Rabbi Yaakov Bender Slams Homework In Op-Ed To Mishpacha Magazine

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The following article was written by Rabbi Yaakov Bender, and appeared in this weeks Mishpacha Magazine. It was republished on YWN with their permission:

The letter I received from out of town contained a plea for help and guidance from a frum father navigating a particularly onerous challenge in chinuch habanim — and a relatively new one.

My son spends close to eight hours in school. When he arrives back at home we want to be able to kick back and relax together. We would also love to be able to spend the time with him and our other children pressure-free, playing a game, having a catch, reading or just stam schmoozing — which, by the way, all psychologists say is invaluable and the foundation of creating a warm relationship.

Instead, after supper is over, a big dark cloud begins to descend over our home. A nightly point of contention begins to roil, creating a negative and toxic atmosphere in our home.

It’s called homework.

This father is hardly alone. Countless other parents have expressed similar sentiments, lamenting the fact that after a long day in school — particularly girls’ schools — our children are expected to spend hours on homework.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not against homework per se. It is important for children to briefly review the material they have learned in school and for their parents to keep abreast of their progress. Homework enables both. But the operative word must be: brief. And I believe that it is incumbent on us as mechanchim and mechanchos to take a step back and ask ourselves: Is the homework load that we are placing on our students — and their parents — a component of effective chinuch? Or is it cruelty?

I do not enjoy writing harsh words, especially about our educators. Today’s rebbeim and teachers are the best of the best and truly care about each student. But how can we demand of parents that they spend, often after a full day’s work, whatever remaining waking hours they have together with their children helping them with their homework?

Baruch Hashem, the Torah community is blessed with large families. Let us picture the scene in a home with six children:

Yanky, the toddler, needs to be put to bed. Heshy, the five-year-old, has an earache and cannot find his favorite book. Chanale, eight years old, has homework tonight, in both limudei kodesh and secular studies. Shani, eleven, is studying for not one, but three tests. And Bracha, the teenager, has not had a moment of peace since she walked in the door, as her workload makes it seem as if school and home are seamless: one long day/night of studying and reviewing. Baruch Hashem, at least Meshulem is taken care of, away at yeshivah gedolah for night seder, learning with his chavrusa.

(Many of our families have more than six children. Kein yirbu. We’ll just use this hypothetical family as an example.)

Mommy, who has taken care of her children’s many and varied physical and emotional needs today and also invested several hours at her job, would like to sit down to supper with her husband (if he does come home at a normal hour tonight, before he rushes off to Maariv and a shiur). But she is now also expected to be a teacher. When did hours of nightly homework — much of it outside her intellectual and academic comfort zone — become part of a mother’s responsibility? Is she not overworked enough, running the household and helping her husband pay the bills?

Can mothers and fathers be expected to start mastering volumes of unfamiliar material in order to save their children from embarrassment and poor grades the next morning?

Even an accomplished talmid chacham with broad knowledge in multiple miktzo’os haTorah can have a difficult time tackling the obscure subjects included in his children’s coursework. So he sits down at night and immerses himself in a difficult topic — often effectively doing his children’s homework for them — all the while neglecting his wife, who is desperate for his help, and his shtender, which is beckoning for a few minutes of peaceful learning.

And what about the children? When do they actually get to be children?

Yes, they need structure, and yes, hefkeirus is never good for kids, but don’t they need some time at night to unwind? Isn’t it critical for their wellbeing that they be able to share their day with their parents, play with their siblings, perhaps get some fresh air, and prepare for bed peacefully? When, exactly, does school end?

It is 12:45 a.m.

Eleven-year-old Shani has just fallen asleep, her pillow drenched with tears. She has spent the last several frustrating hours studying nonstop, yet she still feels ill-prepared for her impending tests.

Eight-year-old Chanale went to bed in a miserable mood, having failed to secure an audience with either parent to vent her distress at being picked on that day by her classmates.

Thankfully, five-year-old Heshy is sound asleep in his bed. Yanky the toddler is in his crib, dreaming and still clutching his favorite book. In between them is their exhausted mother, who, shortly after leading them in Krias Shema, fell asleep right there.

Meshulem, arriving home from an extended night seder, discovers his teenage sister asleep at the dining room table. Her books are her pillows tonight.

Beside her is Tatty, still in his chair, his head slumped forward in slumber, his precious sefer still open in his hands.

How did we get to this point? What, precisely, is the elusive goal that some of our chadarim and Bais Yaakovs are chasing that compels them to saddle our children with a nightly burden that they cannot possibly bear alone, and that their parents are begging for relief from?

We all want our boys to become masmidim and our girls to be knowledgeable and conscientious students. But how do you explain the mindset of mechanchos who assign projects and homework on subjects far outside the ken of the average yeshivah-graduate parent, or who expect their high school students to spend ten hours studying for a Chumash test?

What, exactly, justifies the hours upon hours of agony that our children and parents go through every school night? When are we as a society going to say, “Enough is enough! Dayeinu!”?

The time has come for us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: Is academic achievement now the only barometer of our sons’ and daughters’ success, to the point that we can allow homework to encroach on the smooth functioning of otherwise peaceful and stable homes? Are we so afraid that our daughters will breathe a bit at night before going to sleep that we must ensure that their every waking minute is filled with study, review, and test preparation?

The time has come for each menahel and menaheles to impose strict limits on the amount of homework that each student is given, taking into account the average family size in that school, as well as the unique circumstances of individual students.

The time of year must be a factor as well. (I once assumed that it goes without saying that homework is not assigned at hectic times such as the week before Pesach, or over Yom Tov, but apparently that is no longer the case.) Perhaps limudei kodesh and secular studies homework should be assigned on alternate nights of the week.

I am not here to impose specific solutions; every school is different. Rather, I am pleading for a return to sanity — not only by our schools, but by their “customers,” the parents, as well. Is it pressure from some parents to outdo competing schools that is forcing the hands of the hanhalah? Is it the mirage of potential acceptance into elite seminaries that is blinding us to the quiet churban going on within our homes on a nightly basis?

Throughout the millennia the Yiddishe shtub has always been more than just a physical house or dwelling; it has been an ideal. That ideal, of a Jewish home suffused with love, yiras Shamayim, simchah, and tranquility, is what has enabled generations of parents to raise beautiful children who walk in their footsteps. It is that ideal that is under attack.

It is time for us to reassess our priorities and take corrective action.

May our parents, teachers, children, and all of Klal Yisrael merit a kesivah v’chasimah tovah.

Rabbi Yaakov Bender is the rosh yeshivah of Yeshivah Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, New York, and the author of Chinuch with Chessed (Mesorah Publications)

(YWN World Headquarters – NYC)


31 COMMENTS

  1. It it wasn’t rude, I would give this Rabbi a Hi-5!

    If nothing else, the accused should consider his “often effectively doing his children’s homework for them”.

    For real.

  2. A very important article! As a retired educator, I would add… testing should be abolished. I hated giving tests as much as my students hated taking them. The only thing a test proves is the ability to memorize. My preferred method of assessment was cumulative grades on classwork and homework, projects, and group work. The students preferred it and felt more confident because the pressure was removed. Their grades improved!

    But the PARENTS wanted to see tests so I had to stop my method of teaching and give frequent tests (although I cut them down to a minimum.) Today, parents run the schools – especially those who pay full tuition – so they call the shots.

    Homework. It has its place – reading to prepare for the next class doesn’t involve mom or dad. Correcting errors on work already graded. A few practice math problems or using spelling words in a sentence: those are reinforcement tools. However, each teacher thinks HER work takes priority & must be significant… because of the forthcoming test!

    Get rid of testing, make homework a review or preparation, not an at-home test, and students will be more relaxed, happier, and more successful. Mine were, until the Hanhala nixed the concept as being too innovative.

  3. Years ago, when the adults in our family were exhausting ourselves with Pesach preparations, our Bais Yakov high school daughter was so burdened with homework that she could barely help at all. The Morah that assigned so much homework was apparently very insenstitive to the realities of so many of our homes, And there is a chinuch/midos price when students are forced by excessive homework to minimize their responsibilties to the family and focus almost exclusively on themselves.

  4. Fantastic!
    Parents pay for their children’s education in two ways; דמים תרתי משמע. Today’s school system is brutal to all children bar the gifted. What is the middle child of a family and of mediocre intelligence supposed to do in life other than school? School ought be school not cruel. They’ve forgotten about family life.
    Rabbi Bender’s article is a perfect display of compassion and understanding what all schools should all know. It seems that our schools and yeshivos are teaching disabled as well as abusive in far too many cases.

  5. In my opinion, it comes down to the curriculum established for each grade. There’s an expectation that students master a certain amount and level of skills each year. To reduce the pressure on the student (and the tears), reduce the curriculum.

    The trade-off is additional school years to master the same skill set, say 9 years elementary school instead of 8 and 5 years of high-school instead of 4) with parents (and donors) absorbing the additional tuition costs.

    There’s no easy answer.

  6. Rabbi Bender’s op-ed is a breath of fresh air. I think there may some questions that can be added to those posed here.

    1. Precisely what is the mission of the schools? Is it about how much data can be downloaded and retrieved on the next test?
    2. How are test scores used? Do they get averaged for the report cards? Is this information useful? Does it just force students to compete in how good their memories are? If so, why are there grades for each subject matter if they all reflect the same skill?
    3. If lessons are taught well, is heavy homework load necessary?
    4. In what way does homework support the missions of the “ideal, of a Jewish home suffused with love, yiras Shamayim, simchah, and tranquility”? Or do the schools actually have a different mission?

  7. Tests? are a statement of Memory only.
    All report cards should be based on “effort”.
    No student will ever feel dejected just because hashem didn’t give him a good memory.
    Everyone can excel in “effort”

  8. not accurate; how many fathers or mothers spend more than 60minutes TOTAL on homework for whatever reason. i dont and my daughter did fine in school and no they are average not GIFTED , there may be isolated incidents of a new teacher .. most of the time its SELF inflicted stress by girls specificly that 80-85 is not ok – yes hs girls do have more homework.. because the alternative is worse …and with the hw they still manage to text and talk till the wee hours and walk to school each morning with a 16oz coffee

  9. Avraham: Listen to what? He did not state what should be done nor did he state what is done in his school. You want people to listen? List some concrete suggestions i.e. 5 – 10 minutes of HW per grade (not per subject), no HW on Thursday nights so boys and girls can help prepare for Shabbos; no HW on Mishnmar nights for the boys. Maybe then other Menahalim / Menaholot will actually listen.

  10. yudel report cards should be based on effort really what kind of world do yo live in, the real world does not work that way thats why we have sch problems today entitlement etc

  11. @meir G- As a parent of five KA”H as well as a full day (limudei kodesh and limudei chol) “chinuch professional”, I can confidently assure you that your daughter is the exception, not the norm. As to your comment on the girls self-inflicting the pressure, where does the pressure stem from? Does it not originate from the load at school, and the fear of missing out on being a “top student”? For if not, as you yourself mentioned, they would be quite happy shmoozing (direct quote) “till the wee hours and walk to school each morning with a 16oz coffee”- the definition of being relaxed!
    And you don’t even touch upon the boys, many of whom (at least where I teach) put tremendous pressure upon themselves to be top-tier students- eyes always focused on the next level, be it getting into Mesivta, the Bais Medrash of choice, or the top college in their desired field. Finally, since when do parents- many of whom are working full time, and see their children for a scant few hours (if that much) at night- need to spend a full hour of their precious family time nightly (!) on homework?!

  12. Re hml’s comment: As a former student, I did not like testing, but it sure got me to work hard, pay attention and learn. As for pressure, well, life has pressure. I hope the next time I need surgery, the surgeon had to pass a few tests. And all those prosecutors who put people on trial, I hope they had to pass a few tests before they get to throw around the power of the state. And those folks in blue outfits who carry guns – oh, yeah, they are called cops – I hope that had to pass some tests before they got those guns and the authority to arrest people. Testing is what teaches people to be responsible and dedicated.

  13. Iacisrmma: It is possible that the reason why Rabbi Bender did not state exactly what should be done, maybe it depends on each school and each grade. Every teacher knows or should know what is the best for his or her specific class. Rabbi Bender is giving general advice. One teacher may decide that his or her students need 20 minutes of homework. A different teacher may decide that 15 minutes h/w is fine. It depends on the community. the school and that specific class.
    One more reason why Rabbi Bender chose to stop short and not tell people exactly what to do, some people get offended when you tell them that from now on I want you to start doing a certain thing exactly the way I tell you.

  14. “Eleven-year-old Shani has just fallen asleep, her pillow drenched with tears.”

    This article is supposed to be an op-ed/editorial, not creative fiction.

    Children only have so many years when their brains are like new sponges and can suck up lots of knowledge easily. As we all get older, our brains change and slow down and it gets harder and harder to absorb new things. We have to maximize this time and stuff in as much as possible as early as possible.

    Kids may complain now (I did, too, when I was a kid), but they will benefit later from practicing after class (homework) what they are taught in class.

  15. I would love if parents of his Yeshiva “Yeshivah Darchei Torah” would respond to this post with how things really are in his Yeshiva. Is this path really followed there or is “theory different than the reality”.

  16. A big yasher koach to Rabbi Bender! At one time, my sons’ mesivta had a policy not to give homework in Limeudi Chol if there was a Limeudi Kodesh test the next day, and vica versa. But parents, thinking more homework meant better education (particularly in Limeudi Chol) pretty much pushed the school to abandon that policy. Now the boys come home anywhere between 6:30 – 9:30 PM and first have to crack the books again.

    And forget about the Bais Yaakov’s where girls are meant to feel that if they don’t reach the pinnacle of academia they won’t get a shidduch.

    Allow kids to be kids, and make the work they do get worthwhile – like reading a book! Our children are not robots and they need time to relax.

  17. YDT Parent here:

    My graduated son, and my middle school child have (had) a minimum of 1 hour per night Monday thru Thursday.

    (For half the year they have secular studies on Friday as well.)

    The bulk of the homework is secular studies: a lot of math, spelling, vocabulary and a minimum of 25 minutes of reading. That is besides the Gemara sheets, reviewing the Gemara inside, the WEEKLY school – wide Parsha exams on Sundays, Halacha exams and periodic projects [(Limudei Kodesh and Chol) which is essentially HW for parents].

    So, yes, there is a GREAT DEAL of homework there.

    I am looking forward to speaking to my children’s Rabbeim and teachers about this at orientation.

  18. Avraham: Yes it’s possible….However, he is looked to as one of THE Menahallim (much like the previous generation of R Menachem M. Mandel and Rabbi Elias Schwartz Zichronam Livrocha). As the one identifying the issue, he should be the one to give some suggestions. When I went through Mesivta some 40 years ago, our Menahel told us that if we misbehaved in Limudei Chol and didn’t make an effort to learn the material we were “oiver” gezelah from our parents as part of their tuition money went for Limudei Chol. Even with that the Limudei Chol principal had instituted specific rules as to homework and tests i.e. since Monday night was mishmar, any homework assigned on Monday was due on Wednesday and no major tests were given on Tuesday (a short quiz was allowed). We had 4 periods of Limudei Chol Monday – Thursday and I do not recall any more than 20 minutes of homework for each subject.

  19. you guys all gotta do what i do. in my house im the boss. i decide how much and which homework my children do. if the teachers have any problems with that they have my number. i dare them to try and call me. no one ever did.

  20. Another aspect to be looked at is all the “optional” extra learning opportunities the boys are presented with. Depending on the age, this includes “optional” pre shachris seder, “optional” mishmar on non mandatory mishmar nights, “optional” seder on sundays.

  21. Why would you delete my post? Was it false? No. Was it brutally honest? Yes.
    I guess every need outlet has an agenda, ywn is no different.

    MODERATORS NOTE: YWN will gladly publish your attack against Darchei Torah. Please sign your real name and we will gladly publish it – just like Rabbi Bender signed his name. Otherwise, you can post your attack elsewhere.

  22. It is not an attack, it’s called truth. You know who I am by looking at my profile, just because I choose not to publicly put my name out there does not mean I am not speaking the truth.

    Moderators Note: We make the editorial decisions here. Not you. And we decided it was an attack. A very not nice one to be honest. And we have no idea who you are. Put your name where your mouth is, and sign your comment, or take it someplace else.

  23. Y must every headline read “slam” does anybody ever simply comment on an issue or is everybody always slamming something or other we have lost out abulity to think act or speak like menschen

  24. Rabbi Bender is right on the money. I’m 34 yrs old and never did I have the homework burden that my kids do.
    Rabbi Bender isn’t suggesting anything revolutionary here. Simply going back to the way things used to be would be great. Do the parents who read his words feel any less accomplished because we weren’t kept busy a whole night with homework. This is just another example of how we as a community need to re-examine our priorities.
    As the old adage goes…….
    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    But always remember. מי כעמך ישראל.

  25. I don’t believe that it is in the best interest of those in HS/Mesivta to have have school past 6:00. Why not begin Limudei Chol at 1 or 1:30 and then have serious secular education classes until 6. And just give the appropriate amount of homework to support that learning experience. Maybe hold a once a week Mishmar on Thursday nights. This schedule of more balanced Limudei Kodesh and Chol will better prepare the guys for higher education as opposed to what goes on now–which is when guys in their late 20’s and early 30’s need to “make parnassa” and realize that they have not had a serious Secular Studies class on over 20 years!

    Anyone who has seen a Mesivta Beis Medrish for Night Seder knows that it is largely an exercise in organized Batala (and that’s for those who are in the Beis Medrish!). I believe that some of this is social engineering and trying to prematurely turn the kids into Yeshiva Bochurim in their teenage years, to follow the holy grail of getting their kids into Brisk, Lakewood, etc. Some Mechanchim will even claim that they want to keep kids from going home and surfing the Internet, which is sort of insulting to parents who are paying their salaries if you think about it. But, if more serious attention were given to Limudei Chol, then when the kids go home at 6, they could have their family (dinner) time after which they could do homework and projects. With the right accountability, they won’t have too much time on their hands.

  26. My boys are in Darchei.
    My older son, in the high school, has almost no homework. He comes home late, and does not have any Hw that has to be done for the next day.
    My younger sons, in the elementary school, spend no more than 20 minutes per night on homework. That includes math and review of chumash or gemara.

    My daughters spend most of the night on their homework.