Heated Discussions at Work about Kids’ Homework

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I’m a grandmother who works with several young moms. I am just amazed when I listen to them talk about “helping” their kids with their daily homework and projects. I say “helping” because what they describe is flat out doing their kids’ assignments. I think that what they should be doing instead is to help their kids set timelines and discuss resources they can use. They say their children, even young ones, get so much homework, most of it useless busy work, that there’s not much learning from it anyway. These young parents say there is a lot of pressure and frustration around these vast amounts of homework and that is why they end up helping their kids with it.

When I’ve said to these parents that maybe they could talk to the teachers about the homework, they said they don’t want to get on the wrong side of the teachers and get labeled a “problem parent.” I worry that these kids are not learning to take responsibility for their actions or decisions. We all read your column, so I said I would write you. Can you offer some perspective and guidelines on this? That is, the parents who say their kids aren’t learning from their homework anyway, so it doesn’t matter if they help them vs. those who see value in homework and feel the kids should be doing their own homework, no matter what.

It’s easy to see why you and your co-workers find your discussions about homework heated and emotional. Strong opinions abound, and although there is research, as discussed below, much of the research is inconclusive, so controversy is inevitable.

For example, according to Alfie Kohn, education, parenting and human behavior researcher and author, both points of view you’ve identified have some merit. For example, in his book The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, his research led him to conclude: “…there is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school. For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement. At the high school level, the correlation is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied. Meanwhile, no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits.”

The Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National School Boards Association, has also done extensive research on homework, and agrees the evidence does not support that homework results in higher academic achievement across-the-board for all groups. However, their research suggests that “Certain nonacademic benefits of homework have been shown, especially for younger students. Indeed, some primary-level teachers may assign homework for such benefits, which include learning the importance of responsibility, managing time, developing study habits, and staying with a task until it is completed.”

But these supposed nonacademic benefits of homework are challenged: “There has been no research done on whether homework teaches responsibility, self-discipline, or motivation. That’s just a value judgment. The counter argument can just as easily be made that homework teaches kids to cheat, do the least amount of work, or to get by.” (The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning, by Etta Kralovec and John Buell.)

However, one area of strong agreement among parents, educators and students is that homework can be a serious family irritant. A survey done by Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group, found that 50 percent of parents surveyed said they have had a serious argument with their children over homework; thirty-four percent said it became a source of struggle and stress for them and their children. Others share emotional anecdotes where parent-child relationships have been seriously / permanently damaged by tensions and arguments over homework.

In light of research that questions the value of homework, especially for younger children, some educators have made important changes in homework policies. For example, one private school in Manhattan has implemented a no-homework policy before fifth grade. Many of this school’s parents, even when familiar with the research on homework, are uncomfortable with this policy, fearing their children are being academically short changed. It’s hard to give up the time-honored adage that more homework equals higher achievement, even when the latest research refutes this.

Perhaps most convincing is the fact that “Many of the countries with the highest scoring students on achievement tests, such as Japan, Denmark, and the Czech Republic, have teachers who assign little homework. It seems that the more homework a nation’s teachers assign, the worse that nation’s students do on the achievement tests” (http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=7192).

Regarding how much homework should be assigned, The Center for Public Education and other groups currently recommend no homework in elementary school, about one hour per night in middle school, and between 1.5 and 2.5 hours a night in high school. In light of these research-based guidelines, it is understandable that many parents are angry and frustrated when their young children are forced to do an hour or more of homework each night. In fact, many parents admit they are frustrated to the point of often doing their children’s homework for them.

Many educators and parents who want homework policies reevaluated in light of recent research are working together to set up task forces. Your co-workers with school-age children might talk about the feasibility of volunteering to set up and/or serve on such a task force. Many Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) across the nation are initiating this kind of dialogue by showing the film Race to Nowhere, described 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.” The follow-up discussions will no doubt include the topic of homework.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every Thursday.
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