Published Online: September 25, 2006
Published in Print: September 27, 2006, as Homework Truths


Homework Truths

Debating—and Expanding—Alfie Kohn’s Commentary

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To the Editor:

From the title and tone of Alfie Kohn’s Commentary ("The Truth About Homework," Sept. 6, 2006), one would think that he believes he has put this controversy to rest for all time. If this were so, the editors should have put it on the front page, not the back.

But after reading this loud and overstated essay, who is convinced by Mr. Kohn’s take on the research he cites, much less by the volumes he fails to mention? Does it truly read like an essay going after the truth?

Mr. Kohn’s emphasis on rote learning and behaviorism is seriously dated and shows little appreciation for contemporary instructional practice. But his essay’s biases are best revealed in Mr. Kohn’s dogmatism and imperious tone. He belittles teachers, suggesting that they show “a lack of respect for children” and see students as “vending machines,” and describes teachers as being “wedded to folk wisdom.” Ultimately, any high school senior could discern that Mr. Kohn is not going for the truth and has not honestly engaged the research for its real value, namely the questions it raises—questions that might have been brought to an honest forum about how to assist learning.

Education Week should have rejected this quackery for what it is: a self-serving pitch to sell a book. What were you thinking?

Richard Waters
Retired Teacher
North Plainfield, N.J.

To the Editor:

The title of Alfie Kohn’s Commentary is unfortunate. Despite his statistics, there is no one “truth” about homework. I question his blanket condemnation and his assumption that students, unless in the presence of a teacher, can do little or no creative thinking, reflecting, practicing, reading, or writing on their own.

As it happens, my school’s faculty just spent some time examining homework assignments. We looked at them critically, asking ourselves whether they are worth doing. Though we did come across a worksheet or two, we also found that the vast majority of the homework helps students build good study habits, which are then reinforced in the classroom. They ask students to make connections between texts and their own lives; to think hard about a concept explored in class and restate and apply it; or to begin to use a foreign language at home. To be able to do these, students have to read, revise, and practice persistence.

The majority of my school’s students are woefully behind in their skill development and exposure to a strong knowledge base. They and their parents, many of whom are new to this country, want a rich diet of schooling. These students do not head off to private music or art lessons after school or participate in community athletics. They return home to play video games or watch TV, largely unsupervised.

I have read most of Mr. Kohn’s books and have taught some of them to other educators. But I wish he would take a year off from writing and spend it in one school with one set of students and teachers. I think he would then be ready to write another book about the many “truths” of homework.

Paula M. Evans
Community Charter School of Cambridge
Cambridge, Mass.

To the Editor:

While I agree that educational practice should be informed by current research, I must respond to a couple of points in “The Truth About Homework.”

First, there is a difference between homework assigned and homework completed. At my school, students who transfer in from other schools are shocked when teachers insist that homework be done. Here, we say that it is not a question of “if” homework is completed, it is just a question of “when and where.” Research that looks at the amount of assigned homework may very well fail to find a relationship between it and student learning.

Second, I agree completely that homework, if poorly designed, can have undesirable effects. But not all homework is poorly designed. My school requires reading homework for every student every night, but not of the skill-and-drill variety. The assignment is simply to read or be read to (for the youngest students) for 30 minutes nightly. The books are of the students’ choosing, and are also read during sustained silent reading in school. Schools used to be able to assume that parents would read to their young children, but we now know that we cannot take that for granted.

Another common homework assignment given to our students is practicing math facts. Students do this to increase fluency, but only until they can demonstrate mastery.

I have little doubt that my school’s reasonable and meaningful homework assignments and our expectation of accountability for completing them are related to our students’ achievements. We serve an urban, minority population in the poorest city in the country, but are the only charter school in Ohio to be rated “excellent” for the last three years based on outstanding reading- and math-test scores.

Alfie Kohn is one of my heroes, but this time I have to disagree with him.

Catherine C. Whitehouse
Founder and Principal/Chief Educator
The Intergenerational School
Cleveland, Ohio

To the Editor:

Alfie Kohn is on to something. I cite my school, Falmouth Academy, as an example of one in accordance with his ideals. The purpose of homework at Falmouth, which emphasizes reading and writing, is to reinforce problem-solving skills, foster imaginative thinking, and prepare students for meaningful class discussion the next day. Homework is not simply time-consuming busywork or a rote repetition of material already presented and reviewed in class.

For our middle school students, the bulk of each night’s homework is to read. A portion of this reading is always of the students’ choice. The objective of this nightly assignment is to create a growing appreciation for literature and literacy in our students, improve their vocabulary, and encourage our younger students to start thinking abstractly about what they read. In our upper grades, homework focuses heavily on writing, as we believe practice does make better writers. These assignments require editing one’s own work and honing one’s arguments.

This may be a point of divergence from Mr. Kohn’s perspective—we feel that the more students write and edit (at school or at home), the better writers they become. But I do applaud Mr. Kohn’s encouragement for educators to evaluate the purpose and the results of the nightly work they send home with their students.

David Faus
Falmouth Academy
Falmouth, Mass.

Vol. 26, Issue 05, Page 32

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