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In Search of a Homework Policy That Makes Sense in this Century

A news article highlights new approaches to homework other districts are considering. When will Pelham take a first step?

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:

Grade Levels Minimum Time in Minutes K-2 20 3-4 30 5 45 6 60 7-8 90 9-12 120

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”

Vera Goodman June 16, 2011 at 03:32 PM
Consider these question: What role does homework play in drop-out rate? Should parents have the right to educate their children in important skills that schools don't teach in after school hours? Is homework a form of child abuse? If a child can't read should he still be expected to do homework? Should recess be a right for children like coffee breaks are for adults? Is it legally right to take away recess for incomplete homework? How far should be allow schools to control the lives of students and their families? Can homework turn kids against learning and be harmful rather than helpful?
A Reader June 16, 2011 at 05:02 PM
I am very much in favor of homework in the later grades (middle school/high school), because it is important to teach kids how to manage their time and get everything done when there's no one looking directly over their shoulder. Doing their work in school doesn't accomplish that. That does not mean they need 4 hours of homework a night though. Kids need time to play outside, talk to their friends, and (gasp) just relax a bit. In elementary school, homework should be minimal, with none at all before third grade. Kids are just not developmentally ready to have the organizational skill it takes to do homework every night in first and second grade. The parents end up responsible for it, and that doesn't help anyone. Reading at home, yes. Homework, no.
Saml Adams October 12, 2011 at 09:08 PM
What is striking is the observation that the policy in the Pelham Union Free School District has not been revisited in nearly twenty years. Yet another example of adminstrative neglect of the basics in favor of chasing fads--like Math Investigations. Looking at the volume and make up of my childrens homework, I see it being used as a make-up for basic work that is not attended to during school hours. On the other hand, nothing about the managerial (in)competence in this district should be a surprise.

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