Follow Up to Heated Discussions at Work about Kids’ Homework


Dear Readers: Many of you responded with two main comments to my 5/10/12 column, Heated Discussions at Work about Kids’ Homework. First, many were very surprised to learn that according to the latest research there is no correlation between homework and increased achievement for elementary and middle school students. This has prompted many of you to re-think the whole topic of homework, and hence, a second related comment is that many readers want to know how to get other educators and parents to reassess their school’s current homework policies.

To respond to your comments I interviewed Simone Hristidis, Head of Lower School, Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School (CGPS), located on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Ms. Hristidis has been a member of the CGPS community for 26 years, first as a staff member, then serving as the director of admissions for 17 years, and for the past two years as Head of Lower School. As a recognized and respected educational leader, she was interviewed for the book The Kindergarten Wars: The Battle to Get into America’s Best Private Schools by Alan Eisenstock.

While at the national level the average homework load has tripled since 1981, Ms. Hristidis is responsible for implementing what she calls a “reduced and limited” homework policy for CGPS students in the lower grades. Reduced and limited homework means that the number of nights a week they have small homework assignments correlates to their grade level. For example, students in first grade get a small homework assignment one night a week, then two nights a week in second grade, et cetera, and by 4th grade they have homework Monday through Thursday. Although there is a no homework policy on weekends and vacations for all grades through middle school, pleasure reading is encouraged.

The reduced and limited homework policy focuses on reading and literature, not repetitious drills or memorization. Rather, CGPS homework assignments use reading to help teach and fortify the skills required for lifelong learning and success, including: problem solving, critical thinking and analysis. When interviewed by Alina Adams for Examiner.com, Ms. Hristidis summarized her basic philosophy of education which informs her beliefs about homework: “Learning facts without learning how (or why, or when, or if) to apply them is pointless. (I’m kind of famous for always asking, no matter what the educational topic is, i.e., Traditional or progressive? Structured or nurturing? Single Sex or co-ed? Private or public? That depends on what you want the end result to be.)”

Ms. Hristidis’s advocacy for reduced and limited homework started when her oldest child, who just graduated college, was in 4th grade. She stepped back and looked at her child’s typical day: in school all day until mid afternoon, followed by sports and other lessons until 6 pm. Then her exhausted child was looking at a couple hours of homework – assignments that were just busy work, increasing pressure and frustration, but not helping with academic achievement. She concluded “we’re killing our kids with homework.” Although she would rather see a total no-homework policy through the 4th grade, she realized that if she was to bring about any changes, she would need to compromise with a reduced and limited homework policy.

When I asked Ms. Hristidis if she encountered resistance from the CGPS staff and/or parents to reduce the amount of homework assigned, especially in light of the typical homework trend that “more is better,” she explained that as the director of admissions for so many years she was in an ideal position to help parents interested in CGPS to understand the school’s reduced and limited homework policies during the application process. Parents seeking a program with heavy doses of homework at the younger ages were helped to appreciate that CGPS would not be a good fit for their children.

Occasionally Ms. Hristidis encounters parents who tend to blame the reduced and limited homework policy for various undesirable outcomes, for example, the parent who believed that his child did not get into an honors class because he didn’t have enough homework in the lower grades; or, the parent who says that her child is watching too much TV or spending too much time on the computer because there “isn’t enough homework.” Also, parents will at times need reassurance that their children will quickly adopt good study habits in their middle and high school years if they haven’t had rigorous homework demands in their earlier years. To this particular concern the latest brain research indicates that there is no decrease in academic achievement or a lack of adaption of good study habits when homework is deferred to later school years. Fortunately, these instances of parental resistance are rare and have not decreased from the overall acceptance of the reduced and limited homework policy.

For those educators and parents who want to initiate a conversation about the homework policies in their educational communities, Ms. Hristidis encourages them to rent the movie “Race to Nowhere”. In my column I described this as “… a film and call to mobilize families, educators and policy makers to challenge current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens.”) Ms. Hristidis says that although it isn’t a perfect movie, it does pack a powerful message about the detrimental aspects of homework.

All the Lower School teachers at CGPS viewed the film; all the parents were invited to see it, many of whom did see it. She said viewing and discussing this movie were very helpful in laying the foundation for implementing the reduced and limited homework policy now in place at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School. It helped everyone get more comfortable with the idea of “less is better” when it comes to the important topic of homework in the lower and middle school years.

I know my readers join me in thanking Ms. Hristidis for sharing with us her experience and advice.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Thursday through Labor Day.
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