Homework: A Parent’s Plea for Quality over Quantity

Note to my regular audience: This blog post is  meant to jump start a conversation about homework at my children’s elementary school, so it may or may not be of interest to you. That said, if you have experience as a parent and/or a teacher and can chime in with some homework wisdom, I hope you will. Note to Wolcott School community members: Whether you agree or disagree with what I’ve written here, please chime in with your own family’s homework experiences, either here or on our Facebook page. Please also share this with any other parents or teachers who might be interested in joining the conversation. The PTO Executive Board is considering a request from me and another parent to make homework a discussion topic at the November PTO meeting. 

*If you’re returning to this post after reading it previously, please note the update at the bottom. Thanks*

My first grader arrived home yesterday with his first weekly homework packet of the year—a folder that included a homework log, guidelines for different types of homework (reading, spelling, math, etc.), instructions on how to make my own set of flashcards for basic sight-reading words, and a variety of other pieces. It took me (a college-educated parent who communicates for a living) 15 minutes of reading and shuffling papers to begin to make sense of it. I’m not sure how a six-year-old can make sense of a homework packet like this one without a parent sitting by his side. Which is what I did later on, after dinner, when my son sat down to do his homework. When we sat down to do his homework. (And yet, teachers consistently say that homework is our kids’ responsibility, not ours as parents. Interesting. I’ll say more on that particular mixed message later.)

What I am sure of is that this amount and complexity of homework is not appropriate for a first grader.

I adore my children’s elementary school, enough that five years ago when we decided to buy a larger house, we waited until we found one that would allow us to stay in the same school district, despite living in a town where all the schools are excellent. I would characterize every single one of the teachers my children have had at this school as top-notch. When I tell people that our school doesn’t have any bad teachers, I mean it.

That said, I am increasingly fed up with the amount and type of homework my children bring home. National studies have shown that there is a widespread trend to send more and more homework home with younger and younger children, despite a dearth of research showing that more homework effectively supports learning. I have watched this trend close-up. My oldest child, now in seventh grade, certainly didn’t bring home a folder in first grade with a complex homework rubric requiring parental decoding.

I am fed up with my children’s homework, for several reasons.

1) I am fed up because every weekday afternoon and evening, I am faced with an impossible math problem. No, not one of the math problems my kids bring home on their many homework handouts, but the math problem in which I must try to squeeze a number of activities important for my family’s health and well-being into the very limited hours between the end of my children’s school day (around 4 p.m. by the time they get off the bus) and their bed time.

As I wrote here not long ago, my kids, like many American kids, are overscheduled to some extent. But, in contrast with a prevalent myth in the media, my children are not overscheduled because I am an anxious parent who overbooks their time with enrichment activities so that they will get merit scholarships to top colleges and get good jobs. Rather, my primary concern as a parent is to do the things that I know (and experts confirm) will contribute to my children’s long-term health, learning, and well-being.

I want my children to be physically active for their health as well as enjoyment. The CDC recommends that kids get at least 60 minutes a day of physical activity. While my children get some physical activity at school during recess and physical education, when the weather allows, they often ride bikes or play in the yard after school.

I want my children to have abundant time for unstructured, non-adult-driven play. They spend a long day in school and need time to decompress and just have fun—and not just because they want to. Studies show that unstructured, child-driven play is vital for healthy brain development and long-term well-being. My kids love playing with dolls, playing “family” with neighbor friends, building with Legos and Magformers, and doing art projects.

We eat dinner as a family almost every night. Studies show that kids who connect regularly with parents over family meals gain many benefits, such as having less risk of drug abuse and lower incidence of depression. Plus, food prepared and eaten at home is almost always healthier than restaurant or fast food.

We encourage our kids to try out non-academic pursuits such as music and art, and one thing we love about our elementary school is that it emphasizes creative writing, visual arts, performance, and public speaking. Studies have shown that studying music can enhance children’s spatial/temporal skills, boost IQ, and help with language development, among other benefits. By their own choice, my children take piano lessons and participate in our church’s rigorous choral program. In fourth and fifth grades, every elementary student in town has the option of taking free school-based instrumental music lessons. Fifteen to thirty minutes of music practice a day is the norm in our household.

Elementary school-aged children need 10 to 11 hours of sleep to function at their best. I aim to get my kids in bed by around 8 p.m., so they can read for 15 to 30 minutes before getting a good night’s sleep.

Finding adequate time for homework among these important activities is a constant struggle. On a day in which no one in the family has any after-school activities or appointments, homework isn’t so hard to fit in. But such days are rare, especially given that when one child has some place to be, the others have to go along for the ride because they can’t stay home alone.

But I’m not arguing against homework primarily because it’s inconvenient and stressful. If I can’t stand inconvenience and stress, I shouldn’t have had three children, right? Right. I’m willing to do what’s necessary for my kids even when it’s inconvenient and stressful, when I understand and support the purpose of the activity. And I frequently don’t understand the purpose and value of my children’s homework.

2) I am fed up because most of my kids’ homework does not have a reasonable purpose or clear value.

Let’s start with the positive. Some of my children’s homework makes lots of sense to me.

It makes sense that kids should be required to read (or be read to) every night for an age-appropriate amount of time. I’m a writer married to a librarian; you don’t need to convince me that reading is good for kids. It’s good for their reading, writing, and vocabulary skills. Good for their imagination. Good for their lifelong well-being, as reading for pleasure is one thing they can do for the rest of their lives.

Likewise, it makes sense that kids should practice skills such as math facts and spelling words at home. For some types of learning, nothing beats sheer repetition. My daughter’s third grade teacher introduced us this year to a fabulous web site called XtraMath that quizzes kids on age-appropriate math facts in five-minute increments. I have signed all three of my kids up, because it’s a fun and easy way for them to do rote repetition of math facts. Likewise, I will gladly quiz my children on spelling words.

Finally, I see much value in occasional long-term projects, such as book reports or research reports on special topics. This sort of work requires children to practice time management; requires research, writing, and presentation skills; and often allows children to delve more deeply into topics of interest—which gets them excited about doing the work.

But the bulk of my kids’ homework (the most time-consuming part, especially because they find it boring—it is boring—and have to be cajoled into doing it) consists of photocopied worksheets in which they repeat activities from the school day. My kids do these worksheets (under duress), but they aren’t engaged. They are merely regurgitating what they have done in school. My children often do these worksheets at the kitchen table with their heads resting on their arms, scrawling in the answers. This doesn’t look like learning to me. Research on many questions around homework is unclear, in part because many questions haven’t been adequately studied. But there is no research clearly indicating that having kids repeat their school-day work at home will enhance their learning.

3) I am fed up because I hear mixed messages from teachers about homework.

At least half a dozen times in the seven years that I’ve had children at this school, I’ve heard a teacher say, “We/I don’t want to give your kids homework. We know it’s a burden on you and your child.”

But they assign homework anyway. Why? I’ve heard several answers.

“If we didn’t give homework, other parents would complain because they want their children to have it.” Teachers should be assigning homework based on whether or not it clearly supports learning, not to please parents (including me).

“We give homework in the younger grades because they will get it in the older grades.” Would we ever argue that, because kids will have to learn long division in the older grades, we should start teaching it in kindergarten and first grade? There is a huge developmental difference between a seven-year-old and an 11-year-old. It’s a difference I see every day in my own home, where I have a first grader, third grader, and seventh grader. My seventh grader has a lot of homework. She is also more mature, more capable of time management, better able to concentrate for long periods, and better able to read and understand directions on her own than her younger siblings are. Homework makes sense for her in a way that it simply doesn’t for my younger children. And even though she has far more homework than the younger kids, it causes relatively little stress for us or her. Because it’s developmentally appropriate. Because she doesn’t need us to decipher instructions or play along with make-work learning “games.” Her homework is her homework.

“Homework teaches skills such as self-discipline and time management.” Actually, no study has ever confirmed that homework teaches such “life skills.” And even if it does, any type of homework, including setting aside daily time to read, doing a research project, or practicing math facts, can theoretically teach these skills. Packets of time-consuming, repetitive worksheets aren’t necessary for teaching self-discipline and time management.

The biggest mixed message I hear from teachers? “Homework is for the kids. We don’t expect parents to do homework with their children.”

And then, kindergarteners and first graders bring home work with instructions they cannot read on their own. Students bring home photocopied sheets titled “Home-School Connection.” I’ve finally figured out that “home-school connection” is code for, “Here are some learning ‘games’ that we expect you to sit down and do with your child at 7 p.m., when both you and your child are wiped out, the dinner dishes need to be done, the dog needs to be walked, tomorrow’s lunches need to be made, Mom or Dad brought home an hour or two of work that didn’t get done at the office, and no one is in the mood to play games that, frankly, aren’t very much fun.” My third grader can’t just read for 30 minutes and have a parent sign off saying she did so. No, she has to fill out a detailed log, with the number of pages she read and a summary of what she read. I can’t imagine anything killing the pleasure of reading faster than someone asking me to keep statistics on what I read. To get her to fill in these details, I have to go up to her room when she’s done reading and coax (pester) her to fill out the log. What I’d like for her to do is what I do and what most passionate readers do—read until her eyelids get heavy, then set aside her book and turn out the lights, with visions of Hogwarts or ancient Greece or the thousands of species of reptiles accompanying her departure into dreamland.

 

I am a rule follower. I was a great student—the kind who always met and often exceeded expectations. (By the way, I didn’t have homework in elementary school beyond a few research projects, which I vividly remember, because I really learned something from doing them.) My husband and I are proud products of public schools. I am the daughter of a college professor. My husband’s late father told his wife as he was dying that the most important thing for her to do was to make sure their youngest child—my husband—finished college. We understand the value of our children’s education. We want to raise good learners and support the hard-working, compassionate, smart teachers they are fortunate to have.

But I am so fed up with my children’s homework that I’ve stopped following all the rules and don’t always support my children’s teachers when it comes to excessive and inappropriate homework assignments. I don’t pester my third grader to fill out the mind-numbing minutiae on her reading log. I just make sure she reads. Last year in second grade, when she was exhausted from struggling to get all of her worksheets finished by Friday and we learned that her teacher wasn’t formally tracking who does and who doesn’t do homework? We told our daughter to do as much as she could and not worry about finishing. I ignore the “Home-School Connection” (a.k.a., homework for parents) worksheets, because I already graduated from college. I don’t do homework.

I’m a rule follower. But I’m done following homework rules that don’t make sense, and that make the hard job of parents—to raise happy, healthy, children while supporting them in learning the essential skills that come from a quality education—harder than it needs to be.

I want parents and teachers at our beloved school to talk about how a vital “home-school connection” comprises much more than asking harried parents to play ridiculous learning games with exhausted children. I want to enthusiastically encourage my children to do their homework, because I truly see its value. I want to see parents and teachers agree on some basics of what constitutes quality homework, homework with a clear and reasonable purpose. I want to see homework assigned in quantities that are age-appropriate and that recognize children’s limited ability to sit and work after a long day at school, along with their very real needs for play, physical activity, family dinners, extracurricular activities that support non-academic interests, and a good night’s sleep.

A school in our town with very similar demographics to my kids’ school has in recent years instituted a “quality over quantity” homework policy. Kids are expected to read regularly, to practice math facts and spelling words, and occasionally work on a longer-term project. They don’t receive packets of photocopied worksheets. This makes sense to me. And if my kids’ homework makes sense, then I will be an enthusiastic partner in my children’s education, supporting their teachers in a truly beneficial home-school connection.

 

Update, Friday, October 12:

Our principal raised the topic of homework at last night’s PTO meeting. He said that, while my blog post has certainly got people talking, the issue of exploring effective homework practices and addressing parent concerns in this area has been on his agenda for a while. A parent-teacher-staff committee will explore the issue further, including doing research on best practices and a parent survey, and make some recommendations in a couple of months.

The biggest question that has come up (and, from what I gather, the thing that has upset teachers the most about this conversation), is this: If you as a parent are so frustrated with homework, why not just go to your child’s teacher and discuss it, rather than making a big stink about it?

It’s a good question, and I’d like to respond.

Let me say again: I think we have the best teachers in town. In previous years, when I have told a child’s teacher that she is struggling with homework, the teachers have been unfailingly compassionate. They usually suggest that we cap our child’s homework time at a certain interval (20 or 30 minutes) or write a note explaining why a child couldn’t finish a particular section. While I appreciate these gestures, this sort of individual conversation is inadequate for several reasons.

1. Talking to a teacher might help address an individual child’s concerns this year, but they don’t address many parents’ concern that homework has, over time, become more abundant, complex, and parent-driven.

2. Talking to a teacher might help my child, but it does nothing for the five or 10 or 15 kids who are struggling just as much, but whose parents won’t—for whatever reason—raise homework with the teacher. Many people have trouble communicating their thoughts and ideas clearly, especially when they are afraid those thoughts will be perceived as complaints. They don’t want to be “that mother” who is complaining. I had one parent say that, overwhelmed and confused by her child’s homework, she figured she must just not be as smart or educated as she thought she was. She assumed she was the problem, not her child’s homework. While everything in this blog post is my opinion, it reflects many conversations with many parents over many years. I decided I would use my platform and writing skills to communicate concerns that are widespread.

3. Most teachers, when told that a child is struggling with homework, will gladly offer suggestions for how that child’s homework can be altered. Two problems with this: First, if my child can opt out of parts of their homework, then does that mean homework is optional extra work rather than required? And if not, then why is my kid allowed to opt out of parts that are difficult?

4. Allowing my child to modify homework to suit her/his needs reinforces the “Special Little Snowflake” dynamic that many of us, including teachers, find problematic. I don’t want my child to get the message that, if something is hard, s/he can just quit. I don’t want my child to get the message that s/he is allowed to shirk the rules when s/he is struggling with homework. My kids might special little snowflakes with us, at home, but they shouldn’t be when they are at school.

5. Dealing with homework struggles on an individual basis might help me and my child this year, but next year we’re going to start all over with a new teacher. In my experience, certain types of homework and certain types of homework concerns pop up often enough, no matter the teacher, that we need to look at homework systemically, not individually.

I want my children to learn that when they get homework, they are expected to do it. I will unfailingly support teachers’ efforts to get my kids to do their homework—all of their homework—no matter how difficult, if the homework makes sense in terms of what my kids are doing and for how long. This conversation is intended to address those two factors in a way that will move us toward a homework policy that makes sense for teachers, kids, and families.

 

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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.


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