Homework Should Be Banned Expert Opinion On Drug

When kids are younger, homework is rarely an issue—a worksheet or two, spelling lists, 20 minutes of reading. In other words, nothing too taxing. But along the way, things change. Hello, multiple assignments nightly—research reports, special projects and more. Some parents don't mind when teachers pile it on, figuring, Plenty of homework must mean my kid is really learning something, right? After all, the news media regularly inform us that American kids lag pitifully behind their global peers, so extra learning opportunities are an appealing prospect. But other moms and dads see the intrusiveness, reasoning that seven hours in the classroom should suffice academically, leaving evenings and weekends free for sports, hobbies, family time—anything besides frustration, exhaustion and near-constant arguments about getting the work done. Yet seemingly few of these furious parents challenge the status quo.

According to education expert Alfie Kohn, they should. "I spend most of my time writing and speaking about issues where it appears that solid logic and evidence point in one direction, but widespread practice heads the other way," says Kohn. "I got a whiff of such a discrepancy and devoted about one page in my book The Schools Our Children Deserve to the question of homework. A few years later, after more evidence had accumulated that showed no benefit to it, I decided the topic deserved a book of its own." The Homework Myth (Da Capo Press), first published in 2006, challenges conventional wisdom in making its case against after-hours assignments. Read Kohn's take below, then join the conversation at familycircle.com/homework.

—The editors

The Case Against Homework

By Alfie Kohn

After spending all day in school, our children are forced to begin a second shift, with more academic assignments to be completed at home. This arrangement is rather odd when you stop to think about it, as is the fact that few of us ever do stop to think about it.

Instead of assuming that homework should be a given, or that it allegedly benefits children, I've spent the last few years reviewing the available research and talking to parents, teachers and students. My findings can be summarized in seven words: Homework is all pain and no gain.

The pain is obvious to kids but isn't always taken seriously by adults. Backpacks stuffed with assignments leave students exhausted, frustrated, less interested in intellectual pursuits and lacking time to do things they enjoy. "Most of what homework is doing," says literacy expert Harvey Daniels, "is driving kids away from learning."

We parents, meanwhile, turn into nags. After being away from our children all day, the first words out of our mouths, sadly, may be: "So, did you finish your homework?" One mother told me it permanently damaged her relationship with her son because it forced her to be an enforcer rather than a mom.

The surprising news, though, is that there are virtually no pros to balance the cons. Even if you regard grades or test scores as good measures of learning, which I do not, doing homework has no statistical relationship to achievement in elementary school. In high school, some studies do find a correlation between homework and test scores, but it's usually fairly small. And in any case, it's far from clear that the former causes the latter. And if you're wondering, not a single study has ever supported the folk wisdom that homework teaches good work habits or develops positive character traits such as self-discipline, responsibility or independence.

Some teachers know all this but feel compelled to keep assigning homework for tradition's sake, or because of pressure from administrators or, ironically, parents. Adults also may assume that kids will waste their time (read: do things grown-ups don't regard as sufficiently constructive) unless they're made to do schoolwork at home.

Still others believe—incorrectly—that more time spent on a task produces better results, or that because practice is required to be a good athlete or musician, it's also at the heart of intellectual growth. It isn't. You can't "reinforce" understanding the way you can reinforce a behavior. In my experience, people with the least sophisticated understanding of how children learn, or the least amount of concern about children's attitudes toward learning, tend to be the most enthusiastic supporters of homework.

We might forgive the infringement on family time if homework were assigned only when there was good reason to think that this particular task would benefit these particular students, that it will help them think more deeply about questions that matter and create more excitement about learning (and that it can't be done at school). But what educators are more likely to say is, in effect, "Your children will have to do something every night. Later on we'll figure out what to make them do." If there's a persuasive defense of that approach, I've never heard it.

Not only should there be much less homework assigned, there ought to be none at all of the worst types, such as filling out worksheets or cramming forgettable facts into short-term memory. I believe "no homework" should be the default arrangement. In other words, weeknight (let alone weekend or vacation) assignments should have to be justified on a case-by-case basis. Because most homework can't be justified, some teachers, and even some whole schools, have stopped assigning it altogether, with fabulous results.

We parents need to reach out to others in our communities to debunk uninformed assumptions ("homework is academically beneficial"), to challenge silly claims ("homework is needed to provide a link between school and family"), and to help restore sanity and joy to our children's lives. We should respectfully but pointedly inform educators that the status quo isn't supported by good research or basic values, and those values include a commitment to let kids be kids and provide them with time to grow socially, physically, emotionally and artistically—not just academically.

What topics would you most want to SPEAK UP about? Send ideas to speakup@familycircle.com.

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.

''Homework is a very hot topic,'' Georgiene Dempsey, the principal of the Springhurst Elementary School in Dobbs Ferry, said in a telephone interview.

''Parents sometimes have the idea that if they see more homework, the more they think the child is learning. Research shows that homework has no value in itself until fifth grade. Its only value is creating a habit for children to sit down and do homework. When is homework too much? All of us are in this craziness together.''

Overall there has been no significant increase in homework, according to a study released by the Brown Center on Educational Policy, a research center on educational issues at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington. The study, released as part of the 2003 annual Brown Center Report on American Education, said the exception was homework for children ages 6 to 8. Based on data from the Population Studies Center at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, the study reported that homework in that group increased to 2 hours and 8 minutes a week, from 52 minutes a week, between 1981 and 1997.

Try telling Westchester parents, especially those in high-powered schools, that homework hasn't increased significantly if at all.

''Students are so much more active outside of school now -- with soccer, sports, dance -- that even if homework might be the same amount, it's more difficult to manage,'' said Anne Wallace, the director for guidance at the middle and high schools in Rye Neck.

But there is a growing revolt, exemplified perhaps by parents in Ardsley who are circulating a petition to take to the school board about the difference between the district's stated homework policies and the amount of homework students actually have to do, asking simply that the current homework policy be enforced.

''Seventh- and eighth-graders are supposed to have an hour and a half a night,'' said Jason Sapan, a father of two children in the district, one of whom is a seventh grader at the Ardsley Middle School. The last straw was when his daughter was still not done with homework at 11 one evening. ''I don't think this helps in their education. It takes the joy out of kids who are exceptional, and overwhelms those who are struggling.''

Margot Steinberg of White Plains, whose children are in the Ardsley district, said: ''The kids get so much homework, they're not getting something out of it. They're doing it to get it done.''

The reasons for an increase in homework are several. ''Because of the standards and testing, kids these days are asked to write, and organize information in a much more complicated way than in the past,'' said Lisa Freund, a former special education teacher who now tutors students after school. ''They're given research projects in fifth and sixth grade, using the Internet, so the assignments are qualitatively different than they used to be. Part of my job is to free the parent from being responsible for what goes on after school.''

Douglas Both, the principal of the John Jay Middle School in the Katonah-Lewisboro school district, said state and federal standards are a factor. ''The higher standards require more information, and we can't cover everything,'' he said. ''What we're having to do is ask kids to do more at home, to have active instructional time at school. We're also dropping subject matter down a grade. We're teaching algebra in sixth grade. In order to prepare for more interactive classes, kids have to do more at home.''

STUDENTS see several stages of homework, said Paul Folkemer, assistant superintendent for instruction and curriculum in Scarsdale. ''Because of the English language arts exam, and also because of math and science, fourth grade is seeing a significant change in the amount of work,'' he said in a telephone interview, but the big changes come in middle school. ''In seventh grade, it's the first time students have five major subjects, and we group for mathematics. Many have advanced math, and foreign language.''

As Mr. Both said: ''The issue comes up every year. A lot of our middle school kids come from self-contained classrooms in fifth grade. All of a sudden, they move to the middle school with 10 to 11 teachers and subjects, English social studies, math, science, and reading, art, technology, home and career, music, and physical education.

''It's more subject matter specific, and students feel responsible to four to five different people every night. It's harder to track how much homework a child has in a given night. We work hard at it here, but teachers can't always address, 'How much are you giving?' Kids are trying to please a number of adults. And sixth-graders overwork their assignments. With five subjects, they become overwhelmed. We try to caution parents to stay out of homework. We have to wean them off it, just as we try to wean children from that kind of support.''

Some say that it's not so much the homework as the extracurricular activities that are to blame.

''We purposely don't do much after school because of homework,'' said Jamie Pearlman, a Mount Kisco resident whose two children attend Chappaqua schools. ''I didn't want her to go to bed at 10 or 11.''

The ways that teachers, schools, students and families choose to deal with homework are as varied as the players themselves.

Many parents who extol the virtues of their challenging public schools also complain that homework assignments, especially long-term projects, intrude on weekends, vacations, family meal times and children's sleep time, play time and down time.

Extracurricular activities are particularly at risk. Some Conservative Jewish congregations have scaled back their twice-a-week afternoon Hebrew school programs to once a week, because parents were reluctant to make that kind of time commitment for their children.

Other stresses are obvious, too. Dr. Karen Benedict, assistant superintendent for curriculum in Katonah-Lewisboro, said: ''People's lives are very busy. There are lots of dual parents who are working, and family time is valued. When students have to spend a lot of time on homework, family time is reduced.''

Beyond that, many conversations about homework include the assertion that ''my parents never did my homework for me,'' even Mom, who in a boomer's family might not have worked outside the home. Yet homework is now an issue not just for parents, but also for those who care for the children of working parents.

''The first question parents ask when they come here is, 'Is your homework all done?''' said Pam Koner, who runs the Homework Club in Hastings-on-Hudson. It is a private after-school program that has as one of its goals the completion of homework. ''At 6 at night, the last thing most parents want to do is homework. In the last six to eight years, the amount of homework has stayed the same -- but it feels to me that intellectually, things have been bumped up. Third-grade work is now in second grade, and it can be challenging for some of these kids.''

Despite any coping mechanisms, conflicts about homework -- between parents and children, or parents and educators -- are not unknown.

A White Plains parent, Barbara O'Keefe, said in a telephone interview: ''My youngest child, a freshman in high school, has more difficulty. I have to become a policewoman.''

Style differences, and students' own abilities and affinities for subject matter, can also come into play.

''One of mine can't start homework until 8 p.m.,'' Ms. Steinberg said. ''In my family, math goes quickly, but writing pieces are a nightmare.''

These forces have led to thriving tutoring industries in some communities. Some parents hire homework tutors to supervise or assist their children, reluctant to leave the task to nannies or non-English speaking housekeepers. And if tutors were once used to help struggling students, now it's not uncommon to find tutors engaged to help ''A'' students maintain their class standing.

''We know that there are a lot more tutors,'' Mr. Both said. ''In a community like ours, everyone is looking for that edge.''

Many districts have embraced after-school (and even before-school ) centers.

''Some kids have more help than others at home, so we try to build in more support at school,'' said Marjorie Holderman, principal of the Dobbs Ferry Middle School. The school is open before classes start in the morning as well as after school.

The Boys and Girls Club runs similar programs at its Mount Kisco, Yorktown and Tarrytown sites.

''The amount of homework children are getting has been increasing,'' said Barbara Cutri, the director. ''An hour is not enough to get all the homework done, beginning in third grade. Parents' expectations are that they want the homework done. We're an after-school program, and the main focus is on fun activities after school. We're not an education center, and want to give kids a break -- but kids are not going home with all the homework finished.''

Colleen McNamee, a regular at the Mount Kisco Boys and Girls Club, said she prefers to do her homework on her own. ''My Mom won't even know some of this stuff,'' she said. ''Homework takes over everything.''

Although private schools are known for tough academics, being liberated from state requirements means that homework has a different flavor.

Bob Cook, head of the upper school at the Harvey School in Katonah, said high school students usually have 30 to 40 minutes per subject each night. ''I've been in prep schools for 27 years, and I don't see that the amount of homework has changed much,'' he said. ''We limit homework on three- to four-day weekends, and over long vacations, there's no written homework, except for AP classes. That's really family time. And my department heads get together to make sure kids don't get make work. We tell teachers that if they don't have homework on a given night, don't give it for the sake of giving homework. In our middle school, the students get one night off per week per subject.''

Granted, homework doesn't have to be an overwhelming experience. And, educators say, it certainly shouldn't be in elementary school.

Mrs. Dempsey, who taught in Scarsdale for 17 years, said: ''I had a second-grade teacher this year, a terrific teacher, who said she was going crazy because the first hour of every day is spent with homework, and many of the kids haven't been doing their homework. I said there's another way. I told her, 'Don't give homework.'''

When Mrs. Dempsey was in Scarsdale (she left in 1987) the district's unofficial custom was not to give homework until the third grade, a practice that has since disappeared.

''I believe children should be reading every night, but not a multitude of math problems or reading assignments,'' she said. ''I can see how homework helps children when they're having struggles -- like doing math facts for a second grader, as opposed to 21 drill problems every night. If kids have worked hard in school, they should be out playing.''

In the high-powered Chappaqua schools, there is no regularly assigned kindergarten homework, although teachers may sometimes give assignments, mostly as a means of getting students accustomed to the idea of homework. First graders are supposed to have short assignments. It's not until second grade that students are expected to get regular language arts and math assignments, with daily reading part of the routine.

In response to a perception that there is too much homework, many of the county's middle schools have tried to find solutions.

Gail Kipper, the principal of the Farragut Middle School in Hastings, said that a few years ago, a committee of parents, teachers and administrators developed a pamphlet and policies about homework that is distributed at the fall open school night. Each grade hallway in the school, for example, has calendars with assignments posted.

''There should be no more than two major tests in a day, and long-term assignments are to be staggered,'' Ms. Kipper said.

At the Dobbs Ferry Middle School, coordination among the teachers is vital, said Ed Feller, a sixth-grade English teacher and team leader. ''We meet daily to discuss projects that we've given, so we stagger due dates.''

One solution has been to use technology. ''In middle school, kids want to break away from mom and dad, and parents want to hold on to that connection,'' said Peter J. Mustich, the superintendent of the Rye Neck school district, where the middle school recently began posting homework assignments on teachers' Web pages. ''Parents and students can look at the homework assignment, students can do the worksheet online.''

Some educators, and parents of children who are in college and beyond, caution that the homework umbilical cord needs to be cut sooner, not later. What seems like an innocent practice of helping a fourth-grader with a science poster can set a dangerous pattern. Between faxes and e-mail technology, it's not uncommon for college students to send term papers home to their parents for comments or editing, meaning that the homework issues can go on indefinitely.

In many households, homework stress is constant. Patty Warble, a mother of five grown children, speaks both as a parent and as a professional, because she is the executive director of the Bedford-Lewisboro-Pound Ridge Drug Abuse Prevention Council, as well as a staff member for the Tarrytown-based Student Assistance Services Corporation, a private nonprofit substance abuse and prevention organization.

''There's more pressure on kids to succeed, and homework becomes a power struggle,'' she said. ''Parents need to disengage from the power struggle. The idea is 'whose problem is it?' Let the people at the school who are the professionals handle it.''

Still, that's not necessarily an easy lessons for parents to absorb completely.

''When parents take over, it sends two messages,'' said Ms. Wallace, guidance director for the middle and high schools in Rye Neck. ''One is 'I'm supporting you, this is important.' And the other is 'I don't think you can do this on your own.' As parents, we don't want to see them fail.''

Assignment: How to Cope

WHILE homework will never go away, experts say there are ways to reduce stress among the various parties: students, parents, teachers and other educators. Homework has to get done, and done on time to meet teachers' requirements -- but exactly how and when can be different for different people. Before they buckle down, some children need to decompress after school, maybe by taking a half-hour to instant-message friends, nap on the couch or work off excess energy by jumping on a trampoline. If children and parents understand this about one another, it can reduce a lot of family stress on homework, just as it may well pay for a parent to understand that her work style is different from her daughter's.

Some other tips follow.

Students

1. Once you get past the earliest elementary grades, remember that it's your homework -- not your parents'.

2. Establish a regular routine to do homework, so that you have the habit of doing your work at the same time, and in the same place, most days.

3. Pay attention to due dates for long-term projects, and keep to that schedule.

4. If you're struggling, or an assignment is taking you longer to complete than anticipated, do as much as you can and discuss your problem with your teacher.

Parents

1. Support and supervise your child's efforts, but remember that it's not your homework. Your role should be that of a monitor or coach, not a partner.

2. Step back. Your value as a person isn't dependent on how your daughter does on her seventh-grade science lab or what your son gets on his fourth-grade poetry folder.

3. Provide a quiet time and study area for your child, to establish good study habits and encourage independence.

4. Expect regular assignments, and contact the teacher if there are problems or if homework doesn't arrive home regularly.

Teachers

1. Be sure that you're assigning work that students can do on their own, based on what they've learned in class, and that the assignments are clear to them. If parental input is expected on a long-term project, or extra credit assignments and challenge activities, define parents' role during open school night or at some other appropriate time.

2. Monitor the ease or difficulty of homework assignments for your students.

3. Check and return assignments promptly. Think about the value of homework. Maggie Worell, a third-grade teacher at the Hillside Elementary School in Hastings-on-Hudson, and a 35-year veteran of the profession, said: ''Homework should address the needs of diverse abilities. So teachers make adjustments for students.''

Principals

1. Set clear homework guidelines, and be sure the classroom teachers follow them.

2. Have a definite time limit for each grade. Ten minutes times the grade level appears to be one common standard.

3. Homework isn't about introducing new skills or concepts, but about reinforcing what happened in the classroom. Make sure that teachers understand that policy.

4. Keep in touch with parents. Find out if they're satisfied with the quality and quantity of homework assignments, and be prepared to adjust your policies if community expectations change or evolve. Merri Rosenberg

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