I messed up in my Nov. 21 column,
I asked the authors Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, whose book is "The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It," if they would let me make up for it debating the issue in a future column. They said sure, perhaps not realizing that anything I write about homework gets a ton of readers, so it was they who were doing me a favor. Kalish, star magazine journalist and Brooklyn mom, took on the assignment.
At my request, she starts with a good long critique of my column, and then we debate this issues. It turns out we agree on much more than I thought we would:
Nancy: Thanks for this opportunity to respond.
Do kids really get much more homework today than they did in the 1980s? Some data indicates they do, some indicates they don't -- or that they're not getting that much more. But when we started researching our book, we had no trouble finding many children across the country in every kind of school who were overburdened with many times the amount of homework in the University of Michigan study you mention. For example, we detail a 2006 survey of 1,300 students at a public high school in Needham, Mass., which found that 18 percent were doing four hours of homework each night and 10 percent were doing more than five hours. This is a large, child-reported survey (not the parent-reported kind that you object to), it's more recent than the stats you do cite, and yet you don't mention it.
But more important, let's say that for the sake of argument that only 10 percent of America's children suffer from homework overload (although we believe it's much more). Isn't it still a problem for that 10 percent, for all the reasons listed by the many psychologists, educators and health experts whom we interviewed? If "only" 10 percent of America's children suffered from depression or diabetes, wouldn't it still be worth addressing? We found many such children and they are definitely suffering and losing their love of school and learning. Just because homework overload might not affect every child doesn't make it any less serious.
In addition, you completely overlook the fact that Harris Cooper of Duke University, who did reviews of homework research in 2001 and 2006 and is pro-homework, has concluded that even in high school, where there is some correlation between homework and academic success, the benefits start to decline after two hours each night. As he told me, "It is not going to improve a ninth-grader's achievement to do 2.5 hours of homework per night versus 1.5 hours." I'm sure the Needham students would be dismayed to hear that. In addition, Cooper told us that most of the correlation in high school reflects how well a student does on the unit test -- it's not any measure of long-term learning. In order to be completely fair, you should include Cooper's data and interview him.
We are definitely not pro-TV, and our example of a kid cuddling on the couch with a parent while watching a program was to emphasize how important it is to have some quality parent-child time. It's not that it's necessarily better than reading history, but that too much history reading (as well as tons of other assignments) is crowding out time kids need to spend with their parents, even if it's doing something seemingly mindless like watching television together. You're lucky you had the chance to watch "Dawson's Creek" with your kid. Many parents don't.
Chances are, when your daughter looks back on those years, she'll remember how great it was to have that time with her dad, perhaps even more valuable than the learning about the rise of organized labor in the 19th century (what would she say?). Of course, I acknowledge that many kids are watching way too much TV -- and some would watch too much even if they had no homework at all. But I believe that many kids overdose on TV because after hours at their desks, they are too mentally and physically exhausted to play actively outside. So, like their overworked parents, these "homework potatoes" collapse on the couch in front of the tube. We heard this over and over from the kids themselves and quote many of them in the book.
We also take pains to point out that too much television and too much homework cause exactly the same problems in kids: inactivity and obesity. Parents should be aware of this so that at the very least, they can encourage their kids to play actively before sitting down to study. Instead of TV watching, we advocate reading as the number one educational activity again and again in our book. But sadly, reading for pleasure often falls victim to homework overload. A 2006 national Scholastic/Yankelovich poll found that reading for pleasure declines sharply after age 8 -- and the number one reason given by parents was homework, not television. As one eighth-grader told me, "After I'm done [with homework], the only thing I want to do is watch TV or go on the computer. I don't feel like reading because that's a majority of my homework. All I want to do is relax and rest my brain."
Perhaps if kids weren't so depleted by homework, they might not feel the need to spend what little free time is left zoning out in front of a screen.
Another disturbing fact you fail to mention is how little training teachers get when it comes to homework. Only one teacher in hundreds that we surveyed said she had ever taken a class specifically on homework. If you look into this, as we did, you'll find that most teacher training programs, even at top universities such as Harvard, don't include such courses. As a result, Harris Cooper told me, teachers are mostly unaware of the research concerning homework and are "winging it." To us, this calls into question much of what teachers are assigning, no matter how many minutes it takes. Don't you think that parents should know about this lack of training?
Lastly, it sounds like your child was never overloaded with homework, and I'm very glad for her (and you). But many kids are. When you write that you don't think this problem exists, it discounts and alienates all those children who are spending hours each night, who don't have time for anything else, and whose parents feel frustrated and helpless about it. I know the problem exists because I was one of those parents. And I'm sure many Washington Post readers are too.
Jay: I appreciate all the points you have made. I would like to address them one by one. But first, are you willing to concede that the vast majority of students, particularly in inner city neighborhoods where academic achievement is lowest, are rarely challenged at the levels they deserve, and in many cases get far less homework than they need to learn? It is those neighborhoods and schools where I have spent much of my time as a reporter, and I am afraid those people will think your warning against homework applies to them, and be less likely to see the value of the little they get now.
Nancy: I will definitely concede that many students, including inner city kids, are badly served by their schools and not challenged in the ways they deserve. But more homework is not the answer. Instead of learning to think creatively, many kids spend all day being force-fed facts just to pass the standardized tests of No Child Left Behind. Then they are asked to go home and do more of the same. As teachers across the country told us, this results in lots of pressure and boredom, but very little love of learning -- an essential ingredient to academic success.
The only way to change this both in the classroom and at home is to focus on quality instead of quantity. When it comes to homework, many educators advocate the 10-minute-per-grade-level rule (first graders should do no more than 10 minutes per night total, third graders no more than 30 minutes, sixth graders no more than 60 and so on). If teachers were required to stick to those limits, they would be forced to ask themselves how they can pack the most educational value into their 10 or 30 or 60 minutes, instead of assigning lots of busywork. This is one way to engage and challenge students without discouraging and burning them out. No American child deserves any less.
Lots of homework is also a bad idea if children don't have the resources they need at home (computers, reference books, etc), must take care of siblings, have a part-time job, or parents aren't around to answer questions. Even if parents are home, they are not trained teachers. That's why I applaud Deborah Meier, the progressive educator you quote, for keeping New York City's Central Park East High School open both before and after hours so kids can do their homework supervised by those who are trained to do so. This is the kind of support that all kids need to succeed.
Jay: Uh-oh. You deftly undercut me there by embracing Deb Meier, just as I was going to say: "Oh yeah? But Deb said it was okay to have two hours of homework a night for her kids."
You are so right about quality. If the teaching is not thoughtful, and the homework not carefully chosen, no amount of time for it makes sense. So you are saying that homework is okay if it is intelligently done, and boosts achievement? What do you think of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) approach to homework? They assign about two hours a day to low-income middle schoolers, after a nine-hour-school day, because they say their kids need that time to catch up, being far below grade level when they arrive at KIPP. The nine-hour-school day gives them time to add some joy and creativity to the educational experience, including games and music and simulations and free reading, all the things the best schools do, and gives teachers time to confer with each other each day so that their homework assignments are well thought out and coordinated.
Then they do something no other schools in America do, at least none that I have found so far. They give each child the cell phone numbers of all their teachers and require them to call the teachers at night if they are having any trouble with the homework, thus eliminating the problem of clueless parents (like me) being unable to help, which you rightly point out. See any problems with this approach?
Nancy: Is there such a thing as good homework? It's a very tricky question. Research shows that homework doesn't do much to boost achievement, at least until high school. We do know that it takes away from play time, family time, and physical activity (all of which have been proven to have a positive academic impact). So the assignment better be as valuable as what kids are giving up to do it. Trouble is, we assume that many common assignments are worthwhile. But when you deconstruct them, as we did in our book, they fall apart.
For example, reading is a great homework assignment. But filling out reading logs is not. It often takes longer for little kids to write out the title, author, number of pages read, etc. than it would to read another book (or certainly a few more pages), and can turn what you want to reinforce as an enjoyable activity into a tedious one.
Vocabulary lists present a similar problem. They seem like a good idea. But research shows that kids learn new words best when they read them in context. So why are they memorizing lists of words for tests when they could be spending that time with a good book?
And while a few math problems can determine whether a child understands a concept (a U.S. Department of Education report says that five are enough), dozens -- no matter how well-designed -- can overwhelm and bore kids. Even if you don't care about boring them, there's still a good reason not to assign so many. If a child doesn't understand the concept and ends up doing 50 problems incorrectly, it's likely to cement that incorrect method into his brain. Then it will have to be unlearned . . . if his teacher even catches on. Most math teachers have so many problems to grade that they can only spot-check homework (30 students x 50 problems = 1,500 problems to grade!) As a result, kids who don't get the concept are often missed until test time, and are truly left behind. There are many more examples like this.
I know that the KIPP program has been successful with low-income kids -- and I'm for anything that makes kids love school and learn. But I question whether the homework is the reason (although I think it's great that they relieve untrained parents of the teacher role). Instead, it seems that, while the KIPP kids have a long and challenging school day, it's a balanced one. As you point out, the KIPP program makes time for those things that add joy and creativity to a child's day and alleviate the stress of constant academic pressure. But at other public schools around the country, just the opposite is true. Many have eliminated or slashed arts, music, physical education, and recess to cram in more academic instruction.
The Boston Globe just reported that in the past few years, there have been three suicides, along with lots of other destructive behavior, at Needham, the Massachusetts public high school I mentioned earlier where many students do more than four hours of homework each night. The principal blames it on the "pressure-cooker" environment and is trying to take action. The scary thing is, there are lots of other Needhams out there. When we will learn that more isn't always better, especially when it comes to our kids' education?
Jay: You have to be careful with suicide statistics. Alexandria Robbins, in her recent book "The Overachievers," tried to blame mounting school pressures in communities such as Needham (and Bethesda, Md., where I live and where Robbins went to high school) for what she said was a "114 percent spike" in the suicide rate of 15- to 19-year-olds between 1980 and 2002, based on a Washington Post report of a gifted education newsletter.
I checked this with University of Virginia teen suicide expert Peter Sheras, who said that although there has been a significant increase in the suicide rate among teenagers since 1980, much of the increase was in the first decade. Since the mid-90s, when Robbins says overachieving began to explode across America, the rate of accomplished suicides has remained steady. One of the highest suicide rates recently has been among Hispanic girls, few of whom live in Needham or Bethesda.
I have tried and failed to find national statistics that confirm the widespread view that there has been significant reduction of arts, music and recess in the schools to cram in more academic instruction. If you have some data, please tell me what it is. That would be a story. PE requirements have been declining for a generation, in many cases, as far as I can tell, because of budget pressures, not academic ones. Robbins alleged in her book that 40 percent of schools had eliminated recess, but when I checked her source I discovered that it actually said that 40 percent of PE teachers surveyed said their districts were cutting back or rethinking recess.
I share your view on the intelligence of the KIPP approach. Don't you think their system might help improve homework even in suburban neighborhoods? What if parents like you and me had the cell phone numbers of all of our children's teachers, and encouragement to call them if we had any concerns or questions? Some parents like me might abuse the privilege, of course, but I think it would motivate teachers to think VERY carefully about the worth and relevance of any homework they assigned.
Nancy: I'll get to the KIPP program in a moment. But first, I wasn't making any claim about an increase in teen suicide. At the same time, I wonder why there has to be a huge percentage of kids suffering from something before we're willing to admit there's a problem. If it's your kid, those percentages don't matter.
Yet since you seem to be so attached to stats, here are some telling ones. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 13 percent of American kids between 9 and 17 suffer from an anxiety disorder. A 1999 survey of 724 kids between 9 and 12 by Georgia Witkin, Ph.D., director of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine Stress Research Program, found that 31 percent of them "worried a lot" and 47 percent had insomnia. When I called Witkin the other day for an update, she told me, "I would say kids are more anxious since I did the survey. There's been no let up in the symptoms that define stress in children, such as the earlier onset of migraines, gastro-intestinal problems, and sleep problems. And it's not because they're worried about Iraq or terrorism or global warming. Homework and school are a major part of it."
A January 2007 clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics cautions that both stress and depression in children are on the rise and recommends counteracting this with more play, "which is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth."
I'd say the world is in a sorry state when adults have to be told to allow kids to play. But when you look at the stats on recess -- and there are valid stats -- that's exactly what you find. According to a 2006 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 7 to 13 percent of U.S. elementary school kids never have recess. That might not sound like a big number. But considering that there are 65,758 elementary schools in the United States, it means that 4,603 to 8,548 schools don't have any recess at all. And since there are more than 32.4 million elementary school kids, that means that 2.2 million to 4.2 million first- through fifth-graders can forget about any free play during the day.
In addition, that same report says that only 17 to 22 percent of elementary schools provide daily physical education, with the average elementary school scheduling it just 2.4 times a week. The time for art and music has also been reduced by 22 percent of all school districts, according to 2006 national survey by the Center on Education Policy. Whether they've made all these cuts for budgetary or academic purposes doesn't really matter. It still adds up to millions of little kids going all day without a break (except a short lunch) -- and, ironically, not getting the activity they need for proper brain development, to say nothing of preventing obesity. There's your story, and it's a sad one.
But back to homework . . . Do I think that giving out teachers' cell phone numbers to parents and kids with homework concerns is a good idea? Absolutely -- it's a great start. As we found when we interviewed hundreds of parents for our book, they can often improve the homework situation for their child (and sometimes the whole class) just by sharing those concerns with teachers and the administration in a non-confrontational manner. The key is to get educators, policy makers, and, yes, parents, to start rethinking homework -- and how we're schooling our kids in general. Then perhaps we'll see some real, meaningful change.
Jay: I appreciate your very well-sourced thoughts and am happy we agree on most of what is going on. (I did write about that Center on Education Policy report, about which there was some dispute on the meaning of its results. But if we got into that subject my very kind editor would be calling for my dismissal for reckless abuse of the infinite space available here at washingtonpost.com.) I hope you and Sara will keep me in touch with major developments, so that readers can be as up to date as possible on this very troublesome issue for us parents. Thanks very much.