The Less-Homework Revolution
How fed-up parents are changing the way schools think -- and how you can, too
4 waste-of-time assignments
typical assignment: Keep a reading log
why it's busywork: Writing down the title is one thing; adding on the author, publisher, and other info turns reading into a tedious activity. Rather, let kids write a line or two about why they liked or didn't like the book. The time would also be better spent reading another book.
typical assignment: Play an "unscramble the word" spelling game
why it's busywork: If a child sees a spelling word with the letters scrambled, he could end up remembering it that way, says National Council of Teachers of English president Kylene Beers.
typical assignment: Answer the questions at the end of the chapter
why it's busywork: This can encourage kids to "skim and scan," hunting for answers and ignoring other content. The exception is questions that help kids infer meaning.
typical assignment: Create a diorama/model/game board/anything that requires craft supplies and a glue gun
why it's busywork: Such "fun" projects usually involve a frantic trip to the crafts store, expensive supplies, too much parent participation -- and too little educational value to justify the number of hours they take (with the possible exception of science-fair projects). If it's all about how it looks, it's probably not worth it.
the start of something big
A revolution has to begin somewhere, and as Christine Hendricks, the Wyoming principal and mom, proves, that somewhere isn't only on the coasts or in big cities. It's in communities and schools all over the country.
After teaching math for several years at South Valley Middle School in Liberty, MO, Joel Wazac realized that his students were rarely finishing the reams of problems he sent home. So he and other math teachers decided to eliminate homework and concentrate on making class lessons more engaging. "I had more time for planning when I wasn't grading thousands of problems each night," says Wazac. "And when a student didn't understand something, instead of a parent trying to puzzle it out, I was right there to help him." The result: Grades went up and the school's standardized math test scores are the highest they've ever been.
In some cases, entire schools, such as Mason-Rice Elementary in Newton, MA, have limited homework according to the "ten-minute rule." The Raymond Park Middle School in Indianapolis has a written policy instructing teachers to "assign homework only when you feel the assignment is valuable. A night off is better than homework which serves no worthwhile purpose." Others, such as Oak Knoll Elementary in Menlo Park, CA, are eliminating elementary school homework altogether. If these schools can do it, why can't yours?
Many parents are the ones leading the fight against homework overload and winning. In Danville, CA, Kerry Dickinson, a mother of two, spearheaded the effort by organizing more than 100 parents to convince the local school district to revise its homework policy. The policy still exceeds the "ten minutes per grade" rule, but it discourages weekend and holiday homework and stresses the value of family time. "Is it perfect? Not even close," says Dickinson, who has a teaching credential herself. "But it's progress." You may feel more comfortable starting smaller -- but that's a great way to get the revolution brewing in your community. Aubrey King is a mom who found that teachers can be more responsive (and sympathetic) than you might think. "Normally, we have no time for after-school activities, the park, or even getting an ice cream cone," says King, the Colorado Springs mother of a third- and a sixth-grader, as well as three younger children. But when one child's homework interfered with the family's preparations for Christmas, it was the last straw. King e-mailed the teacher, who promptly eliminated all assignments for the entire class until after winter break.
Another step in the right direction: Krisi Repp of Gray Summit, MO, sent each of her three children's teachers a letter detailing her family's already busy schedule and gently informing them that homework was interfering with sleep, exercise, dinner, church, and precious time together. "Several teachers commented 'I never thought about that' or 'You're right,'" Repp reports. "Many don't have school-age children yet themselves. They're not going to know any better unless we speak out."