Four Hours a Day: The Summer Homework Debate

Anna Richardson played in a basketball league two days every week of summer vacation. She worked eight hour shifts at the cash register at Maplewoods. Between her job and time on the court, she fit in a family getaway to Maine.

In her last three weeks of summer however, things became more “difficult.” Anna was assigned homework in four of her five courses for the year ahead. She had five AP Biology chapters with reading notes and online activities to complete. Two AP Chemistry chapters, two AP practice quizzes, and two multiple choice tests sat on her desk at home. A chapter of the Calculus textbook and “ten plus” homework problems for each section were accompanied by two novels, of 300 and 600 pages. She worked four hours each day those last weeks of summer and finished at 11 o’clock the night before the start of her senior year.

The issue of summer homework is on the minds of teachers, parents, students, and school board members, yet the school community talks about it very little collectively. As August ends and the school year begins, the debate often fizzles out.

Scott Thompson, a U-32 school board member, brought his questions about the purpose and necessity of summer homework to a recent school board meeting:

“The U-32 board discussed the matter for a few minutes on September 27th, and my colleagues expressed their view that summer homework is none of the board’s business,” Thompson said. “So that’s that, unless something changes.”

Students and teachers have starkly different experiences regarding summer assignments, creating a disconnect in the summer homework debate. On a broader level, our community as a whole is unsure of the rationale behind these assignments, which influences their opinion upon the practice.

The Rationale

The reason commonly given for assigning summer homework is a phenomenon known as the “summer slide.” According to the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), “Research spanning 100 years shows that students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer.” In theory, summer homework limits the loss of literacy and math skills that often occurs over break.

The Huffington Post also cited a survey from the NSLA, that revealed that teachers often spent more than 4 weeks at the beginning of the school year reviewing material from the previous year. To preserve the beginning of the year for new material, teachers assign review work over summer vacation.

Thompson speculates that assigning summer homework might be glazing over a deeper learning issue: “…one has to wonder:  if students are so easily forgetting what they learned, how well did they actually learn it in the first place?”

There are reasons for summer homework that extend beyond the “summer slide.” Teachers of A.P. courses give students homework in order to get through their standardized curriculums in time for A.P. exams in the spring. The heavy workload is meant  to give students a taste of college level material and the rigor with which it is taught. The students are then tasked with incorporating this into their already busy summer schedules.

 

The Disconnect

A.P. Statistics teacher Kate McCann estimated her summer assignment to take students about an hour and a half. U-32 senior Alex Reilly said she spent approximately eight hours completing this assignment.

Eight  hours is only a fraction of the whole for many students. Alexandria Hepp, also a senior,  was assigned work for both her AP Chemistry and Expository Writing courses and estimates she spent a total of 45 hours on her summer homework.

In a New York Times article titled Do Teachers Assign Too Much Homework?, student comments were collected on the homework load throughout the school year: “A page or two of homework for a class is not a big deal, but when each teacher assigns two pages of homework a night, that’s about ten pages to do when you get home.”

Teachers may not be in a position to see how their class’ assignment fits into the cumulative burden that students face.

 

Does Summer Homework Work?

While many studies outline the ways in which a student’s achievement is impacted when summer homework is not given, few chronicle how they’re impacted when it is. Senior Stephen Looke said that summer homework did not have as positive an influence on his learning as researchers might have hoped. He felt summer homework had “absolutely not” aided his learning in the classroom: “I’ve pretty much forgotten all of it.”

Kara Rosenberg, an English teacher at U-32, stated that while summer homework may not influence a student’s grades or success in a class, it influences their “mindset”. For her, summer homework helps facilitate the learning of new skills, which can be difficult to measure. Rosenberg highlights that summer work is “Acknowledged and then we move on.”

***

For Anna, moving on doesn’t mean slowing down. On October 26th and she sat in her second band of Biology of the day, scrawling notes about her upcoming exam on a handout given by the teacher.

Anna looked up from her work.

“You know what I just realized? On Monday I have my Calculus and Biology exams,” she said.

“Oh, and it’s my birthday.”