By Megan J. Doughty
You remember kindergarten: the finger painting, the alphabet songs, the awkward challenge of being expected to get along with the largest group of kids you had ever been in the same room with before. You sang, you danced, you watched the kid next to you shove glue sticks in his ear. And when the school day was over—at noon sharp—your teacher would load you onto the yellow bus, and the rest of the day was much like kindergarten itself: child’s play.
As many parents know—or will come to know—grade school, just like middle school and upper school, has become more demanding and more academic, to the point where many kids in kindergarten now have homework of sorts. While failing schools may raise their standards to try to turn the whole school around, successful schools do it as a matter of self-definition—and for better or worse, they are demanding much more homework of their students than they did of successful students a generation or two ago.
Now there’s something of a backlash afoot, led by skeptical academics and concerned parents who think that enough is enough and that schools are asking too much of our children at too young an age, especially when it comes to homework.
Brooklyn moms Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish weighed in on the heavy-backpack debate in their book, The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It.
Bennett, a lawyer, and Kalish, a magazine writer, interviewed educators, academics and students of all ages to find out how much homework is being assigned and how families feel about it. Kalish met Bennett when their children attended the same Brooklyn middle school. Bennett had been informally challenging homework norms for nearly a decade, since her son, Julian, was in first grade. But it wasn’t until her younger daughter, Sophia, now 18, entered elementary school that she felt her children’s homework was truly getting out of control.
“It got harder and harder for us as a family to do anything together, and I felt like almost everything she was bringing home was a total waste of time,” says Bennett.
As the authors tell it, the homework status quo is hard to question or even discuss in a society where homework is considered a sacred cow. Parents, educators and some children tend to be resistant to the vilification of homework: What’s so bad about a little hard work, right? Well, what Bennett and Kalish have concluded is that today’s homework load is often oppressive in quantity, poor in quality and far too disruptive to family life, and that parents should take action before their children “burn out.”
In The Case Against Homework, they marshal the following salient facts and arguments:
• Homework loads are dramatically increasing, especially for younger children. The number of hours that American children spend on homework has increased 51 percent since 1981, according to a survey by the University of Michigan.
• Lots of homework may not translate to high academic performance. Duke University professor Harris Cooper reviewed more than 180 academic studies of homework and found almost no relationship between a student’s level of achievement in elementary school and the amount of homework assigned.
• There is no “Homework 101.” Most teachers’ colleges do not offer a course in designing homework assignments.
• Family dinners trump homework. While homework may not predict academic achievement, it seems that nightly dinners as a family do. A study by the University of Michigan shows that these all-important meals are the single strongest predictor of high achievement scores.
• The Japanese know something we don’t. Students from countries like Japan and Denmark, which boast high scores on achievement tests, have light homework loads, while students in Greece and Thailand, where test scores are very low, are assigned large amounts of homework. Many Japanese elementary schools have no-homework policies, and Japanese seventh and eighth graders do less than an hour of math homework per week.
Or do they? Some researchers have found a lot of value in a lot of homework. In 2001, researchers at the National Foundation for Educational Research reviewed all the major academic studies on homework since 1998, including several that were presented in The Case Against Homework. They pointed out that while students in countries that assign extremely high amounts of homework do poorly on achievement tests, so do students in countries that assign almost no homework. And though they confirm that homework does not equal academic success in the lower grades, they did find an overall correlation in high school between time spent on homework and academic achievement.
Still, the personal accounts in The Case Against Homework are alarming. Bennett and Kalish report children getting sick over tests due to homework stress. Plus, when young children have a lot of homework, there are so many more developmentally important things that they are not doing—the most critical of which is socialization with other children.
Bennett and Kalish also argue that homework stress can damage the relationship between parent and child. With mounds of homework to plow through before anyone can think about going to bed, moms and dads are forced to become teachers or, even worse, “homework cops.” (In fact, families who have the financial resources often find it better to hire a tutor so they could save their relationship as parent and child.)
Most educational professionals and parents would still agree that there is such a thing as a good take-home assignment. Well-thought-out reading and writing assignments, for example, are almost universally valued, as are “family journals” and other devices that are sensitive to what is going on in the home. It seems that homework, like red wine and carbs, may be yet another case of everything in moderation.
Originally published in the Sept. 2012 issue of New York Family magazine
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