| | By Andrea Lampros
Eleven-year-old Miles DeRosa would rather be playing catch with his dad on the sidewalk of their Albany home than inside writing 20 spelling words, three times each in cursive. “It makes your hands hurt and it’s miserable,” says Miles. “What’s the point? We have spell check.”
His complaint—one made by children ever since the invention of school—is that homework tends to be busy work that cuts into critical down time and doesn’t truly benefit anyone. After a full day of school and soccer practice and eating dinner with his parents, Miles would rather spend time analyzing the batting average of San Francisco Giant Pablo Sandoval than completing a math worksheet.
“I personally feel like homework for me is more of a review. I don’t think you learn anything. And it’s really quite stressful,” says Miles, who just began sixth grade at Albany Middle School and previously attended Albany’s Cornell Elementary School. “Even when I’m good at it, I feel like homework is a nuisance.”
In fact, the sacred cow of homework is not just being kicked around by kids anymore. Even as the “tiger mom” discussion roars on, parents, teachers, education reformers, and journalists are keenly focused on how homework supports or impedes learning—and how it affects kids. Lafayette filmmaker Vicki Abeles, the lightning-rod education reformer of Race to Nowhere fame, is now petitioning the national Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) to adopt a position on homework using “Healthy Homework Guidelines.” The key tenet of these new principles: Assigning homework should be an option, not a given.
It’s been three years since Abeles, producer and co-director of Race to Nowhere, began screening the film in multipurpose rooms and town halls across the United States. The provocative documentary identifies an “epidemic” of stressed-out, overworked, pressurized kids who routinely do whatever it takes—down bottles of Red Bull, stay up studying until 3 a.m.—to achieve in school. Widely discussed in national media, the film captured the attention of luminaries like Katie Couric and Dr. Phil, and sparked a global conversation.
Today, Race to Nowhere has been shown in over 5,000 communities in 30 countries, all without benefit of circulation through Netflix or Amazon. Now, Abeles is channeling the success into something tangible: an initiative that puts the whole idea of homework on the table.
“It’s amazing to see how the film is resonating with people of all kinds of backgrounds from so many communities,” says Abeles, the mother of three, who talks passionately and listens intently, her cell phone buzzing (politely, she doesn’t pick up) on a coffee shop table in Lafayette. “We need . . . systemic change. Homework is one of the hot-button issues at every town hall discussion.”
Abeles and the squad of teachers and education critics, including Etta Kralovec, Alfie Kohn, and Sara Bennett, who back her say homework can have a host of adverse effects: encouraging conformity; diminishing motivation to learn; inviting cheating; trumping sleep, friendship, and family time; and emphasizing rote learning over creativity and the pursuit of true passions.
Abeles’s interest in the subject is far from academic. One Memorial Day weekend, she recalls, when the family was away visiting relatives, her daughter, then in middle school, stayed in doing homework during the entire holiday weekend. “I didn’t even do that in law school and my husband didn’t do that in medical school,” says Abeles, who worked as a lawyer on Wall Street before she had kids and moved to the East Bay. Eventually, the daughter became so worried about academic performance that she ended up in the hospital with stress-induced stomach pains.
Abeles’s proposed “Healthy Homework Guidelines” suggest that homework be required only when designed to “advance a spirit of learning, be student-directed, and promote a balanced schedule.” Implicit here is that after-school assignments should do more than simply reinforce classroom learning. They should ignite interest, provide opportunities for kids to make choices, not be given the night of a school performance—and, most important, not be assigned simply because assigning homework is what teachers are supposed to do.
Sixth-grader Miles cites an example of such homework: a writing assignment to describe the setting and culture of an imaginary island. “I said to my teacher, ‘I want to spend extra time doing it,’” recalls Miles. “Digging back into my memory, that’s the only assignment I had fun with.”
Abeles brought the homework initiative to the national PTA this summer in hopes that the group would adopt it as a formal position. Although the PTA doesn’t have teeth to enforce guidelines within school districts, the national organization can set a tone and advance an agenda.
“If the national PTA were to adopt a position on homework, it would give a policy framework for schools across the country,” says Abeles. “We have an epidemic of children who are anxious, sleep-deprived, and depressed. It’s our responsibility as adults to stand up on behalf of them.”
At least one U.S. school district—the small, coastal district of Cardiff in Southern California—plans to adopt the healthy homework guidelines. But although there’s interest among some parents and teachers in the East Bay—including in Oakland, Walnut Creek, and Pleasanton—nobody is proposing a shift in policy just yet.
Like many other districts, the Oakland Unified School District gives individual schools the leeway to develop their own homework plans. The district recommends that schools inform parents of homework expectations and support like after-school tutoring, and advise their teachers to coordinate homework plans so the students’ workload isn’t too great on any given night.
The district policy does not, however, stipulate the amount of time students should spend on homework each day or provide guidelines on the content or relevance of homework assignments. The result? As in most schools, the amount of homework is still left up to the individual teachers.
At Albany’s culturally diverse Oceanview Elementary School, Margaret Goldberg has taught fourth grade for six years. Due to the school’s location near the University Village housing complex, where U.C. Berkeley’s visiting scholars and international students often reside, 13 languages were spoken in her classroom last year.
Although Goldberg, who has a master’s in education from Cal, is aware of the arguments against homework, she believes there are long-term benefits to learning good study habits at a young age. “I was around a lot of college students who thought if they didn’t focus on homework, it would go away,” she says.
She asks that parents provide a quiet, well-lit place to study, preferably with no younger children underfoot, and that they don’t regularly assist pupils with the homework she gives (approximately 40 minutes per day), other than scanning to make sure it has been completed. “In my experience, if you’re hovering, it tells them you don’t trust that they can do the assignments alone,” Goldberg says.
Inspired during a packed screening of Race to Nowhere at their K-8 public school, a group of parents, teachers, and the principal at Hillcrest School in Oakland launched a homework task force last year. The group surveyed parents, asking about their kids’ experiences with homework and seeking ideas for improving the school’s policy.
Former Hillcrest PTA president Sharon Murphy, whose three kids attended the school before the family moved to Orinda this summer, says the film—which, in part, tells the story of a girl who committed suicide after receiving a bad grade—inspired parents to think about school-life balance. She says she and other parents aren’t necessarily against homework, but are not content with the status quo.
Murphy’s oldest children, girls who are now 9 and 12, are high-achieving students who have no difficulty with homework. Her 7-year-old son, however, has faced learning challenges and struggled with homework in some subjects—prompting her to evaluate the role of homework.
“What is the continuum of homework and what is it trying to do? Does everyone in the class have to have the same homework? Does it have to be one-size-fits-all?” asks Murphy, a former attorney for the Department of Justice who is now a stay-at-home mom. She notes that even with her son’s challenges, her family has fewer issues with homework because one parent is able to be at home, available for emotional and practical support. She knows that not every family enjoys that luxury.
Indeed, some educators say that homework exacerbates socioeconomic gaps that already exist in education because children whose parents work at night, or simply don’t have the bandwidth to ensure homework is completed, are penalized at school. Homework usually counts for a percentage of a student’s grade, or at least a grade that evaluates effort.
A 2011 study published in the Economics of Education Review analyzed statistics from Dutch elementary school students and found that the test-score gap is larger in classes where all the students get homework than in classes where none of the students get homework. This led researchers to believe that homework widens the chasm between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
Leib Sutcher, now in college, anecdotally illuminated this gap in a short documentary film he produced while a student at Berkeley High. Called Inequities of Homework, the film contrasts the after-school activities of two Berkeley High students.
One student, Daniel, left school at 3 p.m. in the family station wagon (one of their three cars), had a snack, caught up on the day’s sporting events on cable TV, and then did homework for a few hours. Daniel said he sometimes asked his dad, a faculty member at U.C. Berkeley, or his mom, a lawyer, for help with assignments.
The other boy, Author, stayed at school participating in sports until about 5 p.m., took BART and a bus home to Richmond, and didn’t start homework until much later. His single mom was usually in bed by 9 p.m., he says in the film, and so he rarely consulted with her about homework.
Prior to the 1980s, kindergartners learned to use paste, take naps, and drink juice without spilling—instead of tackling reading and math worksheets after school. Experts agree that homework time is up and academic achievement is down, but they tend to disagree on the correlation between the two.
A seminal University of Michigan study published in 2004 found that kids spent an average of two hours and 38 minutes per week on homework in 1982; by 2003, the average had increased to three hours and 58 minutes per week. Yet despite this gain, the United States has posted average marks or worse in global comparisons—notably through the Programme for International Student Assessment conducted every three years.
One of the nation’s most vocal homework critics is Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. Kohn says no definitive study has shown that homework benefits younger kids, and that it’s simply unreasonable for kids to face a second shift after six or more hours in school.
Offering a different and sometimes contrary perspective is Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor and prolific homework researcher. Cooper’s landmark meta-review of some 60 studies on homework in 2006 found a substantial correlation between homework and achievement in the upper grades, but little relation for students from elementary school to fifth grade.
Cooper promotes a “10-minute rule” suggesting that kids do 10 minutes of homework per grade each night (a first grader would do 10 minutes; a high school senior, 120 minutes). There is no additional benefit, Cooper has found, for middle school or high school students who study for longer periods of time.
Still, Cooper and others argue that the lack of a definitive relationship between homework and test scores for kids in the lower grades doesn’t mean homework has no benefit for them. In fact, he says, homework helps these younger students enhance time-management skills and instills academic discipline in preparation for middle and high school.
Kohn wonders if that means we should start preparing our kindergartners now for the daily grind of an adult job—something they may not actually encounter for another 16 years or so. “No study has shown any value before high school,” says Kohn. “It’s all pain and no gain. At the very least, we should demand that homework be an exception, assigned only when it is really necessary. Regular homework is bizarre and indefensible.”
Countering Kohn’s claim, Cooper says that if study habits aren’t instilled in elementary school, they won’t materialize later. “The counterargument is wait until middle school,” says Cooper. “And what the proponents of homework would say is that by the time kids get to middle school, if they haven’t developed those habits, it will be exceedingly difficult to teach them.”
Parent Chrissy Meuris, whose younger daughter is in fourth grade at Berkeley’s Oxford Elementary School, and whose older one is at Willard Middle School, says homework does have a role in childhood education. She’s seen Race to Nowhere and agrees that kids should not be overly burdened by homework and that they should have “chill time for imagining” or helping around the house. However, she says, homework is an important part of the academic experience that reinforces what happens in the classroom every day.
“If the school day were longer or the summer break shorter or better distributed throughout the year, perhaps homework would be overkill and the hours in a day spent learning would be sufficient,” says Meuris, whose girls spend half an hour to about 45 minutes on homework, and a bit more with the assigned nightly reading. “But not with just six hours in the classroom. I think kids are undereducated without some work at home.
“The idea of homework as training for good study habits is dumb to me, but if the homework is substantive and reinforces learning during the day, I think it is essential,” she says. “Talk to me when . . . arts, science, project-based learning, and athletics are back in the curriculum in a non-marginalized position, and I’ll probably have a different attitude toward homework.”
Like all parents, Ceci Bowman, an artist and mother of three boys in Berkeley, did (or didn’t do) her share of homework as a youngster. She recalls “studying” for French tests hanging out with friends at Eddie’s in downtown Berkeley, as well as buckling down at the library when it really counted.
Bowman says each of her kids has a different attitude to after-school studies. Sam, a sixth grader at King Middle School, loves recreational reading but hates reading for homework. Hank, a studious 13-year-old who just started eighth grade at King Middle School, spent upwards of two hours a night on homework last year. “I think he gets too much,” says Bowman. “It’s doable, but I don’t think it is necessary to do so much at home.”
The oldest, Leo, now a freshman at Berkeley High, would be better off, Bowman says, with an after-school discussion group instead of homework. The idea of “sitting down and doing more school work is crazy for him,” she says, noting that Leo does well on tests even when he fails to hand in assigned homework. Bowman says this underscores the tenuous link between homework and achievement.
While homework policies vary wildly, so do the philosophies and practices of classroom teachers. Some say pressures and homework amounts increase dramatically in middle and high school because teachers aren’t communicating among themselves to coordinate test dates and work loads. Some teachers believe in homework and some simply don’t.
Berkeley High history teacher Hasmig Minassian sometimes assigns a piece of reading—perhaps 30 pages of a text by progressive historian Howard Zinn—that is later discussed and unraveled in class. Some students finish the reading and others don’t, she says, but classroom engagement ultimately gets everyone to a similar place.
“Most of what’s exciting in history is what’s learned in the community,” says Minassian, who began her teaching career 11 years ago at Berkeley High. “There isn’t a right answer to most of what you are studying and you can’t learn it in isolation. Homework doesn’t serve much of a purpose in a history context. It should be learned in community.” Still, she does assign bigger projects to be done partly at home, in the hopes that they will inspire creativity and a connection to the material.
A member of the faculty at the Communication Arts and Sciences small school at Berkeley High, Minassian says some parents make the mistake of equating homework with rigor. “If you want to say you’re in a challenging program because of that, then you’re mistaking volume for value,” she says. “It doesn’t actually improve student outcomes.”
Minassian and other educators say it’s easier to contemplate relaxing homework requirements in the private school sphere, which isn’t burdened, as public schools are, with a complicated web of state and federal policy, a vast array of parent expectations, and a swath of social and economic inequities in the community. If a school costs $20,000 or more a year, the price tag alone can make parents feel that it’s pedagogically sound, freeing teachers up to be creative with the curriculum or to assign no homework at all, she says.
Filmmaker Abeles admits she didn’t always take a hands-off stance about homework. She recalls, regretfully, the time she read her fifth-grade daughter’s report about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and told the girl—at 10 p.m.—that it wasn’t good enough and that she would have to rewrite the paper.
Five years later, this same daughter is about to go to a top college after a fairly balanced high school career where she took few Advanced Placement classes and prioritized her personal passions over conventional prescriptions for success. “I do think it’s possible to have a balanced experience in high school,” says Abeles, who stresses the importance of ensuring the experience is right for your child. “But you have to, as a family, be courageous.”
While attempting to move the nation’s complex education system toward what she believes is a more enlightened homework philosophy, Abeles recognizes that the burden of scrutinizing homework policies and practices at each specific school falls on individual parents, teachers, and administrators.
Today, at Oakland’s Hillcrest, as at other schools nationwide, parents and teachers are participating in deep-level evaluations of the purpose, practice, and effects of homework. Parent Sharon Murphy says that while the survey of the pros and cons has just begun at Hillcrest, the unprecedented evaluation of a long-unquestioned institution will eventually shape a new policy for the school. “Every school has different needs,” says Murphy, “but at least we can start a conversation about what is the purpose of homework.”
Former Monthly editor Andrea Lampros is a writer, editor, and mom of three kids who attend Berkeley public schools. Her oldest daughter used to ask her for help with seventh-grade math homework before discovering that no help was better than bad help.