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Shout-out to two Burbank parents — homework crusaders

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Photo courtesy Suzanne Weerts (l-r) Weerts, State PTA's Vice President for Education, Celia Jaffe. Tina McDermott at conference in Sacramento May 2, 2015

Photo courtesy Suzanne Weerts (l-r) Weerts Burbank parent, State PTA’s Vice President for Education, Celia Jaffe. Tina McDermott Burbank parent at conference in Sacramento May 2, 2015

It’s perfectly normal for kids to complain about homework. However, homework assignments have become a pain for many parents as well. A  survey sent out by the John Burroughs High School PTA got a lot of complaints from parents about the stress and disruption to family life caused by  heavy loads of homework. Here are some quotes from parents collected in the survey:

Parents react to homework load:

“Weekends have become so unpleasant because a HUGE chunk of it is used to catch up or get slightly ahead on homework.”

“She goes without much needed sleep to get her homework done.”

“Homework consumes our family life every evening and most weekends…”

“All of us are very frustrated by the amount of homework given.”

As a result of the survey findings,  the Burbank Unified School District created a task force, which came up with some homework guidelines for Burbank schools. Also through the involvement in that PTA group, two Burbank moms, Suzanne Weerts and Tina McDermott wrote a resolution titled “Homework: Quality Over Quantity.”

The background summary of the resolution states: Homework has an educational value when the assignments are reasonable, relevant and reinforcing. A body of research indicates that setting time limits based on grade and ability, and encouraging open communication between teachers, parents and students is beneficial to learning outcomes. The quantity of homework assigned should align with consideration for a healthy, balanced life for students.

While homework with a clear purpose has been shown to improve achievement, such work must be meaningful and should require minimal parental involvement. Low-income families often lack the resources to adequately support learning at home, and therefore their children are set up for potential failure in regard to homework completion, comprehension and grades. PTAs throughout California can support learning by working with school districts, principals, and teachers to adopt homework guidelines that focus on quality assignments to inspire lifelong learning, while limiting the quantity of homework to support the successful development of the whole child.

California State PTA:

In 2014, the  California State PTA adopted the resolution. Last month, Weerts and McDermott, presented a workshop at the California State PTA convention in Sacramento. “We had about 60 people in our workshop and they were a mixture of mostly parents, a couple of teachers and at least one administrator (+ one 3rd grader) and their questions reflected that the parents had children in Elementary, Middle and High School.  A broad range of concerns,” said Weerts in an email.

“One woman was in tears because her child’s elementary school teacher gives 5 hours of homework a night and, though she says she has communicated with the teacher about the stress this is causing her child and their family, it hasn’t helped.  Several people were already on Task Forces at their districts and wanted to know the next steps.  People seemed grateful for the research Tina shared and could see that it was in empowering tool,” Weerts added.

McDermott  explained in an email, they were asked “…to participate on a panel to give parents and teachers tools for managing the discussion for policy or guidelines in their districts.  And next year, it (the resolution) will be submitted for consideration to the National PTA.”

Weerts has an 8th grader and a high schooler in Burbank schools. McDermott’s son graduated from high school last year after attending Burbank schools since  kindergarten. McDermott remembers well the heavy burden of homework:

“When my son was in elementary school, I could not believe the volume of homework he received.  Elementary school children typically receive a “packet” of worksheets on Monday, due on Friday.  These are mostly fill in the blank questions, maybe some spelling and math and things like that, and sometimes word searches (which shockingly can continue into high school). They also wanted him to read, of course.  Then there were home projects — poster projects, book reports, cereal box projects, dioramas, etc.  These could take entire weekends to complete, depriving us of time and energy we might have liked to spend doing other things like gardening, teaching him to fly (his dad is a pilot), visiting friends, reading, etc.

I worked full time, as do many mothers and fathers, so by the time we all got home it was 6:00 or so and we had to make dinner, and then the big question: did you do your homework?  By then it might have been 7:30 or 8 p.m.  Of course my son rarely wanted to do it and who could blame him?  He had been up since 7 a.m., went to school til 3, and was in after school care til 5:30.  While he did some of his work in after care, much of it was not even possible without some parent help or intervention.  And of course that added to the societal pressure on me as a mother — how dare I work when my son is school age?  I felt that pressure loud and clear.  No one ever actually said it to me, but I felt I constantly had to explain that I work full time and that the homework was too much for us. This is actually sexist thinking, isn’t it?  But there it was. In reality, the homework was too much, period.

I started asking other moms and dads about their experiences, and they agreed that homework was stressful for them and their kids, whether their kids were struggling students or award winning readers, but no one spoke up about it.  Then, as part of my graduate work in communication studies, I studied the literature on family communication and homework and I made two important discoveries: one, I was not alone!  Many families studied by researchers reported acute stress and resentment over their children’s homework demands.  And further, researchers who studied the time spent on homework found little to no benefit for elementary school children, and that time limits of 10 minutes per grade (i.e., 2 grade = 20 minutes, 3rd = 30 minutes, etc., up to 2 hours for high school) should be followed because when kids spend over these recommended amounts of time, it can have little to no academic benefit. Burbank had no policy that took these problems into consideration.

Good homework should be manageable to the student, should not overly depend on parents’ education and resources, and should be manageable for the teacher.  If the student does not get feedback and only gets a check mark because the teacher does not have time to make corrections and comments, kids do not understand the value of the assignment and do it just to get the points. This is also supported in our survey and the research.  Students actually do want to learn and they want to please their teachers.  So there is a lot of room for developing better practices.

Of course, many teachers in Burbank understand this, and have developed creative and valuable ways to give students meaningful assignments without overloading them. I would never say that a teacher is not great who gives a lot of homework, because many great teachers do it, but I don’t think they realize the pressure they are contributing to in the home. However, there are also teachers who feel that “a lot of homework” teaches students to succeed in college, or teaches them they have to do things they don’t always want to do in life, things of that nature.  While this may be true for some children, it can have the opposite effect for others.

One friend of my son was terrified to go to college (first generation college student) because she was taught that college was going to be more homework than high school.  I worked hard to convince (her) that she would succeed in college, even taking her to my college campus for a day so she could understand more about it.  I’m happy to say she is currently enrolled in college and doing well!  But the perception persists among teachers and parents too, that lots of homework is an indicator of college prep.  In fact, we found out through our task force meetings that most teachers do not learn about homework at all in their education programs, so the need for professional development on this topic is significant.

Parents of all types of students have told us how happy they were that we were pursuing this issue, both in Burbank and through the California PTA.  The most effective way to deal with this problem is to have the dialogue and agree on some reasonable guidelines, and I’m proud to say that’s what we have done in Burbank.”

 megaphone clip art

For their efforts as homework crusaders, Susan Weerts and Tina McDermott get a well deserved shout- out from Media City Groove.

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