Homework sucks: The case against homework

Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish 2006 book "The Case Against Homework" is a fine and frightening explosion of the homework myth: that giving kids homework improves their educational outcome. The authors start by tracing the explosion in homework since the eighties, and especially since the advent of the ill-starred No Child Left Behind regime, which has teachers drilling, drilling, drilling their kids on math and reading to the exclusion of all else.

Kindergarten kids are assigned homework. Kids get homework over the weekend. Over vacations. When they're away sick for a day.

What's more, all the credible research on homework suggests that for younger kids, homework has no connection with positive learning outcomes, and for older kids, the benefits of homework level off sharply after the first couple assignments.

Not that most teachers would know this -- homework theory and design isn't on the curriculum at most teachers' colleges, and most teachers surveyed report that they have never received any training on designing and assessing homework.

The book is composed of equal measures of interviews with kids, parents and teachers; hard research numbers from respected institutions; and strategies for convincing your kids' teachers to ease back on homework.

One thing the authors keep coming back to is the way that excessive homework eats into kids' playtime and family time, stressing them out, contributing to sedentary obesity, and depriving them of a childhood's measure of doing nothing, daydreaming and thinking. They quote ten-year-olds like Sophia from Brooklyn, saying things like "I have to rush, rush, rush, rush, rush, rush through my day, actually through my seven days, and that's seven days wasted in my life."

No Child Left Behind has to shoulder some of the blame here. No Child Left Behind and standardized testing not only turns your child into a slave to her test-scores, but they can even affect your property values: a school with low test-scores brings down the neighborhood property values. That means that whatever your approach to your kids, the chances are that the other parents in your neighborhood are busting their asses to get their kids great test scores, drilling them, sending them to tutors, helping them with assignments that they were meant to complete themselves. If you don't do the same, your kids will suffer by comparison.

The authors report on an elementary school in North Carolina where at least twenty standardized test books have to be replaced after their use because the stressed out elementary school kids working to them have vomited on them.

The stories go on and on, and just when you're ready to throw in the towel and send your kids into the woods to be raised by wolves, the authors supply several long chapters of strategies and sample dialogs for convincing your kids' teachers to ease off on homework, for changing the homework policies in your school district and for rallying other parents to their cause.

They're not whistling Dixie, either: the authors have gone through this themselves, challenging and changing the homework policies in their kids' school districts. The last section of the book is an activist guide and a postmortem of the strategies they employed. One of the authors, Sara Bennett, is a celebrated civil rights lawyer; the other, Nancy Kalish, is a famous editor and writer of material for parents, especially mothers. One imagines that their school board didn't know what hit them.

I was lucky enough to attend excellent, publicly funded alternative schools through my educational career. We had homework, but we were also given a lot of time for free play, and a lot of free rein to choose our subjects and design our curriculum -- I remember spending half of the fourth grade working my way through two or three math textbooks and the other half designing and writing a parody of MAD Magazine, to the exclusion of all other work. The next grade I followed the class for most of the semester, except when I didn't. In high-school, I took a year off, moved to a little house in Mexico, and wrote stories. All of this stuff contributed more to my learning than any amount of worksheets and homework ever could have.


Update: Sara Bennett, co-author of the book, writes in with StopHomework.com, her site to continue the movement.