TOPICS > Education

The Homework Burden

December 19, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: Newton, Massachusetts, is a place where scoring on the hockey field is almost as important as scoring in the classroom. The suburban Boston community has one of the highest achieving school systems in the country. But on this fall afternoon, parent Bonnie Lerner was having a hard time concentrating on daughter Sophie’s game.

LITTLE GIRL: I need to give a long concluding, like, statement.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That’s because she’d been sidelined by her 12- year-old daughter Emma, who was having trouble with homework.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How many hours do you spend a night on homework?

BONNIE LERNER: You wouldn’t believe it.

EMMA: I get home at 3:00, and then I go till, like, 8:00.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What’s that like for you, mom?

BONNIE LERNER: It’s horrible. It’s really hard, and I’m trying to be six people at the same time, basically, with all three kids with homework.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Parents and educators have been struggling with homework for over 100 years, as it has been touted and condemned as a way to improve student performance. Back in the 1890s, it was attacked as harmful to the physical and social needs of children. That same argument came up regularly over the next 60 years. Then came 1957 and Sputnik. The Soviet satellite launch made America wake up to the challenge of Soviet technology, and homework was seen as a way to make U.S. schoolchildren more competitive. But in the 1960s, Americans had other things on their minds– court battles over school desegregation, protests over the Vietnam War– and homework levels dropped off dramatically, until the 1980s, when it appeared that the Japanese were outperforming Americans in the workplace and the classroom.

SPOKESMAN: They think improving the amount of homework done is related to that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Once again, homework roared back as a way for American kids to improve their performance. Today, the size of book bags, and even wheeled luggage, show that homework is now more in style than ever, as school districts around the country struggle with ways to get test scores up. But once again, some parents, and even some educators, are wondering whether kids are suffering in the process. On a typical weeknight at the Wilson household in Newton, it’s 7:00 P.M. before everyone is home. The kids come in from school, soccer practice, and field hockey; parents Beth and Jeff Wilson from their jobs as psychologist and anesthesiologist.

BETH WILSON: How much homework do you have, Rach?

RACHEL: A ton.

BETH WILSON: A ton?

RACHEL: Oh, I have some stuff to do in social studies.

MELISSA WILSON: I have to study for a math test. I have… I already did my Spanish work.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: After dinner, 12- year-old Rachel practiced Hebrew with her dad. Her bat mitzvah was six weeks away. Rachel also plays on two soccer teams, takes dance lessons, and has at least two hours of homework a night. At 8:30, Rachel was still at the kitchen table finishing up a math assignment, and once again, she needed help from dad.

RACHEL: I don’t get this at all.

JEFF WILSON: Which one?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In the next room, sophomore Melissa Wilson was finishing up an essay for her English class. She averages three to four hours of homework a night. She usually burns the midnight oil, when the rest of the family is in bed asleep.

MELISSA WILSON: It’s a workload, and it’s very difficult, plus we… sleeping, going to sleep at 12:00 and being up at 6:45 at the latest in the morning, and first period’s right at 7:50, when I’m totally exhausted…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How much of the time are you tired?

MELISSA WILSON: Constantly. I don’t know a time when I’m not tired. I don’t normally get enough sleep.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Beth Wilson thinks her daughters’ homework also hurts the family.

BETH WILSON: I mean, there’s less time to spend just having dinner or spend without “who has what?”, or “who needs to do what?”. I mean, we’re trying to make rules: No telephone calls at dinnertime, no… Even if someone would say “I have a test, I’ve got to go study; I’ve got to finish this; I’ve got to go to confirmation class”… I mean, there seems to be so many different things, and it’s hard. It is hard to build in that family time.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Wilson was successful in reducing the amount of homework her ten-year- old son, Jason, has. Several years ago, she worked with principal Mark Springer and other parents to lighten the homework load for kids at Jason’s Mason Rice Elementary School.

MARK SPRINGER: I think we mistake more homework for academic rigor. And I just don’t… I don’t believe that. I believe… You know, I think too often, people mistake children for adults in little bodies, and they’re not adults in little bodies. They’re not little men and little women, they’re children. To be asking them to go home and, after they’ve had their full afternoon of activities– and they’re learning in all of those settings– to ask them after supper to now write an essay, to do a project… it’s not optimal time. The important work, the real important stuff really can be done in school.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Authors of the new book, “The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning,” feel so strongly that homework is bad and its results unproven, that they’ve called for its abolition. Co-author John Buell says it hurts parents who are already stretched to the limit, and kids who can be turned off to learning.

JOHN BUELL: Young students especially have limited attention spans. When you increase the homework burden after they’ve already, you know, been working extensively in school, there’s fatigue, exhaustion, confusion set in, and at times, even a sense that “I can’t possibly do this.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Janine Bempechat thinks that’s nonsense. She’s a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge. Her children also attend Mason Rice Elementary School.

JANINE BEMPECHAT: I find that approach to be flawed. In my mind, the value of homework in elementary school isn’t so much intellectual as it is motivational, and what I mean by that is that knowing at an early age, beginning in kindergarten, that you have a piece of homework to do. And over time, throughout the elementary school years, the assignment of homework helps children to develop qualities that all teachers like to see in the classroom, such a persistence, diligence, the ability to delay gratification.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Buell says the resources necessary to make that work are not available to all students, particularly students who live in poverty.

JOHN BUELL: Homework as it’s currently constituted– and this is another major theme of our work– systematically discriminates against poor children. You know, poor children do not come home, by and large, to a house/home situation where they have access to computers, where they have access to adults who maybe have had a lot of formal education and can help them with specific projects.

BARRY ROBINSON: I can really, really straighten you out.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Barry Robinson disagrees. He thinks poor kids need homework more than anybody does. He’s an award-winning coach at English High School, in a low- income section of South Boston.

BARRY ROBINSON: Without homework, these kids are going to be way behind with the subject matter that the teacher is teaching. They need the homework. They need to follow it up. They need tutoring.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Five years ago, Robinson started an after-school homework program and made it a requirement for his basketball team. Since starting the program, his players have consistently been getting better grades. Seven of his seniors this past spring got basketball scholarships to college, and the team had a record season with 23 wins and three loss.

SPORTSCASTER: They repeat as city champions. What a great game.

BARRY ROBINSON: How many of you all here want to go to college? Put your hands up. Look at all them hands. You’re telling yourself and you’re telling me you want to go to college. You’ve seen the result where we sent seven seniors to college last year based on this program and what we do.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Robinson keeps tabs on each player’s class attendance and homework, and when a student doesn’t come through, they hear about it from the coach.

BARRY ROBINSON: How come you didn’t get a 100 on that test today?

BARRY ROBINSON: Homework is extremely important. Like, one of the phrases I use is, you know, “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” And you know, it’s practice, practice, practice. You know, if you’re doing a math or an English or a science, you know, have to practice constantly, just like with basketball. You have to constantly practice over and over the same fundamental drills, and homework is a fundamental part of academics.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: For the kids who may not have access to resources after school, the city of Boston is trying to help by funding a cable access TV program called “Extra Help.” Three hours a day, four days a week, teachers are on-hand to take calls from students who have questions on topics ranging from algebra to geography.

TEACHER: That’s lake Victoria.

TEACHER: Is Jared a boy?

CHILDREN: Yeah.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Boston Black Ministerial Alliance has also stepped in with more hands-on help. It runs an after-school program now in five locations in Boston, like this one that brothers Donald and Patrick Kimbal attend.

CHILD: I had a good day because I got a a-plus on my social studies project. ( Cheers and applause )

BETTY ANN BOWSER: 12-year-old Patrick used to fight every night with his mother over homework, but not since he’s been getting tutored. Their mother, Adrian, who works full time at a Boston bank, likes the program and is a strong supporter of homework.

ADRIAN: It keeps their minds going, you know, so that they know that just because school is over, when they come home, they have an assignment; it’s done or it needs to be done, and then when they get back to school, this is what’s going to help them get that “A” on Friday on that Spanish test or, you know, the spelling test that’s coming up.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Harvard’s Janine Bempechat says she hears that sentiment often from inner city parents she works with.

JANINE BEMPECHAT: What I see is that parents in the city are clamoring for the very things that many parents in the suburbs are arguing against. They know what their children are up against, and they want their kids to have homework. And they want the schools to be able to provide the support one way or another for their kids to be able to do their homework.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: As urban working parents find ways to make sure their kids get the resources they need, suburban parents fight to keep homework from overwhelming their lives. Meanwhile, a growing number of school districts are putting a limit on the amount of homework teachers can give students, and more than one school system has outlawed homework all together.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: For the kids who may not have access to resources after school, the city of Boston is trying to help by funding a cable access TV program called “Extra Help.” Three hours a day, four days a week, teachers are on-hand to take calls from students who have questions on topics ranging from algebra to geography.

TEACHER: That’s lake Victoria.

TEACHER: Is Jared a boy?

CHILDREN: Yeah.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Boston Black Ministerial Alliance has also stepped in with more hands-on help. It runs an after-school program now in five locations in Boston, like this one that brothers Donald and Patrick Kimbal attend.

CHILD: I had a good day because I got a a-plus on my social studies project. ( Cheers and applause )

BETTY ANN BOWSER: 12-year-old Patrick used to fight every night with his mother over homework, but not since he’s been getting tutored. Their mother, Adrian, who works full time at a Boston bank, likes the program and is a strong supporter of homework.

ADRIAN: It keeps their minds going, you know, so that they know that just because school is over, when they come home, they have an assignment; it’s done or it needs to be done, and then when they get back to school, this is what’s going to help them get that “A” on Friday on that Spanish test or, you know, the spelling test that’s coming up.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Harvard’s Janine Bempechat says she hears that sentiment often from inner city parents she works with.

JANINE BEMPECHAT: What I see is that parents in the city are clamoring for the very things that many parents in the suburbs are arguing against. They know what their children are up against, and they want their kids to have homework. And they want the schools to be able to provide the support one way or another for their kids to be able to do their homework.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: As urban working parents find ways to make sure their kids get the resources they need, suburban parents fight to keep homework from overwhelming their lives. Meanwhile, a growing number of school districts are putting a limit on the amount of homework teachers can give students, and more than one school system has outlawed homework all together.