Good News to Start off 2009–Private School Changes Homework Policy after Talk by Alfie Kohn

I recently heard from Alfie Kohn that he spoke to teachers, administrators, and parents at an independent school in the Northwest. After that visit, the lower school division director wrote to the parents:

As a result of Kohn’s visit and our discussions, and after I did even more research from other books and articles from The Center for Public Education, we have decided that we will be changing the default from automatic, nightly or weekly homework to occasional homework. Research shows there are little to non academic benefits or a correlation of improvement in student achievement on younger students (research a little more ambiguous in middle and high school years), especially with one size fits all homework, which often follows the formula of “10 minutes per grade level”.

We do want to encourage, or in fact require, nightly reading for pleasure by all students, as this is one area where there are proven benefits for students. Also, many students can benefit from short but intensive amounts of fact review and practice, especially before bedtime when some studies show the brain repeats patterns and facts during sleep. There will also be some project work to be completed at home, as well as meaningful tasks that cannot be accomplished during school time, such as interviews with family members and additional keyboarding/ typing practice. Fifth graders will also continue with current events, as we feel that this is something that encourages a world view and important life skills. Finally, students who have some learning issues may benefit from focused homework with supervision.

In summary, homework will not be completely disappearing from the elementary school, however we will be much more deliberate and thoughtful about assigning it. If you have not already read Kohn’s book, I recommend you do so, as he definitely challenges many of our long-held assumptions such as homework gets students ready for the next year, reinforces what was learned that day, or teaches them organizational and study skills. It just doesn’t seem to do that at the early years, and I know many parents who have battled with their children over homework each evening will agree.

However, if after thinking about this issue, you still feel that you would like nightly or weekly homework for your child and you strongly believe that there will be benefits for him/her, please speak to your child’s teacher about it, and we will do our best to accommodate you and assign your child additional homework. If not, we urge you to use “homework time” to play word and board games as a family, read the paper, create things, listen to music, play sports, investigate personal interests, cook together, and enjoy your wonderful kids!

10 thoughts on “Good News to Start off 2009–Private School Changes Homework Policy after Talk by Alfie Kohn

  1. Wow. This is terrific. Contrast this letter to the conversation I had with my public school principal:

    Me: Look! Here’s a book by Alfie Kohn where he explains that homework doesn’t accomplish anything in elementary school!

    Ms. Principal: Oh, isn’t Alfie Kohn wonderful! We had him here to speak once.

    Me (completely baffled): um, yeah, I think he’s absolutely right about homework.

    If you think Alfie Kohn is so wonderful, why are you running the school the way you do? For that matter, the private school teacher who took my daughter out of recess for forgetting part of her homework also expressed great admiration for Kohn and said she had read his book. What the …?

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  2. BTW, the above message was from me — it got posted anonymously by mistake.

    Here’s an article in the NYTimes that offers a scary look at the world of the test-driven over-achiever:

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  3. As a teacher at, as well as a graduate from, an elite private girls’ school in the Midwest, I can assure you that taking what you learn in class, bringing it home and applying that knowledge (whether it is to help drill facts that need to become automatic such as elementary age math facts & spelling concepts or to use information you have learned in history class to research and write an indepth analysis of a point in history – as well as rewrite it until it is well done) is what sets students from the best academies apart from students at private schools that are not following a truly rigorous, classical education model. The students from the best academies have the highest acceptance rates at the best universities (even barring legacy students). Our students have near 100% acceptance into the college of their choice (typically picking the best colleges). This is because of their high SAT scores and the fact that they are truly well educated about current events, history and literature. They have also learned to research and write extremely well. These kids go into college and don’t need remedial anything – they test out of freshman writing courses and freshman history courses and have taken AP science and Math, etc.

    This applies to children we have taken in on a needs based basis as well (and they are not all geniuses, trust me – I was one of them).

    I wouldn’t trade the education I had for anything. I read with greater comprehension, understand issues at levels many can’t consider – I am lucky. And I would do all of that homework over again any day.

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  4. That is wonderful, Yana. I seriously doubt it was the homework you were given in elementary school that made you such an outstanding person.

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  5. Yana writes:

    … is what sets students from the best academies apart from students at private schools that are not following a truly rigorous, classical education model.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    We seem to be going in circles on this blog. And Yana, I can’t fault you, you aren’t expected to read every single entry and responses. I was going to suggest you google me on this blog but I just tested it and the only post that comes up is one entry with a reference to me. So if you have time, do read some of my comments, I’ve written amply on this blog.

    The circle I’m referring to is this; We occasionally get a post such as yours, asserting that all that homework was really necessary, even in elementary. So then I counter that I’m not anti-education, in fact you’d be hard pressed to find two parents more passionate about learning, education, discovery, wonder, excellence. And I’m not alone on this blog.

    Well, then I manage to convince the opposition, so that they say, okay, I get it, you are opposed to EXCESSIVE homework, homework overload, if you will. Well, that’s surely a start. If homework was reasonable, Sara Bennett might not have felt as compelled to compose her marvelous book. But Sara delves even deeper, showing us and confirming what we already know — that useless busy work is exactly that, useless.

    I’m with you, Yana. I want my daughter to have a strong in- depth challenging classical education too. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating. When I homeschooled her in 8th grade, we did thirty novels that year. My standards were considerably higher than the middle school we left, considered the best in our county.

    I’ve written before that my daughter’s passions in elementary were reading ravenously, writing a novel and building structures. I’ve said before that the child building leggos in the basement is your future engineer. Homework overload deprives children of self-directed pursuits, it snatches away all that delicious incidental learning such as tripping over a good book Dad left in the hallway and picking it up, becoming so inspired by the Alexander Calder exhibit at the art museum that she can’t wait to go home and make something similar, the fascination with physics at age 8 and pleading to learn about motion. And let’s not forget play. As Maria Montessori said, play is a child’s work.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    The students from the best academies have the highest acceptance rates at the best universities…This is because of their high SAT scores and the fact that they are truly well educated about current events, history and literature.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    My daughter attends a top school. I’m not disputing your connection between a solid education and high university acceptance rates. But the dirty little secret of those elite high schools is how they unduly burden their students. I was just talking to a parent who sends his daughter to an exclusive boarding school as a day student. He bemoaned how she spends entire weekends doing homework and projects and his fears that it will leech all the joy out of learning. It already has. As a senior, she is so burned out, the parents are seriously wondering if they shouldn’t encourage deferred enrollment for a gap year.

    My daughter fights with me to stay up well past her bed time. But she may have bombed on two major tests this week and is quite despondent over it. If I tell her that sleep deprivation is to blame, how will that help? She’s caught between a rock and a hard place. She gets major projects due on major test days and she’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. No matter how much you extol the virtues of all this overload, not one person has successfully convinced me that something really good comes out of all this sleep deprivation. Children (and yes, that includes late adolescents) desperatley need their sleep .They need sleep like food. It should be non-negotiable. It is child abuse to think otherwise.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    They have also learned to research and write extremely well.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    Not if they’re doing it into the wee hours of the morning. In fact, at that point they are cranking it out. One more paper doesn’t make a better writer, it just makes a better crammer. We want our students engaged with their material, thinking critically about what they are learning and composing, not turning into robo-student, bent only on getting it done and getting a good grade.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    These kids go into college and don’t need remedial anything –

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    Believe me, if my daughter got one less paper this semester and much more sleep, I seriously doubt she’d need remedial anything either!

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    I wouldn’t trade the education I had for anything.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    I wish I could rave about my daughter’s education too. And I would if homework didn’t stretch into the night and into every weekend. I simply do not see an upside, all I see is burnout.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    I read with greater comprehension, understand issues at levels many can’t consider –

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    So do I! I went to high school for eight hours a day with about three hours of homework. That sounds pretty intense but doesn’t come close to the amount of time students must put in nowadays. I wouldn’t be the hungry learner I am today if I’d been turned off yesterday.

    And my daughter reads with greater comprehension than most of her peers too. And I can tell you it didn’t come from boring 5th grade homework. It came from all the reading she did when she was supposed to be doing that homework!

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    I am lucky. And I would do all of that homework over again any day.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    Good. Come to our house and do it for my daughter! That way she’ll have time to hone those noble comprehension, research and writing skills we both hold so dear.

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  6. HomeworkBlues,

    I hope your daughter survived and is thriving today.

    I have not taught at a school which assigns more than 2-3 hours of homework per night (except on rare occasions or if you choose to procrastinate) in the middle years and up. Nor did I attend such a school. I was not referring to writing dozens of lengthy papers per year. From what I have seen, the greater the number of papers required by students, the less the students actually learn to write with skill and finesse. Quantity is not quality…the teacher has no time to meaningfully critique for rewrites, so there is little point. However, requiring a student to actually learn how to research well (including reading parts of whole books, skimming entire books, finding journal articles, and true primary sources), collect organized information on that research, review it to determine what has been learned in order to know what can truly be stated about the topic and how that statement can be supported by the research, learning to create a thesis or statement that is neither too broad or narrow, learning how to organize that information in a map or outline, learning how to grow your writing in terms of sentence complexity and simple elegance…that takes time and effort. As well as more than one attempt and in different genres. It also takes more time than is afforded in one hour evey othr day if you have 20 students in your class.

    Students whom I have seen inundated with homework often attend Harkness style boarding schools. Sounds great for students to “do their own learning, discussing and discovering” with the teacher occasionally asking guiding questions…until one realizes how much reading and preparation on the student’s part it takes to teach themselves all about Hamlet and Shakespeare by reading and researching available resources rather than have an informed instructor provide some of that information to them in class during a lecture or class discussion. After all, presumably, the instructor doesn’t need to research it as they already know it because (likely) they had teachers and professors who actually taught. Back in the day. You probably don’t agree with this either, but it does take longer to invent wheels every day rather than have someone walk you through the process. Thus all the extra homework.

    I have, now, taught at several public schools which demand little to no homework of students. The students’ knowledge, skills, and work ethic are pretty abysmal for the most part. Often, half the class fails to meet benchmarks on measures of success. Granted, there is much more to this than just homework (or the nearly entire lack of it)…but I tutor students from public schools who want to take the SSAT again because they scored a 9th percentile the first time overall. Kids who turnout to be capable enough but who have never been challenged to truly apply their minds or their time to learning. Of any kind. It is also very difficult for them to understand that they really do have to work hard and focus for extended periods of time.

    I also think we need to find middle ground on kids following their passion and learning what is assigned. Most jobs, whether in something you are passionate about or not, have rather large elements which are simply required which you don’t like doing, don’t agree with, think are dull, or is busywork a monkey could do. Definitely, by middle school, kids need to learn that you just have to learn to focus, finish, and move on.

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