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Q&A with Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish

Q:   Don't teachers know best when it comes to homework?

A:   No. When we started researching the subject, we were shocked to learn that most teachers have never studied homework in their teacher education courses. Few are aware of the studies showing that homework has little or no correlation with academic success in elementary school or that overwhelming amounts of homework have a negative impact on learning in all grades. Also, few teachers have learned how to devise good assignments, how to decide how much homework to give, and whether to involve parents. In fact, according to Gerald LeTendre, associate professor of education policy studies at Pennsylvania State University. "There's no adequate training of new teachers in homework at all. It's considered an afterthought." Just as alarming, once they begin teaching, they get little guidance from their schools, only 35 percent of which actually have written homework policies.

Q:   If your child is overwhelmed with homework, is there really much you can do about it?

A:   Actually, there's plenty a parent can do. Although parents see homework sapping their kids' spirits and causing lots of stress and arguments, they often feel powerless or afraid to speak up. So even well-intentioned teachers may be unaware that they're assigning too much, burning kids out, and turning them off to learning. Of course, most teachers want kids to have a positive educational experience. So sometimes, all it takes to reduce the homework load is to talk to your child's teacher in the right way. Other times, you might have to go further and get a group of parents together to change the school's policies. We demonstrate how to do all this, step by step, in The Case Against Homework. Often, however, parents who simply talk to the teacher find that she ends up lightening the load not just for their child, but for the whole class.

Q:   What's the most effective way to approach a teacher if you're unhappy?

A:   The key is to approach the teacher in a respectful, friendly way, preferably in person rather than through email. Be clear in your own mind as to what the problem is and what kind of solution you're looking for. Find out the teacher's expectations and goals for her assignments and tell her yours. The aim is to have an equal say in the process instead of remaining silent and accepting whatever the teacher says as though it's written in indelible ink. After all, only you know what's going on in your house every night at homework time. So if you bring up your concerns and the teacher says that all the other kids can handle the homework, your best response is: "Well, it's just not working for my child." It doesn't matter if your child is the only one in the class who's overburdened (and we doubt that). If the homework doesn't work for your child, a good teacher is obligated to figure out what will. And a good teacher will want to, as well.

Q:   Some common assignments, such as reading logs, seem harmless. What's wrong with making kids do them?

A:   Reading logs might seem harmless. But for most kids, filling one out is tedious. To create each log entry, kids usually have to write the title of the book, write the name of the author and illustrator, write the name of the publisher, and write down the number of pages they read. (Even reading the instructions is monotonous-why would it make kids excited about reading?) Sometimes, kindergartners who can barely form their letters have to write all that information more than once, a frustrating endeavor. It probably takes a six-year-old longer to write all that information than it does to read the book itself or listen to it being read aloud. We bet a child could even read a second book in the time it takes her to record the information. In addition, those logs spur some parents to encourage their kids to tell white lies. If their child didn't read at all for some reason or forgot to keep track of the number of pages, there's still that empty space on the log that needs to be filled in. Many parents we surveyed admitted to fudging the truth. It's not long before the log has turned a fun, educational activity into something that turns kids off to reading.

Q:   But when it comes to subjects such as math, doesn't lots of practice make perfect?

A:   Assigning 30 math problems might seem like the best way to make sure students learn a concept. But while some kids benefit from the practice, many don't. That's why, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of math problems in a homework assignment should be limited to five. That's enough for kids to show that they understand the concept, but not enough for them to get overwhelmed or bored with math. Even more important, however, is that five problems are enough to show that a child doesn't understand the concept. If a child is solving them incorrectly, completing 25 more will only reinforce the wrong method, which he will later have to unlearn. In addition, if a teacher assigns just five problems to her 30 students, it's more likely that she will check the assignments and catch any student errors quickly than if she assigns 30 problems to each student (giving her a whopping 900 to check each night).

Q:   Can doing homework really have a negative impact on kids' health?

A:   Absolutely. Doing too much homework actually has a lot in common with watching too much TV. Both involve long periods of sitting still instead of playing actively, and so both can contribute to childhood obesity and other serious health problems. We're quick to blame television, along with computer and video games, for turning our kids into couch potatoes. But what about all the "homework potatoes" out there, parked in one place while they hit the books for hour after hour, evening after evening? Is it just coincidence that childhood obesity, diabetes, and other health problems have steadily increased along with homework loads? In fact, every single health expert we interviewed agreed that there was indeed a connection. In addition, even elementary school kids are staying up late to finish assignments, missing sleep that they need to concentrate in class the next day. More than half of the hundreds of kids who took our survey reported that homework interfered with their sleep. In addition to poor grades, research shows that such lack of sleep can contribute to depression, higher stress levels, and even learning and attention disorders.

Q:   What kinds of homework policy changes have parents been able to win at schools?

A:   Parents don't realize what enormous power they wield when they get together as a group. In fact, parents all over the country have pushed their schools to revamp their homework policies. Sara Bennett, one of the authors of The Case Against Homework, organized parents at her children's middle school and won widespread reforms, including the appointment of a curriculum coordinator to monitor homework levels across all subjects, the abolishment of vacation homework and tests on Mondays, and the limiting of weekend homework. In addition, teachers are now accountable for the kind of homework they assign. Elsewhere, examples of homework reform include schools with no homework at all in elementary school, others that limit homework in all grades to a maximum of 10 minutes per grade per school night, and others that officially state that no homework is better than bad homework. Still others have instituted small, but significant changes, such as no homework on Wednesdays, the elimination of homework during Thanksgiving and Spring Break, as well as on religious holidays, and the reduction of summer homework. In The Case Against Homework, we show parents exactly how to successfully lobby for the same kinds of changes at their own schools.

Q:   Couldn't there be repercussions at school if you speak up about homework?

A:   Often, there aren't any at all. Parent after parent we interviewed reported being pleasantly surprised by how accommodating teachers could be. And let's say your child has a teacher who refuses to agree or change things, or who thinks you're a bad parent for not enforcing her rules. That doesn't mean you're stuck. You might be able to switch your child to another class that's less homework-heavy. Even if you can't, The Case Against Homework will show you how to keep working to get the teacher (or her superiors) to compromise. At the very least, you'll know you tried your best and taught your child a lesson about standing up for himself. The truth is, if your children are suffering from homework overload and you don't do anything, the repercussions to their mental and physical health could be worse than anything the school could dish out. In our opinion, a teacher's disapproval or a lower grade pale in comparison.

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