Too much homework assigned to elementary through high school students is a growing national concern. Student Feedback Surveys, such as the one proposed in this article, can be used to combat too much homework. Ask your school to survey students and parents about homework.
As Hurricane Matthew closed in on South Florida in late October, the National Weather Service issued dire warnings that parts of the state might be uninhabitable for weeks or months. The effects of the storm will be unlike any hurricane in decades, the weather service said.For three days Governor Rick Scott warned residents to evacuate ahead of the Category 4 hurricane, grimly stating the storm was a "monster."“If you're in an evacuation area, get out," Scott said. "Don't take a chance. Time is running out. There are no excuses. You need to leave. Evacuate, evacuate, evacuate." “This storm will kill you," he said.Your Homework or Your LifeApparently some Floridians were less aware, or unconcerned, about the peril facing our families.As we packed essential items, boarded our pets and evacuated to a hotel for possibly an extended stay, one of our children's high school teachers was sending text messages to students and parents.The subject was not personal safety but the need for students to get their homework projects done—that very day—before electrical power was lost and to “make a plan” to work on it with his/her partner prior to the weekend. As the storm approached, our child sat in the only open restaurant near to our hotel doing research in an effort to upload the project on time.While this teacher’s lack of judgment in a crisis was disturbing, the excessive amount and nature of homework assigned to elementary through high school students is a growing national concern. There is even a New York Times too-much-homework blog which solicits student opinions on homework.As a lawyer who represents teacher unions and retirees nationally on pension matters, over the past semester I had shared my growing concerns regarding excessive homework at my child's school with experienced educators across the country. They all encouraged me to get involved with other parents and bring these legitimate concerns to the attention of the administration and teaching staff. They agreed that kids shouldn't be staying up until midnight doing homework or working through winter breaks. If educators are overloading kids, its up to parents to speak up on their behalf, I was told.So, over this past winter break, I did my homework, i.e., I prepared this memorandum for my child's school which included questions, observations and recommendations for improving homework practices, as well as a proposed Survey of parents, students, teachers and administrators regarding homework. To be sure, I'm no educator but as a forensics expert, I know a little about asking probing questions to get at underlying truths.Winter Break Should be a “Break”For example, families at our child's school who had relatives visiting or planned travel over this past winter break justifiably complained to the administration when their kids were saddled with massive homework and projects to be completed upon return to school. So much for the so-called “break.” Reportedly many schools such as Ridgewood High School in New Jersey have introduced homework-free winter breaks in response to family concerns. Special Burden of School of the Arts StudentsAt the outset it is important to note that the high school my child attends is somewhat unique in that it is a school of the arts. Most students dedicate a number of hours every night to advance their training in their given major. Some majors apparently require greater hours than others and nightly major-related workloads alone range from 1-3 hours. As a result, many students may not even begin their assigned academic homework until 8 p.m. and may not complete their homework until midnight or significantly later.It is widely acknowledged by students and faculty at the school that students are often sleep-deprived. Homework overload is the leading cause, I believe.As one parent put it, “I am concerned that the School District is supporting a level of workload that detracts from family time, opportunity for family involvement, intrudes on the time allowed for regeneration and clarity, and puts students at risk of stress, anxiety, and many other health issues.”I do not believe any parent is suggesting that the academic program at a school for the arts (or any other school for that matter) should be any less rigorous as a result of re-evaluating homework. Happily, our school’s national and state rankings suggest it is academically top-notch. However, the need to closely monitor homework loads and eliminate unnecessary busy work, or even counterproductive excessive homework is perhaps more acute at a school for the arts.Prior to crafting a winning approach to homework, however, it is necessary to understand the scope of the problem and that is precisely the goal of the Survey proposed below.School or District Homework PolicyIt is my understanding, based upon emails to parents from officials that our School District has “no policies on homework. Homework is a school-based decision.” In my opinion, it is absurd for any School District to completely ignore the important issue of homework given the profound impact it has upon student learning and student and family lives.Every District should, at a minimum, have policies stating that homework should be necessary and appropriate for students at given ages and excessive, counter-productive homework which is detrimental to students should be avoided. Established guidelines (such as the NEA and PTA guidelines cited below) and a system for monitoring compliance with those guidelines should also be delineated. Feedback from students and parents should be expressly encouraged and reviewed each semester.Likewise, the individual schools, should have established homework policies, guidelines and compliance monitoring systems. The Survey proposed in this article, if undertaken, should ensure that the policies are appropriate.As the former Director of Compliance for a leading global money manager, I can tell you that establishing policies without procedures for monitoring compliance with those policies are as worthless in schools as on Wall Street.Excessive Homework DefinedWhat is excessive homework? The standard for homework, endorsed by the National Education Association and the National Parent-Teacher Association, is the so-called "10-minute rule" -- 10 minutes per grade level per night. That translates into 10 minutes of homework in the first grade, 20 minutes in the second grade, all the way up to no more than two hours for high school seniors.Does your child's school agree with and comply with these endorsed homework standards? If so, how is compliance with these standards monitored? Ask that parents be provided with any information indicating that homework loads are limited to any such applicable standards.It is my understanding that many students nationally—in all grades—regularly are assigned more than two hours of homework nightly.What is the justification for such extreme levels of homework? Apparently some educators either: (a) mistakenly believe excessive homework benefits students and families or (b) are sadly out of touch with the amount of time students spend on homework assignments.Excessive Homework is HarmfulMore is not necessarily better when it comes to homework.A 2014 study showed that the impact of excessive homework on high schoolers included high stress levels, a lack of balance in children's lives and physical health problems such as ulcers, migraines, sleep deprivation and weight loss. This should be obvious and is the reason why it is imperative that schools give the problem the attention it deserves.Input From Parents May Be DiscouragedAccording to the NEA and PTA organizations, if homework seems excessive, students and parents should tell teachers. I believe many parents are telling teachers forcefully that the amount of homework is excessive. Recall The New York Times too-much-homework blog mentioned earlier. But, more disturbing, some teachers are telling students that they do not want to hear complaints from parents about homework.Like it or not, teachers need to understand that parental input on any matter is desirable and telling students input from parents is unwanted, is unacceptable, indeed unprofessional.Proposed Survey Regarding Homework Practices In order to address the issues discussed above, I propose that schools begin evaluating the efficacy of homework by conducting a surveys of parents, students and teachers. While answers to the survey questions would be confidential, the final results should be made publicly available. (Some of the questions below are specific to schools for the arts but most are not.)Below are some questions I believe should be asked of parents and students:What is your major?How many hours a week do you spend outside of school on your major? Please provide as much detail as possible on lessons, performances, etc.Do you believe your major requires more, less or the same amount of out of school time than others?What time do you wake up on school days?How long is your commute from home to school and from school to home?Please estimate the average number of hours required to complete nightly homework. Please provide an estimate of homework time by class and teacher.What time do you go to sleep at night during the week? Do you feel you are getting enough sleep?What is your opinion about the amount of homework you are assigned: too little, too much, or just right?What homework is especially valuable in your opinion and what, if any, homework is unnecessary? Give examples, if possible.How often are you assigned special projects? How much time do these projects take? Do you feel those projects are useful and appropriate? Give examples.Did you do any homework over school breaks? If so, how much? What is your opinion about the homework you were assigned over these breaks?Have you or your parents ever communicated with your teachers regarding homework matters? If so, were you/ your parents satisfied with the response from the teacher? Please provide details, if possible.2. Questions to be asked of administrators and teachers should begin with their understanding about how students and parents would answer the questions posed above. For example, how many hours do teachers believe students spend on their major, commuting, homework, sleeping etc.Additional questions for administrators and teachers include:What is the school policy regarding homework?Has the school adopted the NEA/PTA standards regarding homework? If not, why not?How is compliance with any homework policies monitored?Do teachers consult with one another in order to determine whether cumulative homework load is excessive at any given time? Or are teachers generally unaware of how much homework others assign?What is the school policy regarding input from parents on homework? What efforts are made to secure input from parents?ConclusionClearly, I believe my child's school has a problem with excessive homework and, based upon personal experience and what I’ve read and heard from other parents, homework overload is negatively impacting many student and parent lives.The homework practices I’ve witnessed make no sense and are counterproductive, if not abusive. On a happier note, I am confident that if schools embrace an enlightened approach to homework—an approach which includes substantial, consistent opportunities for factual and opinion-based input from parents and students—we can put an end to homework overload.However, one disturbing question remains unanswered: If more homework isn't good for kids, why are we seeing such an increase in the amount that's being assigned? I believe the answer is that economic uncertainty and limited opportunity are driving many educators and parents to demand students work hard 24/7. If kids don't get straight As, if they don't take advanced placement courses, if they don't get into Harvard or Yale, they're doomed is the prevailing fear.Don't believe it for a second. America is a nation built upon creativity, innovation and dreams. That has been, and hopefully will always be, our special destiny. Leave time in their schedules for kids to find their own way and I am certain they will surprise us.
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