Last year, Rebecca Swanson’s son came home from kindergarten with a calendar of homework assignments. Instead of dutifully accepting the teacher’s itinerary, Swanson had a different response.
“I promptly emailed his teacher a version of the note I’ve sent on behalf of my older child for several years,” Swanson wrote in a Washington Post op-ed: “‘Dear [teacher]: My little guy sure adores you! I want to let you know that our family does not support homework for children in elementary school. Research indicates that it does not improve school performance, and I would rather my children have time for free play after a long day at school. As such, we are opting him out of homework. Please don’t bother to send the worksheets home.’”
While it may go against conventional education wisdom, more parents are deciding to opt their children out of homework assignments. In some cases, school administrations are even taking a second look.
An elementary principal in Vermont made news in 2017 for banning homework altogether. The same year, the Marion County School District in Florida did the same for elementary students. In both cases, parents were asked to read with their children instead.
The new skepticism of homework might seem like a radical departure from the general consensus. However, the concerns cited by parents and researchers have been discussed throughout the history of modern American schooling.
A History of Shifting Positions
Homework has been a controversial topic for many years, with public perception frequently swinging between the negative and positive.
As early as 1900, some advocates were calling for its abolishment. One of these was Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Bok. His article “A National Crime at the Feet of Parents” made the case that homework was detrimental to children’s health, free time and family involvement. Just one year later, California banned all homework at the K-8 level, only to repeal the ban in 1917.
Later, educational progressives in the 40s and 50s would call for lighter loads rather than abolishment. However, opponents pushed for more homework.
The launching of Sputnik in 1957 led to an uptick in homework, as Americans worried about falling behind Russia academically. This insecurity continued into the 80s, when the Reagan administration’s report “A Nation At Risk” would endorse homework as a means of staving off a “rising tide of mediocrity.”
Positive public opinion persisted into the 90s, when school districts often had homework requirements and the amount of homework given to elementary school students rose.
The New Anti-Homework Movement
The 21st century has seen a groundswell of criticism against common homework practices. This oppositional perspective was helped along by several books and studies published in the 2000s.
In the introduction to their book The Case Against Homework, authors Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish quoted child psychologist Dan Kindlon. “The truth is, there’s no good research justification for [homework],” Kindlon said. “The analyses out there just don’t make a connection between homework and success.”
Bennett and Kalish pointed out that pre-existing studies showed 20-30% of parents thought their children received too much homework. Of the parents they personally surveyed, they noted about a third felt the same way.
Another important work in the current re-examination of homework policies is Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth, released the year following The Case Against Homework. Kohn’s book called out the lack of research connecting the assignment of homework and positive school performance. A former teacher himself, Kohn has become a key figure in the debate, writing extensively on the lack of evidence supporting homework policies.
“No research has ever found any benefit to any kind of homework before kids are in high school,” Kohn tells Parentology. “In fact, newer research raises questions about whether it’s necessary even in high school to make students work what amounts to a second shift when they get home from a full day in school.”
Indeed, a study conducted by Duke University in 2006 found “little or no relationship between homework and achievement for elementary school students.” Another study of high-performing high schools found “students who did more hours of homework experienced greater behavioral engagement in school, but also more academic stress, physical health problems, and lack of balance in their lives.”
Given the evidence of these fairly serious drawbacks, the conversation around homework is starting to become whether it’s worth the trouble for students. With this growing shift in public opinion, it’s becoming more and more possible that homework will eventually become a thing of the past.