How to end homework for moms

Columnist June 29, 2014

My worst memory of homework was the Tootsie Roll log cabin project our daughter did for what otherwise seemed a well-run elementary school in Scarsdale, N.Y. All parents have had such moments. They reappear in nightmares long after the kid has gotten a job and a health plan and doesn’t need our help with anything anymore.

Mel Riddile knows this and wants to prevent such occurrences. Riddile is a former national high school principal of the year. He led both J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County and T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria and has much to say about the homework complaints that pour into me from readers.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

“I had a particular pet peeve regarding poster board projects, which I referred to as more work for middle-class moms,” Riddile said. “Working in a high-poverty school, it was easy to see how students, who either could not afford or could not get parental help to construct elaborate poster board projects, were penalized both emotionally and academically for what amounted to glorified busywork.”

“I promised our teachers that, if I saw a student entering the building carrying poster board, I would follow that student to the classroom” for a conversation with the teacher, he said.

Riddile objects to the uselessness of such exercises. They don’t seem to have a point. They do not encourage students to practice with or reflect upon what they have learned in class. They just fill time. They might seem fun or enriching to some teachers, but they are not. Those Tootsie Rolls were sticky. I don’t think Katie learned anything about American history as a result.

Riddile has a solution parents can use the next time they see their school principal. As an executive with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, he takes his message to school administrators around the country. He tells them that “while they work diligently to build quality relationships and favorable perceptions with their parents, homework discussions are making huge withdrawals from the emotional bank accounts.”

One academic subject predominates. Riddile proposes this scenario to principals: “You walk into your house after work, and your wife and son are sitting at the kitchen table arguing over homework. The son says, ‘That’s not the way the teacher wants it done.’ The wife responds, ‘If you know how the teacher wants it done, then do it.’ ” What homework is that? Ninety-nine percent of his listeners say math.

Its linear, sequential nature brings pain.

“Forget one step in a 15-step process, and you are stuck,” Riddile said. “Math teachers assign homework because they correctly believe that practice is critical to building math fluency.” But it is often so long and frustrating it doesn’t get done.

His two rules when he started at Stuart were:

1. Homework should be considered independent practice and should not be assigned until teachers have conducted guided practice in class of the concepts and skills being learned.

2. Homework has to apply key learned concepts that already have been taught and practiced in class and should not be so overwhelming that it won’t be done. He presented research that indicated the ideal number of math problems in a homework assignment is just five.

At Stuart, Riddile said, the number of homework assignments declined by 50 percent. More were completed and grades improved.

There is much more to fixing homework than paring down the number of questions, but it is a start. Many teachers, as well as parents and some students, worry that lighter homework will leave them ill-prepared for the tests they fear: not just teacher and state tests, but the SAT and ACT.

In the United States, we have a hate-love relationship with homework, with many people on both sides. Anybody have any other ideas for making it less annoying and more engrossing? Send them to me, I’d love to hear about them.

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