Essential learning tool or busywork?

A couple of years ago Consumer Reports did an experiment. They corralled 56 kids in three schools, weighed each kid, weighed the kid’s backpack, and laid out some eye-popping numbers: The sixth-graders in the sample carried an average load of 18.4 pounds each, or more than 17 percent of their body weight; the second-graders carried an average of 5 pounds, more than 8 percent of their weight. The numbers were followed by buying advice: look for a waist strap to stabilize the load, wear both shoulder straps, and so forth.

Good tips, to be sure, but what about challenging the contents of the packs? What kid needs nearly 20 pounds of texts, folders, papers and other homework supplies? And does a second-grader need any homework, much less 5 pounds of it? How much of it is busywork, and how much will require a parents — inevitably wrung out from their own workdays — to complete?

Homework and its attendant grumbling predate the mimeograph machine. But this is something different. Schools increasingly are focused on standardized tests. Younger and younger children are coming home with assignments — and anxiety. And parents of middle- and high-schoolers complain that the workload has stolen family time.

In 1981, a third of 6- to 8-year-olds nationwide had homework on any given day. By 2002, two-thirds reported having homework, and spending a third more time on it. Teens — particularly honors or advanced placement students — now routinely spend three or more hours a night on homework, the equivalent of a second shift in the workplace.

At the same time, though, the same competitive pressures are fueling complaints from parents who feel their children don’t have enough homework. If nothing’s coming home, how can they rest assured enough is happening in the classroom?

Parents and teachers grapple with homework

All this tension begs the question: Is homework helpful or a burden all around? A growing number of parents and educators sincerely want to know the answer to that question, but there’s surprisingly little hard data on the point.

Four years ago, Steve DeLapp invited a group of parents and teachers to consider the ongoing tensions surrounding homework at Minneapolis’ Barton Open School, where he is principal. Compared to kids at other schools, Barton’s K–8 student body has never gotten much homework. In fact, pupils get so little that parents who are new to the school sometimes question whether their children are learning anything.

“They just presume that because they got worksheets when they were kids, that’s what should happen,” says Minneapolis resident Peggy Clark, whose daughter just graduated from Barton. The school doesn’t hand out letter grades, Clark adds, “so there’s no incentive for all that paper to go back and forth.”

For Barton’s younger pupils, homework usually consists of a project that builds on something learned in school that parents and kids can work on together. Kids might be asked to make a map of their bedroom, or just to spend some time reading, says DeLapp.

As kids get older, Clark explains, the number of projects that must be completed at home goes down, but expectations about depth go up. Occasionally, a teacher may send home something they want a particular student to work on.

Like middle-schoolers everywhere, Barton’s 7th- and 8th-graders get a lot more homework — too much in DeLapp’s opinion: “They take five or six classes a day and each teacher has a tendency to think their subject is the most important.”

DeLapp did assign homework to the grownups on the committee: Members read and discussed The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, by Alfie Kohn. The group stopped short of endorsing Kohn’s central premise — that there is no real evidence homework has value — but found much to agree with in the provocative book.

For starters, DeLapp’s own experience suggests Kohn is correct in asserting that ever-larger amounts of homework inadvertently increase the achievement gap. “Kids who are behind, they sometimes have the hardest time with homework because sometimes the way it’s given today in schools it’s very dependent on having a parent there to do it with,” he says. “If you’re not careful, you can create a double standard.”

The concern is echoed elsewhere. Some teachers in Mounds View Public Schools’ “intervention classes,” aimed at students performing below grade level, give no homework at all, according to RoAnne Elliot, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction. It’s a problem if a student doesn’t learn enough in class to complete the homework on their own, she says, one that’s only compounded if there’s no parent able to help.

Particularly in those situations, homework can actually penalize hardworking students. Consider the plight of a kid who starts a school term struggling but ends up mastering the material. Should their final grade reflect uncompleted assignments? “That can add up to a lot of zeros,” says Elliot.

Elliot is particularly encouraged by the promise of technology to alter the imbalance. When teachers are available online during certain hours, the gap narrows, she says.

“At the other end of the scale are kids in honors courses,” says Elliot. “We want those kids to have a rigorous experience, but homework can just get piled on. They might get 50 math problems a night, while other kids get 20.”

“Homework is a strategy for something, a way to a goal,” she says, and there are other ways to reach that goal. Teachers are encouraged to consider the purpose of a particular assignment and then try to figure out whether there’s another way to address it.

A surprising number of parents want their kids to have homework, DeLapp and Elliot note. They may not realize it, but often these parents use homework as a barometer for what’s going on in school. “When kids don’t bring homework home, parents feel they have no idea what’s going on in the classroom,” says Elliot. “If those parents had more information and communication, I wonder if they would have the same response.”

More often, parents are as overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of the homework as their kids. “They feel there’s way too much homework, it takes up too much time, it leaves us no family time, and the kids are way too stressed out,” she says. “Parents are often at a loss how to help kids do homework.”

In a truncated family evening, homework can be an unhealthy flash point. According to Kohn, more than a third of fifth-graders in one study said they get tense working on it with their parents, and half of parents report having ended up in a shouting match over homework in the last year. The more a child is struggling, the worse the conflict, he added.

The tensions aren’t just between kids and parents, either. Teachers are prone to making judgments about parental involvement based on homework performance, Elliot and Kohn both note. And even the most engaged parents are hard-pressed to decipher poorly worded instructions — or to convince their child the homework is meaningful. “Sometimes I would say to my daughter, ‘This homework doesn’t make sense and I will support you so long as you are respectful with your teacher when you bring it up,’” Elliot recalls.

Sometimes teachers end up in a power struggle with a student who fails to get their work done. “You can feel disrespected if the kid isn’t doing their homework and you can be tempted to start flexing your muscles,” cautions Elliot. “And then it ceases to be about learning.”

Ban busywork

So what is homework’s proper place? “I don’t think homework should be given just to be given,” says Colleen Wambach, who retired as principal of Mounds View’s Irondale High School this spring.

Over the course of her career, Wambach mediated any number of disputes about homework and she developed some firm opinions in the process: Homework is useful for reinforcing good work habits and for practicing skills learned in class, she says. But it should never contain new information, and should always be purposeful.

Barton’s parent-teacher committee came to a similar conclusion. “If there was going to be homework above and beyond the projects, it had to have some relevance or special importance,” says Clark. “Unless homework provides some sort of enrichment, it’s really just busywork.”

DeLapp agrees, but takes it one step further. Kids — and particularly young ones — are intrinsically motivated to learn all they can. Handled poorly, homework can discourage that inborn drive and turn something joyous into a chore. “If our main interest is to get [kids] interested in school,” he says, homework “probably isn’t the best way to do it.”

Beth Hawkins is a Minneapolis writer.