Do bulging backpacks mean learning? With his new book, The Homework Myth, expert Alfie Kohn says no. Here's why.
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 homework.
• 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 Grade
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.
The Negative Effects
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 the challenge.
A New Approach
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 grades.
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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.”