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Leaving School Without Homework For Kids

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.

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I picked my boys up after school yesterday and surprised them with a day at a farm I used to frequent as a kid. They climbed haystacks piled high for their enjoyment, and took turns pretending they were kings. They pulled each other on rustic wagons through grass, dirt, and pavement, comparing the speed, velocity, and physical exertion required for each route. They fed the animals, drank wholesome, farm-fresh smoothies, and handpicked pumpkins to carve for Halloween.

After hours of uninterrupted play, they decided they were hungry for dinner. They chose one of their favorites; a restaurant I have been going to for 30 years. The owner gives them responsibilities that make them feel good about themselves while they wait for dinner. She lets them greet customers and visit tables to inquire about food quality. They were so carefree they imitated their parents, much to customers’ amusement, with a kiss on the cheek.

When we got home, they took their showers without argument. They dived into books of their choosing, devouring the pages readily, beyond the 20 minute teacher recommendation. They threw their arms around their dad/bonus dad in exuberation when he got home from work, eager to fill him in on every aspect of their day.

Yesterday was a memory maker; one for the vault. It was a day made possible because the kids’ school is rethinking its homework policy.

I have long been a critic of the demands on elementary school children. My boys, aged 7 and 9, get a scant 20 minutes for recess, leaving little time to expel energy, move their bodies, or play games. They have to scarf down their mid-day meals in a 25 minute lunch period. Most days one or both of them come home with half-eaten lunches; they choose socializing with friends over snacking on apples, missing out on nutrients that would help them during their 6-hour school day. (I am pleased they’re clearly not chewing with their mouths open—my Master’s in Nagging pays off at times—but when special treats are left uneaten, it is indicative of a serious time crunch issue.)

They used to get off the bus and immediately start an hour plus of homework, completely burnt out, overworked, and cranky. And I’d beg, bribe, or threaten to take things away if they didn’t comply with my time sensitive, stressed out homework requests before I had to start dinner.

It was ugly.

The daily struggle drove me especially batty because there’s no scientific evidence that homework improves the academic performance of elementary students. Homework research czar Harris Cooper, of Duke University, compiled 120 studies in 1989 and another 60 studies in 2006 that prove this fact. All it does is negatively impact kids’ attitudes towards school, learning, and their parents (the homework enforcers).

We’re two months into the school year, and the homework vacation has delivered so many unexpected gifts:

Neighborhood reminiscent of the 80s. Kids in our community are coming out in droves. There’s impromptu flag football games; bike rides to “the circle,” an area rich with rocks to climb, woods to explore, and room to run; and skateboarding and/or scootering on small inclines to sharpen their skills. There’s boys and girls coming in and out of our house, asking for snacks and drinks to keep going, and eating together outdoors. There’s kids playing outside until the sun sets instead of asking for electronics after homework is completed.

Better grades. Both of my kids came home with hundreds on their tests this past week. My little one aced his math exam, and my older one crushed his states and capitals test. They weren’t bogged down with busy work after school and chose to practice on their own.

I did not have a week like that—two perfect scores!—despite hours of daily homework and preparation last year.

Reading rocks. Reading used to be such a chore for my kids, sandwiched between homework assignments and showers. It was something to endure, not enjoy. They take their time now…because they have the time.

Ample opportunity to be who they want to be. Both of my kids play sports that have practices and/or games at least three days per week. No homework gives them time to decompress before their extra-curricular activities, or to daydream, or to play with their musical instruments or Legos or air hockey table…whatever gives them joy.

Improved relationships with teachers and administrators. My kids used to complain that teachers gave them so much homework, and now they see them in an entirely different light. They try harder during the school day, giving it their all…knowing they will have free time when the last bell rings.

More confidence in the school. The underlying message of testing a ‘no homework’ policy is trust. It shows me, as a parent, that administrators believe in the chosen curriculum. They believe in teachers’ ability to connect with students. They believe kids will learn what they need to learn during the day. And they believe in us, as a community, to embrace change.

The homework reprieve has created a seismic shift in my house. The boys are happier. I am happier. They have more time to be kids, and I have more time to be a mom/bonus mom…a perfect score in my book.

Do you think elementary school kids should have daily homework?

This post originally appeared on Jodi Meltzer Darter’s website. You can also follow her on Facebook , Twitter, and Mommy Dish.

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