The Triumph of the Homework Police

I think parents helping with, managing, or even doing their kids homework is a big untold story of how many families cope today with keeping their kids “in the game” of conventional school. So when it at times crosses the line from parents helping to parents doing, is that cheating or is it just what you have to do sometimes to help your stressed out kid survive and navigate the institution? And doesn’t what seems to be a fairly common practice (at least around the circle of parents that I know) favor the kids who have parents that are academically talented, have the time to spend their evenings assisting their kids, and are driven by one reason or another to have their kids be judged as successful (rather than necessarily be successful) at school?

When I was in elementary school in the 1960s, we did not have a lot of homework, so I was blessed to have my afterschool time as my own, to do with as I pleased. I had time to read many wonderful books and pursue all the things of interest to me that I could not do at school. I don’t recall my parents ever being concerned about or managing my production of homework, though they would always help me if I explicitly asked them for help.

For example, when I did occasionally have a large written assignment to do, I would generally not want to do it, and would invariably put it off to the last moment. Then a day or two before the due date, I would start writing what I wanted to be a comprehensive, well-written report, but would realize that I had not left myself the time to make my wish a reality. My dad, the college English professor, would invariably see me struggling at the typewriter, and would volunteer to “help me” by writing some of the sections of my report and/or agreeing to “retype” (rewrite) my final draft. My dad assisted me in this way rather than by being the “homework police” like I and many of my parent peers would later be to our kids.

So if I got an “A” on my paper, due to my dad’s help, and my classmate got a “C” for work done on his own, weren’t my dad and I cheating the academic ranking system implied by these letter grades? Wasn’t I falsely claiming the self-esteem that went with my teacher’s glowing appraisal of my report? You would think the teachers must have suspected, but they never commented and always gave me top grades for my dad’s work. And what does it say about our competitive academic environment that I would rather cheat than learn and my dad would be more than willing to make it happen?

Now I have been a parent myself and interacted with many of my peers playing this same role, and from my experience, I think that parents managing their kids’ homework and test preparation has become fairly commonplace among middle-class families. I have close friends who routinely do homework with their kids, to the point where it has become a multi-hour nightly project for the parent-student team, managed by the parent to ensure the quality of the product that is turned in the next day, with hopefully more of the legwork done by the actual student. But if the kids run out of steam or get bored and their minds shut down, the parents are there to make sure the work somehow gets completed and the assignment is properly turned in and that check mark in the teacher’s grading book is received. From the way these parents tell it, and the snippets I have seen when I have visited them, it is a stressful experience for both youth and adult.

I feel like these parents are determined to, and even take pride in, exercising their skills and spending their precious free evening hours to ensure that their kids can navigate the increasingly difficult and often uninteresting requirements of school. To fail to do so risks their kids becoming frustrated with the tedium, giving up, and being evaluated and ranked poorly by the now high-stakes educational institutions and endangering their chances of achieving positions of power and prestige in adult society.

I have certainly been there myself. Our son Eric always hated homework and in the later elementary grades started refusing to do all but the few assignments he actually found interesting. I would badger, cajole, and try to motivate him with rewards, generally to no avail. He would tell me over and over that he did not mind his time spent at school, since he found most of the material interesting and liked interacting with the other youth and even most of the teachers. But when it came to doing additional schoolwork at home, that crossed a line and was a total imposition on time that should be his own. I could never come up with a good counter to that, since I cherished having my own time outside of work hours, and I was never one driven to spend all my waking hours trying to move up the economic ladder.

In a middle school science class, Eric was doing fine listening to the teacher in class and then getting good grades on the tests. But many of the other kids were failing the tests, so in order to keep the majority of his students from failing science, the teacher changed his grading system, assigned homework every week, and made it half the grade. That way, even the kids who failed the tests, if they turned in all their homework, would get a passing grade and the teacher could avoid failing the bulk of his students.

So Eric, who was previously getting an A in the class based on test scores, did not turn in the homework because he thought it was pointless for him because he knew the material based on his participation in class. So he got a zero on fifty percent of his grade and went from an A to a D in science. He didn’t care because he was totally internally motivated, but the school cared and was threatening to sanction him from doing the after school drama activities at the school that he loved.

His issues with homework and refusal to do it eventually soured his participation in school and his relationship with most of his teachers to the point where he would resist getting up in the morning and going to school (which eventually led to us pulling him out). In a desperate attempt to keep him in this institution, I ended up doing a significant percentage of his homework assignments for him, with a nagging feeling that the whole thing was not right, but trying to rationalize it as the only way to keep him in school.

On the other hand, the alternative school where my partner Sally used to work as the school counselor explicitly told parents not to help their kids with their homework assignments. The teachers never graded the homework, and truly just wanted to see what level of work the kid could do on their own at home so they could see how to help them gain competency at whatever the skill was being learned. Many parents could not stand this policy and the homework would come in perfect, in syntax, spelling, etc., obviously not the kid’s own work.

So among other things, this begs a question. Are all us parents who spend all these hours doing homework with (or for) our kids gaming the system, and giving our kids a leg up on the kids with parents who, for economic or other reasons, are unable or unwilling to devote those hours every evening to share the stress and help their kids produce high-quality high-stakes homework? Is it worth the time and effort to do what we can to ensure that our kids have successful outcomes to move them along the standard academic path?

I think we are gaming the system! How can the kid from an economically disadvantaged family, whose parents may not have the academic proficiency or the time to spend hours every night helping their kids with homework, compete successfully in this competitive high-stakes learning environment? Is this what educational leaders are lamenting when they say that “parental involvement” makes a critical difference in the success or failure of a kid in conventional school? Is this a key to the dilemma with so many schools in poor neighborhoods not having kids pass muster on all the high-stakes testing?

And when it comes to the high-stakes college entrance tests, kids from these same well-to-do families generally have access to the extensive informal test prep help from their parents and/or expensive private test prep classes and tutoring which I read is becoming a burgeoning industry. How much is too much to spend to assure that your kid gets into a prestigious higher education institution? And what about the rest of the kids who don’t have this advantage?

The one positive thing that No Child Left Behind might inadvertently accomplish, in my opinion, is to bring to light this very unfair situation, and maybe force us to rethink the entire education process for our youth.

6 replies on “The Triumph of the Homework Police”

  1. You should watch “Race to Nowhere” a documentary film by a working mother who noticed similar educational trends you point out. Here’s the website to see a trailer of the film:

    Also check out Sara Bennett’s blog: to see how people all over the nation are re-examining accepted homework practices and related issues.

  2. I totally agree with the author. This is a dilemma that every parent has to face. While homework is important to the student, we cannot refute the fact that it does encroach on the free time of the student. I think the best approach for parents would be to help the child when he is facing a heavy workload, but to leave him to his own devices when it is just regular one. Parents need to understand when the workload is genuinely heavy, and when it is the result of procrastination. Don’t help your child with the physical aspects of homework- that s writing, typing or finding out more on a topic, instead, help him out by motivation and appreciation for the hard work he is putting in!

  3. I, too, did not have very much homework in elementary school, at least not until 5th and 6th grades, but even then, it was pretty minimal. I remember doing special projects and hauling out our ancient electric typewriter! Oh, those were the days! I wrote reports on Hawaii, Africa, and even wrote my tell-all autobiography, “A Lifestyle of a Middle-Class and Not-So-Famous Girl?!” from 1986. I even dedicated the autobiography to my favorite teacher, Mrs. Kohnen (wow, what a kiss-up!).

    My parents never helped me with homework. I think I can count on one hand the times I asked my father to help me with math (not that he wouldn’t, I just never asked very often). I had a friend in middle school who often came over to my house after school to help me with algebra. I’ve, unfortunately, fallen prey to helping my son in the past, but this year, both my husband and I are trying the “taking a step back” approach and letting the chips fall where they may. We monitor that he does his work and let him know where mistakes are made, but in no way do we do any of his homework for him. I honestly think that he needs to do it for himself so that he can get the grade for what he does. You get as good as you give, in my honest opinion. Putting in the effort is so important and it’s something that my son struggles with. But at the end of the day, if he receives a B- on something, he earned the B- because that’s how much effort he put into the project or homework. His grades really don’t have anything to do with how bright he is, but how willing he is to put time into things. It’s a valuable lesson.

    This is my overarching philosophy in my community college classes. I tell my students that they earn their grades, I don’t give them grades. If one doesn’t study for an exam, well, then how can one expect that they will receive a good evaluation? If we look at school like a job, half my students would be fired for the poor job they are doing. I told my students something the other day after one of them asked about participation counting in his grade. I told them all that I have the power to bump their grade up if they’re only a few points from the next grade when they come to class, have things to say, turn in their homework and have a good attitude. I don’t play favorites, but when someone is making a concerted effort to learn what I am teaching, then I am more than willing re-evaluate their performance based on whether or not they earned a better grade. Say what you will about grades, they are not going anywhere anytime soon, so I’m just working within the system that I have to work in, but I’m trying to be as fair as possible, especially since everyone learns in different ways.

  4. Kerry… thanks for the link to the stophomework blog… I read a few of the posts and it looks very thoughtful and provocative. For some reason, my browser just does not want to let me play the video of the film trailer.

    I myself would have preferred an educational environment for my kids that minimized homework, letting the kids control more of their own time, but I can understand that other parents would like to see their kids in learning environments where they were expected to focus on their school studies even in their own time.

  5. help with homework… thanks for sharing your thoughts on this very provocative issue. Even though I may not have let on in my piece, I am not a very big homework person. If I were picking a school for my kids, or creating one myself, it would probably be one with very little homework. I would hope for a learning environment that was so compelling that kids would come home from it so jazz with what they discovered that they would explore things themselves at home, tho not required to do so. Otherwise, let them have their own time to explore their own interests and not get into this whole negative dynamic with their parents on getting required assignments done each night.

  6. Emily… I like you believe very strongly in letting kids sink or swim on their own. But hopefully your son has the opportunity to choose a school or other learning environment that he is comfortable with and not one, that by circumstance, is thrust upon him and features (like possibly lots of homework) that he is highly uncomfortable with. If it is truly his choice, then the homework is also truly his problem, and being his choice, he will figure out how to resolve it.

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