''Homework is a very hot topic,'' Georgiene Dempsey, the principal of the Springhurst Elementary School in Dobbs Ferry, said in a telephone interview.
''Parents sometimes have the idea that if they see more homework, the more they think the child is learning. Research shows that homework has no value in itself until fifth grade. Its only value is creating a habit for children to sit down and do homework. When is homework too much? All of us are in this craziness together.''
Overall there has been no significant increase in homework, according to a study released by the Brown Center on Educational Policy, a research center on educational issues at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington. The study, released as part of the 2003 annual Brown Center Report on American Education, said the exception was homework for children ages 6 to 8. Based on data from the Population Studies Center at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, the study reported that homework in that group increased to 2 hours and 8 minutes a week, from 52 minutes a week, between 1981 and 1997.
Try telling Westchester parents, especially those in high-powered schools, that homework hasn't increased significantly if at all.
''Students are so much more active outside of school now -- with soccer, sports, dance -- that even if homework might be the same amount, it's more difficult to manage,'' said Anne Wallace, the director for guidance at the middle and high schools in Rye Neck.
But there is a growing revolt, exemplified perhaps by parents in Ardsley who are circulating a petition to take to the school board about the difference between the district's stated homework policies and the amount of homework students actually have to do, asking simply that the current homework policy be enforced.
''Seventh- and eighth-graders are supposed to have an hour and a half a night,'' said Jason Sapan, a father of two children in the district, one of whom is a seventh grader at the Ardsley Middle School. The last straw was when his daughter was still not done with homework at 11 one evening. ''I don't think this helps in their education. It takes the joy out of kids who are exceptional, and overwhelms those who are struggling.''
Margot Steinberg of White Plains, whose children are in the Ardsley district, said: ''The kids get so much homework, they're not getting something out of it. They're doing it to get it done.''
The reasons for an increase in homework are several. ''Because of the standards and testing, kids these days are asked to write, and organize information in a much more complicated way than in the past,'' said Lisa Freund, a former special education teacher who now tutors students after school. ''They're given research projects in fifth and sixth grade, using the Internet, so the assignments are qualitatively different than they used to be. Part of my job is to free the parent from being responsible for what goes on after school.''
Douglas Both, the principal of the John Jay Middle School in the Katonah-Lewisboro school district, said state and federal standards are a factor. ''The higher standards require more information, and we can't cover everything,'' he said. ''What we're having to do is ask kids to do more at home, to have active instructional time at school. We're also dropping subject matter down a grade. We're teaching algebra in sixth grade. In order to prepare for more interactive classes, kids have to do more at home.''
STUDENTS see several stages of homework, said Paul Folkemer, assistant superintendent for instruction and curriculum in Scarsdale. ''Because of the English language arts exam, and also because of math and science, fourth grade is seeing a significant change in the amount of work,'' he said in a telephone interview, but the big changes come in middle school. ''In seventh grade, it's the first time students have five major subjects, and we group for mathematics. Many have advanced math, and foreign language.''
As Mr. Both said: ''The issue comes up every year. A lot of our middle school kids come from self-contained classrooms in fifth grade. All of a sudden, they move to the middle school with 10 to 11 teachers and subjects, English social studies, math, science, and reading, art, technology, home and career, music, and physical education.
''It's more subject matter specific, and students feel responsible to four to five different people every night. It's harder to track how much homework a child has in a given night. We work hard at it here, but teachers can't always address, 'How much are you giving?' Kids are trying to please a number of adults. And sixth-graders overwork their assignments. With five subjects, they become overwhelmed. We try to caution parents to stay out of homework. We have to wean them off it, just as we try to wean children from that kind of support.''
Some say that it's not so much the homework as the extracurricular activities that are to blame.
''We purposely don't do much after school because of homework,'' said Jamie Pearlman, a Mount Kisco resident whose two children attend Chappaqua schools. ''I didn't want her to go to bed at 10 or 11.''
The ways that teachers, schools, students and families choose to deal with homework are as varied as the players themselves.
Many parents who extol the virtues of their challenging public schools also complain that homework assignments, especially long-term projects, intrude on weekends, vacations, family meal times and children's sleep time, play time and down time.
Extracurricular activities are particularly at risk. Some Conservative Jewish congregations have scaled back their twice-a-week afternoon Hebrew school programs to once a week, because parents were reluctant to make that kind of time commitment for their children.
Other stresses are obvious, too. Dr. Karen Benedict, assistant superintendent for curriculum in Katonah-Lewisboro, said: ''People's lives are very busy. There are lots of dual parents who are working, and family time is valued. When students have to spend a lot of time on homework, family time is reduced.''
Beyond that, many conversations about homework include the assertion that ''my parents never did my homework for me,'' even Mom, who in a boomer's family might not have worked outside the home. Yet homework is now an issue not just for parents, but also for those who care for the children of working parents.
''The first question parents ask when they come here is, 'Is your homework all done?''' said Pam Koner, who runs the Homework Club in Hastings-on-Hudson. It is a private after-school program that has as one of its goals the completion of homework. ''At 6 at night, the last thing most parents want to do is homework. In the last six to eight years, the amount of homework has stayed the same -- but it feels to me that intellectually, things have been bumped up. Third-grade work is now in second grade, and it can be challenging for some of these kids.''
Despite any coping mechanisms, conflicts about homework -- between parents and children, or parents and educators -- are not unknown.
A White Plains parent, Barbara O'Keefe, said in a telephone interview: ''My youngest child, a freshman in high school, has more difficulty. I have to become a policewoman.''
Style differences, and students' own abilities and affinities for subject matter, can also come into play.
''One of mine can't start homework until 8 p.m.,'' Ms. Steinberg said. ''In my family, math goes quickly, but writing pieces are a nightmare.''
These forces have led to thriving tutoring industries in some communities. Some parents hire homework tutors to supervise or assist their children, reluctant to leave the task to nannies or non-English speaking housekeepers. And if tutors were once used to help struggling students, now it's not uncommon to find tutors engaged to help ''A'' students maintain their class standing.
''We know that there are a lot more tutors,'' Mr. Both said. ''In a community like ours, everyone is looking for that edge.''
Many districts have embraced after-school (and even before-school ) centers.
''Some kids have more help than others at home, so we try to build in more support at school,'' said Marjorie Holderman, principal of the Dobbs Ferry Middle School. The school is open before classes start in the morning as well as after school.
The Boys and Girls Club runs similar programs at its Mount Kisco, Yorktown and Tarrytown sites.
''The amount of homework children are getting has been increasing,'' said Barbara Cutri, the director. ''An hour is not enough to get all the homework done, beginning in third grade. Parents' expectations are that they want the homework done. We're an after-school program, and the main focus is on fun activities after school. We're not an education center, and want to give kids a break -- but kids are not going home with all the homework finished.''
Colleen McNamee, a regular at the Mount Kisco Boys and Girls Club, said she prefers to do her homework on her own. ''My Mom won't even know some of this stuff,'' she said. ''Homework takes over everything.''
Although private schools are known for tough academics, being liberated from state requirements means that homework has a different flavor.
Bob Cook, head of the upper school at the Harvey School in Katonah, said high school students usually have 30 to 40 minutes per subject each night. ''I've been in prep schools for 27 years, and I don't see that the amount of homework has changed much,'' he said. ''We limit homework on three- to four-day weekends, and over long vacations, there's no written homework, except for AP classes. That's really family time. And my department heads get together to make sure kids don't get make work. We tell teachers that if they don't have homework on a given night, don't give it for the sake of giving homework. In our middle school, the students get one night off per week per subject.''
Granted, homework doesn't have to be an overwhelming experience. And, educators say, it certainly shouldn't be in elementary school.
Mrs. Dempsey, who taught in Scarsdale for 17 years, said: ''I had a second-grade teacher this year, a terrific teacher, who said she was going crazy because the first hour of every day is spent with homework, and many of the kids haven't been doing their homework. I said there's another way. I told her, 'Don't give homework.'''
When Mrs. Dempsey was in Scarsdale (she left in 1987) the district's unofficial custom was not to give homework until the third grade, a practice that has since disappeared.
''I believe children should be reading every night, but not a multitude of math problems or reading assignments,'' she said. ''I can see how homework helps children when they're having struggles -- like doing math facts for a second grader, as opposed to 21 drill problems every night. If kids have worked hard in school, they should be out playing.''
In the high-powered Chappaqua schools, there is no regularly assigned kindergarten homework, although teachers may sometimes give assignments, mostly as a means of getting students accustomed to the idea of homework. First graders are supposed to have short assignments. It's not until second grade that students are expected to get regular language arts and math assignments, with daily reading part of the routine.
In response to a perception that there is too much homework, many of the county's middle schools have tried to find solutions.
Gail Kipper, the principal of the Farragut Middle School in Hastings, said that a few years ago, a committee of parents, teachers and administrators developed a pamphlet and policies about homework that is distributed at the fall open school night. Each grade hallway in the school, for example, has calendars with assignments posted.
''There should be no more than two major tests in a day, and long-term assignments are to be staggered,'' Ms. Kipper said.
At the Dobbs Ferry Middle School, coordination among the teachers is vital, said Ed Feller, a sixth-grade English teacher and team leader. ''We meet daily to discuss projects that we've given, so we stagger due dates.''
One solution has been to use technology. ''In middle school, kids want to break away from mom and dad, and parents want to hold on to that connection,'' said Peter J. Mustich, the superintendent of the Rye Neck school district, where the middle school recently began posting homework assignments on teachers' Web pages. ''Parents and students can look at the homework assignment, students can do the worksheet online.''
Some educators, and parents of children who are in college and beyond, caution that the homework umbilical cord needs to be cut sooner, not later. What seems like an innocent practice of helping a fourth-grader with a science poster can set a dangerous pattern. Between faxes and e-mail technology, it's not uncommon for college students to send term papers home to their parents for comments or editing, meaning that the homework issues can go on indefinitely.
In many households, homework stress is constant. Patty Warble, a mother of five grown children, speaks both as a parent and as a professional, because she is the executive director of the Bedford-Lewisboro-Pound Ridge Drug Abuse Prevention Council, as well as a staff member for the Tarrytown-based Student Assistance Services Corporation, a private nonprofit substance abuse and prevention organization.
''There's more pressure on kids to succeed, and homework becomes a power struggle,'' she said. ''Parents need to disengage from the power struggle. The idea is 'whose problem is it?' Let the people at the school who are the professionals handle it.''
Still, that's not necessarily an easy lessons for parents to absorb completely.
''When parents take over, it sends two messages,'' said Ms. Wallace, guidance director for the middle and high schools in Rye Neck. ''One is 'I'm supporting you, this is important.' And the other is 'I don't think you can do this on your own.' As parents, we don't want to see them fail.''
Assignment: How to Cope
WHILE homework will never go away, experts say there are ways to reduce stress among the various parties: students, parents, teachers and other educators. Homework has to get done, and done on time to meet teachers' requirements -- but exactly how and when can be different for different people. Before they buckle down, some children need to decompress after school, maybe by taking a half-hour to instant-message friends, nap on the couch or work off excess energy by jumping on a trampoline. If children and parents understand this about one another, it can reduce a lot of family stress on homework, just as it may well pay for a parent to understand that her work style is different from her daughter's.
Some other tips follow.
1. Once you get past the earliest elementary grades, remember that it's your homework -- not your parents'.
2. Establish a regular routine to do homework, so that you have the habit of doing your work at the same time, and in the same place, most days.
3. Pay attention to due dates for long-term projects, and keep to that schedule.
4. If you're struggling, or an assignment is taking you longer to complete than anticipated, do as much as you can and discuss your problem with your teacher.
1. Support and supervise your child's efforts, but remember that it's not your homework. Your role should be that of a monitor or coach, not a partner.
2. Step back. Your value as a person isn't dependent on how your daughter does on her seventh-grade science lab or what your son gets on his fourth-grade poetry folder.
3. Provide a quiet time and study area for your child, to establish good study habits and encourage independence.
4. Expect regular assignments, and contact the teacher if there are problems or if homework doesn't arrive home regularly.
1. Be sure that you're assigning work that students can do on their own, based on what they've learned in class, and that the assignments are clear to them. If parental input is expected on a long-term project, or extra credit assignments and challenge activities, define parents' role during open school night or at some other appropriate time.
2. Monitor the ease or difficulty of homework assignments for your students.
3. Check and return assignments promptly. Think about the value of homework. Maggie Worell, a third-grade teacher at the Hillside Elementary School in Hastings-on-Hudson, and a 35-year veteran of the profession, said: ''Homework should address the needs of diverse abilities. So teachers make adjustments for students.''
1. Set clear homework guidelines, and be sure the classroom teachers follow them.
2. Have a definite time limit for each grade. Ten minutes times the grade level appears to be one common standard.
3. Homework isn't about introducing new skills or concepts, but about reinforcing what happened in the classroom. Make sure that teachers understand that policy.
4. Keep in touch with parents. Find out if they're satisfied with the quality and quantity of homework assignments, and be prepared to adjust your policies if community expectations change or evolve. Merri RosenbergContinue reading the main story
The Homework Crisis
Gisela Voss always thought that all the griping about homework overload was way overblown. Her son Luke never got more than a half hour's worth at Mason-Rice Elementary in Newton, Massachusetts. But once he enrolled at Brown Middle School in 2004, Gisela had a rude awakening. Suddenly Luke was grappling with 30 minutes of assignments for each of his six classes, lugging home a backpack bursting at the seams -- and sagging under the strain. "He was at school from 8 to 3, and with soccer practice he wouldn't be done until 5. If we all ate dinner together -- and it's important to me that we do -- he wouldn't even start cracking the books until 7," says Gisela, 42, a toy designer who's also mom to daughter Sydney, 10, and son Rio, 2. "He missed out on sleep, and his anxiety stressed everybody else out. We'd rush through the meal knowing that he had hours of work ahead of him, and he'd start begging for help even before he left the table." Luke, now 15 and a sophomore in high school, has grown more accustomed to his heavy load. But Gisela and her husband, Dan Kernan, a 48-year-old software engineer, are already worrying about Sydney, who starts at Brown Middle School next fall, and how she'll cope with the nightly grind. "This is an insane way for families to live," says Gisela.
She's joined the chorus of complaints about kids drowning in homework. It's not just the marathon study sessions every night, these parents say, but heavy-duty assignments during vacations and summers as well. The massive pileup is causing some serious burnout. With no downtime, kids can't absorb and retain their lessons, and they dread the work so much they have to be nagged and forced to do it. With moms and dads -- and tutors -- routinely stepping in to help, there's growing resentment that they're the ones being held responsible for their children's education instead of teachers and schools. "It's not that homework is inherently evil, but that it has gotten so out of balance," says Nancy Kalish, coauthor with Sara Bennett of The Case Against Homework (Crown). "The first question parents ask when their kids walk in the front door is, 'How much homework do you have?' For many families, everything revolves around that, and it's causing a lot of tension, tears, and fights." And that's just the small picture, Kalish adds. "Night after night, year after year, homework is swallowing up the things that are part of a good, healthy childhood -- like playing, exercising, hanging out with friends, quality time with parents, even getting bored and maybe getting creative."
The dissent is likely to grow in the wake of a recent report by the country's top homework scholar, Harris Cooper, PhD, director of the education program at Duke University, who concludes that more isn't always better. In a comprehensive review of some 60 studies from between 1987 and 2003, he found virtually no link between homework and test scores in elementary school. Once kids hit middle school, there is a point of diminishing returns. Performance improves only among sixth- to ninth-graders who limit homework to 90 minutes a night and high schoolers who stop after two hours; for those who toil longer, test scores actually drop. "The bottom line is that all kids should be doing homework, but the amount and type should vary according to grade," says Cooper. "And no matter what, it's only good in moderation."
3 Things Parents Can Do to Help Kids Manage Homework
How Much Is Too Much?
So what's a parent to do when homework gets out of control? Many are pushing back, and succeeding in getting teachers and schools to lighten the burden. But you don't have to go that far to help your kids. Learn what experts say is the appropriate amount, the difference between thoughtful assignments and mere busywork, and smart strategies that will help your children get the most out of their studies -- in short, how to help them achieve excellence without all the excess.
For every mom complaining about too much homework, there's another frustrated parent saying her child is getting too little. The research is equally mixed. According to a 2003 study by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., only 5 percent of children nationwide are doing two or more hours a day. But other surveys show that students across the board are putting in longer shifts. A 2004 University of Michigan study of 2,900 children found that the amount of time spent on homework is up 51 percent since 1981. "For argument's sake, let's say only 10 percent of students across the country are overloaded," says Kalish. "Isn't that still worth addressing? After all, we're talking about 5 million kids who are losing their love of learning."
The upward trend started in the 1980s, after the government's "Nation at Risk" report found that students were not reading at expected levels. "Educators came under pressure to teach more, and in some instances began using homework to cover new material rather than review the day's lessons," says Cooper. With 2002's No Child Left Behind policy, curriculum was ratcheted up further. In the meantime, no one was keeping an eye on how much homework was being doled out. Remarkably, only a third of school districts across the country have homework policies, and even in those that do, teachers can assign what they want. For middle and high school students juggling six to eight classes, the workload can easily get out of hand.
Cooper suggests that parents ask teachers to follow his rule of 10 minutes of homework per night per grade -- 10 minutes in first grade, 60 minutes in sixth grade and so on -- which research shows is optimum for learning. "There's room for variation, especially in high grades, where students can opt for advanced placement courses," he says. "The best policy is to permit teachers to modify the length of assignments to meet the needs of their students."
If Your Child's at the Breaking Point
Be alert for the signs of homework burnout: constant frustration, loss of motivation, and a diminished interest in learning. And be prepared to speak up. "Parents are scared they'll be labeled a troublemaker and their kids a problem," says Kalish. "But if the load is heavy at the beginning of the year, it's not going to get better later on. You have to do something before your child starts to hate school." Below, her suggestions on the steps parents should take.
- Do the research. Check your school's Web site to see if it has a homework policy and whether your child's assignments are excessive. Keep a record of homework assignments and how long it took to finish them.
- Consult with other parents. If you think a particular assignment is too hard, send out an e-mail asking if they agree, and if so, suggest that each of them let the teacher know. There's strength in numbers, and the teacher may ease up. If not...
- Talk to the teacher privately. Approach him or her in a nonconfrontational, cooperative way. If you get an unsympathetic response or are told that the assignments are within policy guidelines, try saying, 'But it's just not working for my child,' suggests Kalish. "Teachers often have no idea how stressful homework can be, and most will want to work something out."
- Go to the school board. Before taking this step, attend a parents association meeting and ask everyone to fill out a homework survey, which will preempt the "no one else is complaining" defense. (For sample surveys, see below.) Contact your board, submit the surveys, and get the issue on the agenda. Enlist supporters who will speak up, present research and statistics, and share stories of how their kids are struggling. "Remember, you elect school board members," says Kalish. "So you have power."
Surveys excerpted from The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do (Crown).
Good vs. Bad Homework
Most experts agree that the point of take-home assignments is to review and reinforce the lessons covered in class that day. Ideally, homework should also instill a sense of curiosity and teach kids to study effectively -- including how to apportion their time between hard and easy tasks, and test themselves for retention -- so that they can become lifelong learners. But the vast majority of teachers have had no training on what kinds of assignments benefit students most. According to Harris Cooper, research suggests the most effective homework should do the following:
Mix it up. Assignments should have simple questions here and there rather than group all the tough ones together. Kids will feel the work is easier and enjoy it more.
Address specific needs. Yes, tasks should be age appropriate -- for example, shorter assignments in lower grades to accommodate limited attention spans. But the amount and difficulty can be adjusted upward if students are high achievers.
Be spread out over time. Kids retain more knowledge when they review material in brief, repeated bursts over several weeks rather than reviewing it right after learning it that day.
Apply to things kids enjoy OUTSIDE CLASS. The best assignments not only develop key skills like reading, writing, analysis, and critical thinking, but they also get students to tackle subjects they really care about. The goal is to keep them engaged.
How to Help, Not Hover
Your children need smart guidance, not someone breathing down their necks. Take our expert advice on the right ways to lend them a hand.
- Do provide a quiet, well-lit space to do homework, and establish rules on when they should get it done -- ideally, late afternoon or early evening.
- Don't watch TV while your child is toiling away. If he's reading, pick up the paper or a book. Showing respect and being positive about homework will instill a good attitude.
- Don't give answers or do the work yourself. Instead, make like Socrates and ask questions that will help lead your child to the right conclusions. So the next time your 13-year-old bungles that word problem in algebra, have him reread the question and make sure he understands it before tackling it again.
- Don't punish. Let your kids face the consequences of not getting assignments done, even if you'll feel embarrassed. Remember, it's about them, not you.
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.