Thoughts on Homework?

From The Atlantic magazine, one father's account of doing - not for his children but to understand their workload - his daughters' homework for a week.  Crazy amount of work.

It turns out that there is no correlation between homework and achievement. According to a 2005 study by the Penn State professors Gerald K. LeTendre and David P. Baker, some of the countries that score higher than the U.S. on testing in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study—Japan and Denmark, for example—give less homework, while some of those scoring lower, including Thailand and Greece, assign more.

The irony is that some countries where the school systems are held up as models for our schools have been going in the opposite direction of the U.S., giving less homework and implementing narrower curricula built to encourage deeper understanding rather than broader coverage.

His take:

The more immersed I become in Esmee’s homework, the more reassured I am that the teachers, principals, and school-board members who are coming up with this curriculum are earnest about their work. They are making difficult decisions about what to teach or not teach in the limited class time they have. The overall education being imparted is secular, humanistic, multicultural, and intensely quantitative. 

The math Esmee is doing at 13, for example, is beyond what I was doing at that age. Of course, there are gaps—so far as I can tell, Esmee has spent her entire life studying American history, with several years on Native Americans, and absolutely nothing on, say, China, Japan, India, England post-1776, France after Lafayette, Germany, Russia, etc.

 Like many parents, I wish there was more emphasis on creative work, on writing assignments that didn’t require Esmee to use eight “transition words” and seven metaphors. This school has clearly made choices—these kids are going to get very good at algebra and maybe a little less good at creative writing. I can’t say I fault them in this, though I know what I would prefer to spend my days doing.

Two highlights:

- at one point, he wants to figure out if he is just wrong about this amount of homework and asks other parents.  

That night, in an e-mail chain started by the class parent to seek chaperones for a field trip, I removed the teacher’s name, changed the subject line, and then asked the other parents in the class whether their children found the homework load onerous.

After a few minutes, replies started coming in from parents along the lines of “Thank God, we thought we were the only ones,” “Our son has been up until 2 a.m. crying,” and so forth. Half the class’s parents responded that they thought too much homework was an issue.

Since then, I’ve been wary of Esmee’s workload, and I’ve often suspected that teachers don’t have any idea about the cumulative amount of homework the kids are assigned when they are taking five academic classes. There is little to no coordination among teachers in most schools when it comes to assignments and test dates.

Back in California, when I raised the issue of too much homework on that e‑mail chain, about half the parents were pleased that someone had brought this up, and many had already spoken to the math teacher about it. Others were eager to approach school officials. But at least one parent didn’t agree, and forwarded the whole exchange to the teacher in question.

As the person who instigated the conversation, I was called in to the vice principal’s office and accused of cyberbullying. I suggested that parents’ meeting to discuss their children’s education was generally a positive thing; we merely chose to have our meeting in cyberspace instead of the school cafeteria.

He disagreed, saying the teacher felt threatened. And he added that students weren’t allowed to cyberbully, so parents should be held to the same standard.

I explained that we never intended for the teacher to read those notes. This was a forum where we were airing our concerns.

I left believing I hadn’t solved the problem.

Yet something did change. Over the next few months, the math teacher assigned a more manageable workload. My daughter now went to bed before 10 o’clock most nights.

- his account of cross-subject homework:

Another exercise required Esmee to find the distance from Sacramento—we were living in California—to every other state capital in America, in miles and kilometers. This last one caused me to question the value of the homework.

(Editor's note; that would be 50 equations.  C'mon.)

What possible purpose could this serve?, I asked her teacher in a meeting.

She explained that this sort of cross-disciplinary learning—state capitals in a math class—was now popular. She added that by now, Esmee should know all her state capitals. She went on to say that in class, when the students had been asked to name the capital of Texas, Esmee answered Texas City.
But this is a math class, I said. I don’t even know the state capitals.

The teacher was unmoved, saying that she felt the homework load was reasonable. If Esmee was struggling with the work, then perhaps she should be moved to a remedial class.

Talk about passive-aggressive.  "If your daughter can't keep up, maybe she should move to a remedial class?"

What's interesting is I read an article, about research done about on-line schools, where the schools found that the parents were doing a significant part of the homework for the children.  The schools had instituted measures to be able to check how often parents signed into the parents area and the child's area and found some parents were in their child's area way too often.

How is it going in your household with homework?


Planet Heidi said…
I'm also curious at what age is homework appropriate. When I was a kid, I don't remember getting any homework beyond "show and tell" or the occasional "go to the library" kind of thing until I was in 5th grade. Definitely didn't get problem sets and worksheets sent home until 7th grade. Now it seems SPS starts with this at first grade? At some point, this cuts into the kid's sleeping time, which I think is way more important than homework.
Anonymous said…
In elementary, the only homework should be independent reading. Maybe a little more, beginning in fifth grade, as preparation for middle school.

Teachers in different subjects in middle school should be required to coordinate to minimize the daily workload. It should always be related to a skill that particular child needs to work on. It should not be a poster - unless it's for art.

I hate homework. Then again, we had lots of years when the time in school seemed totally wasted (as far as learning new material) and I resented having to make my kids spend their free time doing more useless busy work.

Anonymous said…
My third grader (daniel bagley montesdori) has yet to bring home homework this year. Sure, we're only going into full week 3, but it's been nice.

Mag mom
Anonymous said…
I feel pressure to hand out homework at that the school I teach at. I don't like homework for primary aged children. I'd rather have them be at home with their families enjoying time together. I don't check the homework and honesty I don't bother to check who is turning it in and who isn't. So what is the point? Many parents want it I guess? But then I hear that it's a struggle or it's too easy. I feel like I can't win on the homework front.

I made a point at curriculum night to say that if its too easy, I will give you websites, if it's too hard, take a break, it shouldn't cause tension at home.

I'd rather not give anything except reading.

Also, it guess we have to ask if it is equitable? Most of my students have families to go home to that will help them and make them do homework, some children do not have that support at home and therefore never do their homework.
Anonymous said…
I am going to say something positive about SPS! We have private school experience and there were just too many projects that became parental competitions. The kids learned little and it was all about mom's glue gun skills (lots of art type making things that had dubious connection to learning the material). Some of the other homework was busy work and the teachers generally didn't care if your child had mastered the material they had to do it anyway. But there was lots of homework and I think maybe parents wanted it that way. (My fourth grader spent up to two hours a night and she was a very strong mostly A student). Switch to SPS, my girl got a reasonable amount of relative homework in 5th grade. Mostly Math. That let us see what she was working on and whether or not she understood it. That's good because she didn't quite have long division down the way she should have by 5th grade and so we made sure she got some extra attention on that. The teacher did a great job with the Reader's and Writer's Workshop. The reading homework included thinking deeply about the text and the writing homework was creative and also taught grammar. There were projects but as far as I could tell the kids did the work (we always made our kid do the work in private school except for the "family projects", no kidding! Her work always looked shabby compared to the others) and they seemed relevant to what they were learning. I think this particular teacher did a fantastic job with homework (for those who have read my other posts, this is a different kid and a different school). I never complained about the homework at the private school (except to other moms who agreed with me). But now i see how its supposed to work. Gen Ed Mom
TechyMom said…
I need to say something about the projects... These are the things my daughter likes best about school. They are the things that get her really jazzed about a topic, and she'll spend hours researching online and making artistic posters and boxes that convey what she learned. She can still tell me interesting facts about subjects of her first grade projects. She hates long writing assignments, and finds daily homework boring. But, the projects? Those are the things that make school worth doing for her.
Anonymous said…
That's great. There should be projects and kids who get really into them should get great grades on them! I was objecting to assigning projects in K or 1 or 2 that were well beyond the range of what kids that age could normally do and seeing all the projects that were not done by kids that age. Have not seen that yet in SPS (but my kids are older now). GEM
Josh Hayes said…
Techy Mom, it almost sounds like you're advocating project-based learning! Wouldn't it be great if there were schools in SPS that did that sort of thing on a regular basis -- and not just as busy work, but with academic intent?

Unfortunately, they're closing the only one I know about. I'm sure there are other schools that take this approach, and I'd love to hear about them.
TechyMom said…
Yeah, Josh. We looked at AS1 and liked it, but it was too far from home (Summit too). TOPS was our first choice. I'm really sorry about what has happened to your school :( said…
K-5 STEM is project based learning.

Although, I have to say, my 1st grader has a page of math, 20 min of journal writing and 20 min of reading as homework every night.
A student said…
I feel that homework isn't a bad thing, teachers just use it wrong. I've been to many schools, currently I'm in a private school, and my teachers are great. We practice project-based learning and they know what it means. Although we do receive plenty of homework, it is the homework that actually makes you think. As my sister used to say, they do not make you do 'robot work'.
Long ago, when I went to school in Washington D.C., they gave us at least four pages of homework every night. I was in kindergarten.
So, to sum up my points, I feel that small amounts of homework should be given (perhaps rising amounts as children age, but never much) that isn't 'robot work'.

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