In response to a story about the growing backlash against homework, especially for children in early elementary grades, the New York Times the other day published some instructive letters to the editor about the pernicious phenomenon of making family time into a second school shift for children – and their parents. There was a letter from a woman who herself was a teacher who said her 3rd grade son ended up hating school because of the homework (often confusing and useless) that kept him up until 10:00 p.m. There was the letter that pointed out homework for little kids will only increase inequality among students because doing it consistently and well requires parents who are able to supervise and assist.
Ironically, writing in favor of homework for her first-graders was a Teach for America teacher, who by definition is working with economically disadvantaged students. She made explicit that the homework was a device for turning parents into an extension of her classroom: “I do so not only to encourage extra practice but also so that the parents are aware of what we are studying in class. Students who study at home with their parents are far more successful in class than those who don’t.” It’s self-evident that children with involved parents do better in school. But involvement in learning does not have to be about worksheets assigned by the teacher. Active parents naturally help their kids learn, by asking them to point out different colored objects on walks, by reading to them, by playing counting games. I wonder if parents who don’t already do this are going to be inspired by being told they are responsible for making their children sit and do paperwork. If teachers are assigning homework, shouldn’t it be something that children are ready and able to do themselves, so that kids with parents who work late, or are neglectful, or don’t speak English aren’t further disadvantaged?
I have two young nieces, one in kindergarten, one in first grade, and their homework load, and the testing that pervades the curriculum, is oppressive. My kindergarten niece’s school has dropped phys ed – there’s no time for it given how academic kindergarten has become. My brother’s first-grader literally climbs the walls when it’s homework time. She puts her hands and feet in the doorjamb and tries to scuttle up out of reach. He says that at school meetings the other parents agree that the rare homework-free nights feel like a vacation. Parents who don’t want their children losing sleep in order to finish inane assignments, or who are tired of battling with kids who want to run around, not fill in more blanks, are put in a terrible position. If they tell their kids it’s okay not to finish, they are setting them up to be punished in class the next day. (I talked to a parent of a first-grader in Maryland who said children who haven’t completed the homework get no recess.) If the fed-up parents more or less do the assignments themselves just to get it over with, they are teaching their children to cheat. How sad that educators can’t see how destructive it is to make the earliest school years a time of rigid, rote misery.