10 votes

I’ve opted out of homework for my young children. Here’s why, and how you can, too.


  1. kfwyre
    (edited )
    As with any educational discourse, take any "studies show" comments with several grains of salt. Educational studies are notoriously limited and often overapplied. I can't tell you how many times...
    • Exemplary

    As with any educational discourse, take any "studies show" comments with several grains of salt. Educational studies are notoriously limited and often overapplied. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a best practice recommended as a universal mandate, only to find out it comes from a single study that looked at a single classroom in a single location in a single grade, or something similarly ridiculous. Being "data-driven" has been an educational buzzword for years now, but I rarely see people interrogate the validity of any data doing the driving and even less the conclusions drawn from it.

    This article is, unfortunately, a good example of this:

    Some research has indicated that homework is not helpful in elementary school

    This is quite non-committal as a statement on its own, given that "some research" can be used to support almost anything. Its link takes us to another article that references a study that was based on an online survey which was a convenience sample and that the study authors admit is non-representative of the US population. The only other support in the article is the cited position of Duke University psychologist Harris Cooper, who gives us a statement in 1989 that was then again revised in 2006. Given how much has changed in education since 2006, much less 1989, I question how much relevance these statements have today.

    The author's assertion continues:

    -- and could actually be harmful.

    This linked article primarily examines correlations, using data that compares the United States as a whole to other countries. While it's probable that they have some fantastic way of controlling for variables, I'm highly skeptical of this sort of analysis on account of the large, insurmountable differences that exist between countries on social, political, and policy levels. For example, the United States, famously and admirably, mandates education for all citizens including those with disabilities, regardless of severity. Many other countries do not do this, making comparisons between us potentially misleading. Furthermore, I question whether certain comparative factors were accounted for. The article cites East Asia as having low levels of homework but speaks nothing of the cram schools and additional private education popular in those countries. Though they would likely not be seen as "homework" in the literal sense, they fit the spirit of the question if we're examining academic burdens that exist outside the regular school day.

    I say all of this not because I'm trying to shoot down the hard work of the people doing these studies, or even the author of this article (I support her right to opt-out!). I'm saying this because no matter how loose or rigorous any particular study is, its findings are likely to be misapplied anyway in an educational climate that's based on mistrust and blame. This parent looks at homework and mentions of these studies and comes to the conclusion that it's the problem. Case closed. Science said so (allegedly).

    Speaking as a teacher, and with no studies to support my beliefs whatsoever, I think homework is less of an issue on its own and more a symptom of larger issues: primarily the compression of curriculum that we've experienced in the US. Kids are asked to do way more, way quicker than they have in the past, despite the time that kids spend in school being roughly the same. It's a natural progression that if the pace and demands of the curriculum increase, that will carry with it a corresponding time demand which hasn't been accounted for.

    I've talked briefly before about this concept before:

    Everything has gotten much more stressful and accelerated. When I was in school, we had 7 minute passing periods. I used that time to chat with friends or just take a mental break. Now, because there can be more "time on learning," those have been removed. Every school I have worked at has reduced passing periods to a mere 2 minutes, making some students frantic on a daily basis that they are going to be late (especially if they have a long walk). Also we are supposed to have an activity ready for the moment students enter the room and we are supposed to teach until the very last second (this is called "bell-to-bell rigor"). There is zero time during the day for a student to turn their brain off.

    Homework is another extension of this. It's no longer a luxury or an enrichment but a built in spillover of academic duty for kids. They're asked to do the homework because it's the only way we can expect kids to meet the standards asked of them. There's simply not enough time otherwise. When the author quotes the hypothetical colleagues stating "Why is there so much? When I was a kid, we didn't have this many work sheets," she's unintentionally highlighting this discrepancy. Stuff that used to be higher-level has been pushed earlier and earlier, younger and younger. Those worksheets didn't come about because teachers want to take away children's childhoods and free time; they're there because they're seen as necessary to having students reach the academic goals put upon them.

    In many ways, the model for homework mirrors the teaching career at large. We are tasked with simply too much to do on any given day that there's an expected spillover to our jobs. Talk to nearly any career teacher about their work and you'll hear about early arrivals, late departures, nights, and weekends. Part and parcel of our work is overworking. It's an expectation. We work inside of a transparently unsustainable setup that guarantees burnout, and it's now been reconstituted for our students. Do more than you can, we're all told, every single day.

    Outside of all the other related issues, the nature of homework being a necessary evil creates an irresolvable friction for teachers. If we assign little or no homework, we'll appease parents who feel that homework is a burden, but we'll draw ire from parents who feel our job is to prepare students for the path ahead, no matter how rigorous. If we instead assign more, we'll appease the people who demand the most from their kids, but we'll anger those who think we're stealing away their children's livelihoods. This is a tough balance to find, and it's not uncommon for teachers to be accused of simultaneously assigning too much and too little work, depending on which parents you talk to.

    This article suggests that homework later becomes useful in middle and high school (and it does), but the problem with de-emphasizing it at lower levels, in my experience, is that students then fail to build up the soft skills associated with sustained individual focus, learning, and practice. They also fail to learn the purpose of it in the first place.

    The author mentions that several years ago there was widespread conversation about the harms of homework, but that such conversations are now dying down. I can speak to that. In the schools I've worked in, very serious conversations were had about the role of homework, and policies were changed in response to these. There's a lot to be said for this: homework as a policy tends to punish students whose parents cannot or choose not to help them on it. It puts undue burden on students who are involved in extracurricular activities, are employed, or have significant duties at home (e.g. caring for ailing parents, younger siblings, etc.). It is the single most rampant point of cheating for students, with copying homework seen as an inconsequential, everyday process -- all the easier now that pictures can be so easily shared via phones. When I was growing up people used to have to wait to copy their friends' homework on the bus or in the cafeteria before school started. Now one person's work can be circulated instantaneously and at any time, shared through chains of students to reach nearly anyone who wants it.

    The district I work in broadly de-emphasized homework in response to these concerns, and the students who were young and just beginning to embark on their educational careers when these policies were implemented are just now reaching me. I have no studies to back this up, and my experience is purely anecdotal, but in the past two years the other teachers I work with and I have noticed a sharp uptick in students who flat out will not do homework. As in they won't even attempt it. As in they won't even attempt to cheat on it.

    So many of my students don't do homework, and for many of them it's because they're unable to do it-- not because they cannot execute the desired academic skills but because they can't sit down for half an hour and work through a fair but challenging task. Speaking broadly: they've never had to before, outside of school, because we as adults took that expectation away. Furthermore, they resent the implication that they should have to do it in the first place. They are unwilling to engage with the idea of independent work conducted on their own behalf being at all valuable to them. They don't see content as theirs to learn but only as ours to teach. It's all take and no give. I can't help but assume some of this is because we've been structurally enabling this belief during the formative years of their lives. Or is it phones? (It's probably phones).

    Homework, to them, is an imposition we do not have the authority to make -- an encroachment on their time, as well as a failure of our duty to properly instruct them. If they don't get something during school, they assume it's our fault and that they have no role in that. And even then, they're not enthusiastically hanging on our every word. I heard a colleague pessimistically describe how students see our instruction as "merely interruption from Instagram," and it's painful how much that shoe fits. In a world of adolescent social media, we're dated dinosaurs simply getting in the way of what they really want. It's enough of a struggle to get the students to focus and work even when they're in our rooms and they're not allowed on their phones. When they're at home, surrounded by more fulfilling and meaningful distractions? Forget about it!

    Certainly this isn't every student, but it's more and more of them. This year is the worst it's ever been, and the sentiment is shared across the board with the teachers I work with. We discuss at lunch how few of them know how to be students. There's a pervasive passivity and helplessness that's draining not only their educations but also our energy.

    I don't blame the kids, nor do I say any of this because I am a big believer in homework. Again, I go back to the issue of homework being a symptom. If the copier keeps getting jammed, we shouldn't just pull out the paper and assume it's working fine. Instead, the constant jams let us know something's wrong with its operation. It needs a structural or mechanical fix. This is how I see the problems of homework. It's not that the idea is fundamentally wrong, and I do think there is value in having to do some of it. After all, it's simply unreasonable to expect, even with reasonable academic standards, that all students will learn all material within school hours. Sometimes people will have to put in a little extra, and sometimes that little extra teaches valuable soft skills about time management, work habits, independence, and resilience -- things that are much harder to learn when an adult is guiding your learning for you.

    The author here is pulling the jammed paper out of the copier. She's identified the issue as best she can see it and is fixing it in the manner she best knows how. I don't resent her for that, and, as previously mentioned, actually support her in it. As a teacher, I will always support an involved, reflective, and informed parent acting in the best interest of their kids! We would be lucky to have more parents like her!

    To me, however, there's a lot more worth to be examined in why the copier is jamming than there is in clearing the paper. It keeps happening, after all, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better on its own.

    11 votes
  2. sublime_aenima
    Funnily enough, my son's English teacher just sent out a mass email last week apologizing for assigning so much homework and promising that while the kids would still have homework, she would be...

    Funnily enough, my son's English teacher just sent out a mass email last week apologizing for assigning so much homework and promising that while the kids would still have homework, she would be reducing the amount. Too many kids have extracurricular activities and were staying up too late to finish the endless stream of homework in her class. Back when my daughter had her, my wife complained about the amount of homework and the response was that my daughter needed better time management skills. I was hoping the article here linked to some scholarly articles, but the only links were to other articles in the WaPo, that I can no longer access.

    5 votes