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Is Homework Necessary? Also: A Truce Over Teaching Math

by Clara Hemphill and Philissa Cramer, Sep 26, 2006
 

One educational dispute seems to be calming down, while another is heating up.

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IS HOMEWORK NECESSARY?

The debate over homework has been heating up amid the annually renewed battles between parents and students over getting it completed. Two new books -- The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, by Alfie Kohn, and The Case Against Homework, by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish – take the students’ side, saying kids get far too much homework. In fact, the authors argue that the nightly battles are just one of many reasons that homework should be abolished.

The books also point to a lack of research supporting the claim that homework is beneficial. Kohn argues that homework may squelch kids’ love of learning, while Bennett and Kalish maintain that increased homework results in reduced family time, added stress, and even obesity.

But are the writers correct in blaming homework for so many problems? As a review of these two books in the Washington Post points out, American kids have less homework than their peers in other countries, and extracurricular activities and sports take up as much, if not more, of their time than homework. And, while we at InsideSchools.org do hear from some families that are being swamped by homework, just as often we hear from parents who see their kids’ homework as evidence that their school is expecting them to learn.

Kalish and Bennett say, “We suspect that these parents — and lots more — will be up in arms when they learn the truth: that the overwhelming majority of teachers have never taken a course in homework, and that, contrary to popular belief, there is little solid research demonstrating benefits from the current homework system.” Likewise, Kohn argues that the lack of research proving homework’s worth means the age-old institution should be abolished.

The authors of both books offer tips for parents who want to reduce the homework load for their children – or even eliminate it. Kohn advises parents to “ask the probing questions” about homework assignments’ value, and Bennett and Kalish write that “sometimes, all it takes to reduce the homework load is to talk to your child's teacher in the right way.”

MATH COUNTS

For more than a decade, parents, teachers and administrators in the New York City schools have battled over the best way to teach mathematics. Now, a new set of guidelines by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics paves the way for a cease-fire in the math wars based on common sense.

In some respects, the new guidelines state the obvious: Kids need basic arithmetic skills. They need to learn multiplication facts by heart. They need to learn standard "algorithms" or formulas to manipulate numbers. Still, in a city that has adopted the "new math," which emphasizes understanding of concepts rather than memorization and drill, the new guidelines may have a big impact on classroom practice.

"I think we are definitely going to be instituting some more traditional elements while maintaining the environment that has kids working in groups and doing collaborative work," said Terence Finch, an eighth grade math teacher at East Side Middle School in Manhattan.

Andres Alonso, the new deputy chancellor for instruction, said the city had already adopted what he calls a "middle of the road" approach to math. But he said that he anticipated a somewhat increased emphasis on basic skills, just as the school system has seen an increased emphasis on phonics in the teaching of reading in recent years.

The first round in the math wars came in 1989, with the publication of the national council’s Standards and Principles, which declared that arithmetic drills and memorization of formulas sapped children's enthusiasm and left them without an understanding of the underlying concepts of mathematics. The math teachers group declared that math instruction should not consist merely of computation -- addition, subtraction, multiplication and division -- but should also introduce even young children to elements of algebra, geometry, probability and statistics. Several New York City schools districts adopted new math programs that followed these standards in the 1990s, and Chancellor Joel Klein adopted the new math citywide in 2003.

The new methods provoked controversy. Critics dubbed the programs "fuzzy math," and many parents complained their children reached middle school without knowing how to multiply or divide large numbers. Now, the math teachers council, the influential organization that started the debate, is extending an olive branch to critics.

"If in fact these old documents gave the impression that knowing basic multiplication facts was unimportant, then this [new] document says multiplication is very important," the group’s president Francis Spinelli said in a telephone interview. "Probability is nice, it's fun, but it's not a focal point [in the early grades]. Arithmetic is really important and guess what? If you don't do it at the elementary level, when are you going to do it?"

Although Spinelli, with his conciliatory words, seems to be calling for a truce, critics suggest any pause in hostilities may be temporary. "A first step is wonderful," said Elizabeth Carson, founder of NYC HOLD. "But we need a lot more than this. The struggle is just barely beginning."

Clara Hemphill, is project director of InsideSchools.org and author of “New York City's Best Public Elementary Schools: a Parents' Guide,” “Public Middle Schools: New York City's Best,” and “New York City's Best Public High Schools.” Philissa Cramer visits and reviews schools for InsideSchools. This page has been adapted from articles that originally appeared on the pages of our partner, InsideSchools.org  




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