Tom Hatch, a professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching, said homework wars were really a proxy fight about what constitutes learning. He added that they were intrinsically linked to the debates over standardized testing that have fueled the national “opt-out” movement.
“It’s a small part of a larger conversation about how kids should spend their time,” Professor Hatch said.
Similar battles have been playing out around New York City: After P.S. 118 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, eliminated mandatory homework this school year, some parents insisted that the school provide worksheets for their children anyway. At P.S. 116 in Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighborhood, some parents threatened to leave after the principal, Jane Hsu, replaced “traditional homework” with voluntary recreational activities and family engagement — a program she calls “PDF,” or “playtime, downtime and family time.”
And P.S. 29 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, has had schoolwide conversations on homework, so far deciding to preserve it, but focusing on keeping it “feasible,” “meaningful” and “reasonable,” said Rebecca Fagin, the school’s principal.
There is no official tally on the number of the city public elementary schools that are altering their approach to homework. The Department of Education does not mandate amounts of homework, and most plans are cobbled together as part of a shared vision among a school’s principal, parents and teachers.
Conversations about the value of elementary school homework have spread nationally. Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher in northeastern Texas, calls herself “the No Homework Teacher” and has a website that proclaims, “Let’s make education GREAT again.” In August, a letter she sent to parents announcing her decision to eliminate homework was shared more than 70,000 times on Facebook and received national media attention. In states from Florida to California, elementary schools are experimenting with no homework, or what some call “reform homework” policies, often with considerable resistance from parents — and sometimes teachers.
Alfie Kohn, the author of 14 education-related books, including “The Homework Myth,” is a leader in the anti-homework camp. In a recent interview, Mr. Kohn described homework as “educational malpractice” and “an extremely effective way to extinguish children’s curiosity.” He noted that nations like Denmark and Japan, which routinely outperform the United States on international math and science assessments, often gave their students far less homework.
“They’re not trying to turn kids into calculators on legs,” he said.
On the other side of the argument is Harris M. Cooper, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Duke University and the author of “The Battle Over Homework.” He says he believes elementary school students should get small doses of engaging homework.
But Dr. Cooper’s own research is often cited against him. A 2006 meta-analysis he conducted of more than 60 studies of homework’s efficacy showed that doing homework did not necessarily increase an elementary school student’s test scores or grades. Dr. Cooper updated the analysis in 2012, with similar results.
But Dr. Cooper said these studies did not take into consideration homework’s obvious, but less trackable, benefits: teaching organization, time management and discipline. Small amounts of enriching and age-appropriate homework in the early grades, he says, serves as a good way for parents to observe their children’s progress and to teach young people that learning doesn’t happen only inside a classroom. He calls parents who seek to abolish after-school work “homework deniers.”
Homework for young children has been a recurrent parenting issue since the beginning of the 20th century, according to Paula S. Fass, a professor emerita of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “The End of American Childhood.” Worries about its excesses have ebbed and flowed; students got heavy loads in the 1950s, when Americans were particularly worried about their ability to compete with the Russians after the launch of Sputnik. Homework spiked again in the 1980s with the release of the now-famous “A Nation at Risk” report, which indicated that American students were falling behind their peers in other parts of the world.
Today, though, worry about excessive homework is competing with anxieties about student achievement and global competition. The situation is compounded by an urge among parents “to have as much control over their children as possible,” Dr. Fass said.
“What you are looking at is the tension between that progressive view that children need to be protected from being adults, and still these parents want their kids to succeed,” she said.
The National Education Association and the National PTA have weighed in, suggesting that students get 10 minutes of homework per grade, starting in first grade — what educators sometimes refer to as the “10-minute rule.” Dr. Cooper also endorses this policy.
The focus for many anti-homework parents is what they see as the quality of work assigned. They object to worksheets, but embrace projects that they believe encourage higher-level thinking. At P.S. 11 in Manhattan, even parents who support the no-homework policy said they often used online resources like Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization that provides free educational videos. The school’s website also includes handwriting exercises, scientific articles, and math and reading lessons. Sophie Mintz, whose son is in second grade at the school, said that the no-homework policy had afforded him more time to build elaborate Lego structures.
But parents with fewer means say the new policies don’t take into account their needs and time constraints, and leave them on their own when it comes to building the skills their children need to prepare for the annual state tests.
Ms. Sierra, the P.S. 11 parent who opposed the change, said that although the school included test prep materials on its voluntary homework site, she had a hard time getting her children to do the work.
“Now I can’t say, ‘Your teacher wants you to do this,’” she said. “It’s just me.’”
Guadalupe Enriquez, another mother at P.S. 11, who works as a housekeeper, said she looked to the school to provide and monitor work at home. “Having a little bit of homework is good,” she said.
At P.S. 118, the school in Park Slope, a homework policy that started last fall replaced required worksheets with voluntary at-home projects. Tensions have arisen there because the projects often turn out to be videos of after-school activities like gardening or science experiments, in which parents take a guiding role. Some children do presentations about family trips. Elizabeth Garraway, the principal, said that some families had expressed concerns that they didn’t have the time and resources for exciting after-school activities or exotic family vacations.
She is working hard to dispel the idea that only certain after-school activities deserve attention, she said, and has encouraged families to consider play dates and trips to the park as good topics for presentations.
“You can do a presentation on anything,” she said.
At the school on a recent morning, she showed off the results. In one third-grade class, a boy recently wrote, directed and recorded a “fireside chat” with his father, who played President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A girl arrived at school ready to showcase a PowerPoint presentation on Greek mythology. And Mia Bornstein, 8, showed up one morning with a broom handle bearing an oversize scroll that outlined life in ancient Egypt. Mia said she had worked on it with her mother, an artist.
How much time had she spent on it? Hours.Continue reading the main story
Late last summer, Texas teacher Brandy Young made internet waves when she sent a note about homework to the parents of her students.
Instead of the normal spend-30-minutes-a-day-on-homework command that parents normally hear, Mrs. Young’s note informed them that she would not be giving homework at all. Instead, she asked families to spend more time reading, eating dinner, and playing outside, all factors which research has found to contribute to greater student success.
But Mrs. Young was not the only educator to get on the no homework bandwagon. An entire elementary school in Vermont did the same. And according to The Washington Post, that decision seems to be turning out just fine for the students, parents, and teachers of Orchard School:
Six months into the experiment, [school Principal Mark] Trifilio says it has been a big success: Students have not fallen back academically and may be doing better, and now they have ‘time to be creative thinkers at home and follow their passions’… Trifilio said he conducted a family survey asking about the policy, and most parents at the nearly 400-student school responded. The vast majority supported it, saying their kids now have time to pursue things other than math work sheets, and many report that students are reading more on their own than they used to."
The Burlington Free Press recently quoted parent James Conway as saying this about his son Sean, who is in kindergarten: ‘My son declared on Monday that he can read now and that he doesn’t need any help. So, something is working.’”
One has to wonder: if these no-homework policies are having such positive effects on the mental and emotional well-being of children, then why haven’t we tried them before?
The answer, according to one former teacher, may have to do with the goal of the education system. According to John Taylor Gatto, the current, one-size-fits-all school system has long been trying to turn creative, inventive, and bright students into obedient, subdued, and dependent individuals. This is done largely through orchestrating every minute of their time at school, and then extending that orchestration into children’s free time at home:
Today the tabulation of hours in a young life reads like this: My children watch television 55 hours a week according to recent reports, and they sleep 56. That leaves them 57 hours in which to grow up strong and competent and whole. But my children attend school 30 hours more, spend 8 hours preparing for school, and in goings and comings, and an additional 7 hours a week in something called ‘home’-work - although this is really more schoolwork except in ‘Newspeak’.
After the 45 school hours are removed a total of 12 hours remain each week from which to fashion a private person - one that can like, trust, and live with itself. Twelve hours. But my kids must eat, too, and that takes some time. Not much, because they've lost the tradition of family dining - how they learn to eat in school is best called ‘feeding’ - but if we allot just 3 hours a week to evening feedings, we arrive at a net total of private time for each child of 9 hours.
...This demented schedule is an efficient way to create dependent human beings, needy people unable to fill their own hours, unable to initiate lines of meaning to give substance and pleasure to their existence. It is a national disease, this dependency and aimlessness, and schooling and television and busy work - the total Chautauqua package - has a lot to do with it.”
Is it possible that the trend away from homework may be one small step away from the culture of dependency we’ve instilled in recent generations?
Reprinted from Intellectual Takeout.
Annie is a research associate with Intellectual Takeout. In her role, she writes for the blog, conducts a variety of research for the organization's websites and social media pages, and assists with development projects. She particularly loves digging into the historical aspects of America's educational structure.