Sunday, June 22, 2014

Should kids have homework? Should parents help?

In an opinion piece in this week's NYTimes Sunday Review, writer Judith Newman is skeptical.

Newman opens with a story about her attempt to improve her 12-year-old son's essay on To Kill a Mocking Bird. Even though she has "a master in literature from an Ivy League school" and "write[s] for all the major magazines," the end result of her edits was a score of 73. As she puts it:

He got a 73.
I got a 73.
Generalizing from her experience, she cites research by two sociologists that supposedly shows (but see the critical reviews) that parental help with schoolwork is mostly ineffective, and often detrimental.

I'm drawn towards a different conclusion. If someone with Newman's qualifications got a 73 on a 7th grade literature paper, there was probably something warped about the grading rubric. Perhaps the essay lacked a sufficient number of "text-to-self" references/personal connections--things that don't earn you points outside the Bizarro World of K12 classrooms. Perhaps it wasn't "creative" enough (see below).

Indeed, if parental help is ineffective, this may say more about the kinds of expectations that our K12 schools impose on kids than it does about parental help. Consider another of Newman's anecdotes:
“I think of myself as an intelligent, functioning adult,” says the writer Julie Klam, who has a daughter who just finished fifth grade. “But my God. Do you know what a ‘math lattice’ is? No, you do not. The way basic math is taught now, it’s not like A plus B equals C. It’s more like A plus B, and then you run out for oranges, and then you take the subway. My daughter’s recent assignment was like a buffet of confusion.”
Or this observation:
Further complicating the homework is the increasing fashion for making it “creative” — which often renders it unnecessarily complicated, at least for the age and dexterity of many younger children.
The age-inappropriateness of such assignments is often what prompts parents to want to help--at the same time that they may find themselves unable to do so:
“I used to be very involved in my kids’ homework until my second grader came back with an assignment to recreate New York City’s waterways using a baking sheet, mounds of paper towels, tin foil and rivers of water poured from a pitcher,” says Marjorie Ingall, a Manhattan public school mother. “First of all, I don’t care about New York’s waterways as long as the water that comes out of the tap does not catch fire. But that aside — this is an assignment for me, not for an 8-year-old. There was just so much crying at my house.”
Even when parents can and do help with such assignments, Newman points out, there's a huge downside:
First, you are conveying to your kids that they can’t make it without Mom and Dad’s help... But more important, you are sending the unmistakable and not so subtle message that it’s better to be right than smart.
Or, at least, that it's better to be rubric-compliant (and "creative") than smart.

But does this mean that schools should assign little or no homework and that parents should offer little or no help? The fact that silly, time-consuming assignments don't make kids smarter or more knowledgeable (or more self-reliant) doesn't mean that all homework is pointless. And the fact that parental help is ineffective when channeled into these assignments doesn't mean that all parental help is worthless. Parental help with math (not Reform Math; not Common Core Math) and parental help with writing (not rubric-compliance) can be extremely helpful in preparing kids for the broader world beyond the Bizarro World of K12 classrooms.

Newman cites Finland and Denmark, "countries with some of the highest levels of academic achievement," as having "little or no homework." This is misleading (see here and here): particularly in the upper grades, both countries do assign homework. It's just that it's a lot less time consuming than ours is.

What American students need more of is what students around the rest of the world get regularly: homework with a much lower ratio of time-expenditure to learning; homework that respects that their time outside classrooms is at least as valuable as their time inside--and should be imposed upon only for very good reasons.


cranberry said...

Homework should not be graded. That would remove the temptation to meddle. Tracking should be determined on the basis of work completed in class ONLY.

My sympathy for the NYT columnist is nonexistant. She's a cheater, and she's raising her child to cheat.

Hainish said...

The problem with saying that "parents should help" is that many students don't _have_ parents who can or will help them. It's the Matthew effect in action.

(I'm rather glad the literature PhD got a poor score on "her" essay, whatever else it may say about the quality of the assignment. Why should an ordinary middle schooler have to compete with *her*?)

Auntie Ann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Auntie Ann said...

This depends on lots of things. Near the end of school this year, our 6th grader was doing volumes and surface area of prisms and cylinders. The final project was the following:

Pick an object

Measure it and determine the surface area and volume

If you were to pack it in a triangular prism, how big should the prism be? Give dimensions, surface area and volume.

If you were to pack it in a cylinder, give dimensions, surface area and volume.

Based on your calculations, which box should you use?

(So far so good, I guess, but the final step was...)

Build the box.


I let him work on the box for a while, in case he could do it quickly. After an hour of frustration with packing tape, I took over and did it myself.

If the homework is as dumb and time consuming at that, I have no trouble stepping in.

Anonymous said...

I found that there were two main reasons I had to help with homework. The first was because the teacher had not taught what needed to be taught for the kid to be successful with the assignment. The second was when the assignment was developmentally inappropriate from an executive function perspective. There were certain classes where I very rarely had to help and certain ones where I had to reteach (using the term *re*teach is really giving the teacher too much credit) the material every single day. It had nothing to do with how difficult the material was and everything to do with teaching and appropriateness of assignments.

lgm said...

Every time I had to help was because someone in the classroom failed to maintain order or teach the material.

What I am tired of is all the parents who write their child's papers just so they can get into honors English. Thanks people. My kid now doesn't get to learn because your kid is struggling so much, despite the tutoring, that the instruction and discussion is dragged down By Friday, the teacher gets mad, accuses everyone of not reading the assignments, and hands out more essays as punishment, thinking the kids will have to read more closely to get the essays done. Instead, you do it for him. Thanks. We were going to spend part of the weekend at orchestra, and the rest with some family time. You cancelled that, due to your posing and my decision to let my kid learn.

Anonymous said...

Build the box? My solution for that is a tersely worded note that we don't have the supplies to do ridiculous homework assignments.

Funnily enough, the teachers never know what to say to that.