Homework Wars

French president Francois Hollande wants to ban homework. Borrowing from Slate:

Hollande suggested the take-home-study prohibition as part of his plan for education reform. The recently elected socialist party leader said “an education program is, by definition, a societal program. Work should be done at school, rather than at home.” He added that the homework ban was a matter of equality, since wealthier children have parental support at home and poor children do not.

When writing previously about teacher-parent relations, I failed to pinpoint homework as a major source of frustration and conflict. Even the GalPal and I, former public school teachers and teacher advocates, get frustrated with the constantly shifting nature of our daughter’s homework. Last year in 11th grade she spent two to four hours on homework nearly every night. This year, in 12th grade, with just a slightly less rigorous courseload, she typically has no homework.

Even though two-thirds of France opposes Hollande’s ban, he’s right that homework complicates equal educational opportunity. In schools that lack academic rigor and parental involvement, teachers start out assigning homework, overtime though, when a majority of students don’t do it, they quit assigning it. Which partly explains the achievement gap.

I’ve also observed in schools in poor communities where teachers sometimes only have one set of textbooks, meaning they can’t leave the classroom. In stark contrast, in the interest of back health and extended learning, a few of my daughters’ teachers checked out two texts per student so they could keep one at home and one in their school locker. So much for equal educational opportunity. And for equal opportunity more generally, the supposed lynchpin of American life.

You’re thinking let’s figure out how to raise the homework floor not lower its ceiling, and of course that makes more sense, but how do we raise the floor if a lot of children don’t have even one adult who knows and cares about whether their homework is completed?

To defuse the growing teacher-parent-homework divide, schools should stop leaving homework decision-making up to every individual teacher to do as they please. That’s what leads to extreme unevenness. Elementary school principals should help grade-level teams decide together on a philosophy of homework. Secondary principals should help academic departments do the same. Then grade-level teams and academic departments should work towards a consensus on a school-wide “Philosophy and Practice of Homework Guide” for parents and students.

And to reduce the number of tearful late nights, it would help if every teacher took time before the end of class to do the first ten percent of so of the assigned homework with students to make sure everyone understands it.

What’s the right amount of homework? The guideline I’ve always liked is ten minutes per night per grade, so an hour a night in sixth grade, and two hours in twelfth. However, parents will adjust to more or less if its purposes are clearly and convincingly communicated and they know what to expect in advance.

The sort of “Philosophy and Practice of Homework Guides” I’m recommending would also help parents make more informed decisions about where to enroll their children. Different guides will resonant with different parents’ educational philosophies.

I suppose there are two other ways to defuse the homework divide. One is to return to the 1970’s of my youth and build a “study hall” into students’ school schedules. Another is to put a proposed ban to a vote of the nation’s students.

3 thoughts on “Homework Wars

  1. Teachers have a tough job in so many ways. If they fail to make the subject matter appealing or even slightly interesting I don’t think any amount of homework will benefit some students.

  2. Ron, you should come to Marion, Ohio! The 10 yr old in our house is getting 2-3 hours of homework a night. Last night he had 1 worksheet (I hate worksheets-just another name for busy work), of math, finish a writing assignment based on a non-fiction book that had him:
    1. Identify 3 facts
    2. summarize what he read
    3. identify 2 new vocabulary words you didn’t know, give the part of speech, and definition
    4. Tell the most interesting thing you read and explain why
    5. What you like to learn more about?
    Complete a “pre-test” of spelling words, and write the ones you missed 5 times…
    gumball
    understand
    summary
    subheading
    umbrella
    glutton
    bathtub
    nugget
    subject
    disrupt
    minute
    stun
    subgroup
    because
    cause
    He also had to write the definitions for each of those words, a process that he began on Monday, and gave up on last night after completing about 6 words. Luckily, he had no science or social studies homework.

    It’s absurd. His bookbag weighs around 30-40 pounds. The teachers are looping-which means the kids move from class-to-class all day long-and they have NO lockers.

    What all this homework means:
    no family time
    no time to do anything after school (sports, music, etc)
    kids that hate school, teachers and principals that are clueless, and parents that are frustrated beyond words, and who will take out their frustrations at the ballet box!

    Did I say that last night I realized the kid hadn’t taken a bath all week? Yeppers! Why? Because he was up til almost 10 every night doing homework.
    Teachers will say this is because Marion City adopted common core standards early as part of their Race to the Top grant. But come on…Where is the sanity of this mess? While working with him last night, I finally said “it’s stupid that your teachers give you all this homework.” And he agreed!
    Taking a deep breath now…Monday can’t come soon enough, when the homework pile-up begins again!

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