First Monday

This coming Monday is the first Monday in June. As suggested in The Case Against Homework, and in this blog every month, I recommend that every parent send a note expressing her/his views on homework to teachers, administrators, or School Board members on the first Monday of every month.

This Monday is the perfect time to let your child’s teacher know how you feel about summer homework. You can use some of the information from this week’s guest blog entry as fodder for why a vacation is so important. And now is a good time to find out what your school’s policy is on summer homework. (Last year, I co-authored an op-ed for The New York Times on summer homework. After the op-ed was published, I found out that the student who’d been assigned the most homework of all actually came from a school that had a policy against summer homework. Here’s the text of the op-ed.)

No More Teachers, Lots of Books
June 19, 2006

SCHOOL is letting out for the summer, the final bell signaling the precious, unadulterated joy that comes with months of freedom stretching out ahead. But for many students that feeling will never come. Instead, summer these days often means more textbook reading, papers, exams and projects. It’s called ”vacation homework,” an oxymoron that overburdens our children and sends many back to school burnt out and sick of learning. Last summer, for example, students at one charter school in the Bronx were assigned 10 book reports, a thick math packet, a report on China including a written essay and a handmade doll in authentic costume and a daily log of their activities and the weather. Their parents say they are hoping this summer will be different, but who knows what drudgery will be assigned now that they’ve finished second grade?

An anomaly? Hardly.

Fifth and sixth graders in a Golden, Colo., public middle school are required to keep a journal on a different math topic each week this summer, read three books and complete a written and artistic report on two of them.

And what about high schoolers — just a little light reading to ease teenage angst? One ninth grader we know was assigned a packet of materials on the Holocaust. Another must read a 656-page book on genocide, on top of three chapters of a science textbook followed by a 15-page take-home exam, prepare a 20-slide PowerPoint presentation and complete an English assignment involving three books and essays.

All parents want their children to be happy, healthy and competitive in a highly competitive world. But is year-round homework — or the nightly homework marathons during the school year, for that matter — the way to achieve it?

As adults know, a break from work is a necessary antidote for stress. We need what psychologists call ”consolidation,” the time away from a problem when newly learned material is absorbed. Often we return from a break to discover that the pieces have fallen into place. Too many of our children today are denied that consolidation time. And when parents are told that their children’s skills will slip without summer homework, we have to wonder: if those skills are so fragile, what kind of education are they really getting?

In fact, there’s serious doubt about whether homework has any benefit at all. Most studies have found little or no correlation between homework and achievement (meaning grades and test scores) in elementary school or middle school. According to Harris Cooper of Duke University, the nation’s leading researcher on the subject, there is a clear correlation among high school students, but he warns that ”overloading them with homework is not associated with higher grades.”

Yet very few teachers have ever taken a course on homework or know what the research shows, and many told us homework assignments are an ”afterthought.”

Another claimed benefit of homework — instilling responsibility and self-discipline — is undermined when homework is so overwhelming that parents routinely have to help their children every step of the way.

In fact, most experts believe reading is the most important educational activity. Yet a poll released last week by Scholastic and Yankelovich found that the amount of time youngsters spend reading for fun declines sharply after age 8. The No. 1 reason given by parents: too much homework.

So, what’s a parent to do? While it might be too late to challenge this summer’s assignments, it’s not too early to gather like-minded parents and get a head start on changing next year’s policy. If your children just can’t bear taking that Holocaust folder on vacation, give them permission not to read it and promise you’ll take it up with teachers or school administrators in the fall. Encourage your children to read, play games, write stories and even experience a little boredom. It might just bring out their innate creativity.

In 2000, parents in Arlington, Va., banded together and took complaints about summer homework to the school board, spurring an overhaul of the district’s policy. More parents around the country should stop complaining to each other and let school officials know that they won’t stand by as large parts of our sons and daughters’ childhoods are stolen for no good reason. Our children will grow up happier and healthier — and perhaps even have time to read a good book.

14 thoughts on “First Monday

  1. I agree with the homework issue. Sometimes kids are so stressed about getting this done that they do not know how to relax. highschoolers are usually getting part time summer jobs and they do not need to be concerning themselves with summer homework. What can be done to stop this madness and is the the future??

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  2. Hi,

    I am a secondary school teacher from Romania. I find that educational system around the world has similar problems. Their origin is in
    1- the confusion of the decision makers facing the rapid changes of society (as results of ‘globalization’ and of the internet),
    2 – the confusion produced by the need to set a balance between freedom and discipline, rights and responsibilities
    3 – the bureaucratic pressure put on the teachers, subjects to sterile and overburdening tasks (a huge stack of useless reports), a policy that is transfered further on the students.

    The dissatisfaction with the school system (whatever it is) isn’t new – it is documented through the centuries by personal memories and by improvement experiments. But this dissatisfaction comes stronger from creative personalities and from dumb persons too. The motivation of the complaints is different and not always justified.

    The homework/the individual learning and practice has to be tailored to the NEEDS and to the NATIVE APTITUDES of the student.
    A class shouldn’t have more than 15 students, if we really want to focus our attention on everyone.

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  3. On my friend Cory Doctorow’s recommendation, I bought a copy of your book and have read most of it. (I’m on page 259.)

    I was startled to read Lisa Jacobson’s remarks on pp. 71-72 concerning her experience with her son’s 4th grade teacher in the Chappaqua, NY public schools. My son is a 4th grader in the Chappaqua public schools and I’ve heard much the same speech from his teacher, though the speech I got didn’t involve the child’s duty to support local real-estate values by scoring well on standardized tests.

    We’ve had an experience nearly identical to what she describes. The Chappaqua Central School District has relatively sane OFFICIAL policies concerning homework. But as nearly as I can tell, based on many conversations with school officials, they have no interest in enforcing the policies.

    We got an emergency psychiatric evaluation for our son which documents the damage being done by the homework situation. We’ve got a lawyer. And we’ve requested a meeting with the Committee on Special Education. (My son is extremely bright, but has learning disabilities.)

    By reputation, we live in one of the best school districts in the country, ranking #8 in the last US News & World Report list of the nations 100 best public high schools I read (2001?). But the district seems to be pursuing this reputation on the backs of some very fragile elementary school children. My neighbor pulled her child, in the same grade as Peter, out of the Chappaqua schools at the end of third grade and sent her to a private Montessori school, largely because our school puts too much pressure on the kids.

    We are looking around for alternatives, but the schools that seem most appropriate for our son are very expensive. Lisa Jacobson is a member of the PTA for the middle school our son is slated to attend as a 5th grader. I should probably give her a call before our meeting to find out if her experience with the middle school has been any better.

    The official district literature claims that the homework load doubles from 4th to 5th grade. If that is truly and unavoidably the case, my son isn’t setting foot there. I’m hoping the CSE will be reasonable.

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  4. Kathryn: I’m curious about the “psychiatric evaluation” which documents the damage being done by homework. How did you get that? I think that’s something that readers of this blog would find particularly interesting. I certainly am.

    Dr. Ken Goldberg, a practicing psychologist in New Jersey, has coined the term homework deficiency disorder and writes about the psychological harm caused by homework, but I haven’t heard of too many kids getting that diagnosis.

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  5. As a High School student, i completly agree with the outline. Homework is redicioulus, and most kids my age have jobs. Between 6-8 hours a day in school, a few work hours, WHERE is the time for time on ones self?
    Weekends are meant to be FREE of school, not slave to it on your only 2 days off. Then theres the summer, i mean, read a book whatever, but sorry, this is summer, im off form school for about 3 weeks, last thing i want to do is read a book that i have no choice in choosing, then go back to school and first day of english “ESSAY DUE FRIDAY” Majority of the work we are learing barely teaches you anything. 11th grade we take the SAT’s, why do we have to stay after school for SAT PREP. why isn’t that a class instead of some rediciulus class nobody cares about?

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  6. I wasn’t looking for a recommendaation of reduced homework from a psychiatric report. Rather, our attorney felt our son was insufficiently diagnosed. She wanted better labels, so she instructed us to get a psych evaluation for purposes of dealing with the Committee on Special Education concerning the homework issue.

    My son was apparently very articulate about how his homework load made him feel. The psychiatrist called the school psychologist, who told him that the homework problem had been solved by an arrangement allowing our son to come in for extra help 2 mornings a week. He mentions her claim, but specificly recommends a reduction in my son’s homeowrk load.

    We did not get the kind of labelling our attorney was after, because the scatter pattern in my son’s test scores does not fit a familiar model. Instead, he recommended a nerropsychological evaluation.

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  7. The Homework Deficiency Disorder site is interesting. The key passage for me is this one:

    When homework non-compliance is misconstrued as a behavioral rather than an educational problem, it forces parents to use their disciplinary card on behavior the child can’t change. It’s axiomatic that good discipline is discipline that isn’t used again. Battles over homework compromise parental authority on issues they had no authority to define, with cascading negative effects to other issues where their wisdom and judgment is needed. At the same time, the child starts to lose that feeling of sanctuary he desperately needs after spending an exhausting day at school.

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  8. Wow I can not beleive this is an issue! Homework is good. Yes it does take some of your personal time and home time but that’s why one must learn time management. It sickens me of the not so smart humans out there and if we remove homework the humans are only going to get more dumbfound! Look at my spelling it’s not the best nor is my grammar but i took the lazy road (never did my homework) Yes i’m one of those crazy morans who rome this earth.
    no can you imagine a school full of rebulous teens with my eduction level! now think about your retirement! you think they are going to care about SS? do you really think they will.
    I do understand it’s hard balence a 40 hour work week then to go home and care for a family!

    Over all as we all get older each generation is getting Lazier and Lazier.. less intelligent and most are followers afraid due to consences to be who they want to be! SAD!
    but everyone is sooooo busy looking for the short cut throught life! I know of a great one and he just got out of prison.

    Eduction is our foundation of who we are! look at other countrys how about the country with one of the largest populations i think it is china?? i think! but they are highly education! and if you use your head you will find out that they are slowing doing everything by the book but are steal a lot of stuff right under your nose!

    I mean how can anyone get upset from learning!
    now with work loads I don’t think they should send a so much homework one is overwelmed but they should do enought to keep them off the streets!
    Aww so your poor child didn’t get to go outside and play to day to get out of your hair… looks like you are helping your child learn! what will help your child get what they one.. a swing for instent gradifacation or education for life!

    you can feed a man for one day with a fish but if you teach him to fish he is feed for life!

    that metophore applies here more then any other time!

    as for summer home work a yearly book report should be done I am 28 years old look out i spell… wow! I really think that would of helped me be a better human for this earth and my community! I never liked to read but if i had a hole summer to read a 200 paged book and to right a 5 paged paper maybe i wouln’t have this problem now!
    cuz now i work 40 hours a week have a family to care for a house hold to run and decorate now i have to go take class to fix what is broken where is the time! I wish i would of been pushed even harder with education.. then in my prime time of my life I wouldn’t have to worrry if i forget anything if i left the stove on how much my bills are how i’m going to pay them.. if i would of had that as a child my worry would of been “WHINE when can i see my friends.. oh i get 4 hours on the weekends each days

    that’s much more then i get now!

    Thank you for sharing your views! even though i don’t agree!

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  9. Sara: I did get in touch with Lisa Jacobson, who as it turned out was very reassuring.

    Her son did indeed go to the same school my son is currently attending. She said that the homework load at the middle school turned out to be much more reasonable than it had been in elementary school.

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  10. . . . and so the continuing saga of our adventures with Douglas Grafflin Elementary School in Chappaqua, New York. Last night my son told me over dinner that a special education teacher that works with him had threatened to keep him in from recess on the day yearbooks are distributed and signed if he did not complete his homework on those days (or catch up on back homework, or some such).

    And so I wrote to his teacher this morning protesting that this was not in keeping with his IEP that not only requires that he be given reduced homework but also gives him PT for low muscle tone and time from the school psychologist because he has difficulty making friends.

    As I said previously, the school does not enforce its official homework policies as written in the student handbook. However there is a SECRET homework policy, not described in the handbook, which is that students who do not complete their homework will be kept in from recess. His teacher feels that though this policy is not written down, since it is near-universal, she must enforce it.

    This seems to me really unreasonable. It seems to me that we have grounds to pull him from the school for the rest of the year. I suppose we ought to consult our lawyer before doing that. But why is it that only the secret policies are enforcable? That strikes my husband and I as quite nots.

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  11. It seems as though you’re in a good position to talk to the principal about the “secret” homework policy. If you want your son to have recess (and shouldn’t every parent want their children to have recess), that’s a very reasonable request and one I’d think the principal would back you up on. This year, there’s been so much written about the importance of play. In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report on the importance of play because ” “free and unstructured play is healthy and – in fact – essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.” (Take a look at this blog post.) David Elkind’s book, The Power of Play was published. And, the New York Times has had several articles recently on the importance of play. It’d be hard for your principal to argue that recess isn’t crucial.

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  12. I am a college adviser and do not have children. That being said, I have some concerns with the discussion of this post and the comments it has elicited. One of the greatest shocks recent college graduates find once they are truly working full time is that work frequently follows them home, and they have to work every day, all year round. Based on my students’ comments (both former and current), I believe that part of this transition shock comes from the expectation set by our current educational practice of 9 month school years with intermittent vacations of longer duration. I don’t necessarily advocate for moving our current system to a year round basis, but I think some thought should be given to looking at the expectations in terms of days that school currently provides.

    Along the same lines, then, I don’t believe that some summer homework is out of line, especially in the higher school years. Summer homework need not be tedious, but could be crafted in such a way as to allow students the flexibility to learn at their own pace over the summer and keep the intellectual stimulus going while school is not in session. For instance, the essay due on the first Friday of the school year could be on one of a number of books, giving the student an option of reading materials. Or the essay could be a serious reflection of some activity they completed over the summer; if they went on a vacation, the essay could ask them to think about the [environment, culture, literature, etc, depending on the appropriate subject] and how it is different than or similar to their daily lives. Or the essay could simply ask them to discuss one thing they learned over the summer that is important to their lives.

    Finally, there is definitely merit to doing things on a daily basis, whether in or out of class. At the college level, math professors and graduate students continually explain that the best way to learn the subject is to practice problems on a daily basis. Similarly, the decline of reading outside of the classroom (including novels and stories read for homework assignments) has led to a significant decline in new college students’ ability to write at a college level. Reading and reading comprehension are substantial contributors to writing abilities, and reading is an activity that is well suited to time out of class.

    I’m not dismissing the claims that there is too much homework in today’s K-12 system, nor am I dismissing the studies showing that homework does not necessarily contribute to learning. I am, however, trying to provide a perspective on future educational situations that might be impacted by doing away with homework alltogether.

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  13. I appreciate your measured comments, College Adviser.

    There were many reasons I became concerned about homework, but one was the decline in reading, writing, and analytical thinking skills I saw among law students and interns I worked with. When I taught appellate writing and advocacy skills in law school, I was astounded by the poor writing skills of students who were in a graduate program.

    When my own children started school, I realized that homework was at least part of the problem. My children were getting so much homework and had so many school-related tasks, that it interfered with their personal reading time. And, so much of their homework was meaningless, it just seemed unconscionable to let it take over their waking hours–hours better suited to intellectual endeavors of their own choosing.

    Of course, as I began to research, I discovered that there’s no correlation between homework and achievement in the elementary school years, that achievement is measured in very narrow terms (teacher-created tests and grades), that teachers have never studied homework, and that most homework assignments have very little educational value.

    If we truly want our students to be prepared for college and life, homework as it currently exists is not the answer. As homework loads have increased over the past few years, students seem to be getting less and less literate. Doing more and more of what we’ve been doing (even though it isn’t working) is a mistake. Instead, like you, I’m interested in contributing to a discussion on what could work.

    My contribution is this: give children the time to explore their passions and instill a love of learning. Don’t be so concerned about the distant future.

    After all, as one wise psychologist whom I interviewed for The Case Against Homework told me, “”We wouldn’t dream of saying to our 16 year old daughters, ‘Pretty soon it’s going to be time for you to be having sex, so I think you better get started right now. If you don’t get started right now, then you’re not going to be ready.’ But when it comes to work-related tasks, we think we have to push our children from the time they enter school. We overwhelm them and burden them with adult responsibilities that they’re not ready for. We know we have to protect our children from some adult responsibilities and privileges but for whatever reason we’re blind to that when it comes to work.”

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