THE USEFUL AND THE USELESS
By Valerie Strauss | The Washington Post Answer Sheet | http://wapo.st/iqkSKZ
6/17/2011 - We’ve come a long way from the 1930s, when the American Child Health Association put homework next to child labor as a leading cause of child deaths from tuberculosis and heart disease.
Yet the value — or lack thereof — of homework never seems to go away. The issue has been raised anew by a story on the front page of the New York Times (follows)about a number of school systems around the country that are either reevaluating their homework policies or have already found new, less stressful ways of giving kids work to do after school.
Some of the impetus for the change comes from a movie — “ Race to Nowhere ,” a documentary film showing students who are burned out from the stress of school. Added to that is the research that shows that too much homework is often counterproductive and that in the early grades, the homework that actually helps kids learn is reading. Just reading.
There has never been any agreement in the education world about exactly what homework should be or even what its basic purpose is. Should it be about review or about learning new concepts? Should it be graded or not?
Harris Cooper, professor of education and psychology at Duke University, who is probably the best known researcher on the subject, has concluded that:
• Up until fifth grade, homework should be very limited.
• Middle-school students should not spend more than 90 minutes a day on homework
• Two hours should be the limit in high school.
Beyond those time limits, he has said, research shows that homework has no impact on student performance.
Kids often complain about homework assignments for good reason: Many consist of mindless tasks, or else are time wasters that have nothing to do with the lesson at hand.
In 2009, I asked some students to tell me their favorite and least favorite homework assignments. Here, in an encore performance, are the still informative answers.
Meanwhile, what were your or your children’s most useful and useless assignments this past year? Write them in the comments or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll publish the best of them.
Attended George Washington University, Horace Mann School in New York
The best homework assignment I can remember was a project on music that corresponded with a civil rights class. Using different time periods (slavery corresponded with Robert Johnson, the civil rights movement with the song “A Change Is Gonna Come”), we analyzed current music for gospel and blues influences and wrote about how they developed from specific points in history. It was pretty much the only time I’ve seen an entire high school class excited about a project.
Lousy homework assignments are uninspired ones — the ones that get assigned only to prove that the student completed the reading or opened the textbook.
Attended McLean High School
The most useless homework assignment I’ve ever had was where I had to write about the history of a cultural festival, and when the day came to turn in the assignment, the teacher didn’t even touch upon that subject. The teacher went straight into another subject that was completely irrelevant to what was in the curriculum and had nothing to do with what would be relevant to the final exam, the tests, quizzes, and midterm.
The best homework assignment I’ve ever had was for my math class, where the homework assignment covered literally everything that was on a huge test. I learned more than I had expected to because of all the critical thinking that the homework required.
What I feel makes a homework assignment good is if it is relevant, challenges the student doing it, and is not too time-consuming. A bad homework assignment is one that has absolutely no relevance to what is being taught or anything that is learned or part of the curriculum.
If it is meaningless AND time-consuming, then it is quite possibly the worst of the worst in terms of homework assignments.
Graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt High School
The most useless homework is always those study questions that we get after we read a text in a class. The questions are always something along the lines of “What is the main idea of the passage?” I’m not going to be able to answer this type of question right away.
And even if I were able to, the answer would not stick with me unless I knew why it was the answer. I get the most out of these passages and essays by discussing them in class.
The best homework assignment I received was ... in English.
After a long year in which we all worked hard and definitely improved our reading and writing skills, my teacher simply told us to write a journal entry in which we tell her something. Anything (well, anything school appropriate).
I wrote about how my family moved from Pakistan to the United States when I was very young. This assignment gave me the opportunity to use my refined writing skills and also allowed me to reflect on my life.
A good homework assignment is one where you and the classmate sitting next to you do not necessarily have the same answer. It allows you to be creative in the way you put to use what you learn in class.
Bad homework assignments are those tedious, monotonous pieces of work that you get each time you finish a section of lessons in class. They are a series of repetitions that are supposed to polish your skills in a particular subject, but do not effectively do this.
I think that the most useless homework assignment was ... when I got homework on a lesson that I learned a week earlier, and when I had learned something completely different that day.
The best homework assignment I ever had was when ... I had to write a persuasive essay on the Japanese Internment [during World War II], and whether it was for America’s own good or not. It was fun. Even though I had to read various parts of the Constitution, and had to read many different articles and readings on people debating the same topic, it was still fun.
Attended Mt. Hebron High School
Ellicott City, Md.
The best homework I had was not something that made me learn something unexpected.
Homework should be something expected that will have problems and challenging ideas that will hone the skills we acquired that day of the lesson or before and shouldn’t go further than that.
I generally like my Calculus homework because my teacher gives problems that we learned from a long time ago along with newly learned ones but never something we will learn or totally unexpected. Especially when it comes to math, many students give up tackling “difficult or unexpected” problems.
Atended George Washington University,
Salem High School, N.H.
A great homework assignment from high school was given in a Comprehensive American Studies and Literature course taught by two completely opposite personalities (one had a fetish for legendarily difficult pop quizzes and the other enjoyed taking us on walks in the woods to ponder transcendentalism).
We were asked to illustrate a quote from Thoreau on a poster for the course and write a paper on the quote, and what it meant to us. The posters were displayed in the classroom and the papers shared with the class. The assignment was great because our work was appreciated and displayed and my classmates chose a variety of quotes, with even those picking the same one interpreting them in wildly different ways.
The worst homework assignment was all of the ones given in Statistics. The teacher assigned almost every problem of every chapter (making for horribly repetitive and time-consuming work). If we got through the lesson plan for the day, it would always be “okay, start your homework for chapters three, four and five!”
Feeling like you were doing work simply for the sake of doing work ... was the worst part of the assignment — and high school.
Attended George Washington University, Columbia High School
I have two memorable homework assignments, both for good reasons.
When I was in 5th grade, we were assigned a project to come up with a plan to spend $1 million. “The Million Dollar Project,” as it was called, was supposed to teach us the value of money. We had to spend every last cent of the million, however we could spend it any way we liked. The assignment was a fun and easy way to learn the value of money and to see what $1 million could really buy.
[At college in 2008], I took a class called U.S. Political Participation during the fall semester. Thus, the presidential election was taking place over the course of the semester. We were given a project to predict the final Electoral College result. We had to analyze polling data and research past voting records of each state. We then had to determine the main issue voters would base their decision off of, and look at that in historical context to see whether those issues lead to the election of a Democrat or Republican. It was also an engaging assignment that forced me to pay more attention to election coverage.
Overall, assignments that allow me to be hands-on usually turn out to be my favorite.
Anti-Homework Rebels Gain A New Recruit: The Principal.
By WINNIE HU – New York Times | http://nyti.ms/jIhVLY
Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times - Cathy Clark, a teacher, with her students at Arthur Rann Elementary School in Galloway, N.J. The Galloway school board will vote this summer on a proposal to limit weeknight homework to 10 minutes for each year of school and to ban assignments on weekends, holidays and school vacations.
June 15, 2011 GALLOWAY, N.J. — After Donna Cushlanis’s son kept bursting into tears midway through his second-grade math problems, which one night took over an hour, she told him not to do all of his homework.
|<<Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times - Zach Narkiewicz, 12, at Arthur Rann Elementary School in Galloway, N.J., which is re-evaluating homework practices.|
“How many times do you have to add seven plus two?” Ms. Cushlanis, 46, said. “I have no problem with doing homework, but that put us both over the edge. I got to the point that this is enough.”
Ms. Cushlanis, a secretary for the Galloway school district, complained to her boss, Annette C. Giaquinto, the superintendent. It turned out that the district, which serves 3,500 kindergarten through eighth-grade students, was already re-evaluating its homework practices. The school board will vote this summer on a proposal to limit weeknight homework to 10 minutes for each year of school — 20 minutes for second graders, and so forth — and ban assignments on weekends, holidays and school vacations.
Galloway, a mostly middle-class community northwest of Atlantic City, is part of a wave of districts across the nation trying to remake homework amid concerns that high-stakes testing and competition for college have fueled a nightly grind that is stressing out children and depriving them of play and rest, yet doing little to raise achievement, particularly in elementary grades.
Such efforts have drawn criticism from some teachers and some parents who counter that students must study more, not less, if they are to succeed. Even so, the anti-homework movement has been reignited in recent months by the documentary “Race to Nowhere,” about burned-out students caught in a pressure-cooker educational system.
“There is simply no proof that most homework as we know it improves school performance,” said Vicki Abeles, the filmmaker and a mother of three from California. “And by expecting kids to work a ‘second shift’ in what should be their downtime, the presence of schoolwork at home is negatively affecting the health of our young people and the quality of family time.”
So teachers at Mango Elementary School in Fontana, Calif., are replacing homework with “goal work” that is specific to individual student’s needs and that can be completed in class or at home at his or her own pace. The Pleasanton School District, north of San Jose, Calif., is proposing this month to cut homework times by nearly half and prohibit weekend assignments in elementary grades because, as one administrator said, “parents want their kids back.”
Ridgewood High School in New Jersey introduced a homework-free winter break in December. Schools in Bleckley County, Ga., have instituted “no homework nights” throughout the year. The Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a gifted and talented program, has made homework optional.
“I think people confuse homework with rigor,” said Donna Taylor, the Brooklyn School’s principal, who views homework for children under 11 as primarily benefiting parents by helping them feel connected to the classroom.
The homework revolution has also spread north to Toronto, which in 2008 banned homework for kindergartners and for older children on school holidays, and to the Philippines, where the education department recently opposed weekend assignments so that students can “enjoy their childhood.”
Research has long suggested that homework in small doses can reinforce basic skills and help young children develop study habits, but that there are diminishing returns, said Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. The 10-minute guideline has generally been shown to be effective, Dr. Cooper said, adding that over all, “there is a minimal relationship between how much homework young kids do and how well they test.”
Still, efforts to roll back homework have been opposed by those who counter that there is not enough time in the school day to cover required topics and that homework reinforces classroom learning. In Coronado, Calif., the school board rejected a proposal by the superintendent to eliminate homework on weekends and holidays after some parents said that was when they had time to help their children and others worried it would result in more homework on weeknights.
“Most of our kids can’t spell without spell check or add unless it comes up on the computer,” said Karol Ball, 51, who has two teenage sons in the Atlantic City district. “If we coddle them when they’re younger, what happens when they get into the real world? No one’s going to say to them, ‘You don’t have to work extra hard to get that project done; just turn in what you got.’ ”
Homework wars have divided communities for over a century. In the 1950s, the Sputnik launching ushered in heavier workloads for American students in the race to keep up with the Soviet Union. The 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” and, more recently, the testing pressures of the No Child Left Behind law, also resulted in more homework for children at younger ages.
A few public and private schools have renounced homework in recent years, but most have sought a middle ground. In Galloway, the policy would stipulate that homework cover only topics already addressed in class.
“It’s been a fairly rote, thoughtless process for a long time, and schools are starting to realize this is a problem,” said Cathy J. Vatterott, an associate education professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and author of “Rethinking Homework.”
But Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, views policies dictating how to do homework as “taking something that should be professional practice and making it into an assembly-line process.” Dr. Giaquinto, Galloway’s superintendent, said the goal of the proposed policy was to make homework “meaningful and manageable,” noting that teachers would have to coordinate assignments so that a student’s total homework would not exceed the time limit.
Ms. Cushlanis, a single mother of triplets who are in different classes, is looking forward to having things standardized. Last year, in second grade, her son Nathan had twice as much homework as his brothers; this year, her son Jared has the most. If the boys do not finish their homework, they must do so the next day during recess.
“They shouldn’t be bombarded with homework,” Ms. Cushlanis said. “Kids need to be able to play; they need outlets.”
But William Parker, a construction worker who attended the Galloway schools and has a nephew in first grade, said the policy might lead children to focus on the clock rather than on their studies.
“This is so stupid,” Mr. Parker said. “Part of growing up is having a lot of homework every day. You’re supposed to say, ‘I can’t come out and play because I have to stay in and do homework.’ ”
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