Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Less-Homework Revolution

This was on the Today Show today and is also posted on Parenting.com.

As most of you know, the ridiculous amount of homework and in-class busy work Cole was required to do was one of the many reasons we opted to homeschool.

For those parents not in a position to homeschool, this article provides compassion and guidance in addressing the homework problem experienced by most publicly and privately educated children (and their parents) in the US today.
The Less-Homework Revolution
How fed-up parents are changing the way schools think -- and how you can, too

By Nancy Kalish, Parenting

I used to be extremely pro-homework. In fact, I once wrote an article for this very magazine telling readers how to get kids to stop whining and knuckle down to work. Back then, I could afford to be smug: My second-grader was happily zooming through her ten minutes a night. But a few years later, Allison started coming home with four hours of homework each night, and everything changed. Now there was not only whining but also begging, yelling, and crying -- sometimes from both of us. The worst part: hearing my previously enthusiastic learner repeatedly swear how much she hated school.

I'd always assumed homework was essential. But when I finally looked into the research about it, I was floored to find there's little to support homework -- especially in vast quantities. While not every child gets too much, many kids are now overloaded as early as kindergarten. I was appalled (I even co-wrote a book about it, The Case Against Homework), so you can bet that this time around, you won't be getting any "how to be a good homework cop" tips from me.

Instead, I'm here to call you to action. You can change things for your child -- even for the whole school. There are more and more frustrated parents and wised-up schools around the country, so why should your child keep suffering through hours of work? A less-homework revolution is brewing, and you can join it.

taking back family time

Like me, Christine Hendricks, a mother of three in Glenrock, WY, had always believed in homework. Then her daughter, Maddie, entered elementary school. "By the fourth grade, she had so much, there was no time for after-school activities, playing, or simply enjoying our evenings together. We were always stressed, and I knew many other families were also miserable." Hendricks decided things had to change -- and she had a unique advantage: She's the principal of Glenrock's Grant Elementary School. Together with her teachers, she looked into the research and found what I did: Homework's not what it's cracked up to be. "We decided to do an experiment and eliminate most homework," she says. The one exception: occasional studying for a test. "This is only our second year without it, but there have been no backslides in the classroom or in test scores," says Hendricks. "Parents say their kids enjoy reading again because there's no pressure. In fact, there have been no negative effects whatsoever. And there's much less stress at our house, too." We're not all in a position to fast-track a solution as Hendricks did, but we still have power.

In Toronto, Frank Bruni decided to do something when a pediatrician told him that his 13-year-old son should exercise more. Says Bruni, "I thought to myself, 'And when would he do that?' " So Bruni organized other parents and lobbied the Toronto School District to hold public meetings, presenting the research behind homework. The result is a new policy that affects more than 300,000 kids, limiting homework to reading in elementary school, eliminating holiday homework, and stating the value of family time. Canada's education minister now wants all the country's school boards to make sure students aren't being overloaded. "It's so gratifying to know that this year, Toronto's kids are going to have a life," says Bruni. "It shows you just how much parents can do when they try."

why it's worth a fight

Homework is such an established part of education, it's hard to believe it's not all that beneficial, especially in large quantities. But the truth is, a recent Duke University review of numerous studies found almost no correlation between homework and long-term achievement in elementary school, and only a moderate correlation in middle school. "More is not better," says Harris Cooper, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience who conducted the review. In fact, according to guidelines endorsed by the National Education Association, teachers should assign no more than ten minutes per grade level per night (that's ten minutes total for a first-grader, 30 minutes for a third-grader).

Pile on more and it can backfire. "Most kids are simply developmentally unable to sit and learn for longer," says Cooper. Remember: Many have already been glued to their desks for seven hours, especially at schools that have cut gym, recess, art, and music to cram in more instructional time. If you add on two hours of homework each night, these children are working a 45-hour week. Some argue that we need to toughen kids up for high school, college, and the workforce. But there are other ways to teach responsibility, such as the chores that parents often have to let slide because of studying.

And too much homework is actually sapping our children's strength, natural curiosity, and love of learning. "Kids are developing more school-related stomachaches, headaches, sleep problems, and depression than ever before," says William Crain, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the City College of New York and author of Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society. "We're seeing kids who are burned out by fourth grade. Soon, it will be by second grade." Too much homework also means that kids miss out on active playtime, essential for learning social skills, proper brain development, and warding off childhood obesity.

All this work doesn't even make educational sense. "It's counterintuitive, but more practice or the wrong kind of practice doesn't necessarily make perfect," says Kylene Beers, president of the National Council of Teachers of English and author of When Kids Can't Read, What Teachers Can Do. For example, children are able to memorize long lists of spelling words -- but many will misspell them the following week.

"Instead, they should spend the time reading and writing, and practicing words that are at the appropriate level for each child," says Beers. According to the U.S. Department of Education, most often a math teacher can tell after checking five algebraic equations whether a student has understood the necessary concepts. Even more important, whether it's algebra or addition, five problems is enough to tell if a student doesn't understand a concept. Practicing dozens of homework problems incorrectly only cements the wrong method into his brain. Naturally, some kids need more practice before math skills become automatic, but pages of problems rarely help the whole class. In addition, teachers who assign large numbers of problems are often unable to do anything more than spot-check homework. That means errors are missed -- and some children truly are left behind.

So why are schools ignoring all these guidelines? "Many teachers are under greater pressure than ever before to assign more homework," says Beers. "Some of it comes from parents, some from the administration and the desire for high scores on standardized tests." And here's a surprise: Your child's teachers have probably never taken a course that covers what constitutes good or bad homework, how much to give, and the research behind it. "I'm disappointed to admit that colleges of education simply don't offer specific training in homework," says Beers. Cooper adds, "Teachers are winging it."

4 waste-of-time assignments

typical assignment: Keep a reading log
why it's busywork: Writing down the title is one thing; adding on the author, publisher, and other info turns reading into a tedious activity. Rather, let kids write a line or two about why they liked or didn't like the book. The time would also be better spent reading another book.

typical assignment: Play an "unscramble the word" spelling game
why it's busywork: If a child sees a spelling word with the letters scrambled, he could end up remembering it that way, says National Council of Teachers of English president Kylene Beers.

typical assignment: Answer the questions at the end of the chapter
why it's busywork: This can encourage kids to "skim and scan," hunting for answers and ignoring other content. The exception is questions that help kids infer meaning.

typical assignment: Create a diorama/model/game board/anything that requires craft supplies and a glue gun
why it's busywork: Such "fun" projects usually involve a frantic trip to the crafts store, expensive supplies, too much parent participation -- and too little educational value to justify the number of hours they take (with the possible exception of science-fair projects). If it's all about how it looks, it's probably not worth it.

the start of something big

A revolution has to begin somewhere, and as Christine Hendricks, the Wyoming principal and mom, proves, that somewhere isn't only on the coasts or in big cities. It's in communities and schools all over the country.

After teaching math for several years at South Valley Middle School in Liberty, MO, Joel Wazac realized that his students were rarely finishing the reams of problems he sent home. So he and other math teachers decided to eliminate homework and concentrate on making class lessons more engaging. "I had more time for planning when I wasn't grading thousands of problems each night," says Wazac. "And when a student didn't understand something, instead of a parent trying to puzzle it out, I was right there to help him." The result: Grades went up and the school's standardized math test scores are the highest they've ever been.

In some cases, entire schools, such as Mason-Rice Elementary in Newton, MA, have limited homework according to the "ten-minute rule." The Raymond Park Middle School in Indianapolis has a written policy instructing teachers to "assign homework only when you feel the assignment is valuable. A night off is better than homework which serves no worthwhile purpose." Others, such as Oak Knoll Elementary in Menlo Park, CA, are eliminating elementary school homework altogether. If these schools can do it, why can't yours?

Many parents are the ones leading the fight against homework overload…and winning. In Danville, CA, Kerry Dickinson, a mother of two, spearheaded the effort by organizing more than 100 parents to convince the local school district to revise its homework policy. The policy still exceeds the "ten minutes per grade" rule, but it discourages weekend and holiday homework and stresses the value of family time. "Is it perfect? Not even close," says Dickinson, who has a teaching credential herself. "But it's progress." You may feel more comfortable starting smaller -- but that's a great way to get the revolution brewing in your community. Aubrey King is a mom who found that teachers can be more responsive (and sympathetic) than you might think. "Normally, we have no time for after-school activities, the park, or even getting an ice cream cone," says King, the Colorado Springs mother of a third- and a sixth-grader, as well as three younger children. But when one child's homework interfered with the family's preparations for Christmas, it was the last straw. King e-mailed the teacher, who promptly eliminated all assignments for the entire class until after winter break.

Another step in the right direction: Krisi Repp of Gray Summit, MO, sent each of her three children's teachers a letter detailing her family's already busy schedule and gently informing them that homework was interfering with sleep, exercise, dinner, church, and precious time together. "Several teachers commented 'I never thought about that' or 'You're right,'" Repp reports. "Many don't have school-age children yet themselves. They're not going to know any better unless we speak out."

Joining the revolution

Fewer than 60 percent of schools have official homework policies, which means that it might be a lot more negotiable than you think. Keep your approach nonconfrontational and cooperative, and you have a good chance of success.

If your child has too much homework tonight... stop the suffering with a note. If he's been working longer than he can bear, don't push him further. It'll only make him dislike homework more. Instead, write a note to the teacher on the homework, saying that Jonathan tried but couldn't complete the assignment and that you felt it was more important that he get a good night's sleep. There usually are no negative consequences.

If homework overload is a continuing problem... speak up. E-mail the teacher to request a meeting, and ask how long she expects her assignments to take. Compare that to the ten-minutes-per-grade-level guideline and how long it actually takes your child. Then when you meet, try not to be accusatory ("Your homework is killing my child!") but to enlist the teacher as an ally ("Lucy can't concentrate for more than X minutes each night. After that, she starts to hate the work, and the learning stops"). Together, perhaps you can decide that your child will tackle reading first, do only five math problems, and stop once she's reached her limit. Another strategy: Describe a typical night for your family. This might be enough to help the teacher realize there isn't enough time (for any kid) to finish all of the assignments.

If homework overload is a widespread problem at school... find strength in numbers. If your child is miserable, chances are other kids in his class are, too. Ask the other parents to e-mail the teacher or approach the principal with you. Sometimes that's all it takes. If that doesn't work, you might want to organize a homework forum at your school or speak before the school board, with the goal of establishing a reasonable homework policy. Ask parents to fill out a survey first so you have documentation of how much homework the children are doing.

Click here for a sample one from The Case Against Homework. Another great site, StopHomework.com, is run by less-homework advocate Sara Bennett; it has the latest research and can give you personal advice for making change.

Nancy Kalish is the coauthor, with Sara Bennett, of The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It.

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