Friday, December 22, 2006

Vacation Homework

Gifted Exchange readers with middle or high school children may be personally involved in one of the latest educational controversies: the idea of homework, especially over weekends and vacations. As schools close for the holidays today, many kids will come home with assignments to be completed before they return in January. Is that a good thing or bad thing?

Two books that hit shelves this year from respected education writers (Alfie Kohn's "The Homework Myth" and Sara Bennett's and Nancy Kalish's "The Case Against Homework") claim the latter. These books have gotten a lot of attention. Bennett and Kalish were on the Today Show, for instance. On national television, they told parents that the amount of time kids devote to homework has "skyrocketed," to the point where kids are losing out on quality time with family, educational play opportunities, etc.

I've long been suspicious of this claim, so I'm glad to see that Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews has likewise poked some holes in this argument. In late November, his column, The Weak Case Against Homework, notes that the studies both sets of authors cite hardly show an oppressive load. In the past two decades or so, the time 6-8 year olds spend on homework has increased from 8 minutes a day to 22 minutes a day. As Matthews points out, that's less than the time it takes to watch one episode of SpongeBob Squarepants. For 15-17 year olds, the ones supposedly crushed by homework these days, the daily homework burn rate has increased from 33 minutes in 1981 to 50 minutes in 2003.

Maybe 22 minutes or 50 minutes is too much if such work takes time away from other edifying pursuits. But 15-17 year olds, by some estimates, spend about 2.5 hours each weekday on TV and other non-studying related screen time (ie, cruising MySpace and IM-ing friends). Matthews notes in amazement that Kalish and Bennett try to nuance this figure by claiming it's so cozy to cuddle up and watch Lost together as a family.

Matthews (and I) agree with the anti-homework crusaders that much of the homework kids get assigned is dumb. Worksheets may drill and kill. Far better to assign reading and ask kids to bring in comments to class for discussion. It amazes me how many teachers do not ask kids to read a chapter in a textbook, or a primary document, before the subject is first broached in class. Won't kids get more out of a lecture if they're not encountering the material for the first time? Extended research may also be best done at home, when kids can synthesize and delve into issues before being whipped over to the next subject by a bell 50 minutes later.

But... and here's the big "but." Spending two hours a day watching TV is pretty dumb, too. Why not devote more energy to calls for better homework and more academically rigorous schools instead of penning an ode to watching Lost together as a family? Bennett and Kalish got the idea to write their book because their own children were suffering under a high load of homework in a very upscale school. The average child, on the other hand, hardly suffers from this excess of expectations. I'm still reeling from a figure I cited on this blog last week (that only 18 of 100 high school freshmen graduate from a 2-year college within 7 years or a 4-year college within 10). Spending a few hours over Christmas vacation reading or studying hardly seems like a worse way to spend the time than playing video games.

11 comments:

Laura Vanderkam said...

By the way, this will likely be the last post of 2006. I'm on vacation myself starting this weekend. But don't fret; I'll be doing my "homework" (coming up with new post topics and long term goals for this blog) in the meantime. Happy holidays to all!

Anonymous said...

It isn't fair to present the choices as:
a: bad homework
b: better homework
c: watching TV.

The reality is that for many of our families homework comes at the expensive of spending time together on more meaningful, enjoyable, enriching and healthy activities. And, for many kids, especially elementary age kids who have already worked a long day at school, it builds the idea that school work is punishment not joy.

Jason Jones said...

My gifted son (age 5) goes to a Montessori school. No homework at all. We do so many extra educational enrichment activities and house chores that homework would be a real burden. I don't know what we'd do if he had homework. He loves school and learning - why kill that?

Quiltsrwarm said...

Eeek...aack...ooop! Sorry, Laura, I gotta blow!

I don't know what data Jay Matthews at the Washington Post looked at when he came up with his analysis because it certainly did NOT include any school within a 60 mile radius of our district. Only twenty-two minutes homework for an elementary school child? They must have pulled this number out of the air.

The school district we live in is NOT an "upscale" school district by any stretch of the imagination. I live in a rural, economically depressed area where 40% of the kids attending the public school are considered "underpriviledged" and eligible for free lunches. The hyper-homework phenomenon described in the referenced books is not unique to high-octane schools. Please say "debunk that myth" ten times...

Our experience: my daughter, at the time she was in fourth grade, was given a lot of homework by many different teachers. Of course none of it was meaningful, all of it was drill and kill busywork, no matter the subject. AND, it had to be done for the sake of grades and passing the kid to 5th grade. So, it would often take her three hours -- sometimes two, sometimes four hours -- to complete. Yes, you read that right, THREE HOURS, and my child was not the only one with this kind of homework burden in that grade or even in that particular school. One to two hours was not unusual in third grade, either. In second grade, my son would usually have an hour of homework, not including reading. Twenty-two minutes would have been heaven for my kids.

I have to agree with the authors of the anti-homework books. School districts already have the kids for enough time in the day to complete instruction, if their time is well-spent. Isn't 7 hours (8am-3pm) instruction enough? In the working world, 8 hours is about most adults' limit, so why should our kids burn themselves out on 7 hours in school plus another 2 - 4 hours of homework everyday? And, if the kids don't get home until 4, 5, or 6pm, they are somehow supposed to find time between then and bedtime (8 or 9pm) to eat, do homework, and maybe -- here's a novel idea -- relax??? In front of the TV or computer, if need be... So what? Doesn't a kid who has just spent 9 - 11 hours "in" school deserve such a break?

About vacation time... Vacation is supposed to be a break from the drudgery of everyday life. Plunking down a reading "assignment," no matter how well intentioned, does not allow for that mental break. If the kid wants to read, then fine, let her/him read, but to require that reading? Doesn't sound much like a vacation to me, and I get very few of them. Why would I want to muddy-up a hard-earned vacation with work?

I can't disagree with you more on this one, Laura. Sorry, but more, or even "better," homework will not solve the issue of challenging our gifted kids and increasing post-secondary graduation rates.

You know, if school districts expect parents to be teachers in the school's off-time, then why are so many kids still in public school? Seems to me this scenario very closely resembles homeschooling... :)

Anonymous said...

22 minutes a day for 6 year olds, five days a week, is a lot! I don't mind 22 minutes twice a week, or if it is silent reading, but let me tell you, some 6 year olds are little kids!

Last year my son was in a 4th grade classroom with his best friend. My son spent 90 seconds/weekday average, his friend spend 45 minutes/weekday average. I know this to be true because I babysat and sometimes got "homework duty" with my son's friend. This was 40 minutes of effort with 5 minutes of fooling around!

Guess what? I felt jealous that my son wasn't learning how to put in the seat time - and sorry for my friend's son that he had such a mountian to climb daily at age 9. I guess that's the point of feeling - they don't have to be logical.

My son's best ever elementary teacher almost never assigned homework - she believed that if the kids gave a good effort during the 6 hours, then there was no need for 8 year olds to put in time afterschool. I worry most about the kids who do have some enthusiasm for independent learning on their own after school, but have their personal learning time cut into by inappropriate homework. If the point is to train the kids to work hard consistiently, then perhaps "good deeds" are a better excersize than mindless homework.

Of course if it was me, then the only homework would be to have all children drilling their Mavis Beacon touch-typing 12 minutes a day and practicing a musical instrument. Or maybe the parents and teachers would sit down 6 weeks into the class and make a individualized homework plan were every elementary kid is responsible for 30 minutes a day, but the teacher and parent could work together to find meaningful assignments?

Anonymous said...

My son will attend SAT and he just passed his 13 birthday. Yesterday he practice one a sample test and he got 1800 while I gave a score of 2 to his essay. Is this OK score? He is in 7th grade. How can I register him for scholarship for some summer program or any advanced program?I know nothing about this talent search and my son insisted on taking it. Who can tell me what will happen or what should we do after we know his score?Thanks

Anonymous said...

Dear "My son will attend SAT and he just passed his 13 birthday.

come on over to http://giftedissues.gt-cybersource.org/BB/
we love questions and love to give advice. We need a few more details, sign up, come over, and "introduce yourself" - it's public so pick a usename for you and DS.
Love and More Love,
"Trinity"

The Princess Mom said...

Sorry, Laura, you're wrong on this one. Yes, an hour of homework a night doesn't seem excessive, assuming the rest of the evening is free time, but it's not. And this is the point that everyone seems to be missing.

Most middle and particularly high school kids are involved with sports, extracurricular clubs, taking private lessons in music or art, volunteering or maybe even--gasp--holding a job after spending 7 hours in school every day. These all important extracurriculars are what make the difference between getting into a college and getting into the college you really want--not to mention providing ways to pay for college through savings or scholarships.

So if a teen has two hours of homework a night, has basketball practice after school, volunteers at the shelter for an hour two or three nights a week, spends an hour at family dinner every night, practices a music instrument for 30 minutes a night, and works at McDonald's evenings and weekends, when exactly does he have time to watch Spongebob? And when do you shoehorn in time with friends, SAT prep, school play rehearsals and researching and writing college applications?

I'd venture to say that most teens could find a much better use for that extra two hours a day they're doing what you admit is predominantly mindless homework. My ds16 stayed up 'til nearly midnight coloring a worksheet for his enriched English class! Is that a good use of his time?

Lessa

John Painter said...

Laura:

I must agree with those who say these numbers quoted by Jay Matthews are pulled out of thin air. In addition to my own experience with offspring now in fourth and sixth grade, I run an education related website for parents. I get all sorts of stories about long and dumb homework assignments from parents in our local community and beyond.

Middle school kids in NJ suburbs, wealthy or not, are spending as much as two hours per night on homework, and that includes weekends and vacations. High school students are spending far more time than that. Many of us count on two or three breakdowns or tantrums over homework each week. For what? Often it is busywork--dittos, worksheets, and in our case locally even NCLB test-prep via web-based software. Terrific.

I predict that those convinced that the time spent on homework is not too burdensome today simply do not have children in public schools.

Anonymous said...

I've long been suspicious of this claim, so I'm glad to see that Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews has likewise poked some holes in this argument. In late November, his column, The Weak Case Against Homework, notes that the studies both sets of authors cite hardly show an oppressive load. In the past two decades or so, the time 6-8 year olds spend on homework has increased from 8 minutes a day to 22 minutes a day. As Matthews points out, that's less than the time it takes to watch one episode of SpongeBob Squarepants. For 15-17 year olds, the ones supposedly crushed by homework these days, the daily homework burn rate has increased from 33 minutes in 1981 to 50 minutes in 2003.
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You're joking, right? I just found this blog and I live in Northern Virginia so I read every word of Jay Mathews' critique one year ago. You're kidding, aren't you? Because if you are not, you and Jay are so out of touch with reality.

Here is our reality. I have a gifted child. PG in fact. Also twice exceptional. You aren't going to find two parents more passionate about learning, knowledge and imagination than my husband and me. I won't brag about my educational credentials, they aren't so stellar (so much of my real education and reading actually is on my own) but suffice it to say that my husband is an Ivy League graduate as well as graduate degrees from top universities.

We have both come to loath homework. This is not anti-intellectual. In fact, all that homework ran the danger of killing any remaining intellectualism in our child, and it's only due to our constant damage control that we still keep that fire alive in our only child.

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Maybe 22 minutes or 50 minutes is too much if such work takes time away from other edifying pursuits.

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50 minutes? 50 minutes? You think we are mourning the loss of our daughter's childhood over...FIFTY MINUTES? Please, talk to me. Talk to other parents. Spend some time in our home. You'll come away with very different conclusions.

My over-arching memories of toddler and pre-school hood is how much my daughter loved to learn, how curious she was, how much she soaked up knowledge, information and play. I have a darling story to share and I'll telescope here for the sake of brevity.

We spent a summer in California and my three year old and I were headed to the beach. Early beach traffic had me escaping the bridge before we crossed it. I noticed the major science musuem nearby was opening extra early that morning (these were the days when my daughter still arose early). We walked in at 8:45 am and since my daughter was only three, I thought we'd spend a short amount of time, and then continue on to our anticipated beach trip when traffic cleared.

We never left. I couldn't get my inquisitive daughter out of there, dangling images of sand and water notwithstanding. She's very visual spatial so she had to touch everything and her questions were incessant. She was mesmorized. We started taking her to museums in utero and she loved them.

Well, at 5:30 the msueum closed and we were politely asked to leave. Ever try to herd a imaginative curious gifted toddler with a passion for hyper-focusing? I tried to gently coax her, it didn't work. Finallly I had no choice but to just scoop her up and carry her out.

Tantrums were never pretty, but this time she just paused outside the door and began sobbing quietly as if her heart would break. She cried, "I want MORE science, I want MORE science!" It was the one meltdown strangers actually stopped to smiled at.What a bright child!

"Learning Never Ends" is the motto in our home. My daughter's two abiding passions after school in elementary were reading and writing a novel. Had she not been so burdened with what seemed like bottomless homework, I have little doubt she would have been a published author by now. She was so close to finishing an amazing novel but constant messages of "you need to put that down now" took its toll. I am saddened she is no longer writing becuase schoolwork leaves no time for that. Do you seriously advocate this position?

Maybe in your home it's tv versus homework. Not in mine. I hate to be smug here but you and Jay are, so why not return the favor?

Here's what our afternoons would have looked like sans (I'd settle for LESS) homework. Musueums, plays, opera, ballet, nature centers, walks, long history discussions over the dinner table, books books and more books, art, clay, bike riding, play, friends, and most importantly SLEEP. And I'm just getting started.

My daughter didn't start out hating homework. In fact, in first grade she loved it. Second too. Then a new teacher came along that year and began to reward the kids. If they did all their homework, the reward would be...NO HOMEWORK! Thus positing that homework is yucky, a bitter pill you must swallow each day. Butyou don't have to do it once in a while if you do all your homework. "It is a tale, told by idiots..."

My daughter has ADD. Not a deficit of attention, it's more a focus disorder. Maybe even a learning disability. On top of that she is profoundly gifted and visual spatial. These kids can't just whip out the homework, their minds don't work that way. They are perfectionist, contemplative, love sinking into something, learn best in depth. She loved her projects as she is very artisitic but how excited can you be over a cool long term assignment you'd just love to sink your teeth into when it comes at the end of tedious busy work?

I'd skip daily homework for this small population, they learn material permanently and all that review and repetition is anathema to them. If it's a gifted program, run it like a gifted program instead of the regular program with a whole lot of extra work thrown in to make it look gifted.

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But 15-17 year olds, by some estimates, spend about 2.5 hours each weekday on TV
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Not my kid! We don't even own a tv.

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and other non-studying related screen time (ie, cruising MySpace and IM-ing friends).

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My daughter does some. I can tell you way less than her peers. We limit it though without making it look as if we are micro-managing taskmasters. That's my other chief complaint about homework. It turns us parents into taskmasters. Why would our kids want to see us at the end of a long exhausting day on far too little sleep when we greet them with "Get to work!"

This is not what a gifted program should look like. I'm all for hard work and stretching one's mind and imagination. But my daughter is at the pinnacle of high achieving schools and these kids are up half the night, feverishly trying to complete homework by daybreak. What on earth are we thinking? I know you will say, don't like it, leave. But it's not that easy. This is where she has her intellectual peers. She is introverted, socialization does not come easy to her. Yes, we could switch her to her base school, but then it would be very lecture and standardized test driven, even more busy work, and she'd have no one to socialize with! It's not as if we really have a choice, so the "if you don't like it, leave" is not as simple as it looks.

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Matthews notes in amazement that Kalish and Bennett try to nuance this figure by claiming it's so cozy to cuddle up and watch Lost together as a family.

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I loved both books. And still, I don't own a television set and I am not lamenting the loss of television viewing. I am lamenting the loss of childhood, of play, of books, of writing novels, of quality dinner time, of weekends to hike, of the constant pressure and stress of homework that hangs over our family like a dark cloud, eclipsing our ability to just enjoy our child and life. I am flumoxed by the sleep disorder surely brought on by homework stress and how hard I must work to fix it. I am sad that our relationship is now terse and stressed because we just can't escape homework, it's always there. My daugher likes her school so she is willing to do what it takes. But what it takes is staying up half the night. Please step back and assess that. Is that really what's best for our children? Must gifted and sleep deprivation always go hand in hand? Can't we enrich and challenge our children without working them to death? I'm the last person to call for "dumbing" things down, my daughter would scream if it was too easy. But it is possible to eliminate much of the stress and competition without sacrificing quality.

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Matthews (and I) agree with the anti-homework crusaders that much of the homework kids get assigned is dumb.

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We homeschooled 8th because I became so alarmed at my daughter's lack of time to socialize, have a life, and I didn't want her passion and curiosity drummed out of her. One GT Center refugee told me, "I never worked so hard, to produce so much, to learn so little."

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Worksheets may drill and kill. Far better to assign reading and ask kids to bring in comments to class for discussion.

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Bingo! Even Jay Mathews, self-proclaimed Mr. Homework, now advocates for NO homework in elementary. I can't repeat this enough. My gifted daughter would have spent all afternoon reading (we are talking Wuthering Heights in 5th grade) and composing a novel. Instead I eventually found myself chasing her around the house, nagging and cajoling a tired child to spend endless precious time, time we'll never get back, to slog through mind-numbing assignments, whose only purpose seemed to be crush her love of learning.

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But... and here's the big "but." Spending two hours a day watching TV is pretty dumb, too.

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I cannot say this enough. My daughter does not do that! Please don't assign homework because you think I am such an idiot that I'll just allow my child to laze away on the couch all afternoon, dumbly watching tv! If you think some parent will do that, assign it to HER! We have better things to do than waste an entire afternoon and evening lounging aimlessly before the tube.

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Why not devote more energy to calls for better homework and more academically rigorous schools instead of penning an ode to watching Lost together as a family?

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Stop harping on this. It is hardly the main theme of the book. These two amazing authors did not "pen an ode to watching Lost," for crying out loud. The main theme is what useless homework does to families, to well being, to childhood.

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Bennett and Kalish got the idea to write their book because their own children were suffering under a high load of homework in a very upscale school. The average child, on the other hand, hardly suffers from this excess of expectations.

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You are right. But I have a gifted child. We don't send her to "gifted" schools because we are shallow snobs but because this is the best fit for our daughter. Yes, we understand our choices. Either be bored to death or worked to death.

In desperation, I finally pulled my daughter out to homeschool for a while. It was the only way we could enrich, excite and challenge her without all that stress and sleep deprivation. These are lousy choices.

Here's a better one but it does not exist year round. My daughter attends Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth and they work the kids really hard. But in an engaging, stimulating FUN environment with two hours of study hall, no more, just two hours! They build in time for socializing and lights out are mandatory. My daughter wakes refreshed, eager to learn, excited about what the day will bring, and for a kid who in the early years didn't like school but loved learning, cannot wait to go back to this program each year. Why can't the gifted schools here do the same? All we are doing with insanely excessive homework is burning out our best and brightest.

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Spending a few hours over Christmas vacation reading or studying hardly seems like a worse way to spend the time than playing video games.

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Again, this is not the reality we face. Again, it's not video games versus reading. And why would you assume my daughter would not read if school didn't assign it? On the contrary, gifted kids tend to be very auto-didactic and when left to their own devices, if the love of learning has not been destroyed, will choose engaging challenging self-pursuits. No Christmas vacation homework will find our entire family curled up with twenty good books, The New York Times, Scientific American and daily trips to museums.

Surely you cannot argue it's better to bug our child all vacation long when she's already burned out and desperately in need of a break from work. Remember our family motto: Learning Never Ends. We are wonderful parents and have always been more than qualified to find interesting compelling educational opportunities for our child without the school forcibly spoon feeding it to us.

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Thanks for reading this. I'd love to get a response.

Evan Adams said...

I would like to see how "average" time spent on homework across the board, which includes kids who will eventually drop out and kids who are failing or almost failing, compares to kids who get mostly B's. B's, specifically, because they're clearly willing to do more than the minimum to not fail, but also aren't the type to put in an extra 10 hours on a project to move their GPA up another notch. The 50 minutes number is what people are actually doing, not what it takes to succeed, and I think that's an important distinction.