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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Homework Debate: An Open Letter to Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean Kathleen McCartney

From Roy J. Watson, Jr., Co-Chair, Bedford, Massachusetts SEPAC

I am forwarding below an email that I sent to Kathleen McCartney, the Dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

Our Pac (Bedford SEPAC) believes that "Homework" is - in addition to a serious concern for regular ed kids - a legitimate special ed concern.

As I explained in my email, my son is automatically given extra time to take a test, but how are they going to give him extra time to do his homework?

I am so sick of fighting with these narrow minded bureaucrats who blindly impose "rigid" rules.

I would like to organize some group around the issue of homework. If you are up for it, please read what I wrote and feel free to contact me if anyone is interested in trying to move forward on this issue. Thanks.


Begin forwarded message:

From: ROY WATSON <rjw@watson-law.com>
Subject: Homework
Date: February 26, 2013 6:52:16 PM EST

To: hgsedean@gse.harvard.edu

Hi, Dean McCartney:

I am writing to express some concern with the issue of Homework, and the apparent lack of any attention to this issue at the Ed school. By way of full disclosure, I am co-chair of the Bedford Special Education Parents Advisory Council (Sepac), and the issue of homework is something that we feel applies to ALL students, but one that has a special impact on children with special needs.

I spent a considerable amount of time trying to find something on your school's website that addressed the issue of homework, and even more time calling various departments and several of the numbers listed. Each and every person with whom I spoke appeared - at best - bewildered by my call and my questions. All were flawlessly polite, but no one seemed to think that the role that homework had any relevance to your school. While it may - or may not - play a role in educating a child, it certainly was not an issue of concern and it certainly is not something that your school has any interest in addressing.

When I pointed out that there appear to be teachers listed in your faculty who have at least (peripherally) addressed the issue of homework, the general suggestion was that while it had nothing to do with your school, I might reach out to that individual if I wished, but that is was not an "education" issue that was any concern to the school.


My son has been diagnosed with a severe problem relating to Executive Function (EF). My son has also been tested out to be extraordinarily bright. Our school - especially in the middle and high school - has severe policies with respect to tying homework to grades.

Simply stated, my son - who wins regional awards in some areas - has actually failed courses even when his test scores for the final exam were 90%, but his homework was zero. The school automatically gives my son "extra" (up to double) time to complete tests. Why? Because they "accept" that as being legally required because of his condition.

He needs this extra time to "level the playing field" and be "equal" to other students.

Unfortunately, the school shrugs off all of my observations that he is the SAME person when he comes home from school at night. An assignment that takes an "average" student one hour, will take my son a minimum of two and often three or four or more. (As I have also pointed out, there are more "distractions" in my house than in the school environment.)

These rules are so rigidly enforced that in some cases my son completed the assignment, but "forgot" that it was in the bottom of his school bag. "Too bad! No exceptions!!" Why should homework be elevated to such a critical level? Why should he be given additional flexibility for something that is presumptively as important as a final exam, but inflexibly "punished" for homework? Is homework more important to learning than a final exam?

How does it measure what we have learned and achieved in a given subject?

The more specific question is why homework at all, and especially why does homework become a percentage (typically 20% or more) of the grade? I am new to this issue, but the preliminary research that have have done suggests that there are strong and compelling augments that homework rarely if ever improves education. (It can improve "rote" learning is very limited cases and for a limited duration, but is that learning?)

There is a reflexive (near religious) belief that homework "helps." Why? I have now read half a dozen books, the most compelling of which (Note: The Homework Myth) is by Alfie Kohn, that concludes (among many things) that there is NO rigorous, legitimate study that supports homework as a benefit to learning.

Further, a number of countries have abolished homework, most recently France. Our own school systems have cycled through NOT having homework, having it, not having it and we are now in a cycle - unsupported by any legitimate or rigorous study (such as might perhaps be carried out by your school) - that supports the proposition that homework benefits students. Nevertheless, even asking the question is tantamount to heresy.

Where is Harvard on this issue?

More importantly, I would argue that homework has the exact OPPOSITE effect on students to the "stated" goal that proponents claim it accomplishes. By forcing any student to spend additional hours and hours to complete (often mindless and mind numbing) tasks that "must" be completed or else one is "punished," drives away any incentive to read, to study, to research and explore a topic of interest. The student does not have the time to pursue anything that might possibly inspire learning or interest them. They MUST finish the homework!!

Another issue, given all of the attention that is paid to learning is the issue of "How much training does ANY school of education provide to their students (who will go out and be teachers who are almost exclusively in control of all aspects of homework) on this presumptively "critical" tool for learning called Homework?" If homework is so important and so vital to the educational process, then should there not be at least ONE course of study on it? I find none in your school catalogue.

While my review was not exhaustive, I did not see anything that suggested you had a course that focused on this supposedly critical aspect of learning. You have everything from Methods of Educational Measurement to Models of Excellence, but nowhere can I find a course on HOMEWORK. Should this not be part of your curriculum? Should you not be teaching the best educators in the world about this thing that will become such an important part of the curriculum of almost all of them?

What kind of homework should one give to a student for a given subject? How much homework is sufficient to allow the student to better learn what was already covered in class? How does one "grade" homework? Should homework be graded? What benefits are obtained with repetitive questions? Perhaps we should just look at the reality. In the overwhelming majority of cases, my experience is that the teacher just "copies" the questions that are provided by the text book publishers.

I can train my dog to bark on queue, but is that educating? Where is the inspiration? Where is the love of learning? It is certainly NOT found in homework.

I am a parent struggling to raise my children as well rounded, educated and emotionally stable human beings. Yet, if my child develops a history of not finishing homework, I am the one who is often blamed for failing to "work with" my child.

You know and I know that I am not qualified to "work with" my child. If I were, then we would not need educated and skilled teachers with teaching degrees. Since I am not trained as an educator, why is it that I am "required" to "work with" my child? What is my role?

Truthfully? I am the jailer who forces my child to complete mind numbing tasks that eat up the precious time he should otherwise have for sports, art, music, relaxation and - dare I say it? - exploring subjects that actually interest him. If I were not constantly harassing him about whether his homework was done, maybe he and I might be better able to bond. Why should my son have to settle for mediocre grades (because he knows that he will lose so many points from homework that the best he can do - getting perfect scores on his tests - will be a B? I reject my role as jailer.

I want my son to be inspired and excited by education, not beaten down and forced to "conform." I lived through 1984, and Orwell was wrong.

We had hoped to ask someone at the Ed school to consider coming out to speak to our group, and possibly inviting a number of other Sepacs to join us in what we hoped would be an educational and enlightening presentation on homework. However, the message that was left in my office by the only person who was willing to call me back essentially said she could not address any of my questions or any of my issues. The Harvard Graduate School of Education did not do anything regarding homework and there was nothing she could do to help me pursue this issue. Why? Or, perhaps more accurately, Why not? While she did graciously add that I could call her - if I wished - she made it clear that this was NOT something your school "did."

If homework is valid, then it strikes me that your school should be providing solid training for the people who - by default - assign and control homework in the schools. If it is not valid, who better than Harvard to take a stand on this? Should you not take one stand or the other?

My apologies for reaching out to you personally. It was not my intent when I first went to your website. My expectation was that I would find faculty members who were world famous experts on this issue and possibly ask them (or a "bright" student they might recommend) to come and speak to us. The more I read on this topic, the more I am convinced that it is damaging to students, and I would love to find an influential group - such as yours - that might wish to take up this issue.

Either way, I believe my questions are legitimate, especially why it is so much a part of education and the educational process, but it is missing from your curriculum (and the curricula of every other school I have checked).

I respect that you are more than busy with many pressing issues, but I would appreciate a response at your convenience. Thank you.

Roy J. Watson, Jr.



NOTE: We have invited Dean McCartney to respond here.



  1. My reaction to Mr. Watson's letter is mostly but not entirely positive. Based on what I've heard from my clients over the years, the two biggest problems I've found with the special ed system - beyond the way it's implemented in individual schools and its overall existence as a severely underfunded mandate - are that 1) instead of being proactive, the system seems to require that students fail before services are provided, and 2) there is little regard to the impact that a student's school experience will have on his life with his family. I've seen many families struggling with the negative impact that excessive homework can have on parent/child relationships and it's not pretty.

    I can accept the assertion that homework's role in a child's learning is overstated. On the other hand, it's hard to accept the premise that it has no role at all. While Mr. Watson's letter expresses some understandable anger, it has an accusatory tone towards both his school district and Harvard that rubbed me the wrong way.

    Curious to know what the "NESCA Position" is on this. Great post!

    Bruce Sabian

  2. My son is two, so I do not have a specific viewpoint as a parent of a child in special education, but I have one as a previous student myself.

    First, I want to point out that in many schools, the special education and IEP program are a joke. I have bipolar, severe social anxiety due to PTSD, dyslexia, and reading comprehension issues. I was denied an IEP because my grades were too high. Forget being in the guidance office daily due to panic attacks, being unable to comprehend information when stated or read to me, and let's not even get into the math issues I had. While I and other kids like me were denied IEP status, athletes received it automatically. Every single athlete in my school had an IEP and had aides or was in special education. Can you guess how many athletes actually needed this? Yeah, maybe 1 in 10. MAYBE.

    Now, I know that I learned more because of homework. Was it because of my comprehension issues and I was essentially using my homework to teach myself? Most likely. If homework is utilized properly could it have an impact on learning? Totally. But I think that schools put too much weight on it and give out too much. They don't focus on teaching. Math, as I mentioned was my hardest class due to my learning disabilities. When I asked for help, I would be assigned more homework. It didn't change the fact that I didn't know how to do it. So instead of reinforcing the right way to do the problems, it reinforced the wrong way and I got 0% on several exams and had to repeat the class. I got lucky with my teacher, I talked to him and he made sure I was in his class the second year and he tried a different teaching style and it worked well. Instead of homework, he'd assign problems, but give us time in class to do them as peer work and come around and help us. All of our work was to be done as a group also, so we would have each other to help. It doesn't work for everyone, but it was better than sending us off alone to figure it out.

  3. These words could easily have come from me except I had not thought to approach the universities about proper training required. I do have a different perspective because I am a trained teacher(Math/Science, work as a substitute teacher in addition to having a son with autism. Being in so many classrooms over the years has taught me more than all the college classes I took about education. Helping/Pushing my son to become verbal and independent taught me and my retired special education supervisor parents the flip-side of what happens at school.

    I am all for practicing skills introduced. Without practice nothing can be mastered. Homework is a way of practicing. Not all homework assignments are created equally. Some are just downright pointless or incomprehensible. For many classrooms, homework has become an entity in and of itself. Students do the work. Turn it in or not. It is graded and never looked at again by teacher or student. The errors on the homework are not corrected.

    When I teach math, I like to have 15 minutes or more of class time when the students start the homework. I walk around looking over their shoulders to see if they are doing it correctly. The next day I check to make sure everyone completed the homework and only grade "done" or "not done". We correct the answers together. Homework is where students should be able to fail miserably and know that the teacher will help find the errors and guide them to the proper path. Homework is a tool for learning, not the measure of successful accomplishment. That is the testing process.

    My words are not coming easily this morning.

    Here is a link to a blog I wrote that was inspired my Mr. Watson's letter. http://kristanscross.blogspot.com/2013/03/homework-wars-time-for-ceasefire.html

    I am just getting started in my campaign to bring common sense back to education. If homework is not used as a tool for learning, it is hindering it. If homework is not checked and corrected, the proper information can never be learned. If