Thursday, November 1, 2007

The burdens of homework on parents and children

This past week-end the Boston Globe published an article (Sara Rimer, “Less homework, more Yoga,” October 31, 2007) about the principal at Needham (MA) High School who has undertaken a number of measures to reduce stress among his students including “homework free” days to help students catch up on their school work. Apparently, this has provided fodder to conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh who have accused the Needham principal of “coddling” students.

Homework continues to be the subject of heated debates among parents, students, politicians, educational reformers, and the general public. Newt Gingrich once argued that children who weren’t required to do at least two hours of homework every night “were being cheated for the rest of their lives.” A new book by Alfie Kohn (The homework myth, Da Capo Press), on the other hand, presents a mountain of research evidence documenting the negative effects of homework on parents and children. But I suspect most people are likely to ignore the research and side with Gingrich on this issue even if they might wonder about the requirement of two hours of homework for every child.

When my children were younger I learned to loath homework that disrupted our family routines and often created nearly unbearable tensions in our household. Thinking about the time my daughter lost a major homework assignment that took weeks to complete in fourth grade still makes me sick to my stomach.

Motivated by our experience with homework I undertook an interview study with 24 parents of elementary aged children who struggled in school to learn how these parents experienced homework (A family affair: When school troubles come home, Heinemann). Over and over again parents shared stories of stress and turmoil. In these households, homework created tensions between parents and children and mothers and fathers. Several parents claimed that tensions around homework had permanently damaged their relationships with their children and sent a few couples to marriage counseling. It was worst for the single mothers who struggled to work, manage their households, and support their children’s schooling. In general, homework robbed the mothers and fathers I interviewed of many of the pleasures of parenthood.

So why are parents, teachers, and the general public so supportive of homework, even in the earliest grades? I suspect most people believe that, whatever its downside, homework
supports academic achievement. But an extensive body of research indicates otherwise. Homework has not been shown to have beneficial effects for elementary students and the benefits for high school students are modest at best. And, as my research shows, homework often has a negative effect on the emotional lives of parents and children.

There are critics of American schooling who argue that the cure all for educational failures is “scientifically-based” research. I don’t agree for reasons I’ve discussed in previous blogs, but I have to wonder why we persist to push homework in the early grades in the absence of research support.

18 comments:

Jill said...

This topic of homework has recently(within the last few years) become an issue at the elementary school I teach at as well. Our former principal introduced our staff to the research that students should receive 10 minutes of homework for every year old they are. So, by the time students reach me in fifth grade, they should receive 50minutes of homework per night. While 50 minutes is a rare occurance, I do tend to give at least one homework assignment per night to support lessons taught in the classroom.
However, I am not so far removed from the feelings of frustation and family tension written about in your findings. I can clearly remember the arguments my father and I had over algebra homework, until I eventaully stopped asking for help, to spare myself the argument.
Teachers can be put into a rough position with this isssue as many parents believe their student is not learning if homework is not sent home. On the other hand, mnay parents attend conferences embarassed to admit they are unable to help their student and apologige for this, when really I am the one who feels like apologizing to them.

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