Study Break

The Homework Debate

By Marjorie Ingall

Published October 31, 2007, issue of November 02, 2007.
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I just learned two new words, which is exciting, at my advanced age. They are: redd, a nesting area for trout eggs; and alevin, a newly hatched fish with its yolk sac still attached. (I also learned milt, but I’m trying to block it out. Google at your peril.)

Both words (not milt, thank God, which we got from Josie’s teacher on Curriculum Night, and again, la la la la, trying to forget) appeared in Josie’s homework packet last week. As a big macher first grader, she has homework for the first time, in both secular and Hebrew school. For Hebrew school, she has an alef-bet workbook. She loves tracing the letters, circling rhyming vowel sounds, drawing lines to connect the names of letters in English to their symbols in Hebrew. She pounds out her homework right after class; it takes literally seven minutes, once a week.

Her secular school homework consists mostly of reading. We’re supposed to read together every night for at least 15 minutes. She brings books of her choosing home from school in a Baggie every day, and at bedtime, she reads a chapter to me, then I read one to her. We also get a weekly packet of homework involving math games, a reading log, a song, a drawing assignment, a few science questions about trout. Her class is raising trout, from eggs to fry, as part of a multidisciplinary project called, logically enough, Trout in the Classroom. (Hence: redd and alevin, answers to review questions in last week’s packet.) Josie is so into trout, she’s planning on being an alevin for Halloween. (Gray shirt, gray pants, orange balloon pinned to her stomach as a yolk sac. So much cooler than a princess.) This homework takes maybe an hour a week, not including the nightly reading.

On the one hand, annoying. (Guess whose job it is to play the math games, make sure the book titles get logged, clap enthusiastically at the trout dance.) I do have a job already. Then again, she loves her homework. And her joy gives me joy.

But what of the kids who don’t enjoy homework? What of the kids whose homework is badly conceived, pointless or too damn much? A friend of mine moved her child out of a gifted and talented program because her formerly happy son was spending three hours a night struggling with his third grade homework, getting stomach aches from anxiety, having trouble sleeping. (He’s now in a progressive school, facing far less homework, and back to his sunny self.) I know a high schooler who does five hours of homework a night. I know a mom who made her fourth grader stay up until 1 a.m. to finish her homework. And backing up my anecdotal experience, a recent University of Michigan survey of almost 3,000 children found that time devoted to homework has grown 51% since 1981.

In “The Case Against Homework” (Crown, 2006), Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish lay out the reasons so many of our kids are drowning in homework. “It’s the American ideal that more is always better,” Kalish told me in an interview. “It’s gotten out of balance. Kids are under so much pressure — to get into college, to get jobs — and parents translate that into ‘Pile on the homework!’ They think that more homework means the school is more rigorous.” Teachers and school administrators, as well as parents, may be misguided about homework. “They’re well-meaning,” said Kalish, “but often shockingly uneducated about the research that has been done on homework. So you’ve got this terrible synergy, and everyone’s under pressure from the No Child Left Behind Act to raise test scores, and it’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to break out of.”

Kalish doesn’t believe homework is inherently evil, however. (This puts her at odds with Alfie Kohn, author of another anti-homework book published by Da Capo last year, “The Homework Myth.”) I’m with Kalish; I was fortunate that I never had an impossible amount of homework, and I often loved the homework I had. (Just like my daughter, kaynehore.) I found writing at home, without distractions, getting into a groove, kind of thrilling. My best teachers were able to tailor my homework assignments to my interests, giving me a choice of topics or approaches. (I remember my 10th grade American History teacher giving me Clifford Odets plays, because she knew I loved theater, and having me write about them as a way to discuss the Great Depression.) But for elementary school kids, the evidence simply ain’t there that homework is at all useful. According to a 2001 review of more than 120 studies of homework and its effects by Harris Cooper, the director of the Program in Education at Duke University, there’s little connection between amount of homework and achievement in elementary school. Cooper recommends that schools assign no more than 10 minutes of homework per grade per night. In other words, 10 minutes of homework for a first grader, 20 minutes for a second grader, up to a maximum of two hours for a 12th grader. Cooper’s recommendations are echoed by the National Education Association and the National PTA.

Because when homework gets piled up like a heaping tower of lopsided clay on a volcano diorama, other activities invariably get pushed aside. Playdates, physical activity, family dinners, drawing, reading for fun… they all suffer. In middle school and high school I had babysitting jobs, did theater, wrote poems and stories, played on the volleyball team, went on long bike rides with my best friend that ended with us sitting in Swan Point Cemetery imagining being swept off our feet by Bruce Springsteen (me) and Jon Bon Jovi (her). (Thank God this column is a safe space.) I still think those activities were more enriching than any homework assignment.

The good news: There’s a movement afoot internationally to downscale or even eliminate homework, Kalish told me. In the ’90s, Japan cut back radically on homework. Here at home, some Jewish day schools are doing the same: Yeshivat Netivot Montessori in Edison, N.J., was founded in part on the principle of not giving too much homework; school policy is to assign reading alone for homework and to give kids time to “unwind, reflect upon their day, and involve themselves in other areas of interest not offered at school, thus strengthening them for the next challenging day to come.”

This year, Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School in Los Angeles eliminated homework as well. And of course, many progressive schools, religious and secular, try to limit homework. Josie’s teacher assigns more than the amount Cooper recommends, but she loves it, so I’m not kvetching. Yet.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.


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