How to challenge a school’s homework policy

Almost three months ago, I published an article, Parents need to say no to homework, that outlined why homework, especially in elementary school, is a bad idea.  What I didn’t say in the article is how parents can challenge a school or teacher’s homework policy.  There are actually a lot of avenues to explore.  I’ll take them one by one.  But before I do that, it’s important for parents to know that any parent who wishes to challenge a long standing policy in any school must be prepared for a long fight.  Schools will try to wear you down.  My school has tried all sorts of tactics like scheduling meetings during work hours, placing responsibility on someone else’s shoulders, or just plain ignoring my requests.  In my experience, it requires persistence.  In a sense, you have to wear them down before they wear you down.  That certainly seems to be the game my school is currently playing.

Another very important thing to mention when challenging school policies and practices is your relationship with your child’s teacher.  This is another tactic to scare you and wear you down.  Someone will inevitably mention how important it is that you maintain a positive working relationship with your child’s teacher.  There is no reason why you can’t challenge a school’s policy and still have a good relationship with your child’s teacher.  It takes some work because you will be challenging what that teacher is doing, but if you remind your child’s teacher that you support your child’s learning but not homework, they’ll feel less like you’re attacking them and more willing to work with you.

I also recommend offering solutions early in the conversation.  I think it helps with maintaining relationships and it shows that you’re serious about changing your school, not just complaining.  Below are four alternatives to homework:

Make homework optional. It requires no extra work on the part of the school, and parents can choose whether or not their children will complete the work.  The important thing to remember here is that all homework has to be truly optional and not graded and not a necessary piece for understanding what’s happening in the class.  

Offer a study hall even in elementary school where the teachers who assigned the homework are on hand to help each individual student.  This must be done without taking away recess or a special, so realistically it could mean extending the school day.  For working parents, this could be a win-win!

An individualized homework plan.  This requires schools and teachers to partner more closely with parents by asking them what is reasonable in regards to work going home.  This really isn’t that much more work for teachers because they could even come up with a menu of homework options that a family picks from, including a no homework option.  All homework options need to take into account socioeconomic and other constraints that any family in the district could be facing.  This solution moves us away from the assembly line model of education that many educational researches like Sir Kenneth Robinson are critical of and pushes us more towards an individualized student-centered model of education. So while it may seem cumbersome, it’s a direction districts should be going in anyway.  

Flip classrooms. This is when homework requires students to read or watch lectures outside of class while all practice is done in class, under the supervision of the teacher.  There are several different flipped models to pick from that can take into account the resources available to each family, and some models do away with homework.

Now how do we start talking to school officials about homework?  There are several avenues to explore.

Start with your child’s teacher

It’s usually best to take a bottom up approach.  Start with your child’s classroom teacher and move up to the school board.  It also depends on your school district’s homework policy.  Some school districts leave it up to the teacher or principal, while other mandate homework district wide.  So I recommend starting with the teacher and ask about the district policy as well as their policy.  Then, tell your child’s teacher your thoughts on homework and let him or her know you’ll be seeking alternatives to any such policies.  

Depending on your comfort level, you can even begin some civil disobedience.  Let your child’s teacher know that you don’t expect your child to complete homework and that you will not be enforcing its completion at home.  Ask the teacher to communicate with you on what your child is learning in school.  You don’t want your child’s teacher to think you’re not interested in what your child is learning, only to convey the message that all learning should take place at the school.  Your child has other learning to do at home.

This is also a good time to let your child’s teacher know that you will not allow your child to be punished for not completing homework.  This is something my school currently does, and it’s one of the ways they try to wear me down.  I call or email every time they punish my child for not completing homework and remind them that what they’re doing is not acceptable.  I have even told my children that depending on their comfort level, they can ignore such punishments.  I don’t push them on it, though, because there are additional consequences for insubordination.  I am ready to take on those consequences, but my children aren’t necessarily ready.  Most teachers, however, will not punish a child for not completing homework if they know the child’s parents are not supportive or even refusing to help complete it.

A note about PTAs and PTOs

My school’s principal tried to get me to join the PTA as a means of bringing about change in the school.  This is an avenue I have not explored and cannot speak to it.  My feeling at the moment is that PTAs and PTOs are fundraising entities.  They have no direct impact on policy.  However, convincing an entire PTA that homework isn’t right for your school can be impactful as many voices are greater than one, so I don’t want to completely discount it.

The principal

Sometimes homework policies come from the principal and not the district.  If this is the case, request to meet with the principal.  Outline your reasons for objecting to homework and offer alternatives.  If you’ve decided that your child will not be completing any homework given, say so.  Also let the principal know that punishment on the part of the school is unacceptable.  Try to keep the conversation as positive as possible and focus on the alternatives.  Always steer the conversation in that direction.  Make them speak to your alternatives, not to justifying their own policy.

The school board and superintendent

If the homework policy is district wide, then it’s necessary to talk to the school board and the superintendent.  Contact them at the same time.  You can contact them in a letter or go to a meeting.  My previous post, Parents need to say no to homework, is a modified letter to my district’s school board and superintendent.  I welcome anyone to modify it and use it.  In your letter or speech to the school board, briefly state why you’re against homework and spend more time on your alternatives.  Here is a speech I wrote for my school board.  Again feel free to modify and use. Schoolboardspeech  

Don’t expect change right away.  My school board responded with, “Well we’ll research this.”  That’s another tactic to wear you down with red tape.  But if the issue was raised at the school board meeting, then many others heard the complaint and proposal.  The seed has been planted.  

The local news

You could also write an opinion piece for the local newspaper.  This also a great way to rally support and get a conversation started in your district.  I recommend doing this after you’ve contacted the school board, though, because the district will undoubtably view it as an attack and try to bolster their position until you’ve rallied a significant amount of support.

Keep at ‘em

So again, change will unlikely happen quickly, so you’ll still have to go back to your child’s teacher, outlining your concerns, alternatives, and what you will do right now to deal with homework for your child.  Talk to other parents about your ideas and let your child know that you expect them to be excellent students even though you don’t want them to do homework.

Lastly don’t be surprised by resistance from school staff and other parents.  Homework is a long-standing tradition in the United States, and many people believe, despite evidence, that it’s an effective learning activity.  People don’t like to see old traditions and institutions go away, and they will wage an emotional battle to keep them.

I’ve often described homework as something that makes parents feel good about their child’s education like comfort food, but like comfort food, it has no added value.  Because it’s comfort food to parents, it’ll be the parents who must begin the battle for better educational practices, including doing away with homework.

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