How long is your child’s workweek? Thirty hours? Forty? Would it surprise you to learn that some elementary school kids have workweeks comparable to adults’ schedules? For most children, mandatory homework assignments push their workweek far beyond the school day and deep into what any other laborers would consider overtime. Even without sports or music or other school-sponsored extracurriculars, the daily homework slog keeps many students on the clock as long as lawyers, teachers, medical residents, truck drivers and other overworked adults. Is it any wonder that,deprived of the labor protections that we provide adults, our kids are suffering an epidemic of disengagement, anxiety and depression?
With my youngest child just months away from finishing high school, I’m remembering all the needless misery and missed opportunities all three of my kids suffered because of their endless assignments. When my daughters were in middle school, I would urge them into bed before midnight and then find them clandestinely studying under the covers with a flashlight. We cut back on their activities but still found ourselves stuck in a system on overdrive, returning home from hectic days at 6 p.m. only to face hours more of homework. Now, even as a senior with a moderate course load, my son, Zak, has spent many weekends studying, finding little time for the exercise and fresh air essential to his well-being. Week after week, and without any extracurriculars, Zak logs a lot more than the 40 hours adults traditionally work each week — and with no recognition from his “bosses” that it’s too much. I can’t count the number of shared evenings, weekend outings and dinners that our family has missed and will never get back.
How much after-school time should our schools really own?
In the midst of the madness last fall, Zak said to me, “I feel like I’m working towards my death. The constant demands on my time since 5th grade are just going to continue through graduation, into college, and then into my job. It’s like I’m on an endless treadmill with no time for living.”
My spirit crumbled along with his.
Like Zak, many people are now questioning the point of putting so much demand on children and teens that they become thinly stretched and overworked. Studies have long shown that there is no academic benefit to high school homework that consumes more than a modest number of hours each week. In a study of high schoolers conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), researchers concluded that “after around four hours of homework per week, the additional time invested in homework has a negligible impact on performance.”
In elementary school, where we often assign overtime even to the youngest children, studies have shown there’s no academic benefit to any amount of homework at all.
Our unquestioned acceptance of homework also flies in the face of all we know about human health, brain function and learning. Brain scientists know that rest and exercise are essential to good health and real learning. Even top adult professionals in specialized fields take care to limit their work to concentrated periods of focus. A landmark study of how humans develop expertise found that elite musicians, scientists and athletes do their most productive work only about four hours per day.
Yet we continue to overwork our children, depriving them of the chance to cultivate health and learn deeply, burdening them with an imbalance of sedentary, academic tasks. American high school students, in fact, do more homework each week than their peers in the average country in the OECD, a 2014 report found.
It’s time for an uprising.
Already, small rebellions are starting. High schools in Ridgewood, N.J., and Fairfax County, Va., among others, have banned homework over school breaks. The entire second grade at Taylor Elementary School in Arlington, Va., abolished homework this academic year. Burton Valley Elementary School in Lafayette, Calif., has eliminated homework in grades K through 4. Henry West Laboratory School, a public K-8 school in Coral Gables, Fla., eliminated mandatory, graded homework for optional assignments. One Lexington, Mass., elementary school is piloting a homework-free year, replacing it with reading for pleasure.
Across the Atlantic, students in Spain launched a national strike against excessive assignments in November. And a second-grade teacher in Texas, made headlines this fall when she quit sending home extra work, instead urging families to “spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside and get your child to bed early.”
It is time that we call loudly for a clear and simple change: a workweek limit for children, counting time on the clock before and after the final bell. Why should schools extend their authority far beyond the boundaries of campus, dictating activities in our homes in the hours that belong to families? An all-out ban on after-school assignments would be optimal. Short of that, we can at least sensibly agree on a cap limiting kids to a 40-hour workweek — and fewer hours for younger children.
Resistance even to this reasonable limit will be rife. Mike Miller, an English teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., found this out firsthand when he spearheaded a homework committee to rethink the usual approach. He had read the education research and found a forgotten policy on the county books limiting homework to two hours a night, total, including all classes. “I thought it would be a slam dunk” to put the two-hour cap firmly in place, Miller said.
But immediately, people started balking. “There was a lot of fear in the community,” Miller said. “It’s like jumping off a high dive with your kids’ future. If we reduce homework to two hours or less, is my kid really going to be okay?” In the end, the committee only agreed to a homework ban over school breaks.
Miller’s response is a great model for us all. He decided to limit assignments in his own class to 20 minutes a night (the most allowed for a student with six classes to hit the two-hour max). His students didn’t suddenly fail. Their test scores remained stable. And they started using their more breathable schedule to do more creative, thoughtful work.
That’s the way we will get to a sane work schedule for kids: by simultaneously pursuing changes big and small. Even as we collaboratively press for policy changes at the district or individual school level, all teachers can act now, as individuals, to ease the strain on overworked kids.
As parents and students, we can also organize to make homework the exception rather than the rule. We can insist that every family, teacher and student be allowed to opt out of assignments without penalty to make room for important activities, and we can seek changes that shift practice exercises and assignments into the actual school day.
We’ll know our work is done only when Zak and every other child can clock out, eat dinner, sleep well and stay healthy — the very things needed to engage and learn deeply. That’s the basic standard the law applies to working adults. Let’s do the same for our kids.
Vicki Abeles is the author of the bestseller Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation, and director and producer of the documentaries “Race to Nowhere” and “Beyond Measure.”
Elementary school students in one Florida school district are going to find a welcome new — but controversial — policy when they return to school for the 2017-2018 school year next month: no traditional homework.
They are being asked to do one thing to help them academically: Read for 20 minutes a night.
Heidi Maier, the new superintendent of the 42,000-student Marion County public school district in Florida, said in an interview that she made the decision based on solid research about what works best in improving academic achievement in students.
(That may seem like something of a no-brainer, but in the world of education, policymakers are notorious for making a great deal of policy without knowing and/or caring about what the best research shows.)
The policy will apply to all elementary school students in the district — about 20,000 — but not to middle or high school students. Maier, an expert on reading acquisition who started running Marion schools in November after serving as lead professor of teacher education at the College of Central Florida, said she is basing her decision on research showing that traditional homework in the early years does not boost academic performance but reading — and reading aloud — does.
[Odds stacked against reading for pleasure]
An often-cited meta-analysis of research on the subject, published in 2006, found that homework in elementary school does not contribute to academic achievement and has only a modest effect on older students in terms of improving academic performance. While homework has long been one of the most contentious issues in K-12 education, there does not exist any experimental study of the possible effects of assigning homework.
But experts say research is clear on the benefits of daily reading, with students picking their own books, reading aloud and listening to a fluent adult reader.
Maier cited the work of Richard Allington, an expert on reading acquisition, who has researched and written extensively on how to teach students to read.
“The quality of homework assigned is so poor that simply getting kids to read replacing homework with self-selected reading was a more powerful alternative,” Allington said in an email. “Maybe some kinds of homework might raise achievement but if so that type of homework is uncommon in U.S. schools.”
Maier said that students would be allowed to select their own reading material and would get help from teachers and school libraries. For those children who have no adult at home to help them read — the same students who had no adult at home to help them with their traditional homework — volunteers, audiobooks and other resources will be made available.
Maier said that she has received feedback from parents and teachers, most of whom applaud the decision but some who are skeptical. “We need to make our message clear and explain why this is beneficial,” she said, adding that town halls for parents and others will be held soon.
Homework has been a hot-button issue for educators and families for more than a century. In the late 1800s, a Civil War hero turned Boston school board member, Francis Walker, thought math homework harmed children’s health and pushed the panel to ban it as part of a nationwide anti-homework fever. The Ladies’ Home Journal called homework “barbarous,” and many educators said it caused nervous conditions and heart disease in children who would benefit from playing outside instead.
Homework, of course, came to have importance in education — with kids as young as 3 and 4 now getting some — and proponents now say it helps cement information into kids’ memories and teach them to establish routines.
Marion County will be joining a small group of schools and districts whose leaders have decided to trade traditional homework for daily reading in the elementary school grades. While there are no definitive results, educators report that test scores and other learning has not suffered.
What happened when one school banned homework — and asked kids to read and play instead
A new wrinkle in the research about the real value of homework