Interview with New York City Fourth-Grade Teacher who Doesn’t Want to Assign Homework but Doesn’t Want to Break the Rules Either

Today’s interview is with Anthony, who has been teaching for five years at a New York City public school where he is a fourth-grade teacher. He holds a B.A. in Psychology and a Masters in Childhood Education from New York University. This year, he was accepted into Teachers Network Leadership Institute, a “professional community of teachers and educators working together to improve student achievement.” The Institute advocates for changes in policy and gives teachers an active voice in policy-making decisions. His research project for the Institute is homework in elementary school.

Later this month, he is sitting down with the administration at his school to look to develop a meaningful policy. So far, they have all agreed that the research does not support a policy that focuses on ‘time in each subject’ per night. “We want to lessen the load and create more teacher independence in decision-making regarding homework.”

Interview with Anthony
by Sara Bennett

“As a teacher, there’s a tension between what I want to do and what I’m supposed to do. I have to take small steps before I can take big ones. I have to go through the channels, go about it the right way.”

–Anthony, New York City fourth grade teacher

Why did you decide to research homework?
I teach in a very diverse school with a wide range of ethnicities and family economic statuses. Most of my students qualify for free lunch. Homework in elementary grades was a no-brainer of a topic for me. I hear so much about homework: stories from my parents of kids up too late, guidelines for how much to give each night from “above”, my “higher achieving” students asking me “why” they have to do homework, the lack of quality of the assignments, the time to check it taking away from my time in preparing better lessons, and mostly to me, how I’m not seeing its positive effects.

What are your school’s guidelines on homework?

The culture at our school is that homework is expected to be given. We receive a written breakdown of the time students should be spending in each academic area per night. (i.e. 40-50 minutes of reading, 20-30 in math, etc.). Even if you add up the minimum times across five subject areas, it totals 100 minutes per night in the fourth grade. I’ve noticed that as the quantity increases, the quality decreases. It looks like kids are trying to finish it and are not engaged in the assignments”

Do you follow the rules?
I’m in a bind. I’ve spent the last couple of months reading and reading and reading and conducting a literature review to see what the existing research out there has to say. And there’s no showing of a correlation between homework and academic achievement. But. at the same time, I have to follow the rules and make sure I give homework each night. I have to remain fairly consistent with my grade colleagues.

I’ve told my Assistant Principal that I’m studying homework and he’s very open to what I’m doing. He realizes there’s little correlation between homework and achievement and he’s open to having a conversation about what we’re doing and why.

Do you think your students get anything out of the homework?
It depends on the assignment. I try to create more assignments that both meet the requirements of our school’s policy and are valuable at home–assignments that involve students working with their families, communicating, and problem solving. But to a certain extent, a lot of the homework is busywork.

I do encourage my students to read for 30 minutes each night and I want them to read something enjoyable. So I let them choose what they’re going to read.

Do you discipline your students for non-compliance?
No. Luckily, that’s left up to the classroom teacher. I’m not going to stop one of my students from having recess, that’s much too important. I have kids who do less than 5 percent of the homework. I talk to them about why and get a lot of excuses.

However, as professionals, I think we need to stop placing blame on the students (and their parents) who don’t do homework and start looking at why they are not completing the assignments and at the assignments themselves.

Does homework take away from your teaching?
The one thing that’s become more clear to me is how less homework could make an enormous difference to both my students and to me, as a teacher. I don’t think many teachers realize how much time homework takes up–collecting it, checking it, passing it out, disciplining students for not completing it. And I don’t mean checking it to make sure it’s done properly–just to make sure it’s done. We don’t have time to provide feedback.

Given this new push on data, and given all of the testing, it’s a little scary how heavy our duties are. A change in homework policy could help us use our time in so many more effective ways.

Unfortunately, there’s this culture right now that “more is better.” Give the kids more time to write at home, give them more math to do at home, and they’ll get better at it. But we all agree deep down that that’s not logical and probably not even beneficial. We need to think more about the quality of our teaching. What could we be doing, how could we be doing it? What’s being missed? Where’s the breakdown in the learning? That’s what we need to focus on.

20 Comments on “Interview with New York City Fourth-Grade Teacher who Doesn’t Want to Assign Homework but Doesn’t Want to Break the Rules Either”

  1. Felicity says:

    My friend who is a grade school teacher told me this week that homework is one way for the school to tell how the family is doing, that is, if the kid doesn’t do the homework, maybe there are problems at home.

    June 4th, 2009 at 5:54 pm
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  2. HomeworkBlues says:

    Oh, that’s wonderful, Felicity. Good to hear. I have a better idea. Why doesn’t the school just ask.

    Okay, let me get this straight. My daughter is assigned mountains of daily and weekend homework because it’s a way for the school to keep tabs on me? Huh?

    Believe me, whenever my kid didn’t do her homework, no one would care if there were problems at home.
    She merely was docked a grade, lost recess and I got this condescending little note, asking me to sign that she would turn it in the next day.

    June 5th, 2009 at 12:35 am
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  3. FedUpMom says:

    “If the kid doesn’t do the homework, maybe there are problems at home”?

    You know, this burns me up.

    1.) Since when is it the teacher’s business to judge the child’s home life?

    2.) Maybe the homework didn’t get done because the parents realize, correctly, that it’s a waste of time.

    3.) Even if I agreed with the premise that somehow this is a useful window on the child’s home life, would we still have to do it 4 days a week for 9 months of the year?

    Sheesh. Homework overload guarantees that the child doesn’t really have a home life any more.

    June 5th, 2009 at 3:00 pm
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  4. stressed_out_student says:

    Oh my god. You must be kidding. So, when my mum had a migrane and I had to make dinner for the family because Dad was at work earning money, and I didn’t finish my homework, this means that the school assumes there are problems at home? I have amazing, loving parents, and if I don’t finish the work, it’s not because of problems at home, it’s because of the ridiculous workload heaped on me and other students that means I can’t do what I need to (ie. look after my 2 sisters and brother) and keep up at school. Grrrrr!!!!!!!!!! I HATE HOMEWORK!!!!
    STRESSED OUT STUDENT, year 9, age 14

    June 6th, 2009 at 2:23 am
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  5. stressed_out_student says:

    By the way, FedUpMom, I totally agree. I spend so many hours locked up in my room doing work, that my dad actually commented ‘I don’t even know you that well anymore.’ so we took a day off and went to the city. Huh! Laugh at that, dumb school!!! Mwa ha ha! 🙂
    seriously though, how sad is that?

    June 6th, 2009 at 2:26 am
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  6. HomeworkBlues says:

    stressed out, you have a wonderful dad. How lovely he recognized how overworked you are and how little time he has with his “little” girl (you are a girl, yes?). My husband often took our daughter to the city without me and it was their special Daddy Daughter Day. Family outings were called Family Fun Days (couldn’t work in full alliteration on that last one!) and in elementary we threw caution to the wind and took one full day off for family daytrips. My friends would chastise me, doesn’t she have homework? Yup, she does, I’d demur. It’s already stealing our Sunday. I’ll be damned if I’m giving up BOTH weekend days, she’s eight years old!.

    Recently a mom wrote on an education blog that she homeschools because she never had time with her seven year old (seven!), homework consumed their entire afternoon. She wrote, “my daughter is the coolest kid on the planet and I just love spending time with her.”

    Here I am (and I speak for many here), who LOVES LOVES LOVES my child, whose greatest family pleasures have been those outings we rarely have time for anymore but if my daughter doesn’t do all her homework, it signals to the teacher that we have problems at home?

    I once told the teacher, politely, that DD didn’t finish all her homework because we took an all day hike in the frozen woods of Shenandoah National Park (this was February!) and it was healing and restorative. She just looked at me. You think she was thinking, wow, what a cool family, wish all my students had such loving attentive parents, who not only care for their child but spend time with her, talking to her, bonding with her?

    Yea, right. She looked at me and just scowled. She then pursed her lips disapprovingly and clucked, “well, she still has to do her homework.”

    No, she doesn’t, I smirked to myself. My house, my rules. I did add that we’d had long riveting discussions about science and the natural world, studying as we were hiking, that we’d discussed literature and history while walking and laughed and talked for hours? We even wrote poetry about the snow and brilliantly sharp sunset, I added. You think she was impressed? Yea, right again. So much for caring about the family and whether there are problems at home.

    No wonder I homeschooled three years later. Because then when I did do the above, I wrote about it on a homeschool forum the next day and got lots of virtual high fives and loads of encouragement that I could indeed educate my child, my way.

    June 6th, 2009 at 8:50 am
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  7. Anonymous says:

    I lost it with my daughter’s first grade teacher this year.

    The school has NO homework policy in their Student Handbook, the teachers determine how much homework to give (some give none, some give lots – we got the one who gives most), the children have to go to “Study Hall” instead of recess if they don’t finish their work, and it’s excessive.

    After spending 2 HOURS on some silly week long project that she didn’t even care about, I completely blew up and emailed the teacher. I did hold the email for a day to make sure I didn’t say anything too bad.

    The principal responded with the standard “just pack up everything she doesn’t finish in 45 minutes and send it back to school.” Well, no. Then she won’t get recess.

    So, I finally just said, “She’s not doing homework. She will not be kept out of recess. She will not lose any free time. She will not be chastised in any way. You have her 7 hours a day. That’s your job. Deal with it.”

    My daughter is not a “gifted” student, except in my eyes. In fact, she’s classified special needs. But, even with the homework ban at home and very little help from her special ed teacher, she continued to consistently get 100’s on her spelling tests (don’t get me started on that!), her math skills improved dramatically, and she’s reading at an appropriate level.

    Oh, and she excels in gymnastics. She rides a bike without training wheels. She rides a Razor. She’s as fast as the wind and love, love, loves to swim. Anything outside and she’s happy.

    I’m prepared to do this as long as needed. We will not be doing homework. Family time is much more important.

    June 8th, 2009 at 2:03 pm
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  8. High School Soph--oh wait I'm a junior now I guess says:

    Right on, Anonymous!
    How did you get the school to let you do a homework ban without marking your kid down for incomplete assignments?

    practice at home when you don’t understand something = good
    reading an APPROPRIATE amount of a book to be discussed in class the next day = good
    hours and hours of homework in elementary or middle school = BAD
    busy work i.e. homework that just takes up time w. only negligible learning = BAD
    kids will learn stuff by themselves/with their families, too, you know, if you give them the time.

    June 8th, 2009 at 2:25 pm
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  9. HomeworkBlues says:

    You go, mom. Your daughter does not need to be “gifted” to be very special. She sounds darling. My daughter is both, gifted with some special needs (ADD) and has received NO help from the school system. Don’t apologize. She sounds marvelous.

    You go, mom. Get this lovely child outside. Don’t do the homework. Put your foot down. As long as parents clear the table and calendar to make room for homework, as long as families sacrifice everything on the alter of this daily torture, nothing will change.

    We have data. We have research. Homework in elementary school is a huge waste of time. You don’t have time to blow. Your little girl will get more out of life if she does nothing but watch bugs in the grass all afternoon. Preferably with a cold glass of milk and a good book.

    Your home, your rules. Kudos to you for standing up for your child, your family and your collective sanity.

    June 8th, 2009 at 6:02 pm
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  10. stressed_out_student says:

    HomeworkBlues, it made me smile just reading what you wrote. I do love my dad very much and we had a wonderful day together, at the Eureka Tower, learning about the city and taking photos for a school project. Yes, I am a girl… and my dad still does refer to me as ‘liitle’. Lol! I think what everyone just wrote is great… I learnt tons with my dad, not just about factual stuff, but also how to take care of myself around the city and what a great, funny guy my dad is. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun with him.

    June 9th, 2009 at 2:29 am
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  11. stressed_out_student says:

    The reason I never have time of course, is homework! By the way, your family fun days sound like an awesome idea – in my family we don’t really get a lot of time together anymore (homework!!!!!) but every Friday used to be ‘Family Fun Night’ where we would all watch movies and the floor would be coated in popcorn we spilled while laughing.
    Then we’d all sit around the dinner table together and play boardgames… I really miss it. Maybe I should try to get things back on track!
    PS.My mum is planning a day out with me to go shopping soon, while my dad is going to take me to an Anime Convention – sounds geeky, but it’s not! 🙂
    I really do love spending time with them.

    June 9th, 2009 at 2:35 am
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  12. stressed_out_student says:

    pps. (man I’m bad at remembering what I want to say)
    I think it’s really sweet how close you are to your daughter! She’s lucky to have you for a mom.

    June 9th, 2009 at 2:38 am
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  13. HomeworkBlues says:

    Wow, stressed out. You sure I can’t adopt you? You sound lovely and I only have one child! I’d love another girl!

    But you have such wonderful parents too. Not only are you lucky to have them, they are lucky to have you!

    Thanks for the kind words. You know, adults have said those things to me but coming from a teen who recognizes the power of parent-child bonding, it’s even more special

    June 9th, 2009 at 9:38 am
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  14. PsychMom says:

    Way to go Anonymous…that is what I envision doing next year. I’d like for more education to go on for the teachers but if all else fails, my boundaries will be staked out.

    June 9th, 2009 at 2:04 pm
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  15. Shelbz says:

    I don’t understand about your homework petition… I myself go to school and although I dislike homework and occasionally get stressed and pressured by deadlines I kow it’s all good for me. In the future we need to learn to stick to deadlines and home work teaches us tha. It also helps us expand out knowledge from what we have learned in class. If we just did the work in class and didn’t do anything at home then we wouldn’t learn. It also gives our parents the chance to see what we do at school. So can you explain again why homework is bad for us children , when it cleary benifits us later on in life????

    June 15th, 2009 at 2:38 pm
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  16. andrew says:

    It is 11 30 at night and i am up doing homework. When i come home from school, i usually start my homework right away. At around 6, i have gymnastics for two hours. When i get home from gymnastics, i do more homework and then go to bed late. This is my routine everyday. I dont get many breaks besides dinner. It can get pretty depressing. I see no positive effects of homework. It only causes stress and a lack of time spent relaxing in my home.

    November 16th, 2009 at 11:27 pm
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  17. starprincess66 says:

    HomeworkBlues, I love you! i wish my mom was much more relaxed with homework! she was valedictorian in high school, and expects us to be studious too!! i wish she had more common sense like you!!

    April 26th, 2010 at 7:00 pm
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  18. HomeworkBlues says:

    Why thank you, dear! Thanks for the kind words. Please try to have a conversation with your mom about schoolwork. It is possible to be studious and responsible and ethical without burning yourself out. Young people need time to gaze at the clouds, time for self reflection, time to figure out who they are and what they want out of life.

    Those needs are not in conflict with being a good serious student. It’s just that unfortunately our educational system does seem to be out of control. Balance is the key. I know how hard it is to obtain it but I try very hard to keep my values front and center.

    April 26th, 2010 at 7:26 pm
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  19. Anonymous says:

    Andrew,
    Does your homework include being on StopHomework.com? If so, good job! You’re getting it done. If not, maybe commenting on this blog instead of sticking to it is the reason that it takes you so long to do your homework!

    December 18th, 2010 at 7:24 pm
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  20. zee says:

    Well, I already read many journals about homework, and I still getting confused about how to make a qualitative research related to homework (it could be said I need your help or suggestion) for my thesis with the goals: how teacher provides homework, and how students do with their homework
    should I make the observation by recorded camera in the class for the implementation of homework, or should I ask the students to write a diary about their feeling on homework?

    March 20th, 2012 at 7:01 am
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