Homework: Adversarial Relationships?

12/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"Poppy,I need help tonight on science and history -- do you have time?"

What grandparent could resist that lovely smile and face. Her dad was the math whiz so he helped her with that. My daughter with a degree in psychology didn't believe we should be helping her that much. I agreed, but as a Supervising Teacher for a major university, I knew what homework was like these days.

I looked over her science assignment. It was a high school sophomore text and it dealt with genetics. I had read a book on evolution a few months earlier by a noted scientist and it was easier than this text. My son-in-law with an IQ over 160 just shook his head and said he was glad his part was math.

I discussed the chapter with Arriell, but it was obvious she was lost. I asked her why she had left class before she understood the chapter and homework. She replied that she thought she did, but when she got home she realized she didn't.

I knew that this often happens. Some don't get it at all, but are too afraid to ask questions so say nothing. Others think they get it, but find that understanding it during a lecture is a much different set of skills than actually doing something with the information. It's why I tell teachers to talk a little, then put the class in pairs or triads with each trying to explain to others what was just said. They either grasp the concept or can ask a clarifying question. The teacher answers these before she goes on.

This was not happening in Arriell's classes. Her friends who didn't get help at home were doing five plus hours of homework each night. I thought of those who didn't get any help, but were not as bright as Arriell and her friends. It is one reason for the massive dropout rates in poorer communities. It made me angry -- again.

I'd seen Arriell in tears before when she was totally overwhelmed by the amount of homework. Her mother and father had a violent argument about it. Mom stated she didn't organize herself properly and wasted time doing "her" things, dad thought it was too much with all her extra curricular activities and she deserved help.

I watched and it proved my stance on homework. It creates an adversarial relationship between the parents, between the parents and child, and between the family and the teacher. For years I refused to give homework for that reason and more.

The alleged purpose of homework is to reinforce some concept or skill that has been taught and learned well enough for the child to do it without parental help. Another is to teach responsibility.

Obviously, neither is happening. The homework is given to cover material that the teacher doesn't have time to teach or hasn't taught in proper depth. This is due to mandated sequences that don't take into consideration the class or teacher so limits the teacher's autonomy (power).

I finally gave homework, but only on things I knew each child could do. If they couldn't I didn't punish them, but changed the homework. If they didn't do what I knew they could do, we handled it without including the parents. I took parents out of the homework picture.

I suggested that they to do things with their child that they enjoyed. I wanted the child to have a childhood away from school. It was my job to teach the curriculum. It was the parents' job to love and teach their child whatever extra they wanted or could do. The homework was between the child and me. I found ways to negotiate with them and apply leverages that fit each child and I had the highest rate of returned homework.

I didn't abuse but shared power and everyone was much less stressed, happier, and more effective!

Another useful article is:

"Is Homework Working?"
By: Lisa Mangione
Publication: Phi Delta Kappan
Date: April 2008