[Editor's note: The following opinion article was submitted by Glen Rock parent Sean Brennan. Agree with Sean that a policy is needed? Disagree? Share your child's experience with homework loads in the comments below.]
Remember those long nights of homework in 6th grade, working tirelessly from the moment you got home, taking only a short break to have a snack and eat dinner, before heading back to the books, finishing about 8:30 p.m?
Those long hours of homework were repeated each weekday followed by another 5 hours on Saturday and Sunday working on special projects. Remember? Of course you don’t, since it never happened. But this is what our children are experiencing in 6th grade in Glen Rock Middle School and it is neither productive nor healthy.
At the beginning of this school year, our 6th grade daughter was spending at least 4 to 5 hours a night on homework. We initially attributed this to the big change going from 5th to 6th. And at first, that was the issue. But after my daughter settled down into a rhythm and a schedule, the efficiencies she gained through proper and thoughtful planning only got her down to 3 to 4 hours.
After a couple of weeks of seeing our daughter struggle to finish her homework by 9:00 p.m., we consulted with each of her teachers to understand what their homework expectations were. Each teacher estimated that their assignments should be taking approximately 20-30 minutes each plus an additional 30 minutes of reading. With 6 subjects a day plus special projects teachers expected students to work on during the week, that quickly added up to 150 to 210 of minutes of homework per night.
We asked our daughter to record how much time she was spending on each subject and she was in fact spending between 20-30 minutes on average with each subject. However, she was often given assignments that could not be completed in that amount of time, specifically those requiring research that needed to be documented. In addition to homework due during the week, my daughter was given assignments started in class that she was expected to finish during her free time, typically the weekend. These assignments required an additional 5 to 10 hours a weekend to complete.
We had no expectations about how much homework our daughter should be assigned. Was this our school’s policy? Should she be spending this much time each night? Is this amount of homework in her best interest? What guidelines are our teachers given to create the most effective assignments? How do the teachers coordinate their efforts so the children are not overloaded? How much homework is too much?
My wife and I met with the middle school administration, hoping to get answers to these questions. While we had a very open and lively discussion; they were not overly concerned about the amount of time our daughter was spending on homework and did not seem troubled about the apparent issues that the lack of a homework policy creates, including the possibility of uncoordinated workloads and inconsistent experiences and opportunities for children in the same grade.
They did not dispute our findings about the workload assigned by each teacher but refused to admit that the cumulative effect of the assignment resulted in 3 to 4 hours of homework each night and held no opinion if this was appropriate or detrimental to our children’s education.
Instead they wanted to turn the focus on my daughter. The homework was her problem to solve.
To our dismay, their recommendation was to tell her to just stop working after a set amount of time. When I prompted them for their opinion on how much time she should be spending, they asked me what I thought. I was stunned by this response but took the request seriously. So, I researched the topic in hopes of providing an informed response to this important issue since I did not have any significant educational resources, background, or experience.
While my research did reveal that many school districts across New Jersey, like our neighbors in Ridgewood, have decided to implement a homework policy, there is not much published research on the role and impact of homework on increased achievement. Even the landmark publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, while recognizing that the amount of homework had decreased over time, did not reach any definitive conclusions or recommendations about how this impacted higher achievement. However, the districts that have recently decided to implement a homework policy did so to address general welfare concerns for students as well as opening a dialogue between teachers and parents about homework.
The administration referred us to a report published in 2003 by The Brown Center on Education Policy called “Do student’s have too much homework?”. This report was released in part to a growing sentiment at the time claiming that our children had too much homework, reflected in headline articles in both Time and Newsweek. The key finding in this report was that American children on average have less than 1 hour of homework a night. While the authors hoped to provide a correlation between this lack of homework and the failing rate of our school systems, they admittedly could reach no such conclusion. In fact, in a discussion of the report, they warned that an analysis of data did not provide a correlation between high achievement and higher homework load.
This stance seems to be fairly consistent among researchers, including The Center for Public Education, while also highlighting the diminishing effectiveness of too much homework. Interestingly enough, the authors of this report recommend the policies of the NEA as good guidelines for homework. With this policy, 6th graders should have approximately 60 minutes instead of the 210 minutes, or 3.5 hours, of homework that Glen Rock 6th Graders are currently assigned.
It is very easy to distort any discussion about homework with the extreme positions to eliminate all homework that is currently being suggested by the “Race to Nowhere” movement. But this is not my feeling at all. In fact, we feel so fortunate to have such incredibly caring, smart, and thoughtful teachers and are thrilled by the types of assignments that our daughter has been given by her wonderful teachers. Our issue is the load of homework being assigned and how the lack of a policy that not only guides time but purpose, is a major gap in our educational program.
While I did send a response to their request, I have not received an answer. But since I was asked, here is it. We need our administration to take a thoughtful approach to a homework policy and as a start, I would propose we implement the recommendations of the NEA.
Why do we need a homework policy? A policy creates a consistent approach to homework quality and quantity so that we, teachers and parents, can measure how our students are performing relative to the amount of time we expect them to accomplish it. If our children are spending 4 hours each night and weekends on homework, how can parents gauge if our children are struggling or not? A policy will ensure our children are not getting overworked without a defined benefit.
Based upon policies that have been implemented in other school districts, I would propose a homework policy that:
1) Guides teachers to develop assignments that are directly related to topics that the class is currently working on. Assignments should have a purpose, be age appropriate, and should be able to completed by the student without parental assistance.
2) Creates a guideline for the amount of homework that can be assigned each night, as well as on weekends and during vacation. As recommended by the NEA, 10-20 minutes per night in the first grade, and an additional 10 minutes per grade level thereafter.
3) Requires parents to monitor the amount of time their children are spending on homework to ensure that their children are completing it within the guidelines. Parent can use this to gauge their child’s understanding of the materials and alert teachers if their child is struggling.
As recently as last year, the National Association of Elementary School Principals published a comprehensive report that sets homework guidelines and highlights the burden that it places on family life.
The inconsistent and heavy workload that we are subjecting our children to is starting a cycle that we as adults abhor, a treadmill of work that ignores the benefits of childhood that we hold so dear. More troubling, the absence of a policy pits parent against teachers. I am here to say that as a parent, I am thankful everyday for the amazing teachers that my daughters have had. They are concerned, insightful, thoughtful, and created an unparalleled environment for our children. My daughters love their teachers.
But a lack of policy is a failure of our administration and their inaction is disconcerting. A policy is an opportunity to increase our partnership with the wonderful teachers and we must be their advocate in promoting a policy that will enable all of us. A policy is an incredibly easy way for us as parents to be able to gauge how our children are doing before tests are taken. A policy enables our teachers to focus on the quality of homework without worry that they will be judged.
Why do I care? This has created significant amount of stress for my daughter. She is an incredibly inquisitive young girl who is driven to do a good job, and is consumed by completing her assignments well. She cannot just stop as our administration proposed. She cannot stop because she wants to learn. She loves to learn. But she is going to burn out. There is in fact little or no time during the week for my daughter to be young and this homework is added to a school day which is already 47 minutes longer than the state average. There is not a day in my daughter’s life that she is not doing homework for at least some part of the day. While she is doing well in school, we are heartbroken when she is crying in bed, asking me when this is going to get better.
We are failing our children if we are creating a childhood that mirrors our adult experience. We are failing our children if we don’t work with their teachers to make school an education and not a job. We are shortsighted if we deny our children the opportunity to be children. There will be time for being an adult. But that time is not now.
The lack of a homework policy undermines all of the good work that our teachers provide our children while in class and it is counter-intuitive to our goal of promoting a complete life experience for our children.
My wife and I feel we are alone in this issue. The administration has made it seem that we are the only parents that have raised this concern, that the problem is in fact with my daughter. But my daughter’s experience is not unique. Look only to an Patch article written last year by a Glen Rock student. Our children are talking to us. We can hear our voices in their words. We must listen and act.