Montclair’s Board of Education took a look at its homework policy during an April 12 meeting that lasted nearly four hours.
The homework policy included a presentation by seven students from Montclair High School’s Civics and Government Institute, a small learning community within MHS. During their presentation, the students voiced concerns that the amount of homework assigned was contributing to student stress while offering little in the way of academic benefits.
The students had been working with then-interim Superintendent Ronald Bolandi on a draft of a homework policy for the district. They were accompanied at the April 12 meeting by social studies teacher Shana Stein, the adviser for the Civics and Government Institute.
Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak said that she had been privileged to meet with the students earlier and to see the PowerPoint version of their presentation. “We’re so proud of the work that our students at Montclair High School and all our schools do,” Pinsak said.
Linez Buxenbaum-Turner, whose father is board member Franklin Turner, was the first of the students to speak. She explained that each year, CGI students choose an issue to work on for a semester, and their class decided to concentrate on homework policies.
“Homework is a known factor of stress for many students, and is hard to manage, especially with other activities that students participate in daily,” she said.
As part of their research, Buxenbaum-Turner and her classmates did a couple of surveys of MHS students, parents and teachers during the school year, as well as consulting academic and psychological research by experts in the field.
Many students take seven or eight classes each day, and it is not unusual for them to get homework in each of those classes.
Brianna McLaughlin said that the amount of homework and the type of homework, including large numbers of worksheets, was not beneficial. “It’s seen as a reinforcement, but it doesn’t because of the amount of time it takes,” McLaughlin stated. She said that research had indicated that reading was one of the best types of homework to give, but that because of other homework assignments, many students resort to using SparkNotes.
The students also voiced concerns that excessive amounts of homework lead to issues such as anxiety and pressure to cheat. They also indicated that many teachers felt that they were pressured to assign homework even if they felt it might not be necessary.
The recommendations that the students offered included a professional development day for teachers and a cap on the amount of homework, as well as not requiring teachers to give homework.
Madeline Edwards said that the students also hoped to encourage the public to rethink conventional wisdom about homework, including the idea that it teaches responsibility and study habits. “We kind of want to project to the public that a lot of these things aren’t necessarily true facts about homework.”
Some of the students recalled some of the homework they had been given in elementary school: coloring inside the lines in kindergarten, or rewriting lists of spelling words or answering reading comprehension questions as they got older.
McLaughlin said she works as a tutor outside of school, and mentioned a pupil who has trouble reading, but is required to read a book and then answer questions about it.
“I do not think that kids in kindergarten should be getting homework at all. They’re kids,” she said as the audience erupted in applause.
The floor opened up for questions from the board.
“The four hours of sleep is alarming. Extremely alarming,” said board member Joe Kavesh. He went on to ask if the students had seen their friends or other students drinking coffee. “I see kids in Starbucks all the time. I didn’t have coffee until I was a sophomore in college cramming for an all-nighter!”
To the first question, McLaughlin said that she has a friend who has spent an entire day in Starbucks drinking coffee and doing homework.
Kavesh also asked if the students had consulted homework schedules in other districts to see how much homework they had; the answer was in the affirmative.
Pinsak asked if some of the students at Montclair High School could use some assistance with time management. “I’m not suggesting that we pile on four hours of homework a night, but do you think that students might benefit from a little student development and time management, or do you think that’s not the issue?”
Buxenbaum-Turner said that it might be beneficial, since it was part of preparing students for life beyond school. But she noted that students are consumed with extracurricular activities and preparing college applications.
“It’s not mainly about time management, it’s just that there’s not enough hours in the day with all that we’re doing and the extra hours of homework for us to do at home,” she said.
Board member Eve Robinson said the board had discussed the same issues that the students had gone over. She said it was a little concerning that when the students discussed their elementary school homework, none of them felt any sort of connection to it.
Board member Laura Hertzog said the homework policy discussion was a good opportunity to get teachers and administrators to sit down and talk. “I feel like this is a chance to get the educators really involved in the conversation and say, here’s how we can get the students to this level.”
After the students had spoken, Stein came to the microphone and told the board that the students had asked for the results of a survey that the district had done two years ago as part of their research.
The board thanked the students and Stein once again. “On that note, go do your homework,” Kavesh said.