Ashley always sends my way any education articles she finds, knowing I'm interested :). Recently she sent me an article on homework. Should homework be banned from classrooms, or severely limited? Specifically, should assignments in elementary schools be lessened? This Slate article discusses the issue.
Although not in the article's original scope, I think it is good to assess homework loads for not only elementary students, but middle and high school as well. Really, I would suggest that the majority of homework assignments given to middle and high school students are pretty much worthless - "busy work" at its finest. I student-taught in the public schools and was forced to assign quite a bit of busy work :(. Some homework is really assigned just to keep the kids busy. For example, I think factoring quadratic polynomials is a skill that comes with practice. But I don't think an excess of 200 problems in one week is the right kind of practice. But the week of factoring, between my mentor teacher and myself we had a funeral and a flooded house, as well as just a lot of time that we had set aside for factoring. . . So the students practiced factoring, and practiced factoring, and practiced factoring. That's what I call torture. . . and that's what makes kids hate math. It forces already-overscheduled kids to focus on getting through the problems, rather than understanding the problems.
But I think the problem with homework isn't just the exorbitant amount that is often assigned. It's also the fact that a lot of that work could be done during the time that is wasted in class. A structured class environment has its benefits, for sure, but often the time spent in class is a total waste. This is a bit of a different scenario, but when I student-taught Algebra 1 in a public school, we were on block scheduling, but they gave an entire year for Algebra 1. This meant that I had 90 minute class periods, without the usual rush of block scheduling. Can you say busy work? The kids were far from well-behaved, and my mentor teacher's solution was to keep them occupied for the whole class period - and really, the problem was not of her making to begin with, so my point is not to solely place the blame on her. So each class period I did a lot of examples of each type of problem. . . Then we did class work. . . We took a lot of quizzes. . . And we spent forever going over homework. Frankly, it was close to torture.
My whole point being, a lot of the class time could have been spent doing all that homework that was assigned! I don't think five 50 minute class periods a week (or in my case, five 90 minute blocks) are necessary for most classes, even math. That's not teaching kids, that's babysitting kids. Many educators think more class time is the solution to our educational woes, but I think less class time would actually foster more student responsibility and free up more time for real assignments, not just busy work.
For example, I teach at Heritage Classical Study Center, a part-time classical Christian school. Students meet only once a week for each of their classes. They usually come one day a week for "core" classes, and another day for math and science. I have 90 minutes a week with my Algebra 1 students and 2 hours each with Statistics and Geometry. It's not easy, but it's doable. And it teaches the students good independent study skills.
This model is becoming more and more popular in recent years. Dominion Classical Christian Academy just opened up this year near me, leasing space in my church, and they and Heritage aren't the only two part-time classical schools in the area. DCCA opened with students through 6th grade, but their plan is to eventually add up through 12th grade. They meet 3 times a week, MWF. I think that is more than enough time for elementary school. I think 2-3 days is more ideal for middle and high school (rather than one day, like Heritage), but I think one day is doable as well, as evidence by the quality of education students receive at Heritage.
The more I study and observe the part-time model, the more I like it. It means concentrated, meaningful classtime without busy work, which gives students more time to do independent homework and projects. This allows teachers to assign meaningful individual assignments, but without requiring students to stay up all hours of the night to get homework done before the viscious cycle repeats the next day. There is a full-time Christian school near us that boasts of requiring a lot of homework from their students - up to 7 hours per day (this "positive" information comes from the administration, mind you). My question is this: if they are already in class all day, 5 days a week, what are they doing during that time, if they are required to then do approximately 35 hours of homework per week? A large amount of work does not immediately imply rigor, nor should that sort of workload be forced on any high school student! That doesn't mean that students should be coddled, academic rigor is well and good, but the real kind.
At Heritage, students come once a week for "core" classes, which at Heritage consists of Literature (where they actually read a lot of the great classics - Shakespeare, Austen, you name it), Social Sciences (History, Government, Economics - they actually read The Wealth of Nations(!), Philosophy, etc., depending on level), and Language Arts (where they actually are required to learn grammar!). For middle school, they take a year of informal logic and a year of analogies. For high school they rotate through a year each of advanced logic, argumentation, apologetics, and great speeches. Middle school students take 2 years of Greek, and High school students take 2 years of Latin, followed by an optional 2 years of Spanish. They fit all this one day of classes per week. In literature, they read real books - and a lot of them. In the social sciences in high school, they mainly eschew textbooks for "living books," or they read books that are recommended reading for graduate students. They memorize pieces of literature, they debate, they analyze, they answer in-depth questions on reading assignments. They write - a lot!
This isn't an Ivy League school, mind you; it's for "average" home school students. . . But they are turning out top-quality students. And they are only "formally instructed" once a week. Heritage's students have a lot of homework, as properly defined as work done at home. But it's not busy work - the headmaster of Heritage (my boss) hates busy work in fact! And because they only meet for classes once a week (twice if they come for math and science) they have time even after their rigorous assignments, time to pursue extracurricular activities. Heritage has a large number of students involved in the fine arts like dance, music, and theater.
So that's my (unprofessional) opinion of the great homework problem. Less classtime, and more meaningful assignments. What do you think?