Is The Nightly Homework Battle Worth It?

A lot of kids hate homework, and studies show they're getting more of it than ever. But experts are questioning whether the work is worth it. Host Michel Martin discusses the debate over homework with a panel of parents, including regular contributor Jolene Ivey, psychologist Kenneth Goldberg and educator Stephen Jones.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today, we want to talk about the homework wars. Kids have been complaining about having to do their homework probably since homework was invented, whenever that was. But now, even parents are saying that they have had enough, in part because studies show that American schools are assigning more homework than ever before, but although - and this is something we should talk about - still less than almost every other developed country in the world.

Our parenting roundtable is here to talk about how and why homework has become such a battle ground and what, if anything, parents can do to win it. Kenneth Goldberg is a clinical psychologist and author of "The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers." He's a dad of three. Jolene Ivey is one of our regular contributors. She's the mom of five boys. She's also one of the cofounders of a parenting support group and she's a Maryland state lawmaker. Also with us, Stephen Jones. He's an associate dean at Villanova University's College of Engineering. He's the author of "Seven Secrets of How to Study" and he's also a dad of two.

Welcome to everybody. Thanks for joining us.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

KENNETH GOLDBERG: Thank you for having us.

STEPHEN JONES: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Now, Kenneth Goldberg, I'm going to start with you. You are a psychologist and you're...

GOLDBERG: That's true.

MARTIN: ...the author of the - as we said, "The Homework Trap" and I was just interested in how you got interested in the whole question of the psychological stress of homework.

GOLDBERG: Well, it started with my own children. I have three children and I've often said, if I had two, I wouldn't have written the book because my first two kids went through school the way, you know, most kids do. But my third child had persistent homework problems and what I realized was not just that he had homework problems, but that homework stood as a unique area in my life as a parent in that I did not have parent authority to make my own decisions. There was an authority above me who could grade him and punish him and I couldn't come up with my own solution. So that was the first thing that hit me.

I then started looking at my clients, both children and adults who talked about their experiences from when they were children, and I realized there were consistent themes that made a certain - that made it difficult for a certain group of kids to get their homework done.

MARTIN: Jolene Ivey, does any of this resonate with you?

IVEY: Yeah. Just the fact that it took his own kid who - to put him on this track, I mean, homework is such a miserable experience in my life. With five boys, you know I've had to sit through a lot of homework sessions and I'm not one of the parents who does my kids' homework for them. I know parents who do that. I won't do it, but I really hate living through it.

MARTIN: You used that word several times when we were talking to you earlier about this. You used the word, hate, several times and that is a strong word and you really mean you hate it. What is it that you hate most about it? Is it what Dr. Goldberg said, the fact that you've got people basically dictating what goes on in your house? Is that it or is it something else?

IVEY: It just seems to me that the teachers have my kids for seven hours a day or whatever it is. When my kid gets home, I just like my kids to be able to do something else, whether it's read or play outside, skateboard, learn to knit, anything, just be bored. Whatever they want to do, I want them to do something different.

MARTIN: Stephen Jones, what's behind the increase in homework and what's your perspective on the increase in the homework load from your perspective as an educator and also as a parent? Because there are a lot of people who take the opposite view that Americans don't do enough homework, that we're basically slackers, internationally.

JONES: Well, I think one of the challenges is that we're teaching to the test and so a lot of the instruction that should be there going on, actually, in the school environment is not there, so giving homework gives them an additional opportunity to give them work.

I think one of the challenges is that we don't teach or we don't provide them with opportunities to use the different learning styles as they're doing work at home so that their motivation levels will be more enthusiastic because they've actually had something that they enjoy as they're working at home.

MARTIN: Now, we've talked about the framework of the problem, as many people see it. Why don't we talk about some of the solutions that each of you has come up with over time? So, Dr. Goldberg, I'm going to start with you because that's, you know, part of what you're trying to accomplish with your book is teach people how to kind of get ahead of it.

So I want to start on the micro-level, kind of on an individual level, and then I want to save some time at the end to talk about some of your kind of global strategies for addressing this, you know, as a country, as neighbors, as communities. But why don't we start small and talk about individually? How should you get started if you find yourself in this homework trap, as you put it, where you're just battling every day?

GOLDBERG: Well, the first and most important thing to do is to put homework into time containers. One of the problems with homework is that it's defined by the assignment. When kids go to school, they go say from nine to three, six hours. Whether they're the fastest or the slowest working kids, they still get out with the same bell.

When you're at home, it's endless. So if a child works a little less quickly than another child, that magnifies in the amount of time it takes. You can get away from the battles by having time containers for homework. You can have a homework session in which you, even as a parent, you could do some light reading or just some quiet activities. You don't have to hover over your child, but you need to let the child know that when the time - the homework time session is over, it's over, and that child can leave whether or not it's all done.

MARTIN: And what about that, whether or not it's all done? What if it's not all done? What are you going to do?

GOLDBERG: Well, as a parent, if you do that, the reality is your child's going to do than your child's going to do if you're battling all the time. So it's an immediate winner just to set the time boundary. But the second issue is that you want to then have a modification of the penalties for work not done. That's where you need to then have a dialogue with the school. That becomes trickier, and that's part of what my book is about, is giving the basis to have that conversation and to get the school to reduce the penalties. But the first and foremost thing you still need to do is to have the time boundary. There is nothing to gain from going all night long battling over homework.

MARTIN: Jolene Ivey, what are some of the strategies that have worked in your house for particularly with, I mean, with five - as you mentioned, you've got a range of kids. Some kids are probably self-starters and just sit down, knock it out, get it done. And some kids probably want to go skateboard for an hour before they sit down. What are some of the strategies in your house?

IVEY: I generally let the kids do what they want when they first get home. I think it's important that everybody gets some down time. And, in fact, you know, I work all day, and when I come home nobody's standing over me saying do something additional other than, you know, cook, clean, get the laundry done. But as far as my work, my work is done when I come home. And I feel like the kids should at least have a break. So everybody gets a break. And, you know, my kids know I'm not enthusiastic about homework. I am somewhat sympathetic to them. On the other hand, it is what it is, as they say, and I don't want their grades to suffer because of homework or not getting it done.

The frustrating thing for me is when I see online - because we do have a website where you can check your kid's grades - I'll see that they'll get 100 percent on their homework, you know, that they've been doing their homework as 100 percent, but it only seems to check if it's done. The teacher's not always checking if it's done correctly. So then the test comes up, and then the same child might not get anything approaching 100 percent on the test. And I think there needs to be a stronger commitment from the teacher, if the teacher is going to assign the homework, they have to actually correct it to make sure it's being useful in the lesson.

MARTIN: Dr. Jones, could you talk a little bit about that, too? Because that's one of the things you talk about in your book is, you know, strategies for studying and how to break things down into manageable bits. But I hear this from a lot of parents, which is to say that the child is rewarded for just turning it in, and you have no way of knowing whether it's actually useful in helping to reinforce what it is that he or she is supposed to be learning.

And if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. It's our regular parenting roundtable. We're talking about how to get out from under the homework trap. I'm joined by educator Stephen Jones, clinical psychologist Kenneth Goldberg. Both Dr. Jones and Dr. Goldberg have written books about this - and our regular parenting contributor Jolene Ivey.

Stephen Jones?

JONES: Yes, I give them some downtime, too. But in the midst of that downtime, I try to ask them some open-ended questions about how their day was, what they learned. Because I also want to see how they're doing emotionally, like how is the day draining them, in a way, so I could get a sense of whether that maybe they need some rest before they actually jump into the homework. And I can give them some strategies and work with them as they're going through the homework.

I also want to see - and it's fun when the child knows that they're teaching you. So I allow them to teach me what they've learned, and I found that they get a lot of joy out of that, and that's made homework a lot better at experience in our home.

MARTIN: You have a number of other strategies, like start reading the textbook, you know, right away, when you get it, you know, leaf through it, things like that, breaking things down into manageable chunks. But, you know, Stephen Jones, I've got to ask this, because there are a lot of parents who are either single parents, or both parents are working out of the home, working really long days trying to put food on the table. They're tired when they come home. And they may not feel a sense of mastery in the subject that the kids are studying. What do you recommend that they do? Especially as we talked about earlier, when Jolene says, look, I'm not even sure if their homework is right?

JONES: That's true. One of the things I think is really important, as I go all over the city here and talk with both parents and students, is how to engage the parents so that they can be a part of the learning experience. They're not always able to get out and make the connection with the teachers, and I think that that's something that's really important that they understand and get support from the school itself. And they can get out and meet with them and find out exactly what can be done and what kind of support that they can provide.

So I think there's a proactive part with the parent that can be helpful. And I'm also working with schools to connect with them in the community, not just the parent having to go to school, by getting them to connect in the community with the parents, as well.

MARTIN: But if you're not in a school district where all that's going on? What then? What do you recommend?

JONES: Well, there's a lot of resources that are available for, you know, teaching at home. You know, there's a lot of home schools that are going on right now. That seems to be increasing, as well. And so that is a way to get materials and resources that could also inspire your child.

MARTIN: It sounds, though, that you disagree with our other two guests who really feel that homework is out of control. I mean, they kind of feel that just as we're having all these conversations about work-life balance and discouraging people from taking work home, you know, as adults, it's a lot of educators and parents in particular are saying, you know what? The school day is already eight hours long, and why do we need to have all this work at home in addition to that? It sounds to me, though, that you take a different view. You don't seem to feel that there's anything wrong with taking a lot of this work home. Do I have that right?

JONES: Well, I guess some of the research - especially I'm going to speak specifically to high school students - is that the average student, when they come home, they may study 20 minutes. And what I find - because I work in the college environment - the bigger challenge is when they get to the college environment, there's so much more work and they haven't had any practice in how to manage their time and organize themselves and plan and prepare for tests.

So I think they miss out on that when they don't have a, you know, some kind of basic structure - even if it's, you know, that 20 minutes of study and take a break and break it up a little bit. But that whole habit, I find a lot of students in the first semester of college really struggle with that, because they haven't had that experience as...

MARTIN: Kenneth Goldberg...

GOLDBERG: ...high school students.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. Forgive me. Kenneth Goldberg, what about that? What about the - a couple of questions for you, is what about the argument that kids need to learn to have the stamina and the discipline to work independently and to, you know, work beyond, you know, when the bell rings? And secondly, the other question is: Is there any advantage of having homework done at school, maybe flipping, you know, the day?

GOLDBERG: Well, if I had control of this, I would actually expand the length of the school day and have all homework done at school, as opposed to being done at home. But as far as the question of teaching study skills, there may be some degree to which homework teaches study skills. However, I really think that the major factor that causes kids to be successful in college is not that they learn study skills, but that they learn to believe in themselves.

One of the differences between college and high school is that in college, you go home to the dorm. In high school, you go home to your parents. Your parents are the last people that a high school student wants to be around to then do more work. That's your home.

When you go - come home to the dorm, you're coming home to an environment where people are studying. Even if you weren't the greatest student when you were in high school, even if you weren't the greatest studier, the modeling, the milieu will bring you into doing more studying. It's really your self-confidence that's the issue, as much as practice, per se. So, to me, my concern - particularly with the homework-trapped child - is that we're battering them with negativity, and in the long run, affecting their self-confidence.

MARTIN: In the minute - in the couple of minutes that we have left, I'd love to hear from you about some of the broader issues that you would like to raise around how much homework kids do and how it is done, and so forth. Are there any issues of advocacy that you would want to raise or have already raised? Jolene, I'm going to ask you this first.

IVEY: I just think that schools need to be a little more thoughtful about their policies for homework and work with the teachers to make sure that whatever homework that they do assign are rich, valuable experiences for the kids, and will actually be corrected. Now, one of my kids is in French Immersion. I have absolutely no idea. I've never taken French. So when I look at his homework, if I even bother to try to look, all I can say is yup, he wrote something on the paper.

MARTIN: Yeah.

IVEY: And it's really up to the teacher to correct it. My dad was a teacher, and I really believe that teachers are very valuable, and that's part of their job.

MARTIN: OK. Stephen Jones, final word from you?

JONES: I'm firmly in the belief that taking knowledge and applying it is so important. So, for example, if a child is learning mathematics, why, you know, have them come home and use measuring cups, use rulers, use the practical things that they can understand what they're learning, and it can be visual for that students who is specifically a visual learner trying to bring into all of the student's learning opportunities the opportunity to be successful because they've had these different kinds of experiences, both in the school and at home.

MARTIN: And Kenneth Goldberg, a final word from you.

GOLDBERG: Two things: One is that teachers should recognize that parents are the head of the home, teachers of the head of the classroom, and that homework is given with the permission of the parents, that that's a permission. Secondly, schools of education should begin teaching homework to teachers. Teachers are not taught the theory, research and practice of homework. They should be teaching it as an academic topic.

MARTIN: Interesting. Could I get some help with my homework? Just kidding. I'm sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Kenneth Goldberg is a clinical psychologist and author of "The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers." He's a dad of three. Stephen Jones is an associate dean at Villanova College in Pennsylvania. He trains K through 12 teachers. He has authored a number of study guides. He's also a dad of two. They were booked with us from Philadelphia. And with us from Washington, D.C., Jolene Ivey, one of our regular parenting contributors, Maryland state lawmaker and a mom of five.

Thank you all so much.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

JONES: Thank you, Michel.

GOLDBERG: And thank you so much.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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