Here’s what a day of homework can look like for a first-grader in Miami Dade County Public Schools:
▪ Read aloud with your parents for 20 minutes
▪ Write 20 spelling words in ABC order
▪ Complete two pages of math problems
Another day might ask a 6-year-old to write a bunch of riddles with the week’s spelling words. Or to write a “silly story using words 11-20 from the spelling list.” That is in addition to daily reading and math problems as well as science handouts.
Since August, I’ve been dutifully sitting with my son while he completes these kinds of assignments. The reading I have no problem with — we’ve long been reading for at least an hour a day for pleasure. But the rest of the tasks can stretch into an hour or more a day (try coming up with an original riddle — it’s not even easy for an adult. Now try to come up with six. In one night).
We love our son’s teacher. And I was willing to accept that this is the system in our high-achieving district, even as more and more research emerges to question the effectiveness of homework in the elementary years.
But I finally balked the week first graders in my son’s school were asked to go to a website and type “illegal drugs” to view and complete “an easy quiz.”
No. This needs to stop.
Homework taxes students, parents and teachers, who need to grade all that stuff. And for what? Researchers agree that homework is all but worthless for young students.
“The research is very clear,” Etta Kralovec, education professor at the University of Arizona told Salon last year. “There’s no benefit at the elementary school level.”
Richard Allington, a University of Tennessee professor, has argued that children are better off just reading.
“The quality of homework assigned is so poor that simply getting kids to read, replacing homework with self-selected reading, was a more powerful alternative,” Allington told the Washington Post.
Researchers at Duke University, led by psychology professor Harris Cooper, looked at some 60 previous studies on homework. The 2006 meta-analysis concluded that homework did have some positive effects on student achievement. But the positive correlation was strongest for students in grades 7 through 12.
“Even for high school students, overloading them with homework is not associated with higher grades,” Cooper said, summing up his research to Duke Today.
He added: “Kids burn out.”
And this is my biggest fear. My son is bright, outgoing and active. He plays tennis four days a week and until recently, was taking swimming lessons on Saturdays and Sundays — all of these are activities he requested and adores. And he is insatiably curious: His favorite thing to do is snuggle in with his parents on Friday night to watch a documentary film.
School is becoming another matter. Already in preschool, he faced anxiety about testing. And now, for the first time, he’s telling me that school feels like a prison. At home, his father and I used to enjoy reading to him about science and history. Now all our free time during the week is spent badgering our son about his homework. Instead of sitting with him over his new book about the pyramids at Giza, I’m playing the role of Homework Scold, looming over him as he writes out, in his little-boy hand, his spelling words three times each: astonishing, astonishing, astonishing.
Are we unwittingly poisoning our children’s love of learning?
Heather Shumaker, author of It’s OK to Go Up the Slide, believes we are. As she wrote in Salon last year: “A child just beginning school deserves the chance to develop a love of learning. Instead, homework at a young age causes many kids to turn against school, future homework and academic learning. And it’s a long road. A child in kindergarten is facing 13 years of homework ahead of her.”
There is scant evidence that homework improves student learning in elementary school. And some suggestion that it can actually harm it. So why don’t we just cut it out?
One county in Florida already did. Marion County Superintendent Heidi Maier eliminated homework this year, citing Allington’s research.
And last year, as the Herald’s Kyra Gurney reported, Henry S. West Laboratory School, a public K-8 in Coral Gables, stopped making homework mandatory.
Parents in Miami-Dade County have already tried to get the school board to enforce the recommended time limits for daily homework (from 30 minutes in lower grades to up to two hours in high school). But even that is not enough.
It’s time for School Board members and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho to follow Marion County’s lead and accept the science. Homework in elementary school is not only worthless; it may be harmful.
Let’s just get rid of it.
Ana Menéndez, the author of four books of fiction, is a former Herald columnist.