“Mr. Homework” Does More Rethinking

I’ve written here before about Washington Post reporter, Jay Mathews, who calls himself “Mr. Homework.” In August, 2008, he did an about-face and called for an end to homework for elementary school students. A few days ago, he wrote a Washington Post column, “Is Homework Necessary,” where he wonders whether his faith in homework for middle and high schoolers is misplaced. He suggests that assignments be shorter and more carefully defined so as to get “the same sense of student understanding and not just to make sure the students and their parents don’t think the teacher is going soft.” Read the piece here.

After reading the piece, I sent Mr. Mathews the following email and posted it as a comment as well. I encourage you to post your own comments.

I read your recent piece in the Washington Post and, of course, I’m delighted you’re always rethinking homework.

I’m glad that the teachers you’re talking to are also thinking more about homework. One of the biggest issues missing from the homework debate, in my opinion, is the quality of the homework. If my memory is correct, you no longer have any children in high school, so maybe you haven’t had a chance to take a look at the kind of homework most kids are getting.

I do still have a child in high school, so I get to see, on a nightly basis, the homework that teachers give and that society still thinks is so important. And I’m pretty sure my daughter’s New York City public high school is typical of any large school.

I don’t think my daughter has yet had one homework assignment last year or this that was worth any time at all. Nevertheless, most of her teachers assign homework every night, and homework counts toward her grade. Most teachers provide no feedback on the homework whatsoever; they mainly spot check to make sure the students have complied with the requirements. None of it requires original thinking, there is very little writing or reading, and there are a lot of projects similar to the posters and “characters in a can” that she did in elementary school.

Whenever I’m on a talk show, there’s always someone who claims that homework is very important, as though students are being assigned interesting, challenging work that involves creative and analytic thinking. Neither in 9th grade, nor so far this year in 10th, has my daughter written an essay that was returned with any feedback. So the one skill that students really need, writing, isn’t being taught at all. It’s no wonder that when I taught writing to first year law students, I had to do so much remediation.

The real problem, in my opinion, is that education in general isn’t very good. Sure there’s a school here and there where students are involved in thrilling discoveries, sit in small seminars, have interesting and engaged teachers, and get a fantastic education. But the majority of kids sit in classes where teachers drone on and on from outdated textbooks and give the same tests they’ve been giving for as long as they’ve been teaching. (Have you read The Global Achievement Gap? The author takes “walking tours” of schools and explains what he sees going on in the classroom.)

As I stated at the outset, I’m glad to see you’re still thinking about homework and not taking it at face value. May I suggest that you take a look at the assignments the kids in your local public high schools are getting and see whether you think they’re worth spending any time on. (Or, if you’d like, I’d be happy to describe the work my daughter receives on a nightly basis.) I stand by my longstanding advice: Let students of all ages read, rather than inundate them with busywork. They’ll all end up more literate and able to think.

All best,

Sara Bennett
co-author, The Case Against Homework
founder, Stop Homework

10 thoughts on ““Mr. Homework” Does More Rethinking

  1. Sara, excellent letter. Would you take it a step further and let him know what the landscape looks like for high school students taking APs in my county? He loves my county school and extols its virtues regularly. If you could convince him to take a walking tour and take a good long hard look at the students. It’s the sleep deprivation I am concerned about. The students are cramming APs and sleeping four hours a night.

    My daughter just dropped a post AP math course. That was her next level, it’s not that we specifically as a family encouraged it. We fear it’ll not make a large enough dent because of the sheer volume of all her other courses.

    Please tell him. He’ll listen to you far more than he will me. He’ll likely tread carefully on the AP/IB homework load. After all, his Challenge Index in Newsweek annually is a HUGE money maker for a dying paper and he’s not going to go there. Maybe he could interview you for his next Extra Credit column?

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  2. From Mathews’ article:

    “Warning flag! Sirens! Bells! Please read this and remember. I do NOT favor changing the homework policies of schools that have managed to create a culture where solid homework is expected, and most students do it. I figure this covers about ten percent of our high schools, although that percentage is much higher in our most affluent suburbs, like the ones in the Washington area where there are many Post subscribers.”

    So no help to us. He is NOT recomemnding it for “high achieving schools,” the ones that assign the most homework in the first place. Here we go again. He’s recommending it for schools where the kids wouldn’t likely do it anyway.

    Now we have a new twist. On this blog, it was argued that low income children needed all that homework because they had loser parents who wouldn’t take them to museums or read books to them, the way we would. Now it’s flipped. We don’t bother with those kids, they wouldn’t do it anyway, but the “high performing” schools? Those kids will do it, they are angling for that A, so keep on doing what you are doing.

    Not much comfort there for us.

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  3. I see HomeworkBlues’ point. It’s the kids who are doing the homework that I’m concerned about…the Sara Kaitlins of the world. It’s the quality of education that I’m most concerned about because if improvements were made in how children are taught, all kids would benefit, rich and poor.

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  4. Here’s the comment I posted:

    I disagree with Mr. Mathews’ idea that the problem is non-completion of homework.

    I live in a wealthy suburban school district, where parents take school very seriously. Kids in this district are assigned lots of homework, with a high completion rate. Does this mean the kids are well-educated? No. It means the kids are stressed out.

    Teachers in our district are required to give a certain amount of homework every night. The homework assignments I’ve seen, given to my daughter and her friends, are uniformly tedious and unchallenging. Homework of poor quality doesn’t help our kids learn — it just wastes their time.

    Homework, like all of school, should be thoughtful, carefully designed, and really help our kids learn. It should be assigned only when kids are old enough to do it reliably on their own, without enlisting Mom as homework cop. The quantity should be limited so that kids have time to develop their own interests, have a social life, and grow as complete human beings.

    What I see in our “good” public school district is that excessive pointless homework is just one piece of a broken school system. Our smart, hardworking kids graduate from our district schools badly educated and burnt out.

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  5. I get confused as to what constitutes “good” homework. Is homework good if kids will do it willingly?

    On examination of the whole topic of schooling and education, homework almost disappears as an issue, in favour of the much larger problem of poor quality education. On my grumpier days, I’m thinking “the less time in that institution, the better”, and my child goes to the best school in the city as far as I’m concerned. I really like how our school approaches learning, but I get irked by these ideas about “excellence”. The idea of preparation for higher grades also interferes with the idea of keeping kids focussed and happy with what they’re doing now….and keeping that “kid spirit” alive. Instead of successfully completing a Grade level, the impression I’m left with is that kids are not finishing anything, they’re only ready to do the next year. If all that isn’t a recipe for unfocussed, stressed kids, I don’t know what is.

    Mr Homework still seems to be skimming the surface of the real issues facing today’s education system. Why do we really want our kids to go to school? What do we believe about learning that makes going to school important?

    Does anyone tackle these questions?

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  6. I agree with PsychMom. The kids who do the homework are not necessarily better off than the kids who don’t.

    I just had a long conversation with a neighbor whose daughter attends the local public middle school (the one my daughter would now be attending if I hadn’t pulled her out.) My neighbor is worried about the stress her daughter is under, not just from the homework, but from the “discipline” at school. For instance, the kids have 4 minutes between classes, and if they’re a minute late to class, they get detention.

    My neighbor’s daughter is a classic “good girl”, bright, wants to follow the rules and do everything she’s supposed to, a teacher’s dream. She’s the kind of kid who will get good grades and will be held up as an example of our wonderful schools.

    Yesterday we had a brief moment of sunshine in the late afternoon, in the middle of a rainy week. My neighbor said to her kids, “look! It’s sunny again! Let’s go outside!” and her daughter said “I can’t. I’ve got too much homework.” She’s in 6th grade.

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  7. In my head echos what I read on one elementary school website last year from the school psychologists about how fun it would be for children “if they could just run out and play after school. But we all know that we have to put schoolwork and homework first”.

    I was that kid…mind you I don’t think I said it in 6th Grade, but I did in 8th and continuously after that. And my mother sighed and admired her diligent, high acheiving child. Oh…if I could just go back for a day…..and have a severe discussion with myself. I hid behind homework…it kept me from growing up and experiencing normal teen things.

    Parents must intervene….claim Vitamin D deficiency if her daughter doesn’t go outside…anything..If the kids say, “can’t go outside, I have to stare at the wall”…would we encourage it. No! Homework acheives the same thing as staring at the wall.

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  8. PsychMom and FedUpMom- Both of you echo my concerns. At my daughter’s elementary school, there is much talk of creating leaders. I think educators (and many parents) think their is a magic formula (which includes a great deal of homework) that will turn children into leaders. No one ever questions the legitimacy of this goal. Of course, not every child is going to be a leader and it is rather absurd to expect ten year olds to carry this burden.

    Further, leadership is an organic path that one matures into with vision and the courage to fail (oppposite of the perfectionists the schools are creating). Of course, K-12 academia doesn’t really have any visionary leaders. The administrative leaders are really politicians in heart and mind. Looking to collect as much power as possible, they play on parents’ fears about the future.

    Tackling these big questions re: what is a “great” education isn’t on their agenda. Honestly, I don’t think it is on the minds of most affluent parents either. These grand concepts come with maturity. Many people get older but never really mature (or keep growing as human beings).

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  9. I added my 2 cents:
    *********************
    Does no one understand that, by definition, daily homework is busy work? I listened with horror when, on “Curriculum Night” in my 2nd grader’s class, the teacher laid out every night (including weekends) for the next 9 months.

    As a former teacher, I can tell you that there’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow night, much less 6 months from now.

    If she’s a great teacher and the children all learn that math concept, do we really need 40 – 50 problems reinforcing it?

    What if we want to kick back and watch a movie or have a family game night? Will that cause my daughter to fail to get into MIT? Doubtful, since MIT welcomes free thinkers over sheep. It might keep her out of UT but she could go there on an athletic scholarship.

    If I, as her mother, choose not to do her homework for whatever reason, she’s forced to miss recess and go to “study hall” to finish it. I’m afraid to even consider what “study hall” is for a second grader.

    The standard “It only takes a few minutes” doesn’t apply, either. After all, 5 minutes here, 20 minutes there, 30 minutes there and before you know it, our entire evening is shot.

    I struggle to imagine what may constitute “carefully defined, homework assignments” or homework that is “carefully and thoughtfully tailored to the information and skills”. If the teacher doesn’t have time to teach it in school, what makes her think that *I* have the time, the skills, or even the means to teach it at home?

    I much prefer to have some fun time with my child before she’s at an age where she thinks mom is just another old fogey.
    *********

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  10. Well…it wouldn’t let me post because it says I’m not registered…even though I signed in and it shows my name. Oh well, the Web site must be run by one of those people who did all their homework but forgot to learn to think for themselves.

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