Isn’t it strange that after years of groaning about homework throughout childhood, we dread it even more as parents? More to the point: We’re as delighted as kids when someone tells us we’re off the hook.
That’s what happened this week when Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher in Texas, dispatched a revolutionary note to her classroom that promptly went viral:
A gratified parent shared the note on Facebook to a chorus of relief. “Finally a teacher who realizes real life!” one parent posted. “I believe that if there was less homework assignments for the kids to do that there would probably be less drop-outs as kids get older,” another wrote. “Kids need to be kids,” declared yet another.
At last someone — someone in a position of educational authority, in fact, and not a grumbling child — had sounded the alarm on homework for young kids.
It’s long overdue, says Belmont’s Alfie Kohn, a prominent education lecturer and author of “The Homework Myth.”
Kohn believes the very idea of homework is misguided, a reaction to a toxically competitive culture in which “[kids] have to defeat people as if education were an Olympic sport. It’s this whole top-down, corporate-style, test-driven approach . . . which also manifests itself in high-stakes testing and common core, with one-size-fits-all standards — which explains why there’s this push to make kids work harder.”
It’s especially troubling, he says, because that there’s a lack of research to support that homework helps elementary-schoolers in any way.
“No research has found any benefit to any kind of homework below the high school level,” Kohn says. “Why do we persist in making kids swallow this modern cod liver oil and work a ‘second shift?’ ”
Blame it on our already hyper-scheduled lives. Homework has become one more thing to check off the to-do list, alongside piano lessons, sports, tutoring, karate, toddler origami, and who knows what else. Kids have less free time than ever before. According to an article by Boston College psychology researcher Dr. Peter Gray in the American Journal of Play, “[C]hildren’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities” since about 1955.
“We just don’t trust children, and we do not trust them to decide how to spend their time, so we attempt to keep them busy,” Kohn laments. “We force them to be constructive until their heads hit the pillow. We can binge on Netflix or update on Facebook. But children — no, no! School must reach its long arm into the home and compel them to be constructive.”
In a world where free time is at a premium, giving homework just to fill time can be pointless at best and damaging at worst, particularly for already overextended families.
“My thought is that homework needs to be intentional,” says Emily Fialky, a school psychologist in Northampton and the mother of elementary schoolers. “If there was a parent home and a kid came home and relaxed with nothing else going on, and they did some extra practice, I could see that as doable. But we have this parallel world where both parents usually work, and children desperately need downtime because they’ve been learning all day.”
The National Education Association supports 10 to 20 minutes of homework in first grade and an additional 10 minutes per grade level thereafter.
“At the elementary school level, homework can help students develop study skills and habits and can keep families informed about their child’s learning,” it says on the website.
Further, the site notes that “homework overload is the exception rather than the norm, according to research from the Brookings Institution and the Rand Corporation. Their researchers analyzed data from a variety of sources and concluded that the majority of US students spend less than an hour a day on homework, regardless of grade level, and this has held true for most of the past 50 years.”
This might come as a shock to any parent of a child who’s slogged home laden with more books and papers than a frazzled accountant.
Still, the pressure is not always coming from the classroom. Some parents demand homework despite teachers’ reluctance to dole it out, Kohn says.
“For every e-mail I get from a desperate parent, I get an e-mail from a teacher saying, ‘I know homework is pointless. It makes everybody unhappy and diminishes excitement about learning. But parents demand it,’ ” he says.
There’s a perception that homework equates to rigorous learning. Take the parent who questioned the academic rigor of a prominent Boston high school on a local real estate message board:
“However, I must say the academics are not what I expected. My other son attends a charter school, and has much more homework and is learning much more,” the parent wrote.
But if the Texas teacher’s viral declaration is any indication, a homework backlash may be brewing. So what’s a concerned parent to do next?
Rally, says Kohn.
“Talk to each other and organize a group of 10 or so parents. Walk in with a story about your child and say, ‘I’m very sorry, but we will not be participating in a homework program. The bottom line is — what happens in the evening is for families to decide, not schools. Respectfully, we say no, and we opt out,’” Kohn suggests. “This isn’t just about moderation or reduction.”
Because, just like in elementary school, it helps to have friends on your side.