Saying no to homework

I rebelled against homework at an early age. As an undiagnosed ADD dyslexic, all it did was made me feel stupid. So I just said no. The classes weren’t that hard and I’d do the reading. But I wasn’t about to do any math or French. No one wanted me a second time, so I surfed along from grade to grade with low but passing grades. My senior year, Col. Walker, who taught us economics and Problems of American Democracy (an anti-communism course with a text written by J. Edgar Hoover), called my bluff the day before my not-yet-begun research paper was due. I pulled my first all-nighter and turned in a poorly written paper that allowed me to graduate.

I hated homework then, but that pales to how much I hate it as a parent. (A disclaimer here: as a teacher, I assigned homework. I believed in it. I was wrong.) I promise you, homework was not invented by the parent of a special needs child. Every day the school would send me home an exhausted, grouchy fifth grader and expect her to do geometry (she can’t multiply), write essays (she first needs to learn to write a single good sentence) or some other equally undoable assignment. Family time was nonexistent. The week a close friend was dying, I wrote the school and told them that homework would not be a priority, that during that week we would be concentrating on our friend and our family. I got a return email explaining that homework was an expectation and not doing it would result in D#2’s not being able to fully participate in class. Bad parent!

Homework is one of those ideas that sounds good in theory: practicing skills, involving the parents in the child’s education, and learning time management. It might surprise you to learn that there is very little correlation between homework and those things. Instead, homework strains families, frustrates kids and is generally not meaningful enough to be done at school. Internationally, the countries that show the highest academic scores—Japan, the Czech Republic, and Denmark—assign very little homework. The countries at the bottom of the list generally assign much more.

During the time that a child should be playing outside, exploring interests, developing passions, and learning how to interact socially, many kids are spending up to three hours a night on homework—and that’s in elementary school. Parents often feel obliged to be heavily involved. Indeed, in affluent school systems, the demand for homework is very often parent-driven. But this means that children from single-parent, non English speaking, or low income families may not have that parental involvement. When homework is necessary to participate in class, these kids find themselves at a disadvantage, thus widening the ever-growing gap between privileged learners and those who aren’t for whatever reason.

More and more educators are starting to see the harm that excessive and unnecessary homework can do. In a thoughtful article called “Rethinking Homework”, a principal talks about three important facts about homework: the negative effects of homework are well-known, the positive effects of homework are largely mythical, and more homework is being piled on students despite its lack of value. He goes on to make recommendations as to how homework can be improved.

One of the articles he quotes, “Homework Hell”, talks about homework from a parent’s point of view. She rails against the craft-type homework that requires late night runs to Wal-Mart. I join her in feeling admiration for the child who demonstrates higher level thinking skills in doing as little as possible on a particularly silly project: Assigned to construct a relief map of one of the 50 states out of plaster of Paris, the boy chose Nebraska. He made a flat rectangle. As his aunt said, “You’ve got to love a kid who puts into the assignment exactly the effort it’s worth.”

Homework almost sent my child and me over the edge. I feel very fortunate to have been able to pull her from her homework-loving school and put her in a school where lots of learning takes place, but no homework is assigned. Her anxiety has plummeted. Interestingly, she occasionally can be found after school doing research and writing stories and reports. She brought home a book she is interested in reading. The pressure is off; let the learning begin.

We have a name for adults who work all day and then continue at home as well: workaholics. We know that is not healthy. I hope someday we will realize that is equally true for children and let them spend their afternoons and evenings learning in experiential and active ways. Until then, perhaps more of us should just say no.