The case against homework

The founder of Stop Homework argues the unfathomable: that common educational practices are cheating our kids out of a real education.

By Leslie Crawford

When it comes to homework wars, many parents feel like they’re waging a losing battle against apathy or excuse making. But what if you happen to side with your kids about the pointlessness of their assignments?

Sara Bennett, the founder of Stop Homework and coauthor of The Case Against Homework (Crown, 2006), raised hell and ultimately changed the homework policy at her daughter's school. GreatSchools talked to the lawyer turned reformer about preposterous projects and how children can learn to think for themselves.

GreatSchools: Why did you start an anti-homework campaign?

Sara Bennett: It started when my son brought homework home in the first grade. His first assignment was a reading log. He didn’t know how to read or write, so my husband and I filled in his log for him. At the first parent-teacher conference, the teacher said our son had to do the homework. I didn’t agree since he didn’t yet read.

I was an advocate in my work life, so it comes naturally to me to speak up. Whenever they’d talk about homework at my children’s school, I’d raise my hand and say, “Could you tell me why you’re doing this?”

Then in 2000 there was a big splash about a school in Piscataway, N.J., that stopped homework. And there was a book that came out around the same time, The End of Homework. This all gave me the factual basis that [homework] doesn’t make sense. It takes too much time, and it’s just busywork.

After that other parents came to me and said, “Can you help?” Also, my daughter, who is three years younger than my son, had more homework since she was caught up in No Child Left Behind. The standard became doing two hours a night. At that point, my husband and I were pretty radical about it and felt she didn’t need to do all this homework.

GreatSchools: Did that affect your daughter’s grades?

SB: Yes, she got pretty bad grades. But it was way, way, way too much homework. We had her do the background reading and not the assignments. But we did have her do the big projects so she wouldn’t be singled out.

GreatSchools: What about parents helping with homework?

SB: The first time I knew parents did projects for their kids was when my son was in third grade. They were supposed to make a little doll out of a clothespin that was representative of immigration. My son made the doll by himself.

I was riding my bike through the neighborhood and a parent said, “Hey, how’s your doll coming along?” When I asked, “What doll?” she answered, “Julian’s doll.” I told her that Julian [was] done with his doll. Then she told me that all the parents [were] making their children’s dolls.

It was unbelievable. When the dolls were displayed, my son’s was hidden in the back because it was the only one that looked like it didn’t belong in a museum. I went to the teacher and said, “Julian’s the only one who made his doll. I did third grade 30 years ago — I don’t need to now.” The teacher didn’t get it, but Julian did.

Both my children are artists. I think it’s because we never had our hands in their work [that] they continued to develop and are proud of their work.

GreatSchools: Dr. Harris Cooper’s synthesis of studies on homework indicates that homework does improve academic achievement.

SB: Did he say what it improves? My understanding of homework and achievement is that you will get a better course grade. Of course, you’ll get a better grade if doing homework counts for 10 or 20% of [it]. More than likely, you’ll also do better on the teacher-created tests by studying for them the night before. But that has nothing to do with actual learning. Most kids learn things for tests and then promptly forget them. That’s not real achievement. Real achievement is learning long-term life skills, the ability to be a creative thinker and work with others. Those should be the goals of education.

GreatSchools: One of your claims is that homework turns kids off learning.

SB: There are so many kids I know who don’t seem to be as intellectually curious as their parents were. My daughter went to a school at the beginning of sixth grade where, because there was a lot of homework, she never had time to read. I had her change schools. Her friends who stayed in that school are doing terribly at this point. They don’t like to read at all. They haven’t had time to develop their own interests. This is partially anecdotal, but it’s partially what educators are tearing their hair out over. Students today don’t know how to think; they don’t think outside the box.

GreatSchools: What should you do if your child has too much homework, or that it doesn’t help?

SB: My whole thing is that parents advocate for their kids. And there are different ways to advocate. If you’re going to complain, write an email but don’t send it for 24 hours. Be polite, and I always say less is more. Simply state what the problem is.

Often, teachers don’t think about homework. I had a conference with my child’s health teacher. The kids had to write a book report, and it had to be 12-point font and three pages, no more and no less. My daughter wrote her report, and it was two pages and excellent, but it wasn’t three pages, so she started to pad it. I said, “You are teaching the kids how to pad but not how to write.” [The teacher] didn’t get it.

GreatSchools: Is homework ever effective?

SB: If you are really engaged with something you’ve done at school and want to do more of it at home, that’s effective homework. If you’ve read one book by an author and you want to read four more books by another, that’s effective. To go home and answer questions about science or history, no. Are certain things necessary, maybe a little review if you’re taking a language class? You probably can do that during the school day.

Nobody is saying you should go home, sit down on your couch, and do nothing. But I feel like adults have more downtime than kids. If you go to the orthodontist, every kid is doing their homework, and adults are reading their book or magazine.

GreatSchools: Some say that the anti-homework contingent is led by middle- to upper-middle-class parents who have the luxury of saying no to homework. Whereas, low-income parents who want their children to get ahead expect them to work hard.

SB: If the schoolwork is busy work, it’s busy work whether you’re an upper-middle-class or a poor child. If in a poor school they are sending home books because [families] don’t have books in their homes, that’s great. To send home a worksheet that’s mind numbing — how does that help?

GreatSchools: But what if you want your child to go to the best college?

SB: What does that mean, the “best college?” What makes people successful is to do something they really love. It’s not a luxury; it’s a necessity. People are so worried about their kids not achieving, but if people stopped to think, they’d realize: The economy is unsettled; the job market is unsettled. I’m not sure what professions are going to be considered stable. The skills you need are to be a good problem solver, a creative thinker. Is homework teaching our kids these skills?

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.