Guest Blogger: An Unsuccessful Organizing Attempt by a Mother/School Psychologist

Today’s guest blogger is Nini Engel, a school psychologist for almost twenty years in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area. Nini, a mother of three daughters, ages 18, 15, and 11, was appalled to find that her middle daughter’s new high school assigned upwards of 4 hours of homework per night.

An Unsucessful Attempt
Nini Engel, Ed.M

Last fall, my middle daughter started ninth grade at a private, preparatory high school. Within weeks, I was concerned that she was spending four to five hours, Monday through Thursday nights on homework. Sundays were also full of homework. When I contacted the principal last September, she responded quickly and wrote that the school’s policy of 30 minutes per class per night, added up to about four hours per night.

The school did have the ninth grade students log their time for two weeks. At parent teacher conferences in November, we were presented with the data. A pie chart showed that the average child spent three hours per night on homework. The “average” child also spent eight hours per night sleeping. When I countered that my child hadn’t had an eight-hour block of sleep on a weeknight for the past two months, they admitted that weekend sleep totals had been included in the data.
Alright then- that made sense. My daughter slept twelve to fourteen hours on the weekend in exhaustion. I also know that sleep deficits can not be made up in that manner, and that the cumulative effects on mood and learning can be devastating. I also knew that the “three-hour average” included kids like my eldest, who rarely did homework at all.

I’m a school psychologist; I asked myself what the research results on homework were. I read The Case Against Homework and several
articles by Alfie Kohn. I began to catch up on the research and reviews related to homework and to interview the teachers with whom I work. No teacher could recall having had college training devoted to either the development or assessment of meaningful homework. The how-tos and rationale are rarely discussed, and yet parents and students are meant to accept huge amounts of homework as somehow medicinal. It’s a sad truth about many schools, that educational research rarely translates into educational practice. My school district has a reasonable homework policy. However, over the years, I’ve been the broken record (skipping CD?) at my school, about the dangerous practice of grade retention. It’s so ineffective that the National Association of School Psychologists has a position statement against it and yet, every year, I hear well-meaning teachers and administrators talk about retaining children and giving them “the gift of time.”

Well, the gift of time is exactly what many of our students need, but on a daily basis. Time to exercise, chat, relax, read for pleasure, be a part of family life, explore hobbies and extra-curricular activities. They need time to learn to select their own activities, even time to IM and Facebook. Every minute of my life is not productive or educational. Down time allows for consolidation of learning and improves creativity and mood. Do we trust our children so little that we allow them no choices? There’s a word for the state of affairs where one human being’s activities are completely determined by another- “slavery.” I don’t think that’s a word we want associated with our children’s education.

Despite the efforts at our daughter’s school, which included: organization of a parent committee, sharing articles with the school, requesting follow-up meetings, and writing letters to the board, my daughter’s school refused to reexamine their homework policy. Our daughter is attending public high school this fall for tenth grade. Her friends at the public school tend to have about two hours per night of homework. This is still a solid block of time, but to our daughter it will feel like freedom, sweet freedom.

7 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: An Unsuccessful Organizing Attempt by a Mother/School Psychologist

  1. Dear Nini,

    Thanks for writing this piece and for sending it to me. I will forward to my friends with school age children as well.

    Marty Shore


  2. Thanks for this, my daughter doesn’t really have homework at all. I find it interesting that the school wouldn’t budge a bit on their policy. Just like in the workplace, happy employees are productive employees, happy children are productive children. I don’t think 3-4 hours of homework, lack of sleep etc can lead to happiness, or productivity.



  3. i am currently a student at Boston Latin Academy, a college preparatory school, and its a lot like that school. seventh graders alone are expected to do 3-4 hours of homework a night! and its note easy work either. i know a girl, i believe she’s a junior, and as soon as she gets home, she works on her homework until dinner. then, after that, she has still more homework to do. she has little to no free time during the week, and we’ve only been in school a couple of weeks! i really hope this is stopped. its destroying our social health, and it isn’t very good for our physical health, either. i often have to go to bed at midnight, and then i have to wake up at 5:00 to get ready for school. HELP!!!


  4. I’m writing this in response to Connor. I checked your school’s website and they do state a three-hour nightly homework policy. I agree with you that it’s unhealthy and you sound very stressed. Parents and teachers who sign their kids up for homework loads like this usually do it with very good intentions. They want their kids to excel and have every opportunity in their education. I would encourage you to show your parents this website, so they can read more about the problem. My daughter was very tired and overwhelmed last year. I really was concerned for her health. I’m really sorry that you have to deal with this much homework. I hope the adults who love you listen to you. Good luck!


  5. Dear Nini,

    I share your frustration with schools unwilling to change. We have been and are still trying to address the homework issue at our school. We live in a Philadelphia suburb and are in the Methacton school district. My 13-year old son easily has anywhere from 2-4 hours per night. I have seen him stressed with very little downtime, and his motivation for learning decreased. We can truly say that homework is to blame. I am very tired of schools expecting us parents to have our children spend all their out-of-school time on homework. Why do parents not have a say in how their children spend their time outside of school?

    Nancy Sebok


  6. I read your posting with great interest; partly because you describe a typical homework problem, partly because you are a psychologist like me, and partly because we are both in South Jersey. What I find most appalling is not just the school policy per se, X hours of homework per night, but the total disregard for the concept of time. An hour is 60 minutes, not a teacher’s estimate about what the average child should be able to do in an hour. The Department of Labor does not define the full time 40 hour work week as what the average worker should be able to do in 40 hours, but 40 hours by the clock. The teacher who is employed to teach school a set number of hours is not expected to work longer if his or her class underperforms. The notion that children who work slowly should also work longer than the other children actually sets a “sweat shop” standard for children that is no longer tolerated for adults. Further, I think it is a self-imposed affront to professional teachers for them to think that they are not able to adequately teach all children to a level of success using only the time frames that they have. If they truly need a longer teaching day, they should be advocating for school districts to pay for a longer teaching day.

    I find it interesting that you mention NASP. Professor Jay Kuder of Rowan University and I are currently scheduled to present a professional growth workshop on “The Homework Trap” this coming Frebruary at their convention in New Orleans. I’m also making a presentation at the NJ Parent Teacher Association meeting in Atlantic City in November. It seems to me that to change things, there has to be a cooperative effort between parents and the schools, and the best partnership I can imagine would involve parents and school psychologists. After all, if there is one person in the school system who would have the best understanding of the damage homework does to certain children, it would be the school psychologist. Professor Kuder and I are hoping that our workshop will propel the school psychologists who attend to advocate homework relief, at least for children who are hurt most by the system.

    Since we are located in the same genearl locality, I would be interested in discussing further how to change things around.

    Ken Goldberg


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