The XX Factor

In Defense of Homework

Emily, I hate homework . Last year, my fourth-grader had easily 45-60 minutes a night (and on one glorious evening when he had forgotten both of two long term assignments, five hours). My first-grader had ten or fifteen. For my son, the homework often meant that he went from school to sport to homework to bed with no break. For my daughter, with her lighter load, it wasn’t the homework itself (which took next to no time and which she sometimes persuaded her 4-year-old brother to do for her), it was getting her to sit down and do it. And it was exactly that process of pushing her to sit down every night and get through that worksheet that reminds me of why she had the homework in the first place.

In fourth grade, my son’s homework represented some of the most valuable work he did all year. It came in two forms: the math practice sheet (at-home practice of concepts covered in school) and thinking and writing assignments that really aren’t best done in the classroom. His teachers explained the goal at the beginning of the year: Students arrive in fourth grade able to write a single paragraph on a topic. They need to leave able to write three paragraphs, so that they can, as they progress through school, begin to write the longer papers that will be required. Yes, I was often stuck working with him one-on-one as he learned to read the material he needed to write about, isolate his topic, and create a response to a question, but I knew it was work that mattered (and had I been unable to help him, the teacher had a system set up to allow her to work with a child and a first draft to show him where to improve). That’s worthwhile homework, and the reason we could do it without a lot of stress, except over the amount of time required, was that we had already been through the process of just getting him to sit down in the first place, in his case in second grade. My daughter has homework so she can learn to do homework, and I have come to see the value in that. Is that turning our nights at home into a “second shift” for parents?

I think most of the complaining parents in these “too much homework” articles have already done that for ourselves. If your kids are coming home at 3 p.m., or from after-school programs at 5 p.m., even an hour of homework isn’t that arduous (and even the toughest homework shouldn’t require your physical presence at a child’s elbow the entire time). Most after school programs designed for working parents help kids to get the homework done in any case. It’s the other activities that make homework so painful, and that’s true in our family as well. Homework is fine on the nights when there is no hockey, or skiing, or piano lessons. If I object to homework because we can’t fit it into a schedule filled with that sort of folderol, what am I saying to my son, or to his teachers, about what’s really important? As for kids with parents who aren’t capable of giving the kind of at-home help necessary (and that could be kids with immigrant or multiple-shift-working parents, or it could be my son if given a particular kind of math problem to solve and then explain in writing, because the sad truth is that several times this year I could not help), the answer isn’t to rule out homework; it’s to offer the ability to get the help they need elsewhere. As I said, the school my two oldest kids attend offers it, but let’s not kid ourselves. It’s an “independent school.” So maybe I believe in homework because, in effect, I’m paying for it. (As a public school graduate, I hate that.) But now that I have seen the carefully thought out plans the school has in place to get kids to come out of each year with both the knowledge and the skills they need to move on, I don’t see how they’re going to get there without homework. Granted, not all the homework you’re describing sounds like it’s worth it, but that’s not about having less homework; it’s about having the right homework. I’d like to read more about that.