Too Much Homework Too Soon

She’s only six – just starting first grade in a beautiful new, award-winning (translation: high test scores) school in suburban Indiana.  Her parents both work long hours and she has younger siblings ages one and four.  And every Monday, a weekly homework packet, due back on Friday, arrives in her backpack.

Photo by radioflyer007

Photo by radioflyer007

In today’s economy, family together time is limited as both parents work.  Her father is not home in time to help and her mother works late on Tuesdays, leaving three days for her mother to help her complete this homework after putting her little sibs to bed – a real recipe for conflict and stress.

The child cannot do the homework by herself, as it often does not reinforce what she has learned at school that day.  The teacher says it should only take 10 minutes per night, but any parent in today’s schools knows that it will take far longer to plow through this work with a tired and resistant child who has been in school from 9:00 to 3:50, with an occasional after school activity.  What will she learn from this?  Most likely, she will develop a lifelong hatred of homework.

Watching the trends in education for the past 45 years has taught me that ideas about what is most important come and go.  The key is to find the balance as we are gripped by each “new” discovery about the best way to educate our children.  When I first started teaching high school English back in 1967, the thinking was that “open classrooms,” in which children were free to explore whatever seemed “relevant” to them was the way to go.  Text books were tossed and we learned the elements of poetry from the lyrics of popular music.  The spirit of Woodstock, combined with the political and generational fury invoked by the war in Viet Nam, created classrooms of free thinkers who saw little reason to read A Tale of Two Cities or study Shakespeare.  Testing was minimal and, while homework was assigned, it was only done by students when they saw that it was relevant to their lives.   In this pre-computer, pre-internet era, parents did not serve as homework monitors or at-home instructors.

When my children attended grammar school in the 1980’s, some new trends began to emerge.  Although kindergarten was still a half-day, play-based experience, homework started to appear in the early grades, with expectations that children would write reports, create dioramas, and complete long math worksheets.  At that time, being a former teacher, it was natural to become a teacher again and pitch in to explain assignments, re-teach concepts that were unclear, and teach my children how to write in sentences and then paragraphs so they could actually write a coherent five paragraph essay or science report.  Homework was usually supposed to “reinforce” something that may or may not have been taught in school, but it was also used as a punishment for the times the children failed to complete work in school or the class had misbehaved.  I will never forget one of my children slaving over a difficult assignment that consumed most of Thanksgiving Break, only to be told later that the teacher didn’t really expect her to have done it so well because the homework was a punishment directed at children who were “goofing off” in class.  Of course, those children simply ignored the assignment!

Photo by Mwesigwa

Photo by Mwesigwa

In recent years, I have been dismayed by the pressures put on children and schools as a consequence of the No Child Left Behind mentality and the pressured lives adults lead in the 21st century.  Now kindergarten is full day and serious business – it is the time we expect children to learn to read and “write.” According to The Alliance for Childhood, high stakes testing does more harm than good for young children. It is used to single out five year olds who need remediation in reading and to brand schools as failures.  Homework is so accepted and expected that children now come home from a long day at school, have a snack, and crack the books.

In his book The Homework Myth, Alfie Kohn writes about the negative effects of the educational reform movement that has gripped our country, which rests on the pillars of standardized testing and more homework given to even younger children.  He states:

The current “tougher standards” craze not only pressures educators to teach too much too early, but also makes use of a vertical rationale – in part because of its reliance on testing…We find that “getting them ready” is accepted as sufficient reason for what would otherwise seem unreasonable.

Kohn agrees with Lilian Katz, who believes that vertical relevance, the notion that children need to do things like homework in early grades to “get ready” for doing even more homework as they grow older, should be replaced by “horizontal relevance” which makes learning meaningful to children in the here and now because it relates to and builds upon their current life experience.  He cites numerous studies that show homework to be of little value for young children.  In fact, it usually has the opposite effect of making them feel negative about their schooling and less inclined to do things that will enhance their education, like reading for pleasure.  In cross cultural studies of math and science achievement, countries in which less homework is assigned produce the best test scores in high school.  Studies also show that five math problems are enough to reinforce a concept or discover that a child needs help, so why send home worksheets of 30 or more problems?  Limiting the quantity of homework may be helpful, but it is also important to consider the quality of what is assigned to children.

Trends in education come and go.  For the past two decades, politicians have pushed for more rigor and tougher standards, only to see the chasm between upper and low income children’s achievement (the infamous gap) grow.  In the end, perhaps we should want something better for our children than subjecting them to the same pressures that make our lives so hectic and stressful, ruled by our electronic calendars and ever-ringing cell phones.

For further reading on this topic, I recommend…

The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing by Alfie Kohn

The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish

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