Dear Ms. Case,
I can't thank you enough for your persistent kindness in dealing with us parents and the kids you skillfully shepherd. You're inculcating a love of both school and learning in my daughter, a priceless gift if ever there was one.
Unfortunately, one issue has been weighing on our family: homework.
Each night you assign twenty minutes of reading, either solo or with a parent. My daughter easily meets this flexible requirement, curling up on the couch with a Magic Treehouse book, asking me to read aloud from a library selection like A Cricket in Times Square, or listening to the picture books chosen by her siblings. We even count minutes she spends perusing a magazine, a toy instruction booklet, or the side of a cereal box.
But then there's the nightly page of math. She has no desire to do it. She also often can't complete it without help. Sometimes I take a look, and I'm unable to figure out what's being asked of her despite my extensive education.
I'm left with two options. I can nag her about the math, reminding her each evening to get it out and then walking her through it. Since we don't have a TV or iPad, this means ripping her away from a book or creative pretend play with her siblings. It also teaches her that she can't handle schoolwork on her own and sets her up for the life of academic dependence decried by former longtime Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford University Julie Lythcott-Haims in How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success and Jessica Lahey in The Gift of Failure.
My other choice is to keep doing what I've been doing: telling her homework is between you and her, and that it's her responsibility to sort out when and how to complete it. I want my daughter to learn time management, and to experience frustration but then keep trying so that she realizes she can almost always find her own way to a solution. I believe this to be the best approach for inculcating grit, perseverance, self-control, and other markers of success described by Paul Tough in How Children Succeed.
On this path, however, when the homework doesn't interest her or is too difficult or confusing, she just doesn't do it. She's then either penalized, or something worse: when there are no negative repercussions at school for failing to finish it, she comes to believe that all work assigned is meaningless and optional.
We are left adrift, biting our tongues and nails as we leave her to her own devices, then stepping in to direct and assist after seeing an entire week of the workbook untouched.
Luckily, there's a third way. Research shows that elementary school homework is at best unnecessary and unproductive. Much of the time it's even detrimental. The three articles below ably summarize that information:
- Salon - Homework is wrecking our kids
- The Washington Post - Homework: An unnecessary evil?
- The Washington Post - The question of homework: Should our kids have it at all?
In light of our personal experience and the data provided by these articles, I ask that you move toward getting rid of homework entirely, raising the issue with your teaching team and school administration. At the very least, please consider limiting it to flexible assignments like your current reading requirement.
I want my daughter to continue to build positive associations with school, to be given the freedom to use her time outside its gates to learn through play, and to grow to be independent and capable.
Thank you for your time, and for your invaluable service to our hearts' joy and nation's future,
NOTE: The preceding letter was written at the request of my daughter's teacher, whose name has been changed for anonymity, so that she could have something in hand when taking my concerns, with which she agrees, to her superiors.
Originally published on Parenting Write
Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer. Born in St. Louis and raised in the Bay Area, she's a serial monogamist of urban living who resided in Berkeley, New York, DC, Boston, and Seattle before committing to San Francisco. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.