This photo has been going around on the web for a day or two …going viral:
The girl is frustrated by not being able to solve a problem, that I concede.
But the real issue isn't Common Core - it's homework itself.
I have reposted the following two essays written by young adult fiction author author Orson Scott Card a couple of times. I’m going to keep reposting them until enough people read them to make that critical mass - the small dedicated few that changes stuff from “the way we’ve always done it” to “the way it ought to be done”.
Reposting the same-old/same-old is boring, I know – but this is important and I’m not proud.
If you haven’t read them please do. Think about them and share your thoughts with others. Ask two like-minded thinkers to share with another two other like-minded thinkers – and let’s keep reblogging until the whole wretched mess ends!
The worst that could happen is that we fill up the internet with repeated messages and the web crashes before school opens again next Tuesday. The best that could happen is that we might effect some change.
Homework, Part I
The Worst Job in the World
By Orson Scott Card | The Ornery American | http://bit.ly/a0YCa9
September 17, 2006 :: What if you had a really lousy job? You're only employed for seven hours a day, but you have to ride the bus for half an hour each way.
While you're there, they only let you go to the bathroom at certain times. You only have ten minutes to get from one work station to another, and somehow you also have to use the toilet and get your new work materials from a central depository during those breaks, without being late.
If you do anything wrong, you aren't allowed to talk to anybody during lunch.
Even when you go home, it's not over. A job supervisor also lives in your house, and makes you do two or three more hours of the same work you did on the job. The at-home supervisor is even harsher than the one at work and has more power to inflict annoying punishments if you fail to comply.
If you're sick and miss a day or two, then when you get better, you have to do all the work that you missed -- both the on-the-job and the at-home tasks.
Not only that, but you can't quit this lousy job. It's the law -- the government requires you to stick with it for at least ten years.
What if, on top of all this misery, the work you had to do at home wasn't even real? What if you just went through the motions of all the tasks you did on the job, but you didn't actually accomplish anything? You just spent meaningless hours, repeating the physical movements, while the at-home supervisor says things like, "That's how you do it?" and "Are you sure you're doing it right?"
That's a fair description of the lives of far too many of our school-age children.
Child Labor Laws
We made laws abolishing child labor, because we thought it was criminal to deprive children of their childhood. Yet we tolerate burdening our children, not only with six or seven hours of schoolwork during the day, but also with a steadily increasing amount of homework at night, on weekends, and during holidays and vacations.
What it amounts to is this: Too many of our homework-burdened children don't have vacations. They don't have holidays. They don't have weekends. They don't even have homes. Because the schools feel free to assign them work to do during all those supposed times of rest and recuperation.
It would be like the army sending soldiers home on leave from a war zone, but arranging that the enemy will still be shooting at them while they're home. Isn't there any break?
(Let me say right here that in this school year, so far, our only remaining school age child has not been overburdened with homework. This essay is not about my particular schoolchild's current situation. It's about homework in general, across America.)
What Is Homework Worth?
There is actually some science on this subject. People have conducted studies. Most of the studies, admittedly, use the extremely unreliable method of "self-reporting," in which the amount of homework is estimated either by the teachers, the parents, or the students.
Not surprisingly, nobody agrees on just how much homework the kids have.
The teachers think the kids have far less than either students or the parents think they have.
The real question, though, is whether homework actually improves academic performance.
Of course, the question even deeper than that is whether we have any way to measure how much actual learning takes place. It's quite possible for students to get very good grades and score very well on standardized tests, while coming to hate the whole process of education and spending the rest of their lives avoiding anything that resembles reading or mathematics or study. Surely we would call that outcome a failure.
But for the moment let's just use the normal measures of academic achievement -- grades and standardized tests.
A Fair Study?
The first problem here is that if homework is graded, then obviously failing to do your homework is going to lower your grade in the course. It's a circular process: homework "helps" your grade because if you don't do it, your grade will be lowered. It still doesn't tell us anything about whether homework helped you learn more.
So in a meaningful study of whether homework accomplishes anything, we would need to have students who were otherwise getting identical instruction, half of whom did two hours of homework a night, and half of whom were assigned none. Homework would not count in the grade. Then we compare how they do on the same regularly scheduled tests and see if homework helped.
The trouble is, in the real world the students assigned homework would rebel. Bloodshed might ensue. Nor can you let parents decide which kids get homework, because the gung-ho parents who choose to have their kids do homework are also likely to be the motivated parents whose kids are going to be pressured to study more whether there's homework assigned or not.
There's no way to do a fair study based on grades where everything, except homework, is identical.
Even using standardized tests doesn't help much, when the amount of homework different groups are doing is self-reported by teachers, students, or parents. Furthermore, a group of students might be getting a superb education, with or without homework, without having it all show up on the standardized tests, which don't measure the quality of your education.
The standardized tests measure only one thing: how well you do on standardized tests. Some people take tests superbly. I'm one of them. I got in the 99.3rd percentile on the math portion of the ACT (an SAT alternate) having never taken algebra II, trigonometry, or calculus, and having earned a D in the last math class I took (geometry). Why? Because I'm really good at tests.
Whereas some very bright kids freeze up on standardized tests, performing far below their actual academic level.
But let's pretend that grades and standardized tests actually measure something meaningful, and better results on those would mean that homework accomplishes something. That's what a researcher named Harris Cooper did, according to Alfie Kohn, in his book The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.
Cooper looked at a number of different studies of homework and sifted and combined the results to see if some kind of definitive answer emerged. It did -- but Cooper apparently didn't see it himself.
When Kohn looked at Cooper's published results, the answer was obvious. In Cooper's own words from 1989: "There is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students."
That means that there is zero scientific evidence that kids before middle school get any performance boost whatsoever from any amount of homework, no matter how large or small.
And yet when Cooper reached his own conclusions at the end of his published report, he came up with the oft-quoted formula that the ideal amount of homework is ten minutes per grade level per night. That would mean almost an hour a night for fifth graders -- even though Cooper's own meta-study found that there was no evidence that any homework for elementary students had any benefit.
Apparently, we have a problem when "science" is done by true believers. Even when Cooper's study found no defense for elementary-school homework, he still found a way to recommend in favor of requiring some anyway.
Kohn takes apart all the existing pro-homework studies to demonstrate how fundamentally worthless they are, in methodology, in interpretation, and in how they're reported. He doesn't prove them false; he shows that they don't prove anything at all.
Don't misunderstand -- Kohn has his own axe to grind. He's far more committed to the touchy-feely school of education than I am, and much of his book is slanted in that direction. But his critique of bad science is sound -- I've had years of experience with just how bad what passes for science in the field of education can be, and Cooper's study, for instance, is actually from the reliable end of the spectrum.
When the most-quoted "proof" that homework is "good" states that it can't be shown to have any benefit for elementary school kids, why do we still have teachers sending kids home with work to do from those grades?
What about High School?
Here's what the studies find about homework in high school. It might make about a four percent difference. At most.
OK, that might take you from a B+ to an A-. Or move you up just a tiny bit on the SAT or ACT. Depending on how you measure academic performance.
Think about that for a moment. If your kid in twelfth grade spends two hours a night doing homework (Cooper's recommended ten minutes per grade per night), that means twelve hours a week -- which is the equivalent, when you subtract class changes and lunch, of two extra school days a week. And those two extra days -- a 28 percent increase in academic time -- make only 4 percent difference in outcome?
That's like driving a thumbtack with a sledgehammer.
Is that additional 28 percent worth the nearly trivial 4 percent? Let's factor in the costs of homework.
What Are the Costs of Homework?
Homework wrecks families. That's not a joke, that's just a fact. For an alarming number of kids of all ages, their entire relationship with their parents has been turned into a war over homework.
An Endless Cycle. The first thing the parents say to their kids after school is, "Do you have any homework?" That's not a parent-child relationship, that's a foreman-millworker relationship. What's your task? Let's stay on task!
So the kids aren't actually coming home, are they? School isn't over. It's just going to go on and on, in their own homes. They can never, never, never get away. Not on weekends. Not on holidays. Not over Christmas. Not over summer vacation. There's always some assignment from school.
What do you think that does to kids? To have not even a day when they can say, Whew, I'm done with that, I can have a break!
Would you put up with a job that was like that? Sure, some people with Type A personalities do live like that -- but most of us don't even consider that a life. We want to have days we can count on not belonging to our bosses. Shouldn't kids have that too?
Childhood Obesity. In all the concern about the hours our children spend playing videogames and watching television, has anybody noticed that time spent doing homework is also not physically active? Maybe if our children didn't have to spend even ten minutes a day, let alone hours a day, on homework, they might get enough exercise to shed a few pounds.
Parents As Drill Sergeants. Parents are told to make sure kids have a regular, well-lighted, quiet place to do homework. The funny thing is that there is no study indicating that this actually helps homework get done.
What parents really do is set up rewards and punishments. Do your homework first, and then you can play. No television till homework is done. Get it out of the way first!
This is such a horrible mistake. No wonder so many kids end up in tears over homework. Why can't they have a couple of hours, right after school, to be themselves?
Think about it. They've spent all day at school where people tell them when to stand, when to sit, when to talk. Hold still. No, you can't go to the toilet. No, you're wrong. Pay attention! You can't eat that in here. Don't cross that line. Stay where I told you! Hurry up! Stop that!
And their parents don't let them have those precious late afternoon hours to run around and be free. Why? So they can get into a better college? What good will it do them to get into a better college if they hated their entire childhood?
So they go to UNC-G instead of Duke because of that four percent difference -- but they have a childhood. An adolescence. What do you think will make more of a difference in their lives? What will make them happier human beings? That's the goal, isn't it? Not the job that makes the most money, but the life that has the most happiness -- right?
Of course, a lot of parents don't make their kids do homework during that late afternoon period, because both parents are working and don't even get home till after five o'clock.
You know what that means. When young kids have rational bedtimes -- eight o'clock, for instance, which gives them the minimal 10 to 11 hours of sleep that children need -- the parents have only three hours between getting off work and the kids going to bed. Somewhere in there will be dinner, bathing, whatever chores the kids might be expected to do (you know, the part of child-rearing that parents do) -- and ... homework?
When did we parents decide to give the schools the power to take even a moment of those precious hours away from us and force us to be proctors supervising our children in their schoolwork?
The high school kids go to bed later -- but they also want a social life. They have friends. They want to talk on the phone, go hang out together. And what about the things they actually love to do -- the plays? The sports? The dance lessons, the music lessons?
Is there any time left for parents to be anything but chauffeurs and homework sergeants?
Homework Kills Students. I knew a girl who, when she was a rising junior in high school, was assigned to keep a "reading log" over the summer. This was a girl who had always been a voracious reader, consuming books well above grade level since she was five. But the moment the teacher intruded in her reading, requiring that she answer questions, make comments, and analyze, every time she set the book down, she stopped reading entirely.
Because her joy of reading had been stolen from her. It had been turned into an assignment. It was now work, forced on her by someone else. That summer she read exactly one book -- a girl who ordinarily would have read at least twenty. And from that moment on, she was hostile to the entire enterprise of school. She hated it all. That summer assignment had turned her into an enemy of the educational system -- she who had been the favorite student of many an English teacher.
Not everyone's reaction to such assignments is so dramatic. But there are many bright, eager learners who are turned off from school because homework that was not tailored to their needs intruded into every waking moment and turned their whole lives into a nightmare of never-ending work, under someone else's control.
Another recent book, The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It, by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, is an activist's handbook. It makes a powerful case for the damage homework is doing to our families, and then it gives practical suggestions about what you can do to make your own family's situation better, and perhaps change the way homework is assigned to all the kids in a class, a grade, a school, or a district.
What both books report is one astonishing fact: There are plenty of teachers who hate homework, too.
Why Teachers Hate Homework
When a teacher assigns each of five classes of 25 students to do 50 math problems overnight, then the teacher has to look at 6,250 math problems. That's in addition to the time the teacher spends grading their in-class work -- like quizzes.
And you know the teacher regards those homework results as nearly worthless, because the teacher doesn't know who really did the work. Was it the student, or the parents? No way to be sure. Maybe the student with a dozen mistakes is actually doing better than the student with perfect homework because the student with mistakes is actually doing the work himself.
So the teacher only takes seriously the work the students do in class. So any time spent grading homework is actually wasted time. Mostly teachers look at it just to make sure it was done, not to take it seriously as an evaluation tool.
Remarkably, there are even teachers who actually demand that parents proofread their children's homework. If the student turns in homework with spelling and punctuation errors, the parents actually get a snippy little note telling them that they're supposed to proofread their child's work! (Though I'm sure that never happens in Guilford County.)
Here's another reason some teachers hate homework -- and stop assigning it: Their own kids reach school age and start having to spend hours a night doing meaningless assignments. Both books record this phenomenon. Teachers who are also parents become quite skeptical of the value of homework when they see how it steals time from and ruins their relationships with their children.
Even admitting that there is some conceivable value to homework in the upper grades, let's keep in mind that not all homework is equal. Some kinds of homework are utterly worthless even for seniors in high school.
Art Projects for Academic Classes. I remember when my oldest son entered chemistry class at Page High School. During the open house, the teacher proudly told us that the highlight of the year was her requirement that the kids all create a three-dimensional model of the periodic table of elements. It could be a poster or a t-shirt or a sculpture or ... oh, whatever their creativity suggested.
I raised my hand and pointedly asked how much of the grade would be for art and how much for science? She didn't understand my objection. It was so fun
for the kids.
Nonsense. It was time-consuming and expensive and a complete waste of time. Were they going to treasure these models for their whole lives? No. Did it help them actually know more about the periodic table? Not a chance.
This is one of the few cases where rote memorization would have been more worthwhile. They might actually have remembered some of the more common elements' names, abbreviations, atomic numbers, or weights. They might have memorized all the gases, especially the inert ones; all the elements that combine easily; all the radioactive elements; all the elements that only occur in the laboratory.
Instead, they made t-shirts.
Or rather, their parents scrambled to figure out how to do it.
There's an astonishing number of absolutely useless "projects" that are assigned which are really done by the parents anyway, and even if the kids do them, teach them absolutely nothing about the subject matter.
Exactly what does a child learn about astronomy or physics or aerodynamics by building a scale model of the space shuttle?
Once upon a time, science fairs consisted of displays of voluntary projects done by kids who were really gung-ho about science. The kids who couldn't care less didn't have to bother. But somebody thought that science fairs were so wonderful that all children should be required to do them.
Did this make the kids who never cared about science suddenly become more interested? No. It was just one more tedious assignment that they postponed until Mom and Dad finally helped them put some stupid thing together at the last minute.
Every now and then, one of our kids actually had a project they cared about and learned something from. Oddly enough, they were precisely the kind of thing they probably would have done on their own, without anybody requiring them to do it at all -- provided, of course, that they had had any free time.
In other words, the real projects, the ones that kids love, are replaced by the fake ones assigned as homework.
Meaningless Repetition. Some claim that kids need to do repetitive homework to "nail down" the things they learned in class. But how many repetitions are needed to "nail it down"?
If a child has mastered the process, then surely five examples, done in class, will demonstrate the child's proficiency. And if the child has not got it right, then what really happens at home when twenty or fifty problems are assigned? Either the student does them all wrong, thus "nailing down" the wrong process, or the parent has to try to teach the child what the teacher failed to teach in class. Is that how homework is supposed to function? In that case, it's really just home schooling -- with less time to do it in and only exhausted children to work with.
Fun and Games. Here's a good idea. Let's take from the internet a word-search puzzle with terms from the constitution hidden in a 39x39-letter grid, and make our seventh-grade students play the "game" of finding the important words.
Never mind that a 39x39 word-search grid is monstrously large, that you can get a headache from searching it. Never mind that the puzzle isn't even clever -- no two terms from the list actually intersect. None of them shares a letter. So the puzzlemaker didn't bother to take the time to make a tight, interlocking puzzle.
Nor are the terms themselves useful. Some are, but some of them are simply not used by grownups in discussions of anything.
And when you've finally gotten your headache by finding every one of these 29 terms in a huge grid, how much more do you know about the Constitution than you knew before you started?
Maybe, just maybe, those terms will be marginally more familiar to you. If you had been assigned to memorize them as spelling words, you could have done it in less time.
When did we actually have any fun? And when was any of this actually educational?
Why is homework like this still being assigned, even though there's no scientific basis for it? And what can we do about it? I'll talk about that in next week's essay: Homework, Part II.
Homework, Part II
Why Do We Still Get Homework?
By Orson Scott Card | The Ornery American || http://bit.ly/d2VSdf
September 24, 2006 :: Many who admit that homework is probably academically worthless in the elementary grades and not very helpful in high school still think kids should have it because:
1. It gets parents involved in their kids' education.
This implies that the homework isn't for the kids, it's for the parents. In other words, the school feels they have a right to assign parents to spend time doing worthless assignments with their children.
But what exactly are we doing when we're "involved" in our kids' homework?
Either we're not needed, because the kids can do it fine without us, or we are needed, because the kids can't do it alone. But if they can't do it alone, then we're the teachers. Unpaid, unwilling teachers.
Believe it or not, parents actually have other things to do with their children to help them become civilized human beings. We don't need teachers to assign us busywork just to get us "involved" in our kids' education.
We're already involved in their education. We were teaching them before they got old enough for school. We teach them all through their school years. We are their most important and powerful teachers of the core lessons of life, so those who are hired to give them their formal education really shouldn't make us do their job.
Besides, the kind of parents who aren't involved in their kids' education also don't help them do their homework. The only parents who help their kids with their homework are the ones who are involved in their education all the time anyway.
2. It gets younger kids used to the idea of doing homework.
Kids are going to drive when they're sixteen. So do we make them spend an hour a night pushing pedals and turning a steering wheel for ten years prior, so they'll be "used" to it?
It's not hard to learn to do homework. If homework doesn't begin to do any good till seventh grade, then start assigning it in seventh grade. In a single day, kids will get the idea just fine. They didn't need to spend hours each week practicing it for years beforehand.
3. Parents ask for more homework.
It's true. There are parents who are so competitive -- and so unaware of what homework is actually worth -- that they think their kids are not getting a "good education" unless they're plying the books all night every night.
To those parents, why don't we just say: Hire a private tutor. Make your children's childhood a living hell -- it's your option. But don't tell the school to make my kid do useless homework just so your kid can get a spurious "advantage." In fact, if you hire a private tutor to waste your children's hours, you'll get far more "advantage" than if everybody's doing homework. So leave my kid out of it, please.
4. Happiness is bad for children.
There really are grinches and scrooges in the world, people who are really annoyed to see children being happy and carefree. They believe that the only good way to raise a child is with suffering and hard work. They can't understand why we ever abolished child labor -- the kids should be productive, part of the economy, not drones! I had a miserable childhood, so why should these little brats be happy!
What they actually say, of course, is "Homework keeps the kids off the streets" or "out of gangs" or "out of trouble."
This is so mind-numbingly stupid that I can't believe people actually say this without getting laughed out of the room -- but they do, and they aren't.
Don't they get it that the kids who are on the streets and in gangs and getting in trouble aren't doing homework?
The only kids who are controlled by homework are the kids who either care enough to do it themselves -- the motivated students -- or the ones with parents who make them do it -- the ones with close parental supervision.
In other words, precisely the group of kids that already wasn't on the streets and didn't join gangs and didn't get in trouble.
The "bad kids" are going to be bad with or without homework.
And here's a clue: Homework is usually so mind-numbingly dull, so endless, so hopeless, so relentless, so useless that lots of motivated, bright kids whose parents are involved turn savagely against the whole idea of school. They hate reading, they hate writing, they hate everything because they never get a break, the process never ends, and they know perfectly well that it accomplishes nothing.
This is the damage that homework really does: It kills the love of reading and writing in thousands and thousands of children every year.
5. Foreign kids do homework.
So what? Just because other kids in other countries score higher on some standardized test doesn't mean anything.
We have these stupid scares every couple of decades and they are never based on anything true or important.
For one thing, we're only dealing with averages anyway. Even if the average American kid weren't as good at, say, mathematics as the average French schoolchild wouldn't mean that American mathematicians are not going to be as good as French mathematicians.
Most kids aren't going to be mathematicians. An American kid who's going to major in English or business can get a putrid score in math and it doesn't have any bearing on whether we're going to stay "ahead" of the Russians or French or Japanese in math or science.
In fact, making a future English or history or P.E. major take four years of high school math is a colossal waste of time, damaging that child's grade point average and his or her love of learning, to no purpose whatsoever.
Besides, some of those countries where the kids score "better" than ours actually do less homework than our kids. And some of the countries whose scores are in the toilet do more homework. But you never read about those in the news, do you?
That's because the kind of people who tout those comparisons where American kids are proven "behind" are all trying to talk you into spending more money on education or forcing more kids to major in fields they aren't interested in or putting up with more homework. They already have their goal in mind -- they only tell you the statistics they think will get you alarmed enough to let them get their way.
6. Homework teaches responsibility.
No it doesn't. Homework teaches obedience and compliance -- the opposite of responsibility.
You are only responsible when you have choices. Homework, the way it's usually assigned, is not even remotely a matter of choice.
When we say somebody is a responsible adult, we mean that they see jobs that need doing and simply do them, without being asked, of their own free will.
But when teachers say that students are "responsible" for homework, they only mean that if the children don't obey, they will be penalized. They are responsible only in the negative sense -- they will bear the consequences of noncompliance.
Homework does not teach responsibility. It does the opposite. It breaks the will and oppresses the spirit. It removes countless choices because it takes away all the available time for them to be carried out.
Time Off from School Is Not Wasted
We actually do know some things about how the brain works. One of the most obvious principles is this: Learning requires focus, and focus requires downtime.
We know this and take it into account in high-tension jobs -- like air traffic controllers. They work limited shifts precisely because you can't maintain focused attention for longer than a few hours at a time.
How long do you think children can maintain focused attention? How long do you think their brains can actually do it? Many don't even reach adult attention spans until they're in their twenties. And yet we require them to focus intensely on six or seven different subjects during the school day ... and then cycle through half of them again for hours each night! And we keep the pressure up on weekends, holidays, vacations.
Airline pilots are required to take twenty-four hours off between flights. Air traffic controllers get a night's sleep between shifts. But kids? Ha ha. We can push them till they break.
Kohn, in The Homework Myth, makes one declaration that should be the law in every state in the union: The default condition should be NO homework.
This borrows the computer usage of the term default, meaning the condition that prevails if nobody makes a deliberate change. Homework should have to be justified each time, not assumed.
Children and parents should start every day of every week of school assuming that unless something important comes up, there won't be any homework.
So that when there is homework, it's special. It's important. It's something so major that it really can't be completed on school time.
It's the biology project where you collect the leaves of forty different species of tree or bush in your neighborhood and identify them by scientific name and leaf type. That's not an empty project -- it means something, you learn something, it can't be done in school, and it can be done by high school students without any help from parents.
It's the major paper for English class where you read three different novels that tell the story of King Arthur -- let's say T.H. White's, Mary Stewart's, and Jack Whyte's -- and compare the authors' different approaches to the same tale.
It's the poetry project where you are assigned to write twenty poems using at least five different established forms, at least two poems in each form.
It's the history project in which you create a map of a major expedition by Cook or Columbus or Darwin or Magellan, marking all the stopping points and discoveries.
For drama class, it's a series of monologues; for music class, a recital; for art class, a portfolio.
These are projects that would take hours -- but because the child would be involved in choosing the topic, and would be showing progress to the teacher each step of the way, it would be a true educational experience.
Parental help would be almost meaningless -- the child would have to do all the important work alone.
And one of these in each school semester from seventh grade on -- not one per subject, just one, period -- would be memorable, exciting, productive, useful.
Here are the homework rules that ought to be the target in every school district in America.
1. No homework before middle school. Ever. Period. Childhood is too precious to waste.
2. No homework over vacations, holidays, or weekends. Children need more time to rest and recuperate than adults, not less.
3. No tests on Monday or the day after a holiday or vacation. See above.
4. No empty homework. All assignments have to have a specific, immediate educational purpose within the subject matter of the class.
5. No assignments for parents. All assignments should be fully within the capability of all the children in the class, without parental involvement of any kind except to cooperate in scheduling time.
6. No excess repetition. Five examples should be sufficient to identify any problems a child might be having. Three are usually enough.
7. No makeup homework for sick days. The kid is still recuperating. Don't double his load.
Naturally, these rules are not in force in most schools or school districts in America.
What Do You Do Today?
Right now, our child is getting a doable amount of homework. Some of it is pointless. Most of it will make no difference at all in her learning. But it's at a tolerable level. She can still take dance and karate and take part in church activities and watch a few favorite tv shows and have time with friends and spend time with her parents and read what she likes.
But what do you do if the homework is not at a tolerable level?
My suggestion is: Read The Case Against Homework and The Homework Myth so you know what you're talking about.
Then talk to your children's teachers -- the ones who are assigning too much, too often. Don't go in with a chip on your shoulder. They didn't go into teaching because they hate children and want them to suffer. Most of the time, the teachers assigning the heavy homework don't even realize how much time it's actually taking.
Be candid. Most teachers will be shocked to learn that your child cries or falls asleep over his or her homework almost every night. Few teachers have a clue that their "fifteen-minute assignment" actually takes forty-five, and is piled on top of three other teachers' "fifteen-minute" forty-five minute assignments.
Ask for their help, at least to start. But be specific. "Would you be able to evaluate my child's progress just as well if she only did five of these problems instead of twenty? That would make a real difference in her life."
Or, "My child comes home without any idea how to solve these problems, and I'm not qualified to teach him. Is there any way you could make sure the children learn these concepts in class, instead of leaving me to try to figure out math that I haven't studied in twenty-five years?"
Often, you'll find that teachers are happy to change their homework procedures. Remember, most teachers hate homework too. If you can provide them with a valid reason to cut back, many of them will -- not just for your kid, but for all the kids in their class.
Many of them give homework assignments only because they know they're expected to. They don't even think about it anymore. But once you call it into question in a positive, friendly, please-help-me way, many teachers will realize that they could give less homework without hurting their students' academic progress at all.
Sometimes, though, you'll run into the homework hardliners or the prickly experts.
The homework hardliners are true believers. You have to gently suggest that maybe the scientific data don't back up their position as much as they might think. Offer to lend them a copy of The Homework Myth for a serious critique of the few studies that even approach the problem. Some of them might even be open to learning something.
The real problem is the prickly expert. You find these scattered through every field. They get huffy when anybody -- especially a parent -- suggests that they aren't the expert on everything in their field. They take it as a challenge to their authority.
You've known doctors like that -- they treat your questions with disdain and dismiss any of your suggestions that they might be wrong. So you change doctors.
It's harder to change teachers for your child. And arguing with a prickly expert doesn't work -- in fact, it backfires, because they actually enjoy standing up against the onslaughts of the ignorant masses (i.e., you). The more you rail at them, the more superior they feel and the happier they are.
So don't get mad. Really. Don't. Not even a little. Not even sarcastic. Leave the room.
Write a letter to the teacher, with a copy to the principal. Tell the teacher that you are going to limit your high school age child to no more than one hour of homework per school night, per week (less for middle school, and none at all for elementary school). "Since this is my decision, not my child's, I'm sure that no one will take any action that would single out my child in front of the other students, or hamper his ability to take part in the normal activities of school."
Then you have to hold to the agreement -- make sure your child does that one hour per night, evenly divided among the subjects. Make copies of all the homework, if you can, to prove that it was submitted. Make sure to keep a record of your child's grades on all in-class tests and assignments, so that if the prickly expert tries to penalize your student disproportionately (for instance, giving him a failing grade for the whole course even though he did well on all the work except the excessive homework), then you're in a position to appeal.
Be prepared to hear this: "No other parents have complained."
First, this is usually not even true. It's just what they say to make you feel isolated and alone.
But even if it is true, it's irrelevant. "I'm not the parent of any other children but mine. Mine are spending too much of their childhood on meaningless homework assignments."
If you still get answers like, "Your child's inadequacies and poor study habits are not going to disrupt our program," then smile and thank them for their time.
Then go home and start calling other parents. Find the ones that are as upset as you are, and form an organization. Even if there are only two of you, you're now a committee. You can start publically declaring what the studies actually show -- the uselessness of homework for elementary children, and the near uselessness of it for everybody else.
It's a very rare school or district -- or even private school -- that will not take steps to accommodate your concerns.
Remember, though: This all goes far, far better if you never lose your temper in public or private conversations. You don't have to answer their arguments at the moment. You don't have to answer their snootiness with the outrage that you feel. You have the confidence that comes from knowing that you're right, and you're defending your children.
But don't take my word for it. Read The Case Against Homework. It's a manual for individual and group activism.
Teachers Are Not the Enemy
Most of the time, though, you won't need any "activism." Most teachers really want what's best for their students. Most of them don't realize -- because nobody has ever told them -- how useless homework is. All they need is a friendly conversation in which the parent and teacher are partners in finding a way for each child to have a good education and a happy childhood at the same time. They will be happy to lighten the load.
Here's the guiding principle: You don't try to force them to do things your way at school. They shouldn't try to force you to do things their way at home. Each of you should be master of your own domain. They only get to assign homework -- work done by your children in your home -- with your consent.
Few teachers and fewer school districts ever really think of it that way. That's all we need to do -- remind them that their legal and moral authority over our children ends with the final bell and the children's safe departure from school premises.
After that, we're responsible.
We're not employees of the school district. They're not our bosses. We don't have to do their bidding.
And no matter how much they love our kids, we love them more. They were our kids before they went to school, and they'll be our kids when they get out again. They're still our kids during all the years and days and hours in between.
Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish. The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting our Children and What We Can Do About It. New York: Crown, 2006, 290 pp.
Alfie Kohn. The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Books, Perseus Books Group, 2006, 250 pp.