As a rule-follower and the kind of person who enjoys task completion so much that folding laundry can feel therapeutic, I didn’t anticipate having a problem with homework. That also had something to do with my kid, who regularly requested “homewurt” starting at age 3. An accomplished mimic, she’d pull a chair up alongside a table of middle-schoolers at the public library, set out a sheet of paper, and begin chewing the end of a pencil, proudly declaring, “I do my homewurt!”
But the real thing quickly disappointed us both. She found first grade’s nightly math worksheets excruciating, both uninteresting and difficult. I found pulling her away from pretend games with her brother for a back-and-forth that ended in tears.
When I raised the issue with my daughter’s teacher, she confided, I totally agree, but asked me to write a letter she could take to her supervisors. In the process of writing it, I learned about studies supporting my gut call that homework wasn’t benefiting my kid (see the “Arm Yourself With the Stats” section below). But nothing happened. So I went to the principal, who confided, I totally agree, but said he needed unanimous support from all the school's teachers to make a change. I spent a week’s grocery money at Kinko's copying articles for every teacher at the school. When they couldn’t agree during the last staff meeting of the year, I printed another set for the first meeting of the next. By the time that rolled around, we had a new principal. She confided, I totally agree, and then declared that each grade-level team could act independently. If I could get the three first-grade teachers on board, voila! Of course, by this time my daughter was in third grade. Still, that year, the “We Provide, You Decide” pilot program debuted, and grade-by-grade my kids’ school joined others in San Francisco Unified School District with optional elementary homework: Teachers now send it home; and families choose whether or not to do it.
Our story is complex but not uncommon. Cathy Vatterott, a professor of education at the University of Missouri, St. Louis who’s better known as the “Homework Lady” says, “Parent activism about homework has really increased over the last 5 to 7 years.” Acton, Massachusetts librarian Amy Reimann says her daughter's district recently overhauled its policy. Now, no school issues homework before third grade, and it's not expected nightly until seventh. In 2017, Marion County, Florida eliminated all elementary homework aside from 20 minutes of reading (or being read to) at night. The result? After moving to a school with a no-homework policy in Berkeley, California, parent Allison Busch Zulawski said: “Our kids are happier, I’m happier, and there are no academic downsides.” If you're looking to make a similar change at your school, check out the stats you'll need to bolster your argument below, followed by some strategies you can use with your school's administration.
Is homework even beneficial to students? Arm yourself with the stats before you storm the school.
If you want to go in with the most effective arguments for changing your school's homework policy, you'll have to do your homework (or use this cheat sheet).
Giving up homework in the younger grades has no academic impact.
There's a bit of disagreement among scholars over the academic value of homework. Duke professor Harris Cooper, Ph.D., who has studied the issue, says that the best studies show "consistent small positive effects." But others have questioned whether any impact of doing homework on tests scores and/or grades has been proven. And most academics seem to agree that what little bump homework gives doesn't start until middle school or later. What does all this mean? In his book The Homework Myth, writer and researcher Alfie Kohn concludes, “There is no evidence of any academic benefit from homework in elementary school."
There is clear evidence on a related point though: Reading self-selected material boosts literacy. That’s why many elementary schools are moving toward homework policies that require reading, or being read to, rather than problems or exercises. (Once kids get to middle and high school, the homework debate generally shifts to “how much” and “what kind” rather than “whether.”)
Many agree with educators like Linda Long, a fourth-grade teacher at a different San Francisco school, who sees the value in “just the act of taking a piece of paper home and bringing it back” for building organizational skills and responsibility. But Good Housekeeping was able to find no research demonstrating that this is the case at the elementary level prior to grade five. And research showing that doing homework increases conscientiousness in grades 5 through 8 appears to be thin. What’s more, the many children who don’t complete homework fastidiously have the opposite lesson reinforced: that duties can be ignored or completed hastily.
Homework is more harmful than helpful to families.
Long sees another upside of elementary homework, saying, “It helps families be aware of what their children are learning in the classroom.” Professor Cooper adds, "Homework can give parents an opportunity to express positive attitudes toward achievement."
But there are lots of ways for parents to do these things, from quarterly teacher updates like the ones Fairmount Elementary School instituted when eliminating homework, to parents sifting through the completed classwork that comes home in backpacks. And asking parents to police homework can damage family relationships by creating power struggles and resentment. In a September 2019 poll of approximately 800 parents conducted by the tech company Narbis, 65% reported that the stress of homework had negatively affected their family dynamic. Academic studies show that this family stress increases as homework load increases.
Homework can also have a negative impact on children’s attitudes toward school. Take the story of Sarah Bloomquist Greathouse of Felton, California. “My fourth-grader has always had such a hard time with liking school,” she says. “This year is the first year we have no worksheets or other busywork. This is the first year my son has actually enjoyed going to school.” As Vicki Abeles puts it in Beyond Measure, “Homework overload steals from young minds the desire to learn.”
Homework eats up time that could be spent doing something more beneficial.
For some students, time spent doing homework displaces after-school activities — like imaginative play, outdoor time, physical activity, socializing, and reading purely for pleasure — that are shown to be neurologically and developmentally beneficial.
For others, homework provides important scaffolding for free time. (Long says, “I’m more inclined to give homework to my kids who I know just go home and are playing Fortnite for five hours.”) Some argue a no-homework policy leaves a void that only wealthier families can afford to fill with enrichment. That’s why a lot of parents are throwing their weight behind optional policies that provide homework but let families determine whether doing it will improve their child’s life.
Another important displacement concern is sleep. “If parents and teachers are worried about academics and behavior in school then they don’t need homework, they need sleep,” says Heather Shumaker of Traverse City, Michigan, author of It’s OK to Go Up The Slide: Renegade Rules for Raising Confident and Creative Kids, which covers banning homework in elementary school. "The more sleep kids get, the better their memory, the better their learning, the better their focus, the better they’ll do on all the tests, being able to control their impulses, and so on.”
What do you do if you don't agree with the amount of homework your kids get at school?
Don’t worry, you don’t have to be as annoying as me to change your situation. There are multiple ways to push back against homework, each suited to a different personality type. That said, we can all learn a little something from every take.
For the Introvert Parent: Inform Your Teacher of a Family No-Homework Policy
Some parents focus on winning an exception to the rule rather than challenging it. Teresa Douglas’s daughter read voraciously — until, that is, she was required to log her minutes in a daily time log. The Vancouver, British Columbia mom wrote the teacher a note explaining the situation, declaring her intent to excuse her daughter from doing homework, and offering to provide relevant research. “I received zero pushback,” she says. Pretty much the same thing happened for a Sacramento, California parent (who didn’t wish to be named due to her role in that state’s government). She told her sons’ teachers they would not be doing any homework, aside from reading, unless the teacher could provide research proving it beneficial. That was the end of that.
Straight-up refusal to comply is the same approach I’ve taken when asked to sign off on my kids’ work while my advocacy efforts were ongoing. I thought my signature would imply my child couldn’t be trusted, and I knew it would put us on course for the type of shared academic responsibility, and ultimately dependence, decried in How to Raise an Adult, a book by former Stanford University Dean of Freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims. So every year, I emailed my kids’ teachers, explaining my reasoning and offering alternatives, like having my children put their own initials in that spot. Some teachers weren't pleased, and I have to admit my kids initially felt mortified, but I held firm and everyone wound up happy with the arrangement.
Critical, independent thinking is also what Kang Su Gatlin, a Seattle, Washington dad, is after. He gives his son the option to do school-assigned homework or exercises chosen by his parents. When the fifth-grader picks the school’s problems, he’s allowed to skip the ones drilling concepts he’s already mastered. “At least in the jobs I’ve had,” says Gatlin, who currently works for Microsoft, “it’s not just how you do your job, but also knowing what work isn't worth doing.”
Some worry that going this route will upset their child's teacher, and it's possible. But when Long was asked what she’d do if a parent presented her with research-backed arguments that disagree with her homework philosophy, she replied, “I would read it, and it would probably change my opinion. And I would also be flexible with the individual family.”
For the Rallier Parent: Gather Reinforcements and Tell Your PTA Why Students Should Have No Homework
Many parents don’t stop with their own child. When the first edition of Vatterott’s book Rethinking Homework was published in 2009, she says, it was a relatively fringe thing, but now, “We’re talking about a real movement.”
Shumaker, the Michigan author and one of the most prominent figures in the movement, knows initiating this kind of conversation with a teacher can be terrifying, so she recommends having company: “Maybe you want to bring in another parent in the class who feels similarly or who is even just willing to sit next to you,” she says. Or broach the subject in a group setting. Shumaker tells a story that reminds me of every back-to-school night I’ve ever attended: “One of the parents raised a hand and said, ‘My child is having such a hard time with math. She spends hours on it every night, and she can’t get through all the problems.’ There was this huge sigh of relief from all the other parents in the room, because they’d had the same problem.”
So, talk to other parents. Bring the issue to the PTA. For petitions, surveys, and templates you can use when writing to a teacher, reaching out to other parents, and commenting at PTA and school board meetings, see The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish. It’s packed with step-by-step advocacy advice, including ideas for a variety of non-traditional homework policies (e.g., “No-Homework Wednesdays”).
For the Conflict-Avoidant Parent: Sometimes It Just Takes One Homework Question
If all this sounds like a bit much, Vatterott recommends an approach based on inquiry and information-sharing.
Begin by asking whether there's a fixed policy, either in the classroom or at the school. “You can’t believe how many schools have a policy that the teachers don't follow,” Vatterott notes. Often it’s one based on guidelines endorsed by the National Education Association: about 10 minutes per night in the first grade, and 10 more minutes added on for each successive grade (e.g., 20 minutes for second grade, 50 for fifth). “Sometimes all that’s needed is to say, ‘Can we make the homework requirement weekly rather than daily?’” she says.
Experts also recommend starting with what psychologists call “I statements,” because teachers aren’t mind-readers. Put a note on each assignment saying, “My child spent 40 minutes on this.” Since research shows teachers often underestimate the amount of time homework takes by about 50%, Vatterott reports, passing along this info can be enough to make assignments less onerous. Other simple statements of fact include:
- “Luna isn’t getting enough downtime in the afternoon."
- “Cynthia told me today, ‘I hate homework and I hate school.’”
- “Dante is losing sleep to finish his work.”
Try to find some way, Vatterott says, to not feel embarrassed or guilty about telling the teacher, even in a roundabout way, “This is too much.”
For the Hands-off Parent: Just Take Yourself Out of the Equation
Not everyone agrees on the level of parental involvement required in homework assignments. Reading all that research also taught me that intrinsic motivation is the more effective, longer-lasting kind. So during the years when I tried to get the school-wide policy changed, I also told my kids that homework is between them and their teacher. If they decided to do it, great; if they chose not to, the consequences were up to them to negotiate.
Third-grade mom Anna Gracia did the same thing, and her oldest, a third-grader, opted to take a pass on homework. When the teacher explained that the class had a star chart for homework with Gracia’s kid listed in last place, she asked whether her daughter seemed to mind. Her daughter didn't. Gracia asked if her daughter was behind in a particular subject or needed to practice certain skills. "No, but homework helps kids learn responsibility," the teacher replied. “How does it teach my kid that, if I’m the one who has to remind her to do it?” she asked. In the end, Gracia stayed out of it: “I said the teacher could take it up directly with my daughter, but I would not be having any conversations about homework at home unless she could point to a demonstrable need for her to do it.”
I’m happy to report my now fifth-grader takes complete ownership over her nightly "homewurt." And after the most recent round of parent-teacher conferences, neither her teacher nor Gracia’s daughter’s had any complaints.
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