The Horror of Homework

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Last week we asked listeners to share their concerns about education. Over the next few months, Day to Day will be doing a series of reports on education, and we'd like your help thinking through what sorts of issues we should be covering. You can leave your suggestions in the comments field below, or you can use the Contact Day to Day form if you'd like to leave us a private note.

One of the concerns listeners cited last week was homework. Universally dreaded—but often poorly understood—homework seems to be an ever-increasing burden on students. Here are a few tips to prevent a nightly nuclear meltdown:

1 — According to the NEA and the PTA, there should be a 10-minute rule. That means no more than 10 minutes of homework per grade level. 10 minutes for 1st Grade, 20 for 2nd, and so on. That would mean by 12th grade, no more than 2 hours a night. That might sound like a lot, but many high school students report having 3-4 hours of homework a night.

2 — Even 10 minutes per level might be too much for grade-school students, though. Studies have shown homework provides little to no benefit for K-6 students, and that simply encouraging reading after school can be more effective. Conversely, learning work habits - i.e., how to complete an assignment in a place other than school/work is a good tool to have. Maybe it's not the subject matter itself, but the process that's most valuable.

3 — Parents, what if you find yourself in a nightly battle with your kid to complete the homework assignment? Make sure your child has a place to do the homework free from distractions, and try to get the assignment done before your child gets too tired. If it's still taking too long, talk to your child's teacher in a non-confrontational way. Maybe she can dispense with the time-consuming word search. Or maybe completing every other math problem is ok. Teachers, what about dispensing with the mind-numbing rote homework (write each vocabulary word 3 times) and instead give homework that's more creative (write a story about your pet cat as a superhero.)

4 — And finally, it's always good to remember that children—like us—respond better to praise than criticism. When you go over their homework, praise what they got right; work with them to correct mistakes. And, if all else fails, remember you are not alone.

Have you come up with some additional strategies you'd like to share?



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I'm teaching my 11-year-old 6th grader the power of walking away. She's a very bright child and gives herself a hard time if she can't "get" something, like a math problem, right away. I let her, and most times make her, walk away for at least 15 minutes. Nearly every time after this break, when she returns to her work, she "gets" the problem instantly and moves on. (the trick is getting her to walk away before she melts down!)

Sent by Katie | 1:00 PM | 9-11-2008

I heard your show today. I was an elementary school teacher for 30 years. My career ended when late onset PTSD was exacerbated by the 70 hour weeks and the drive to fulfill the bizarre desires of the folks of the typical successful administrative career: Asst. Principal; Principal; Business Manager; Asst. Superintendent; and State Dept. of Education for Curriculum design. Finally. a member of the State Testing consortium; Retirement; and employee of the company which sells the test to the State Dept, of Education.

There are three chief reasons why there is too much homework in elementary school: 1) state curricula is SO dense that it imp[ossible, during class time, to do the massed practice, reading, or writing necessary to meet the criteria of the curricula; 2) the tyranny of textbooks, the implementation of which usually is a result of parental pressure "to make sure MY child learns as much as YOUR child, e.g.make teaching "teacher proof;" and 3) extreme parental pressure. Teachers know that the emphasis in elementary schools is providing an education in synch with each child's developmental needs, with an emphasis on inculcating the characteristics of good learning, discriminating among different points of view, and a desire to continue learning throughout school. Unfortunately, teaching is the only "profession" which is treated like a low level blue collar position. I can't tell you how many times I've been in a "brainstorming meeting in which any interesting teacher generated idea has been subtly manipulated to support the preconceived position of the Administration. I can't tell you how many times I've seen excellent new teachers, without tenure, not rehired because principals were threatened by the current views on education.

Sent by Gary Pighetti | 1:06 PM | 9-11-2008

As a future teacher, I found this a very informative topic today! Thank you so much. It is also helpful with my young son, an only child in kindergarten. While he doesn't have homework, really, I do make him do the work he refuses to do in class. I never work him more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time, so it's good to see I am doing the right thing!

Sent by Valerie | 1:29 PM | 9-11-2008

Based on my observaton of the youth and young people today, there is too much emphasis on passing tests and not enough emphasis on how to find the information. Although I am older, I remember that the education was as much about how to locate the answer using resource materials, books and the concepts necessary to solve problems.

It would appear today the emphasis is on just learning the answers and not how to apply the answers to real life situations. That leads to the college students who don't know how to spell, how to research or how to count change without using the computer.

Sent by H. L. Risinger | 1:51 PM | 9-11-2008

I'm a former teacher (now college prof), my husband's a teacher, and my sister-in-law is a former teacher. We have a thrid grader. Though he is bright, it is a struggle to get him to do homework and, frankly, a source of anxiety for us. For what? It's rarely put in the teacher's grade book. We have enough to do in the afternoons, including having a chance to spend time together. If studies have shown little benefit for kids in K-6th, why do schools keep doing it? Most likely due to pressure from parents. It's more difficult to educate parents on what the evidence says. It's easier to bend to the will of the "consumer."

Sent by Jeni Ganz | 2:03 PM | 9-11-2008

I have a 4th grader in Cincinnati and we are in a new school, moved to Ohio in the summer. I was ashocked and amazed by the emails I was receiving daily about homework so I immediately contacted the teacher. The response was as stated in the first STAT in paragraph #1....40 minutes would be our average. We break it up. She sits after school for about 20 minutes doing worksheets, reviews and vocabulary. After dinner she continues with test reviews and reading for 20 minutes.....the reading usually lasts longer making it more than 30. So we are doing close to an hour per day, in 4th grade.
My second grader has 20 minutes of reading daily only. Her teacher only assigns homework on an individual basis as needed.

Sent by Catherine, A Texan in Ohio | 4:01 PM | 9-11-2008

In middle and high school, taking advanced and AP classes, I had hordes and hordes of homework. In middle school, this was mostly busy work which I detested, or horrible algebra and geometry homework, which I detested even more. In high school however, homework became an evil necessity. Doing the work was an important addition to in class learning, because so much on AP exams cannot (because of time restraints) be taught in class.

My whole educational experience has been "taught to the test." In elementary school, because tests changed and rules changed frequently, I was tested EVERY single year. This continued into middle school. We took the CRCT, the ITBS and another test which we had to RE TAKE because it turned out the testing company was actually no good. I took standardized tests EVERY SINGLE YEAR until 8th grade. In high school, in addition to AP tests at the end of the year, I took Georgia's lovely Graduation Test Junior year, as well as mandatory PSAT/NMSQUAT every year 9th - 11th grade.

I am extremely good at sitting and taking test for long periods of time. And bubbling in answers; inside the bubble of course.

Other than that, all those tests have taught me one thing - the education system in the US needs to be overhauled.

Sent by Josephine Nord | 5:35 PM | 9-11-2008

Oh please, when I was a kid, I walked backwards uphill carrying my books through blizzards to do my homework from dusk til the wee hours on the back of a shovel by the light of a burning pencil stub.

Sent by Kristi White | 6:19 PM | 9-11-2008

Our school has a 4 day week with 8 hour days? My second grader leaves for school at 6:45 AM and gets home at 5:15 PM. The school gives no homework even on our 3 day weekend! THis seems way out of balance.

Sent by Jane | 6:28 PM | 9-11-2008

As a former teacher who left the profession because it is structured not to benefit it's students, I can say with great authority that homework without context, i.e. busy work is useless.

Experiential teaching is dead in this country and has been replaced by meaningless academic standardized testing.

We should understand that the rest of the world is not wasting time. In one generation we WILL be surpassed and in one more the wealth that has sustained the American Dream will follow suit.

The time to act is now. For some of us that will mean fixing the system. For others it will mean moving their families to where education and opportunity will exist in the future.

Sent by Jeff Friesen | 7:19 PM | 9-11-2008

I'm a middle school teacher, and I think some teachers are tempted to give homework to get grades in their books -- for the sole purpose of satisfying parents who see report cards as an end rather than a means of showing progress. Progress in school is not often a quantifiable objective, but when parents want to feel that their children are learning, they usually want numbers and grades -- to get enough of those, some teachers are tempted to rely on homework. Homework should be assigned for three reasons only: practice of skills(math etc.), preparation for discussion (a reading), or the development of skills best learned on an individual basis (memorizing locations on a map). When I first started teaching, I taught in a high school that did not grade homework. The philosophy was that the homework would be assessed on the tests and quizzes. An interesting concept... and it worked a lot better than I thought it would. Although, I think homework has merits in work ethic and following directions that this system may not address if students choose not to do the homework because they know it will not be looked at.

Sent by Mark | 8:39 PM | 9-11-2008

When I completed my teacher training in the late 70's, we were taught NEVER to assign homework, because we (as teachers) needed to be there to assist the kids and make sure they were doing the work correctly. Parents were not to be counted on to do this - many of them were too busy or too unfamiliar with the material. We were the professionals, we were told, teaching was what WE were getting paid for. Besides, if the kids were not getting the work done correctly at home, the frustration of trying and not succeeding would quickly lead to negative self-image spirals that - ultimately - could cause the kids to give up on learning. And those frustrations would never be erased by after-the-fact corrections in class the next day, when there would be no time to go back and re-teach whatever had gone amiss. PLUS, we were told, kids need a life. Beside "Book Learning", they need to learn social interaction by spending time with friends. AND to get physical stimulation through sports or play. ALSO, they need down time, to just relax and use their imaginations.

Now, I am the mother of a 4th grader and a kindergartener. (I was a late bloomer.) They attend public schools, because my husband and I are committed to public school education. The school district mandates that every child have homework every night. Even the kindergarteners. And I see the truth of what I was taught in practice every day, as my 4th grader struggles with his homework - even with my help. He often spends as much as 2 hours on his 40 minutes worth of homework, with a couple of meltdowns in the process. Despite my inquiries, his teachers have never been very good about providing assistance to me to help me assist him. Every year they have discouraged me from buying textbooks that mirror his, so that I can familiarize myself with his day-to-day classwork. There just aren't enough hours in his day. This is not an over-scheduled child. He has reading tutor for an hour 1 day a week. And every week I debate with myself whether he has time enough for 1 hour of soccer practice. He does not have time just to be a kid. It is VERY frustrating.

Sent by Janis Powers | 10:08 PM | 9-11-2008

This was a fabulous article! I am especially impressed that it included the well-documented but largely ignored fact that homework provides no real benefit K-6. I share this information with parents and on my website (, and they are amazed. It is a crying shame how we have allowed politicians and corporations to convince us that our schools are failing and our children are not working! I am a teacher, and I see students working much, much harder than I ever did in elementary school. Parents must put their collective feet down and say, "Enough!" Our children are tested, tested, tested, and they are burned out.

Sent by Angela Norton Tyler | 11:25 AM | 9-12-2008

Every day I feel the after shocks of the previous night's homework meltdown--today is no exception. Last night, alone, my seven-year-old daughter studied for a spelling test, tackled a page of twenty math problems (a timed ditty that was supposed to take two minutes and prepare her for a test), and completed two sentences that answered the question: What do you do to stay healthy? (Irony, anyone?)

I'm appalled that my child spends six hours in school and comes home having to do more work. BUT truthfully, I can't afford to be reactionary. I'm learning that I live in a community where homework is analogous to academic rigor. I'd like to scream and shout and shake up the system in order to give my children their freedom to be kids, but the reality is that teachers have an unreasonable amount of content to cover and are being nudged to teach to the tests, which means rote worksheets: practice at school, practice at home, practice, practice, practice, ad infinitum.

As a parent, I have to cheat, let them hurry through some of the slag so they have time to build a fort in the living room. Sometimes, we even shove the weekly homework packet into three days instead of five so they can frolic, go ride their bikes in the driveway and act like children instead of PhD candidates.

Still, the strategy of how to handle all this work is crucial since the system doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. The public school's unspoken motto might be "more, more, more" but as a parent and advocate of my two children, asking why hasn't gotten me anywhere, so I've been asking HOW, instead.

My daughter's artistic, a visual kid who sees the world through pictures and stories, so last night, when she studied her spelling, she drew pictures next to each word. Does that help her learn how to spell the words? No, I don't think so, but it certainly helps her concentrate on each word, giving the words personality and color. Afterwards we created a rhythm for each word as she spelled them aloud. Hey, at least she was dancing. The meltdown came when she faced her "Lightening Rod" math problems, forced to complete twenty addition and subtraction problems in two minutes. Did she finish the worksheet in the time provided? Of course not. Frustration ensued. Her body trembled, whining percolated in her throat. I can sit with her while my first grader goes outside to catch lizards and do my best to quell her anger, but my child is not a machine. I don't have a strategy for making her go faster. And frankly, I can't help but scuttle around for that word I tried to tuck away earlier: Why?

Sent by Stacey Goldblatt | 12:36 PM | 9-12-2008

I am an at home mom and former teacher who taught both 5th and 9th grades. I now have 4 kids who range from 9th to 2nd grades.

This has been my biggest complaint as a parent. The main purpose of homework for me was reinforce skills in class, if not finished in school. I very much disagree with pre-work, where the skill is not covered but taught once the homework is done while checking the homework from the night before. Parents may not be capable or willing to help at home. The teacher should teach the material before assigning work to reinforce the content.

As a former teacher, I strongly feel that there is not enough time in the school day to cover the state standards. I do not want to limit the arts, PE or recess ... but I needed more core class teaching time. I also am in favor of year-round school calendars so that there is down-time throughout the year, not just primarily in the summer. Also, kids who need more academic help should then have access to tutoring and intervention during the school year during those break times made available. We are not an agricultural economy which needs kids in the summers at home to work the farm. We are a global economy that needs a better educated population in critical thinking skills and proficient reading. Smaller class sizes and smaller school communities also help to serve kids at the lower end of the scale academically so that they don't become invisible and fall out of the system. Unfortunately, we also must recognize that many kids do not have home support, and that school work is where they can learn with support, not through homework. As homework demands increase, it is the students who lack home support and structure who fall behind very quickly.

My 9th grader has about 3 hours of homework and reading a night, thanks to taking 4 pre-AP classes. My 2nd grader has only 15 minutes of homework and spelling practice. My two middle schoolers have 30 minutes of homework usually and additional reading time. I do think this is balanced in relation to the classes they are taking.

Sent by Anne Greene | 1:35 PM | 9-12-2008

I am the parent of a very bright child with Asperger's Syndrome, so I am also interested in your series on autism. It can take my child twice as long to do homework as a regular child, and many teachers do *not* understand that there are not enough hours in the day to complete the homework. He is a senior this year, and after a full day of school (where he has to focus and concentrate on behaving appropriately, as well as actually learning the material), and then 4 hours of homework on top is too much. He needs downtime. He does have an IEP, but because he is very bright and verbal many teachers do not believe he actually needs accommodations. They think kids in honors classes should do honors level amounts of work, with no exceptions. It is frustrating, and makes life hellish, especially when a lot of the work is busywork and not really about learning at all.

Sent by Concerned mother | 4:13 PM | 9-12-2008

I appreciate the comments and discussion on homework. I have three children (grades Kindergarten, 2, and 4), and have started questioning the importance of homework for those grades. For anyone also questioning, I would recommend The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn; it is a thought-provoking analysis of the arguments for homework.

Sent by Heidi | 1:17 AM | 9-15-2008

After reading your article and comments by other parents...I too agree that there is much too much homework!!! My kids (5th grade and 8th grade) come home from school wanting to "enjoy some after school quiet time"...but because of their homework schedules...they are not allowed their relax time. It is absolutely frustrating! They leave for school at 7:30a.m., arrive home at 3:00 p.m., come right in and pretty much hit the books! If they don't, they will be sitting at the table (through dinner) until 10:00 so they can finish they "homework"! Ridiculous!! When I was younger, we got to enjoy the beautiful fall days, play with friends, and eat supper as a family. This generation is growing up to be a Testing Facility...each student is being generated to crank out assignments, tests, projects, and homework. They never get to have a class where they actually "talk" about what the learned so it sinks it. I'm not even sure they even "know" their teachers. It is so sad! Once that topic is tested...move on to the next! That is what the state asks them to do, so the teachers follow suit! It is not beneficial or fair to anyone. The kids are "memorizing" to pass tests...but as we all know..the memory only holds so much!!! If it is not a "learned" subject...the information is soon lost. I'm all for testing as I had it in my school years, but having homework being piled on to a student in an unheard of amount so the State Testing can be done as "scheduled" is just not working!!!! There has to be a way to let the kids enjoy this time of their life more than they do! Life is way to short and childhood passes way too fast! When do they get to enjoy the easy going pace of childhood? Inquiring Minds Would Like To Know!

Sent by Sue | 9:30 AM | 9-15-2008

I was talking to a friend last night, who also has a daughter in 2nd Grade. Her school is a public school, but it's a charter school. She told me her teacher just announced that there will be no homework for the whole year. Just like that. Needless to say, she - my friend - is very happy and relieved.

Sent by Madeleine | 4:36 PM | 9-15-2008

Wow, I am disappointed to read all these negative parental and teacher comments, not much has changed. It was the same way twenty years ago when my children were in elementary school. I really wanted my children to attend an alternative school that integrated art and music throughout the curriculum similar to a modified Waldorf or Montessori (neither require homework) but there were none in our vicinity so they attended a local Catholic elementary school instead. It was hit or miss, some years their homework was torture and other years it was meaningful and motivating, it all depended on the teacher and her/his understanding of holistic education.

Here are a few tips from a veteran mom and art teacher. During my graduate studies I reviewed the literature on studies that examined the effect of the arts on cognition and the conclusions pointed to a strong correlation. My children listened to Mozart for the Mind and Hemi-Sync Music while doing homework, they also used colored index cards to memorize rote material and colored markers to make outlines and graphics organizers for study aids. Whenever possible I would try to integrate the arts at home, it kept their attention and made the task more palatable. Using art as a visual language to express their thoughts and feelings made the activity personal, relevant , and appealing.. My children used these same study methods in college and both were routinely on the Dean's list.-maybe as a mom I intuitively new what my children needed based on their individual learning styles but I also believe the arts improve cognitive development and enrich a child's learning experience. In addition, integrating art activities into other subjects develops creative thinking skills that will serve children well in all areas of their life.

Maybe someday politicians and administrators will realize that all their curriculum demands and standards are meaningless and even detrimental if the students are disinterested and not actively involved in their own learning. John Dewey concluded many years ago that experiential learning is the key to attention and retention. By all means let your children create!

"In roughly the last century, important experiments have been launched by such charismatic educators as Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, Shinichi Suzuki, John Dewey, and A. S. Neil. These approaches have enjoyed considerable success[...] Yet they have had relatively little impact on the mainstream of education throughout the contemporary world."
- Howard Gardner, The Disciplined Mind

Sent by Ali Harrod | 11:24 PM | 9-16-2008

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