Homework debate going on in Walnut Creek schools about how much, what kind, and the future of those damned 4th grade mission projects

Walnut Creek School District teachers, parents, and administrators are in the midst of drafting a new policy that clarifies how teachers assign homework to students.

They want to create guidelines to prevent some of the homework horror stories we’re all familiar with:

–Fifth graders  doing four or five hours of homework a night.
–Third grades crying at the prospect of sitting down to complete dozes of repetitious long-division problems–even though they have already mastered the concept.
–Parents stressing about helping their kids finish the class project that’s due the Tuesday after a three-day holiday.

–Kids getting marked down because they didn’t apply enough artistic skill to drawing and coloring a map of ancient Greece.
–Fourth-graders and their parents feeling pressure to  craft the most architecturally accurate and artistically beautiful replica of one of California’s 21 missions.
–Concerns that teachers are assigning homework for concepts not yet covered in class or not checking homework to see where individual or groups of kids are struggling. 

A committee of teachers has met, and now parents are weighing in, in the form of surveys, e-mails to their parent representatives, and in a meeting of those representatives Tuesday night. I attended the Community Coordinating Council meeting, at which Superintendent Patricia Wool invited parent leaders to share concerns they personally have, or concerns that have been brought to their attention. Wool asked them to summarize ways that a policy could make homework more useful to student learning. She says the district hopes to have a draft policy ready by May.

A couple years ago, I read up a lot on the homework controversy in today’s education.  I became acqauinted with some of the books and studies that are often cited in the debate. ( Here’s a handy-dandy homework resource guide of those books, studies and other resources from  Diablo magazine, which did a special report on the homework debate in September 2008.) Kerry Dickinson, a Danville mother and former teacher–who pushed for the effort to revise the homework policy in the San Ramon Valley District–also writes on homework and other education issues on her blog, the East Bay Homework Blog. Her blog is included in my blog roll.

Aside from the fact homework affects the daily life of my son and our family, this debate intrigues me because it touches on much larger societal issues about education, learning, parenting, and definition of academic and personal success.

Philosophical differences create tensions between parents and teachers and between parents themselves. Between parents, there are those who say they want their kids challenged and don’t mind even K-3 teachers assigning homework over the weekends. They say that being a good parent means being involved in your kids’ education. Then there are those who say they are involved, but that schools should not dictate how involved parents will be, or how parents will structure the free time of their children.

One dad at Tuesday night’s meeting said he didn’t mind his kids getting homework on weekends and that schools shouldn’t be gearing their expectations to the lowest common demoninator But other parents  disagreed. They said they want their families to be able to go away for long weekends and not feel required to make sure their kids are spending part of that vacation completing an assignment.

One basic question that didn’t come up at Tuesday night’s meeting was whether homework boosts student learning, especially when you’re talking about younger kids. Last time I checked, there isn’t a lot of hard evidence that homework yields improved achievement among younger students–and that’s according to Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor who is considered one of America’s foremost homework experts. He is best known for the “10-minute rule” that says that kids should do 10 minutes of homework per grade each night.

He completed a landmark metareview of some 60 studies in 2006. This metareview found “some correlation between homework and achievement in the upper grades, but little effect on students from elementary school to seventh grade,” reported Diablo magazine.  While acknowledging that the connection between homework and student achievement in the lower grades is unknown, Cooper echoes a view I’ve heard from many parents and teachers, including some of my son’s. It is that homework in the younger grades teaches kids study skills; it prepares them to do homework in high school an college. Under this argument, K-5 kids are doing homework to learn how to do homework.

Wool said the district is not looking to do away with homework–not at all.”We want to refine it, to clarify it, and educate teachers who may have never had a class in how to give out homework,” she said.  Homework should have “purpose” and it should be “relevant” to what kids are learning.

The majority of parents of Walnut Creek Intermediate students who participated in a February survey agreed that homework is important part of their children’s education.

Some other ideas that came up in the meeting:
–There should be consistency in the amount of homework assigned; for example one fifth grade teacher at a school shouldn’t require a 25-page report for the state report, while another only asks for a page and a half.
–Teachers across disciplines should “calendar” major assignments: the big science project shouldn’t be due on the same Friday as the big math test.
–Teachers should differentiate homework according to student ability.
–Establish guidelines and limits for how much time kids, depending on their grade, should spend on homework.

As for those damn fourth grade mission projects: grumbling about them took up about 20 minutes of the discussion. Parents have lots of animosity towards them. Everyone agreed that those wind up being homework mostly for parents: to shop for the supplies or kit; to design; to even work on  themselves (like the one, I suspect, pictured here) … One parent at the meeting called them “back-to-school-night projects”: they help decorate the classroom for back to school night. Wool agreed that it was probably time to rethink the fourth grade mission project.

Final personal note on those damn mission projects: 
I had the best damn mission in my fourth-grade class at Parkmead Elementary. That’s because my DIY dad came up with a clever idea for building my replica of the Santa Barbara mission. Using his saw, he cut up hundreds of tiny “bricks”  out of redwood, and he showed me how to lay those bricks. He helped me build the tower, and he used some of his model train landscaping equipment to place miniature trees. Yes, dad designed it; I did the grunt work. If I learned anything about missions and California history in the process, I don’t really remember. But, I have a clear and pleasant memory of workinig together with my otherwise shy, emotionally remote ather on something.

I tried to recreate that sort of mission-buiding bonding with my son when he was in fourth grade, but he took the choice to opt out of building one. He is not arts-and-crafts minded, and dreads these sorts of projects. He has also has insisted since fourth grade on doing his homework himself.

26 thoughts on “Homework debate going on in Walnut Creek schools about how much, what kind, and the future of those damned 4th grade mission projects

  1. In addition to the basics, K-12 education should teach personal finance. There are too many adults that are financially illiterate.


  2. Oh great, According to Patricia Wool it sounds like we are in for another status quo year of too much homework. My son is stressed and says he hates school, my 8-year old daughter who is an excellent student normally does her homework without question, is starting to complain. When you come home from your job do you want to “go to work again?” That's what it's like for our children. After they finish the daily Math, Spelling and vocabulary. They have Social Studies, Science, Reading, and Music (yes, the Music teacher is starting to assign homework, like look up a famous African American and give a report in class????)
    PS–My son loved the mission project. He excells in art and design. His teacher gave them the choice to draw a picture or do a model. He chose to do the model.
    PPS–Everything is so structured nowadays from sports to playdates. When do they get to have a childhood and when do we enjoy their childhood with them?


  3. The kids have so much homework, that reading gets put off, and off and off. That seems wrong to me. Reading is important for all kinds of learning including learning to think, increasing vocabulary and writing. It is truly the best homework, and when kids are not flooded with other work, they enjoy it, too. It should feel like the extra chore that one does when everything else is finished, and the kids are tired out. Let it be the only thing they are expected to do, especially in the lower grades. Then add 3 or 4 math problems, and a few spelling words, and that is enough. There are too many other things to learn after school: how to be a good family member, a good friend and time to chase the butterflies.


  4. You don't have to build a mission replica to get a good grade. My son is into music and computers and he created a DVD slideshow that included pictures he took at the mission, old drawings, and spanish guitar music. A poster board with some selected pictures and text and it was done. He spent as much time as anyone else but he spent it doing something he enjoys anyway.


  5. I love project based learning and support it. However, that does not mean it's okay to send it home and let the parents manage it. When I was in 4th grade, I loved the Mission projects, but we did it all at school. We were given our teachers support and encouragement to be creative, and to have fun with the project. And when we were done, we were so proud of what we accomplished on our own. And, guess what? Every one of them looked like a 4th grader had done them. Consequently, the teacher had a very realistic idea of what a 4th grader could do. But when a project is to be done at home, and some parents do more than others to help, some of the projects start looking pretty darn good. Now that becomes the standard, and parents who wanted and believed it should be done by the student with minimal help, is forced to do more next time, because the standard and expectation has changed.
    This is true, not only for big projects, but other homework, as well. Some teachers ask for parents to be involved and to correct work. Parents interpret this differently, so the teacher can never know how much of this is the student's work and how much is the parent's work. Again, if they assume it is all done by the student, their expectation of how much and how well a child can do is skewed upwards. Parental involvement is important, yes, but too much is not good either.


  6. Great timing. My son is stressing over this in a big way. He's a good student and he takes his homework seriously but sometimes he wants to be a kid and play. It's really hitting home now that it's spring: baseball is in the air and the bike trails are calling. Having the survey in the dead of winter probably skewed the results in favor of more homework.

    And don't make homework count for 35% of their grade in middle school! That lets the kid whose parents do the homework for him get a better grade than he deserves.


  7. As an ex-teacher…..

    I rarely gave homework. If the child knows the skill, a small amount of practice to reinforce is sufficient. If the child does not know the skill how is he suppose to practice it? It is up to the teacher to impart the knowledge and insure that the child understands before moving on. Homework does not insure knowledge.


  8. Great point. Also, homework does not change anyone's genes. Walnut Creek has a very high percentage of highly educated, bright parents and their children inherrited that. More homework will not increase or decrease that. Try one year of greatly reduced, or no homework, and compare star testing. You will not find a significant change in an individual's test scores. It's not the homework that makes kids smart. It's the genes. Good teachers make the most of what the child brings to the table. They are important, too. The unfortunate, but real consequences of excessive homework is to injur a child's spirit. It takes the joy right out of school and causes conflicts at home, and undue pressure and stress on family life.


  9. This was a few years ago, but when I had to do my mission project I decided to go against the grain and I built a model of a Native American settlement even though back then it was not an “option” to do such a thing. I was a little rebellious but my parents generally supported me in this rebellion.

    Since this was a few year ago (late eighties) in a rural town, the teacher was livid (even though the model was a good one). After initially giving me a bad grade ( and getting a call from mom and dad) the teacher relented and gave me an A. Word got around and the following year there were as many Native American scenes as there were missions. I heard that the school district eventually decided to drop the mission project altogether.

    Isn't having the kids do a mission project starting to skirt the separation of church and state anyway?


  10. 11:48, I thought about that but the missions were a major historical fact that shaped the state in many ways. Teaching religion and teaching about religion are two very different things.

    I happen to think that the mission projects are a powerful teaching tool. They can show your kids what happens when the church and state become intertwined…conversion at gunpoint, church sponsored slavery, etc. None of these things were taught in class but my son discovered them on his own while doing his research. And since he was doing the research at home, I was able to frame what he found in terms of our family's standards and values. Another parent would no doubt teach a very different lesson with the same material.


  11. I'm glad to see the district is investigating how much and what homework is being sent home. I agree that there are times when there is just too much work and it sucks the life out of my children. Sometimes less is more!


  12. I'm not sure what the big deal is.. then again, we're in the Mt. Diablo school district and only in 2nd grade. However, my daughter gets her homework done despite all the after school enrichment and playdates and birthday parties without complaint. Honestly, I do groan inwardly when “special projects” are sent home, but that's just my own laziness. 🙂 I think that having homework teaches responsibility and time management skills – skills that we all need throughout life. As for parents complaining about not being able to enjoy a 3 day weekend – suck it up! Your kids won't be in school forever and there are many, many long weekends yet to come.

    PS. Soccer Mom – Did you see the blurb about you in Walnut Creek Magazine? Congratulations!


  13. 1:45 — I might have felt the way you do when my son was in second grade. We're talking more about middle school here I think.

    It's not just the lazy kids or mediocre students who are having these problems. The homework load is causing academically gifted and self-motivated children to get turned off from learning.

    I was yelling at my son last night to just skip a problem that was really difficult so that he could finish all of the other work he had. On reflection, I would rather the teachers assign one challenging problem, that kids don't have to get right but that they do have to show thought and effort on, rather than 4 pages of rote material that they just push through.


  14. You parents need to suck it up. We are not trying to raise veal calves here. We are trying to raise individuals that can sack up and go out and make a dent in the universe.


  15. I have to admit that much of the homework that I was forced to do in elementary school was busy work that was not needed.

    It is useless homework that is bad. Instead of homework that stresses kids out, we should spend more time encouraging homework that is actually useful and enjoyable for kids such as reading fun and interesting books.

    I went through high school and some of the books that we had to read were awful. They weren't anything special. It is just that tradition has dictated that you have to read certain books in high school such as The Catcher In the Rye.

    Hours of torturous homework only encourages kids to hate education and learning. We need to get kids interested in learning. Kids build up years upon years of hate for useless homework and busywork. Forcing kids to do homework will ultimately backfire. We want kids to love learning.

    Once I entered college I soon realized that much of the work in school was meaningless and time consuming busy work. I took advanced calculus courses and we always got to use calculators. That is because simple math is not what is most important. Abstract concepts are what really challenge and expand the mind. In college, reading skills matter quite a bit. We need to encourage kids to have a love of reading, not a hatred of it. Get kids motivated to enjoy learning and they will do much better in college.


  16. It starts in 4th grade in WCSD. no play dates, no birthday parties, no playing. Just 2-3-4 hours every night which takes even longer because the kids are so tired and don't want -can't-do anymore. its nuts! somebody ought to do something about it.


  17. Whoa Nellie!

    If the schools are seriously thinking about reducing the amount of homework, is it too late to reduce space for study in the Damned Library? Just a thought…..


  18. I am a teacher and mom of 2 middle school students and 2 elementary school students. I am all for homework- provided it's quality vs. quantity.
    I hate, hate, hate to see my kids alphabetizing spelling words- AGAIN, completing a million math problems- it's just as easy to measure their understanding after 5 or 6 of them or just plain “busy work”. I can appreciate the pressure that my children's teachers are under to provide homework, but I too would much rather see them picking up a book they might enjoy or just having a little time to decompress from the day,
    I'm not saying do away with homework, it's an important tool to measure understanding, just give the kids some free time to explore other interests like music, dance, sports, etc.


  19. My kids are in 4th grade in WCSD and they rarely have much homework. A few nights they may have an hour or so, but most days it's all of 20 minutes. There are some days when they don't have any (and not just Fridays). Is it their teachers? Is there that much variability in assignments given across the district.

    (Now don't get me started on the 'projects', esp. team projects. My daughter ended up doing all the work for her team because the other two were goof-offs. That shouldn't start in 4th grade.)


  20. Last year, one 4th grade teacher didn't make the kids do any homework, while the other teachers had the kids do the usual tons. The kids in her class had a relaxed year and the families got reacquainted, having free time to just be. Although the parents were a little freaked out, thinking their kids would be so far behind. Those same parents recently reported that all the 4th graders who are now 5th graders are in exactly the same spot in relation to one another as they have been since kindergarten. In other words, it made no difference. No one fell behind just because they did not have homework. The only difference was joy. My 4th grader, started stressing out, worried about homework, afraid to go to school when he couldn't finish it all. I wish we had the other one.


  21. There is the notion that we are overindulging our kids if we advocate for less homework, that we are demanding less “Character” from our kids.

    While no parent wants their kid to be a slothful lump, if your entire childhood is homework, you're not going to have much of a range of options for entertaining yourself. The biggest harm of all this emphasis on achievement is that kids never figure out what they truly enjoy. What they end up enjoying are the accolades of adults, and are lost when there's not a cheering crowd, or a report card, or something that an adult can make a fuss over.

    It's happening in Walnut Creek, Orinda, Piedmont, Pennsylvania, New York–it's everywhere.


  22. My kids' school assigns no nightly homework; just a few projects each year. They're performing above grade level, have great retention, like school, and want to do well. My kids like to print out worksheets. One of my kids started doing linear equations and working with variables last year (3rd grade) on his own. He is allowed to bring in work from home as 'choice' work. If his assigned work is finished, he can work on the higher-level material.

    IMO, homework is overrated. If the curriculum incorporates all of the previous concepts learned, they get plenty of repetition.

    And, my kids love going to school and being on time.

    I also agree with 10:01. One of our projects is a science project. A fraction of the projects were produced by the students. Most looked like the families had hired a consultant to produce them. It's very unfortunate. Nothing like taking competency away from you kid by doing his work for him.


  23. I had very little homework, all through school. There was more in High School, but not that much. Maybe two hours worth, spread out over the week. Even then, I did very little, and my grades showed it. I was just doing other things. At that time, one could get B's and C's without doing homework: now they would be D's and F's. Even so, my SAT scores were very good. But based on how the schools scare one, I should never had gone to college. I went to an average college, yes, had a blast, and because it was average, I stood out. I was Valedictorian of my graduating class, and I was encouraged to go on, and now I have 2 masters and a PhD. All this without ever doing any homework. My husband went back east to an Ivy league. He worked so hard, all through school to get there. He missed out on so much fun, but his parents were proud of him. He is adamant now, to let his daughters have some fun and dance. He regrets the pressure, the single mindedness he lived at such an early age. Here in Walnut Creek, that means he has to have his own gauge of success. He is not buying in to what the community holds out as important. It makes me nervous sometimes, and then I get a call, or a note from an old friend on Face book, and old college buddy, and we have a few laughs, and I remember what is important. In the next moment, by 13 year old daughter asks if she can hang with her friends after so much homework, and more still to do, and I say yes. We are doing all of this, so that one day you can be happy. Let that one day be now. You cannot save them up like pennies.


  24. When our third grader's teacher started handing out algebra homework YEARS before they had knowledge to comprehend it…along with packets of 4-6 hours of homework per night..we questioned this system.

    We were told the reason homework was given on subjects not taught yet “was to force parents to spend time with children”.

    We asked the teachers if their parents spent 4-5 hours sitting with them to do homework and not one deigned it upon themselves to even respond to the question.

    Needless to say, the students failed the courses/tests miserably but hey…. homework got an “A” thanks to parents doing it for their kids.

    Listening to your kid sobbing while saying “I'm too stupid” makes parents watch their kids 'give up' for the rest of their educational lives thanks to pushing not appropriate for their age subject matter.

    Elementary school principal thought her telling each and every class room “you are the WORST class in our school” would 'inspire' them?

    No, it hurt our children and made them resign their lives to “I'm too stupid” for the years that followed.

    The Vice Principal's “your parents are NOT your teachers” didn't help much in the nightly wars we faced with 4-5 hour packets designed to “force parents to spend time with their children”


  25. Well, I'm not exactly sure which schools all of you WCSD parents are sending your kids to, but mine goes to Parkmead. She's been there almost 6 years now…K through 5th. And she's never, ever had more than an hours worth of regular homework a night per night, excluding projects that require more thought and conceptual skills building. It's just not credible to say that any of your children's teachers are assigning more than 10-20 minutes a night, or more than 4 nights of homework a week (for your average 6-8 year old child). No elementary school age child can handle this, and your children's teachers know this and make assignments accordingly. Quite frankly, it is discouraging to read such exasperating untruths perpetuated with such sustained energy. Walnut Creek School District and its teachers, overall, are outstanding and perform wonderfully everyday to help us raise our children. They don't deserve this sort energy draining time suck. Just an observation: I am a fortunate parent, as I've been able to volunteer an average of 70 hours per school year since my child began attending Parkmead. I'm not unusual, as there are quite a few parents there who do the same. And I am lucky to know many of them. We talk about everything that involved parents talk about, including the quantity and quality of the homework. Very few people complain about the volume of homework. It's as simple as that. As to the complaints about the Mission Project, this strikes me as reductive thinking. That is, boiling down an important course of history to the Project, which some of you seem to resent. Why this project and not others? Seriously, your kids learn more about California history (or learning about learning) than you're letting on…or perhaps than you realize.

    There are real issues with our education system that we concerned parents (and yes, our teachers also put their own children through the same public schools) have to deal with. This is just not one of them. If Patty Woolsey or any other WCSD educator is reading this, please feel to concentrate on more pressing topics because this one doesn't deserve any attention at all.


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