In my last blog entry, I wrote about how parents in Davis, California, welcomed their new school Superintendent with a letter asking him to meet to discuss homework policy. Last week, 5 parent representatives met with the Director of Curriculum and the Associate Superintendent. Here’s what one of the parents told them:
My name is Ruth Santer. I have an 8th grade daughter and a 4th grade son.
First, I want to thank you for agreeing to meet and listen to us. I am very grateful for the help you provided dealing with a teacher whose demands exceeded the district homework standards. That particular situation is symptomatic of an overall trend in Davis that I think needs to be examined. Davis schools are justly renown for their high academic standards, and that is the primary reason my family lives here. I am sure we have the same goal; to make the schools the best they can be. We all want that for our children.
However, I believe that in one area we are moving in the wrong direction. The amount of time we expect our children to spend on homework is too high. Instead of enhancing their education, it is detracting from it. We ask that the district review and revise the current homework policy to lower the maximum amount of homework allowed across all grades.
I am no stranger to academic achievement. I was raised by two PhDs and I attended Yale University and married a fellow Yalie. But I do not believe that more homework equals greater academic achievement. I also know that a life without balance is a recipe for stress and disengagement, whether one is 6, 13, or 45. And a heavy homework load on top of a full day at school is a recipe for an unbalanced life skewed entirely towards academics. Our children’s mental and physical health is at stake.
Davis parents, like many nationwide, want their children to keep up academically with our global economic competitors, enter today’s demanding job market, and get into top universities. But reliance on homework to achieve these goals is based on scant evidence of it’s effectiveness. No study has ever demonstrated any academic benefits to doing homework for kids in elementary school and only moderate value for kids in junior high and high school.
And the most recent research shows that schools in countries with high test scores like Japan, actually give little, if any homework. Families that want their children to do extra academic work, like families that want their children to practice an instrument or go to religious services, are always free to do so, but it is entirely voluntary.
Some people feel that homework has non-academic advantages: that it builds character, creates good work and study habits, and gives kids self discipline and responsibility. There are other ways these benefits can be achieved. Family activities such as learning to cook dinner with parents or participating in the duties of a household prepare a child for a future as a responsible, capable adult. Physical activity teaches discipline and hard work. Pursuing one’s own interests teaches self discipline. No adult would want to come home after a long day at work and immediately sit down to hours more of the same work. Why should we ask our children to do this? Such demands make even the most motivated learners bored and disengaged.
We, and many other parents like us, prefer allowing their children unscheduled time to play, read, relax and unwind. These activities develop children’s interpersonal skills and their creativity and allow them to discover what truly engages them. Independent thought is the basis for the entrepreneurial spirit our society has been known for. The current trend seems guaranteed to squelch that, and I read stories of kids going off to college unable to take care of themselves or think for themselves and see the roots of that problem in our overburdened young kids. Families, not schools, should determine how a child spends their time at home.
As a parent I have a limited amount of time with my child, and less and less during the teen years. We send our children to school for a huge proportion of their waking hours, and we ask that our rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness are respected when the children leave the school premises.
Only we can understand how much sleep our children need, for example. The average 8th grader need 9.25 hours, but my daughter needs 10. She almost never gets it during the school week, and her health is suffering. Last year she came down with pneumonia right after a period of the most intensive homework we have yet seen. She normally has 2.5-3 hours of homework each night. Much is repetitive busy work. She was recently asked to memorize part of the periodic table, which even my father, a microbiologist, recognized as a waste of time for someone her age. Her time would be much better spent reading a book of her choice, as independent reading is a great basis for achievement.
If she were to immediately sit down to her homework the moment she got home at 3:30, she could perhaps manage to get to bed at a decent hour, but it should come as no surprise that she needs a break. She needs to clear her head by eating a snack, talking to friends and family, or reading a book for pleasure. She especially would like to spend time on her passion (designing and sewing clothes), something she can’t do at school since she has a heavy academic load including a foreign language and music. If she does some of those things and eats dinner with us every night (the best indicator of future success in life according to many studies) and starts her homework after dinner, she’s up till 11. She then must wake up at 6:30 to get to school.
Worst of all is that she rarely feels she can afford to go swimming, since she is then too tired to do her homework. She is genetically likely to be overweight unless she exercises, and I find it very disturbing that she has to make the choice between being a conscientious student and building the basis for a lifetime of healthful habits. Lack of sleep is extremely detrimental to a student’s ability to learn, yet sleep deprivation seems built into our current system.
I ask that we seriously overhaul our district’s homework standards. 1.5 hours should be the maximum amount of homework per night at any level, and elementary students should have significantly less, if any at all. The assignments should add to the learning experience and not be busy work that alienates the students. Reading time and math and writing practice make sense in small doses past 3rd grade, but 40 minutes a night for 4th graders is far too much. In the upper grades, long-term projects that engage the students in creative or analytic thought are enjoyable and valuable, and coordination and communication about these projects among teachers in junior high and elementary schools could help prevent overload.
While this is being considered I ask that the current standards be more widely publicized and enforced. Every new teacher and parent should be made aware of the standards and it should not be necessary for infractions to go all the way to you for review. Too many teachers feel that they are exempt or that the district standards are minimums, instead of maximums.
Thank you for your attention.