The Homework Wars
Illustration by João Fazenda
It was like we didn’t even know each other: There was my 10-year-old son, nostrils flared, chin down, vibrant blue eyes turned red from tears and anger, looking like a possessed mini Minotaur. And then there was me, the livid and indignant mom, absolutely certain that I was right.
“I can’t have a son who doesn’t do his homework!” I said. Actually, I didn’t say it. I full-on yelled it. Six inches from his face. Okay, maybe I was the one who’d actually turned into the bull.
In my defense, by the time I got to yelling we’d been fighting for more than 30 minutes, and I certainly wasn’t the first between us to lose it. But I was abnormally pissed. He’d been caught lying about having fully done his homework for weeks, and his teacher and I had just discovered it together. Admittedly, this wasn’t your garden-variety scrum over homework: It was what can only be described as a knock-down, drag-out battle with someone one-quarter my age. My opponent believed he was desperately fighting for his freedom; I thought I was desperately fighting for his life.
It wasn’t just that he’d lied to me (though that was bad enough); no, I remember feeling absolutely overwhelmed with panic. The soliloquy ricocheting in my head was: If he’s not taking this seriously now, he never will. This is his entire future we’re talking about.
Like plenty of my friends and fellow parents, I was raised to believe in the value of homework. I had two perfectionist parents, both shaped by New England puritanical notions of diligence, who taught me that doing lots of homework—in fact, working overtime at just about any pursuit—was always a sign of virtuousness. Besides that, it also seemed to imply to the world that you were smart, and that you valued education—two other longtime New England ideals. Oh, and that you’d go to a good college, and go on to do well in life. So no matter how much you griped about algebra or despised memorizing facts about Christopher Columbus, you muddled through.
But as I would soon find out after doing some homework of my own, all of that may soon become passé—and not among the kind of laissez-faire parents one might presume. Across Massachusetts’ swath of competitive schools that prize academic achievement—and arguably overachievement—a growing number of voices are rising to join a national movement calling to either decrease the amount of homework young kids receive, or ban it outright. And they make a persuasive case.
This new crop of anti-homework rebels cite studies by Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor of psychology and neuroscience, who after more than 25 years of research found little evidence of academic benefit from hours of homework among elementary-school-age children—but plenty of evidence that it created a negative attitude toward school. They invoke documentaries such as 2010’s Race to Nowhere, which sparked a national conversation about the pressure kids feel to achieve academically. They point to books like The Case Against Homework, by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish—a great read if you want to find out why the National Education Association and National Parent Teacher Association both recommend no more than 10 to 20 minutes of homework per night through second grade, and 30 to 60 minutes per night in grades three to six. They also hold up excellent local private and public schools that strictly limit homework time, such as Mason-Rice, in Newton, which has some of the highest test scores in Massachusetts yet limits reading homework to 30 minutes per night.
But mostly, they talk about their personal experiences, and how they think homework has robbed them of family time and kept their kids from appreciating creative, independent behavior.
I can relate. My two kids—Zach, 10, and Cleo, nine—have between one and two hours of homework every night. I spend at least half of that time prodding them or helping them through it, when I could be doing about a million other things with them, or just letting them unwind and play.
The good news in all of this, at least for the moment, is that it’s May. School’s out soon, and we have all summer to kick back and forget about this until the next school year. That is, of course, unless you consider the problem of summer homework…and summer camp.
Our obsession with overloading our kids, it seems, has even spilled over into summertime, thanks to vacation homework and the deluge of expensive summer camps for “gifted” kids, where nine-year-olds study genetic-code encryption and the architectural influence of Frank Lloyd Wright rather than play flag football and swim. I know that my children will have to spend some of their precious vacation time grinding through summer reading lists when they could be outside climbing trees. In previous years, I had taken this for granted, but now I started to wonder: Why do we do this to ourselves—and, more important, why do we do it to our kids?
“I can tell you exactly why we’re doing this,” says Tilia Jacobs, who is currently entrenched in a giant war with teachers at her child’s private school in Natick over what she feels is excessive homework during weekends and vacations. “It’s because we’ve all drunk the Kool-Aid. We all assume homework is inherently good, which means that more homework must therefore be better, right? Wrong.” To be clear, Jacobs herself is no slouch. A former middle school teacher, she has a master’s degree and a certification in secondary education from Harvard. “When I was a teacher,” she says, “we were told by the school to give kids a lot of homework, which was pointless academic busywork designed to make parents feel like they were getting more bang for their buck.”
Parents can get confused by the different messages on whether to help or not, says Dr Kate Ellis-Davies, senior lecturer at the psychology department of Nottingham Trent University. "That confusion," she explains, "comes from everyone meaning different things by 'helping' with homework.
"Helping can be simply being aware of the amount of homework set and helping children to plan ahead and time manage the different tasks they need to do. This kind of help is commonly encouraged by schools, with parents or caregivers initialling homework diaries, for example. Children tend to respond positively."
Motivation is another way of lending support: "This is about encouraging the student in the work they are doing, regardless of the topic," she says. "Importantly, this seems to be helpful only if the student doesn't perceive this as the parents exerting pressure on the child to perform. So, help in motivating that focuses on effort and interest in the work rather that outcome tends to be encouraged in schools."
Conversely, avoiding the homework hour altogether isn't ideal, says David Messer, the emeritus professor of child development and learning at the Open University. "It can reduce confidence if parents seldom give help and appear uninterested, especially if their child is stuck or does not understand something."