Take away the tar

Let’s talk about making homework meaningful

Illustration by Forest Byrd

Alan Fiero has done his homework.

A teacher for more than three decades, he wants to start a conversation about homework. He begins the dialogue on our pages this week with a carefully researched piece.

Fiero could have published his thoughts in an academic journal, but he wants his ideas to have resonance in his own community. He teaches science at Guilderland’s Farnsworth Middle School and he lives in the Voorheesville school district; two of his children are Voorheesville graduates and his youngest is in the eighth grade.

Reading Fiero’s piece got us to step back and look at the history of homework in our country. When Europeans first settled America, they schooled their children at home.  Through the mid-1800s, most children left school after the sixth grade.  Well-to-do families with expectations of higher education for their sons often had them tutored at home or sent them to private academies. The students who went on in school were expected to do homework.

With the dawn of the 20th Century, there was a movement against homework in the younger grades; various districts passed regulations forbidding homework and California passed a law allowing homework only in high school. The Ladies’ Home Journal, led by editor Edward Bok, enlisted doctors in its campaign against homework for children younger than 15; they said it was harmful to children’s health.

In the middle of the 20th Century, the debate shifted to reforming homework so that it best fit the individual. The so-called progressive education movement came under attack in the late 1950s for not being rigorous enough, and the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 spurred the movement for more homework as concerns were raised about keeping up with Russia.

In the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan, the National Commission on Excellence in education, published a report, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” which highlighted falling test scores for American students who did not compare favorably with their peers in other countries. “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity,” said the 1983 report. “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament. History is not kind to idlers.”

By the 1990s, most public schools favored homework. At the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center, researchers found that students aged 9 through 12 did more than three-and-a-half hours of homework each week, an increase of an hour since 1981. Younger students, aged 6 to 9, had done an average of 44 minutes of homework a week in 1981; by 1997, their average was more than two hours a week.

The pendulum may have reached its furthest point and is poised to swing back.  In this century, two pivotal books have questioned the trend towards ever-increasing amounts of homework. Two mothers — journalist Nancy Kalish and lawyer Sara Bennett — wrote The Case Against Homework, and Alfie Kohn, best known for his criticism of test-driven schools, wrote The Homework Myth.

However, the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute in a report on American education states that the popular press is presenting an erroneous view of students overburdened by homework. The Brown Center report points out that the Michigan University study documented in detail how families spent their time and that the time children spend on personal care and on sports increased far more than the time spent on homework. Compared to 1981, children now spend less time in discretionary activities and more time on structured activities, the Michigan researchers found.

Fiero references Kohn’s work and also relies on work done by Harris Cooper of Duke University who concludes that homework does not measurably improve academic achievement for grade-school students.

We believe much of what Fiero has written has merit. We’ve often heard complaints from parents about the hours their kids are forced to spend on homework, which not only causes stress in the family but shortchanges young children, keeping them from many other healthful and important experiences. If it’s not advancing their academic achievement, what’s the point?

Fiero told us that one of the things that inspired him to take a close look at homework was working last year as the math and science supervisor at Farnsworth Middle School, an interim post that let him see more interaction between teachers and parents. Homework, he said, was “one of the greatest areas of contention.” Fiero concluded, “It shouldn’t be.”

So far this school year, Fiero hasn’t assigned much homework but he alone cannot institute the 20/20/20 model he writes about. That model allows students 20 minutes each of reading, physical activity, and content work daily.

“It has to be agreed upon,” he said, indicating other teachers would have to be on board.

Fiero met this week with Farnsworth’s math and science supervisor, Beverly Cotten, and was encouraged, he said. He likes her idea of surveying parents for their views on homework. We believe that surveying parents is a good place to start. Surveying students and teachers for their views on homework would also be useful.

Fiero hopes to form a Professional Learning Community, which, he explains, would allow teachers to discuss the issue and gather data. He also plans to speak to the Farnsworth Parent Teacher Association on Sept. 21.

Fiero stresses that he is not opposed to homework. He wants it to be inspirational rather than burdensome. He outlines, in his piece for The Enterprise, suggestions for making homework meaningful — ranging from avoiding drills to engaging parents.

He also stresses Cooper’s point that more homework does not mean higher achievement. In the state-required standardized tests, Farnsworth’s science scores have traditionally been high — not following a typical middle-school slump in points.

Fiero attributes this success to the hands-on approach the school uses in teaching science. He, himself, has had great success and won dozens of grants and awards for his work inspiring students to breed native butterflies. Recently, Karner blue butterflies, on the federal list of endangered species, have been raised by Farnsworth students and re-introduced into their native pine-bush habitat.

Each summer, students volunteer to teach visitors from the community about their project. The students learn with great depth and detail about native plants and butterflies and share what they have learned. It is clear that their work matters to them.

This sort of learning is “motivating and meaningful,” Fiero says, and he thinks that good homework would be the same. “Twenty-first Century learning,” said Fiero, “is not about completing isolated homework assignments. It’s motivating students to be self-learning and to work in groups. Education evolves.”

He concluded, “I’m really trying to initiate a conversation. I’m not faulting any people or any schools. I don’t want to look at things in a negative fashion. I’d like to excite a parent to talk to a teacher…My goal is to help my own child and my kids at Farnsworth, not across the United States.”

We hope our readers — parents, teachers, school leaders, and community members — will join the discourse on our pages.

Let the conversation begin.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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