THE HOMEWORK LOAD:Is It Time For Reform?

H-O-M-E-W-O-R-K. Most kids today can1t even pronounce the word without rolling their eyes and curling their lips. But that1s no surprise. After all, homework is 'work'; it1s not designed for entertainment purposes. But what is surprising is the reaction of many parents today regarding their children1s homework — specifically the quantity and the difficulty. The adults’ expressions often match those of the kids. Nan Fisher, mother of an eighth- and a fourth-grader, is disgusted by the amount of homework her kids get. Her older daughter, Ellie, has had at least two hours of homework nightly for years and she always needs help with math, Fisher says. "It’s so frustrating. You need to cook dinner, and there you are, doing math — actually relearning it — so you can help your child."

Has the homework load increased? Deborah Meier, a national leader for school reform who spent two decades helping revitalize public schools in New York City1s East Harlem district, says, "It is a fact that the homework load in our public schools is greater than it has ever been before. There1s no question that at one point most elementary school kids got virtually no homework, and it gradually increased and increased." Meier is the author of three books about education in America, including The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem. She is also the founder/co-principal of the Mission Hill School in Boston, a small progressive urban school where she’s expanding on her lessons learned in Harlem to promote change. "Schools tend to brag about how much homework they give, and in a period of intense competition for doing well in school, it’s not surprising." Buffy Smith, Ph.D., is the school psychologist for the Bank Street School for Children, an independent school on the Upper West Side with a progressive philosophy. She agrees that in general, there’s pressure on schools and educators to do more and to teach more, "and that [this pressure] may translate into more homework." However, she adds, there is a general concern that kids are busier — as New Yorkers are busier — in all kinds of ways. "It might feel like there’s more homework, but it may be that kids lead more scheduled lives than they did 10 years ago, so it feels like there1s more crammed in." Sue Ruskin-Mayher, Ph.D., director of the Middle Childhood Program for the Bank Street College of Education, agrees that the increase doesn't stretch across the board, and cautions against generalization. In some schools, she claims, the homework load "certainly is heavier than it1s ever been." She is quick to add, however, that "in others it1s not. I think this is not something that’s universal. In fact, it differs from teacher to teacher." According to a September 2000 telephone survey of 803 parents with children in grades K through 12 conducted by Public Agenda, a non-partisan public opinion research and citizen education non-profit group based in Manhattan, just 10 percent of those polled said that their children received too much homework. Sixty-four percent said their kids got the just the right amount of homework, and 25 percent said their children didn’t get enough. Victoria Colosimo-Barley fits into the last group. She thinks her third-grader, who1s in an accelerated/gifted program, should have more homework — even though he spends an average of one to two hours a night reading and doing math worksheets. Colosimo-Barley suggests spelling homework, but since the class reviews spelling words in school and has a verbal test at the end of the week, her son isn1t assigned homework in that subject area. On the other end of the spectrum are special needs children, "who suffer and struggle in school because they have attention deficits or learning disabilities," says Susan Schwartz, a learning specialist and clinical coordinator of the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement at the New York University Child Study Center. There1s much they do not absorb during the day, and the constant frustration of not fully understanding erodes their self-esteem. "These children sometimes need their homework modified or clarified by their teachers so they don’t go home with a backpack full of stuff that makes no sense."

Purpose is to reinforce old lessons, not to teach new ones Education experts say that homework should be used either to reinforce the work of the day or to prepare students for future lessons. "You learn something in school and then you go home and practice," says Schwartz, noting that this concept applies to all grade levels. For example, "If you1re in kindergarten, and you’re learning the short vowel sound ‘a’, your homework might be to cut stuff out of magazines that starts with ‘a’," Schwartz says. "If you’re in tenth grade and reading Hamlet, your homework assignment might be to think about what happened to the character and write a paragraph about how this relates to what was discussed in class." The homework mentally prepares children to take their lessons to the next level. But the problem, says Schwartz, is that "homework ends up turning into lots of other things." A frequent scenario: A teacher knows she’s not going to get to something in class and thinks, "'I1d better load on some extra computations because I1m not going to be able to teach them this, so I’ll give them extra homework and they1ll figure it out, because they have to know it for the standardized test coming up,'" Schwartz says. As a result, "a lot of homework just isn’t done," says Meier. "And of those who are doing it, a lot of them are doing it half-asleep and lazily, just completing the work without giving it a lot of heed. In the best of all worlds, parents should be at home doing wonderful educational things with their kids. But I don1t think that1s really what1s happening in most families." A big reason why? There1s so little time. Gina Ritter says that her family1s evenings have become increasingly more stressful because of her second-grader1s homework load. She and her husband have two other young children, and both parents work full-time. "I send my kids to school all day so they can learn, and I want to be a family when we get home," says Ritter, who can1t imagine what it will be like when all three of her kids have homework. "I feel like we1re being punished for having a large, busy family." Joanna Stern had to call a halt to her daughter’s horseback riding lessons when the girl hit ninth grade. "Even though it was only once a week for an hour, by the time we’d drive up to Scarsdale and then back into the city, Charlotte was starting her homework at 8pm. Then she1d be going straight through till midnight. That one lesson would skew the rest of the week." Nan Fisher recalls that when Ellie was in fifth grade, she had so much homework that she couldn1t enroll in soccer or gymnastics that year. "I don’t think kids should have to sit down for another couple of hours after they’ve been in school all day," Fisher laments. Kids need time to play and to just be kids. "They need to unwind and be themselves, just like adults." Many innovative educators couldn’t agree more.

Development of the 'whole child' is fundamental, experts say At the Bank Street School for Children, "We value family time tremendously and we talk a lot about ‘the whole child1," Smith says. Children need to develop not just academically, but psychologically, emotionally, socially, and physically, and Bank Street factors that belief into its homework philosophy. "We don1t want to chain a kid to a desk in the evening doing homework, because we believe kids need time to socialize," Smith says. "Kids need emotional and psychological time to spend with their family. Kids need time to do sports and foster physical development." Meier believes that "[our culture has] sort of disconnected learning from families...We1ve stopped reminding parents how important all the natural things they do are. If you asked parents what they think they should do to be good educators for their children, they would say it1s to mimic school teachers. And rather, I think teachers need to mimic good parenting." School teachers develop their styles in order to reach the 20 to 30 kids in front of them, and only certain ways of teaching are going to work. Parents, on the other hand, have the benefit of a one-on-one interaction, and should share their competencies and interests with their children. Whether it’s cooking, reading, exploring nature, watching television, playing board games, or even researching areas on the Internet that interest them both, "all of these things provide good teachable moments between parents and kids." Meier says that homework assignments, meanwhile, "should be chosen either to better connect all families to their children’s schooling and/or extend learning in ways best suited for outside the classroom." She stresses that "homework assignments should be either tailored to individual children or doable by everyone assigned the tasks," and they should not replace other important educational experiences that kids can access out of school — strong sports programs, dance, music, and/or theater, as well as healthy leisure and solitary time. These variables depend on each school1s program and how closely they work with families, as well as the degree of individualization that a teacher1s curriculum provides. Schwartz says that "homework assignments should hit the middle of the class," with accommodations or modifications for those students who need it. A teacher can add components to boost an assignment for a child who needs enrichment, and/or provide a cue sheet for a child with an attention deficit. But it’s not easy to do, Schwartz adds. "A teacher has to really be a wizard." And parents need to speak up when there1s a problem, Smith says. "When a parent says to me, ‘My kids get too much homework and nobody cares; nobody knows that it’s taking all these hours,’ my first response is, ‘Have you talked to the teacher? Does the teacher know that? And does the teacher know how you feel about that?’" That1s the first step. "Teachers don’t necessarily know how things are playing out at home, and they need to know. And if they know, they may well have some ideas and accommodations they can make." Unfortunately, many parents don’t speak up.

Communication between family and school is key Michael Nicodemo, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 128 in Rosedale, Queens, says he hasn’t received a single phone call from a parent about homework since he began teaching two-and-a-half years ago. "I1ve received a couple of notes from parents saying they sat with their child while he struggled with a math assignment and asking me to explain how I taught the lesson so they can better help," says Nicodemo. "I wish I got those notes on a regular basis." Sometimes parents don’t speak up because they1re concerned about how they will be perceived, Schwartz says. "Some parents are confused about the difference between being an advocate and being a pain in the neck." She suggests that parents start keeping a diary if they think that homework overload is an ongoing problem. Writing down how often a problem occurs can give a parent a good timeline of behaviors and consequences. "You can then go to the teacher and say, ‘Every single Thursday night this happens.’ This is not a complaint anymore. This is informative." Sometimes, however, parents just don’t have the time — time to call a teacher, or even time to check in with their child about homework. "Parents work crazy hours and aren1t always home when the child is doing homework," says Nicodemo, himself the parent of a fifth- and an eighth-grader. "It1s hard for many working parents to find time to actually sit with their child," Nicodemo concedes, but every parent should find some time every few days to at least "randomly check to see what it is their child is working on at school and what they have to do at home." Smith notes that "communication is no simple thing between a parent and a teacher these days...Parents lead busy lives; teachers lead busy lives." It may be difficult for a parent to actually make contact with a teacher. To add to this impediment, "there are indeed parents who lay back a little and kind of grumble about it. But parents have a right to understand the policy and be part of their kids’ learning team, and parents don’t use communication with the school as much as they could or should...especially as kids move up through the grades." Keeping everything in balance is the key, says Ruskin-Mayher. "Individual kids have different tolerances, different needs, different strengths, different weaknesses, and the best thing that a parent can do is really know their child." If a child is not doing well in school, a parent should consider what else is going on in that child1s life that may be interfering with his or her focus on schoolwork.

Parents need their voices heard Parents who are concerned about their child’s development should seek assistance, says Schwartz. The first person parents should turn to is the guidance counselor or school psychologist. If they feel "they’re not getting what they need at school," Schwartz adds, they should seek outside support. The NYU Child Study Center ( is one such resource, providing a variety of services for children — including those with learning disabilities, attention deficits, anxiety/depression, and mood disorders. Parents who think their children are not getting enough homework or need additional academic challenges should speak with a teacher or guidance counselor about enrichment activities, Smith suggests. "Talk to the school and get some ideas for some ways to supplement it if it doesn’t seem like enough. But really, communication first." Parents know their kids better than anyone else, Meier says, and "They need to make their voices heard a lot more regarding school reform." Teachers need to speak up, too. "If parents and teachers were in a real alliance, they would think of things, based on their expertise, they might be doing. But that would take a lot of time and we don1t provide a lot of time for parents and teachers to spend together. They need to find the courage to say, ‘This is about us and our kids, and no voice is more important or more central to the debate about the future of schooling than ours.’"