Homework Wars

This is not likely to be my last post on the subject of homework, my opinions on the subject are fairly strong and I think well supported by research and experience. I hope that it is less true than rumored that parents demand homework, because I will not.
This particular writing comes from the class Writing in a Changing World I took in the winter of 2010 with Phil Arrington at Eastern Michigan University.
This class had both strengths and weaknesses, but through it I was able to work my writing muscle to struggle for the grade I wanted. As the title indicates it is in response to John Buell's "End Homework Now" I believe it is worthwhile to take a look at his argument (a quick read) as well as my response.

The Homework War: An Analysis and Critique of Etta Kralovec and John Buell’s “End Homework Now”

Children and families are burdened by homework, and schools are often at a loss for ways to help. Teachers assign homework to take advantage of the time spent outside the classroom, but some people question the validity of demanding work from students that cannot be monitored equally for all students.
We’re all familiar with the image of a small child at the family table slaving over homework. We’ve all seen the image of a frustrated student so overwhelmed by homework that he or she may not enjoy time outside school. Perhaps we have witnessed similar scenarios in our own homes and families. Parents and teachers are constantly faced with the question of how to deal with homework.
Truly our society may be overworking everyone, adults and children. Parents are opting to have children spend time outside of school with additional structured work such as music lessons, sports, art classes, and other activities, which the parents consider important for their own child’s optimal development. The question arises of how much we as educators can expect outside of school.
Recently parents and teachers have been raising the question of how valuable homework really is, as well as how fair it is. Simply stated the question is: should educators take time out of family life for the questionable or limited benefits of homework.
Etta Kralovec and John Buell raise this question in “End Homework Now”. Those who read the argument and found it convincing may want to take another look and ask a few deeper questions about this extreme conclusion that homework has no place in K-12 grade curricula. By taking another look they’re likely to find that although Kralovec and Buell provide some strong reasoning for what can go wrong when homework is overused, they fail to reach a balance for how the home and school lives of children can be mutually beneficial.
Writing in the twenty-first century, a time of school reform, Kralovec and Buell claim that one element of reform that schools ought to be embracing is homework reform. It’s their belief that homework creates disparities between students from various socio-economic statuses, causes undue stress to students, and shrinks “unstructured family time.”
Etta Kralovec is the Vice President for Learning at Training and Development Corporation and John Buell is and author and freelance journalist. The authors have worked together in researching the benefits of homework reform, and come to the conclusion that homework is not of equal benefit for all students, and should not be used by teachers who should be making the most of in-school time.
Kralovec and Buell began considering the issue of homework after a small study they conducted of alternative schools in Maine they “conducted in-depth interviews with more than 45 at-risk students” who identified “chaotic family lives, cramped living quarters, and parents who worked at night” as factors for dropping out of school. “They also kept mentioning their inability to complete homework as a factor…”
In response to these finding the team researched how homework affects the lives of students and found that it “often disrupts family life, interferes with what parents want to teach their children, and punishes students in poverty for being poor.”
The authors’ reason that if homework is not always beneficial, and can be skipped in low-income schools then “either homework is of no educational value… or we are committing the worst form of educational discrimination by differentiating academic programs on the basis of economic class.”
The authors’ also question how teachers can be held accountable for what is expected to be learned in the home, and how teachers can know to what degree the students are doing their own work.
Kralovec and Buell cite three “myths”, arguing reasons for why those who disagree with the end of homework are wrong. 1) “Homework increases academic achievement” 2) ”If our students don’t do lots of homework, their test scores will never be competitive internationally” and 3) “Those who call homework into question want to dilute the curriculum…” They follow each of these points with reasons for why the statements are untrue.
Finally, the authors call for a “focus on genuine reforms,” which includes smaller class sizes, more pre-K education, more resources for teachers and more funding for schools.
Kralovec and Buell wrote this article in 2001 for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a teaching organization. It is written in the year following the passage of No Child Left Behind Act by the Bush administration, and years of other attempts at school reform.
Identifying homework as a reason why some students drop out of school is a valid issue, and reasoning from that issue that homework assignments need to be modified to the degree that they will be developmentally appropriate for students is sensible. But to call for a complete ban on homework is taking it too far, not accounting for the fact that by developing homework in a way that facilitates communication between schools and homes, everyone can benefit. In their research what Kralovec and Buell found was that the effects of homework are mixed.
I believe that there is positive homework, but it is an art for a teacher to strike the balance between what students need to be able to do in and out of school.
The writers make the claim that teachers cannot “know the level of their students learning if they don’t know how students are getting their assignments done at home.” This implies that all homework is to be completed and turned in and disregards the fact that teachers can assign reading, and studying as a part of the homework expectations. I admit this is an oversimplification of homework, but what about the kindergarten student whose assignment at night is to find a toy that starts with the letter T? This is the very beginning of homework, and in its own simple way encourages students to interact with their whole world as learners.
The authors bring up the sub-question that if homework is invalid we should not use it, but if it is useful we should not use it because not every student will be able to do it the same way. This is a weak statement, as though it were not the goal of teachers to do everything in their power to help students succeed. If they have identified their students as being unable to complete work at home, they should differentiate for that, but to throw out all benefits because not all learners will benefit is to go too far.
The mention of Japanese school system, although important fails to take account for the cultural place of education in that country, the high stakes which school carries with it, and the support that schools receive from families being a completely different style from how it is done in America. Different culture, different history – different outcomes.
I concede that homework may be misused, and is often given without justifications, but it is unreasonable to make the standard that all homework is frowned upon.
Homework is a way to connect the classroom to the home, it should be positive. Teachers need to set limits based on what they know about the class of kids they’re teaching. Any seasoned teacher will say that every year a new group of students sits before them with their own individual needs and skills. One size fits all schools are not effective. To be a good teacher, one needs to be creative in finding the right way to reach each of the children, each year.