David, a fourth grader in a competitive, highly-regarded central New Jersey school district, is often one very stressed out little boy. He plays travel soccer, so every day after school he either goes to practice or travels to another town for a game. By the time he gets home and eats dinner, it’s time to crack the books. His homework typically takes between two and three hours every night. That means he is often not getting to bed until 9:30 or 10 p.m. Then the next morning he has to get up at 7 a.m. to start the whole routine over again. “There’s very little time to play or spend time with the family,” says his mother.
On a picture-perfect October afternoon, my own eight-year-old turns down my invitation to go outside to throw the ball around or to invite a friend over to play.
“I can’t do either,” grumbles the third grader.
“Why not?” I ask. These kinds of days are rare and meant to be seized.
“Because I have too much homework!”
In reality, I think he’s being a little dramatic. In my opinion, his homework has been very manageable: 20 minutes of free choice reading a night, a weekly math packet, word study (not every night), writing reflection (not every night), and the occasional long-term project. But for a third grade boy who is all kinetic energy and motion, the idea of any more work at all after a six-hour day at school is simply too much.
He and the fourth-grade soccer player would no doubt find a champion in Etta Kralovec, an educational philosopher, consultant, and former high school teacher who has emerged as a national voice against the idea of homework as the great “black hole of learning.” She argues that the amount of homework a student does has no correlation to academic or life success, and in fact, could be damaging to a student’s overall learning.
The provocative author of “The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning,” is the opening speaker in a lecture series presented by Princeton CommonGround, a collaborative effort of the parent associations of 12 Princeton area independent schools. The lecture series is free and open to the public. Kralovec’s lecture on Thursday, November 1, at 7:30 p.m. at Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, 101 Drakes Corner Road.
“Why do we have homework?” asks Kralovec. “Because the school board says the parents want it, and the parents say the school requires it.” She says that often there is no well thought out, reasonable plan, and many teachers assign homework simply because it is expected. “The way that teachers teach assumes the need for homework. They incorporate the assignment of homework, and this is the way they plan pedagogy. But the notion of a 30-minute homework assignment is sheer fantasy. What could be 10 minutes for one kid could mean two hours for another.”
In her book Kralovec discusses the damage she believes homework inflicts on families and the limited value it has on the way kids learn. She conducted the research for her book by talking to more than 50 young people across the country and found many variables in their ability to finish their homework and by corollary, to do well in school.
These factors included family participation, income levels, and even transportation. She believes that homework is responsible for exacerbating socio-economic differences in American society and can actually punish poor children who may not have access to technology, such as computers and the Internet, or parents who have the time and resources to provide extra help and tutors. Because of this disparity, homework can actually force some students to drop out of school. This is so because those who cannot finish their homework for one reason or another can end up failing their classes. Kralovec also says that homework robs families of valuable time together, time that would be better spent bonding in other ways.
“Homework was called school imperialism at the beginning of the 20th century, and it’s still imperialism, with teachers and schools reaching into the home, a place where parents should have the responsibility for educating their children,” says Kralovec. “Time at home should be designed by parents and should include things like cultural traditions and religious traditions. Homework interferes with the educational agenda that should be set by parents for their own children.”
While Kralovec would argue that any amount of homework is damaging, she is part of a larger national debate about homework and how much is appropriate, if any. One high school teacher at Gunn High School in posh Palo Alto, California, in the shadow of Stanford University, drew national attention by refusing to assign any homework in his world history and advanced placement economics classes. His explanation was that he believed homework to be a “failed approach” and kids would actually learn more without it. While parents initially were horrified, his approach has been vindicated by test scores for the advanced placement test that are among the highest in the country — a 94 percent pass rate.
There are many similar stories of rebellions against homework by individual teachers and individual school districts. Case in point right here in New Jersey: the town of Piscataway introduced a policy in 2000 limiting the amount of homework given to public school children.
However, it appears that most parents and teachers feel that children are getting an appropriate amount of homework. An AP-AOL Learning Services Poll released earlier this year says that nationally, elementary school children are getting an average of 79 minutes of homework per night and high school students are getting 105 minutes per night. Parents and teachers who were unhappy with those numbers wanted more homework to be assigned to their students, not less.
Harris Cooper of Duke University is a recognized expert on the effect of homework on school children, and he has just released new findings. In summary, his analysis of six studies says that in the short-term homework does indeed improve test scores on material taught for students at all levels, whether it is second graders or high school seniors. By reviewing data from 12 larger studies that compared the amount of homework assigned to achievement on national academic tests, Cooper concluded that 11 of those studies found a positive connection between time spent on homework and long-term achievement. The benefit increased with the age of the children. The benefit of homework was twice as large for high school students as it was for those in junior high, and then twice as large for those in junior high as for those in elementary school.
One of Cooper’s earlier recommendations, still used as a standard by many schools across the country, is 10 minutes per night per grade, starting with first grade. That would mean that a second grader should be doing homework for 20 minutes a night, compared to a high school senior at the other end of the spectrum who would be doing 120 minutes a night.
Proponents of homework like Cooper argue that the exercise is for more than pure academic achievement. Homework and the art of managing it, they argue, help teach valuable life skills such as time management and self-discipline. But Kralovec would argue whether the benefit is worth the immense cost, including loss of leisure time, and a difficult balancing act at school and home. She cites studies that connect the pressure on kids today — to achieve at very high levels, to get into a brand name college, and to compete in all grades — with stress, weight gain, and other health issues.
“After a full, more than 12-hour day, children are exhausted. How can they be learning anything more at 8 or 10 o’clock at night? How can you remember it? It’s a ludicrous idea to be pushing even more learning at that hour. Who thought of it?” asks Kralovec.
“At that hour what your children should be doing is reading a good book, or taking a nice, relaxing bath. Baking cookies with kids is important. Development of moral and ethical character code is happening and you as parents should be talking to them about that stuff. Doing calculus is a stupid way for young people to learn when they are trying to figure out what is right and wrong with the world. They are spiritual beings. They are budding scientists, musicians, and artists. And they cannot explore that because the schools are telling them they have to color in maps.”
Kralovec knows all about helping children with homework. She and her former husband, Stephen Mooser, a children’s book author and co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, had two children together. Daughter Chelsea, now 30, is finishing a Ph.D. in biochemistry at UCLA. Son Bryn, 28, recently returned from the Peace Corps in Gambia, in West Africa. He is a writer and musician in Los Angeles.
While her children were in high school, Kralovec was remarried to Frank Davis, a building contractor in Arizona, who had two sons of his own — Dave is in the Peace Corps in El Salvador, and Zeke, 29, is a shipping engineer who is on his way to Korea for a two year stint.
Kralovec is unflinching when she talks about her homework experiences with Chelsea and Bryn when they were young. “Our two kids represented the two ends of the spectrum,” she says. “Chelsea was very smart, the kind of student who could do everything in her sleep and do homework in front of the TV. She would get on the phone after dinner and split math problems down the middle with her friend. They sort of cheated their way through school, but they were so smart, they understood it, and they knew it. Homework and getting it done was never an issue with her, and we never talked about it.”
On the other hand she says that Bryn was a musician from a very early age and resented the fact that when he got home, “his time,” even in the sixth grade was taken up by homework. “When I did the initial research for my work on homework, we had discovered from dropouts that homework was a real issue,” says Kralovec. “Suddenly my own home life was mirroring my research. Bryn would throw his math book on the floor and throw himself across the floor too. He was in sixth, seventh grade at the time. He is sweet and even-tempered but homework was the only thing we fought about. Homework really interfered with my relationship with him through middle school and high school. With my own two children I could see the issue of homework from both sides.”
Kralovec admits that she was not a stellar student herself, and her mother actually did a lot of her homework for her. “She wrote some essays for me. She would clear the kitchen table and have everybody do their homework. We didn’t have the kind of homework then that we do now. It was certainly my mother’s drive that pushed us to do the homework we had and if we didn’t do it, then she would do it.”
Kralovec was born in Chicago. Her father was an urban renewal architect, and so the family, which included her two brothers and a sister, moved around a lot. Her mother was in development at Stanford University, Lewis and Clark College in Portland, and at Tufts in Boston. Kralovec earned a B.A. in literature at Lewis and Clark in 1970. She received her doctorate in philosophy and education from Columbia University.
Earlier in her career she was associate academic dean and director of teacher education at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. She was also director of teacher education at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology, Pepperdine University, in Malibu, California. In 1996 Kralovec was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to assist in the establishment of the first pan-African university on the African continent, Africa University in Zimbabwe.
One of her most treasured life experiences is teaching high school English at Laguna Beach High School in California prior to graduate school. “I was a literature teacher. My primary responsibility was to instill a love of learning in students. We had to teach them to spell and write, and I wanted to make students become readers. The only homework I assigned them was to read. I wanted them to read a book.”
Today, as an associate professor of education at the University of Arizona, South, Kralovec continues to argue that homework is not directly related to academic or life success and in fact, hinders an already difficult parent-child relationship. “When parents and children sit down to do homework together, each has to assume a role, making the relationship even more complex. The child is thinking back to being in school. Parents are remembering their own schooling experience. This complicates the parent-child relationship.”
But since homework is an unavoidable fact of life in most schools and communities, what is to be done? Kralovec starts with parents and communities, talking about the issue and the stress it creates. “It is important for parents to be involved in their children’s education but there is so much shame involved in this subject that people don’t want to talk about that. What takes one child a half hour to finish could take another child two hours. There is failure, so people hide it.”
One of her suggestions is to scrub homework altogether by extending the school schedule if necessary so the concepts can be taught during the school day. She also encourages parents to talk to their children about homework within the context of their lives, and not to talk at them. She urges parents to listen to their kids carefully and when they complain about homework, don’t immediately jump in and start lecturing about laziness. Try to understand how they experience homework in the context of their lives, she says.
“I think it’s similar to a professional working a full day at the office, then bringing home the work to be done after dinner and after the kids are put to bed. That’s why some people may be paid the big bucks. But isn’t it sad to think that some jobs are so demanding that they don’t leave time for people to do the things they want to do? It’s one thing to ask that of an adult, whose demanding career requires that kind of dedication and sacrifice. But isn’t that a lot to ask of a child whose business is to be a child?”
The Homework Dilemma: How Homework Can Disrupt Families, Overburden Children and Limit Learning, Thursday, November 1, 7:30 to 9 p.m., Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, 101 Drakes Corner Road. Etta Kralovec, Ed.D. Free and open to the public. For information, visit www.princetoncommonground.org.