At the turn of the 20th century, Americans were keen on constrictive corsets, the name “Mary” and morse code. They were not so keen on homework.
In an op-ed from 1900, Ladies Home Journal editor Edward Bok criticized the after-school scourge for compromising children’s mental and physical health, and for interfering with their natural inclination toward free-play. Lawmakers, too, tried to uproot homework. A group of California school districts passed local anti-homework regulations and, in 1901, the state legislature abolished all homework in grades K through 8.
Still, the value of homework remained a source of ongoing debate. As with hemlines and beards, the trendy stance on homework has changed by the decade. On one end, you have anti-busywork platforms that denounce mindless repetition. On the other, there are homework-happy policies fueled by paranoia that America’s children are falling behind their studious counterparts in the Soviet Union, Japan, China or another imperialist threat du jour.
The problem is, it’s not clear that more homework leads to better academic performance. In countries “beating” the U.S. academically, homework doesn’t begin to measure up. In Japan, for example, teens dedicate about an hour each night to the task; in Finland, teens might have 30 or 40 minutes worth.
“There’s still some notion that you need homework because that’s what kids do,” said Denise Pope, a researcher at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and co-founder of an educational organization called Challenge Success. “But there’s nothing in the literature that says homework in elementary schools has any impact on achievement. Even for high school kids, there’s some [demonstrated] benefit, but only up to a certain amount of time. It begins to drop off at around one-and-a-half hours.”
Today, down-with-homework attitudes are once again on the rise in pedagogical circles, but workloads haven’t eased up accordingly. The last 30 years saw an uptick in homework: Between 1981 and 2004, according to a University of Michigan survey, volume increased 51 percent. (These numbers, I should note, have inspired skepticism.)
Admittedly, homework does a few things exceptionally well: It bulldozes family time, stresses young children and delays bedtimes. With a number of studies linking paltry shut-eye in kids to obesity, anxiety, depression and poor academic performance, why do we still insist on filling their nights with mindless busywork?
Parents Just Can Understand
Brooklyn mom Sara Bennett helped kick off the most recent homework backlash in 2006, with The Case Against Homework, a book she co-wrote with Nancy Kalish. Thousands of similarly frustrated parents have since joined the cause.
Writing for the Atlantic in 2013, Karl Taro Greenfeld chronicled the week he spent doing his eighth-grade daughter’s homework (alongside her, not for her). Not yet in high school, his daughter worked until midnight, and even snuck out of bed to finish assignments after her parents forced her to put down the protractor and catch some ZZZs.
“As I watch my daughter struggle through school days on too little sleep,” Greenfeld wrote, “and feel almost guilty if she wants to watch an hour of television instead of advancing a few yards in the trench warfare of her weekly homework routine, I have my doubts.”
Greenfeld estimated that she spent four hours each night doing homework and just six-and-a-half sleeping — falling far short of the 9 1/4 hours of recommended rest for kids her age. From Pope's research (which focuses on kids in 6th through 12th grade at high-performing public and private schools), high-schoolers average six hours and change each night, and middle-schoolers log somewhere below eight.
His daughter’s homework mantra — “memorization, not rationalization” — suggested that she, too, recognized a degree of futility in the nightly drudgery. But, being a good kid, she was resigned to the grind.
It’s hard to tell if this anti-homework activism is making a difference. According to a 2014 homework survey by the for-profit institution Phoenix University, middle- and high-school teachers assign an average of 42 minutes of daily homework per class. Put each kid in five classes, and they’re staring down at least three hours of daily homework as early as the sixth grade. (Incidentally, the survey revealed that more tenured teachers consistently assigned less homework.) While it’s hard to find a definitive figure — kids work at varied speeds and take different Snapchat breaks — that three-ish-hour average for high school students has surfaced repeatedly, including studies involving Stanford’s Denise Pope.
Is three hours a lot? For a kid who gets home from soccer at 7 p.m. and has yet to crack open a book, yes. Or a kid who eschews extra-curriculars but works at a markedly below-average pace? Yes. For plenty of students, three hours is a lot.
That’s not to say the case for less homework is lost on deaf ears; more public and private schools have implemented homework limits. Many adopt some version of the 10-minute rule metric. Endorsed by the National Parent Teacher Association, this rule allows students in first grade to receive 10 minutes of homework a night. With each subsequent grade, teachers can tack on another 10 minutes, maxing out at 120 cumulative minutes a night for high school seniors.
In 2014, Palo Alto, a high-performing suburb of San Francisco, instituted a 10-minute rule in elementary and middle school, and a seven-to-10-hour weekly maximum for high school. But even these limits have their limits. Palo Alto, for example, exempted Advanced Placement courses from the rule, reasoning that higher-level coursework might require a greater time commitment.
Some schools are taking even bolder steps. Last March, P.S. 116, a public elementary school in Manhattan, did away with take-home math worksheets and essays altogether. Somewhat ironically, this move didn’t sit well with the parents. Some threatened to pull their children from school; others resorted to making up their own assignments.
Across the U.S., other schools have issued comparable bans. In Rockville, Maryland, an elementary school ditched traditional homework in 2012, requesting instead that students read for 30 minutes a night. A private K-8 academy in California similarly eliminated homework, denouncing the practice as “largely pointless.”
Learning the Loopholes
What constitutes homework in the first place? Worksheets? Memorizing multiplication tables? Vocabulary exercises? What about art projects, extra-credit assignments, term papers and test prep?
“A definition is tough,” said Pope, “but, loosely, it’s anything done outside of class that has to do with school. But teachers might say anything assigned (emphasis my own) at school.”
Homework shouldn’t be the default, and it shouldn’t lack purpose, according to Pope. “[Teachers] should really ask why kids need to do the assignment, does it tie back to class, is it something that could be done in the classroom? And that’s really different from a worksheet with 60 math problems.”
It’s easier to change labels than the ingrained practices. Maybe, in five years, the term “homework” will refer solely to busywork; everything else will fall under “supra-class enrichment” or another euphemism yet to be coined.
This was the problem for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). In 2011, a first draft of a homework policy left open loopholes and established blanket measures that didn’t make sense. When they tried again, the policy-makers were careful to define and delineate “homework” from other, arguably more important tasks. The LA Times wrote:
“The [revised] policy makes an important distinction between routine homework and long-term assignments such as research papers, which would be exempt from the limits and could count toward a higher percentage of the overall grade… The new policy also would allow individual schools to vary from the district-wide rules as long as teachers and parents were involved in the decision to do so.”
Note that last sentence — teachers and parents must be jointly “involved in the decision.” Consider a second-grade class rife with Tiger moms. Despite the district’s sane homework policy, could mutiny by a minority of overachieving parents strip away classwide protections, leaving all students subject to the tyranny of traditional homework overload? Sounds like it.
No one’s saying that reading, writing and ’rithmetic aren’t the fundamental pillars to every child’s education. But we want kids to be curious and immersed learners, not verb-conjugating drones, desk-bound and bleary-eyed even before they’ve had the pleasure of joining the workforce. The current escalation looks more like an irrational academic arms race than a proven way to help children grow into well-rounded adults.
Every day, per Pope and her colleagues’ research, kids need three things: playtime, downtime and family time. Whether it’s a five, ten- or 16-year-old, homework should make room for these daily segments — whatever form they may take — not steamroll over them.
Perhaps the best way to ensure that kids don’t toil away in homework hell is to focus on what they should be doing — namely, getting sweaty, using their imaginations, smiling and sleeping. In the words of one Bart Simpson: Homework Sucks.