Parents, did you ever consider opting your kids out of homework? Did you even know that was a thing? I have to admit that I did not, though there were times in the lives of each of my three children when I wished I had.
Most of those times had to do with dioramas. You know what I am talking about. How many times did you have to find an empty shoebox so that your third grader could make some kind of scene in it with little handmade paper figures to represent a book that had been read or an event in history that had been studied? Decades ago, my mother used to complain about having to buy poster board and Magic Markers constantly so that I could make yet one more big poster about something we had studied in class. And how about the time my daughter had to make a book on the history of dance (in the interest of full disclosure, she went to a ballet boarding school), but the grade depended as much on the artistic presentation of the information as on the information itself? (By the way, you can make a timeline out of toe shoe ribbon.) Yes, this is my pet homework peeve: teachers who turn too many assignments into art projects when the information that the students are learning is not really enhanced by making it into art. Would I have opted my kids out of dioramas? I might well have.
Before you all think that I disapprove of homework (when I actually disapprove mostly of dioramas), let me talk about one type of homework that I think is indispensible—even though it is going to seem so old-fashioned that I imagine some parents would opt their kids right out. It is the memorization of a variety of things that are important for kids to learn and that, unfortunately, cannot be learned without taking the time to memorize them outside of class time. Here are some examples: famous poems, spelling words, vocabulary words in foreign languages, the conjugations of verbs in foreign languages, the genders of nouns in some foreign languages, measurement equivalents within and between the metric and customary systems, addition and subtraction facts, and multiplication and division facts. BBC News reported on January 3 that all 11-year-olds in England will soon be tested on the multiplication tables (up to 12 x 12) in a timed, on-screen format. There will be a lot of memorization homework for those Brits, I predict, and I am okay with that.
Last fall, I read an article entitled “More parents, students saying no to homework.” What interested me most was that the article came with an Associated Press byline from Ardmore, Pennsylvania—home of the school district I graduated from quite some time ago, Lower Merion. Lower Merion, a long-time great suburban school district just outside Philadelphia, prided itself (and, I assume, still does) on sending its graduates to top colleges—just as many excellent suburban school districts do.
How could Lower Merion parents be having a problem with homework? Evidently, some parents have said that enough is enough. Their kids are stressed out, staying up way too late to complete assignments and having too little time left for after-school clubs and sports teams, for outside-of-school pursuits (e.g., dance lessons, music lessons, volunteer activities), and for family life.
As educators and researchers weigh in on both sides of the homework debate, some school districts are looking for ways to lighten the homework load and to improve the value and quality of homework assignments. According to the article, for example, an elementary school in Maryland has given up homework in favor of having kids read for 30 minutes each night. Nonetheless, some parents are simply taking matters into their own hands and opting their own kids out of homework assignments.
To tell you the truth, I am not sure I think that is a great idea. I am not sure what message that sends a kid when all of his or her classmates are handing in homework or getting their homework checked, especially in the elementary grades. I am not sure most kids want to feel that different from their classmates. I would rather see the problem solved districtwide for all kids.
As someone who believes strongly in the notion that the job of school boards is to make policies that guide administrative actions in the schools, I would like to think that a reasonable policy on homework could be arrived at after meaningful discussions involving parents—a policy that the teachers and administrators in a school district would find educationally beneficial for kids and that the parents in that district would find appropriate. I read Lower Merion’s Board policy on homework (it is available online). It has some guidance in it, but leaves an enormous amount of discretion to the superintendent to make the regulations that govern what principals and teachers actually do about homework at the school level. For some parents, my guess is that the policy leaves too much discretion to the schools and that it does not provide enough guidance—including guidance influenced by parent input. Unfortunately, this is a typical problem with board policies in lots of school districts.
It is time to take a look at how your school district and your child’s school address homework:
- All parents: Ask your school board to discuss the thinking behind your district’s policy on homework (most districts will have one). Look at how much guidance the superintendent is given in making regulations to govern the homework that is assigned in the schools. Does the policy include a statement about the purpose of homework? Does the policy provide guidance about the amount of homework or the types of homework to be assigned at different grade levels? Does the policy provide guidance about times that homework should not be assigned (e.g., on weekends, over winter or spring break)? Does the policy provide guidance about whether homework should be graded and whether homework grades should be counted when figuring students’ report card grades? Does the policy describe an appropriate role for parents in supervising, monitoring, or assisting with their children’s homework?
Talk with the board about how parents and principals and teachers were involved in arriving at the board’s homework policy. Are there provisions in the policy for having parents opt their children out of completing homework assignments? Should there be?
Ask about the implementation of the policy. How does the board know that principals and teachers are following the policy?
This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to get the input of the superintendent before the meeting.
- Elementary school parents: Ask your principal to talk with parents about the implementation of the board’s homework policy in your school. How does the principal monitor the homework that teachers are giving? Have there been complaints from parents about homework assignments? How do teachers feel about giving homework? Do students usually complete the homework that is assigned? What happens when a student does not complete homework assignments? Are there specific things that parents should do to support their children in doing homework?
- Middle and high school parents: Ask your principal to talk with parents about the implementation of the board’s homework policy in your school. How does the principal monitor the homework that teachers are giving? Have there been complaints from parents about homework assignments? Have there been complaints from students about homework assignments? How do teachers feel about giving homework? How do students feel about doing homework? Do students usually complete the homework that is assigned? What happens when a student does not complete homework assignments? How is homework graded, and is it graded the same way from department to department and from teacher to teacher? Are there specific things that parents should do to support their children in doing homework?