Teachers and parents, please rethink homework!

Homework has been the subject of several posts I’ve come across lately. First there was this sobering letter from a high school sophomore, posted to Facebook by Sara Bennett, author of The Case Against Homework. In it, a student explains that between homework assignments and studying, she is up until 12:30 to 1:30 every morning! My heart goes out to this overwhelmed, sleep-deprived kid – and to all the rest just like her.

Even more heartbreaking is Laurie Levy’s piece about the homework her grandson – who’s in kindergarten – has to endure. It’s bad enough that he’s assigned three to four hours of homework every weekend, but what makes it more horrifying is how developmentally inappropriate the work is!
Here’s an excerpt from Laurie’s post:

A perfect example of the developmentally inappropriate expectations of his kindergarten homework is the writer’s checklist (which he can’t read yet, but we’ll skip that minor point), outlining 4 rules for writing:

Start with a capital letter. While my grandson seems to understand this rule, this is not a reasonable expectation for all kindergarteners. Maybe it’s a goal, but I’m pretty sure many are capable of this.

Use finger spaces between words. The illustration shows an index finger between each word in a sentence. No way can he do that consistently. He is still struggling to keep his words on the line, which is totally normal for a child his age.

Use punctuation. This means putting a period at the end of each sentence. I guess he can make a dot, but he has no idea what a sentence is.

Use lower case letters. Many 5-year-olds are still struggling to master that “E” and “e” are the same letter.

There’s good news from the administrators at P.S.116 in Manhattan, who’ve actually decided to stop giving their students homework assignments! Principal Jane Hsu explained the decision in a letter to parents, saying that traditional homework can lead to “children’s frustration and exhaustion, lack of time for other activities and family time and, sadly for many, loss of interest in learning.” Hallelujah.

The bad news is that the parents don’t like the decision. Believing in the importance of this tired tradition, they’ve protested, with several even threatening to pull their children out of the school.
I wish homework advocates everywhere – whether they’re parents, teachers, or administrators – would consider the fact that only recently has “schooling” come to be seen as the end-all and be-all for children. To be considered the most important part of their lives — the thing they require to become the individuals that adults want them to be (which is not necessarily the individuals the kids themselves want to be).

Our culture essentially holds kids hostage from early morning until late afternoon, to a great extent neglecting their need for true socialization, physical activity, play, quality time with parents, and for daydreaming and other creative pursuits. And these days, because academic achievement is held in such high esteem, our culture is intruding further and further onto the little time children once had for that “other stuff.” Because, heaven forbid, children should have no time when they’re not “learning,” kids (in some cases, even those in preschool) are being assigned more homework than ever – expected to continue their academic pursuits even after the school day has ended.

There’s no lack of debate around the issue. Enter the word homework into the search box at BAM Radio Network, and you’ll find no less than seven different segments on the subject. Etta Kralovec, author of The End of Homework, tells us that this particular debate has a long history, dating back to the 1920s and ’30s.

But one has to wonder why there’s any debate at all, when the research clearly shows no correlation between academic achievement and homework in elementary school.

Perhaps worse, according to Sara Bennett, thanks in large part to this cultural habit, most kids over the age of eight aren’t reading for pleasure any more, which is truly a sad state of affairs. Because they’ve been required to read and to do projects around their reading since pre-kindergarten, by the time they’re in second grade there’s no longer any joy for kids in the written word. That alone should be reason enough to put an end to the homework debate.

But, as they say in the infomercials: Wait, there’s more! Homework has also been connected to loss of sleep, temper tantrums, and such physical manifestations as stomach aches and hair pulling.
How much healthier and happier kids would be if, as Sara suggested in a BAM Radio discussion, they could go home and do whatever they’re interested in and then go back to school fresh the next day. But adults don’t trust kids to know what’s in their best interests.

There’s no debate over whether or not learning is important for kids. The thing is, they’re learning all the time. It’s just unfortunate that learning math equations and spelling words is considered so much more important than learning about oneself, one’s interests and passions, family and friends, and the environment in which one lives. It’s unfortunate that downtime is given so little value. (That’s a subject for another rant.)

There are those who will say that doing homework teaches children such things as responsibility and delayed gratification. But the research in defense of these arguments is slim. To my way of thinking, kids get enough responsibility and delayed gratification during school hours. And even if the research were unequivocal, such traits could be attained in ways other than through homework – while the skills acquired from having free time are simply being lost.

If you’re a teacher pressured by parents who believe that homework is essential to their child’s success, take a page from teacher Josh Stumpenhorst’s book. He has an agreement with parents that during his time with their kids, he’ll give them the most learning opportunities possible. He tells them, “When they are home with you, that is your time; do what you need to do as a family. I will respect your time and you will respect mine.” He says that this arrangement has worked well and he’s had nothing but positive reactions to it.

Advocates for either side of the homework debate likely can find research in defense of their position. But there’s no defense for mounds of homework – or for homework so developmentally inappropriate it’s almost impossible to believe. And there’s no excuse for keeping kids from being kids – because once a person’s childhood is gone, it’s gone.

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