Just Teacher Things Homework

A fourth-grade teacher in Oregon just introduced a progressive homework policy for her students that's sure to please many parents.

The teacher, who works at Howard Elementary School in Eugene, OR, is making afterschool assignments optional and giving parents the final say in whether and how it gets done, reportsScary Mommy.

The guidelines, which Scary Mommy gained access to via one of the students' moms, Mel Dormer, begin with condensed expectations for reading ("100 minutes per week recorded on log"), math ("50 minutes per week recorded on log") and spelling ("Words sent home every seven days, practice if desired"), but as you get further down the page to more detailed explanations, you'll see the policy is actually refreshingly flexible and encourages family bonding.

For weekly reading, the teacher writes, "Any kind of reading counts: reading alone, reading to someone, and listening to someone else read to them. We recommend mixing it up so kids experience many different kinds of reading." For math, the teacher says it is her goal for students to "recognize and use math in their everyday lives" and suggests kids do "real-world math tasks" like cooking with a recipe, helping build things and working with money. The teacher also invites parents to reach out to her if they have any questions or need ideas for helping with reading or math.

These sound so much more doable and enjoyable than parent and child sitting in front of a textbook in the evening, often both exhausted and bored out of their minds. Just sayin'.

Whether kids do these suggested assignments, however, is the parents' decision. In the final note, the teacher reveals, "I do not have in-class rewards or consequences for homework since I’m not in charge of whether it gets finished. Whether or not you do homework is a family choice. Students will receive a homework grade on their report card, but students will not miss out on any class activities or receive prizes for homework. It’s up to families to decide if homework is a priority.”

According to Mel, who spoke with Scary Mommy, this isn't the only class at Howard Elementary School with this type of policy. Because many teachers there are moms with young children, they can relate to work-life balance struggles parents have during the week. As a result, the school's stance on assignments is generally flexible.

Since a common complaint about homework is that kids are given too much of it, leaving less room for kids to be kids or spend quality time with their families, we can imagine many moms and dads being happy with these guidelines. If you think your kid does too much schoolwork during the day and doesn't need to do anymore at home, it's your call. But if you want to find creative ways to get your children to learn new concepts at home while having a good time, that's great too. This teacher clearly understands why it's so important to give parents a say—and a break.

A second-grade teacher in Texas recently rekindled the annual debate over whether kids spend too much time on homework.

The teacher said she did not plan to assign homework this school year because it has not proven to correlate with achievement (not true) and because no homework would allow families to eat together and read together, and children to play outside and have an early bed time. If only dropping homework could make these things happen!

Research overwhelmingly supports the notion that students who do homework do better in school than those who don’t.

But research also suggests the amount and type of homework must take into account the child’s developmental level. Teachers refer to the “10-minute Rule” – homework time on any given school night should be equal to the child’s grade level times 10. So a second-grader should have 20 minutes of homework. The National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association agree with this philosophy.

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My internet searches have never uncovered a school policy that differs greatly from the 10-minute rule. If a second-grader brings home two hours of homework, that’s not good. If an 11th-grader does five hours, that’s too much. The amount of homework kids bring home generally does not diverge from those school policies.

The perception that American kids do too much homework is also belied by a national survey that asked parents, “Do you think your child’s teachers assign too much homework, too little homework or the right amount of homework?” Sixty percent said just the right amount, 15 percent said too much and 25 percent said too little.

Beyond achievement, homework can also lead to the development of good study habits and a recognition that learning can occur at home as well as at school.

Homework can also foster independent learning and responsible character traits – essential skills later in life when students change jobs or learn new skills for advancement at work.

And homework can give parents an opportunity to see what’s going on at school and learn about their child’s academic strengths and weaknesses. Two parents once told me they refused to believe their child had a learning disability until homework revealed it to them. Maybe that 20-minute assignment should involve parents and replace screen time, not dinner or interactive play.

Opponents argue homework can lead to boredom with schoolwork because all activities remain interesting only for so long. Homework can deny students access to leisure activities that also teach important life skills. And parents can get too involved in homework – pressuring their children and confusing them by using instructional techniques different from the teacher’s.

Regrettably, research on these effects of homework are rare. In the absence of data, common sense suggests that any of these effects can occur depending, again, on the amount and type assigned.

In my experience, the complaints over too much homework come from a definable but relatively small segment of the population – parents with conflicting desires to have their children excel in school and lead balanced lives that include school, play, aesthetics, citizenship and spirituality. Homework is an easy target to express their anxiety.

Educators also find themselves caught between irreconcilable alternatives. To them, it is the same parents who rail against homework who permit (encourage?) their children to load advanced placement classes into their academic schedules. More homework comes with these classes.

Educators also question whether homework really takes five hours or whether that time includes hours clicking back and forth between homework and texting, tweeting, Facebooking.

Time on homework reaches a point of diminishing returns; too little does no good, too much does more harm than good. Teachers should base their practices on what sound evidence and experience suggest is optimal. If the amount and quality are appropriate, parents won’t complain.

Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, is author of “The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers and Parents.”

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