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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.

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.

Comments from readers

"I totally agree. I am in 7th grade and every night when I get math homework I think either that he is giving me something to do that i have done tons of other times before that i already have memorized or something that i have never done before with no examples. "
"EXCELLENT POINTS!!! My daughter has been in the gifted program for all of her 8 years and early on she thought the homework was a waste of time because it was always given in quanity instead of quality. She was penalized for not completing a reading log in her own hand writing when in fact at that point, 'NEWS FLASH, SHE COULDN'T READ OR WRITE". Today, the idea of homework is still a,"HOT MESS"! "
"In 7th Grade the expectations are automatically as college students expectations usually are. THIS IS WAY TOO MUCH!!!!!! "
"My personal favorite is my grandson is 5 years old and in kindergarten, every night he has to write his spelling words three times each (total 18 words) then do a math page and read for 20 minutes. Little much wouldn't you say, he doesn't have time to do anything else when he gets home!!! Like have a little time to do the things a 5 year old enjoys. "
"Its not about homework, its about learning. And I guess she doesn't think learning is worthwhile. Especially kids who do not understand what they hear in class and the teacher has too many in the class to really focus on one student. Reviewing what was said in class helps to understand the topic so when the class moves on the student can keep up. So much is school is dismissed as irrelevant but I for one think if students learned history, they we could stop repeating it. If they learned math, they'd be less likely to be duped by unscrupulous lenders, if they learned to read and write, they could communicate. I see no time wasted learning. Sad she doesn't care if her kids learn. "
"This is an excellent interview and this mother makes excellent points. Homework in our time has become too unquestioned and every school practice deserves to be questioned. Schools tend to mirror society - right or wrong - and 'multitasking' is a buzz word in modern society. Yet is 'multitasking' good for children and does it serve learning? Homework can be optional. Some parents want their children doing homework and others would prefer that their children have time to do free reading or - go outside and play - and children used to do. Having taught at many levels over many years, I saw homework do far more harm than good and I applaud this mother for her courage in taking on the system and advocating for positive change."
"That last statement from SB is so true. Which begs the question to be asked again and again. What are teachers really doing with our children. A country that was once #1 in the world now #10 in academics. There is so much more to be said about our school systems in Amercia today that don't work. "
"I totally agree with the idea of no homework. Students shouldn't need to come home and have an extended day because of homework. Kids need a break too and most kids have afterschool activities and a family life. Adding the burden of homework is a waste and an interruption and in the long run accomplishes little of significant value. If the course content cannot be taught during the school day, then there is a problem."
"Another thing teachers don't understand is that we have a life out of school. I get about5 to 6 hours of homework of night and I have not time to spend with friends or family (at least if I want to eat and sleep). I mane I've heard my teachers say so many times 'Sorry I couldn't grade our papers I was spending time with friends and family'. Well what about us. Then when ever I complain about the amount they say, 'Well I didn't give you much homework.' Well you have to remember we have more than one class also. You need to get together with teachers and avoid that. I don't think we should have any homework at all but I see that point of view from a little and I understand."
"Another thing teachers don't understand is that we have a life out of school. I get about5 to 6 hours of homework of night and I have not time to spend with friends or family (at least if I want to eat and sleep). I mane I've heard my teachers say so many times 'Sorry I couldn't grade our papers I was spending time with friends and family'. Well what about us. Then when ever I complain about the amount they say, 'Well I didn't give you much homework.' Well you have to remember we have more than one class also. You need to get together with teachers and avoid that. I don't think we should have any homework at all but I see that point of view from a little and I understand."
"i see a lot of agreement on this issue but i haven't seen any suggestions for what to do about it. i have told my kids' teachers that we will not commit to homework, and their answers are that basically my kids' grades will suffer for it. what can i do to prevent teachers from allowing that? principals and school boards just agree with the teachers. who else do i tell this to?"
"One comment I regularly hear from parents who support homework is - 'it prepares you for later life'. My question is - what later life? In university - they told me to forget everything I learned in school about studying, they will teach me 'properly'! At home my wife says 'if I ever bring my work home and ignore the family - she'll clobber me!' So, what is the point of homework again?? "
"I think homework should be limited to less than an hour. They should have a a little bit of math and reading. My grandson would get homework Monday-Thursday and he would spend at least two hours doing it. He would get so frustated because he had to work all day and school then at home too. Kids do need to have free time also to be able to unwind after being in school all day. "
"After being in school all day, why should a child spend all evening doing homework? Yes they need to memorize spelling words and math facts, but why do HOURS of homework? Dinner and chores take up some of the evening and isn't it is important to enjoy FAMILY TIME. I say no more than 1 hour total for homework, unless they are having problems with a subject."
"I am in middle school right now and I think that while most of this article is valid, some of it is slightly overblown. I'm a normal kid; I absolutely HATE doing homework. But part of school is learning how to do things you don't want to do. I will definitely say that a LOT of homework is just busywork that the teachers don't bother to grade or even look at, but a lot of the homework really helps me grasp the material. At my school, if you're having trouble completing work, then the teachers are happy to meet with you (not meddling parents either, but the student) and help you finish without doing it for you. I think that in middle school one to two hours a night works quite well so you get enough practice, but you're not overwhelmed. And extra-curricular activities? Most teachers understand if you need extensions or if you need to reschedule an exam! I just think that homework shouldn't be COMPLETELY eliminated, it should just be seriously reevaluated. :)"
"Any time a student has more than 20 minutes of homework is too much, quoted from a great Regional Director Jody Johnson, If a child has more than 20 miniutes than the teachers are not doing their job,they might as well put the parents on the payroll cause at my house homework is overwhelming, I feel like I am punishing my kids cause they couldn't keep up with their peers, Wrong, its lack of teaching and lack of knowledge they feel like better teachers by assigning homework and they think that makes them look better, Shame on Early Independent School District, they have kids with reading difficulties reading to other children with learning difficulties, If that makes since. The Special Ed Department hides itself, when you ask for shorten assignments and the next day the math teacher which my son has math dyscalculia, to do 50 problems, the whole system needs an overhaul. Run but not to this district run away. If they don't pass then they don't play sports I say if they don't ! stop the homework will stop their pay. Rally parents and teachers together, Rally for Change, these Taks test and teachers who enjoy watching chidren do lousy love teacher parent conferences, so they can tell us how our kids need to be responsible, lead by example and take some advice you be responsible for TOO MUCH HOMEWORK! "
"I am in eigth grade and I believe that I am getting way too much homework from my teachers. Most of the work is busy work, repetitive, or poorly graded. For example, in math, we have around 20 problems a night, all of these problems are exactly the same except the numbers are changed. In History, most of it is just busy work and the teacher grades it for accuracy, based on his answers.The would be okay except that the questions are very vague. For example, if one problem asks for what happens in 1835, and the book says event A and event B happened in 1835,and the teacher says event A happened but you wrote event B you get points off. And the teacher doesn't even grade it, we switch with other students and the teacher calls out the answers so the teacher can not go back and accept event B even if he said event A. This has really hurt my grade (I had an A in History the year before and now I have a C). I do think my Language Arts teacher and my Science teacher give homework co! rrectly. My L.A. teacher gives out HW once or twice a week which is not too bad. My science teacher gives HW every day, but it is not busy work, I actually learn and it does not take more than 20 minutes. The teacher also has a good way of grading it. He does not check it the day after, but has a 6 question quiz on it to test that you understand it, the quiz is also counted out of 5 so you can get one wrong and still get an A. He then checks them all together every two weeks or so, so you have time to finish it if you did not do it."
"WHAT?! Since when are four letter words acceptable in good journalism? Where are the stats to back up the lawyer turned no-homework advocate? What utter nonsense for this 'do-gooder advocate' to even be given the time of day. Waste of time and energy to read this article "
"I like many of SB's comments and agree that some teachers are confusing effective work with alot of busy work. Personally I think this is lazy throw away thinking. A quick fix aka busy work makes it look as though the teacher who barely has time herself to look and check all and every students work is useless. I think that homework should only be given when and if the teacher himself is willing and able to spend time with each student and help them through some of the difficulties of the hw. I was always under the impression that homework helped the teacher recognize where a student needs more help. I guess I myself was very fortunate to have had such types of teachers. TBTG!"
"I have a first grader who has been bombarded with homework this year. We easily spend two to three hours a night with her on it. She is frustrated and I don't blame her. We have tears almost every night. It makes her hate school. She has always wanted to work with animals, and now when I tell her about college after 'grade school' she cringes. I told my husband that it is unfair to make these children sit in a desk majority of the day and then have to come home and sit all night as well. That on top of only having a 15 minute recess during the day? People wonder why our kids are all overweight? I had 30 min. to Hour long recess and lunch. We would eat lunch and play for an hour. I want to teach my daughter self-discipline, that is where I think a little homework that she can manage on her own at night would be great... but my husband and I have to work full time jobs and then come home and wrestle with her every night. I have tried working with the school, but her teacher is! a combative fruit loop. So we are praying to get through first grade with passing grades, yet no love lost between the parents and the daughter. We are trying to give her a foundation at home that includes confident self-esteem, humility, and a love for mankind. We want her morals and mind to be the best that they can be. After a half year of stressing over this I have just decided to work what she can and focus on what I think my child needs. If we don't get all the homework done this year... so what. Do I really think Texas A & M is going to ask what her grades were in first grade when she wants to apply to pre-vet (if that continues to be her choice)? Absolutely not! So... who cares if she doesn't get all her homework done. If she is picking it up in school - all is well. We will give her what she needs to reinforce that. I love to read and I haven't had time to share a book with her in the evenings because we have so much paperwork. Its so disheartening that I can't in! still the same passion of any kind in her. I don't bring my wo! rk home with me, Dr.'s and 'proffessionals' advise against that for stress why should our children? Seriously!"
"I believe that she is right. Homework is busy work. The teachers in my district don't even grade it. How does a first grader qualify as a grader for his seat buddies work? Then second problem with homework is the student never gets feed back from the teacher when they don't get it. Remember the adage 'learn from your mistakes'? No feedback, no learning. My experience with education is educators are more interested and engaged in preserving the institution than child development and teaching. This sounds harsh, but the truth is usually a bitter pill. It is amazing that she got reform thru, I wonder how long before the district starts to undermine it."
"I really agree that too much homework is very harmful. It makes the kids hate school at an early age. It also causes a lot of tension between the parents and the child. It's the States fault for making the teachers waste time on projects and subject material that is not necessary for life skills. The schools need to stick to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. "
"I am kind of in the middle about homework or no homework. If the homework is busywork or covers something not learned in class, then it's useless. A lot of teachers give homework so that kids can be having school out side of school. Also, kids should have more time for recess and lunch. One reason why teachers give homework is because students are being loud or rambunctious in class. If kids have more time for recess, they would release some of that energy and be more calm in class. And if you do give homework, that is on something not learned in class, many students will do it wrong and get frustrated. This will waste time in class because then you would have to go over the homework and explain how to do it, rather than just learning it the next day. I don't think students should have a lot of homework. I don't think students should do busywork, whether at home or school. And, I don't think students should have homework that their parents do for them. "
"To have no playtime as a child is ridiculous, but I still think homework-- in moderation has its place. One of the big changes in the amount of homework is related to the increased number and level of standards required of teachers and students. Example: in the 50s kids who went to kindergarten painted, sang, and played house for 3 hours a day. In the 70s kids who went to kindergarten played, sang, and learned letters and numbers for 3 hours a day. Now, kindergarteners (in CA) need to learn to read, add, and subtract, and many attend 6.5 hours a day. Of course they have homework-- the workload for all has increased substantially. I teach middle school and have way more to teach than could possibly be taught well without the review to happen at home. We are expected to teach in a manner that is project-based, but expected to do so in 48-minute periods and also cover all the standards. Well if they are focusing on one or two standards in the project, but there are 5 in! the unit, then they won't be learning them all unless we cover them all in some other way. I think it is not the teachers, but the standards, that are unreasonable. I am a firm believer in 'less is more' and think that students could learn more and ENJOY learning more if they could have a chance to think more deeply about fewer things. That said, doing homework does teach time management and good habits, which our youth of today will definitely need."
"While this article is about teens, I believe that in general homework is overdone. My mother and aunt and I taught an agregate of 46 years in primary grades and never gave homework. We didn't have children who couldn't read or do arithmetic (a word unknown by some children, 'What's that?') Also I never had homework until I went to college and I did very well; in fact I spoke at commencement. Of course we just walked down the street and enrolled in a liberal arts college. No test to get in. But I was curious and a great reader. Too many electronic stimulants today."
"I wholeheartedly agree with the underlying arguments in this article! That said, I am NOT totally against homework. I am against pointless assignments, like giving kids (especially young kids) worksheets on a regular basis regardless if the kid has aced the material, regardless if the kid learns best another way. Many independent schools already are enlightened about what constitutes meaningful homework. Public schools need to catch up. "
"I'm West Indian and was fortunate to be schooled in Jamaica. I went to high school at 11 y/o. At no time during my school life in my 3rd world country, was I every instructed to go home to do a science project. Science projects were conducted in the confides of the school's lab with a teacher and teacher's aide present. We worked in groups and a full discussion took place after to discuss the different outcomes; as this is certain to happen - different outcomes. Tell me what happens to the child whose parent(s) cannot afford to buy the material needed to perform the experiment? What about the parent(s) whose educational background does not facilitate him/her helping the child with this project? Does this child fail the class? Is the child considered a failure? For all the reasons mentioned above we send our children to school. I am of the opinion that many of these projects are really in-school activities; however, the teachers have found a new way to do NOTHING and still be! able to confidently tell the principal that their curriculum is complete. What is meant by 'No Child Left Behind'? This sounds so challenging, but the challenge is not for the teacher it is for the parent(s) if you evaluate how they give home work. The home work is not for the child(ren) it is more for the parent. These teachers do not appear to understand that many families are single family home. Mom and often times dad works late and on going home the child(ren) is?are already asleep. The child(ren) spentr many frustrating hours of trying to do home work on a subject that WAS NOT taught in class that day or any other. Mom/dad is unable to help because the subject matter of the home work is ambigious. I'm thinking of taking my princesses out of the NYC system and sending them to my homeland for a good quality education. The educational system here is mediocre and only set up for children to fail. "
"As a parent of 4 and Director of the 3D Learner Program (R), for kids who learn differently, I too am against Homework insanity -- but the right homework can really help - in moderation The testing insanity impacting our kids must be changed -- but we need to develop life long learners who can compete in the global economy We do need to be involved -- and insist on meaningful assignments and moderation "
" I agree...stop the homework excess and have the kids learn life skills.What you don't use you lose."
"As a former teacher, current parent, I find much of this very belligerent and short-sighted. Like many of you guys, I also question her definition of success for her kids. Certainly all homes are different and many kids are involved in math in hands on ways--like baking cookies and therefore wouldn't need to practice fractions as much. I personally find the projects like the fourth grade mission project or the above mentioned clothespin project to be too troublesome for homework. I believe that either the parents must in instructed on how to help the child break the projects into manageable chunks yet not intervene or the materials should be in the classroom for the kids to work on after school. However, when I was a teacher, there were times when the parents would come in and complain about the amount of homework. If I thought the complaint was valid for that particular child, I would work with them to find the essential part of the lesson and remove the busywork. If I thought the child was being difficult with mommy, I would have the child sit next to me and begin his/her homework while we talked. About five times I did this and each time the parent was amazed that the child had correctly finished the homework within a few minutes. At home, there would be protestations of 'I don't know how' or 'It's too hard!' but since kids save their biggest battles for their parents, the teachers have it pretty easy:) The lesson, make sure the child really doesn't know. Observe in the classroom and see if the work is similar and if in the classroom the child is fully capable of finishing quickly. Also, set a timer for 15 minutes to see if the child can beat it. "
"Both of my children attend a school where homework is not given until fourth grade. My children frequently have a difficult time finding peers to play with in our community due to the fact that so many of them attend the other elementary schools in town and do not have the 'luxury' of free play time after school. One adult neighbor commented on how calm my children are and that they have never seen or heard them have a meltdown. When I pointed out that they are able to burn off energy and get regular exercise and natural sunlight, she answered that '....your children do not know how lucky they are.' Is this really what we have become? "
"Ms. Crawford obviously does not have a real job. If my son's resume says 'good problem solver and creative thinker' but no other skills, how likely is it that he will get a job? What happened to hard work? I did my homework growing up and I thought it helped a lot. Just reading about something is never enough to learn it. You have to apply what you read in order to really learn it. Her job as an 'advocate' may not require these skills, but most other jobs do."
"I know that I have learned - or relearned - a lot by helping my kids with their homework. All the busy work has probably been better for me than for them! As far as the art projects go, kids should do them themselves - perhaps with some guidance but other than than that, the parents should keep out of the projects - if they want to do the project, they can make one of their own. My kids are fortunate in that they come from a artistically challenged mother and they know that anything they create will be better than something with which I help!"
"If I could reach parents nation wide, my plea would be to GET INVOLVED. Ridiculous and damaging steps are being taken in education following the truly inane No Child Left Behind movement. As a retired teacher who subs, I see teachers in tears at the demands of administrators who have PHD's and no true sense of how or what should be taught. The children are losing out!!!"
"finally i 100% agree that homework is a waste as a single mom of 4 in IEP.homework had become an enemy of our house it leads to hours of work for the children after a full day of school and of work for me i get so fed up i tend to just do it for them as do a lot of parents i know.obviously this isnt helping the kids but to sit and struggle at home after struggling all day at school isnt helping their confidence either so homework is actually hurting children not helping "
"Hello!!! I some what agree about the homework been too much for the kids, I believe that they do need homework but not 2 hours or more every day, they don't need too feel stress out because of the volume of work given to them."