Should we kill homework?
A North Seattle fourth-grader struggles down the school steps, her backpack weighing down her shoulders. Clutching her empty lunchbox and two Nancy Drew mysteries, she greets her mother: “I need a bigger backpack, Mommy. When I put in all the homework I have to do tonight, there’s no room for anything else at all!”
According to a study by Dr. Sandra Hofferth at the University of Michigan, the homework load for sixth-graders increased 50 percent between 1981 and 1997. When Hofferth updated her study with 2002 data, she found that this load had increased again by 6 percent. Education pundit Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, calls homework “latter-day cod liver oil,” a shout-out to the once common practice of dosing kids with the viscous stuff for their own good — a repulsive treatment and something most parents now can’t fathom. Will homework someday go the way of cod liver oil? Will parents, students and teachers rise up and pull the plug on homework?
Can we kill it?
Even for those who might want to, killing homework is currently not an option in public schools in Seattle. Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS) official policy was adopted in June 1983, just after the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s hugely influential report “A Nation at Risk” focused America’s attention on mediocrity in classrooms. The SPS policy requires teachers to assign homework at all grade levels: 5-10 minutes per day for grades K-2; 10-20 minutes per day for grades 3-4; 20-40 minutes per day for grades 5-6; one to two hours per day in middle school; and two hours each night in high school (per student, not per subject).
The policy specifies that homework should never be assigned as punishment, and that, at the high school level, it should not be busywork. Specific standards and procedures are established by committees of administrators, parents, and teachers within each school. Both Bellevue and Lake Washington school districts have clearly articulated homework policies, but neither district specifically mandates homework.
Is homework harmful?
Should kids get to turn away from schoolwork when class time finishes? At Valley School, a private K-5 school in Seattle’s Madison Valley, the answer is yes. Barry Wright, formerly a fifth-grade teacher at Valley and now its director, says, “People don’t stop and think about the harm homework is doing. When you’re really in touch with kids, it seems apparent.” Valley teachers assign no homework until third grade, and even then Wright says it is “very light.” Minimal homework is a longstanding Valley policy. “We’re efficient during the [school] day — we’re good at it — and when kids go home we think they should just be kids,” Wright says. “Our mantra is that kids should leave our school loving school. Homework can kill that.”
Wright is troubled by the pressure homework exerts on parents, too. “When parents have to be teacher and [homework] enforcer, it puts a strain on the parent-child relationship,” he says. “Parents feel that if their kids don’t do their homework, they are bad parents.”
Valley librarian Marilyn Nicolai’s kids Max and Ava went through Valley and now attend Northwest School. She says there’s only one drawback to minimal homework in elementary school. “Valley kids can feel swamped at other schools at first, but then they adjust and seem to do fine,” she says. “Those kids [at other schools] who get a lot of homework may get a lot of parental assistance — people just don’t admit it. Homework can be almost a competition for parents: ‘Your kid does an hour? Well, my kid does an hour and a half!’”
At Valley and Northwest, Nicolai reflects, “none of the homework seems to be busywork. They’re always trying to give homework that adds on to whatever the kids are studying — projects or papers, not worksheets.” Nicolai says that Northwest sixth-graders sometimes have considerably less homework than they had at their various elementary schools, but the homework level increases each year. Kids write assignments in a planner and are encouraged to shoulder responsibility for doing the work. Alfie Kohn calls homework a “second shift” for kids, likening it to the cooking and cleaning parents find at home when their paid work is over each day. Nicolai agrees with this comparison. “Getting homework done means dinner, sports and homework. Not much else happens on the weeknights.”
Can too much homework preclude the chance for kids to participate in the important work of life at home with their families? Learning to chop carrots and fold pillowcases is also work that happens at home, but is there time for it? The death of the family dinner has been headline news since most young parents were kids themselves. Can the 9-year-old hunched over the table with a pencil in one hand and her fork in the other be on the best track for either health or knowledge? Is finishing the math worksheet after soccer practice more important than an early bedtime?
There are no easy answers, and teachers get caught in the crossfire. Andrea Baumgarten, a parent at Seattle’s View Ridge Elementary and co-president of the school’s PTA, calls homework “a very complicated issue. I hear from teachers that some parents request larger amounts of homework and some parents request none — and teachers have to serve the needs of all families.” Explaining that her concept of homework has changed over her years as a parent, Baumgarten says that she can already see how math-facts homework, when designed as a game for parents and kids to play together, for example, has strengthened her children’s understanding. It can even be fun.
For busy parents (and that means all of us), homework further complicates family life. Baumgarten feels that there should be an ongoing conversation about homework. “The first thing a parent having trouble with homework should do is talk to the teacher,” she says. “There’s a big communication process here between parent, child and teacher.”
The upside of homework
Can kids who don’t have much homework in elementary school pick up good homework habits when they hit middle school? Some elementary school administrators say it’s tough. Anne Sarewitz, director of admissions and financial aid at Epiphany School, a rigorously academic preK-5 program in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood, says the school’s policy of assigning homework has been quite effective. Also a former Epiphany parent and board of trustees member, Sarewitz hears from Epiphany graduates that their academic transitions to various middle schools were smooth, enabling them to negotiate social and emotional transitions without feeling slammed by increased homework.
Families who choose Epiphany know up front that its program is demanding and are not surprised that homework reinforces this, Sarewitz explains. The youngest Epiphany students read at home with parents, and first-graders are assigned 10 minutes of homework per night. This amount builds yearly but because kids get their assignments at the beginning of each week, “they know exactly what’s expected of them,” Sarewitz says. “Teachers have a ton of control over their classrooms and customize homework year by year. Homework at Epiphany is a meaningful continuation of the school day and keeps kids interested.” In schools where parents, teachers and administrators all agree that steady homework helps kids succeed, homework policy seems unlikely to change.
A new model
Before Redmond’s Rosa Parks Elementary School opened in the fall of 2006, Principal Jeff Newport and his staff had the luxury of deciding from scratch exactly how homework would function at the new school. “It is important that we are sensitive to the needs of families while honoring the intent of the state of Washington,” Newport says. At Rosa Parks, this means customizing homework projects to engage the interests of individual students, and spelling out the details for families. “Parents are clearly notified of each project’s learning objective and given a rubric of how the results will be evaluated,” he explains. Other than reading books of their own choosing, kids at Rosa Parks don’t have homework nightly.
“Projects demand more thoughtful feedback,” Newport says, adding that his mandate to students is to produce their personal best. “Not more work,” he says, “but the best work that a kid can do.”
Newport says that in the course of his 25 years as a principal, he has seen a shift away from textbook reading assignments with question-and-answer homework toward much more inclusive, individualized project assignments with long-term timeframes. This helps families, he feels, because it gives them much more control over when the work gets done in and around other family activities and bolsters, rather than intrudes on, family life.
So, should we kill homework? Further academic research would certainly help us decide. View Ridge parent Andrea Baumgarten sees education research as a positive force shaping what we know about homework. “As research shows what types of home-based learning are most effective for kids and families, school districts have a fresh way to approach homework,” she says. If and when we get this data, our challenge will be to assess it with an open mind. Maybe thoughtful homework is useful, but worksheets deserve the chopping block. Maybe giving families more control over when homework gets done makes all the difference.
Clearly, parents who already want homework reduced or eliminated in their schools are going to need to organize and lobby for it. Talking with students of all ages about how they experience homework and really listening to what they have to say — so simple an approach, and yet so radical — may give us impetus to start.
Paula Becker lives in Seattle and is a mother of three.
Lake Washington School District Homework Policy: All levels
The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish
The End of Homework by Etta Kralovec and John Buell
The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn
The Homework Handbook by Harriett Cholden, John Friedman and Ethel Tiersky
Alfie Kohn's Web site: www.alfiekohn.org