Off The Record: Hoist on the Petard of Homework
by Gary Natriello - 1997
A number of years ago my colleague Ed McDill and I wrote a paper in which we examined the positive impact of homework on the performance of students in high school. We, of course, concluded with the standard discussion of implications and suggested that the practice of assigning homework was probably a good idea. We were not alone in advocating that teachers give homework to students as a way to enhance achievement.
One problem with offering advice too early in one’s career is that one is apt to have to live with the consequences of that advice. This is exactly the position I found myself in as my own children started bringing home assignments in elementary school. Oh, things started out easy enough with an occasional task to review in kindergarten, and the children were so excited to have homework just like the big kids! Recalling my own schooling, I anticipated only an occasional homework chore until at least the middle-school years. This was going to be fun for the kids and for my wife and myself–a nice opportunity to see what is happening in the schools up close and personal!
But soon there appeared omnious signs that I was slow to recognize. My wife returned from the market one day to report overhearing two very distressed parents talking about the incredible homework burden they were trying to manage while doing everything else. Soon people at her office were lamenting the evenings lost to homework as they tried to help their children respond to the nightly task and still maintain a reasonable bedtime. Oddly enough, I picked up no advance warning at all from my colleagues in the education business. I suppose all their children work independently and even complete the assigned homework in school or on the bus. But the warnings from other sources continued. "Look out for this teacher." "Wait till you hit third grade." "You haven’t done homework until you hit the dreaded book reports."
Meanwhile the pace of homework assignments picked up as my older son moved to second grade. Now we had homework on a regular basis, and I mean "we." Our naive notions of having only to ask if an assignment had been issued and completed gave way to a more active engagement as it became clear that these homework assignments were sometimes a bit complex. Not only did we need to establish a time and place for the homework to be done, but we found ourselves working through the directions and checking progress each step of the way. For you see, not only was homework being assigned as suggested by all the "experts," but the teacher was obviously taking the homework seriously, making it challenging instead of routine and checking it each day and giving feedback. We were enveloped by the nightmare of near total implementation of the reform recommendations pertaining to homework.
As second grade has given way to third grade and fourth grade for my older son, I have become more aware of the impact of the new approach to homework. The assignments seem to be a good mix of tasks that vary across subject areas and from routine review to creative exploration. Both kinds of assignments pose challenges to parents. The routine tasks sometimes carry directions that are difficult for two parents with only advanced graduate degrees to understand, and we are forced to rely on our children, who seem to have better intuition about how to read such directions. This problem arises most often when the source of the homework is a commercially prepared workbook task. My older son asked one night, "Don’t some of the guys you work with write this stuff?" When I nodded, he added, "They need to do some revisions." These materials seem to run afoul most often when they attempt to be interesting, as they do when they use graphics as part of the directions or the exercise, and the total package allows for multiple and sometimes conflicting interpretations.
More creative homework tasks are a mixed blessing on the receiving end. On the one hand, they, of course, lead to higher engagement and interest for my children and their parents. On the other hand, they require one to be well rested, a special condition of mind not often available to working parents. Having worked at Teachers College now for over a decade I have had more than a little exposure to constructivist approaches to teaching and learning. Indeed, the vapors of constructivism are embedded in the walls of Teachers College like the smell of tobacco in an old house whose previous owners were chain smokers. After a few years one no longer notices, but the senses are altered forever. All of which is to say that I am probably on the high end of the scale of parental commitment to constructivist approaches. I am also way up there in terms of support for higher-order learning. But I have recently learned firsthand the limitations of my ardor. To put it plainly, I have discovered that after a day at work, the commute home, dinner preparations, and the prospect of baths, goodnight stories, and my own work ahead, there comes a time beyond which I cannot sustain my enthusiasm for the math brain teaser or the creative story writing task or the three-dimensional multiple intelligences—based project. At my house the fancy carriage of constructivism turns into the pumpkin of didactism sometime between 8:30 and 9:00 pm. Of course, the kids develop momentum as bedtime approaches.
Occasionally, our homework time is interrupted by a call from a classmate seeking details about a particular assignment. One night I dictated an entire assignment page to a fourth-grade classmate while in the background his single mother wailed to his sixth-grade sister that she would not be allowed to stay up past bedtime to complete her homework. Despite the time it took to dictate the assignment, I was relieved to hang up the phone and close the little window on this other household with one parent and three children with homework to return to my own situation of two parents and two children. Still, on those evenings when homework seems unmanageable, I sometimes imagine myself in a van with these single parents on Interstate 80 racing out to Half Moon Bay where, after a public session of high rhetoric and low tears, we tip the balance of community sentiment in favor of the once proposed ban on homework.2 We spend the remainder of the school year in quiet evenings of contemplation, sherry, and poetry.
There are some intermittent escapes. A teacher will be absent, and the substitute does not have a homework assignment. The kids manage to complete their assignments at school. On these occasions there is time to help the kids get ready for college with a basement game of ping pong. Then, of course, I am regularly scheduled to teach evening classes–the easiest teaching night of the week, where I get to give homework that must be endured by spouses and children of my teacher-students! Volunteering for some extra evening teaching quickly comes to mind and just as quickly passes.
Still, perhaps this homework thing is a good idea after all. My wife and I have become efficient about meals, knowing that there is a full agenda of after-dinner activities. There may be some weight-loss implications as well. Here I am, the guy who used to eat just one more helping at the college dining hall to delay starting his own homework, now ending meals quickly in order to avoid a late night for the kids. Surely there is room for at least one journal article discussing the effect of parent involvement with homework on obesity! There are also achievement effects; I am now more knowledgeable about all sorts of things from plants to weather to the parts of speech to colonial history. If the kids continue to let me in on this stuff as they get older I may be prepared for the new SAT!
However, the most immediate effects on my work may be a newfound caution about offering policy implications that might somehow be taken seriously. I quickly review mentally other things I have written for lurking dangers ahead. I may be okay if only I can retract my advice on teacher evaluation before the dean reads it.
1 G. Natriello and E. McDill, "Performance Standards, Student Effort on Homework, and Academic Achievement," Sociology of Education 59 (1996): 18—31.
2 Nanette Asimov. "Half Moon Bay Studying Proposal to Drop Homework;" San Francisco Chronicle, October 20, 1994, Section A, p. 17.