Guest Blogger – Homework Is an Elaborate Charade–Lots of Quantity and No Quality

Today’s guest blogger, is FedUp Mom, the mother of a sixth grader who used to attend a public school in suburban Philadelphia and now attends a private Quaker school. FedUp Mom’s sixth post, I Hate Reading Logs has received more comments than any other on this blog. You can read her other five posts here, here, here, here and here.

Homework Is an Elaborate Charade–Lots of Quantity and No Quality
by FedUp Mom

People generally talk about homework in terms of quantity, and it is shocking to see how much time kids are spending on it. But I would like to step back and consider the question of quality.

First of all, if we plan to assign a certain amount of homework every night, we’re already in trouble. This is practically the definition of busywork. “We don’t know what schoolwork would be useful for kids to do every night, but we’ll make sure and assign 10 minutes per grade level of this stuff, whatever it might be.” The theory is that 10 minutes per grade level per night will create “good study habits”, but it’s crazy to expect kids to learn good study habits in the absence of anything worth studying.

Take a typical public-school “balanced” classroom. In our nominally high-performing district, each classroom will contain a few gifted kids, a few “problem” kids, and another 15 to 20 kids all over the very large range in between. Then all these kids are sent home with the exact same homework. There’s no way the homework can actually be appropriate for every child. In my experience, it’s often not appropriate for any child (copying dictionary definitions?)

Homework proponents say that some subjects require practice, and they’re right. I’m studying Mandarin Chinese myself, and I can see that it requires a great deal of practice. Even the most uncreative approaches (e.g., flashcards) can be useful in this context. That’s why we’ve all noticed our kids getting lots of foreign-language homework, right? Nope, me neither.

Homework proponents say that practice is necessary for learning math, and they’re right. This is why math is one subject where I have mostly had my daughter do the work. Nevertheless, I had to teach her how to divide by 10, because somehow she hadn’t learned this in school (she was either in 4th or 5th grade at the time, I don’t remember which). She was put in 5th-grade “accelerated” math in spite of not knowing her times tables, too. In hindsight, it’s interesting that neither the principal nor the math teacher were surprised when I mentioned it to them. They didn’t offer any help, either. It was presumed to be my daughter’s fault, and my responsibility to fix. This is “outsourcing to parents”, which is epidemic in wealthy districts like ours.

Homework proponents say that homework gives parents insight into what’s going on at school, and it’s frightening how true this really is. In my daughter’s train-wreck 5th grade year, she came home with a “science” assignment one day. It was work that might have been finished at school, but got sent home because she didn’t complete it in class time. The science unit was on nutrition. For each letter of the alphabet, she was supposed to think of a “healthy snack” whose name begins with that letter. Then, she was supposed to write the whole list out twice — first as a rough draft, and second as a clean copy, with pictures pasted on. This project was so tedious my daughter could hardly bear to look at it, which is why she had already sat through a week of class time without completing it.

So the homework my daughter received neglected practice where it might have been useful (foreign language, multiplication tables) and imposed pointless busywork of no use or interest to anyone. Did it give me insight into what was going on in school? You bet it did.

Bad homework is just the tip of the iceberg of a broken school system. If we managed to ban homework from our public elementary schools tomorrow, we would still have a great deal of work ahead to fix the schools.

As it is, the schools in our wealthy district are propped up by compliant parents. There are parents who make their kids do all the assigned homework, or do it for them, and then hire tutors, or teach their own kids, to make up for all the school’s inadequacies. Some parents get terribly threatened by any criticism of our schools, for fear that if the school’s reputation is damaged, property values will go down, although it seems to me that ship just sailed. Other parents are concerned that criticism of the schools will damage their child’s chance of getting into a highly competitive college. So it’s an elaborate charade. Schools pretend to teach the kids, knowing that they have the advantage of well-educated families with kids who do well on standardized tests. Parents pretend to be satisfied with the schools, in the hopes that the school’s reputation will bolster the price of their house and get their kid into the Ivy League.

2 thoughts on “Guest Blogger – Homework Is an Elaborate Charade–Lots of Quantity and No Quality

  1. Thanks for highlighting the quality point, FedUpMom, because I suppose we’d all feel a bit better about it if it was a high caliber of material that we were spending our time on. And I say “we” because these tasks our kids are given, invariably involve us. Either we’re doing them, or the long hours our children are spending on them, affect the rest of the family.

    What would a quality homework assignment look like though?
    Thinking back to my own schooling, one project stands out. It was Grade 12 biology, I think…we were learning how to classify freshwater organisms…building toward a snapshot of the whole ecosystem and how each part interrelates. The teacher assigned the project for the whole term, but along the way broke the task down for us into achievable goals. It was a totally appropriate assignment and we were encouraged to talk with our classmates about what they were doing, how they were putting things together, what bugs they had collected etc…I was glad when it was over, but I was also proud of the outcome. It was a “field study”, in which I had to plan out my project and devote a certain amount of time each day too. Yes, I had other homework too….but I don’t recall it.

    I don’t think kids who are under 12, or under 16 for that matter, have the capacity to do work like my biology homework. But I find now the tasks that elementary students are given, especially when they are deemed “fun family projects”, are very similar in intensity to my Grade 12 project. And the parents must take lead roles in order for the tasks to get done in elementary schools, simply because the children do not have the maturity and organizing skills required. It’s not good for our kids and it’s not good for our families.

    So, if homework is not going to be eliminated from elementary school, what is quality homework going to look like?
    My personal opinion, is that reading is the only quality homework there is in Grades 1 thru 7, (but no reading logs to go along with them).

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  2. I happen to be studying Mandarin Chinese as well and I’ve found that I’ve been able to learn more on my own than in class. I’ve found that I’ve made greater improvements by borrowing childrens’ books in Chinese from the public library. It’s also a lot more interesting, too. Learning how to use words in context (and this goes for both Chinese and English) is far more interesting than only learning definitions.

    I agree with you on the point that homework should not be about how much. Students tend to rush through their homework so they can get some free time and in doing so not much is absorbed anyway. One of my friends said she was watching a documentary before she did her homework and she remembered every single thing she learned watching the documentary and forgot everything she did in her homework. To me school isn’t about grades but about learning and self-improvement. I think society needs to reconsider the way we see learning.

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