Considerations for educators and parents

I google the word “homework” and discover 70+ million results, many of them, on the first few pages, at least, pointing to Web sites offering homework help, tools, or information to use in assignments. Look for research and you can support just about any position you’d like!

This is an issue that comes up in nearly every presentation I do, whether for educators or parents. Teachers complain that kids won’t do it; parents complain that there’s too much, or that it’s pointless or repetitious, or that it competes with family time, other valuable forms of recreation, or their children’s need for sleep.

One of the most common— if not the most unsettling— assertions I hear from teachers is that there is so much content to cover that homework is the only way they can make up the time. (Even the parents I’ve spoken with who were most devoted to supporting their school’s homework demands resented the expectation that they would teach new content or monitor the process for an entire evening.)

Heavy doses of homework became standard procedure in the U.S. after the Russians launched Sputnick in 1957, prompting a panic for making kids in American schools more competitive. Nowadays, it is not unusual for high school kids to complain of having four to six hours of homework on an average night. Trying to work these demands around after-school jobs, sports and social commitment, time with family, and the need for sleep creates a great deal of stress for many students and their families. All things considered, we’ve got a lot of kids operating pretty close to the breaking point. Weigh the benefits against the costs, and we sometimes have to wonder if it’s worth the trade-off.

It’s easy to make assumptions about kids and the lives they lead, and I have often been amazed at the amount of non-school responsibilities some kids shoulder. Consider the story of one 16-year-old who told me, “I don’t know what I’m good at. I know it’s not school. I’m busy taking care of my stepdad’s house. He’s in jail, so I had to fix the roof and the electrical. Then I have to go over to help take care of my grandpa. I do stuff at his house, too. The door’s broke and there’s something wrong with the plumbing.”

stressed kid doing homeworkFunny how our priorities don’t show up on this kid’s radar. His frustration was obvious: “My teachers act like their assignments are the only things I have to do or think about. I’ve got so much other stuff going on, I can’t concentrate on school. They hassle me and then I lose it and get another detention for acting out. I’m failing everything. I get sent to these alternative programs and everybody thinks I’m so stupid.” (1)

It’s also easy, and certainly understandable, when we get a bit myopic about the importance of the content we teach. But how often do our best intentions end up creating the exact opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish? I’ve known young people who managed to stay on top of the demands of AP classes, jobs, and two or three intense and demanding extra-curricular activities, running on far less sleep than research (if not common sense) suggests is necessary at that age. Is some consequence not expected at some point? I see far too many teens and young adults who are dangerously close to burning out, and often hear from parents concerned about their children’s drive for perfection and achievement, and the impact it seems to be having on their physical and emotional well being. Clearly it’s not just homework here, but let’s step back and look at the big picture of what we want our students’ learning (and their attitudes about learning) to look like, and whether our expectations, policies, and requirements are truly supporting our intentions.

Even little ones are not immune. A few years ago, after presenting a training program for parents, I was approached by four women, each with a child in the same first grade. The moms were quite upset about a new policy implemented at their children’s school which, in a desperate bid to increase test scores, assigned to each first-grader two hours of homework a night. According to the parents, the assignments consisted mainly of worksheets and writing drills. Developmental inappropriateness aside, the emotional toll was enormous. “My son cries the second he walks through the door,” one woman said.

The parents were doing their best to support the school policies and encourage their children, but they were all aware of the change in their children’s attitudes. For although all four children had been very excited about embarking on their school careers, one mother seemed to speak for them all when she said, “It’s only the third week of classes and my child already hates school.”(2)

Regardless of the dubious value of many of the assignments these students were bringing home, the brain handles detail-oriented work better at age eight than at six.(3) Recommendations by pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton and child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan which recommend “for children 6 to 9, no more than one hour a day” for homework or TV, and an average of 2 hours or less for children in middle and high school. They recommend more time with family instead. (4) And early childhood expert Frances Ryan notes that the work is far more appropriate if the children choose to do it on their own. She also leans more toward activities like cooking or playing or talking with parents instead of drillwork. (5)

librarianResearch has found that the amount of homework students have does not correlate with performance on achievement tests. Some districts are now pushing for more meaningful assignments and setting limits on the amount of homework kids have to reduce kids’ stress and increase family time. (6) Duke University professor Harris Cooper claims that elementary students “get no academic benefit from homework except reading and some basic skills practice,” and that “there is no academic benefit after two hours (for high school kids); for middle schoolers, one and a half hours.” (7) And although children can handle longer periods of homework as they get older, at each grade level, there is a corresponding breaking point (approximately ten minutes per grade level is recommended). After that, according to Cooper, “their achievement actually goes down.” (8)

I’ve met a number of teachers who do not assign homework unless the student needs practice on a particular skill or unless the homework would be individually enriching, relevant and would encourage higher-level thinking skills, but more often this is not the case. Even in the days when industrial-era classrooms served more to prepare students for “brutally repetitive” factory work, the notion that homework would build good work habits was challenged by the American Child Health Association in the 1930s when it lumped homework in the same category as child labor as “leading killers of children who contracted tuberculosis and heart disease.” (9)

Yet others argue for the benefits of homework in developing achievement motivation. Researcher Janine Bempechat asserts, “Under the guidance of adults who challenge their intellectual growth, homework provides students with the training they need to develop adaptive achievement beliefs and behaviors. All children, rich and poor, need to be pushed, not pitied, as they struggle to become mature learners.” She also stresses the benefits in offering children opportunities to “develop positive beliefs about achievement, as well as strategies for coping with mistakes, difficulties, and setbacks.” (10)

But does “pushing students” have to involve extending nearly every school day by several hours? As is often the case, we have a fair amount of black-and-white thinking around these issues. While it may not be necessary to abandon the practice of assigning after-school work, where does it makes sense to continue giving hours of mind-numbing drill work as per tradition, habit, or even district policy?

Clearly, as a teacher, I wanted some carry-over, but as Bempechat stresses in her article, parent involvement is key, and often we did not find this element present in the homes of the children with whom we worked. (11) I’ve known dozens of teachers who offered space in their classrooms before or after regular school hours and saw many kids who needed a quiet (or safe) space to work on homework take advantage of this option when transportation was not an issue.

I’ve seen kids hunker down on assignments that were creative, relevant, and interesting, although more often than not, hear from students who find their assignments to be dull and repetitive examples of something they had already mastered, or just more opportunities to fail at something they hadn’t been able to do in class. How can we expect any academic benefit or motivation in either of these scenarios?

So where do we draw the line? I think there is a way to find some balance in all this. I hate to see districts use homework in a reactive or punitive way and I certainly believe that the issue deserves continued study and discussion, and a greater mindfulness about how and what we ask our students to do after they’ve left our classrooms.

(1) From High School’s Not Forever, by Jane Bluestein and Eric Katz (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 2005).

(2) Excerpted from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, by Jane Bluestein (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2001).

(3) Carla Hannaford, Smart Moves: Why Learning is not All in Your Head. Arlington, Va.: Great Oceans Publishers, 199584; Nanci Hellmich, “Cut the Homework and the TV Time,” USA Today (Sept. 28, 2000).

(3) From their book, The Irreducible Needs of Children, as cited in Hellmich’s article in USA Today (Sept. 28, 2000).

(4) These stories are excerpted from my book Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2001).

(5) Jeffrey Gold, “N.J. School District Limits Homework,” Albuquerque Journal (Oct. 23, 2000); Tom Duffy, “Give Me a Break!” People Magazine (Nov. 27, 2000): 209-210.

(6) Valerie Strauss, “Homework’s Value Might Have its Limits,” Washington Post article appearing on the Wichita Eagle, Kansas Web site (Sept. 13, 2006). Also excerpts from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools.

(7) Patrick Winn, “Teachers Reassess Value of Homework,” The News & Observer Web site (Sept. 27, 2006).

(8) Strauss; also Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave, cited in Creating Emotionally Safe Schools.

(9) Janine Bempechat, “The motivational benefits of homework: a social-cognitive perspective,” Theory Into Practice, (Summer, 2004). Available on the LookSmart Web site.

(10) Though this never seemed to help the fourth-grader I had one year who was responsible for feeding, bathing, and putting her numerous younger siblings to bed every night (Mom was present most nights, but pregnant again, and tired) and was asleep at her desk by 10:00 every morning. More work, more failure, or bigger punishments were certainly not likely to be the solution to this child’s achievement problems.

Related links:

Making Homework WORK: Building Flexibility into Your Homework Policy by Dr. Jane Bluestein
Is Your Child’s Homework Worth Doing? by Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller
Taking a Stand Against Homework by Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller
Synthesis of Research Findings on Homework by Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller
Also: Homework: What Does the Research Say? by Scott King-Owen.

Book: Becoming a Win-Win Teacher
Book: Being a Successful Teacher
Book: Creating Emotionally Safe Schools
Book: High School’s Not Forever
Book: Listas Para Padres: Qué Hacer Y Qué No
Book: The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting
Book: The Win-Win Classroom

Audio: Practical Strategies for Working Successfully with Difficult Students

Podcast: Ending the Homework Wars with Susan Fitzell
Podcast: The Fragile Learner with Hanoch McCarty
Podcast: Movement and Learning with Aili Pogust
Podcast: The Saber-Tooth Curriculum Revisited with Dr. Richard Biffle
Podcast: Technology and Special Needs with Don and Gracie Tillman

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