When my high schooler started coming home without social studies homework, my first thoughts were, “Why would a teacher not assign homework on a regular basis?” and “Is the teacher really teaching anything in class if there is no homework?” I subsequently discovered that this teacher had the students actively involved in learning in the classroom so that they were voluntarily motivated to engage in ongoing, substantive discussions after hours. “Homework” was not assigned, but the students were engaged and learning more than ever. I was beginning to understand how effective a thoughtful educator could be.
Much has been said about “the homework wars:” some claim it is excessive and none of it is necessary, and others say it is an important component of educational success. Still, most people agree that if homework is given, it should be meaningful, appropriate, and necessary.
Healthy homework guidelines
Last spring, homework activists submitted the “Healthy Homework Guidelines” petition to the National PTA, recognizing the damaging effects of homework, including sleep deprivation, stress, and compromised mental health, noting ”homework lacks many of the benefits commonly attributed to it,” and it encroaches on parental rights, family time, unstructured time, and outside activities.
As a result, the guidelines encourage teachers to reduce homework, and only give assignments that advance the spirit of learning, are student-directed, and promote a balanced home and life schedule. Their aim is to improve teachers’ approach to designing and assigning homework.
Whether or not the guidelines are adopted as a position by the National PTA, schools around the country are beginning to address homework issues individually. Maryland’s Gaithersburg Elementary School adopted a no homework policy, finding that homework worksheets do not correspond with classroom instruction and instead encourage students to read 30 minutes a night, thereby creating a “real reading community.” The principal was quoted as saying that the change has sparked students’ maturation and motivation.
According to San Diego’s North County Times, students at Cardiff Elementary School are routinely not assigned homework, unless there is a clear purpose for it with regard to student learning. The principal there distinguished this from a no homework policy, hoping instead to impact the quality of the assignments.
If more schools replace their homework policies with Healthy Homework Guidelines, supporters hope for a ripple effect as more schools recognize the benefits for their own populations.
Foreign language exception
Many more issues still swirl around the homework debate. Parents who agree that rote homework in math or English may not be worth the incursion into family time, may still believe that foreign language homework is necessary.
Faith Garfield, who has taught foreign language in Queens schools, asserts that language homework “reinforces the knowledge students acquire in school, which will be lost otherwise, as it is a cumulative endeavor.” She says that when students practice writing in a foreign language for homework, it helps them begin to think in the new language, as class time is limited and teachers use it to teach structure.
Some anti-homework activists would include foreign languages in their general ban. One proponent remarks that language proficiency is never obtained from mere school study.
Alfie Kohn, author of “The Homework Myth,” opposes rote foreign language homework, but would support some homework in that area, so long as it is “in a context and for a purpose.” He differentiates between the way a child becomes proficient playing an instrument or a sport from the way he may learn an academic subject. Continual practice is necessary for the former to achieve more fluid behaviors. Moreover, Kohn warns that rote repetition in academic subjects creates a pattern of sidestepping emphasis on concepts and understanding ideas.
Staggering project deadlines
An age-old issue that persists in middle schools and high schools is multiple assignments and projects, which always seem to be due on the same day. Teachers assign work as if they rule their own fiefdom, without regard to simultaneous assignments in other subjects. Although Kohn categorizes this as a minor point, students continue to suffer. Bennett proposes that teachers coordinate their assignments, using a board in the staff lounge. Etta Kralovec, co-author of “The End of Homework,” tells me it is a larger problem that goes beyond homework, indicative of “the teachers’ lack of time to work together to structure aligned, integrated learning experiences and curriculum.”
What is ‘Partnering With Parents?’
The real question is, “Why is homework assigned in the first place?” Sara Bennett, co-author of “The Case Against Homework,” contends, “If parents didn’t help, that would be the end of homework in elementary school,” noting that continued assistance leads to dependency and children lose ownership of their work. Bennett and Kralovec say that self-discipline and personal responsibility are learned not by the student, but by the systematically supervising parent.
Kralovec also points to programs like Teachers Involving Parents in Schoolwork programs and the Homelink Initiative, as signs of a growing trend to train parents to help with assignments. Kralovec tells me that homework handed in incorrectly with parental input requires the teacher to unteach and reteach, wasting more precious class time.
Personally, I resented having to master a textbook chapter and reteach it or learn unfamiliar math formulas late at night, when I had been relying on my children’s teachers to cover the material with them.
Bringing homework under control
Even though research indicates little or no benefit from homework, parents continue to believe that it will lead to academic success, and they are resigned to it, according to Kralovec and co-author John Buell.
Unfortunately, Rome wasn’t conquered in a day, and it is hard to change any ingrained way of thinking. Parents and teachers continue to expect homework to be assigned, despite its intrusion into family life. As a result, Kralovec and Buell say that parents are “caught in a state of cognitive dissonance, asking for something that is fundamentally at odds with their own interests.”
Experts suggest various ways to ease the homework burden until the issue is fully addressed. Kohn invites teachers to teach a single unit without homework and analyze the comparative results. In a recent conversation, he challenged teachers to offer more than just a “Goldilocks survey” to determine an appropriate homework amount, but instead to ask parents for in-depth feedback about assignments’ necessity. Kohn advocates for student participation in homework creation, including how much to give, when it should be due and when to stop, before achieving mastery of the material.
Kohn believes teachers should avoid randomly assigning work right out of a book, telling teachers, “if you didn’t design it, you shouldn’t assign it.” He further recommends teachers learn each student’s needs, avoiding a “one size fits all” assignment.
Finally, Kohn is a strong proponent of meaningful, interdisciplinary learning experienced through in-school projects such as “design your own room,” which teaches budgeting, area, perimeter, and applied math.
Vicki Abeles, director of the film “Race to Nowhere,” encourages educators to re-evaluate the way in which we use the school day. She suggests schools schedule a study hall period daily or set aside one school day per week for supervised study. In this manner, students will have the time to study and receive guidance from trained professionals. She would like schools to designate one person to provide support to students and families by monitoring adherence to homework policies.
Kralovec and Buell stress the need to recognize homework as a public issue — not a private one. Abeles tells me, “It will take some courageous school leaders to eliminate unhealthy homework practices. We have the responsibility to create change, and we need a new and healthy definition of success.”
Risa C. Doherty is an attorney, freelance writer, and mother of two. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Read more at wwww.risadoherty.com.