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The Case Against Homework

How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It

The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett
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Does assigning fifty math problems accomplish any more than assigning five? Is memorizing word lists the best way to increase vocabulary—especially when it takes away from reading time? And what is the real purpose behind those devilish dioramas?

The time our children spend doing homework has skyrocketed in recent years. Parents spend countless hours cajoling their kids to complete such assignments—often without considering whether or not they serve any worthwhile purpose. Even many teachers are in the dark: Only one of the hundreds the authors interviewed and surveyed had ever taken a course specifically on homework during training.

The truth, according to Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, is that there is almost no evidence that homework helps elementary school students achieve academic success and little evidence that it helps older students. Yet the nightly burden is taking a serious toll on America’s families. It robs children of the sleep, play, and exercise time they need for proper physical, emotional, and neurological development. And it is a hidden cause of the childhood obesity epidemic, creating a nation of “homework potatoes.”

In The Case Against Homework, Bennett and Kalish draw on academic research, interviews with educators, parents, and kids, and their own experience as parents and successful homework reformers to offer detailed advice to frustrated parents. You’ll find out which assignments advance learning and which are time-wasters, how to set priorities when your child comes home with an overstuffed backpack, how to talk and write to teachers and school administrators in persuasive, nonconfrontational ways, and how to rally other parents to help restore balance in your children’s lives.

Empowering, practical, and rigorously researched, The Case Against Homework shows how too much work is having a negative effect on our children’s achievement and development and gives us the tools and tactics we need to advocate for change.

Also available as an eBook

From the Hardcover edition.
Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale; August 2006
ISBN 9780307381453
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: The Case Against Homework
Author: Sara Bennett; Nancy Kalish
So Much Work, So Little Time

"We feel like we're rushing our kids from the minute they walk through the door at four until they crawl into bed," says Wendy, a mother of first- and fifth-graders who attend a private school near Highland Park, New Jersey. In the three hours before her six-year-old son's bedtime at seven, they have to fit in twenty to thirty minutes of homework, dinner, a bath, and some reading time. "That leaves a whopping fifteen minutes to play. My son will often take out a game and ask one of us to play before he even starts his homework. We grit our teeth as we gently break the news that he has to get his homework done first. It hurts to have to do this--we want him to play! He's six! He's worked hard all day." Wendy's daughter, a fifth-grader, goes to bed at eight after slogging through an average of 90 to 120 minutes of assignments. "My daughter has no time to herself between Monday and Friday--no exaggeration," says Wendy. "And this schedule does not include time for spontaneous events, such as phone calls from grandparents (especially precious from those that live a plane ride away). My daughter goes to ballet one day a week, and that is a challenge. We don't do other activities because the stress level is just not worth it. We truly feel that homework is taking away from the quality of our lives."

"During our daughter's third-grade year at our parish Catholic school, the volume of homework coming home increased on a daily basis and led to much frustration," says Beverly of Beaufort, South Carolina. "The only way the children could keep up was because very involved parents 'homeschooled' each evening."

"My son hasn't been able to attend his last five Boy Scout meetings and has had to skip weekend camping trips because of his heavy homework load," says Linda, whose ninth-grader attends public school in Woodbury, Minnesota, and tackles three to three-and-a-half hours of homework each night. "He holds his head in his hands and cries. He also gets very angry and vents his anger by yelling. It's not good for any of us!"

"I sit on Amy's bed until 11 p.m. quizzing her, knowing she's never going to use this later, and it feels like abuse," says Nina of Menlo Park, California, whose eleven-year-old goes to a Blue Ribbon public school and does at least three-and-a-half hours of homework each night. Nina also questions the amount of time spent on "creative" projects. "Amy had to visit the Mission in San Francisco and then make a model of it out of cardboard, penne pasta, and paint. But what was she supposed to be learning from this? All my daughter will remember is how tense we were in the garage making this thing. Then when she handed it in, the teacher dropped it and all the penne pasta flew off." These days, says Nina, "Amy's attitude about school has really soured." Nina's has, too. "Everything is an emergency and you feel like you're always at battle stations."

These aren't just the gripes of a few chronically disgruntled parents, though many school principals and teachers would like to think so. In fact, more than one-third of the families we surveyed and interviewed admit to feeling crushed by the workload. This is true no matter where they live (urban, suburban, or rural areas) or what kind of school their kids attend (public, private, or parochial). So if you feel overwhelmed, too, you're not alone.

Some people insist that kids aren't working any harder than they did in the past. But a 2004 national survey of more than 2,900 children done by the University of Michigan found that the time kids spend doing homework has skyrocketed by 51 percent since 1981. For some kids, that adds up to just a few minutes more. But for many kids, the amounts have become staggering.

In fact, the hours of homework many of our kids are doing far exceed guidelines from the National Education Association, an organization of more than 2.7 million teachers and other educators founded in 1857, and the National Parent Teacher Association. Those guidelines specify that kids should be assigned no more than ten to twenty minutes per night in kindergarten through grade 2 and thirty to sixty minutes per night in grades 3 through 6. And some experts recommend even less--or none.

According to Duke University professor Harris Cooper, a top researcher on the subject and the author of The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents, schools should follow a "ten minutes per grade per school night" rule--in other words, ten minutes per night in first grade, twenty minutes per night in second grade, thirty minutes in third grade, and so on, up to a maximum of two hours per night in high school. You might be surprised at these low totals--especially if your child does several times more than that. According to a 2006 Associated Press-America Online poll of 1,085 parents, elementary school students are averaging seventy-eight minutes per night while middle school students put in an average of ninety-nine minutes. Another 2006 poll from NEA/Leapfrog indicates that eight- to thirteen-year-olds average even more--90 to 105 minutes a night. And at just one public high school in Needham, Massachusetts, a 2006 survey of 1,300 students uncovered that more than 28 percent were doing at least four hours of homework each night. In fact, according to the hundreds of families we surveyed and interviewed, the majority of their kids in all grades were doing amounts that far exceeded the recommended guidelines each night.

And you might be even more surprised to find out that, according to Professor Cooper's 2001 review of more than 120 studies of homework and its effects, and his updated 2006 research reviewing an additional sixty studies, there is very little correlation between the amount of homework and achievement in elementary school and only a moderate correlation in middle school. Even in high school, "too much homework may diminish its effectiveness or even become counterproductive," writes Cooper in his latest research review. And as he told us, "It is not going to improve a ninth-grader's achievement to do 2.5 hours of homework per night versus 1.5 hours."
Moreover, as Cooper writes in his latest research review, "it is not possible to make claims about homework's causal effects on longer-term measures of achievement, such as class grades and standardized tests, or other achievement-related outcomes." Indeed, "because the influences on homework are complex, [there is] no simple, general finding applicable to all students."
In other nations, high amounts of homework also fail to produce high-achieving students. Many of the countries with the highest scoring students on achievement tests, such as Japan, Denmark, and the Czech Republic, have teachers who assign little homework. On the other hand, countries such as Greece, Thailand, and Iran, where students have some of the worst average scores, have teachers who assign high quantities of homework, according to David Baker and Gerald LeTendre, education professors and authors of National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling. Meanwhile, American students do more homework than many of their peers in other countries, but still only manage to score around the international average. "It seems like the more homework a nation's teachers assign, the worse that nation's students do on achievement tests," says Professor Baker.

Even though there are some studies that attempt to show a relationship between homework and higher grades and test scores, "It's impossible to determine whether more homework causes better achievement, whether teachers assign more homework to students achieving better, or whether better students spend more time on home study," writes Professor Cooper in The Battle Over Homework. "Any or all of these causal relationships are possible."

Some vital aspects of homework have never been studied at all. Many educators tout homework as a great way to teach children responsibility. Yet according to Etta Kralovec, associate professor of teacher education at University of Arizona South and coauthor of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning, "There's been no research done on whether homework teaches responsibility, self-discipline, or motivation. That's just a value judgment. The counterargument can just as easily be made that homework teaches kids to cheat, to do the least amount of work, or to get by." With parents increasingly involved in assignments every step of the way, we think homework undermines the teaching of responsibility.
More to the point, no one has ever studied whether something other than homework--independent reading, for example--might improve test scores. Is a rich home life a better way to improve achievement than even the best-designed homework assignments? "That's an important question," says Frances L. Van Voorhis, a consultant to the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, "but I don't foresee getting an answer to that any time soon."

This is why some experts recommend no homework at all. "There's no evidence that homework is good for reinforcement," says Professor Kralovec. "If parents are going to give up their home life for homework, there should be evidence that it will produce something."

Is Anyone Listening?

Whether the research is positive or negative, the schools keep piling on homework, and elementary and middle school kids have been hit with the biggest increase in their overall load. Many parents told us that their middle schoolers never had any homework in kindergarten, yet now homework for kindergarteners is the national norm. This is true, even though, as Professor Cooper writes, "The effect of homework on the achievement of young children appears to be small, even bordering on trivial." He explains that, as any parent knows, young children have very short attention spans and trouble tuning out distractions at home to concentrate on the work at hand. They can't tell when they make mistakes or prioritize what they need to study. In short, they're just too young to get much out of it on their own. That's why Professor Cooper's examination of the research found that, for elementary school students, in-class study with a teacher proved superior to homework in terms of learning.

On top of that, our kids are currently spending an average of two more hours in school each day than we did. As a result, they're getting home a lot later and a lot more tired. The younger the child, the earlier the bedtime, and the less time there is to squeeze in everything. "When do I fit in the homework?" asks a single mom of a first-grader and a younger sibling in childcare, whose kids arrive home at 4:30 and go to bed three hours later. "Am I supposed to keep them up later to do the homework? I'm a teacher and know what kids act like the next day at school when they are overly tired!"

What the Japanese Know

Starting in the late 1990s, many Japanese elementary schools began instituting no-homework policies so that children had more time for family and to pursue outside interests. They're not handing out hours of homework to their middle schoolers, either, according to researchers Baker and LeTendre. For example, contrary to what you might think, Japanese teachers assign less than an hour of math homework per week to seventh- and eighth-graders.

The time crunch gets even worse in middle school, when our children start to get homework from many different teachers who don't coordinate assignments. Taking into account the average seven-hour school day, a middle schooler who does just one hour of homework each night is putting in a forty-hour work week. If she has ninety-nine minutes of nightly assignments, as students in the Associated Press-AOL Online poll report, her work week jumps to 43.25 hours. That means that many sixth-graders are working longer hours than the average adult.

Plenty of kids exceed even those amounts. "Counting bus rides, classroom time, and homework, my son is putting fourteen hours a day into school," laments a dad from Raleigh, North Carolina, whose public school eighth-grader does two-and-a-half hours of homework each night. Hundreds of miles north, Svetlana, a New York City college professor, has the same complaint: "I've figured out that, between school and homework, my seventh-grader does ten to twenty hours more schoolwork a week than my college students do in total."

And it's worse still in high school. "In order to handle huge homework loads, even good students are popping NoDoze and Ritalin to stay awake," says Denise Clark Pope, a professor at Stanford University School of Education, who spent a year at a California high school to research her book Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. "They get to the point where they're only sleeping three or four hours a night."
All around the country, high schoolers find they need to push themselves harder and harder. Says Eden, a tenth-grader at a public school in Shaker Heights, Ohio, who does about four hours of homework each night and more on the weekend, "Often my homework is pointless and simply takes time. Teachers are supposed to have a test day on which they can give tests and a flex night when they are not allowed to assign homework, but no one follows the rules. Sometimes, I'll have five tests on one day. There is very little time to be a kid with the amount of homework I get." Adds Jon, a senior at a public school in Cambria, California, who does three to four hours of work every night, including weekends, "Homework is my life. It is all I do. Every day, I cannot bear to wake up. I hate homework. I cannot believe how much of my childhood has been wasted on homework! I will never have that time again. All I can think of is school! HELP!"

And parents are along for the exhausting ride. When Phoebe, a mother from Pelham, New York, arrives home at 6:30, she often finds her limited time with her kindergartener and second-grader filled with busywork assignments. "My kindergartener was supposed to find letters in magazines and cut them out. But it was really frustrating. His motor skills weren't really good enough to handle the cutting, so we'd just end up doing it for him." Often, he didn't want to do it at all. He'd say, 'Mommy, I'm really tired. I just have to go to bed.'"

"If my kids aren't done with homework and showers until ten, that's a six-hour work day for me that starts at four in the afternoon," says Gail, an Upper Montclair, New Jersey, mom of a fourth- and an eighth-grader, who works at home. When you add it up, it makes you wonder, Are there enough hours for everything?

From the Trade Paperback edition.