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yolland 09-05-2006 02:22 PM

The Case Against Homework?

Is homework bad for kids?

By Rebecca Traister
salon.com, Sep. 5 2006

This month, two books about homework and its discontents are on shelves: The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We 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. To hear these homework protesters tell it, recent years have seen an almost comical inflation of the work kids are bringing home from school. Kindergarteners and first graders, those squirmy squirts who can barely make it through "Blues Clues," are being asked to do 30 minutes to an hour of studying a night, while middle and high schoolers are forced to slog through 4 to 6 hours of the stuff.

Salon recently spoke by phone to Nancy Kalish, coauthor of The Case Against Homework. This Brooklyn, N.Y., journalist and mother of one said her eyes were opened to the scourge of homework when her daughter hit middle school. Kalish teamed with former legal aid attorney and mother of two Sara Bennett to research and write the book, which argues that homework is actually diminishing children's educational experience, turning kids off learning, putting strains on families, turning students into "homework potatoes" and stunting cognitive and social development.

SALON: Is this the kind of book that the left and the right are likely to respond to differently?

KALISH: Well, Time magazine ran a story about this issue last week and it was positive; the New York Post reviewed the book and it was negative. Homework has gone through ups and downs throughout history. In the early 1900s it was banned for a period because it was thought to be bad for kids' health to make them stay inside. The most recent step-up came in 1983, when there was a study called A Nation at Risk that specifically called for more homework. It was the first time that kids' achievement in school had been linked to the state of the global economy. Now, it has been proven that there is zero correlation between kids' academic achievement and the economy. At Penn State there are two guys [David Baker and Gerald LeTendre] who did research and discovered many countries that give lots of homework and do worse. The Japanese actually do less homework than we do.

S: If that's the socioeconomic angle, how does it play out in family attitudes?

K: It filters down to the parents, along with how hypercompetitive and tough it is to get our kids into college. In New York City and other places it's tough to get them into preschool, so there is an attitude that more is better. Parents mistakenly assume that a lot of homework shows that a school is rigorous, and if the school is rigorous it's going to give their kids an edge. I was one of those parents.

S: What changed your mind?

K: Well, I was very lucky. Because now they start overloading kids in kindergarten, dealing with an hour's work each night. My daughter didn't get overloaded until middle school, but then suddenly she was doing 4 hours a night, which really was excessive...Her grades didn't dip, but her enjoyment of the whole process went downhill. At the time, I was doing assignments for parenting magazines about how to get your kids to knuckle down and do homework. I just assumed it was a good thing, and assumed schools knew what they were doing or they wouldn't put us through it. Then I met Sara Bennett, my coauthor, and I started to research it and found out the research doesn't back this up at all.

S: Do you believe there is no correlation between academic success and homework?

K: I had an eye-opening interview with Harris Cooper at Duke University. He looked at 180 studies on homework and found that there was only a very tiny correlation between homework and achievement in elementary school, measured either in grades or on achievement tests; a minor correlation in middle school; and still only a moderate correlation in high school. And after kids started doing more than 2 hours a night, [even the moderate correlation] plummeted. It's very counterintuitive. It's hard to get parents and teachers to accept; you think more has to be better. Not true.

The other thing Harris Cooper told me is that teachers are not trained in homework. They're winging it. I interviewed [Baker and LeTendre] and we interviewed people from Stanford and Harvard. No one has a course specifically on homework. We surveyed hundreds and hundreds of teachers, and only one claimed ever to have taken a course on homework. They are taught general "purposes" of homework: that it reinforces lessons, builds study skills. But teachers are not taught how to make assignments. We learned that only 35% of schools have written homework policies. Teachers are trying their very best. They want what's best for the kids, but they really don't have the tools that they need.

S: What other tools are they missing?

K: What happens in typical teacher's day, especially with ever-shrinking budgets, is that they have cafeteria duty, bus duty, after-school programs. They don't have any planning periods left. As a result they can't give homework assignments a lot of thought; they just use what's there...And competitive parents are afraid to admit it's a problem. They don't want to admit it to other parents, don't want to admit it to teachers, because they feel like they'll be saying, "My kid can't hack it." But teachers can't solve the problem if they don't know about it. Go in and tell the teacher what it's like in your house every night.

S: What about the tough-noogies argument: Too bad if they're tired and don't like it, they've got to suck it up and do it?

K: They stop loving learning. For instance, in first grade, a typical assignment is the reading log, where you have to write down what you read: the author and illustrator and the publisher and how many pages. Sounds really innocent, great idea, right? I can't tell you how many parents told us how many kids didn't want to read anymore because it was so tedious to write all that stuff down afterwards. It takes longer often for a first grader to write that information out than to have another book read to him. So maybe it should just be "Read with your child." Learning all this was like a light bulb illuminating things that on the surface seem responsibility building, study-skill building but, when you start to examine under the surface, aren't great. The sense that it builds independence--when a kid can't face doing his homework without his mother by his side, that's not building independence!

S: But maybe parents are overinvested in the work their kids should be doing on their own?

K: Absolutely there are overinvolved parents who could be less involved with their kids' homework and don't know when to back off. But from our surveys we learned that parents don't feel like they have a choice. The quantity is so overwhelming that kids are not able to face it on their own without parental involvement. You have to ask your kids every single day, "How much homework do you have?" Homework is controlling their night. As a mother you're thinking, "Will we have time to have dinner together? Will we have time to go to the concert that little sister is in?"...There's also an expectation that parents will teach kids skills...no parent should be in the position of having to teach their kids math. There is also this idea that homework is such a great way to get involved in the kids' education. But then you hear about some of these huge projects...And this is where some overinvolved competitiveness comes out and you end up with a project that could be in Architectural Digest, not something a kid could do on his own. These projects should be done at school, where the parent doesn't have the ability to take over, a teacher has to accept what a 10-year-old can actually do, and the 10-year-old can be proud of his project because he did it himself.

S: How does homework relate to class? The fear that a kid would be ego threatened sounds like a middle-class concern, as does the idea that evenings should be used to do enriching things besides homework. In poorer communities where there might not be as many healthy and enriching evening activities to take advantage of, mightn't homework offer a constructive activity for kids?

K: We talked to a lot of lower-income parents, for instance, kids in charter schools where they really pile on homework, and they are suffering in exactly the same ways as wealthier families. For any kid, no matter what the income level, there is a point where homework is positive and keeps them occupied, and then there's the point where it's too much work. A solution would be after-school programs that include not only homework but other things like play. There are neighborhoods that are so dangerous that when kids get home from school, parents say, "You can't go outside to play," and so they sit inside and watch television or do homework, neither of which is good for them. There should be good after-school programs supervised by teachers that have other things that kids are missing out on, like exercise, which ironically is so important to cognitive development.
S: So what is the ideal amount of homework?

K: Some people will not want their kids to do any homework at all after reading this book. But we think that it would be great if schools were made to stick to 10 minutes per grade level per night total. So 10 minutes total for first grade, 20 minutes for second grade. When you got to higher grades, multiple teachers would have to coordinate. But that's a good thing because so much homework is of extremely poor quality, like spelling mazes and 40 math problems and the reading logs. If teachers knew that they had a total of 10 minutes per night per grade level, they'd think: What do I most want my students to learn tonight? What would be the most valuable way of teaching them that in a short amount of time?

S: How will kids be prepared to do independent academic work in college if they don't have experience doing homework?

K: Kids get into independent learning on their own. Everyone is afraid that the first thing they're going to do if they don't have homework is sit in front of the TV for hours. I'm sure that for a few kids, that will happen. But often what happens is they use the time to get into their own thing, into their music, into photography. They learn independently and apply themselves to things they're really interested in...I don't subscribe to the theory that we need to toughen them up because the world is so tough. Because when you follow that, they're toughening up kindergarteners. I spoke to a kindergarten teacher in a small town outside of Orlando where they have eliminated nap time and snack time, and she assigns homework and by lunchtime the kids are crying. In the past two years, there have been more 3- and 4-year-olds and kindergarteners expelled than ever before. It's so developmentally inappropriate to expect kids to sit still all day and then come home and do it again.

S: But aren't some kinds of homework necessary?...reading ahead to prepare for class discussion?

K: Reading is absolutely valuable. The problem is, as my daughter would tell you, when you have a bunch of questions at the end of the chapter, kids read [the book] only for answers to the questions, so they're not getting so much out of it. Types of assignments really do make a difference. One assignment teachers give all the time is tons of math problems. First of all, 5 problems is enough. If a child knows how to do 5 problems of a particular type, doing 40 of them is very tedious and a turnoff.

I think that's what we want to accomplish -- to get people to think about it and to not accept that it's just this God-given rule that kids have to do so much homework.
Like the reporter (or so I gather), I find myself more than a little skeptical of many of Kalish's claims. As a college teacher, I have precisely the same doubts the reporter did about whether kids will arrive in college prepared to handle the workload if they haven't had some pretty extensive prior experience with having to manage their own learning time. And as a parent, I don't feel my one school-age child is overburdened by the 40 minutes to an hour or so of homework he often has...but then he's only in second grade.

What do some of the teachers in here think about this? Is there anything to Kalish's ideas? Do you agree with her (fleeting) analysis of the teacher's POV? What are your biggest gripes about homework (besides grading it ;) )? Do you have a rule of thumb about how much to give? How about parents in here (which includes some teachers, of course)--do you feel that your kids get too much homework, or that it often adversely affects their enjoyment of learning? High school or recent high school students--what do you think?

Harry Vest 09-05-2006 03:01 PM

As if 8 hours a freakin day isn't good enough to teach these kids!!! Homework (in general) steals precious time with family, friends and interests and does little to actually help these kids learn.

Muggsy 09-05-2006 03:15 PM

I do believe that the problem isn't in the amount of homework but in the quality of those activities.

U2democrat 09-05-2006 03:31 PM

Homework is evil. You have 7 classes then you come home with 7 classes of homework, those in sports or drama or whatnot would get very little sleep, etc. etc.

I myself wouldn't do the assignment if I could get away with it so I could have more free time, or if I could I'd do my homework during classes :shrug:

Now that I'm in college I have more time to do it, so I actually do do it.

anitram 09-05-2006 03:31 PM

I don't know, but I tend to agree with yolland about what impact this may have longterm. Even looking back to my first year of university, the courses where I had excellent, demanding teachers in high school who did assign us a fair bit of homework and expected a level of independence (biology, physics), I did very well on in university with much less studying than some of my peers. Other courses, like chemistry, where I had either a bad high school teacher or one that expected very little to nothing of us, I had to put in double the effort to get the same grade. And I don't think it had to do with my aptitude either because by the time I got to 2nd year, I found all of these areas to be of comparable difficulty. So it was an adjustment period.

Also, let's get real, a lot of us are taking work home these days. It's true that people who do manual labour or a number of service jobs, etc, get to stop working when they are off the clock. But how many doctors go home to read medical journals, how many lawyers take case files home, teachers, professors, instructurs are all expected to do work outside of their "normal" hours of operation, businessmen, and so on. In that sense they too are doing homework so I don't know how valuable it is to tell a child that because he finds an activity to be tedious, he doesn't have to do it anymore for fears it will ruin his love of ___ (insert subject). In the real world, nobody will give a shit, and I'm not saying we should treat an 8 year old like he's an investment banker, but we also shouldn't let them go through 12 years of education thinking that this has any bearing to reality.

BVS 09-05-2006 04:04 PM


Originally posted by Muggsy
I do believe that the problem isn't in the amount of homework but in the quality of those activities.
This is very true. I got so much busy work in high school it was ridiculous. 75 math problems of the same structure just different numbers, come on. All the tedious questions you use to get to see if you read the assignment, it didn't teach you, you learned how to skim for those answers. But college just said read this and if you didn't you were screwed.

the iron horse 09-05-2006 04:16 PM

Thanks yolland for posting the article.

I teach language arts in a public middle school
and from what I hear from students and parents,
this excessive homework in our district is happening
in elementary schools.

One of my nephews was in kindergarten last year
and had homework every day. It often took one to two hours
to complete.

I have a degree in early childhood and actually taught in preschool for several years.

I finally had to go, for peace of mind, to the middle school level because others teachers/others thought that all my four and five years old students were doing in my class was playing in the block area and finger painting.

Too many American schools have pushed the curriculum too far down the grade levels.

"Thank God I recieved an education in spite of having to attend a public school."

~Mark Twain

U2democrat 09-05-2006 04:24 PM

In 4th and 5th grade I would get home around 3:30, start my homework, stop for supper around 6:30, start it again at 7, and wouldn't be done until about 9:30. It was HORRIBLE.

Lila64 09-05-2006 05:26 PM


Originally posted by the iron horse

Too many American schools have pushed the curriculum too far down the grade levels.

My sister-in-law and friends have thought this for a while now. My daughter just started 7th grade last week, and she was in honors classes. Her English/Social Studies teacher informed them of the amount of work that was required for this class, and I think it basically scared my daughter out of it. It's been very stressful situation in the house since then, with pulling her out, and then wondering if we should put her back in (though we were told her spot was already filled). She already has other honors classes and ASB (student body) to tackle, and we'd rather her enjoy school and learning than to be burnt out and stressed at 12 years of age. We're confident she will make 8th grade honors with her grades/CA. testing, but don't know if the level of work will be the same and if she will / will not be prepared and how this will affect her in the future. The teachers know kids have other classes and many have outside activities (sports, music, etc.). How is one supposed to handle hours upon hours of homework. They need to have some downtime, to socialize, etc. I remember last year, my daughter and her best friend never got to see each other outside of school during the week. My daughter would finish her homework, but her friend hadn't and they couldn't play til the weekend. It was kinda sad, cuz she wanted to play and hang out with her friend (since pre-school), but there wasn't any time.

/end rant

martha 09-05-2006 05:44 PM

I teach fifth and sixth grade in a public elementary school, and I agree 100% with Kalish. Our district policy limits homework for primary grades to 30 minutes a night maximum and 60 minutes a night max for upper grades, with no homework assigned over the weekends except for long-term projects.

I know teachers who over-assign homework. I don't assign very much homework, and my kids do fine. I do find a correlation between accurate homework completion and performance on assessments. The homework I assign is practice relating to the concepts taught that day, with some review homework tossed in now and again. If my students don't complete their homework, they don't get adequate practice and so they don't do so hot on the assessments. But I also think that 10 problems does the job for practice, and 40 problems is overkill.

There should be good after-school programs supervised by teachers that have other things that kids are missing out on, like exercise, which ironically is so important to cognitive development. This is where she may have some problems. Funding a program like this gets expensive; we don't work for free you know. ;)

As for iron horse's observation: Too many American schools have pushed the curriculum too far down the grade levels. He's absolutely right, but in California, this comes from the state in terms of grade level content standards. Teachers, students, and parents all know that many of our state content standards are too difficult and not developmentally appropriate, but who wants to be the politician that gets to "dumb-down" California curriculum?

amerrydeath 09-05-2006 10:18 PM

I just graduated this June and my experience over the past eight years (I didn't get--or do, perhaps--any before that) has been that the teachers who gave less homework generally were better teachers. The ones who gave legitimate, thoughtful homework occasionally were the best, I think.

By senior year the attitude toward homework was pretty much "fuck that" because there was just SO MUCH of it that you needed to copy off someone else for the stupid stuff so you could slog through it to the stuff that mattered.

Homework can be a crutch for lazy and/or ineffective teachers (I can't teach you this so... figure it out yourself on 32424 problems), or it can enhance the work of a good teacher, if given in moderation and with thought.

Also, I find there are certain people (like me) who just don't do well with homework. I may be lazy, but I've never been able to have the mindset to sit down dutifully to four hours of stupid crap so I can get another check mark in a book that will count for 10% of my grade, especially if I already know the material. The kids who do their homework every night tended to be the absolute superachievers who were smart to boot or the kids who were struggling the most (but were hard workers). Most of my friends and I did not fall into this category, and our grades would suffer not because we did poorly on tests, projects or essays, but because our homework average wasn't great. They would keep telling us "but it's so simple! you could have a straight A!" but it just wasn't worth wasting so much time of my life. And that's one thing I don't regret about high school, not wasting hours on meaningless assignments.

(I keep adding thoughts!) Time management comes up as a concern... I suppose I could be considered to have time management problems. I've pulled a few all-nighters, but so have other people, and those tended to also be the people who WERE doing their homework every night, who just couldn't work fast enough to learn all this stuff. The all-nighters haven't scarred me, and they've made me better at time management, I suppose, but I believe that kids learn from experience, not from their parents shoving schedules down their throats. I may be an exception, though, I HATED when my parents tried to interfere with my homework or anything, really, relating to school, insisted the whole time that I could handle it, and I did. I learned on my own how to handle homework and assignments, how much I could put off things, and how fast I could work and learn. This went over well with teachers who would assign reading (I love reading, I wouldn't even consider it homework) because I would just read it. The author is right in that asking kids to answer questions at the end of a chapter instantly signals the "skim" response in the brain and the reading loses impact.

melon 09-05-2006 10:24 PM

I went to a private HS, so it was not unheard of for me to write a paper a night, on average. It also didn't help that I liked the elitism of being in honors classes, so they tended to pile it on even more.

Oddly, I seem to have handled it quite well. The problem, however, was that once I hit a case of "senioritis," it didn't go away for six years...heh. As such, I understand the nature of "burnout." I've been much happier since I completed my degrees, and I doubt I'll ever go back again...

...although, once in a while, I think about going to art school, but then I look at my student loan balance and forget about it.

I finally had time for a social life starting two years ago. Once in a while, I look back at the wreck one would refer to as my "youth," and regret that I never had much of one. School always came first, and I always came second.


lmjhitman 09-06-2006 12:10 AM

like martha said, extra practice and review are appropriate uses for homework. the student should NOT be required to actually learn new concepts at home.

i taught middle school (specifically grade 6) for a few years, and my philosophy on homework was always this: if you (the student) did not finish your work in class, then it was for homework. i wasn't one of those teachers that taught until the bell rang and said, 'oh and the next 3 pages of questions are due tomorrow,' as the students filed out of the room. i gave ample time for them to finish their work in class, in fact i told them that i'd prefer that they finished their work at school because then i would be there to help them if they needed it.

i also agree with anitram that kids shouldn't be coddled either. teaching kids how to prioritize and manage their time is part of the hidden curriculum. obviously a high school english teacher is not going to read every page of a novel with her class. nor is a science teacher going to go through pre/post-lab write-ups for every experiment she does with her students. sometimes homework is a necessity. of course, 4 hours of homework in middle school is too much, and 1 - 2 hours in kindergarten is unconscionable, but applied in a judicious and conscientious manner, homework can be extremely useful for teachers and students alike.

cobl04 09-06-2006 02:47 AM

People need to stop complaining about homework. A huge majority of my Year 10 mates come home and sit watching TV or sit on the computer all day. Homework reinforces what is learnt in school. The amounts of time allocated to homework are ridiculous (for example in Yr 12 they suggest we study 4 hours a night) but homework is essential. Otherwise bad habits set in and kids become lazy for life.

vaz02 09-06-2006 04:06 AM

never never did homework or left it till late in the night cos i couldnt be arsed.

or copied someone else.

Homework is the most pointless work possible.

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