Sunday, August 14, 2016

Speaking Up about Homework

Thirteen years ago, I began my teaching career as a fourth-grade teacher. I was young and idealistic, believing that I could make a difference, not just in the lives of my students, but in the profession of education. I distinctly remember presenting to a room filled with skeptical faces at my very first Open House. As I welcomed my students’ parents to what would be an exciting school year for their children, I proclaimed that I would not be giving very much homework to my students because I wanted kids to be kids. I explained that after spending nearly seven hours a day learning in school, homework would be limited to nightly reading and nothing more.

I thought the parents of my students were going to be relieved since fourth grade was known as the grade level where teachers really ramped up the homework. A funny thing happened, though. The parents were not relieved. They were disappointed; some even angry. As the first few weeks of school passed, my students’ parents questioned whether or not I was cut out to be a teacher in a high performing school district.
“Doesn’t she realize that she has to prepare our kids for the next grade level? How will she teach them responsibility without nightly homework? Our kids are going to fall behind if she does not increase the amount of homework she assigns!”
My principal at the time, hearing the complaints, called me into his office to explain that I needed to align myself with the other teachers on my grade level team. He also suggested that I abide by the 10-minute rule and assign 40 minutes of homework each night. (10 minutes of nightly homework multiplied by the grade level I taught.) Being new, inexperienced, and afraid of losing my first teaching job, I complied.

John Hattie
(Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Today, over a decade later, we know so much more about homework. John Hattie, a renowned education researcher who spent more than fifteen years studying the influences of achievement in school-age students, suggests that five to ten minutes of homework can have the same effect as one to two hours of homework. While Hattie does not recommend getting rid of homework altogether, since it does have an effect on students at the high school level, he proposes that primary schools (grades K-8) consider whether or not the homework assigned is truly making a difference in student learning, especially when his research indicates that that homework in grades K-3 has no effect at all.

Yet even without knowing about Hattie’s research, as a young educator, my gut told me that homework was not entirely necessary, especially the amount of homework I was pressured to assign. Still, I let the practice of homework continue because it’s what everyone else was doing and it’s what the parents were expecting me to do, too. It seemed to my students’ parents that I was teaching their children responsibility, even though the responsibility fell on them to ensure that the homework was completed each night. Parents reported that they were glad their children were becoming better conditioned to complete larger amounts of homework in preparation for the next grade level, nevermind the amount of stress that I was inflicting upon them on a nightly basis. And since our test scores remained high compared to much of the state, it seemed that the homework must be contributing to student learning, even though the low-level skills practiced at home were hardly ever assessed on the state tests. Because parents believed that homework was improving their child’s education, I found it difficult to challenge the status quo on nightly homework.

Fast forward to today, and now I find myself cast in a new role. As a parent of a 2nd-grade and a 4th-grade child, I am anxious that my child’s teacher will assign homework due to pressures from other parents or longstanding traditions in their school. I want to respect each teacher's professional judgment about the work assigned outside of school, but in my experience, even the best teachers seem to fall victim to this antiquated practice. I worry that the assignments will be mindless and time-consuming, stripping my children of their curiosity and sense of wonder. I worry that the amount of stress added to our household over homework completion will affect my relationship with my children
when I have so few hours that I get to spend at home with them each day. I worry that the homework will be too difficult, and while I may be able to help my children overcome challenging assignments, what about children whose parents are not able to help? I worry that bedtime reading, which arguably fosters the most important set of skills in young children, will often be neglected because lengthy homework assignments that are due the very next day will take precedence.

Life is short, so rather than continue to worry, I have decided that I must continue speaking out by sharing my concerns in an effort to challenge all educators to rethink homework. Last fall, I co-authored a blog post with my colleague, Jeff Zoul, about giving homework purpose or eliminating it altogether. While I continue to support everything in that original post, I hope educators will also consider reducing the time students are spending on homework, because even purposeful assignments can become too time-consuming for young learners.

If this post resonated with you and you are a parent with concerns about homework, speak up! If you are a teacher catering to parent expectations, speak up! If you are a student stressed out by homework, speak up! If you are an administrator caught in between all of these stakeholder groups, speak up! Though I am not quite as young as I once was when I first began my teaching career, I am still an idealistic educator who believes that she can make a difference, which is why I will continue to speak up about homework and its effect on all of us.

1 comment:

Robert van Deusen said...

I'm in my 42nd year as an idealistic educator and concur with your assessments about homework. When I was a middle school principal my special ed and success teachers often were at odds with the regular classroom teachers about the importance of homework. Many times homework completion is a function of economic class and education of the parents. It often does not contribute to learning of concepts, but just consists of skill and drill— two things that often dull children's curiosity. In my University elementary math methods class I assign only two homework assignments – both mandated by the college of education. Without the mandate there would be zero homework assignments. I saw on Facebook that we share a delightful former student – Carly Michlin.
If I followed the 10 minute per grade level rule, since my students are mostly juniors in college, I "should" be assigning my students 2 1/2 hours of homework a night.