This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, Vol. 3, Issue 2, 1989, pp. 27-28. Appears here with premission.
Dear Rabbi, Mrs. and Ms.,
We are very concerned by what appears to us as an excessive amount of homework assigned to our second grader. It has taken her an hour to complete her collective homework assignments daily and after that she has had to study for a test every other day. Do you think it’s fair for a child to have to prepare for both tests and homework on the same night? Don’t you think you are over testing? Could you coordinate, coordinate, coordinate…
I am sure the literature book your teacher is using in the sixth grade is a ninth grade book, my child doesn’t understand a word of it! Change books! It is not my job to teach my child. Furthermore, I do not want to do his homework with him. I’ve already been through sixth grade; I don’t want to go through it again. Please give this matter your immediate attention. My child is failing, failing, failing…
The issue of quality and quantity of homework and parents’ responsibility toward its successful completion consistently plagues the educational system, teacher-child-parent-administrator. Homework weighs heavily in secular private schools and even more heavily in the day school, for in these institutions advancing the curriculum often seems predicated on intense parental involvement in homework.
A friend, herself an Ivy League Ph.D., recently asked me for some critical materials on Hamlet which her tenth grader, a student in a private school, might find comprehensible. Rolling her eyes upward, my friend complained that her next few evenings would be consumed with helping her daughter write a critical paper.
“My parents never helped me with homework, and I never even thought to ask; Did yours?” she asked me.
“G-d forbid…they didn’t even speak English,” was my answer.
So what is happening to our children? Why do they need so much help, and why do we help them so much? The answer is both simple and complex. Almost from the moment of birth of their children, parents are advised in articles, books, and by schools to read to them, to ask them questions, to play math games on car trips and the like. Parents often feel intimidated into working with their children to prepare them to excel. It is natural then, that once in school, private school/day school children continue to be well prepared because their parents continue to be involved. Homework assignments are perfect or close to it – they have been checked and reviewed at home, and questions are most likely answered by the parent rather than by the teacher. And the product that the teacher sees allows for some interesting, potentially inaccurate conclusions. The class is bright; time is short – let’s plunge ahead and add even more complicated material. Furthermore, our schools are often judged by how advanced our texts are, and in some schools, textbook selection is automatically advanced by at least one grade level in every subject area because it looks good. It is a good recruitment tool. For the average child, this means additional support from parent, tutor or both if the child is to maintain at least average grades.
In day school, where there are two distinct disciplines and at least eight solid subjects taught daily, moving quickly is a must if the curriculum is to be covered. This, of necessity, demands some parental involvement. A realistic pace and appropriate emphases are then important considerations for both teachers and administrators. Maintaining that pace, however, becomes a formidable obstacle for day school parents who have trouble reading and understanding Hebrew and therefore may be almost totally unequipped to handle homework in Chumash. What is a parent to do to assure that the child succeeds? Is it not more appropriate to ask what the school or teacher is to do for the child to succeed?
What are our responsibilities as teachers and administrators in terms of homework? The following may prove helpful:
1. Are the home works assigned at the appropriate grade level and are they being completed by the student? Have the children been taught the independent research skills necessary to complete the assigned research paper? Is the topic manageable for the given age group? Have we provided enough in-class writing opportunities to know for certain whether the children have the skills to write their own paper or whether they must resort to parental prose? These questions are equally applicable for secular as well as Judaic assignments.
2. Are the homework assignments interesting and creative? Do they challenge and excite the students? Can one assignment encompass several subject areas simultaneously? Is it possible to combine math and social studies as, for example, in teaching the political process, the electoral college, number of state delegates to a political convention, as well simultaneously review a concept taught in class?
3. Are the long range assignments, particularly at the lower levels, actually enhancing a child’s learning, or are they P.R. vehicles for the school? What are our goals when we assign Torah Fair or Science Fair projects that add many hours to an already cumbersome homework load? Who actually does most of the project, the parent or the child?
4. Are we offering homework help in school? Is there a teacher who will provide the time to help with homework in Chumash or Navi, especially when there is little or no possibility for parental involvement?
5. Is there life after school? Is it possible for a day school child to simultaneously maintain an A/B average and a serious commitment to harp, piano, team sports, art, or gymnastics? Do the number of hours of school and homework deny children this possibility, and does the day school then lose these children before high school?
6. Are teachers from various departments at the given grade level meeting to discuss weekly, monthly homework and test plans? Are they meeting to discuss the needs of individual children? Are homework assignments ever individualized?
7. Are teachers in the elementary school issuing the weekly homework assignments on Monday, in writing, thereby enabling families to plan study times and library trips?
8. Are the assignments clearly stated, typed, and based on what has actually been taught in class?
9. Is each teacher aware that he or she is not the child’s only teacher and that his or her assignment is not the only assignment? Does each teacher actually believe this?
10. Are schools making parents fearful of having their children admit that they do not know? Are we forcing parents to compete with parents on behalf of their children?
11. And so on…
There is no doubt that, with very few exceptions, the most successful day school child is the one whose parents help. It seems clear that in the day school it cannot be otherwise. But when the parent must become the teacher, then the teacher and school have failed.
Dear Respectfully and Sincerely,
Thank you for writing. In second grade we don’t think an hour of homework is too much, but that should include test study time. You have every right to expect your child’s teachers to coordinate … You also have every right to expect the teacher to help your child understand the central concepts in a literary work as well as develop a love of literature. Your child may want to discuss a work with you – but with ideas and understanding to match and challenge yours. Keep writing and asking. You are your child’s best friend and greatest advocate. We will listen, listen, and where appropriate we will change, change, change…
DR. FELDMAN is principal of General Studies at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh. She has written curriculum for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, supervised elementary and high school teaching candidates for the University of Pittsburgh, and frequently serves as the educational consultant.