Parent Pushback on Homework: But Not in Big Cities or from Tiger Moms

Soap bubbles

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Surely, media stories on Moms organizing to get school boards to reduce homework nightly and on weekends to give parents and children time to watch soap bubbles float by suggest a backlash to the exponential growth in tests and NCLB strictures. Two-thirds of elementary school children and 75 percent of secondary school students report doing homework daily. For the youngest children (ages 6-8), homework increased from 52 minutes weekly in 1981 to 128 minutes a week in 1997 (REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH-2006-Cooper, p. 2)

Just don’t expect Tiger Moms–shorthand for immigrant and first-generation parents who see school and college credentials as must-have passports to the middle class–and big city parents to join any placard-bearing protests against homework.

The media-amplified protests mirror real disagreements over the purposes of school in a democracy–sometimes distilled into traditional vs. progressive struggles–as they have ebbed and flowed in school reform over decades.

*Are schools for developing children into inquiring, caring, and independent human being who need time in and out of school to connect with family and have other life experiences to become fuller individuals?

*Or are schools for children and youth to collect one credential after another in scaling the ladder of life from preschool through graduate studies?

Sure, it is not either-or choices and many parents want both. The current protests from many parents against too much testing and homework echo these value differences about the purposes of tax-supported schools in a democracy.

A century ago, another “Crusade to Abolish Homework” used arguments invoked by contemporary parents. In the 1880s, a parent and school board member in Boston complained about nightly homework his children had to complete:

“Over and over again, have I had to send my own children, in spite of their tears and remonstrances, to bed, long after the assigned tasks had ceased to have any educational value and had become the means of nervous exhaustion and agitation, highly prejudicial to body and mind; and I have no reason to doubt that such has become the experience of a large proportion of the parents whose children are habitually assigned home lessons in arithmetic (p. 32).”

“Homework wars,” then and now, are value-driven battles over the goals of schooling; they are not over factual evidence that doing assignments at home will lead to higher grades and better test scores. If anything has been in plain sight for decades it is the weak evidence that the amount and frequency of homework hardly makes a difference in academic achievement.

Researcher Harris Cooper has analyzed and re-analyzed studies of homework over past decades. These research studies were designed to produce correlations between homework and achievement, not causal connections. He concluded that “it is not possible to make claims about homework’s causal effects on longer-term measures of achievement, such as class grades and standardized tests, or other achievement-related outcomes” ( REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH-2006-Cooper, p.53). Cooper goes on to qualify the previous sentence: “[W]hile there is evidence that the effect of subject matter [reading and math] on the homework–achievement relationship is small, it should be viewed as suggestive rather than conclusive” (p.53). Moreover, he found few studies of the effectiveness of assigning homework to elementary school students, remarking that “this may be an especially important omission because of the apparent increase in the amount of homework being assigned to students in these grades” (p.53).

Sobering conclusions about the value of homework,  a  school practice known to generations of students. Again faith in values trumps facts. That homework has become a symbol of the “no excuses” kind of schooling heavily reliant on testing and accountability enacted by the past two U.S. Presidents, state legislatures, and district school boards is hardly earth-shattering news. Potent symbols and century-old traditions of assigning homework seldom require policymakers or teachers to justify the practice with research-based evidence. As one construction worker with a nephew in school said about parent protests over too much homework: ” This is so stupid. part of growing up is having a lot of homework every day. You’re supposed to say, ‘I can’t come and play because I have to stay in and do homework.’ “

Tiger Moms and many urban minority parents would say “amen.”

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5 Comments

Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

5 responses to “Parent Pushback on Homework: But Not in Big Cities or from Tiger Moms

  1. I recall a masters level project that I completed on the impact of homework that had more social implications than academic achievement tenets for a K-8 school district I worked for. While parents weren’t complaining, teachers had concerns that only a small percentage of homework was being completed on any given night, and students found it mostly busy work. With much support of the superintendent and careful reflection of these practices by the teachers, the policy was changed to more meaningful activities with fewer problems that gave students an opportunity to develop deeper meaning. Students had the flexibility that they needed to maintain a balanced home/school life. Parents were more supportive and made homework a priority. Scores soared as a result of students thinking more critically and taking ownership in their learning.

  2. Steve Davis

    The homework debate leads me to question a lot of my assumptions and beliefs about grading. In a university setting, a student can expect a lot of ungraded homework that is necessary to complete in order to do well on projects, mid-terms, and finals. Most of the courses that I have taken only had about 10-15 graded assignments, if that many. Secondary schools often pile on the homework with points attached to it, assuming that students will not do the work unless they are coerced. It seems that in many or even most cases, all of these “graded” assignments are either inflating (if students complete most homework) or deflating (if students don’t complete most homework) a student’s grade with out assessing any kind of growth or mastery. You end up with thousands of points possible, which dilutes the value of actual assessments. I have started grading for growth and mastery. I can do more of it if I lay off the heavy book keeping of attaching points to every homework assignment. I will still give homework, mostly because students and other stake-holders expect it. A class without homework is likely to be vilified as lacking rigor or having a culture of low expectations.

    • I had a similar conversation this week about one of the college level courses I teach. The out-of-class practice should be an investment that leads to mastery. Homework is valuable and deserves appropriate feedback, points attached, but–whew, it must be reformatted to be weaved into our in-class time together and assigned credit quickly. I like to keep it short and sweet and allow time during class for quick review/feedback.

  3. Paul Muench

    The real tiger moms would be ecstatic to see schools reduce the amount of homework. It just interferes with their plans.

  4. Anabolena DeGenna

    I belive what we need to examine is not the quantity but rather the quality of the work assigned. What is the intended goal and in the end does the outcome match the goal? When assigning work the learning objectives must be clearly articulated to the students so that they take ownership in the learning process. Students and parents must see the value of the time spent on doing homework, if they do not the cost is too great.

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