By Jordan Rosenfeld
March 6, 2015
Parents are realizing just how little homework has to offer—and they're pushing back.
We tend to think of homework as a necessary part of learning, a practice that teaches children discipline and keeps them from idleness. Yet a growing body of research reveals an astonishing truth: homework has little to no benefit in enhancing learning or performance in elementary and middle school, and only minor benefits, usually in math, in high school.
This conclusion comes courtesy of a review of all major homework studies recently highlighted in the Washington Post, including an update to a 2001 review conducted by the leading U.S. researcher on homework, Harris Cooper of Duke University.
While this data may seem counter-intuitive to some, many families have already discovered the negative impacts of too much homework, as early as kindergarten, ranging from a loss of quality family time or play time, to middle schoolers with stress induced headaches, anxiety and even ulcers. As a result, more parents are deciding enough is enough, and choosing instead to opt their kids out of homework.
Liz Onstad of Portland, Oregon is mother to a 10-year-old daughter who had no problems with homework until fourth grade. Even though Onstad created a dedicated homework space where she’d be available to help her daughter get her homework done, the tediousness of the assignments led to resistance and fights.
“It turns out much of this year’s homework really is stupid,” Onstad said. “As the year has progressed I’ve seen only increased frustration in my child and I haven’t seen any of the value of the schoolwork. The mental health of my child and the sanity of my household is more important to me than doing the work for homework’s sake.”
She partly blames her daughter’s ready-for-retirement teacher, who she says is “pretty much checked out.”
Onstad is herself a formerly high-performing student who attended a respected four-year college, which was once a priority she held for her daughter. Now that value has changed. "A couple years ago I would have said a good college and an education would be a high priority. But now as I see my girl become who she is, the idea of ‘good college, good job’ is less important. My definition of success has more to do with her learning to be a responsible adult.”
This sentiment is echoed by other parents across a variety of experiences. Rene Denfeld, a death-row investigator in Portland, has been a foster and adoptive mother for 20 years. She routinely opted her three adopted children out of homework beginning in elementary school.
“Homework takes all the joy out of learning. I want my kids to see learning as the world’s greatest adventure, to feel joy and magic and passion in life. Nothing kills passion faster than a stack of worksheets.”
Denfeld also points out that for kids with non-English speaking parents, working single parents, or other hardships, homework can be especially challenging, since so much of it requires assistance at home (which might, in fact, defeat its purpose).
Too Much of a Not-So-Good Thing
According to Duke homework expert Harris Cooper, students should be assigned no more than 10 minutes of homework per grade level per night, Monday through Thursday. This should equal 10 minutes per night in first grade up to a maximum of two hours per night in high school. Yet many parents report a doubling and tripling of those standards, beginning as early as fourth grade.
This shift in homework -- away from project-based homework assignments and toward the kind of busywork that now takes hours -- likely began in 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act was passed under President George W. Bush., according to Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, co-authors of the book The Case Against Homework.
“Driven by fear that we’re falling behind in the global marketplace, policy makers have turned to the schools to save us once again,” they write. “They seem to believe that everything will be fine if we can just get American students to pass their standardized tests.”
This focus on standardized testing has become the bane of teachers, parents and students alike. And homework designed to help kids take tests doesn’t provide them with the complex critical thinking and analytic skills required to excel in either college or the workplace.
Margery Bloom of San Gabriel California has been teaching English and Social Science to grades 7 through 12 for over 25 years. She is also a mother of two boys, aged 14 and 10. Her older son has Asperger’s Syndrome and weak fine motor skills. “Homework would take hours because he didn’t want to write. In Kindergarten, I wrote a note to the teacher and explained that coloring homework would not be completed. Later on, via 504 and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), we negotiated how much 'practice' homework he would have to complete,” she says.
Bloom also routinely refuses to have her sons do homework over vacations, and puts less emphasis on homework over family or down time.
“The reasons for homework are pedagogically unsound,” she said. “You either ask a student who has already mastered a concept to do more of that concept—which is essentially busywork. Or, you send a child who has not mastered the concept home to practice and they will likely practice incorrectly, unless they have assistance.”
Sentiments of that sort appear repeatedly among teachers, educators and students in the popular documentary The Race to Nowhere, directed by Vicki Abeles, a mother of three. Abeles, who lives in Danville, Calif., launched the film project after a 13-year-old girl in her community killed herself over school pressure. The documentary reveals the disturbing amount of stress kids are under, with some of them forgoing sleep and using the drug Adderall to finish homework and keep their grades high.
Some kids in the documentary say they feel deprived of their childhoods, and that they’ve missed out on typical child play time.
“I believe that play should be the only work that kids do as homework,” said Karen Fitch, a Silicon Valley mother of a third-grade boy, and a former teacher. “Children are in school for hours on end; they don’t need to work on school subjects at home.” Fitch opts out of homework assignments for her son when she feels they are “time wasters.”
But she always makes it clear to her son’s teacher that their opting out is a decision, not laziness or lack of caring. “My kid isn’t slacking off if he doesn’t do an assignment. The family is making a choice.”
Parents with teenagers can bear witness to the impact too much homework too soon can have on young learners. Tina Ingenthron of Morgan Hill, California, has five children ranging in age from 18 months to 19 years. Her two oldest were in gifted programs in elementary school, but have since received failing marks in their high school classes.
“I question, and slightly blame myself, for forcing them to do things in the robotic way of the system, versus stepping in and guiding them in ways that were better suited to their personalities,” she said. “They disengaged completely from their school work, and their marks.” She found it not worth the fight, and almost impossible anyway, to make her highschoolers do their homework, and she is using these hard won lessons to be more lenient about homework with her younger children: she has opted her 7-year-old son out of homework since she becoming familiar with recent homework studies.
Dawn Carr, a San Martin, Calif. mother of two, shares Ingenthron’s perspective. A social science researcher at Stanford University, Carr values education and hopes her children will attend good colleges. But that doesn’t stop her from occasionally allowing her highly motivated 7-year-old son to take a night off homework for family time or better rest. “Homework,” Carr says, should be about giving kids “interactive, personalized learning opportunities that involve creative problem solving and fun.
“Given the projected needs for the kinds of thinkers and doers in the next generation,” she points out, “this is really the only way homework should be employed.”