Fred Baumgarten, the father of two daughters in public school in Sharon, Connecticut, began talking to other parents in his daughter’s fifth grade class about homework after he read The Homework Myth, by Alfie Kohn, a college classmate. Fred, who has a M.S. in Education from Bank Street and is currently a director of Foundation, Government and Corporate Relations at Sarah Lawrence College, has a blog, Homework Headaches, where he recently posted the letter he wrote to the Fifth Grade parents at his daughter’s school. In addition to reading his letter, you should visit his blog, where you can follow his organizing attempts.
Dear Fifth Grade Families & Friends:
by Fred Baumgarten
I’ve spoken with a number of you individually in the last few months about problems with fifth grade homework that have had an impact on our family and on our daughter’s attitudes toward school. Many of you have shared similar stories.
Recently the Principal sent out a letter addressing some of these concerns and reiterating the school’s homework policies and attitudes, but this letter proposes no substantive changes and fails to get at the heart of the problem.
There are really three homework problems, in my view:
(1) Quantity: Even if it’s true that our students are spending an average of an hour a day on homework assignments, it would still be too much; it means that some days it takes a lot longer; it doesn’t take into account afterschool activities; and it takes away from time legitimately spent in family activities, relaxing, reflecting, reading for fun, going outdoors, etc. Most of all there is the relentlessness of homework – every night, and on weekends too, which also relates to the second point, below.
(2) Content: With very few exceptions, fifth grade homework assignments have been repetitive, unengaging, and one-dimensional – literally the same thing, night after night.
Virtually every assignment, from every subject – social studies, language arts, science – involves the same type of exercise: vocabulary, labeling, regurgitating “facts,” or summarizing texts. (This also has the effect of rewarding a very limited range of learning styles.) Math assignments are invariably worksheets or textbook pages of problems. Assignments are often unnecessarily difficult and not well prepared for in class. There is little or no room for creativity, thinking and reflection, or personal inquiry on topics that might interest our children as individuals.
(3) Grading: The near-obsession with grading, particularly in math, turns every assignment into a mini-test, with all the pressure that entails to get the “right” answers, rather than an opportunity to overcome challenges, learn something new, take risks, or simply to derive pleasure from doing homework. It also means that there are no breaks from homework, not even for vacations or sick days, because every assignment must be “counted.”
This state of affairs is unacceptable. In less than a year my daughter has come to see school not as a place to learn but a place to do work – an endless, often boring, sometimes difficult and confusing series of repetitive taks. As a result, homework and school have become a struggle. I believe that many other students and their families are going through the same thing.
What you may not realize is that this situation is completely unnecessary. There is a severe lack of evidence that homework accomplishes the goals it is supposedly designed to accomplish. Homework has not been persuasively shown to raise test scores or class grades, help students retain what they learn in class (i.e., “reinforcement”), or even instill “good work habits” (unless by that we mean learning that work is something unpleasant to be done under duress). In fact, about the only thing conclusively known about homework is that it causes family conflict and a loss of interest in real learning. In addition, there is considerable evidence to suggest that homework, especially when it is graded, causes students to take fewer risks, when risk-taking – making the educated guess, trying something new, tackling more difficult problems – is the way children inherently learn.
Please don’t just take my word for it (although, in the interest of full disclosure, I have a background in elementary education, work in higher education, and have a M.S.Ed. degree from Bank Street College of Education, one of the top teachers colleges in the country, and one of the most progressive). Try this experiment: Go to Amazon.com and type in “the case for homework” (notice the wording). What you will come up with is a list of books mostly against homework. “The case for homework” is very shaky.
What I would like to ask from you: The purpose of this e-mail is to ask for your support in demanding changes from the school administration in two areas:
(1) Reduce the homework load
(2) Vary the nature of homework assignments to allow for more creativity, make them more engaging, and allow for alternate styles of learning
The Principal’s letter asked us to contact our “child’s subject area teacher” if we have concerns. Personally I find this suggestion impractical, frustrating, and counterproductive. There are few assignments that don’t concern me, and I don’t have the time to maintain four or more individual conversations.
In November, I met with the Principal to discuss my initial concerns (when the problem had already become apparent) and to gauge how she would respond. While she has been generous in offering to help our daughter through “her” homework difficulties, there has not been any move to address the larger issue. Again, other parents have reported similar experiences.
At our meeting, I made a few modest suggestions that I believe would at least begin to ease the homework grind, while not insisting on a radical change:
(1) Instituting a homework “holiday” one night a week
(2) No homework on weekends, or at most 1-2 weekends per month
(3) Requiring teachers to assign different kinds of assignments, such as ungraded assignments, projects that require work over several nights and that incorporate creative thinking or research, collaborative projects, answering one thought-provoking question, etc.
It is also reasonable to ask the school to provide solid evidence that homework makes for “valuable practice of academic content” – and, if it does, what this “practice” accomplishes.
Please let me know if you support making changes. I also welcome your feedback and additional suggestions. If you do support this effort, I am assuming your permission to count you – so that I can demonstrate to the Principal how many families are in support of making changes.
Thank you very much for reading through this e-mail. I hope you will consider supporting this effort, especially if you have experienced similar difficulties, but even if you have not. To borrow shamelessly from Shakespeare and Bubba, the fault lies not in ourselves – or our children. It’s the homework, stupid!
Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.