— I used to be extremely pro-homework. In fact, I once wrote an article for this very magazine telling readers how to get kids to stop whining and knuckle down to work. Back then, I could afford to be smug: My second-grader was happily zooming through her ten minutes a night.
But a few years later, Allison started coming home with four hours of homework each night, and everything changed. Now there was not only whining but also begging, yelling, and crying — sometimes from both of us. The worst part: hearing my previously enthusiastic learner repeatedly swear how much she hated school.
I'd always assumed homework was essential. But when I finally looked into the research about it, I was floored to find there's little to support homework — especially in vast quantities. While not every child gets too much, many kids are now overloaded as early as kindergarten. I was appalled (I even cowrote a book about it, "The Case Against Homework"), so you can bet that this time around, you won't be getting any "how to be a good homework cop" tips from me.
Instead, I'm here to call you to action. You can change things for your child — even for the whole school. There are more and more frustrated parents and wised-up schools around the country, so why should your child keep suffering through hours of work? A less-homework revolution is brewing, and you can join it.
Taking back family time
Like me, Christine Hendricks, a mother of three in Glenrock, WY, had always believed in homework. Then her daughter, Maddie, entered elementary school. "By the fourth grade, she had so much, there was no time for after-school activities, playing, or simply enjoying our evenings together. We were always stressed, and I knew many other families were also miserable."
Hendricks decided things had to change — and she had a unique advantage: She's the principal of Glenrock's Grant Elementary School. Together with her teachers, she looked into the research and found what I did: Homework's not what it's cracked up to be. "We decided to do an experiment and eliminate most homework," she says. The one exception: occasional studying for a test.
"This is only our second year without it, but there have been no backslides in the classroom or in test scores," says Hendricks. "Parents say their kids enjoy reading again because there's no pressure. In fact, there have been no negative effects whatsoever. And there's much less stress at our house, too." We're not all in a position to fast-track a solution as Hendricks did, but we still have power.
In Toronto, Frank Bruni decided to do something when a pediatrician told him that his 13-year-old son should exercise more. Says Bruni, "I thought to myself, 'And when would he do that?' " So Bruni organized other parents and lobbied the Toronto School District to hold public meetings, presenting the research behind homework. The result is a new policy that affects more than 300,000 kids, limiting homework to reading in elementary school, eliminating holiday homework, and stating the value of family time. Canada's education minister now wants all the country's school boards to make sure students aren't being overloaded. "It's so gratifying to know that this year, Toronto's kids are going to have a life," says Bruni. "It shows you just how much parents can do when they try."
Why it’s worth a fight
Homework is such an established part of education, it's hard to believe it's not all that beneficial, especially in large quantities. But the truth is, a recent Duke University review of numerous studies found almost no correlation between homework and long-term achievement in elementary school, and only a moderate correlation in middle school.
"More is not better," says Harris Cooper, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience who conducted the review. In fact, according to guidelines endorsed by the National Education Association, teachers should assign no more than ten minutes per grade level per night (that's ten minutes total for a first-grader, 30 minutes for a third-grader).
Pile on more and it can backfire.
"Most kids are simply developmentally unable to sit and learn for longer," says Cooper. Remember: Many have already been glued to their desks for seven hours, especially at schools that have cut gym, recess, art, and music to cram in more instructional time. If you add on two hours of homework each night, these children are working a 45-hour week. Some argue that we need to toughen kids up for high school, college, and the workforce.
But there are other ways to teach responsibility, such as the chores that parents often have to let slide because of studying. Too much homework also means that kids miss out on active playtime, essential for learning social skills, proper brain development, and warding off childhood obesity.
All this work doesn't even make educational sense. "It's counterintuitive, but more practice or the wrong kind of practice doesn't necessarily make perfect," says Kylene Beers, president of the National Council of Teachers of English and author of "When Kids Can't Read, What Teachers Can Do." For example, children are able to memorize long lists of spelling words — but many will misspell them the following week.