The movement by school districts to reign in homework got good coverage in the New York Times yesterday. The article reports on different, interesting approaches being tried from Brooklyn to New Jersey and on to Toronto, Colorado, California and the Philippines. The goal is to get the amount of homework to make sense, and the purpose of it be more than dull duty.
The board of education for Galloway School District, which serves 3,500 K-8th graders northwest of Atlantic City, will vote this summer on the superintendent’s proposal to limit weeknight homework to 10 minutes for each year in school, so 30 minutes for third grade, 60 minutes for sixth. Galloway would ban assignments on weekends, holidays and school vacations. The ten-minutes-per-year maximum is a rule of thumb endorsed by many leading thinkers in education.
This is also very much a “Race to Nowhere” issue. As the director of that excellent documentary, Vicki Abeles, told the Times, “There is simply no proof that most homework as we know it improves school performance. And by expecting kids to work a ‘second shift’ in what should be their downtime, the presence of schoolwork at home is negatively affecting the health of our young people and the quality of family time.”
Where is the Pelham Union Free School District in all this? I’m glad you asked, because I did two and a half years ago when the work started coming home with my second grader. The last time the Pelham Board of Education visited its policy on homework was July 1, 1991. It sets minimums—that’s right, minimums, not maximums. We have a floor; everyone says install a ceiling. Here it is straight from the Pelham Board of Ed policy book:
So as an example, our policy says 30 minutes minimum for a third grader, and the experts say that should be the very maximum of work sent home. I’ve asked why our policy hasn’t been revisited and been told by board members they have bigger policy fish to fry. I’m not clear on why setting kids free from needless and worthless rote work isn’t big enough for their early consideration.
If you’re not convinced, some key facts:
- Several studies suggest reading for pleasure is a better predictor of test scores than quantity of homework, yet a 2006 Scholastic/Yankelovich study found reading for pleasure drops sharply after age eight. The number one reason: too much homework.
- A 2006 synthesis of research on the effect of homework found no correlation between amount of time spent and achievement in elementary school. There was a moderate correlation in middle school that fell off after daily assignments exceeded an hour.
- In a survey, nine- to thirteen-year-olds said they were more stressed by academics than any other cause—even bullying or family problems. (This fact is particularly striking in Pelham, where we are running a program to aggressively tackle bullying yet don't seem willing to look at how our academic program drives student stress.)
Calling for a limit on homework can be viewed as a bit hippy-dippy. From my involvement in the schools in the last year, I’ve discovered some of my fellow parents equate rigor with achievement, or more bluntly, pain with gain. The thinking is if we could only get something like the academic version of Marine Corps boot camp going, we’d end up with the smartest, wisest learners and greatest achievers in the land. And when I try to counter this with the research, parents look at me like I’ve snatched the Harvard application right out of their their hands.
The New York Times article did give me some insight into this view. One Colorado school board backed away from eliminating homework on weekends and holidays after some parents complained that was when they had time to help their children.
How about this? Let the kids do the work at school. And play on the weekend.
I get that parents like to see the work come home so they know the work is being assigned, as a proxy for deeper focus on what’s going on in school. It’s the signal they want to see. But it’s the wrong signal. We need a policy that isn’t 20 years out of date.
If you’re intrigued, there are good resources out there now on the topic. Here is a list of some:
"Does homework improve academic achievement?"
“Help! Homework Is Wrecking My Home Life!”
“How Much Homework is Too Much?”
“Homework Research and Policy: A Review of the Literature”