23 September, 2006

The Future of Homework

Loved this article in the SF Chronicle about homework

The Future of Homework

Over the past decade there has been a significant increase in the amount of homework schools require. Not many adults experienced an hour or more of nightly homework when they were ten years old. This increase may have come in response to the call for higher expectations, comparisons of American student performance with that of children from European and Asian countries, and the pressure created because of state testing programs. When I talk to teacher groups about the explosion of homework, it’s often stated that, ‘we give homework because parents expect it of us.’ Teachers report that parents believe that the homework is a sign of a rigorous program. It has also been reported that parents want the homework because it keeps the kids busy. When I talk with parents the viewpoint I most often hear is, ‘the teacher believes this work is important and we feel we must support the school.’

Ever increasing amounts of homework for younger children has become the norm and accepted practice. A majority of both teachers and parents support this position because they feel the system demands and believes in the efficacy of homework. More than any other single person, I believe I most represent the Oak Knoll “system”. Here is what I know and believe about homework.

The preponderance of research clearly shows that homework for elementary students does not make a difference in student achievement. It is hard to believe that a strategy used so extensively has no foundation. Even the most ardent supporters of homework have only been able to produce evidence of associative rather than causal relationships. In addition, it is not surprising that there is no research that demonstrates that homework increases a child’s level of understanding, improves their attitude towards school or inspires a love of learning. For a large number of students we know the opposite is true-- large amounts of homework stifle motivation, diminish a child’s love of learning, turn reading into a chore, negatively affect the quality of family time, diminish creativity, and turn learning to drudgery.

Unable to produce evidence that homework improves student performance, proponents often site outcomes that seem true because they make some kind of intuitive sense. “We give homework because it develops responsibility, study skills and work habits. Once again, there is no research to support any of these claims. If there was, we would be able to say with some level of authority how much homework it takes to develop good work habits--- two hours a week, four hours a week, or maybe a half hour every other day. We don’t know what is necessary- there is no data. I would suggest that our present one hour, four days a week, thirty-six weeks a year, following a six-hour school day is much more than is needed to develop age appropriate work habits in nine and ten year old children. I certainly don’t believe that homework teaches our children responsibility. There are very few choices in homework. The children are completing work that is required. They are complying with adult demands. Comply or suffer the consequences. This is not my idea of responsibility.

The argument for homework that makes the least sense to me is, “they get lots of homework in the middle school so we better get them used to it”. Parents and teachers say this resigned to the fact that this homework experience may be painful, work against quality family time, and diminish a young child’s fondness for learning. We want to get them ready to do something they are not going to want to do when they are older--- by forcing them to do it when they are younger. Young children are not the same as older children. What is good for older children is not what is good for younger children. There are developmental differences. Author Alfie Kohn says, “The fundamental choice we face as parents and teachers is whether our primary obligation is to help children love learning, or get them accustomed to gratuitous unpleasantness so they can learn to deal with it.”

With all that being said, what are we going to do about homework at Oak Knoll? How will we work and support the homework policies of Menlo Park? In no particular order:
• We will promote reading as the central aspect of our homework. Preferably, reading of the child’s choice.
• We will not provide weekly homework packets that have not been differentiated based on individual student needs. Weekly packets help parents and students manage time. However, packets of this nature almost always include homework of which the child has demonstrated in class that he has absolutely no need to complete.
• At no time will homework exceed the district maximum time limits.
• We will not assign homework for homework’s sake.
• Homework, other than reading, will be assigned when a specific need arises, when it’s necessary to practice a skill or complete important work.

With these directions in place, most parents will notice a considerable reduction in the amount of homework. The Oak Knoll teachers will be working to comply with my direction as principal and with the policies adopted by the Menlo Park Board of Education. Parents should also notice an increase in the relevance of the homework to their child’s needs. Should you have questions about the quantity and quality of homework please feel free to contact me.
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