The Homework Myth

By Jacqueline V. Scott

One afternoon last July, a 7-year-old Catonsville girl stood in her living room crying so loudly that a neighbor across the street could hear her through the open windows.
When asked by her mother why she was so tearful, the little girl, who was entering second grade in the fall, cried even louder.
“I don’t want to go to second grade!” she exclaimed. “I am afraid there’s going to be too much homework! And it’s going to be too hard!”
Unsure of how to respond, the girl’s mom just hugged her daughter and told her it was too early to worry about such things and that she should enjoy the rest of her summer.
While the timing of this little girl’s meltdown may seem unusual, her anxiety about homework is not. Every school year, parents and students become stressed by the demands of homework.

Books such as The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish (Three Rivers Press, 2007) and The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2006) spend hundreds of pages discussing how excessive or irrelevant homework has caused unnecessary stress in the home, taken away from family time, contributed to the national obesity epidemic, and, for the most part, has not had a significant impact on the academic achievement of our children.
In fact, according to studies cited in both books, at least half of the parents surveyed have admitted to having at least one argument with their children about homework.
In graduate school, prospective teachers are taught that homework should be an extension of the lessons taught that day—to reinforce and extend the child’s learning experience. Most parents and students agree that when used in this context, homework can be beneficial.

However, when kids get bogged down with hours and hours of homework, other areas of their lives suffer.
Kathy Valentine, a Catonsville mother of three, says her family had to give up a Wednesday night church activity due to the amount of homework her fourth grader was bringing home.
“Though [my daughter] works quickly, the rush in getting dinner and out the door on time caused the family such anxiety that we had to abandon the church activity altogether,” notes Valentine.
Valentine, who is certified to teach elementary and middle school, stresses that she is not against homework assignments.
“It is helpful in giving parents an idea of what their children are learning in school,” she says. “It also gives parents an opportunity to detect a child’s strengths and weaknesses in subject matter and then partner with the teacher in addressing those areas.”
Valentine’s daughter, Natalie, now in sixth grade, says she has experienced frustration when it comes to homework assignments.

Sometimes, she says, teachers have assigned homework without fully explaining it. Other times, she has gone through periods where it seemed like she was getting the same homework sheets every night.
“They would vary a little bit, but we already felt like we knew [the skill],” describes Natalie. “It just didn’t make that much sense to me.”
She adds, however, that there have been times when homework has allowed her to reflect on what she learned that day, which she finds rewarding.

School Policies?
Parents of public school children who are curious about homework requirements for specific grades can call their local board of education or look up the homework policy on the county’s website.
According to the Baltimore County Public Schools website, students in grades 1 to 3 should expect to be assigned homework at least three times a week (none on weekends or holidays) for an average of 30 minutes a day. Grades 4 and 5 should receive an average of 60 minutes a day, for four to five days a week, in addition to some long-term assignments.

Students in grades 6 to 8 can expect an average of 20 to 30 minutes per subject combined (but no longer than 90 minutes per day) five times per week. High school students should expect an average of 30 minutes per subject, but no longer than three hours per day, five times per week. In addition, middle schoolers and high schoolers should also expect long-term projects.
Keep in mind, however, that even “30 minutes of homework” can easily turn into hours, especially if that child is resistant to doing homework after a long day or has trouble understanding it.
John McCaul, a former principal at St. Agnes School in Catonsville and current assistant principal at Loyola Blakefield in Towson, says that, while there is a definite place for homework in the development of a student, educators and parents must realize that a well-rounded child means allowing that child to participate in a variety of activities.

“Sometimes parents and teachers confuse a heavy homework load with academic rigor,” says McCaul, who spent five years as the principal at St. Agnes.
Under his leadership, McCaul says the goal at St. Agnes was to assign first graders about 10 minutes of homework each night. As grades advanced, students would receive longer assignments. However, he says, parents were told that homework time should not be a time of stress.
“One of the things we told parents was that, if you spent a ton of time on homework and it was time for bed, then [the child should] go to bed, and the parents should write a note to the teacher.”
McCaul says kids who are spending too much time on homework can easily miss out on activities that are just as valuable.

“I think there is a real value in being outdoors, and there is a value in being in the band and playing sports. It’s about finding balance—their lives should not revolve around just sports or just school.”
Still, he says, homework is not unnecessary.
“My sense is that I would disagree with Alfie Kohn and [his book] The Case Against Homework, because there is real value in good homework. Just like good schools and good teachers bring out the best in children and bad schools can really damage children. Homework can do the same thing.”

At Garrison Forest School, a private school from preschool through grade 12 in Owings Mills, students don’t receive homework assignments until first grade, when they are asked to complete about 20 minutes per evening.
Elizabeth “Zibby” Andrews, head of the lower division, says homework can be beneficial, especially when students are practicing the skills they learned in school. Writing, learning math facts, and reading are all skills that can be taught at school but need to be practiced at home, she says.
She adds that homework is also helpful in letting parents know what their children are learning in school.
Still, Andrews says, there have been times in the lower school when students seem overwhelmed by assignments and do not complete them or simply forget.
Those cases, she says, are not met with punishment. Rather, the school sends an “alert” home to be signed by the parent.

“After two to three homework alerts, I will sit down with the student and the parents and figure out what is going on,” Andrews says. “There is always a reason, and usually it is not because the child is being defiant.”
This is not always the case in other schools. In some public schools, students are held inside for recess because they did not complete a homework assignment or they forgot to get a paper signed. This can create even more stress on a child who is frustrated about completing homework assignments.

Getting It Done
Parents can help their children tackle assignments by providing the time, space, and few distractions while their kids complete their homework. If kids are too stressed or too tired to complete an assignment, parents should not hesitate to contact the teacher to let him or her know what is going on. Sometimes direct communication with a teacher can avoid tension later on.
However, because most students don’t come home until late afternoon (sometimes as late as 4 p.m.), they are simply too taxed to think about doing more work.

Dorothy Noble, a Baltimore County mother of three boys, offers this: “Children need to be well-rounded, and giving them the free time after school to take music lessons, participate in Scouts or sports is critical to their overall development. Schools should focus more on the holistic development of the child, and offer more clubs and other activities as opposed to assigning homework that is graded—but rarely reviewed—by the teacher in class.” BC

©Baltimore’s Child Inc. Nov 2007

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