Wendy J. Ponte, "No More Homework," Mothering, no. 149, July/August, 2008, pp. 58-66. Copyright © 2008 by Mothering Magazine. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.
Wendy J. Ponte is a writer and contributing editor at Mothering magazine.
Attitudes in the United States have fluctuated in recent decades about the value of homework. The level of work outside the classroom has seen a decided increase but the negative effects of this rise may outweigh any benefits. Family life is impacted when students receive large amounts of homework to complete each night. Little time is left for family activities and parents feel the stress of either helping children complete the work or policing them to make sure they do it on their own. Chores, exercise, sleep, and just time to play all take a backseat as academic performance becomes the only priority. Parents worry about confronting teachers and schools but when homework policies and practices are adjusted, the results can be positive as children tend to enjoy school more while also demonstrating higher achievement levels. Less is more when it comes to homework.
"Anna woke up this morning so happy because this is a rare weekend where she has very little homework," says her mother, Isabel Hill, of Brooklyn, New York. "Usually, the weekends just go by in a blur of homework. The last two, we've been working from dawn until dusk." School nights are worse. "Anna takes a 30-minute break when she gets home, then she starts her homework and doesn't finish until 10 or 10:30." Anna is in the sixth grade and, according to her mother, she has never not had homework—even in kindergarten.
Elizabeth Jones's 17-year-old daughter, Julia, is, as she says, "a very together kid," one of those children who has always gotten straight A's and completed her assignments without a fuss. But this year, in 11th grade, Julia is frequently up until 1 a.m. "It has been an unhappy year because she doesn't have a moment to breathe," says her mother.
A 2002 survey reported that 64 percent of children between the ages of six and eight have homework on any given day—twice what the workload was in 1981. In 2008, even preschoolers are bringing schoolwork home.
Anna's mother feels that homework has reduced her child's desire to learn. Ella's mother reports that her daughter "hopes she can get into a college where learning is fun again."
When is there time to hang out with friends, play a spontaneous game of soccer, write in a diary?
Many parents wonder—how do we reconcile the messages we receive from politicians about the importance of family togetherness with mandates for more and more homework?
When Isabel Hill speaks of her daughter's struggles with homework, it is notable that she often speaks about the work as if it is her own: "the last two [weekends], we've been working from dawn until dusk." Homework impacts everyone in the family, and few elementary and middle-school children are able to manage the planning required to complete the work without considerable help from a parent. Worse, many experts wonder if kids are missing out on a real childhood. When is there time to hang out with friends, play a spontaneous game of soccer, write in a diary?
Proponents of homework list compelling-sounding reasons for its importance—and some can tell you why they think there should be even more of it. Here are some of them:
Homework improves academic ability. Doing more work will make children learn more than they could within school hours.
This is refuted by two recent books: The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It, by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish; and The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, by Alfie Kohn. The authors state that, to date, no research has supported a correlation between amounts of homework and increased achievement in elementary school. This was also largely true of middle school. Even in high school, where some benefits were evident, these disappeared when too much work was assigned. In fact, too much homework in high school can actually reduce academic achievement.
Repetition creates strength. Performing a skill over and over again causes the learning to stick like glue in the child's brain.
This type of homework is often seen in the math worksheets that children bring home: two pages of division problems to solve. For spelling, a child may be asked to write vocabulary words over ten times each.
But, again, no studies back up the claim. There is some indication that repetition can help a child to master skills if the concept behind the skill is already clearly in place, particularly in math. But according to the US Department of Education (DOE), five algebraic problems are all it takes to demonstrate whether or not a child understands a particular mathematical function. When kids come home with 100 multiplication problems to solve, it becomes simple drudgery. As Bennett and Kalish say in their book, the children who already know how to solve the math problem don't need that much practice, and those who don't won't know how to solve it anyway—so why try 100 times?
In fact, the greatest arguments against repetitive homework, and homework that requires mere rote memorization, are that it does not require children to think creatively, does not instill a love of learning, and strongly contributes to their disliking school altogether.
Homework teaches kids responsibility and improves organizational skills. If given plenty of work to do at home, children will need to budget their time in order to complete it. They will also get used to the idea of sitting down and just getting things done—a valuable tool for future success.
"Such a claim might be plausible," says Alfie Kohn in The Homework Myth, "until we stop to ask what it is, exactly, for which students are actually responsible. Almost never are they permitted to decide whether to have homework, or how much, or what kind. Instead, their choices are limited to such peripheral questions as when to do what they've been required to do." One mother Kohn interviewed said that what homework assignments really test is her proficiency at budgeting time.
Nor do many schools spend any significant classroom time teaching kids how to organize work and manage their time—training that could also prepare children for the greater homework loads in higher grades.
Homework is a great way for parents to see what their kids are doing in school. Furthermore, homework can promote greater closeness between parent and child.
Tensions over homework, however, are the evening scenario in all too many homes. After a long day at work, many parents understandably resent having to play Homework Cop, nor do they need any more issues over which to butt heads with their kids. Can parents just as easily find out what their children are doing by talking with their kids about school and by looking at some of their work?
As well, assigning a lot of homework may not be equitable. Not all parents are able to provide enough time and attention to help their children with homework, and/or an environment conducive to completing it. Less wealthy parents may work more than one job. Single mothers may have divided attentions. And some parents may not even speak English.
"I don't think it is fair to assess homework when I can't be sure that the child's home environment is supportive," says fourth-grade teacher Allegra Love, who works in a bilingual school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Love gives her kids a nightly journal prompt that takes about 20 minutes to complete. Many of the other fourth-grade teachers in her school give several hours of homework.
Free time is just as likely to create opportunities for unexpected learning.
Homework keeps kids out of trouble. If children are left with too much time on their hands, they won't spend it wisely, and are certain to waste it on video games and television—or worse.
Alfie Kohn thinks that much of modern-day education is infused with this mindset, which, he writes, reveals a deep societal distrust of children, particularly teenagers. Traditional classroom education seeks to control how children behave, what they think, and exactly what they learn. In fact, Kohn says, there is an almost puritanical belief that because kids don't like doing homework, it must be good for them. But, as Kohn also points out, "[I]f we don't trust our children to stay out of trouble, then trying to keep them busy is unlikely to accomplish this goal. Whatever our kids are doing says more about our relationship with them than it does about how much free time they have." Free time is just as likely to create opportunities for unexpected learning, Kohn thinks, and is also the best way to spark new ideas.
"I Don't Remember Having Any Homework at All!"
I've heard this from most parents I've spoken to about homework. What has changed? Why is so much more homework now given at such early ages?
The belief in homework's benefits has ebbed and flowed over the years. Most experts agree that the launch of the Soviet [Union (USSR)] satellite Sputnik in 1957 caused changes in education that still reverberate today. Shocked and dismayed by the USSR's ability to produce scientists who could design and launch a satellite before the US could, experts called for more rigorous educational practices and, especially, more homework. In 1983, A Nation at Risk [by the National Commission on Excellence in Education] cried out against mediocrity in American education. The DOE responded by stating that homework is an essential part of a good education.
Alfie Kohn thinks there is even more to it than that. "Homework, I'll argue, is a field on which much larger disputes are played out, including those involving standardized testing, the characteristics of good pedagogy, the nature and purposes of education, our attitudes toward research, and the ways we raise and regard children."
Some other factors include:
College Expectations. The main reason for the intense pressure exerted on children in most high schools is the looming presence of college. Getting into a good college—we aren't even talking the Ivy League here—is very competitive. To be accepted into one of the better schools, kids are expected to not only have straight A's, but also to do volunteer work, play sports, travel, write at a college level, participate in school politics, and more.
While good "family values" is one of the qualities that can help a student get into college, few ambitious teenagers these days can spend significant amounts of quality time with their families—because of how much homework they must complete.
The main reason for the intense pressure exerted on children in most high schools is the looming presence of college.
Grade Inflation. The pressure to please college admissions boards and score well on standardized tests has changed the meanings of high-school letter grades. In his article "Whatever Happened to the Average Student?," education speaker Tom Krause says that "When I was in school a 'C' grade meant normal.[...] Just like the disappearing middle class, the place for the average student seems to be fading away in today's educational setting."
"It's not just about learning anymore—it's about doing well," says mother Elizabeth Jones. "Kids are stuck in this race. Teachers give them grief for grade grubbing and lobbying—but without the grade, they can't get into a good school."
State Testing and Funding. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment is a triennial survey that measures reading, mathematical, and scientific literacy of the world's teenagers. Of 15-year-old students tested in 57 countries, those in Finland earned the highest science scores. But according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Finnish students rarely have more than a half hour of homework, there are no honor societies, no stress over college entrance (in Finland, college is free), and no "gifted" classes—and, needless to say, kindergartners never get homework. In fact, Finnish children don't start school until age seven. What's different there?
"What they find is simple but not easy: well-trained teachers and responsible children. Early on, kids do a lot without adults hovering. And teachers create lessons to fit their students," reports the Wall Street Journal. Rather than pushing gifted students ahead, the focus is placed on teaching weaker students.
In the US, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 has helped create a very different approach. In this controversial program, designed to provide incentives for improving education, each state is mandated to prove that children are achieving academically before it can receive federal funding for schools. The atmosphere created by this need to prove academic accomplishment, usually via standardized tests, is fraught. Critics of NCLB say that it has contributed to "teaching to the test" rather than focusing on truly valuable learning tools.
The Belief That More Is Better. In the Joneses' children's advanced-placement (AP) classes, reports their mother, there is an almost "macho" sense that, when it comes to the homework load, more is better. The "more" tends to be a greater volume of work rather than more challenging work. "On Tuesday, [Julia] was assigned [to read] two essays by [Ralph] Ellison, each around 20 pages long. She was then told to write two three-page papers on these essays—due Thursday." And this is just the homework for one class.
Alfie Kohn has studied the ways in which competition affects learning. "Study after study has found that when we're involved in some sort of contest we end up not doing as well on most tasks as we would in the absence of competition," he says. In an attempt to create more learning by spending more time doing homework, students may actually be learning less than they are capable of.
Some experts think that the homework problem is deeply woven into the very fabric of our system of educating children.
Sexism Against Boys? Caroline Thaler is a mother and educator who was a teacher and an assistant principal in the New York City Public School System. She now works for Australian and United States Services In Education (AUSSIE), a company dedicated to creating better school curricula. Thaler thinks that gender is a big factor in how well today's kids do in school. Many boys succeed academically, but she feels that, in general, girls are stronger in some skills that make it easier to be a "good" student, such as paying attention to details, sitting still, or homing in on what the teacher is looking for.
Curricula. Some experts think that the homework problem is deeply woven into the very fabric of our system of educating children. Are the curricula that most schools use fostering learning or "behaviors"?
"What happens in most middle and high schools is that homework is the overflow," says Thaler. "There is no way that teachers can begin to get enough real work done in a 45-minute class." Deduct the time it takes kids to sit down, get organized, and then pack up again at the end, and that leaves only about 35 minutes of actual teaching time. What can't get done in that time is sent home.
Thaler believes in the workshop model. "You can't learn by just being told something and then going off and doing it," she says. "You learn by repeated modeling and guided support." Longer class times can facilitate this type of learning.
Because of Homework, What Is Not Getting Done?
Many parents are equally upset by the experiences their children are not getting because of mounting pressure to perform in school:
Chores. Many proponents of homework suggest that doing schoolwork at home teaches kids a sense of responsibility. "I'd rather have them learning responsibility from chores," counters Thaler. But if her children are already staying up late doing homework, how can she then ask them to stay up even later to wash the dishes? Some parents have the sense that they are servants or valets to their children, who should be learning to do their own laundry but don't have time to fit it in.
Sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, children from 5 to 12 years old need between 10 and 11 hours of sleep each night. Teenagers need from 8.5 to 9.25 hours. But when teens get overwhelmed with schoolwork, sleep is one of the first things to go. Studies show that only 20 percent of adolescents between the ages of 11 and 17 get the recommended amount of sleep. On school nights, nearly half of them sleep fewer than eight hours.
Research shows that sleep deprivation affects a whole range of mental activities, including the ability to pay attention, verbal creativity, abstract thinking, decision making, retrieval of long-term memories, and overall mood and motivation. Researchers have also found that when a person learns something new, there is activity during sleep in the same area of the brain where that learning occurred, and improvement in memory performance when the person is tested the next day. Sufficient sleep, it turns out, is crucial to assimilating new information.
Downtime and Play. Recently, there has been increasing interest in studying the purpose of play. Some studies on rats reveal that major surges in cerebellum growth correspond with peak levels of playtime. Researchers are wondering if this correlates with how children's brains respond to play.
One thing is for sure—overworked kids don't get to play much. Whereas teenagers tend to sacrifice sleep when they have a lot of homework, for younger school-age children, it is fun time and social activities that end up being sacrificed. The long-term effects of lack of play are as yet unknown.
Exercise. Play also means movement. Kids who don't have time for play and recreational activities, such as softball teams or dance, just don't get to move around a lot—and there is evidence that exercise actually helps with academics. "While study after study shows that homework has no or little effect on kids' overall achievement until high school, a review of 850 studies by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] showed that physical activity has a positive impact on everything from grade point average, scores on standardized tests, and grades in specific courses to concentration, memory, and classroom behavior," write Bennett and Kalish.
Socializing. Time to socialize is something Isabel Hill wants badly for her daughter, Anna. During my interview with her, when I mentioned that my own daughter was going to the corner to have pizza with a friend, she said, wistfully, "My God, wouldn't it be nice if Anna could go out for pizza with a friend on a weekday."
For children, socializing with their peers is truly a laboratory for learning. It is in these situations, unsupervised by adults and not organized by teachers or coaches, where they learn what works and does not work in human relations.
Extracurricular Activities. "Anna has always loved music," says Hill. "We've had to really compromise with that because she just doesn't have the time. It's a travesty, because music is a lifelong pleasure."
It is said that when Thomas Jefferson had writer's block, he would stop and, to revitalize his creativity, play his violin. This is just one example of how a broad range of activities and interests can improve a student's performance in school.
Family Time and Privacy. Imagine taking a job where you are told: "Work is over at 6:00 p.m. However, we also supervise your time at home and on vacations. We will make sure that you leave the office every night with a minimum of three hours of paperwork to do, and if we can't find something that really needs to get done, we'll make something up. And, sure, you can go on vacation if you like. We'll even cut back on the busywork—a bit. And, by the way, you will be paid nothing for this, and you can't quit this job."
It sounds ridiculous, but it is real life for many children. "Over Christmas, there was a project and a paper due at the end of the break," reports Elizabeth Jones. "This had to be done with two class partners. Two of Julia's partners had gone away—one of them to Mexico—so there was a huge scramble to do this over the phone long-distance, and then finish it up the last day before school started up."
But do schools have the right to dictate what our children can and cannot do once they've left school? Do they have the right to decide how much time we will spend with our children on evenings and weekends—even on vacation?
Here in the US, we get a lot of mixed messages about family life. We are encouraged by politicians to get back to basics and make sure to have more family meals. Jones and her husband have worked hard to keep this up in their family. But the moment dinner is over, her kids jump up to get back to their homework. "That 20-minute meal is all we get with them," she says. "It's very sad."
A New Approach Is Needed
"Questioning the amount of homework should just be the beginning," Alfie Kohn told me. "But much of it isn't worth two minutes of time, never mind an hour."
Mandating "no homework" days or weekends, or setting guidelines for how much time children should spend on homework according to their ages, may seem a good beginning, but such policies are too easy to bypass. At the Jones kids' high school, the AP teachers simply ignore "no homework" nights. After all, if you're in an AP class, then you're expected to behave like a college student and tough it out.
In his book, Kohn questions the current position of homework as the "default." Why, he wonders, are we in the position of having to prove that all this homework is not beneficial? Why aren't teachers and school administrators expected to prove that it is? Couldn't teachers assign homework only on those rare occasions when the work really can't be accomplished at school—as in, say, a project for which a child is interviewing various people on a certain topic?
Most homework experts suggest that it is better to approach a school in a group than individually.
It's hard for parents to be voices for change in their children's schools. Many fear that their activism against school practices will negatively affect their children's experience at school. Maybe the teachers will be tougher on their kids—maybe the parents' "tirades" will even affect their kids' grades.
Most homework experts suggest that it is better to approach a school in a group than individually. Caroline Thaler, who has had some success in effecting change at her own children's school, says, "It's easy to swat at one fly, but less easy to remove an entire swarm of them."
In 2005, after a revamping of its curriculum, the Banks County Middle School, in Homer, Georgia, stopped assigning regular homework. It was felt that homework was setting kids up for failure and causing them to feel badly about school. The results have been stunning: Grades are up dramatically, and results on statewide tests are rising rapidly.
The Kino School, in Tucson, Arizona, has a different approach to homework: "We give the students ample time to do their work during the school day," says Mary Jane Cera, the school's director. "Oftentimes children, especially the high schoolers, prefer to socialize during that time and bring work home instead." This, she feels, teaches time management in a much more positive way because it is about choice, and at Kino, choice is a keystone of education. "We've never wavered in our belief about respecting children," declares Cera.
As far as homework is concerned, that might just say it all.