Homework: Too much or not enough?

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When I pick up our three kids from school, I ask two questions as soon as they get in the car. The first is “How did it go today?” The answers range anywhere from a grunt to a “Fine” to a lengthy blow-by-blow of the day’s events, depending on which kid I’m asking and how much he or she is willing to indulge Mom’s curiosity on any given day.

The second question is “Do you have any homework?” For two of the three kids – the 4th grader and the 7th grader in public school – the answer is almost always “no.” For the 9th grader who goes to a charter school, the answer is almost always “yes.” In fact, when I ask him the question, I say: “How much homework do you have tonight? A little or a lot?”

The vast difference in the kids’ homework requirements illustrates two different schools of thought on whether homework is good or bad. As a parent who has seen different homework philosophies in action, I’ve decided the truth must be somewhere between the two extremes.

I went to a parent teacher conference recently for our 7th grader and asked our son’s science teacher if he was getting all his work done, since I hardly ever see him cracking a textbook at home. She told me it was the policy of the school district to give almost no homework or very little. When I asked her why, she said something that surprised me. “Because they won’t do it,” she said matter-of-factly. “Kids and parents are too busy with after-school sports and extracurricular activities to get homework done.”

Part of me wanted to say “They won’t do it? That’s crazy! Back in my day, if we refused to do our homework, we flunked the class and didn’t go on to the next grade.” But I could tell by the look on her face that, although she disapproved of the policy, she and other teachers have resigned themselves to it as part of today’s educational system.

For the record, I like the fact that many of today’s elementary students don’t have homework. Little kids learn best through play so they need plenty of time to do that. And I don’t want our 7th grader to be overloaded with work because I’ve seen his older brother spend some intense nights hunched over homework for four hours, struggling to get it all done and desperately wanting time to relax before going to bed.

When homework demands are too rigorous, it can lead to burnout and even depression. But if the homework demands are nonexistent, isn’t that a risk, too?

I told our son’s middle school teacher that the total lack of homework makes me worry a little. Will he get to high school and be shell-shocked when a teacher tells him he must write an essay or term paper at home? And isn’t one of life’s most important skills the ability to get things done on time, even when there’s no teacher (or boss) standing over your shoulder? After all, as a professional writer, I’ve never once been able to tell a boss or editor that I couldn’t turn in an article on time because I had soccer practice. If that actually worked, every writer on Earth would be playing a whole lot of soccer.

The teacher agreed that middle schoolers in a no-homework environment will get to high school and receive a rude awakening when their evenings go from fun and games to fractions and geography. So I hope that one day school administrators will find a “happy medium” homework policy that teaches kids the importance of getting things done on your own without drowning them in a deluge of busy work.

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