Praise of Homework
By Dorothy A. Hutcheson
has been much in the news. Last year several articles appeared
about the hopeless drudgery of it all, the astronomical amounts
assigned to even young children, and the backlash brewing among
parents in high-achieving school districts who were fed up. I
am often asked to defend Nightingale’s homework policy (is it
too much?) in sessions for prospective parents, a surprise because
in previous years parents wanted to know if we were asking students
to do enough.
At Nightingale we ask parents to be in a partnership with us,
to help us know your daughters, and to support the school’s academic
standards. One of Nightingale’s “Goals for Parents” specifically
tackles the subject of homework by asking parents to “establish
schoolwork as a priority at home and provide time and space for
study.” The idea is to help girls become increasingly confident
and independent in taking charge of their academic work. Clearly
this isn’t an easy or automatic process, as I frequently hear
teachers complain about parents doing too much and their students
doing too little. Mrs. Mansfield in the Lower School wonders whose
homework it is; Mrs. Kingson in the Middle School refers to the
“hidden hand” on student assignments, and in the Upper school,
Ms. Mann reports an increasing incidence of parents, not their
daughters, calling to complain about specific assignments.
All of this comes in a context of our anxiety that our daughters
are over-scheduled with activities and deprived of the luxury
of being bored, a topic that Anna Quindlen so eloquently described
in a Newsweek column, “Doing Nothing is Something.” Many of us
recall our own childhood filled with a lot more time on our hands.
Maybe it wasn’t really all that simple then, but, like Sorensen,
I am hard pressed to recall my parents paying much attention to
my term papers or math homework.
How do we move from that excitement of the first grader eagerly
announcing that she has homework to do (her weekly spelling lists
and nightly reading) to a weary ninth grader sagging under the
weight of her far-too heavy backpack, telling me in the halls
that she didn’t get much sleep last night? Are we assigning too
Nightingale’s homework policy is simple and straightforward. In
the Lower School students are learning how to learn, and part
of that means managing to do some assignments at home and managing
to bring them back to school. It’s not supposed to be perfect.
We expect that there will be bumps in this process as students
forget papers at home or crumple them in their backpacks and fail
to put them in the folder on the teacher’s desk. Nightingale should
be a safe place to make mistakes, recover from them, and start
over the next day. When I see Lower School parents rushing into
the lobby well after morning drop-off with missing assignments
in hand, I wonder who’s learning what? The sky would not have
fallen in if that English assignment were not handed in, and the
well-intentioned parent is robbing his/her daughter of an important
In the Middle School, teachers give weekly syllabi so that students
begin to balance long-range and nightly assignments. Beginning
in Class VI, when girls take six academic subjects, teachers work
together on a schedule so that a student does not have homework
in all six subjects nightly and so that her tests and major written
assignments are spaced accordingly. We try not to give them more
than they can handle successfully. This is all part of a careful
foundation that provides students with experience in managing
things themselves. If all goes well, students will be ready for
each new step of increased independence.
September I tell new parents to step back and avoid the tendency
to micro-manage their daughters’ inevitable bumps along the way
at Nightingale. When a child comes home with a problem–with a
teacher, a friend, or an assignmentĐavoid the tendency to rush
in and fix. The parent’s first response should be to listen carefully
and then ask, “What do you want to do to handle this?” Whether
the girl is 6 or 16, this technique works because you signal to
your daughter that you have faith in her abilities and that things
aren’t always perfect.
On the homework front the same strategy works. Pull back if you
are too involved. Give your daughter the time and the space and
your confidence in her own abilities. Keep the long-term goal
in mind–an intellectually curious and self-reliant young woman©even
as you negotiate the daily ups and downs and wonder if she’ll
ever have the maturity to be on her own. As for my house, I’m
looking forward to a better weekend.#
A. Hutcheson is Head of the Nightingale-Bamford School in Manhattan.
Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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