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The Great Homework Debate

Posted by on in Education Policy
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Should kids in elementary school have a homework packet to complete over winter "vacation"? Should children in kindergarten, first, and second grade even have homework? A homework packet that was "gifted" to every student over winter break in an elementary school in my community set off a firestorm of controversy as parents took sides in the great homework debate.

What is it about elementary school homework that evokes such strong emotions in parents, teachers, and administrators? Where did we ever get the idea that sending home a weekly packet, starting in kindergarten in some schools, accomplishes anything beyond turning curious and enthusiastic children into homework haters for life?

I just read through a huge thread in my local community's Facebook page about the controversial homework packet. Clearly, it stirred up all kinds of feelings. Some parents wrote about respecting the sanctity of holidays and family time and giving kids an actual break from the grind that is school these days. On the other side were parents who thought homework was important to prepare their children for college and career. And parents who did piles of homework as students and thought this was the way school was supposed to be.

I guess I used to be on both sides of the argument when I was the parent of school children. Circumstances were a bit different then. Homework didn't show up until third grade and wasn't really time consuming until high school. Generally, my children could do the daily assignments on their own and only asked for help with longer reports or challenging math problems. Still, I had my moments of doubt about the value of homework.

One Thanksgiving weekend when my daughter was in third grade, she had a ridiculously long homework assignment that consumed hours of her time. It was also her birthday. When I mentioned to the teacher that she had limited time to spend with family or celebrate, the teacher told me the assignment was a punishment for bad behavior. My child was not part of the bad behavior, but everyone in the class was told to complete the assignment. Guess who didn't do it? And guess how much it "counted"?

Another time, an elementary school teacher assigned a five-paragraph essay science report. At that time, the children were still learning what a sentence was. They had never been taught to write a paragraph, let alone a coherent report with five of them. The old English teacher in me couldn't let that one go without pointing this out. But the teacher was unfazed. They would learn about paragraphs later in the year, I was told.

I knew on some level that much of this homework was bogus busywork and a waste of time. But it was a walk in the park compared with what my grandkids endure. Last year, I wrote at length about my grandson's ridiculous kindergarten homework. In "More Absurd Kindergarten Homework", I posted examples of the developmentally inappropriate expectations of his homework and how it impacted family life and his attitude about school.

I have watched my grandkids waste precious hours of time writing their spelling words in bubble letters, rainbow writing, and other ridiculous tasks designed to help them memorize how to spell words when they had received 100 percent on the pretest. I have tried to help them with incomprehensible math assignments on concepts that had not yet been introduced in class.

In my post "What Do Kids Learn from Doing Homework?", I refer to the work of educators Alfie Kohn and Lilian Katz,

"... numerous studies... show homework to be of little value for young children. In fact, he [Kohn] believes 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 addition to limiting the sheer volume of homework, especially in elementary school, it is also important to consider the quality of what is assigned to children. If children are asked to complete assignments at home, at least make the work interesting, fun, and doable by the child."

There is no evidence that homework is helpful for children in elementary school. Most parents just accept homework as a fact of life, assuming that they did it and it was good for them. Taking this line of thought to its logical conclusion, giving their kids even more of it at an even earlier age will result in even better learning for their children.

Well, I respectfully disagree. I know many people my age say things like, "We walked miles to school and it was good for us. Kids these days have it too easy." I remember that long walk to high school through rain and sleet and snow. Maybe it was good exercise, but my grandkids are in far better shape than I was back in the day. And the truth is the walk did nothing to shape my character. I hated it when I trudged through the soaking rain and numbing cold.

Just because homework has always been part of school doesn't mean we shouldn't look at it with a fresh and informed perspective. This needs to happen at the school district level. Policies based on actual research into how children learn must be implemented so a given principal or teacher can't devise an approach to homework based on personal bias and false assumptions. In the case of the Winter Break assignment that stirred the hornet's nest in my community, since every teacher participated I'm assuming the principal thought it was a good idea. Test results had just come out and were dismal. The gap between children from economically advantaged families and children living in poverty was bigger than ever. Surely, the principal thought, making the kids work even harder would be helpful.

But like the assignment my daughter struggled to complete over Thanksgiving and her birthday all of those years ago, this kind of thinking actually widens the gap. Children with parents who have the time and ability to help them will do their homework. Children who are not so fortunate will not.

What makes sense to me is the approach one of my grandchildren's fourth-grade teacher takes to homework. First and foremost, her students are expected to read 30 minutes every day. They receive a weekly list of spelling words, but it is up to each child to figure out the best way for her to learn to spell the words correctly and to know what they mean so she can actually use them in a sentence. Math is generally started at school so the teacher can be sure questions are answered and children know the overall concept. Then they are given a handful of problems to complete on their own. And that's it. It doesn't take my granddaughter very long to do and she can complete it by herself.

I just wish our school district would adopt a homework policy following this experienced teacher's model. And that homework could wait until third grade once again so students could actually do it on their own.

I invite you to join my Facebook community and subscribe to my newsletter.

This originally appeared in The Huffington Post on December 28, 2015.

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Laurie has been an early childhood administrator, advocate for children and families, teacher, and community leader for over 30 years. Her passions, aside from her 8 grandchildren, are education (with a focus on including children with special needs), empowering parents and teachers, and creating caring and just school communities. She also blogs for ChicagoNow, Huffington Post and AlterNet. Her work has also been featured in The Washington Post and The Forward. In her pre-blogging life, she was founding director of Warren W. Cherry Preschool in Evanston, Illinois, an innovative developmental early childhood program that includes and celebrates all children.

Laurie's personal experiences as a parent, grandparent, and family member of children with special needs, as well as her years as an educator, school administrator, and community volunteer, have made her an advocate for the rights of those who cannot speak for themselves. She writes to empower parents and educators to make their voices heard. She writes to restore developmentally appropriate practices to education. She writes to seek justice for parents and children crushed under the heel of the educational-industrial complex. Laurie's dream is to create caring and inclusive school communities in which all children can learn and thrive outside the box.

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