About three weeks into his daughter’s third-grade year in Fairfax County, Joseph Devlin realized she was getting no homework. It was a new policy, he learned, for which there had been no warning or discussion. It was not formally explained to parents until Sept. 20.
Most writing about homework these days is extremely negative. Alfie Kohn’s notable book “The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing” is a good example of the prevailing opinion that it sucks the joy out of childhood and should be cut back or eliminated.
But Devlin has a different view, one often absent from current analyses of homework but shared by many parents. Last year, when his daughter was in second grade,“a brief folder would come home with her on Monday, and it would contain four short assignments to be completed and handed in on Friday,” he said. She usually got it done during after-school day care, but sometimes she would take it home.
“I would look at what she was working on and help her when needed,” he said. “It was definitely a useful and positive part of her education, and it gave me a window into what she was learning.”
He expressed this view to his daughter’s teacher and the school district but was kindly told that this was a done deal motivated by parental complaints about too much homework. He likes the school. But it seems to him that his daughter is a guinea pig for a change yet to prove itself.
“I’ve been an academic,” he told me. “I’ve seen how questionable ideas can become trendy and widespread. In education, many will remember the whole-language movement, which interfered with many people’s language skills. It’s not that I expect educational techniques to remain static. It’s just that there needs to be a whole lot more proof that something works before wholesale adoption.”
Educational fads such as whole language, new math and open classrooms have faded. What’s happening with homework is unclear. Devlin’s daughter’s school dropped regular overnight assignments but requires 20 minutes a night of free reading. Fairfax schools spokesman John Torre said teachers at the school “send weekly emails and/or newsletters to keep parents informed of weekly learning and the school sends home completed work.” That’s fine, Devlin said, but it doesn’t give him the sense of her progress that he gets working with her.
I interrupt for a confession: The school’s change sounds like a suggestion I made in 2009. I noted then the key research finding: Elementary school homework has no effect on achievement. (It matters a bit in middle school and more in high school.) I said children in elementary school should instead do free reading, maybe 10 minutes for first-graders, 20 for second-graders and so on.
I thought homework helped me as a child, but I think the research is right that it makes little difference if the parents are as conscientious as Devlin. I also think the school’s principal is dreaming when she says kids can use the gift of extra time to volunteer, learn how to play an instrument or pursue a hobby.
Until Devlin contacted me I had not considered homework as a way to keep parents in touch with what their children are learning. Asking that age group about school rarely gets satisfactory answers, if my experience with my children and grandchildren is any measure. Homework is a natural way for parents to get a close look at what is going on without annoying or embarrassing their offspring too much.
Many parents have good reason to cringe at the thought of helping with those assignments. Devlin is different. He sees a chance to bond with his child over the things she is learning. His school needs a better explanation for why he can’t have that.