Teachers: Don’t Assign Parents Homework

The New York Times asked me to write an op-ed about a high school teacher who was assigning homework to his students’ parents. But the op-ed was killed after the School Board publicly disavowed the teacher’s actions. Here’s what I submitted:

Unpublished Op-ed
Teachers: Don’t Assign Parents Homework
by Sara Bennett

Damion Frye, a ninth-grade English teacher in Montclair, NJ, suddenly found himself famous a couple weeks ago for assigning mandatory homework — not to his students, but to their parents. His school board has since expressed disapproval of the mandatory aspect, but Mr. Frye may want to do a little homework of his own before finding new ways to keep parents involved in their children’s education. While all parents want their children to develop — socially, emotionally, and intellectually — school-imposed assignments on parents are not going to help. Instead, such assignments cut into, or even eliminate, the few cherished evening hours or minutes that parents have with their children — time better spent lingering at the dinner table, for example, engaged in a good conversation.

In fact, unlike homework, there is a strong association between teens who regularly sit down to dinner with their families and academic success. Family dinner also leads to better psychological adjustment and lower rates of alcohol use, drug use, sexual behavior, and suicidal risk. Needless to say, teens’ diets are healthier as well.

When my co-author and I researched our book on homework, we discovered that most teachers, and I bet Mr. Frye is one of them, don’t know that. I’d be willing to bet Mr. Frye isn’t aware of studies finding little or no correlation between homework and achievement in elementary or middle school. Even in high school, “overloading [students] with homework is not associated with higher grades.”

My co-author and I also never found a teacher who had taken a course on homework nor a school of education that offers such a course. No wonder Mr. Frye says he took his idea for family homework from a kindergarten teacher, rather than from research-based practice. Too bad he doesn’t at least learn from teachers like Phil Lyons, an Advanced Placement economics teacher in Palo Alto, California, who assigns no homework at all but whose students love his class, love learning, and ace the AP exam.

If Mr. Frye had children of his own, he’d know that the needs of kindergartners and high schoolers are vastly different. And while the kindergarten teacher shouldn’t be assigning homework to parents either, or to her students for that matter, at least she knows that her students are incapable of doing the work on their own. But if some of the stated goals of homework are to be realized — fostering responsibility, self-discipline and motivation — then high schoolers must do their homework themselves.

Mr. Frye should be applauded for wanting to learn from his students’ parents, but rather than seek their opinions of Franz Kafka or Walt Whitman, he’d do better to listen to what they know as parents — that their high schoolers would be better off with more time to sleep, more time with friends and family, more time reading for pleasure, more time pursuing their passions. As the Palo Alto teacher discovered, students do best when they have the time to balance schoolwork with intellectual pursuits of their own choosing.

Mr. Frye has a lot to learn about the families themselves as well. Most parents are already overwhelmed. It must be hard for a young, childless teacher to imagine how there could be nightly struggles over homework or why his homework might be unwelcome. After all, he’s not juggling the demands of the workplace with grocery shopping, cooking, and laundry for a full household, nor is he trying to squeeze in time to spend with each of his children.

Moreover, isn’t it a little presumptuous of Mr. Frye to assume that he knows better than parents how they can best communicate with their own children? We’ve had our children’s entire lives to establish our own unique relationships.

So why do so many of Mr. Frye’s parents comply — ostensibly happily? My guess is fear. Fear of the threatened lower grade, fear of being labeled a troublemaker, and fear of being seen as anti-education, uninvolved, or uninterested. Further, most parents, regardless of their own educational background, assume that teachers know best when it comes to academics, and fail to rely on their own common sense.

The executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals has gone on record as calling Mr. Frye’s idea “great.” So what’s next? Before you know it, we’ll be factoring quadratic equations, writing speeches, building bridges, and doing abdominal crunches for all of our children’s teachers. If that’s the case, while I’m getting to know my children through homework, their teachers can get to know my children better, too. Mr. Frye: By next Monday, I’d like a short report on what you learned as you drove them to their practices and performances, ate dinner with them, and chatted with them before bed. Just two paragraphs will be fine. After all, I have two children and I know there are other families who will be making the same request.

16 thoughts on “Teachers: Don’t Assign Parents Homework

  1. My district gives little homework activities to kids to do with their parents–completely unrelated to curriculum. The idea is to teach parents to talk to their kids. Before I started teaching, I resented the assignments and refused to do them. They were silly, with far less depth than the conversations we had on our own, without “homework help.” And how dare educators assume that I need their help to know how to talk with my child. As a teacher, I’ve found that many, many parents share my opinion of these assignments. I’m finding that educators too often overstep their bounds when trying to involve parents in their children’s education. To many educators assume parents need their help in parenting. Unfortunately, in the rare instances where that is the case, all the homework in the world is not going to help.

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  2. crank dat souja boy!!!! dont assign homework yo! that is whack like crack!!!!! homework has to go fo sho!!!! holla at ur gurl!! (or guy)

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  3. Mr. Frye does have children, and this article is totally absurd. Giving parents homework helps get parents involved with their children is doesn’t pull them away from there child it brings them closer and opens up conversation. The way this article is written makes it sound like the articles in the paper were against Mr. Frye giving parents homework, but infact it was the exact opposite the paper was praising his methods.Next time you write and article learn your facts first. You are the one that needs to do your homework Sara. P.S. This line is completely ridiculous. “Before you know it, we’ll be factoring quadratic equations, writing speeches, building bridges, and doing abdominal crunches for all of our children’s teachers.”

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  4. It is a shame that your article was not published; you speak for a great many parents – myself included. The scores of sheets of homework requiring little more than multiple choice, repetition and timed activities irk me greatly. Not only do they interrupt what little time in the evenings (I am a working mother) that I do get to spend with my child, in my opinion, they force him into a thought structure that seems meant to produce automatons rather than encourage true problem-solving and synthesis of information into coherant thought. I am an educated, involved parent, and am continually looking for ways to interact with my child through different types of media, constantly encouraging him to answer his own questions through sound research and synthesis. It seems to me that the homework that I see – and this is elementary school work, mind you; an hour or more a night of it – is the antithesis of what we should be encouraging our children to be – free, in-depth thinkers who can synthesize many different ideas into coherent thought and belief. I am resentful of the time that this poor excuse for ‘curriculum matter’ is taking away from our family time. I feel it is just as important for my child to develop interpersonal relationships and social skills with outside activities and family interaction. A well-rounded, intelligent, well-adjusted, contributing member of society is my goal as parent. And it is the opinion of this mother that all of this homework is hindering that goal. Thanks again for giving us “slacker parents” a voice.

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  5. Ironic. You speak of Mr. Frye doing his homework, the same could be said for you. I urge you to fact check before taking an authoritative stance. Your piece is riddled with assumptions. First, he is a black man, from a socieconomically diverse family, a father himself…I could go on and on. The fact is, you ASSUMED that he was a young, white middle class guy who was shooting from the hip in his teaching. Second, you question his theoretical research. He is a doctoral candidate at Columbia. Hmmm…still think he is i?

    I can see why the Times wouldn’t publish this. As a person of color, your blind assumptions about the “other” are deeply troubling to me. Your lack of knowledge and comfort speaking blindly on this man is reminiscent of the same type of ignorance that has fueled speculation about Obama, etc.–people construct assumptions about someone based on their own assumptions about race. In this case, you did so because his race and socioeconomic status wasn’t visible to you. You just assumed he was a young, childess, teacher who was unaware of the complexity of families lives outside of school.

    I don’t make assumptions about you–based on your pictures, theoretical stance, etc. You too should think, before assuming

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  6. This conversation is fascinating. As an English teacher myself I ran across an article lauding Mr Frye as one of the best teachers in the country. He has been selected to receive $125,000 salary to teach at a new charter school in NYC. I was curious to learn more about him and stumbled on this article. I can see a little of both sides of this coin. I think that involving parents is essential to successful teaching. I have done a little journal activities between parents and students and have run across resistance to simply communicating with a child from an angry parent resenting being asked to do anything resembling homework. In one way it sounds like those who side with the “No Homework” voice are being a little whiney. However, as a working mother of two – I hear the call for assignments not to be too lengthy. I am curious that the author of this article did not mention the length of the assignments or the topic choice. One of the reasons I teach is because I get to continue to learn. I learn from students every day. It makes me sad to hear parents complain about learning. Reading and reflecting can be good things. Good things to share with your children.
    I am confused with many of these responses. This looks like a pretty old article anyway. I am writing at it is summer of 2009!
    I wonder if any attitudes have changed over the years.

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  7. I am shocked that parents have such a negative position on homework. They complain that it takes away from family time. How much of this family time is actually spent doing “family things” or are the parents just irritated that they have to actually help their children do home work. Here is a novel idea, actually helping the children succeed, you chose to have the children, now be a parent!!

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  8. I guess it depends on how you view parenthood. I do not see parenthood as a role where I blindly follow the rules of others and do to or with my child whatever is prescribed by someone else. I read books. I do research and lastly I trust my gut. If what is being suggested for my child sound like something in their best interest…I’ll go along with it. Otherwise I question it.

    Since I see no research on why 10 minutes of homework per grade is required for success in elementary school, I question it. So far no one has given me a good reason for it…my child is too tired at the end of the day to do it, the tasks are arbitrary, and they require my involvement because the child can’t read the instructions. How is that beneficial to her learning?

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  9. Mr. Frye’s assignments were not arbitrary at all, they were interesting, thought provoking assignments that required parents to talk with their child. My child had Mr. Frye as a teacher, and left his class loving English as a subject, and continued to excel in English into college. Mr. Frye was my child’s favorite teacher, and people’s views of him should not be clouded because of his teaching methods. Mr. Frye is a great teacher and person.

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  10. This article lacks research and cites incorrect information. Mr. Frye has two young children, both of whom are in school, and is fully aware of the hardships of balancing a family and work. These assignments barely take 10 minutes, they can simply be responding to a quote, or adding a sentence to a story authored by the other parents in the class. These homework assignments only count for 3% of a quarterly grade – hardly anything. Mr. Frye’s assignments were not arbitrary at all, they were interesting, thought provoking assignments that required parents to talk with their child. My child had Mr. Frye as a teacher, and left his class loving English as a subject, and continued to excel in English into college. Mr. Frye was my child’s favorite teacher, and people’s views of him should not be clouded because of his teaching methods. More often than not, his class/homework was the subject of many great dinner conversations. Before you go attack a great teacher, do some research, and get your facts straight.

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