete an assignment within a reasonable time and speak with the teacher if it becomes a persistent problem. Some of the parents I spoke with did just that.
One parent went even further and persuaded the teacher that certain regularly assigned homework was not necessary for her child, and as a result, he was no longer required to do it. Still, Kohn would prefer that all families be given the ability to “opt in” to receive homework, as opposed to opting out.
“We’re asking them to go back to work at the end of the workday, and I fundamentally disagree with that,” Suzanne, a Manhattan mom remarks. She not only resents the need to reserve weeknights for homework, effectively eliminating after school community building and family socialization, but also the need to squeeze enrichment activities into weekends, thereby curtailing traditional family outings.
“Parents need to speak up if the workload is excessive, and they need a vision for what they want as a family and need to be brave enough to do it,” she advises.
Suzanne noted that the problem is not just in her school, but is systemic and fear-based, telling me, “if we can’t meet the [New York State core educational] standards without so much homework, then we need to change the standards.”
She says she would support a change to do away with homework before second or third grade, introducing it in a reasonable amount, at an age when the children can work more independently.
Moreover, this mom, so aggravated that the homework required her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder-diagnosed child to take twice the suggested time, successfully advocated for the inclusion of a modification clause for children with Individualized Education Programs as part of her school’s guidelines. Hopefully, other schools will follow suit, allowing for down time and family time after a long day.
Who’s really completing the assignments?
Lori Hiller, a school social worker from Brooklyn, recognizes that sleep-deprived, anxious kids burn out as the evening wears on. If parents then complete the homework, the benefit of the assignment is lost. Parents admitted to me that they do more than just assist with the assignment, either because they believe that the younger children do not possess the fine motor skills for elaborate projects or because they “want to get it out of the way.”
When my third grader’s groupings of taped pennies on plain cardboard was presented alongside another student’s ski slope diorama perfectly engineered out of 100 toothpicks, I thought I was the only parent who was not doing my child’s project for him. One Queens mother excused parents’ over-participation, saying the child still needs to understand the concepts to present the project in class. A Brooklyn mom explains the overreaching as an attempt to avoid an evening of conflict and guarantee an A grade.
Many parents fear that their children will be penalized for incomplete or incorrect homework, so they make sure it is handed in corrected. Unfortunately, the teacher can’t then tell if the child has mastered the material or the parent has taught the child that he must come home with top grades, no matter the cost. This mentality can have serious repercussions later, as Bennett references the recent cheating scandals at Harvard University and Stuyvesant High School as an outgrowth of this.
Defend family time
Kohn tells parents that their role is “to support their child’s emotional, intellectual, social and moral development, not to be the school’s enforcer.” One Brooklyn mom echoed that sentiment, telling me of her distaste over acting “as the homework police,” noting the stress that even appropriate parental supervision can cause in a household, and aware that constant conflict over homework, coupled with some teachers’ fear tactics, can result in children hating school.
Hiller notes that families with two working parents often lose their after-work family time to homework and miss the natural interaction they should be having regularly with their children. One working mom from Forest Hills told me she makes the effort to go over all the homework the daughter completed in her after school program, no matter how exhausted she is from her day.
Still, Hiller says, “There is a place in the world for homework and learning how to organize things,” but recommends it be coupled with family-imposed structure, in the form of chores and dinner together, as well as informal outings and leisure activities, which can prompt learning, as well. She is aware of the statistics Kohn and Bennett rely upon, but believes that homework has served to provide her own children with good study habits.
“Homework is not like the weather, something to which we just have to reconcile ourselves,” says Kohn. He challenges parents to go beyond the logistical questions related to an assignment and inquire as to the value of the assignment itself. He would even encourage parents to band together to convince educators that the value of homework is truly a myth.
Ultimately, we all want the same thing: our children to succeed. In order for that to happen, parents and teachers need to adopt Bennett’s approach and recognize that we are “all in this thing together.”
Risa C. Doherty is an award-winning freelance writer, attorney and mother of two, who survived years of homework hassles.