Book Review: The Case Against Homework

The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish
The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish

Every parent should read this book! (Maybe even aunts, uncles and grandparents.) The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish was an eye opener. Whether your child is of school age or will be soon, enrolled in public or private school or home schooled, it will enlighten you on homework practices today, prepare you to make some choices and feel a little more in control of your child’s education, and hopefully keep the joy of learning alive.

When I first heard about this book my son was just a baby.But, stories of my husband’s childhood education and his belief that the school system ‘failed’ him for not seeing him as an individual fueled my interest in education alternatives, as well as my need to feel in control and know my choices as a parent.

I heard stories about the homework burden that children bear today. It sounded extreme compared to when I was in school. I barely remember homework getting in the way of anything – and I was a good student. I only remember ‘real’ homework in high school and my parents rarely helped me with any of it. It was MY homework, to be done by me. And, I still had time for cheerleading, a boyfriend, family time and hanging out with my friends.

There were several points that stuck with me from this book. Kids are starting to hate school as early as 6 and 7 years old! Even good students who usually love school profess to hate it now. Their love of learning is being destroyed because of the oppressive amount of homework interfering with their childhood. Kids are even giving up reading their own books for fun, because it isn’t fun anymore when they are forced to read all the time in the name of homework. Children drop out of extracurricular activities to keep up with the workload. They work on projects over holidays and weekends (sometimes mandatory). They begin homework assignments in the car on their way home from school. Shouldn’t they be learning this stuff IN school?

Homework
Homework

Some parents may think there is a good reason for all the homework. But, there is no consensus within the school system and in their policies on how much homework a child should have and whether or not parents should provide some help. There is also the issue of quality versus busy work. Teachers are not in agreement. Furthermore, they never take a course in homework and there has never been any evidence that more homework creates smarter kids. It’s a guessing game at the expense of our children’s desire to learn. The No Child Left Behind Act may not have helped things. Schools feel pressure to get kids to pass the standardized tests. But, is more homework the answer?

Children today are exhibiting more depression, anxiety and stomachaches. Homework is more of a concern than peer pressure. A parent has to worry more about their child scoring some Ritalin off a friend than smoking a joint! I was not aware how bad things really were. Being an older parent I haven’t been involved with public school since I graduated from mine in 1987. No one I knew was on Ritalin, anti-depressants or cutting themselves.

Today, children are commonly “punished” for not completing homework by staying in at recess to complete it (if their school even has recess anymore). One story from the book made me cry. A 10 year old in a California Charter School was made to wear his uniform backwards with is shirt inside out and write 30 letters to all of the other students in his class about why his homework was missing or partially completed! That sounds like fraternity house hazing to me! Berating or demoralizing a child for not completing homework is completely unacceptable and unforgivable. Some children face up to 3 hours of homework each night so they work on it through dinner and stay up late to get it done so they don’t stand out and have to face such punishment.

The authors interviewed several teachers and families and gave a good cross section of what is going on in America today with the education system. Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish give the reader tools to address homework issues in their own children’s schools. They offer real problem-solving tools and form letters that have been tried and true helping parents to achieve a variety of solutions to the homework crisis.

After reading this book and learning more about the education system in England (where we now reside), we have chosen to homeschool for preschool this fall, using Oak Meadow’s Curriculum. We were very keen on Waldorf Education but the two schools near us in London are not up to the quality of the one we attended in California for Parent/Toddler classes last year. They also start Kindergarten at 4 years of age here – too young in my opinion. So, armed with knowledge we will proceed. Perhaps when we move back to the States we will try something else. At least I will know how the game has changed for my son and I can work to nurture a life-long love of learning.

What has been your experience with your child’s homework? Do they get too much? Do you have to help? Do you homeschool, or are you on a Homework Committee at your child’s school?

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Case Against Homework”

  1. Our education AND parenting strategies have morphed into such a dysfunctional model in the last several decades that we are continually treating the symptoms of these changes instead of looking into the actual root of the problems.

    If you look at the European and Scandinavian models (minus our bad habits that have already infiltrated their systems, complicating their educational success as well), you see that the total lifestyle of the child is different. When children from pre-school age have the television cog thrown into their educational wheel, everyone suffers: children, parents, educators, society.

    In my book, The New Physics of Childhood, my chapter on Intelligence & Education goes into what I have observed in my lifetime of travel, work as a teacher, as a mother, and as a care provider for children of all ages around the world. We are continually treating symptoms even in our educational system.

    If a child has had their cognitive functioning stunted by television before they even enter the classroom, educators can do whatever they want to until they are blue in the face and out of resources and it will not solve the problem! Educators get all the pressure when it starts in the home before a child even enters school.

    When parents are doing their part to prepare their children for school by expanding their curiosity for the real world, the natural world, through tactile experience and reading, children are better equipped to handle the classroom and a structured learning environment that builds upon their curiosity of things already explored.

    When an educator has curious and respectful children in a classroom, he or she can then teach, instead of focusing most of their efforts and energy on maintaining order and respect.

    WHen a teacher can teach, children need less time after school to do what they should have been doing in the classroom.

    Then, homework as a tool for self-discipline and daily practice of newly learned concepts is minimal: 1/2 to 1 hour of homework a day is important preparation for students and a necessary skill to be applied to life in many forms in their future. Homework is very important, but what we have done is sway so far off the scale that now we try to make homework what school should be because children cannot learn in a disruptive environment.

    Teachers are pressured to show results so they have to pass this work onto the parents to ensure these results are accomplished.

    Kids need minimal homework and maximum exercise after school so they can actually be sitting attentively in the classroom the next day. The last thing they need is 3 more hours of sitting when the whole problem stems from sitting too much anyway (in front of a video game or television).

    ANyway, the rest is in my book. As a former educator, I feel it is important to look at what is really going on if we are ever going to fix this problem correctly!

  2. My son attends a private Quaker school. He is in the 2nd grade. He has homework 4 nights a week, usually about 15-20 min plus an additional 20 minutes of silent reading. I think it’s the right amount and the discipline of sitting down to do it is good for him. It’s usually just some practice math, a little writing, some spelling words. I also like it because it gives me a chance to see his work and what he’s up to.

  3. Granny Pants, while I agree with some of what you’ve said, I am not convinced that all parents are zoning their kids out in front of the tv or video games and that this is the root of the problem to dealing with homework overload. For instance, many of my readers and I are tv-free households, but if my child went to the same school as a tv-viewing kid, they would be subject to the same amount and type of homework.

    Teaching is not individualized and a lot of homework is just busy work – “to keep the kids out of trouble”. It’s not the teacher’s job to parent the children. You mentioned expanding curiosity for the world through the natural world, tactile experience and reading. But, how does that prepare a child for structured classes where they sit for so many hours each day and memorize facts? If anything, I would think a child would get more antsy to return to the natural world! Hooray for homeschooling!

    Children begin school later in Scandinavia and Europe (excluding Great Britain, where they start earlier than the US). I feel that has more to do with a child’s interest in learning. Finnish, Danish and Swedish children start school at age 7 and the Finnish score highest on international tests out of 57 countries tested.

    http://online.wsj.com/public/article_print/SB120425355065601997.html

    There isn’t only one problem. There is a lack of funding for arts, music and even science. NCLB Act is prepping kids for standardized tests. The purpose is not creating life long learners and preparing them to learn about the world and equip them with essential skills to live a fulfilling life.

  4. Laura,
    Your son’s school sounds like they have a good policy. 10 minutes per grade has been recommended by a homework expert. I agree that some light homework is good. It teaches them self-discipline. The reading is the most important, IMO. Sounds like your son is in a good school. Good for him. I think if more parents sat at the dinner table together as a family they would find out what their kids are doing in school also.

  5. Hi Deb,

    Thanks for the great research and reading references. It’s so helpful to have someone out there who shares all their hours of research! It’s like having an extra secret parent in our pocket helping out ;)

    This year we applied for the Friends School. It seemed for us the right balance of Waldorf play and Academics. Of course, I am going to zero commute to being in the car an hour and a half a day but it’s worth it. As an only child from a single parent home with no family nearby my daughter needs a little more help learning what it means to be part of a community and the focus at the Friends school is all about community, growing together, friendships, conflict resolution and serving others.

    If we get a space I’ll let you know how it goes.

  6. I feel like it’s not that easy to strike the right balance. The main issue is that the kids in the same class are never on the same level. What’s a lot of homework to some is a piece of cake to others. Some homework is totally pointless – it doesn’t add to the level of knowledge but takes up too much time. For example my son, who is in second grade, has to write 18 new spelling words three times each. The problem is he has to write them in alphabetic order. If after writing almost all the words he discovered that he skipped a word that starts with ‘b’, he has to erase all his work and start over. What’s the point?

  7. I’m going to give my perspective on homework from a teacher’s point of view. As a classroom teacher, most of the homework I assigned was work not finished in the classroom. Some of the homework was long-term writing assignments & again, time was always given to students to work on said assignments in the classroom.

    I never assigned homework under the assumption that “it would keep kids out of trouble.” I absolutely agree that it’s the parent’s responsibility to parent their child. However, as one who had very liberal homework policies & philosophies on grading, I still would have parents making excuses for their children and wanting me to make exceptions.

    As a parent of three kids, I also have had issues with teachers who give too much homework. Recently, we showed the movie, “Race to Nowhere” which shows the undue burden we are placing on our kids in the name of raising test scores.

    This is the other part that parents need to understand. Teachers are also under a lot of pressure to raise test scores for their state mandated tests. Many teachers understand that tests can never truly show if real learning has taken place. This emphasis on test scores is not coming from teachers. It is coming from federal & state governments who believe that testing will make schools more accountable to parents.

    That is why we need the voices of parents to start speaking out in protest on this emphasis on testing. Many teachers want to go back to providing a well-rounded education to their students, but cannot do this because of testing culture that our government is pushing.

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