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Part II of the Homework Series: The Teacher View on Homework

In part one of this series, parents shared their concerns and challenges with homework. In this portion professor Brooke Muntean, Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, and third grade teacher Sarah Kingcaide* give their perspectives on homework and some possible solutions when it becomes too much.
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This is part two of a three-part series that addresses parents' struggles with homework, teachers' reasons for supporting it and ways to make the process easier.

In part one of this series, parents shared their concerns and challenges with homework. In this portion professor Brooke Muntean, Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, and third grade teacher Sarah Kingcaide* give their perspectives on homework and some possible solutions when it becomes too much.

Dr. Muntean says that despite the daily struggles and resistance she faces from her two elementary school daughters, she steadfastly believes in homework. She has taught all grades in international schools in Japan, Bali and Mexico City as well as U.S. schools and now focuses primarily on teacher education. In all schools and grade levels she found homework secures an essential home-to-school connection and helps to close socioeconomic gaps.

Kingcaide disagrees with Dr. Muntean when it comes to younger elementary school children who she says need to go home, rest, play and spend time with their families. As a teacher, says Kingcaide, I never know how much homework is really done by the child or the parent. The only important task for young students to do each day, says Kingcaide, is to read. "Reading should come first," says Kingcaide. "If there isn't enough time to do both, toss the worksheets and read instead."

Research

The National Education Association (NAE) says that in the last 20 years homework has increased only in the lower grade levels. This increase, says the NAE, is associated with neutral and sometimes negative effects on student achievement. There's a big shift in education, for better or worse, says Dr. Muntean, to focus on literacy skills at an earlier age so that these children can keep up with the rigorous content in later grades. "What students are expected to accomplish by college is demanding, so schools are raising the bar," says Dr. Muntean.

That said Dr. Muntean doesn't believe in hours of homework. Homework should be no more than 10 minutes per grade level. "Meaning, it should just be 10 minutes in first grade, 20 minutes in second grade and so on," says Dr. Muntean. She emphasizes that homework is not a time for students to be taught new skills. The objective, says Dr. Muntean, is that first and second graders are working with mom, dad or a grandparent for 10-20 minutes of homework an evening. "This is a great chance to spend time together and demonstrate to your child how important her/his learning is to you," says Dr. Muntean.

Educators often turn to researchers like Dr. Robert J. Marzano who support the assignment of homework. Dr. Marzano and the Learning Sciences Marzano Center found that homework does have a positive benefit, particularly among grades four and up. In fact, the benefits continually increase from a 6 percent gain in 4-6th grade to a 12 percent gain in 7-9th grade and a whopping 24 percent gain in 10-12th grade. Yet the same is not seen in the lower grades, says Kingcaide. In fact, Dr. Marzano states in his book The Art and Science of Teaching that though he believes in homework for grades kindergarten through third, "The clear pattern is that homework has less effect at the lower grades level".

Gradual Release of Responsibility

While there is a dearth of positive research on the benefits of homework on the younger grades, Dr. Muntean says that homework in these grades helps to strengthen the essential home-to-school connection. It allows parents to see what the child is working on in school and puts parents in the teacher role. "In life, parents are their child's primary teacher," says Dr. Muntean. "Education is no different. Parents need to take responsibility and not depend solely on the school to educate their children."

When you see articles about homework not working, says Dr. Muntean, they are geared toward middle class families and children that were read to and have ample resources. These are kids, says Dr. Muntean, that will likely be just fine if they don't do homework. In mixed economic schools this practice doesn't work and struggling students need homework. "I don't see how I could tell my struggling reader to do homework but not my other students," says Dr. Muntean. "Perhaps, I could differentiate and give different homework, but I feel, as a teacher, I need to be equal and fair."

Furthermore, a critical part of the learning process in all grades, but particularly the younger grades, says Dr. Muntean, is doing an "I do, we do, you do". Teachers introduce a new skill with an "I do." Meaning, the teacher shows how to do this new skill. Next is the "we do," which is a guided practice with the teacher or with partners in a group. The third step is the "you do," where the student practices the new skill in homework so that it can be reviewed the next day. "This really cements the learning of a new skill, and then we can built on it from there," says Dr. Muntean.

Standardized Testing

Most educators agree with professor and social psychologist Dr. Harris Cooper, Ph.D. that homework for younger students should foster strong study habits, positive attitudes toward school and an understanding that school learning takes place at home as well as school. Elementary school students should not be given homework with the expectation of improving test scores. Yet, some parents complain that this is exactly the purpose of their child's homework. As I mentioned in part I of this series, Margaret, a parent to two elementary school-age children, says that homework in her district focuses on untaught material to prepare students for standardized tests. Students must repeatedly take the practice tests until they pass.

Dr. Muntean says parents must not blame teachers or school administrators if this is happening in their child's school. Our country is test-crazed, says Dr. Muntean, and it's really policymakers and politicians forcing these tests. Teachers don't like testing, says Dr. Muntean, but we have no option but to play the game and score well so that we can keep up our school's performance score. "Funding entirely depends on our standardized test scores, particularly in charter schools," says Dr. Muntean.

If parents protest the school or teacher directly on this -- by opting out of the tests, for example, says Dr. Muntean -- then they just hurt the teacher and the school. The only effective way to change this is by making demands at a higher level.

Kingcaide disagrees and says that opting out is a viable and positive option. She says there is power in numbers and that the federal government will be forced to continue to fund schools if enough parents opt-out of standardized tests. "The federal government can't refuse to fund every school," says Kingcaide. Policies won't be changed, says Kingcaide, if the public just goes along with what is set forth. The other option, says Kingcaide, is to put pressure on state legislatures to entirely fund schools without relying on levies. "Lawsuits are an option," says Kingcaide. "For instance, the Washington State Legislature is being fined daily -- $100,000 per day -- because the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the State Legislature is not fully funding public schools."

In this case, two sets of parents, Mathew and Stephanie McCleary, Patty and Robert Venema, along with school districts, local teacher unions and other groups sued the state on the basis that it was not satisfying its constitutional obligation to amply fund public schools.

When it's Just too Much

Mike, a dad of a third grader, says that his son has two hours of homework each night. Dr. Muntean says that she would recommend that once the parent has gotten 30 minutes of actual homework time -- not a combination of procrastination, protests and homework -- out of the third grader, she would tell the student to stop. She suggests that Mike request a meeting with the teacher to address the issue. When approaching a teacher, says Dr. Muntean, it's important to let the teacher know that you respect her/him and think of her/him as your partner. "I would explain my concerns and ask for suggestions," says Dr. Muntean. Keep in mind, says Dr. Muntean, reading time does not count toward the 30 minutes. "This is what kids should be doing every night instead of watching TV or playing on the computer," says Dr. Muntean. "Kids need to read."

Kingcaide agrees with Dr. Muntean that reading is essential and it's important to speak to the teacher if homework is stressful for the family and/or child. The discussion can be eye-opening for the teacher and she/he may have excellent recommendations like setting up a homework station, not overscheduling your child -- "One sport or activity per quarter is plenty," says Kingcaide -- and doing homework right away.

"I don't know any teacher who wants her/his students to spend each night fighting and crying over homework," says Kingcaide. "They want to help."

*Kingcaide has asked that her actual name be kept anonymous

Photo credit: Jens Wessling

This post originally appeared on The Good Blog.