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Can we can the homework, please?

Local schools translate theory into practice . . . with mixed success

by Anita K. Kantrowitz

August 16, 2007 | 8:00 pm


Homework can be frustrating, even for 4-year olds A second grader was bent over her worksheets at the kitchen table, long past her bedtime on a school night, and she still hadn't finished her six-page weekly spelling book.

The girl was enrolled at Maimonides day school, where her classes lasted until 4:10 p.m. most days. She was tired; her mom was frustrated. Daily homework in Hebrew and secular subjects left the student "no time for play dates or any relaxation -- and this was second grade!" her mother said.

Students at Maimonides weren't allowed to work on their spelling books during school hours, and they also got weekend assignments -- including a Judaic studies vocabulary test every Monday.

The girl's parents found her homework both "unnecessarily rote" and "burdensome."

But when the family transferred from Maimonides to Pressman Academy last year -- for unrelated reasons -- the mother was "surprised and thrilled with the lighter homework load." Her daughter now has "more time to just be a kid," said the mom, adding that "for the first time, kids started calling her to play after school."

With no homework on weekends and no tests on Mondays, the mother feels the school "really respects children's right to be children.... It has totally changed our weekends -- Sunday is a pure family-and-friends day now -- and she goes back to school on Monday refreshed."

As the new school year approaches, the homework wars will once again begin to replay in homes everywhere, often without the happy resolution this family stumbled upon. Parents are gearing up once again to stress over their stressed-out children, whose homework loads seem to have grown exponentially over what kids brought home two decades ago. These days, beginning in kindergarten -- and sometimes earlier -- children are expected to complete independent academic work at home, often for many hours each day. Inevitably, this eats away at other parts of kids' lives, leaving little time for daily chores, conversation at meals, sports or just time to play.

So ... nu? Isn't this all just part of modern family life? After all, don't we want to prepare our children to compete in the global economy? And doesn't that mean they have to work harder in every endeavor to constantly sharpen their competitive edge?

Maybe not.

Educators these days are taking a new look at homework, attempting to measure its value and to re-examine the underlying assumptions about how kids learn, the pace of their development, family life and the role of work in our lives. Despite the complexity of the issue and a lack of consensus about the research, the battle lines in the debate have been redrawn.

Some schools have begun curtailing what teachers can assign, some are banning homework altogether (especially in lower grades), but others remain committed to homework, believing that their hands are tied by parents/colleges/economic realities (take your pick). While the debate and its effects vary not only by school but by individual student, one thing is certain: Homework is undergoing a transition.

Back at Maimonides, a group of parents rallied, creating parent surveys and flow charts of children's time spent on assignments. After years of lobbying, they convinced administrators to limit homework for middle schoolers. Judith Garshofsky, for one, said she saw "dramatic changes" over the last third of her daughter Raquel's seventh-grade year.

In sixth and much of seventh grade, Raquel often worked on homework until at least 10 p.m. and could have up to two tests and three quizzes in one day. Now the school limits the number of assessments a student can have per day, and head of general studies Donna Held "meets with teachers more regularly" to monitor assignments, Garshofsky said.

"The school has been very receptive, and while administrators might have a different viewpoint [from the parents], they all want to do right by the kids," Garshofsky said. She now characterizes her daughter's homework load as "manageable and very fair" and says the kids can now "have a life after school."

This recalibration of homework is obviously the result of many factors, not the least of which are parents', students' and educators' own school experiences. But it's the research itself that offers the most compelling ammunition in this round of the battle -- although each side finds in it evidence to back up its own argument.

Among the first of the recent spate of books based on recent research and addressed to parents is "The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children and Limits Learning," by Etta Kralovec and John Buell (Beacon Press, 2000). They argue that heavy homework loads place too much responsibility for formal education on families, rather than on teachers in the classroom, where they say the responsibility belongs.

The problem with this lies in the inherent inequities in parents' education and availability. Viewing homework loads as both reflecting and reinforcing America's competitive, corporate-style work model, Kralovec and Buell also cite numerous theorists who agree that, as the headline of one New York Times op-ed neatly summarized, "Children Need Childhood, Not Vocational Training."

Another book, "The Case Against Homework" (Crown), which came out last year, presents further analysis and prescriptions for reducing the homework workload. Authors Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish argue that too much homework can harm students emotionally and physically. They also believe that many teachers aren't capable of creating age-appropriate, meaningful assignments.

In what is perhaps the most controversial of recent books, "The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Are Getting Too Much of a Bad Thing" (De Capo Books, 2006), educator Alfie Kohn concludes that there is no significant correlation between homework and improved academic performance in early grades, and in middle and high school, the correlation is minimal at best. Kohn argues that homework robs children of their childhoods and precludes broader creative and social development.

While these and other books have enjoyed widespread media attention -- authors have appeared on radio and TV and been extensively covered in newspapers and magazines -- the homework supporters, whose work often appears in professional journals, are having a harder time getting their message out.

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