This August, Brandy Young, a second grade teacher, penned a note to the parents of her students that she wouldn’t be asking them to do homework. In it, she stated, “Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance. Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.”
I am the father of two elementary age children, one in second grade and the other in fourth. I am also an educator myself, at the college level. I started working with college students as a graduate assistant in Minnesota in 2009. I now work in Oregon, and I have worked in a range of different positions over the years (all of them at state universities).
I have been an instructor, and I have worked as an academic counselor and learning resource coordinator. I have coordinated numerous summer transitional programs that bridge the gap between high school and college. I have also worked with a wide range of students from low-income to first generation to upper class to student athletes to under-represented, and I can say that I’ve noticed a trend.
Each year, it seems like more of the freshmen I work with struggle with understanding the demands of work outside of the classroom. In fact, I’d say that many of the students I’ve worked with in the past couple years struggle with the idea of work in general.
Right here, I’d like to say that I’ve never done quantifiable research on this subject. All of this is based on working with and observing a range of students over several years. This is simply the opinion of a college educator who is worried that his children will not leave the public education system with the skills needed to do well in college, and most of that anxiety comes from watching numerous students go to college and struggle — not because they aren’t smart enough, but because they struggle with how much effort they need to put into their college classes to do well.
I am not going to try and refute what Mrs. Young said in her letter, “Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance.” From my understanding, among elementary age students, this is true. I am also aware that some studies show that homework at a young age can cause physical and emotional fatigue, fuel negative attitudes about learning, and limit leisure time for children.
But what I also know is that things are different from when I was a child. I was raised in the ’80s in central Utah on a one-acre patch of farmland next to my grandfather’s beef farm. Growing up meant spending two hours mowing the lawn. Sometimes it meant mending fences. Sometimes it meant herding cattle. There was a lot of work to do, no doubt about it. Growing up, I was surrounded by hardworking people. I could look out our kitchen window and see my grandfather tending irrigation water, sweat soaking the front of his polyester shirt and the brim of his cowboy hat. And every time I was asked to work as a young man, elementary school, high school, or other, I experienced a negative attitude and limited leisure time. I’d describe myself as a lazy child. But thinking back, being pushed into doing work as a child helped me learn how to work as a college student and an adult.
But herein lies the problem with my children. We live in a suburb on an eighth of an acre. We don’t raise livestock. We have a small garden. The kids have chores. We have a cat that they tend to. They clean their rooms and vacuum out the van. They tidy up and pull weeds and help harvest the vegetables in the fall, but in comparison to my childhood, there really isn’t all that much for them to do. None of my children really know what it means to labor with their hands or do what my grandfather would have called “real work.”
But the reality is, what is the “real work” of their era? Is it working in the fields? When my father was raised, college wasn’t all that important, but a strong work ethic was. It was very important for him to learn a trade, become proficient in it, and work each day, long and hard, with his hands. But now, college is supremely important in earning a living wage.
But somewhere in the transition from children working with their hands after school to working with their minds, I wonder if we lost something. If we lost what it means to work hard and long.
And when I think about that, I honestly wonder if removing homework, regardless of the age, is the best move for children.
This isn’t to say that I don’t battle with my kids to do their homework. Right now, my daughter is basically a professional at digging in her heels. But her arguments are very similar to the ones I had with my parents over cutting the grass or helping my grandfather brand and dehorn a new shipment of cattle. I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to watch TV.
Now my kids want to play their tablets.
I will say with complete sincerity: I don’t know how much homework is too much for elementary school kids. It might be the 10-minute rule. It might be more than that. But what I do know is that setting the bar at zero concerns me — particularly when I think about the range of college students I’ve worked with, and how some need far more time than others to master a concept.
All of it makes me worry that my children will enter college even less prepared to work outside the classroom than the freshmen I’m working with now.
In an age where grit is valued, I want my children to know how to work. I want them to know how to knuckle down and focus. I want them to know how to struggle with a problem. I want them to know that so little of academic success has to do with intelligence, but rather hard work. And most importantly, I want them to fully understand that learning doesn’t end when the class bell rings. It ends with mastering a concept. And to do that, I want my children to do homework.