Cathy Vatterott is an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. A former middle school teacher and principal, Vatterott learned first-hand about homework struggles as the parent of a child with learning disabilities. Today, her son is a successful college student and she is known as “the homework lady.” She earned the title after years of research and writing about homework. She has presented on the topic to over 6,000 educators and parents in the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Her most recent book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs (ASCD, 2009), details a differentiated approach to homework—one that can serve teachers, students, and parents. Vatterott believes that homework needn’t stretch into the wee hours of the night, and that teachers shouldn’t take a punitive stance against unfinished homework. In fact, Vatterott sees incomplete homework as a crucial window for teachers into the academic and personal needs of students. She also sees an important role for parents in providing feedback to teachers on the struggles of their children to complete homework.
We spoke to Vatterott about her homework philosophy and why too much homework can bring about academic failure.
Are you opposed to homework?
I’m not at all opposed to the idea of homework. I’m opposed to homework that is excessive. I like the 10-minute rule, which is recommended by the Parent Teachers Association and the National Education Association, that kids should have no more than 10 minutes of homework per grade level, per night. In other words, a 1st grader should only have 10 minutes and a 5th grader should have 50 minutes, and so on. To me, that’s a good guideline. It’s also consistent with the research that shows that for kids who do more than that amount of work, their achievement actually goes down because they get burned out. They get tired. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the same for every kid. You’ve got kids that are very focused, who really enjoy doing their homework. They might be able to work longer.
The biggest parent misconception is that a lot of homework is a sign of rigor. A lot of times, parents are like, “If they don’t do all of this work, they’re not going to get into Harvard.” Actually, the research doesn’t support that a lot of homework does any good.
In some ways, there are shades of Ruby Payne—whose focus is on poverty’s impact in the classroom—in your book. Specifically, you address how some educators attach their own negative, personal attitudes about social class to students who don’t complete their homework. How does this play out?
I think when students don’t complete their homework, it’s easy to blame the student or the parent without really examining what valid reasons there might be for the homework not being completed. Students may not be able to do homework because of home conditions or family responsibilities, not because they are lazy or irresponsible. When teachers fail to understand how poverty or other circumstances can interfere with homework, there can be a tendency to make moral judgments about the student and the parent.
How does poverty interfere with homework?
It’s not uncommon that kids who live in poverty don’t have a quiet place to work. For instance, where I live, it’s not uncommon for there to be a family of five living in a two bedroom apartment. There’s no quiet place to work. There is no desk. There are no materials. Like when teachers say, “Oh, go home and cut pictures out of a magazine and then put them together for this.” They don’t have magazines. That’s part of it, but the other part is that children of poverty often have lots of responsibilities at home.
An example that I give is of a teacher who said a 9th grade student told her, “My mom won’t let me do homework.” And the teacher said, “What do you mean?” And the student responded, “Well, when I get home I have to babysit my brothers and sisters, then I have to cook dinner, and then I have to give them a bath. And then it’s time for me to go to bed.”
And so when you look at kids in poverty, that’s a scenario. When you get to middle school, high school, those kids are making money. They’re working to help feed the family. And so they’re not doing homework. You also have the population of ELL kids. They get home and their parents don’t speak English. There’s no help available if they need help. I think those are things that people don’t often consider when they look at kids in poverty.
What advice do you have for teachers in these circumstances?
In the book, I have a homework schedule card where the kids write down what they do after school, what they’re supposed to do after school, and what responsibilities they have. If the homework is not getting done, investigate why instead of punishing the kids.
You also suggest involving parents in the homework process, including completing questionnaires about how long it takes their children to complete homework assignments. Why is that important?
The parent is the best source of information about what’s really going on with homework. Parents can help teachers diagnose whether the work is too hard or too lengthy and can alert teachers to other factors.
What other factors?
In addition to academic issues, the parents also know if it’s an organizational issue—for example, if the kid says, “I did it, but I can’t find it.” Or, if the kid is really frustrated or they’ve got a lot of other activities going on that are competing with homework. But then there can also be personal things, like does this kid have an anxiety problem? Are there things going on in the family where this kid is depressed?
The parents know if there’s this horrible thing going on in the family. Their child’s favorite aunt is sick. It’s a young kid and their grandmother’s in the hospital dying. Stuff like that that teachers don’t necessarily know, that parents can communicate back and say, here’s what’s going on with my kid right now and why they’re having trouble focusing. That is helpful to a teacher.
How do you get a parent to comply with a questionnaire, especially when the family could be coping with some of the issues you mention that might be influencing a student’s ability to complete work?
You may not be able to get that from the parent. You may have to make a phone call and ask them questions. Yes, sometimes it is hard to get that feedback from the parents. And you may have to just go on the feedback from the kid.
I never understood why we punished kids because their parents didn’t sign something. Is that really the kid’s fault? Or, is it that the parent just didn’t sign it?
You don’t believe that homework instills discipline in children; in fact, you stress that homework can negatively affect students’ attitudes, their college admissions’ test scores, even their admission to college itself. How does this happen?
When students are repeatedly given homework tasks that are too hard for them, frustrations build and students can start to hate learning. When kids are that frustrated, they basically just shut down. We’ve learned about that from brain research. We’ve known that frustration shuts down kids’ learning. And we know psychologically that’s what they do to protect themselves.
You’ve got kids who were fine in school and all of a sudden they start getting a lot of homework in the 3rd or 4th grade and all of a sudden they’re starting to say they hate school and that’s a little scary. What if what we’re doing here—the overloading of kids or the giving kids things they can’t do—is causing them to hate to school?
No one wants to do something that repeatedly makes them feel stupid. Students may decide it’s less painful not to do the homework. When we give students failing grades for not completing homework, it further de-motivates them and may make them feel like they are a failure in school. Failing grades in homework often lead to failing course grades which lead to a lower GPA which can make students less competitive for college admissions. Students who give up and stop doing homework may be shortchanging their own development of knowledge and skills, which in turn can cause them to do poorly on college admissions tests.