Monday, February 26, 2024

Homework and the Blended Family

Recently, I had the honor of giving a seminar on implementing a no-homework policy in elementary, middle, and high school classes. It's a policy that took me some time to come to, but one that I can't imagine ever changing now that my eyes have been opened. At the beginning of my teaching career, over twenty-five years ago, I was exactly the opposite - piling on homework in the name of rigor and punishing students who didn't do it. The turning point for me was the realization that there really was no rigor to be found in this approach. I could assign reading, but most students just wouldn't read it. At best, even the smartest would look up summaries and fake it. I could assign writing, but they'd cheat. After some careful consideration, I decided that I couldn't even blame them. Why are they working at home, sometimes harder than they're expected to work in class, without supervision, and often without even knowing what they're doing? After researching the effects of homework, I fully made the switch to no assignments outside of class time.

I don't want this post to get too technical, but in case there are any teachers reading for arguments or support for no-homework policies, or maybe parents looking for ammunition to fire at their local school boards, here are the bullet points of what I shared with my colleagues:

  • Homework does not provide the rigor we assume it does, because all the work is unsupervised.
  • Homework does not teach students study skills or time management any more than kicking a kid into the deep end of a pool teaches them to swim. At best, it activates survival instincts; at worst, it drowns the student.
  • Homework gives students a distorted concept of work-life balance and robs them of positive interactions with family members, often replacing them with very negative ones.
  • Homework does not effectively build skill through repetition, because the students who practice correctly every time already have the skills, and the ones who don't already have the skills often repeat and ingrain incorrect practices that then have to be retrained. (See: "Dad said to do it this way.")
  • Research that supports the practice of homework is dubious at best, and much of the research shows that homework is ineffective and makes students hate school.
  • At best, research shows that 30 minutes or more of homework per school night can increase learning by 4%, at the cost of family harmony, social interaction, leisure time, artistic pursuits, and extracurricular activities.

One quote I found in my research that has really guided my thinking on the subject is from Jackie Glasheen, principal of Kelly Elementary School in 2016. "We really want kids to go home at 4 o'clock, tired," she says. "We want their brain to be tired." Essentially, if your students even have the brain power to do any homework after school, then you probably haven't had them work rigorously enough in the classroom to begin with.

After making the switch to a no-homework policy, I've seen rigor and student skills increase, even though we can't necessarily "cover" everything students previously did for homework. The difference, to me, is that the students really learn what we study in the classroom, and they weren't really learning what we were doing (or not doing, if we're being honest) for homework before.

But one thing that I never considered in my extreme pro-homework days is how homework affects different types of families in different ways. Wealthier families can hire tutors to help with the workload and maintain positive boundaries for parents and children. Middle class families generally have at least one college-educated parent in the home who can assist with the more taxing assignments. But poorer families generally have none of these advantages. The very families who already have the most stressors and the least amount of quality time between parents and children are exactly the ones that the burden of homework hurts the most. 

In addition, before I became a single parent and then a parent in a blended family, I never considered how these dynamics could be exacerbated by the load of homework I assigned. As a single parent, who was also a college graduate and educator, it was often more than I could handle to even enforce quiet time for my kids to do their homework, let alone help them with it. Doors were slammed, tears were shed, and voices were raised, but not a lot of learning happened. I had two kids that were already hurting from the pain of separation and divorce, and instead of spending healing personal time with them, we were fighting over how long it should take to do thirty math problems. 

Then later, as a blended family, we saw that dynamic change even more. Sure, there were more hands and brains in the home to help with homework, but the relationships were new and fragile, and the added stress of homework created even more angst and drama at a time when we could have been bonding as a new blended family. The truth is, homework causes stress, makes kids feel stupid, and complicates the parent/child relationship. What it does to the step-parent/child relationship is absolutely terrible. In a home where remarks like "you're not my mom" and "you can't make me" and "I'm calling my real dad" are still shouted on the regular, the added burden of making a child write an essay or read ten pages of Hatchet can set familial progress back months, or stop it from ever progressing to begin with.

So, here's my advice for teachers: Consider the effects of your homework assignments on the most fragile of your students. The ones who are sailing through your class are probably not benefiting from it at all, but the ones who are struggling, both personally and academically, are possibly seething with animosity towards school and towards the parents and stepparents who are trapped in the role of enforcing the status quo. Consider the cost/benefit analysis of every assignment you send home, and try to imagine what really goes on once your students leave your room.

And my advice for parents: Put the onus for teaching material back on the teacher. I've adopted this policy myself, and it's been difficult, but it's definitely improved my child's stress level and our relationship. Instead of becoming frustrated with her for not understanding an assignment or not getting math problems correct, I simply tell her not to do it. Math, in particular, doesn't come naturally for her, so when she doesn't understand what to do, or asks me to show her how, to essentially teach the material, I just refuse to do it. I tell my child to mark the problem she doesn't know how to do, skip to the next one that she understands, and make sure to be the first to raise her hand in class tomorrow and tell the teacher she needs help with the problem. It's not my job to teach my daughter math. Period.

My job is to encourage her personal, spiritual, and intellectual growth as a father, and to foster goodwill between her and her other parents and stepparents. I only have a few hours on a weeknight to get that job right, and I'm not wasting that time trying to figure out how many hours it takes for Fred's plane to land in Cleveland if the flight leaves forty-five minutes late in ten degree weather with twice the normal load of baggage and one engine operating at eighty-five percent efficiency. Fred's gonna get there when he gets there.

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