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Homework: The Good, The Bad and The Unknown

The first thing Violet Perez-Schere, a fourth grader at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, does after school is homework. Her mother questions the value of homework for young learners.
The first thing Violet Perez-Schere, a fourth grader at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, does after school is homework. Her mother questions the value of homework for young learners.
The first thing Violet Perez-Schere, a fourth grader at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, does after school is homework. Her mother questions the value of homework for young learners.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WYPR
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The first thing Violet Perez-Schere, a fourth grader at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, does after school is homework. Her mother questions the value of homework for young learners.

For more than a hundred years, educators have debated the value of homework and they still do today. This year, a school in Chicago banned homework for kindergarten through second grades, and some local parents think schools here should do the same.

Valarie Perez-Schere, whose younger children go to Roland Park Elementary-Middle School, says the things she’s read about young children and education suggest “that there is little benefit to kids third grade and under doing homework.”

“Homework makes it hard to have anything other than school going on in your life,” she says.

The first thing her children, nine-year-old Violet and six-year-old Dashiell do when they get home from school is start on their homework, even though Dashiell says he’d rather be working on the Halloween decorations he put up in their front yard and porch. Like other homework opponents,Perez-Scherebelieves younger children should spend time after school having fun with their families or playing outside. “The little daylight we have in winter is precious and I want them out in it,” she says. “Go outside and build something with a stick. That's the kind of homework I could get behind in the early grades.”

But that’s not the kind of homework Violet andDashiellget assigned. Violet has to come up with a story for her writing class. And she has “math homework in my binder and social studies homework.” She also has to make a brochure about Maryland for her social studies class. She said she sometimes cries when her homework is too hard and she wants to do other things.

Lately, homework has come under fire in books and articles. In The Case Against Homework, Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, argue that it robs students' of play and family time, and other social activities. Like Perez-Schere, they maintain that students have too much homework and they question the value of it.

But Tom Loveless, a senior education fellow at the Brookings Institute, doesn’t buy it. “These books are not written by scientists,” Loveless said. “They are written by people who have an argument and it’s like a lawyer’s brief, they only get the evidence that supports their point of view.”

Six-year-old Dashiell Perez-Schere eats a snack as he works on homework after school with his mother Valarie Perez-Schere.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WYPR
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Six-year-old Dashiell Perez-Schere eats a snack as he works on homework after school with his mother Valarie Perez-Schere.

Bennett is a lawyer andKalishis an editor who has written for well-known national magazines. And while they argue that today’s students are overloaded with homework, Loveless says that’s a myth. In fact, he says, the homework load nationwide hasn’t changed in 50 years. “The typical American student has 30 minutes to 45 minutes a night of homework and a significant number of students don't have any homework at all,” he said.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than 20 percent of students have no homework and only 5 percent of nine year olds, 7 percent of 13 year olds and 13 percent of 17 year olds spend more than two hours on homework nightly. Loveless says those who do more, are usually in advanced classes.

Even so, Perez-Schere is not convinced that homework is a good use of her children’s time. “Even half an hour for homework is a chunk and I don't think it is worth it for little kids. It’s just another burden on families sitting and figuring out not just how to do the homework but how they can get something out of it,” she said.

Robert Tai, a University of Virginia researcher and education professor, thinks there can be value to some homework. But he says a lot of the homework students are assigned is simply busy work. “As educators, we need to be clear what we want students to learn from each assignment and what role it plays in the next day's instruction,” Tai said. “There is no direct accountability what teachers assign for homework and how much impact it has on what students learn and how well they do in courses.”

Perez-Schere’s first-grader Dashiell had a list in his homework packet that included practicing his letters and identifying words written on cards. He also had to read a book and do a bit of math.

Tai said his studies show no connection between homework and students' final grades. He also questioned the value of homework for lower elementary grades, agreeing with the Chicago educators who banned homework in the early grades. “In my own studies, we've looked at high school students and even there, the value has been in the gray area,” he said. “But studies haven't shown much value for the early grades.”

And that’s why Perez-Schere thinks her young children are wasting their time on homework. “I want it to have value if we’re spending time on it and not just this thing we’re slogging through,” she said. “My son doesn’t need homework and would be fine without it and he’d be learning. He’d be buildingleggos, whacking something with a stick or building a fort.”

That probably sounds good to a lot of parents, but its doubtful local or state officials will change things. Lillian Lowery, Maryland’s Superintendent of Schools, said the homework debate is “a conversation worth having,” but added she doesn’t think “we'll have no homework in Maryland.” Lowery said homework provides an opportunity for students to practice what they're taught in the classroom.

She said she would support what’s called the flipped classroom approach. Students review new lessons at home and do the actual assignments at school. “I hope that will be something new coming to Maryland where homework is done at school where there is guidance, expertise and support to guide student learning,” she said.

Researcher Loveless believes homework has value for older students, but concedes that research findings don't make a strong case for homework for elementary students. And that leads him to believe that decisions about homework should be left up to individual schools. “Mischief is made,” he said, “when you have school boards deciding homework for an entire district and not allowing schools to do their jobs and you even have state legislatures getting involved and that's not a good thing.”

Perez-Schere says she wants city school officials to take a close look at the merits of homework, especially for early young students. “I don't want to take for granted that this is something we should do because it comes at a price for many families and children in younger grades,” she said. “I'd like to see us double checking that it is really worth the price you pay.”

But that’s not something anyone expects an answer to anytime soon.

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