By Susan Ohanian
It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your child’s homework is?
A parent in a northern Vermont village (who doesn’t want to be identified for fear of offending the teacher) notes that her 5-year-old son is always on the go —playing with building blocks, improvising scenarios with model cars and trucks, or engaging in other active, imaginative play. Sitting quietly at school has been a challenge for him. When he brought home a 37-page skill packet for homework, Mom was stunned and Son was stubbornly recalcitrant. And why shouldn’t he be? It is a travesty that the kindergarten, which began in Germany as a children’s garden, should now send home huge stacks of worksheets.
In Los Angeles, Micaela receives a packet of worksheets every Monday. She must work on them at home and return the completed packet on Friday.
The assignments are meant to help her meet this school year’s expectations, such as writing a story that follows a logical theme and recognizing and spelling at least 35 words (Jacobson 2004).
Micaela is in kindergarten.
In a Chicago suburb, ten-year-old Marie wants to take dancing lessons, but since homework takes her two or three hours a night, there’s no time for such extras. Marie doesn’t watch any TV, but she gets to play on weekends if she finishes her homework. Marie’s mom feels she can’t participate in the church choir because she has to keep tabs on her daughter’s homework.
In New York City, Cora is in third grade; according to a 2004 article in the New York Post, she spends three hours a week in an after-school test prep course and an extra hour a night at home cramming for the impending test. Her dad confides that Cora is “[s]ick with worry that she’ll fail the high-stakes test and be left back.”
Virginia mom and cofounder of PAVURSOL (Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs) Mickey VanDerwerker reflects that her 62-pound son’s 41-pound book bag caused the sixth grader to fall backwards off the bus. Mickey comments, “He does homework from 5 to 9 each night, with a 25-minute break for dinner. He has gone to bed crying twice this week because, in addition to everything else, he is doing a 1000-word research paper on what the walls of the U. S. Capitol would say (from 1800 to 1900).”
In 1901, the California legislature passed a law abolishing homework for grades one through eight. Maybe we’re again on the cusp of homework meltdown when the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) finds it necessary to issue guidelines on recommended weights of book bags. AAOS says 20% of the child’s body weight is the point at which book bags become a clinical problem. Maybe it’s time for parents to ask for a consult from the American Psychiatric Association. What’s all this homework overload doing to kids’ psyches?
Unfortunately, even if parents receive support from medical experts, they’re not likely to find support from the federal government, which has no sympathy for parents who are slackers. Following the passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation, the U.S. Department of Education published General Homework Tips for Parents, which includes these injunctions
• Make sure your child has a quiet, well-lit place to do homework. Avoid having your child do homework with the television on or in places with other distractions, such as people coming and going.
• Help your child with time management. Establish a set time each day for doing homework.… Think about using a weekend morning or afternoon for working on big projects.
• When your child does homework, you do homework. Show your child that the skills they are learning are related to things you do as an adult. If your child is reading, you read too. If your child is doing math, balance your, checkbook.
When your child does homework, you do homework. Indeed. Plenty of parents disagree. Increasingly, they are outraged by the directives from the federal government via the school that dominate their home lives.
Some parents want to turn the tables, as we see in the following apocryphal exchange, with which most parents certainly can identify. It comes from the website of Birmingham, Alabama, philosopher-photographer Rick Garlikov
Mrs. Teacher: Suzie did not have time to finish her math in school today, so I have sent it home with her to finish; please give her time to do it.
Mrs. Mom: We did, but that did not give her time to do all her household chores, so we have sent some laundry to school with her to fold; please give her time to do it.
Dr. Garlikov makes the point that parents just might decide they have better things to do with their family time than follow a blueprint sent home by the school.
Jane, a mom in suburban Cleveland, had the same idea. She took on homework head-on. She recounts,
I finally had enough of the homework interfering in my time with my family, and decided to give them a taste of their own medicine. I walked into each of my children’s classes this morning and told their teachers that I needed to take my children home for a little homework. I told them, “It won’t take very long. I just need to reinforce our home values.”
Jane laughs, “You should have seen the looks I got. I took the kids out for breakfast, and we had a great time.”
Jane said that her son’s teacher gives homework on weekends. When Jane contacted the teacher at home with some questions, the teacher told her, “I’d prefer that you wait until Monday. I’m off on weekends.”
Emboldened, Jane replied, “So is my son. We do not do homework on weekends at our house.”
In Vermont, the Burlington Free Press (2002) editorialists, known for their strong Standardista stance on standards and testing, draw the line on homework:
Many parents laugh at the suggestion that they should have time to sit down and talk to their children about their school day or share a pleasant game of chess. Hah! They’re too busy barking out orders. “Eat your dinner! Turn off the TV! Do your homework!”
When whole families feel stressed over a child’s homework starting in about fourth grade and insist they have no time to relax or exercise or have fun together, then there is too much homework.
In 2000, the school board in Piscataway, New Jersey, took a strong stand against homework invasion, voting unanimously to set a limit of 30 minutes for children in elementary school, two hours for high schoolers. They also “discouraged” homework on weekends.
In 2001, parents in Arlington, Virginia, pushed the school board to impose a limit of 50 minutes of nightly homework for second-graders and three hours a night for high-school students.
On the other hand, Paul Vallas, superintendent of schools in Philadelphia, has taken at least one idea with him from his former position as schools chief in Chicago: schools issue report cards on parents. One of the categories in which parents are graded is their children’s homework production.
Teachers will mark either “satisfactory” or “needs attention” in categories including: child appears well rested; child’s homework assignments are complete; child has necessary supplies; and parent/guardian responds to notes, phone calls, and requests for conferences (Dean 2002).
In The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning (2001), Etta Kralovec and John Buell invite parents to question the assumption that a greater amount of homework leads to higher academic achievement. In reality, children may be much better off spending would-be homework time playing, pursuing extra-curricular interests, and even doing household chores. A reviewer on Amazon.com offers this perspective:
I was 11 years old when Sputnik went up in 1957, and I remember very well its impact on education. I went through elementary school with no homework and plenty of time to walk to the local library and read books of my own choosing on which I did not have to write reports. I developed the lifelong habit of reading for pleasure. As described in this book, Sputnik launched a national panic about education and the homework was piled on. By ninth grade, I was lugging at least four very heavy textbooks home every night, and agonizing over whether I could do my homework and also read the books that interested me. Homework was never about the free exploration of ideas! It was about obedience.
Philadelphia child psychiatrist Robert Kay advises parents, “Never ask about homework. Help your child only if she/he asks for help.” Kay adds, “The parent-child relationship gets exponentially better when the parents get out of the school business.”
I’ll end by citing from one of the best critiques of the homework problem I've come across. It is offered by motivational speaker and author of Touching Hearts: Teaching Greatness (Andrews McMeel, 2001), Tom Krause, in a piece entitled “My Child Still Belongs to Me.”
Letter to a Local School District,
I just wanted to state, for the record, that contrary to popular belief — my child still belongs to me. I am unaware of the law that gives control of all my son’s time to a local school district. When you have my child in your classrooms, please allow him to work on homework during class time.… My child needs time with me. He needs to play catch with me. He needs to eat supper with me. . . He needs to watch movies, or yes, even just watch TV with me.… After all, my child still belongs to me.
Editorial. 2002, October 2. Light homework? Ha!. Burlington, VT: Burlington Free Press.
Dean, Mensah M. 2003, September 18. Parents give new report cards mixed grades.
Philadelphia: Philadelphia Daily News.
Jacobson, Linda. 2004, January 14. Little ones’ homework burden rises. Education
Kralovec, Etta, and J. Buell. 2000. The end of homework. Boston: Beacon Press.
Krause, Tom. 2001. My child still belongs to me. In Touching hearts, Teaching
greatness. Riverside, NJ: Andrews McMeel.