Down With Homework
After spending most of the day in school, students are
given additional assignments to be completed at home. This is a rather
curious fact when you stop to think about it, but not as curious as the fact
that few of us ever stop to think about it. It’s worth asking not only
whether there are good reasons to support the nearly universal practice of
assigning homework, but why it’s so often taken for granted—even by vast
numbers of teachers and parents who are troubled by its impact on children.
The mystery deepens once you discover that widespread
assumptions about the benefits of homework—higher achievement and the
promotion of such virtues as self-discipline and responsibility—are not
substantiated by the available evidence.
The Status Quo
Taking homework for granted would be understandable if most teachers decided
from time to time that a certain lesson really needed to continue after
school was over and, therefore, assigned students to read, write, figure out,
or do something at home on those afternoons.
That scenario, however, bears no relation to what
happens in most American schools. Rather, the point of departure seems to be,
“We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something
every night (or several times a week). Later on, we’ll figure out what to
make them do.” This commitment to the idea of homework in the abstract is
accepted by the overwhelming majority of schools—public and private,
elementary and secondary. And it really doesn’t make sense, in part because
of what the research shows:
• There is no evidence to demonstrate that homework
benefits students below high school age. Even if you regard standardized test
results as a useful measure (which I don’t), more homework isn’t
correlated with higher scores for children in elementary school. The only
effect that does show up is less positive attitudes on the part of kids who
get more assignments.
• In high school, some studies do find a relationship
between homework and test scores, but it tends to be small. More important,
there’s no reason to think that higher achievement is caused by the
• No study has ever confirmed the widely accepted
assumption that homework yields nonacademic benefits—self-discipline,
independence, perseverance, or better time-management skills—for students of
any age. The idea that homework builds character or improves study skills is
basically a myth.
Overtime in First
In short, there’s no reason to think that most students would be at a
disadvantage if homework were reduced or even eliminated. Yet the most
striking trend in the past two decades has been the tendency to pile more and
more assignments on younger and younger children. (Remember, that’s the age
at which the benefits are most questionable, if not absent!)
Even school districts that had an unofficial custom not so long ago of
waiting until the third grade before giving homework have abandoned that
restraint. A long-term national survey discovered that the proportion of six-
to eight-year-old children who reported having homework on a given day had
climbed from 34 percent in 1981 to 64 percent in 2002, and the weekly time
they spent studying at home more than doubled.
In fact, homework is even “becoming a routine part of the kindergarten
experience,” according to a 2004 report.
It’s hard to deny that an awful lot of homework is exceptionally trying for
an awful lot of children. Some are better able than others to handle the
pressure of keeping up with a continuous flow of work, getting it all done on
time, and turning out products that will meet with approval. Likewise, some
assignments are less unpleasant than others. But in general, as one parent
put it, homework simultaneously “overwhelms struggling kids and removes joy
for high achievers.” Even reading for pleasure loses its appeal when children
are told how much, or for how long, they must do it.
Even as they accept homework as inevitable, parents consistently report that
it intrudes on family life. Many mothers and fathers spend every evening
serving as homework monitors, a position for which they never applied. One
professor of education, Gary Natriello at Columbia University, believed in
the value of homework until his “own children started bringing home
assignments in elementary school.” Even “the routine tasks sometimes carry
directions that are difficult for two parents with advanced graduate degrees
to understand,” he discovered.
What’s bad for parents is generally worse for kids. “School for [my son] is
work,” one mother writes, “and by the end of a seven-hour workday, he’s
exhausted. But like a worker on a double shift, he has to keep going” once he
gets home. Exhaustion is just part of the problem, though. The psychological
costs can be substantial for a child who not only is confused by a worksheet
on long vowels or subtraction but also finds it hard to accept the whole idea
of sitting still after school to do more schoolwork.
Furthermore, every unpleasant adjective that could be
attached to homework—time-consuming, disruptive, stressful,
demoralizing—applies with greater force in the case of kids for whom academic
learning doesn’t come easily. Curt Dudley-Marling, a former elementary school
teacher who is now a professor at Boston College, interviewed some two dozen
families that included at least one struggling learner. In describing his
findings, he talked about how “the demands of homework disrupted...family
relationships” and led to daily stress and conflict.
The “nearly intolerable burden” imposed by homework was partly a result of
how defeated such children felt, he added—how they invested hours without
much to show for it; how parents felt frustrated when they pushed the child
but also when they didn’t push, when they helped with the homework but also
when they refrained from helping. “You end up ruining the relationship that
you have with your kid,” one father told him.
And don’t forget: The idea that it is all worth it
because homework helps children learn better simply isn’t true. There’s
little pro to weigh against the significant cons.
Play Time Matters
On top of causing stress, more homework means kids have less time for other
activities. There’s less opportunity for the kind of learning that doesn’t
involve traditional skills. There’s less chance to read for pleasure, make
friends, play games, get some exercise, get some rest, or just be a child.
Decades ago, the American Educational Research Association released this
statement: “Whenever homework crowds out social experience, outdoor
recreation, and creative activities, and whenever it usurps time that should
be devoted to sleep, it is not meeting the basic needs of children and
adolescents.” It is the rare school that respects the value of those
activities—to the point of making sure that its policies are informed by that
respect. But some courageous teachers and innovative schools are taking up
There is no traditional homework at the Bellwether School in Williston,
Vermont, except when the children ask for it or “are so excited about a
project that they continue to work on it at home,” says Marta Beede, the
school’s top administrator. “We encourage children to read at home—books they
have selected.” She and her colleagues figure that kids “work really hard
when they’re at school. To then say that they’re going to have to work more
when they get home doesn’t seem to honor how much energy they were expending
during the day.”
Teachers ought to be able to exercise their judgment in determining how they
want to deal with homework, taking account of the needs and preferences of
the specific children in their classrooms, rather than having to conform to a
fixed policy that has been imposed on them.
High school teacher Leslie Frothingham watched her own two children struggle
with enormous quantities of homework in middle school. The value of it never
seemed clear to her. “What other ‘job’ is there where you work all day, come
home, have dinner, then work all night,” she asks, “unless you’re some type A
attorney? It’s not a good way to live one’s life. You miss out on
self-reflection, community.” Thus, when she became a teacher, she chose to
have a no-homework policy.
And if her advanced chemistry students are thriving academically without
homework, which they are, surely we can rethink our policies in the younger
Kohn’s (www.alfiekohn.org) most recent book is The Homework Myth: Why Our
Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (Da Capo Press, 2006).