Speaking to a chapel filled with parents and administrators on October 17th, author and educator Alfie Kohen delivered a lecture challenging Packer’s demanding homework policy.
Mr. Kohen, who has spoken at various public and independent schools throughout North America, is known for his radical approach towards the assignment of homework as well as the inherent emphasis on quantifiable assessment and competition in schools.
“No matter how you slice the data you really can’t justify the claim that homework is necessary for achievement.” said Mr. Kohen during his nearly two hour speech. “We have to be a lot more radical than to say could we lower it so that we can put a cap on it.”
There is no denying that a significant part of any student’s time outside the walls of Packer is devoted to homework. From as early as freshman year students such as George Platt (’15) are assigned up to three hours of homework per night. In later grades this workload only increases as expectations are raised and Advanced Placement classes are added to students’ already difficult schedules.
With the questioning of Packer’s exorbitant assignment of homework growing in the past year, Head of School Bruce Dennis decided to bring Mr. Kohen to speak to faculty and parents after reading some of his books on the topics of homework and educational philosophy. “I knew he’d be a controversial and engaging speaker which was really the reason I brought him. I thought he’d spark an interesting dialogue for parents and faculty.” said Dr. Dennis of the decision.
As the school’s new five year strategic plan, first implemented just a few months ago, begins to be interpreted by the Upper School Community homework policy seems poised for reassessment.
While there is no specific clause in the plan outlining school homework policy in the coming years the document does state that “Additional focus on project-based learning and problem-solving skills will help students integrate the subject knowledge they develop and to recognize cross-content relationships,” a stark contrast to the “busy work” that Mr. Kohen argues “isn’t worth over five seconds of kids’ time.”
Formerly the Principal at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School where students are “assessed via portfolios, using school-wide standards and rubrics,” Upper School Head Teri Schrader comes from a school with an approach to homework varying greatly from that of Packer, though she has not made any change in homework policy thus far. “If you think about people who invent or who innovate or who adapt or think great thoughts a lot of that stuff comes from within the space of not talking or not being held to guidelines.” said Ms. Schrader of the importance of having time not filled with homework.
Mr. Kohn also spoke at a school-wide faculty meeting on October 17th, prompting discussion among Upper School teachers and administrators. “I think he makes a number of good points” said Dr. Dennis about Kohn’s outlook on homework. “Where I agree with him is that the call for homework ought to be that we’re not going to give homework unless it’s really important and we’re giving it for a particular reason and that we shouldn’t approach homework as something we have to give.”
However, not everyone shares this opinion of Kohen’s work. Upper School Learning Specialist Emily Polidore is hesitant to fully accept Kohn’s directive. “Initially there’s a message there that’s very inspiring to enhance the love of learning among students but his research I’ve found is somewhat limited and is meant to support his point of view. He’s not only a lecturer with a mission to enhance learning but he’s a brand and a business.”
The Upper School’s current homework policy allows regular classes meeting four times a week to assign up to forty minutes of work a night and advanced placement courses up to ninety minutes.
Students have voiced their opinions about homework in the Upper School in the days following Kohen’s lecture.
“There should be less homework because honestly it’s hard to get home from a sport so late and do lots of challenging work” said sophomore Cheryl Gordon (‘14) about the school’s current policy.
“I’m lucky because I don’t get that much but the difference is that I also have to do college stuff,” said Julia Skrak (’12) of her workload as a senior.
While the school does not plan to hire an outside consultant to access homework policy Dr. Dennis says that he will be “talking to the division heads and to department heads about homework policy” in the coming months.
Several other independent New York City schools including Trinity, Dalton, and Horace Mann have also begun to reassess their homework policies this year – as noted in a recent front-page article in The New York Times.
Age 15, Grade 10
Packer Collegiate Institute