The Homework Debate
Acton students log a great deal of time doing homework. Is this time well spent?
NOTE: This article was originally published on Patch in 2011 but we wanted to re-feature the article because it is an interesting topic of conversation since the new school year is soon to begin.
In March, the documentary Race to Nowhere was shown at the Acton-Boxborough Regional High School. In the audience were approximately 750 parents, students and other interested locals. The film addresses what its director, Vicki Abeles, feels is the current state of affairs for our children: overscheduling, unrealistic demands to perform, lack of adequate sleep, competition in all areas, and intense pressure to position oneself to gain acceptance to prestigious colleges.
Within a week of the film’s showing, parent, Alex Horovitz, penned a letter and sent it to all of the Acton schools’ principals and the town’s school committee members. The topic: Homework.
In his letter, Horovitz writes, “I am asking that you take the bold step of eliminating homework from the grade schools and middle school and fundamentally change the way the homework is created and assigned at the high school.”
He suggests that research supports the conclusion that there is “absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework at the elementary grade levels,” adding that this is true for middle school as well. In regard to high school, Horovitz states that the correlation between increased homework and higher levels of achievement is “weak at best, and when the application of more rigorous statistical measures is applied, it all but disappears.”
Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, was published in 2006. In this book, the author provides an in-depth summary of previous research about the effects of homework. There is a wealth of information that came before him; the book includes over forty pages of footnotes and references.
Simply stated, Kohn concludes that the trend line of increased homework assigned to American students is not benefitting them. He concludes that out kids do not perform better on standardized tests, AP exams or college coursework as a result of doing more assignments outside the classroom in grades K-12.
If this is true, then why are our kids coming home with so much work to do? And what impact does this have on families?
Ramifications of homework for families are identified by Kohn: These include stress experienced by kids and the accompanying burden placed on parents. Kohn points to the work of Curt Dudley-Marling, a Boston College professor who conducted interviews with families of students who were struggling academically. Dudley-Marling found that "parents felt frustrated when they pushed and when they didn’t, when they helped (with homework) and when they didn’t.”
A local mother, when asked about how homework goes in her house, stated, “Homework will be the death of me. My 8th grader hates it, lies about what’s assigned, when it’s due, how much is already accomplished, and if he passed it in. It is the horrible atrocity in our home.”
This type of stress, says Kohn, manifests itself in tears and crying in younger students, but can increase pre-teens’ and teenagers’ risk for anxiety, depression, excessive anger and other mood disturbances. Older kids, he says, “may try to cope with the stress in more troubling ways” than younger children.
The other key consequences of a great deal of homework cited in The Homework Myth are less time for children to pursue other activities and less interest in learning.
The worry is that homework-burdened kids have less time for unstructured play and activities of their own choosing or of their parents’ choosing. Critics of homework feel that teachers and school administrators shouldn’t be dictating to families the ways in which they may spend their time in the afternoons and evenings.
Karen Shiebler is a mother of three grown children and a 5th grade teacher. Shiebler has spent a great deal of time studying the effectiveness of homework, both in her own kids’ lives and those of her students. She shared that she has heard the Well, it gets them ready for college argument numerous times.
“The difference is…in college, they are sleeping until 10:00 a.m. and that is a whole different thing,” said Shiebler. “In college they’re not playing as many sports. A lot of kids don’t work when they are in college.”
Shiebler’s own children weren’t forced to complete homework. There were no struggles over it. As a result, she feels that her kids, who did very well academically, “got to college and were not burnt out. They were allowed to have intellectual curiosity.”
Shiebler feels that learning “has got to be joyful, or students are not going to be engaged.” (She jokes, “I’m still working on trying to make decimals joyful!”) Her goal is that her students gain knowledge, whether they do it by reading about a subject or experiencing it in a hands-on manner.
Shiebler does assign homework to her students. But she tells their parents that, after an hour, the kids are permitted to stop working, even if they are not finished. The work she sends home is designed to get the kids thinking.
“I see it strictly for problem solving and organization,” she says. “That is where they need to fly solo a little bit.”
Her goal is to help her students manage their time and learn to figure things out without an adult’s help.
In Shiebler’s classroom, students who return to school with incomplete homework that they didn’t understand can sign up for “conferences” the next morning by putting their names on the board.
Horvitz, is not actually anti-homework. He is opposed, however, to kids being assigned work that does not enhance their learning in order to teach them to be accountable.
“If you want to teach responsibility, have them do chores around the house,” he states. Horovitz feels that some teachers’ practice of simply glancing at homework and checking it off, without really looking to see its quality, sends a bad message to kids and parents.
Horvitz is in favor of homework that ties into the current lesson. He is a fan of the approach utilized by Gabrielle Berberian, a Social Studies teacher at R.J. Grey Junior High School. Horvitz says that she assigns thoughtful questions for her students to prepare to discuss for the next day’s class.
Jeffrey Freed and Laurie Parsons, authors of Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World, would likely agree with Horovitz. They write, “Too many children go home with backpacks filled with dull, tedious problems. This kind of homework doesn’t test a child’s knowledge of a particular concept; it tests his ability to complete a meaningless assignment while overcoming extreme boredom. Homework should not extinguish a child’s love of learning; it should be considered a tool to reinforce concepts and keep the spark ignited outside of the classroom.”
Many theorists, however, believe that anti-homework proponents are misguided. Janine Bempechat is the author of a paper titled The Motivational Benefits of Homework: A Social-Cognitive Perspective. She looks at the policies of Catholic schools, which she describes as, “institutions where the poorest children in the United States do exceptionally well, as evidenced by lower dropout rates, higher GPAs and SAT scores, and greater college acceptance rates.”
Bembechat criticizes parents who feel sorry for their children when they have challenging homework and say’s that “these are often the same parents who will demand an exacting course of study from their children’s high school teachers, in order for their children to be as well prepared as possible for the increasingly competitive college application process.”
In The Battle Over Homework, Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor of psychology, concludes that there is a positive correlation between homework and success for students in grades 7-12. He reaffirms other researchers’ determination that overloading of homework is not associated with higher grades or test scores, though. The ten-minute-per grade rule of thumb seems to be statistically sound. Using this formula, a 4th grader should spend about 40 minutes doing homework per night, and a 12th grader should spend approximately two hours. After two hours, the benefits have been show to disappear.
The majority of Acton-Boxborough High School students would likely state that they have more than two hours of work per night.
Principal Alixe Callen, speaking in an interview with Patch’s Elizabeth Leaver, says, “It’s interesting because teachers are saying they’ve never given less homework, and kids are saying it’s the most homework they’ve ever had.”
Dr. Callen surmises that many students are compelled to reply to text messages and to get lured into Facebook chats while doing homework, thus lengthening the time between beginning and finishing tasks. She recommend’s “bringing back the kitchen table” to minimize distractions.
High school senior Lex Martin agrees that Dr. Callen may have a point when she calls out students for falling prey to technological distractions. But Lex does think that there is a great deal of homework assigned at ABRHS. Regarding many teachers, she states, “they think their work is the top priority all the time. That’s an issue.”
Looking back over her tenure in the Acton schools, Lex offers praise for the approach utilized by her elementary school, Merriam. She describes getting a weekly packet of work and having to learn how to budget her time in order to get it done.
“It was not a lot of homework in terms of volume, but it made the transition to junior high easier,” said Lex.
Comparing the schools she’s attended, Lex feels that the junior high “probably does the worst job of integrating homework with the curriculum.” She further states, “They give a lot of busy work assignments that aren’t based on what you’re learning but on how much time you can devote to them.”
Fourth grader Annette Aronoff, when asked about homework, states, “I don’t think we need as much.” Annette is fairly confident that she can learn her spelling words without filling out multiple worksheets, and wonders why she can’t memorize them her own way. With her mom’s support, she has learned to get her homework done on time by doing more on days when she does not have scheduled activities. Free days are few and far between,
Race to Nowhere’s Abeles describes her son as “a different kid” on the nights he has no homework. Jacky Gottesman, an Acton mother of 3rd and 7th grade sons and an elementary school Spanish teacher, can likely relate to that sentiment.
Gottesman, although “not one to assign a lot of homework,” sees the value in doing a modest amount of it.
“Students who put good effort and care into their work do become more proficient,” she states. “I don’t want to spend too much time in the classroom reviewing and correcting homework. I’d rather have my students playing games and learning interactively because only then are they engaged and truly internalizing what I’m teaching,” she adds.
There is evidence that Acton teachers are thoughtful about the content, amount, and timing of homework they assign. The junior high has “teams” of teachers who communicate with one another in order to avoid overloading their students with same-day tests and quizzes.
Kate Fitzmaurice, a McCarthy-Towne 6th grade teacher shares, “We’ve been talking about homework for years.” Fitzmaurice and her same-grade colleagues recently took a fresh look at their goals for their students and how homework fits in with them. She shared their conclusions, one being that “an hour of practice is reasonable, but more than that is not beneficial to the kids and their learning.”
The trio of teachers does not assign new material for homework. They do not send work home on weekends or before vacations. Regarding their students’ parents, Fitzmaurice revealed, “They told us they were happy to hear we are being so thoughtful about assignments and are thinking about how school impacts all of their lives at home.”
Therapist Susan Stiffelman feels that children should not miss out on playtime due to academic overload.
“They need to interact with friends, draw, skip, hop, climb, dig in the dirt and scratch the dog while daydreaming," she writes.
Most parents and educators would likely agree that this is an admirable goal. However, homework’s place in our children’s lives remains a topic to debate.