Last week, I heard from many friends and colleagues about Karl Taro Greenwood’s piece, “My Daughter’s Homework Is Killing Me.”


“I could have written this!”

“When are teachers going to learn that they’re piling on way too much???”

It was clear to me that the emotion of this piece resonated. But really what I think is this: Mr. Greenwood is probably a very nice man, but he comes off like a whiney, know-it-all parent. And he’s worried about the wrong damned things.

If you read Greenwood’s story, you know he’s worried that his daughter is getting too much homework. At the tender age of 13 years, she wasn’t able to fall asleep until after midnight, because of her homework load. He admitted that bias up front, and decided to see for himself. He took on his daughter’s assignments for a full week.

But really, what he should be paying attention to is the kind of homework his kids are doing.

At the same time, I can compeltely identify with his frustration about his kid’s bedtime. My kid often goes to sleep after midnight. She spends way too much time on homework, but I can say without hesitation that the fault lies with her, because her routine looks something like this: text friends, try to find her worksheet, text, check out when the new episodes of New Girl are coming on Netflix, text, do three math problems, text, find a new Pandora station on her phone, read her library book, finish her math, start science… well, you get the picture. By 10:00 p.m., she’s an anxious mess sometimes.

Her homework load is not too much. It’s generally between one and three hours each night, depending on how much she’s procrastinated on her weekly projects/assignments. (That is, if she actually gets to work, instead of goofing off.)

Greenwood’s daughter averages about three hours. Yes, that’s a lot. But if she’s staying up so late, it’s because she’s not getting started until 8:00 p.m.. (He never says why.) That’s a full five hours after my kid gets out of school, and even with her three-times-a-week soccer practice, it’s way, way later than she usually gets started.

But the thing that bothers me the most is what Greenwood writes here:

The Spanish, however, presents a completely different challenge. Here, Esmee shows me that we have to memorize the conjugations of the future tense of regular and irregular verbs, and she slides me a sheet with tenertendré,tendrástendrátendremos, etc., multiplied by dozens of verbs. My daughter has done a commendable job memorizing the conjugations. But when I ask her what the verb tener means (“to have,” if I recall), she repeats, “Memorization, not rationalization.”

She doesn’t know what the words mean.

Shocking. Certainly, each subject requires a little bit of “fake it ’til you make it,” but not to know what the verb means is pretty amazing. And the fact that his daughter has so completely internalized the message “memorization, not rationalization” is truly tragic. That message goes against any educational philosophy I was taught at university.

At the same time, the author is incredibly proud of his (and his daughter’s) ability to pick up on the patterns presented by combining like terms in algebraic expressions. He whizzes right through those problems (none of the math homework is excessive, in my opinion), but has he merely memorized or is he really understanding what the process means? I could be wrong, but my guess is that he might have trouble explaining why the process works.

In other words, critical thinking is important in Spanish, science and literature, but really thinking through the whys of math? Nah, it’s way better to finish those problems as quickly as possible.

Easy homework = good homework?

The homework wars will never end. And that’s because when we all get home from work and school, no one wants the fight that ensues. We want to play board games or curl up on the couch and watch stupid television or read books that weren’t assigned to us.

But if teachers assigned homework that really mattered, would parents still be upset? If teachers asked kids to answer the hard questions, like “How did you get your answer?” or “Ask a family relative about his or her experience with immigration,” would we revolt, because that’s hard too? When schools are serious about rigor, do parents retaliate?

Homework shouldn’t be busy work. But I still believe that there’s real value to asking students to practice what they’ve learned or make some connections on their own. When we parents approach this in a positive way, we have an opportunity to teach our children than learning doesn’t stop at 2:50 p.m. or when we graduate from college.

What would happen if we sent our kids a positive message about their homework? (While working against excessive or stupid assignments, of course.)

This afternoon, my kid walked home from soccer practice, grabbed a snack and ran up to her room shouting, “I’m going to work on my science essay!” I don’t think this thing is due  until the beginning of next month. I didn’t have anything to do with her being excited to get to work. I also didn’t get in her way. She likes this assignment — probably because it’s challenging — and she’s happy to do it.

I’d say that one step in that direction is a little less whining, and a little more listening to kids and teachers.

P.S. Greenwood had lots of reasons to be ticked off about his kid’s school, starting with the lousy parent-teacher conferences. I don’t mean to suggest that he was off-base with everything.

P.P.S. Atlantic also had a great piece from a teacher, who is reassessing her practice of giving homework. I thought her reasons and concerns were compelling. Parents should read that piece as well: Should I Stop Assigning Homework? by Jessica Lahey.

What do you think about the homework your kid is getting? Homeschooling parents, what’s your take on the homework wars?

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