At screenings of Race to Nowhere in communities across the country, few issues have stirred audience discussion as much as the debate over students' increasingly heavy homework loads. Such is the subject of two recent articles featured on The Atlantic.com. The first is from Karl Taro Greenfeld, who was growing concerned after watching his eighth-grade daughter wake up morning after morning, haggard and sleep-deprived from late nights of studying. Things had gotten so bad that Greenfeld and his wife would force their daughter to go to bed, only to have her pretend to sleep, get up again and do more homework. In an attempt to better understand what she was going through, Greenfeld decided to give himself a challenge: for one week, he would attempt his daughter's daily homework.
The result can be found in his latest article, "My Daughter's Homework is Killing Me." It's a compelling read, and as you can quickly guess from the title, Greenfeld found the experiment overwhelming.
He gives examples of a single night's homework: 79 pages of reading with text analysis, 11 complex algebra questions and studying for an earth science exam. This is an easy night according to his daughter. When he pressed her about the meaning of her science notes full of confusing jargon, she said the key to success on tests is "memorization not rationalization."
After a week of struggling through late nights of endless homework, Greenfeld can't help but question how students can stay excited about school:
Well, imagine if after putting in a full day at the office -- and school is pretty much what our children do for a job -- you had to come home and do another four or so hours of office work. Monday through Friday. Plus... homework every weekend... how long would you last?
This is a question that weighs heavily on teacher Jessica Lahey. In her own article -- "Should I Stop Assigning Homework?" -- Lahey spotlights the internal struggle some teachers have when it comes to giving up the homework practice: Can they realistically cover a year's worth of material without it? Will they be failing the expectations of students, parents and administrators if they stop assigning it? However, as a parent, Lahey worries that homework overload, especially the worksheet variety that calls for rote memorization, may be stealing precious hours of her son's childhood for a minimal learning benefit.
Lahey introduces us to Mark Barnes, a teacher who found that the traditional "circle of learning" consisting of lecture, practice, homework, test and grade to be more harmful than helpful for his students. So, after 14 years of teaching, he decided to do away with homework in favor of emphasizing a project-based classroom. Barnes found that his students became more motivated to learn independently outside of school and ultimately out-performed grade-level peers with more traditional classrooms. Lahey says she now questions how long she will keep homework as part of her own teaching methods.
Like Greenfeld, Lahey and Barnes, many of the parents and teachers we meet at RTN screenings are worried that homework is overworking students, while under-preparing them to be creative, contributing, well-rounded adults. Moreover, we've heard from experts who think that eliminating most homework would have multiple benefits. Pediatricians have suggested that cutting out what has become a second-shift for many students could help reverse rising rates of anxiety and depression for many reasons, not least the potential increase in sleep. Dr. Etta Kralovec champions the elimination of homework as an opportunity to help level the playing field in our schools, allowing independent work to instead be done during the school day under the guidance of teachers where all students have access to educational resources.
Greenfeld poses a question in his article that we too often overlook: "Are these many hours of homework the only way to achieve this metamorphosis of child into virtuous citizen?" A growing number of educators and families are saying no. Doing so means they have to rethink the traditional "circle of learning" and the teaching practices that come with it.
Now, we want to hear what you think. Are you worried about excessive homework in schools? Are you a parent, educator or student advocating for change? How is your school transforming its approach to learning in and out of the classroom? We want to hear your stories, and it's never been easier to share. You can use our new iPhone App Ed Stories to record your experience. You can also submit your story on our website.
Follow Vicki Abeles on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@racetonowhere
“Memorization, not rationalization.”
That's the credo at the core of Karl Taro Greenfeld's story in this month's Atlantic about doing his 13-year-old daughter's homework for a week. The motto is her guide for surviving the hours upon hours of work required of her after hours upon hours of school, and it reflects the truth at the core of the exercises she plows through: an emphasis on the sheer volume of rote labor.
He dramatizes the problem in one succinct, powerful paragraph:
One evening when Esmee was in sixth grade, I walked into her room at 1:30 a.m. to find her red-eyed, exhausted, and starting on her third hour of math. This was partially her fault, as she had let a couple of days’ worth of worksheets pile up, but it was also the nature of the work itself. One assignment had her calculating the area and perimeter of a series of shapes so complex that my wife, who trained as an architect in the Netherlands, spent half an hour on it before coming up with the right answers.
The Atlantic also features a sort of companion story by a teacher called "Should I Stop Assigning Homework?" It lays out the pluses of homework (allowing the completion of more ambitious projects such as reading whole novels, keeping up appearances vis-a-vis other teachers) and the downsides (no measurable improvement in learning, the act of taking away time from students that could otherwise be used to play or relax or otherwise enjoy their lives.)
Both of these stories are primarily anecdotal and opinion-driven, but they don't exist in a vacuum – there is a mountain of doubt about the effectiveness of cramming kids full of testable knowledge and turning school into a round-the-clock job (see also: the Chinese education system groping for a way to throttle back on the cram-school mentality in order to encourage independent thought and creativity.)
It's easy to read stories like this in a leading journal of liberal egg-headedness like the Atlantic and dismiss them out of hand – surely, more work must lead to smarter, more disciplined students and better scores in the long run. But scientific studies of homework don't back that up – for example, this 2011 study in the Economics of Education Review demonstrates that while math homework helped students learn, homework in science, English and history was shown to have "little to no impact" on test scores.
A 2005 study cited by Taro Greenfeld notes that "some of the countries that score higher than the U.S. on testing in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study – Japan and Denmark, for example – give less homework, while some of those scoring lower, including Thailand and Greece, assign more."
A "Finnish Miracle" of education - laid-back hours and attitudes, well-compensated teachers, a de-emphasis on competition, high degrees of independence for teachers and internationally enviable education outcomes - may be difficult to replicate in the United States, a far more polyglot nation with severe (and increasing) income gaps between the poor and rich. That said, there may be a way to strike the right balance between creativity and necessary drills, between rigorous education and social and home lives that encourage creativity and – dare it be written – joy.