Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What to Do About All of that Homework!

My guest blogger today is someone who is making positive changes by kindly questioning authority, educating people and getting involved. Kerry Dickinson writes a blog called East Bay Homework Blog and she was part of a task force that successfully rewrote an outdated homework policy in her school district. Last week Kerry wrote:

Homework is a hot button topic. Anyone who has ever been a student, is currently a student or who is the parent of a student has an opinion about homework. Today when I Google “homework ” I find 40,100,000 results. Many of these homework sites offer tips to help children with their homework and accept the status quo – that homework has been a part of the American public school tradition since the early 1900s and will remain a big part of our education system for many years to come.

I hope not.

But I didn’t always feel this way. I’m trained as a middle and high school teacher of English, history, and reading. During my teacher training, I accepted and believed in the validity of homework. After all, I went through school, did some homework, became a teacher and turned out fine, so homework must have helped me achieve those goals, right?

But I didn’t have a lot of homework as a child, and I didn’t mind doing the homework I did have. It wasn’t until I had my own children that I really began to question the value of homework. But, sadly, that didn’t happen until they were in the 6th and 8th grades. Why did it take me so long to really examine their homework and question its importance?

It took me so long because I believed everything I was told about homework. “It reinforces learning. It teaches discipline and responsibility. It prepares students for class…”

But what happens when it doesn’t do those things? What happens when I did everything I was told to do by the school – set up a regular homework routine, gave my children a healthy snack before they start their homework, provide a quiet, well-lit place for them to do their homework – yet they still struggled with it?

What happens when we explored more avenues of homework help for one of our boys in particular (multiple tutors, special education resources, psychological testing, medication) and he still struggled with homework?

At some point, I finally stopped blaming my child for his homework limitations and started blaming everything else around him. I blamed the school, I blamed the teachers, I blamed the administration, I blamed the system, I blamed myself, I blamed my parenting, I blamed it on his ADHD. But when the blaming didn’t change the fact that he still struggled with homework, and still had hours and hours of it, I finally changed my attitude about it.

All this homework turmoil was a blessing in disguise.

One day I finally started really looking at the homework he was being asked to do. I read “The Homework Myth” by Alfie Kohn and I had a revelation about homework. I agreed with almost everything Kohn wrote in that book, and felt a huge sense of relief that I wasn’t the only educated person out there who disagreed with the idea of homework and hated what it did to our family evenings, weekends and holidays. “Most kids hate homework. They dread it, groan about it, put off doing it as long as possible. It may be the single most reliable extinguisher of the flame of curiosity.” (17)

I found Sara Bennett’s website and that became an excellent daily resource for me and helped me see that there were many more educated people all over the US who disagreed with the idea of homework. I also read her book, “The Case Against Homework,” and got many good ideas from it. I read countless Internet articles and more books on homework. I talked to and emailed people about homework. I learned about Challenge Success, Denise Pope’s program at Stanford. I started learning about many other pro-child programs that shared my views of homework.

I enlisted the help of a friend, Julie, who shared my feelings about education and homework. We got a small group of parents together to talk about homework. We found that as soon as we starting discussing homework as a group, the talk quickly morphed into discussions of parenting, education, standardized testing, ADHD, teacher-training, college admissions, curriculum development, student stress, AP classes, childhood obesity, mental health issues, competitive sports, tutors, over-scheduled lives, finding balance, etc. We concluded that there were many problems surrounding homework and no simple solutions, yet we wanted to do something about it.

We took an informal email survey about homework from other parents in our district and got 100 responses that we collected in a spreadsheet. We brought that along with many articles and books on homework to a meeting we had with our school district’s curriculum instruction director. A week after that, the district (which serves over 27,000 students) formed a homework task force to rewrite the outdated policy. I was fortunate enough to be on the taskforce as a parent representative. The taskforce had 19 total participants – a combination of parents, teachers and administrators.

We rewrote the policy in under a year. It was a difficult process where 19 opinionated individuals had to agree on something cohesive to be presented to the Board of Education. I personally enlisted Sara Bennett's help during this process. While I think the new policy is better policy than the original one, I think it still has a long way to go to being a really great, “outside of the box,” forward-thinking homework policy. To read the policy, go to:

For example, I would have liked to include an “opt-out” provision where parents could sign a statement saying they are opting out of having their child do homework with no negative consequences to the child. I would have liked to see a statement included about the fact that any homework assigned would not be graded. I would have liked to see shorter time limit guidelines on homework. I would have liked to see that homework would be the exception and not the rule. I would have liked it to be more similar to Toronto’s homework policy. You can read that here:

Even if I didn’t get exactly what I wanted in the homework policy, being on that taskforce was a good experience for me and has led to other projects I’m working on now. See the film “Race to Nowhere.” The experience also helped me formulate more conclusions about homework. One of those is that homework is not the cause of, but rather a symptom of many problems in education.

Teachers often give homework because they say they don’t have enough time to complete everything during class time. If we changed the mindset from believing that we need to teach a set amount of information in a limited time, to focusing on individual needs and learning goals of each student, we would approach education differently.

Without pressures from above to fulfill state mandates and without pressures from administration to teach to a test, teachers would ideally be free to collectively and creatively decide how students learn best. This is no simple task, however, and it involves a shift in thinking about the principles of education that will then naturally lead to a change in practices of education.

The good news is that there are great teachers and schools doing this, successfully every day. Even a big, public school can learn from these smaller schools and teachers that have discovered how kids learn best. Learning is an organic process, not a linear one. We can’t fill up a kid’s head with knowledge, have him do his homework, take some tests, graduate and call it success.

We have to figure out what turns kids on to learning and how they learn before we can help them learn. In our new technological age of constant information, we have to shift from memorizing and regurgitating facts in school to making sense of all these readily-available facts by analyzing, synthesizing, creating, innovating and problem-solving. We have to move from teacher as expert, to teacher as facilitator. We need more student choice and voice. We also have to redefine success in this culture.

The truth is, I don’t actually mind if my kids have homework, AS LONG AS IT TURNS THEM ON TO LEARNING, and as long as it isn't just a spewing out of facts, and as long as it doesn’t consume their whole evening, weekend or holiday. But what I've observed over the last ten years is that their homework usually does TURN THEM OFF to the subject and it's usually a teacher-created exercise focusing on how well they follow directions rather than on how they synthesize and use information. I've only seen a few really inspired assignments through the years.

Sadly, what usually happens is this type of scenario: After doing a time-consuming English project last June, my older son said, “I’m so glad that’s done because now I don’t have to read another book until next year when school starts.” That was a perfect example of a homework assignment that killed the joy of learning (and reading!).

I hear comments like this from my kids much more often than I hear comments about how excited they are about what they are learning in school. The things that excite them in school are their friends, the extra-curriculars, and the precious few days without homework.

As I sit here typing, my son (who is doing his homework) just said "I hate school. But school wouldn't be that bad if we didn't have homework. Why do we have homework on the weekends?"

I rest my case.


  1. Although I haven't read Toronto's homework policy, from my understanding of their underlying social culture I can imagine why Kerry liked it. This offers yet another opportunity to look at how we participate (or don't) in our culture: My daughter was about 3 or 4 when Power Rangers started on US TV. That was 1around 1993,and Power Rangers was one of the first violent cartoons US producers offered for preschoolers. Canada's response? Parents and other adults rose up en mass and protested, and Power Rangers was banned from Canadian TV stations. I commend Kerry for her ability to work within the confines of that homework committee to push the envelope a bit, at least. I think that's our lot (those of us here in the US) - to work within a pretty dense system to help to move it forwards.

  2. It's nice to see you highlighting Kerry's work. If parents would show the same initiative as Kerry, our children would be much better off.

  3. I think this is my favorite new guideline: 5. Long term assignments should be limited in number and duration. Project based assignments should primarily be undertaken and completed in the classroom. Some portions of projects may be assigned as homework; however, these tasks should not require group participation, significant assistance from parents or costly materials. These assignments should include clear check points to monitor progress toward completion.
    I've just told my 4th grader's teacher that we will not be participating in the mandatory book report projects due once a month. Each month, the project itself is different, but absolutely none of them are actual book reports. Instead, there's the Book in a Bag, Diorama, Fast Facts, etc. Not to mention, they're supposed to read on specific topics.
    Instead, I've just told my daughter to read 15 minutes a night.

  4. Bravo, April! Good for you and your kids! I am glad Kerri's work is helping in making rational policies in more than just her hometown. I would be interested to hear if you have had any backlash or upsetting consequences. Hopefully it only has the consequence of getting the teacher to rethink the homework policy.

  5. My son is in first grade at a Denver charter school and has had homework twice so far this year. Last night we worked on this second homework piece together, which was a math game. We took turns dropping 15 pennies, organized them into patterns of two or three to make counting faster and easier, and charted how many heads or tails we got. It was a fun game that helped reinforce counting, pattern-making, and other math strategies, and we also had a discussion comparing the results and how many similarities and differences there were. My son was excited and engaged the whole time. Last week on the drive to school, he exclaimed, "I wonder what we're going to learn about today!" It warmed my heart, and I know that this is most certainly a school that encourages that thirst for knowledge that we are hoping to continue to foster in our children.
    In comparison, my brother's kindergarten-age daughter goes to the European Academy, a highly regarded school in Florida. She comes home with a stack of worksheets every day that she didn't finish at school, so they must be done as homework. Completing her work is already an issue, and I can see enjoyment of learning fading as punishment looms if she doesn't fulfill her duties as a student. This is the kind of busywork that serves no purpose but to suck the desire to learn from a young child.
    I think occasional homework that is designed to reinforce skills spoken about in the classroom and continue an educational discussion at home is well worth the time spent, but otherwise does more harm than good.

  6. Great example of homework that is meaningful, engaging, and brief, Annie! That is the way it should be!