Tom Hatch, a professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching, said homework wars were really a proxy fight about what constitutes learning. He added that they were intrinsically linked to the debates over standardized testing that have fueled the national “opt-out” movement.
“It’s a small part of a larger conversation about how kids should spend their time,” Professor Hatch said.
Similar battles have been playing out around New York City: After P.S. 118 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, eliminated mandatory homework this school year, some parents insisted that the school provide worksheets for their children anyway. At P.S. 116 in Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighborhood, some parents threatened to leave after the principal, Jane Hsu, replaced “traditional homework” with voluntary recreational activities and family engagement — a program she calls “PDF,” or “playtime, downtime and family time.”
And P.S. 29 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, has had schoolwide conversations on homework, so far deciding to preserve it, but focusing on keeping it “feasible,” “meaningful” and “reasonable,” said Rebecca Fagin, the school’s principal.
There is no official tally on the number of the city public elementary schools that are altering their approach to homework. The Department of Education does not mandate amounts of homework, and most plans are cobbled together as part of a shared vision among a school’s principal, parents and teachers.
Conversations about the value of elementary school homework have spread nationally. Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher in northeastern Texas, calls herself “the No Homework Teacher” and has a website that proclaims, “Let’s make education GREAT again.” In August, a letter she sent to parents announcing her decision to eliminate homework was shared more than 70,000 times on Facebook and received national media attention. In states from Florida to California, elementary schools are experimenting with no homework, or what some call “reform homework” policies, often with considerable resistance from parents — and sometimes teachers.
Alfie Kohn, the author of 14 education-related books, including “The Homework Myth,” is a leader in the anti-homework camp. In a recent interview, Mr. Kohn described homework as “educational malpractice” and “an extremely effective way to extinguish children’s curiosity.” He noted that nations like Denmark and Japan, which routinely outperform the United States on international math and science assessments, often gave their students far less homework.
“They’re not trying to turn kids into calculators on legs,” he said.
On the other side of the argument is Harris M. Cooper, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Duke University and the author of “The Battle Over Homework.” He says he believes elementary school students should get small doses of engaging homework.
But Dr. Cooper’s own research is often cited against him. A 2006 meta-analysis he conducted of more than 60 studies of homework’s efficacy showed that doing homework did not necessarily increase an elementary school student’s test scores or grades. Dr. Cooper updated the analysis in 2012, with similar results.
But Dr. Cooper said these studies did not take into consideration homework’s obvious, but less trackable, benefits: teaching organization, time management and discipline. Small amounts of enriching and age-appropriate homework in the early grades, he says, serves as a good way for parents to observe their children’s progress and to teach young people that learning doesn’t happen only inside a classroom. He calls parents who seek to abolish after-school work “homework deniers.”
Homework for young children has been a recurrent parenting issue since the beginning of the 20th century, according to Paula S. Fass, a professor emerita of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “The End of American Childhood.” Worries about its excesses have ebbed and flowed; students got heavy loads in the 1950s, when Americans were particularly worried about their ability to compete with the Russians after the launch of Sputnik. Homework spiked again in the 1980s with the release of the now-famous “A Nation at Risk” report, which indicated that American students were falling behind their peers in other parts of the world.
Today, though, worry about excessive homework is competing with anxieties about student achievement and global competition. The situation is compounded by an urge among parents “to have as much control over their children as possible,” Dr. Fass said.
“What you are looking at is the tension between that progressive view that children need to be protected from being adults, and still these parents want their kids to succeed,” she said.
The National Education Association and the National PTA have weighed in, suggesting that students get 10 minutes of homework per grade, starting in first grade — what educators sometimes refer to as the “10-minute rule.” Dr. Cooper also endorses this policy.
The focus for many anti-homework parents is what they see as the quality of work assigned. They object to worksheets, but embrace projects that they believe encourage higher-level thinking. At P.S. 11 in Manhattan, even parents who support the no-homework policy said they often used online resources like Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization that provides free educational videos. The school’s website also includes handwriting exercises, scientific articles, and math and reading lessons. Sophie Mintz, whose son is in second grade at the school, said that the no-homework policy had afforded him more time to build elaborate Lego structures.
But parents with fewer means say the new policies don’t take into account their needs and time constraints, and leave them on their own when it comes to building the skills their children need to prepare for the annual state tests.
Ms. Sierra, the P.S. 11 parent who opposed the change, said that although the school included test prep materials on its voluntary homework site, she had a hard time getting her children to do the work.
“Now I can’t say, ‘Your teacher wants you to do this,’” she said. “It’s just me.’”
Guadalupe Enriquez, another mother at P.S. 11, who works as a housekeeper, said she looked to the school to provide and monitor work at home. “Having a little bit of homework is good,” she said.
At P.S. 118, the school in Park Slope, a homework policy that started last fall replaced required worksheets with voluntary at-home projects. Tensions have arisen there because the projects often turn out to be videos of after-school activities like gardening or science experiments, in which parents take a guiding role. Some children do presentations about family trips. Elizabeth Garraway, the principal, said that some families had expressed concerns that they didn’t have the time and resources for exciting after-school activities or exotic family vacations.
She is working hard to dispel the idea that only certain after-school activities deserve attention, she said, and has encouraged families to consider play dates and trips to the park as good topics for presentations.
“You can do a presentation on anything,” she said.
At the school on a recent morning, she showed off the results. In one third-grade class, a boy recently wrote, directed and recorded a “fireside chat” with his father, who played President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A girl arrived at school ready to showcase a PowerPoint presentation on Greek mythology. And Mia Bornstein, 8, showed up one morning with a broom handle bearing an oversize scroll that outlined life in ancient Egypt. Mia said she had worked on it with her mother, an artist.
How much time had she spent on it? Hours.Continue reading the main story
How long is your child’s workweek? Thirty hours? Forty? Would it surprise you to learn that some elementary school kids have workweeks comparable to adults’ schedules? For most children, mandatory homework assignments push their workweek far beyond the school day and deep into what any other laborers would consider overtime. Even without sports or music or other school-sponsored extracurriculars, the daily homework slog keeps many students on the clock as long as lawyers, teachers, medical residents, truck drivers and other overworked adults. Is it any wonder that,deprived of the labor protections that we provide adults, our kids are suffering an epidemic of disengagement, anxiety and depression?
With my youngest child just months away from finishing high school, I’m remembering all the needless misery and missed opportunities all three of my kids suffered because of their endless assignments. When my daughters were in middle school, I would urge them into bed before midnight and then find them clandestinely studying under the covers with a flashlight. We cut back on their activities but still found ourselves stuck in a system on overdrive, returning home from hectic days at 6 p.m. only to face hours more of homework. Now, even as a senior with a moderate course load, my son, Zak, has spent many weekends studying, finding little time for the exercise and fresh air essential to his well-being. Week after week, and without any extracurriculars, Zak logs a lot more than the 40 hours adults traditionally work each week — and with no recognition from his “bosses” that it’s too much. I can’t count the number of shared evenings, weekend outings and dinners that our family has missed and will never get back.
How much after-school time should our schools really own?
In the midst of the madness last fall, Zak said to me, “I feel like I’m working towards my death. The constant demands on my time since 5th grade are just going to continue through graduation, into college, and then into my job. It’s like I’m on an endless treadmill with no time for living.”
My spirit crumbled along with his.
Like Zak, many people are now questioning the point of putting so much demand on children and teens that they become thinly stretched and overworked. Studies have long shown that there is no academic benefit to high school homework that consumes more than a modest number of hours each week. In a study of high schoolers conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), researchers concluded that “after around four hours of homework per week, the additional time invested in homework has a negligible impact on performance.”
In elementary school, where we often assign overtime even to the youngest children, studies have shown there’s no academic benefit to any amount of homework at all.
Our unquestioned acceptance of homework also flies in the face of all we know about human health, brain function and learning. Brain scientists know that rest and exercise are essential to good health and real learning. Even top adult professionals in specialized fields take care to limit their work to concentrated periods of focus. A landmark study of how humans develop expertise found that elite musicians, scientists and athletes do their most productive work only about four hours per day.
Yet we continue to overwork our children, depriving them of the chance to cultivate health and learn deeply, burdening them with an imbalance of sedentary, academic tasks. American high school students, in fact, do more homework each week than their peers in the average country in the OECD, a 2014 report found.
It’s time for an uprising.
Already, small rebellions are starting. High schools in Ridgewood, N.J., and Fairfax County, Va., among others, have banned homework over school breaks. The entire second grade at Taylor Elementary School in Arlington, Va., abolished homework this academic year. Burton Valley Elementary School in Lafayette, Calif., has eliminated homework in grades K through 4. Henry West Laboratory School, a public K-8 school in Coral Gables, Fla., eliminated mandatory, graded homework for optional assignments. One Lexington, Mass., elementary school is piloting a homework-free year, replacing it with reading for pleasure.
Across the Atlantic, students in Spain launched a national strike against excessive assignments in November. And a second-grade teacher in Texas, made headlines this fall when she quit sending home extra work, instead urging families to “spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside and get your child to bed early.”
It is time that we call loudly for a clear and simple change: a workweek limit for children, counting time on the clock before and after the final bell. Why should schools extend their authority far beyond the boundaries of campus, dictating activities in our homes in the hours that belong to families? An all-out ban on after-school assignments would be optimal. Short of that, we can at least sensibly agree on a cap limiting kids to a 40-hour workweek — and fewer hours for younger children.
Resistance even to this reasonable limit will be rife. Mike Miller, an English teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., found this out firsthand when he spearheaded a homework committee to rethink the usual approach. He had read the education research and found a forgotten policy on the county books limiting homework to two hours a night, total, including all classes. “I thought it would be a slam dunk” to put the two-hour cap firmly in place, Miller said.
But immediately, people started balking. “There was a lot of fear in the community,” Miller said. “It’s like jumping off a high dive with your kids’ future. If we reduce homework to two hours or less, is my kid really going to be okay?” In the end, the committee only agreed to a homework ban over school breaks.
Miller’s response is a great model for us all. He decided to limit assignments in his own class to 20 minutes a night (the most allowed for a student with six classes to hit the two-hour max). His students didn’t suddenly fail. Their test scores remained stable. And they started using their more breathable schedule to do more creative, thoughtful work.
That’s the way we will get to a sane work schedule for kids: by simultaneously pursuing changes big and small. Even as we collaboratively press for policy changes at the district or individual school level, all teachers can act now, as individuals, to ease the strain on overworked kids.
As parents and students, we can also organize to make homework the exception rather than the rule. We can insist that every family, teacher and student be allowed to opt out of assignments without penalty to make room for important activities, and we can seek changes that shift practice exercises and assignments into the actual school day.
We’ll know our work is done only when Zak and every other child can clock out, eat dinner, sleep well and stay healthy — the very things needed to engage and learn deeply. That’s the basic standard the law applies to working adults. Let’s do the same for our kids.
Vicki Abeles is the author of the bestseller Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation, and director and producer of the documentaries “Race to Nowhere” and “Beyond Measure.”