Can a National Campaign Get Schools to Rethink Homework?

Even the PTA agrees that homework needs to be reworked. Could this new campaign end homework as we know it?

Summer vacation means the nation's students have a respite not just from the school day but from the hours of homework they're required to complete every night. Homework evangelicals will tell you that assigning kids math problems to do while seated at the kitchen table helps them master what's been taught in class. But for the nearly 18,000 parents, educators, and policy makers who signed a petition presented to the National PTA last week advocating new "Healthy Homework Guidelines", homework as it's currently implemented in schools kills students' curiosity and inhibits learning.

The campaign was created by the Race to Nowhere Community, a movement that grew out of support for the grassroots 2009 documentary Race to Nowhere which took a hard look at why so many students are breaking under the pressure of our test-heavy, homework intensive culture. Education experts and medical professionals who support the guidelines cite research that shows "diminishing returns for middle and high school students as the hours spent doing homework increased" and "increased stress and academic disengagement among both young children and teens."

The campaign is timely since homework as we know it is increasingly regarded as ineffective. Witness the "flipped classroom" model where students watch lesson videos at home and then do assignments that were previously given as homework in a group setting, allowing both teacher and peer feedback. Sure, spending hours watching videos through a flipped model doesn't seem like the most engaging thing ever, but most students would probably take that over doing mind-numbing worksheets that their teacher checks for completion but never has time to review for accuracy or understanding.

In the campaign video above, experts—like Alfie Kohn, who is known for speaking out against homework—suggest that the PTA should encourage schools to adopt three broad guidelines: First, "homework should advance a spirit of learning", which would end its use as a punishment—no more giving more math problems because someone in class was talking—or as a means to "enhance rote skill rehearsal or mastery". Instead, homework would need to "demonstrably provide a unique learning opportunity or experience that cannot be had within the confines of the school setting or school day."

Second, "homework should be student-directed", which would limit it to, for example, books and academic-based projects the student chooses herself. Homework would need to be "work that can be completed without the assistance of a sibling, caregiver or parent." That would keep kids from falling behind if their parents have less education and don't know how to help with homework.

Finally, the guidelines suggest that "homework should promote a balanced schedule," which would end the practice of homework on the weekend or "when it conflicts with a child’s parental, family, religious or community obligations." That's sure to appeal to parents who are frustrated by their child spending Saturday and Sunday doing workbook pages and answering chapter review questions instead of participating in family activities.

The national PTA agreed "to move forward on formally reviewing" the guidelines—a big win for the campaign. Whether they have the clout to convince local schools to adopt them and fundamentally change homework remains to be seen.