Monday, November 5, 2007

The homework question

Tonight, my husband picked up my kids from preschool so I could get my eyebrows waxed at a nail salon (I can't believe I'm sharing this). In a back room, an aesthetician—whose daughter happens to go to Lawton—turned my bushy brows into skinny rainbows. With my new and improved look, I returned to the main area where ladies were enjoying manis and pedis—and two young children, sporting sweatshirts from a private school I won't name, sat in chairs getting foot massages. My "brow designer" whispered in my ear, "These children come for foot massages at least once a week." The boy and girl, who were probably about 10 years old, were doing their homework while women rubbed their tootsies. I didn't know what to make of the whole scene, and I'm still processing it—but I immediately recalled my first massage, which I got on my honeymoon in Costa Rica at 25 years old. And I thought, These kids are spoiled!

And then I kicked myself for being judgmental because things like massage and yoga are healthful and relaxing—and so zen. And then I tuned into the fact that these children were doing homework. I wondered, Are these kids so stressed out by homework that their parents have to pay for foot massages?

The most frequently asked question on my school tours is: What's your homework policy? Parents ask this again and again and again. They ask the parent guides leading groups through classrooms, and then they attack the teachers with the question. And then the principal and the assistant principal. I heard parents asking about homework at the enrollment fair. What's up with homework?

So far all the schools I've toured—both independent and public—have very light or no homework in kindergarten and first grade. There's only one exception? That's Alice Fong Yu, where every parent I've talked to has painted a picture of piles of homework. If my kids go there, I guess we'll be investing in a hot tub and yoga lessons and acupuncture. Gosh, I can't afford any of that. Maybe it's time to return to school to become a masseuse. (Please, excuse me while I poke a little fun at AFY, which happens to be my top choice public school these days. It's my way of dealing with the fact that I might not get in.)

Getting a little flustered by all this deep thought, I turned to my favorite place for information, The New York Times, to help me sort through the confusion.

Coincidentally, last week The Times ran an article titled: "Less homework, more yoga, from a principal who hates stress." The story by Sara Rimer focuses on high school, but it's still relevant. And so what am I thinking after reading it? Those kids getting foot rubs, they should have left their homework at home.


  1. I have two kids that are currently attending AFY and truth be told, they have homework but never mounds of homework. I believe the key is that they immediately work on their homework right after school and spend on average an hour to two. And sometimes there is no homework. When I asked them about 'complaints' by their friends parents about mounds and mounds of homework, the reason is procrastinate. Most kids wait till after dinner and then they are in 'panic' mode and get parents to help out.

  2. Yeah! That's just what I want to hear! Thanks for contributing. AFY is my favorite public school and I'll likely be ranking it first on my application--but sometimes I poke a little fun at it. It's may way of dealing with the fact that I might not get into the school.

  3. We always ask in tours about homework and all the 8th graders in private schools say the same thing - 2 to 2.5 hours. Either they're all trained to say the same thing or the homework load is about the same whether at a more laid-back progressive or a more academic place. I wonder whether the demands of getting into high school cause the K-8s to ramp up academically about the same way?

  4. My various neighbors have kids at both public and private schools. I haven't noticed a big difference in how long they are inside doing homework. I agree that starting homework soon after getting home (after a snack, though!) helps. The main difference I notice is with afterschool activities. Some families sign their kids up for so much! I haven't necessarily seen a private vs. public school difference in this, though my sample size is pretty small. I think schools have heard the backlash against too much homework too early on and are responding. I cannot imagine my son coming home from school next year, tired and hungry at age five, and having to do homework. Most of the schools we have toured (mostly private)simply ask that you read to your kindergarteners for 20 minutes every day, which we already do and our son loves. I have heard that the homework does ramp up significantly at some schools in 6th grade (at the K-8 schools). The schools do seem to differ in approach for kids who have to spend lots of time on homework. Some seem to expect them to just get it done while others ask that kids spend up to a set amount of time on homework, stop, and then get assistance from the teacher(s)the next day.

  5. Also, many afterschool programs have "homework hour" or "homework club" with tutoring and peer support available, in addition to the normal enrichment and sports activities of afterschool. This can be a wonderful thing for working parents who are scooping up their kids between 5-6 and still have to make time for dinner, baths, and hopefully some quality time with the kids.

    From personal experience I know that James Lick's free afterschool provides one hour of homework time with tutoring provided by credentialed teachers! followed by cool activities that the kids really love.

    We're not in early elementary anymore, but our mileage in a local public school was that homework was light in those days--mainly a way to let the parents know what was being taught, and to instill a taste of the discipline that would be needed in later years. One page, max. It ramped up in third grade but has never been onerous.

    The longer reports (with cover art, 15-20 pages of writing, bibliographies, table of contents) that started in third and fourth grade took longer and lots of discipline with research (reading books and online sources), first drafts and multiple revisions. It would have been disaster to wait until the last minute for those, but the teachers wouldn't let that happen--they had interim deadlines for the various pieces.

    It's probably hard to imagine Alice doing any of this at this point, but she will get there. It's pretty amazing to watch them make the leap from younger to older children.

  6. It seems to be about the same at Lilienthal - about an hour a day, which becomes harder with procrastination. The lower grades have less. Much of it seems to be reading (20min/day), keeping a journal, and Math. About 50% is in Korean.

    Mckinley was the same, about 20 minutes a day in Kindergarten. Some of it was concentrated work like spelling words, while some was things one would do already, like reading a story.

  7. I have found you can negotiate with the teacher about homework, at least in the lower grades. When my daughter was in kindergarten and first grade, she was just too tuckered out to do worksheets after school, even after a snack. And she goes to bed really early, so after dinner wasn't an option either. Basically, the hassle of getting her to do them, minimal as they were, wasn't worth it. So I just asked the teacher if we could read every night (as we had been doing.) Her kindergarten and first grade teachers were very understanding because they knew she worked hard in school, and was getting the material.

    This year in second grade, it's a completely different story. She gets her weekly homework packet Monday and starts to work right away. She's usually done Tuesday, or at the latest Wednesday, and quite proud of her independence.

    If your kid is cooperative about homework in the early grades, what's the harm? But if it's a power struggle, I would definitely work something out with the teacher so that you don't stage a battle that will last for years to come.

  8. A friend of mine has a kindergartener at Fairmount, and he showed me the homework the child has. I would estimate it would take about half an hour per day, but it's assigned in weekly packets, so I'm sure some people procrastinate and do it all the last day each week.

  9. Wow K. Willets,

    My child is in Kindergarten at McKinley and the home work is 5 or so minutes. I usually watch and encourage but I don't think it has taken longer than 10 minutes even with mistakes and running around looking for the right crayon or eraser.

  10. That battle is important. Kids need to learn from a young age that if they work hard and can be trusted and are willing to do things they don't want to for hours, they will be successful. If you can't delay gratification and work hard to do what's expected, you won't succeed. The process is more important than the actual homework. The psychological internalization of pride in achievement and pressure to do well. Kids at Lowell have tons of homework but they make a lot of money and move ahead. They internalize pressure, which is key.