5 Reasons Why Elementary Schools Assign Homework

A new article in Slate explores the reasons why kindergartners and first-graders are bringing home an average of 30 minutes of homework a night. Well, not exactly. The real purpose of the article was to examine the measured value of homework to five and six-year-olds (hint: there is none) but intertwined throughout the piece is a list of reasons why homework is assigned in the first place. They include:

  1. To teach “time management and self-regulation skills”
  2. Providing a parental check-in on what’s going on at school
  3. Inspire parent-child communication
  4. An alternative to screen time
  5. To reinforce what is learned in the classroom in accordance with NCLB and Common Core

Read between the lines and you get a picture of a government-funded institution’s attempt at social engineering. Time management and self-regulation are the hallmarks of a culture that places a quantitative value on time; this is career prep at the age of five. Both the “alternative to screen time” and “communication between parents and children” assert the school’s role in the administration of students’ private lives. The parental check-in is simple: Just enough information to keep the concerned and involved ones at bay. The majority of parents are satisfied with the “educational reinforcement” idea, but it’s pure branding; research indicates that homework does not impact improvement in academic performance among elementary students.

Observations on homework impacting the general health and well-being of students are anecdotal, but share a common trend: The more homework young kids get, the more miserable they are. Turns out, so are parents. Homework, it would seem, has become “a source of family tension.”

“I’ve talked to parents—a lot of parents, actually—who feel very burdened by the fact that kids have to do homework at night, and the parents feel responsible for getting it done, and that starts to dominate the home life,” says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early-childhood education specialist at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the author of Taking Back Childhood.

The average parent works until roughly 5 p.m.; assuming dinnertime is 6 p.m. and bedtime is roughly 8 p.m., that leaves a solid hour for homework. A solid hour that falls at the end of a busy day, right before bedtime when both children and parents are tired and wired. Not exactly the optimal time to start work of any kind. Forget academic acumen or technological access; the time crunch to get homework done is enough to drive any parent over the edge. It is also a great way to keep parents too busy fulfilling requirements to bother questioning the requirements themselves.

When I managed student registration for a diverse public school system a mother who had recently emigrated from India asked me for a required reading list for her incoming kindergartner. A few weeks later an Indian-American family moved into our district. When I asked the quiet third-grader what she liked best about school her father quickly interjected in a thick accent, “Science and math! She loves science and math!” The girl simply stared at the floor. Later in that same year I met a younger Indian couple that was thrilled to have just moved to America. “We just want our daughter to enjoy school,” they explained. “We don’t want her to experience the same academic pressures we did. That was miserable.” The cultural expectation of academic achievement had pushed them both to become successful scientists. However, they both paid a serious price in terms of physical, mental and emotional health along the way.

The bottom line when it comes to homework isn’t how much, but what is the goal? What is your goal for your child’s education? If homework fulfills that goal then it won’t be a burden for you to help out. But, if homework doesn’t suit your goal, don’t get so caught up in the process that you fail to remember that you are the one in charge.

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