Harries Cracks The Homework Whip

Melissa Bailey PhotoGarth Harries wants kids to start doing more homework—real homework.

Harries, the school system’s new superintendent, delivered that message during a meeting Tuesday night at City Hall, on the eve of the first day of school. He spoke to five members of the aldermanic Education Committee for about an hour and a half on a range of topics.

Harries said in his travels through city schools, he often asks kids how much homework they do every night. He said many students have told him they do only a half-hour of homework per day, or get it all done during a study period.

He contrasted that to suburban districts, which he said face the opposite problem: Parents are crying out against too much homework. Some suburban districts have set policies capping homework to 15 minutes per grade level, he said. That means 1st-graders are capped at 15 minutes; 5th graders at 75 minutes; 9th graders at 135 minutes; and 12th graders a supposed to complete no more than three hours’ work at home.

“We are nowhere near” that level of homework in New Haven, Harries said with dismay. There is a “distressing amount” of homework being completed.

“Some homework can be bad,” and some can be helpful, he noted. But “It’s learning time. It is important for our students.”

After the meeting, Harries elaborated on his remarks. He said he drew that observation mainly from spending time at the city’s two comprehensive high schools, Wilbur Cross and James Hillhouse. When he visits schools, he said, “I always think it’s important to talk to the kids.”

“The vast majority of high school kids I talk to tell me [they] have between 15 minutes and half an hour of homework,” he said.

Harries said he’s not calling for a mandatory homework minimum; he’s making an observation about a problem that needs to be addressed.

“The answer isn’t just assigning more homework,” he said. Schools need to figure out “how to make work purposeful, meaningful” and relevant to kids’ lives.

“It’s not OK for homework to be dry repetition” of work done in class. “It needs to be deep and engaging work that drives student interest.”

He said he doesn’t intend to blame any group—teachers or kids—for the amount of homework completed.

He said when he learned about the suburban efforts to cap homework, “that was eye-opening for me to see and to understand.”

“For our kids to rise,” it’s important for them to continue learning at home, he argued. He said raising the bar on homework should be part of a conversation on “parental expectations”—parents’ role in helping their kids learn.

“The school day is not over at 2 o’clock,” he said.

Sue Weisselberg, the school system’s head of wraparound services, noted that many New Haven kids work or take care of family members at home.

Harries acknowledged the point. “Work experience becomes part of learning if we’re thoughtful about it,” he said. Since becoming acting superintendent in July, he has placed a greater emphasis on “personal development” of kids, not just academic success.

Newhallville Alderwoman Alfreda Edwards (at left in photo with Downtown Alderman Doug Hausladen), who chairs the Education Committee, was asked her stance on homework. She said the amount assigned varies from school to school. Homework should be assigned every day “except for Friday,” she opined.

Beaver Hills Alderwoman Angela Russell said her experience with her own two daughters has fallen at both extremes.

Russell’s daughter Brianna (who overcame blindness to join the cheerleading squad) receives plenty of homework at Wilbur Cross.

Her other daughter suffers from multiple disabilities, including deafness; she attended Hillhouse High. That daughter had “no homework” there, Russell said. “Once that bell rang, we picked her up and that was it.” Her daughter has since moved to the American School for the Deaf, where she is “flourishing,” Russell said.

“I’m glad homework is on the table,” Russell said as she left City Hall. “I don’t care what kind of homework”—kids need to keep learning at home, she argued.

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posted by: Stephanie FitzGerald on August 28, 2013  2:52pm

I agree with superintendent Harries.  Students in New Haven should receive meaningful homework assignments daily.  I would add this should include assignments being given on Fridays and before holidays.

I have many years experience both in the New Haven schools and volunteer tutoring in the community.

My experience is that children in elementary grades are often assigned “enough” homework, but in middle school and high school the amount assigned and completed varies greatly.  I have encountered high school students who have no homework, or completed it in study hall, and I have seen middle school students with hours and hours of work to complete in one evening.  I have also seen students assigned homework that they did not understand how to do and/or that hadn’t been presented in class.  And I have seen mindless assignments such as word searches give to high schoolers.

It would be good for New Haven to collect information on homework practices in the schools.  I would be curious to know what percentage of the homework assigned is completed adequately or better.

Students in Grades 7 and 8 should expect 1 - 2 hours of homework each night. (The different subject teachers need to coordinate so that students get assigned approximately the same total amount each day.) 

In high school, students should expect 1 1/2 - 2 1/4 hours to do each evening (and not in study hall)

If we believe that doing homework can help students practice what they need to learn, we should monitor adequate completion.

For those students who either don’t turn in their homework, or turn it in poorly done,  there should be mandatory one hour after school homework tutoring sessions.  IN addition to supporting the students, tutors would communicate their observations of the students and of the homework assigned to the students’ teachers.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on August 28, 2013  3:11pm

Again the selling of snake oil.

The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.
by Alfie Kohn


The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning
by Etta Kralovec


The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It
by Sara Bennett  


posted by: Brutus2011 on August 28, 2013  3:33pm

Mr. Harries is a law school graduate and as such he knows how much self-directed study outside of class can result in authentic learning—through active rather than passive reading and plenty of it. )I know because I just finished 1L and it was the most profitable learning experience of my life and I already have a M.A. degree in history. 1st year of law school will either shape you up or ship you out.

So yes, I like his position on homework or at least that he as taken a position in favor to at least get the ball rolling. Good job.

What I would like to suggest is that our kids need adults who they can relate to. Adults who are sensitive to them and are not easily frightened or intimidated or threatened by our student population.

Our kids need adults they can relate and if Mr. Harries can start to see this and take the appropriate recruiting and hiring steps, then I strongly believe progress will become evident.

This hidden emphasis on preferential job treatment and salaries must end. Staffing and budgeting projections must begin at the classroom level and continue to cater to the management class.

I invite Mr. Harries to an informal talk where I would be glad to share my views and life experience.

Even if only to compare 1L stories because that is at least something we have in common.

posted by: Walt on August 28, 2013  3:47pm

I doubt that there is one student in the whole New Haven area who would meet the over 3 hours per day classification, or come any where near that goal

Need more than they now get,  but must leave some room for leisure or for working

Cant remember how much homework we were assigned in the old days, but it should be increased but still reasonable. 

Doubt that even elite schools like Hopkins, Sacred Heart   or Notre Dame are that demanding

posted by: OccupyTheClassroom on August 28, 2013  4:23pm

Walt you are wrong. Plenty of students do more than 3 hrs a night….mostly because their situation supports that. And by that I mean…they don’t have to go to a paying job, watch siblings, care for ailing family members. And a few students do all of it. It is hard to do homework when home is work.

posted by: Noteworthy on August 28, 2013  5:12pm

Garth should worry less about homework, and focus on getting the kids home. At ESUMS today, there were not enough buses to take kids home, and now more than 3 hours after school is out, my child is still not home.

Meanwhile at the NH BOE Transportation Office - they must have gone home because nobody is answering the phone. Tell me again about how hard working the public servants are when they go home before our children are safely home, especially on the first day of school.

This is right up there with a $100 million school, budget deficits and sorry test scores. If you worry about the basics, the rest will take care of itself. Focus on the basics. You can’t do homework if you’re not at home!

posted by: Walt on August 28, 2013  6:22pm

To Occupy


Must be the kids who are featured in the Yale ads congratulating the leaders from each area high school

Kudos to them,  but I still think that making such   a major commitment mandatory will not fit   most students’
abilities .

When I was a kid, made honors regularly, plus worked 30 hours per week,  and   could not do near that   number of hours of homework.

A small percentage can, I guess.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on August 28, 2013  7:38pm

Unless things have changed A LOT since the afterschool program I ran closed in 2008, Harries is way off the mark.  Most of the early-elementary NHPS kids in our program had sheets and sheets of homework every night.  Some of it did seem to be reinforcement practice of stuff that had been covered in class, but a lot was just busy work, and there was nearly always so much of it that our kids had little time for the enrichment-type activities we were trying to do in our program, such as stories, art, and music, many of which have been almost dropped from the school curriculum.

Not to mention some playground time, socializing, and a wholesome snack.

Also, handing out homework on loose sheets that all look almost alike has always struck me as a near guarantee that homework will get lost and mislaid.  Most adults would have a hard time keeping track of that amount of random paper; how do we expect our kids to be successful at it?  And if we just expect them to throw it all away as soon as it’s been graded and returned, what message does that convey about its value in the first place?

posted by: tmctague on August 28, 2013  10:24pm

Homework is a white, suburban activity.  It suits students that come home to good food, educated parents/guardians able to help, and a stable working environment.  Unfortunately, most students in New Haven go home to a far different setting.  The effects of poverty upon education are severe, and until that poverty fades, accommodations have to be made.  Darien High School has roughly the same enrollment as Wilbur Cross.  The comparison stops there.  Those schools are radically different, for obvious reasons.  Simply replicating that school’s model would do nothing for Wilbur Cross students, they are inherently different. 
A dentist in Simsbury makes more money than a dentist in New Haven.  However, the dentist in New Haven has to deal with more problems, and might even be a better/more skilled dentist for that reason.  The same can be said of teachers.  The students we teach come to school with issues that can’t be remedied by copying models from areas without poverty.  The effects of poverty are significant, and not everyone can be treated exactly the same as a result of that.  Obviously, it’s important for teachers to maintain high expectations of New Haven students, but the sad reality is that homework involves HOME, a place teachers have little control over, yet has major impacts.

posted by: Bill Saunders on August 28, 2013  11:14pm

Check out Finland’s Education System, which includes no homework…..


posted by: Billy on August 29, 2013  1:53am

Piling on the homework has been NHPS’s method of stealing hours upon hours of family time and time to just be kids - running around outside, drawing a few pictures, listening to some music, enjoying conversation after dinner - from my grammar school children over the past many years. I’m all for reinforcing the lessons taught in the classroom, but there has to be a better limit on that than what Mr. Harries proposes. I’ve been up an hour or two after bedtime more than once with weeping fourth and fifth graders, as they plunge into their third hour of homework in a given night. The only reinforcement there is: school is torture!

On the note that other commenters are making about the demands on many kids in the city, I think that taking care of family and working to contribute to one’s family’s finances and/or saving for one’s own future should be recognized as a valuable contribution. How do those kids get credit for their efforts and obligations without falling behind academically? It can’t be denied that kids that don’t have enough time to get their homework done, while their peers are completing lessons at home, have an increased likelihood of falling behind. What’s the best way to address that?

posted by: disconnect on August 29, 2013  8:23am

ScienceTeacher, lay off the racism. Check it:

“Homework suits students that come home to good food, educated parents/guardians able to help, and a stable working environment.  Unfortunately, most students in New Haven go home to a far different setting.”

See? The same point without the racism! Yay!

posted by: Morris Cove Mom on August 29, 2013  8:30am

@Noteworthy, exactly! My child also attends ESUMS, and did not make it home until over 2 hours and 14 minutes after school was let out!

She said that Bus F was over 1 hour late. I wish that teachers had directed them to call home. I was worried, and could not reach school, BOE Transportation Dept, or First Student. I kept debating if I should drive over to ESUMS to go get her, but what if she was on her way home when I was on my way there?

She said that the bus driver had no explanation as to why she was late, and that she didn’t know where she was going. My daughter had to give her directions to at least two stops, as the driver didn’t even know where the streets were, and other children on the bus weren’t as familiar as she was!

I keep trying to call BOE Transportation Dept. and First Student today, to no avail. Their lines are consistently busy. I’ll bet with all the other angry parents calling about yesterday’s issues.

And I haven’t even mentioned the morning bus issue, which FIrst Student caused, by making my corner the stop for SIX different busses. Children are going to be getting on the wrong bus on a regular basis. I know that my daughter did. It’s a good thing she realized it right away, and had the driver drop her off at the nearest corner. But then she had to walk back home, thus missing her bus pickup.

When will the BOE and First Student realize that our children are important? These shenanigans are not rare, and that’s the problem.

posted by: True that on August 30, 2013  5:28am

Another one of many examples illustrative of Harries lack of knowledge.  If homework does not extend the day’s learning, is not engaging, is not meaningful, or is not intensely reviewed by the student and teacher upon return to school, then the homework is of no value whatsoever. If Harries had actually taught in a public school - or taught anywhere for more than one year - he would have at least some experiential anecdotes upon which to rely.  If he wants to make change - not the fake, reformy Broad Foundation change that he is trained to make - then hen would start in three areas:  1) remove all patronage positions from the BOE budget and discontinue the well- established practice of doling out such patronage; 2) developing an effective mechanism to hold parents more accountable for student achievement; 3) develop and implement a strong system of supports for all teachers.  The truth is, there is no evaluation system anywhere that makes teachers better.  What matters most is if teachers ares supported by their administrators, Central office and the student’s parents.  new Haven Teacher evaluation system in essence holds teachers accountable for things over which they have very little direct control or influence.  While homework can be meaningful, it is Important to mention here that the highest achieving systems in other countries don’t give much homework, and ironically China is moving towards a non homework policy for K-3 students as well as a decreased emphasis upon standardized tests for all students.

posted by: Brutus2011 on August 30, 2013  2:28pm

The purpose of an education is to develop skills and knowledge to survive in society and in nature.

It is NOT to pass standardized tests or even to get into Yale!

It is about learning how one thinks and learns for oneself because we are all different—yet paradoxically the same but that is another story.

I once gave a background homework assignment in the form of a packet that contained math problems appropriate to a particular grade level. My goal was to identify individual student “knowledge gaps” and work one-on-one to fill those gaps in. It was working well until my very young and inexperienced principal thought I was using the packets as a substitute for teaching—astonishing but that is another story!

My point is that homework is useful to teach kids not only the subject matter but also about themselves and “how to get to where they want to go.”

School should at its baseline prepare the future adults of our society to be learners and not just test takers and automatons.

posted by: NewHavenPublic on August 31, 2013  10:38am

Why would Mr. Harries and Ms. Weisselberg not bring educators to the BOA to be part of their homework presentation? 

Mr. Harries has collected a lot of data in New Haven in the past four years.  In the future, perhaps he can share student examples of “”...work (that is) purposeful, meaningful” and relevant to kids’ lives…” as well as “deep and engaging work that drives student interest.”

Highlighting only the negative is demeaning to the thoughtful, creative, and hard working public school employees in New Haven.

Or, perhaps that is the point?

posted by: trainspotter on September 2, 2013  6:13pm

Homework is fine when it reinforces concepts that have already been learned in the classroom. Homework is not alright when it is used as busy work, or so the administration can say, “See? We have a rigorous curriculum! Look at all the homework our students have!” (ESUMS is famous for this.) It is also not beneficial when it is intended to make up for learning that did not take place in the classroom. Certain subjects like math, do require a great deal of repetition for mastery and other do not. One size does not fit all and arbitrary across the board rules are foolish.