Students are either doing too much take-home work or too little. But a smarter approach to learning is gaining ground
It’s the kind of news that generations of kids have been waiting for: At long last, homework might be on the way out. We’ll probably never get rid of it completely, but the news is undeniable. After years of murmurs, rumors, research, and complaints, more schools and teachers are dialing back the take-home burden—and in some cases, assigning only what can be done in the classroom.
Why haven’t we done this before? Anxiety over excessive homework is perennial. But so is anxiety over under-assignment, which could leave kids at risk of being boxed out by overachievers at other more competitive schools. Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, confessed to the Boston Globe, “If you walk into a meeting with parents any time after September and ask them if students are receiving too much homework, half the hands will go up. Then if you ask them if students are not receiving enough homework, the rest of the hands go up.”
It’s the kind of nervous mania that’s gotten Americans painted in recent years as helicopter parents. But it’s been baked into our national character for well over a century. As markets have largely conquered all the realms of life that haven’t been conquered by patronage, our dreams for our children start to center around getting them into one kind of promised land or another—the “perfect college” or the “perfect job” that will at last give them a good shot at a safe and healthy future.
The trend began long enough ago that 19th century French sociologist and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville worried we’d all end up pining for centralized administrative jobs, far more than risky, heroic, or even erotic callings. Americans, he ruefully mused, might turn out to be like the hero of a Chinese novel—probably like the hero of Wu Ching-Tzu’s 1751 novel, The Scholars, who won favor from his beloved by acing his civil service exam, according to University of Virginia Professor James Ceaser.
Today, China’s civil service exam is still going strong, with over 1 million applicants vying for entrance in October. According to CNN Money, over 9,500 of them applied for just one of the plum jobs: head of the reception office of the China Democratic League in Beijing. As horrific as that fate seems to be in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we’ve pushed for a long time to help make it a reality.
That’s why, when it comes to homework, it’s been such a long, hard road toward change. In 2014, data from the National Assessment of Education Progress showed homework remained “remarkably stable” over the prior 30 years, as the Brookings Institution concluded. Some kids got an even heavier load, but some got relief: “The percentage of nine-year-olds with no homework fell by 13 percentage points, and the percentage with less than an hour grew by 16 percentage points.”
Over the past few years, however, a wave has been building. Noelle M. Ellerson, of the School Superintendents Association (AASA), recently confirmed “ a small but growing number of schools or teachers (are) revising homework policies or talking about it,” as the Associated Press reported, and "whether it's to do away with it or to shift to a policy where homework is the classwork they didn't finish during the day or where the homework of the child is to read with their parents."
Anecdotal evidence suggests palpable relief among affected parents. “In my kids' experience, what I notice is a kind of mindfulness from their teachers, who aren't going full no homework but seem to be observing a no-more-than necessary approach,” says Matt Feeney, a California parent writing a book about family life. “My oldest, a fifth grader, has less homework than I expected this year, perhaps less than last year. I have heard anti-homework murmurings from her (and her siblings') teachers since she was in kindergarten. This is the first year where these sentiments seem to be altering policy.”
New America foundation’s Conor Williams, a public school parent who has taught first graders as well as East Coast undergraduates, has seen the issue unfold from both sides. Eliminating or decreasing homework, he says, “tracks recent research showing that, in general, homework assignments don't appear to do much to help kids achieve at higher levels. There are studies showing that particular sorts of assignments for particular subjects or ages might work better than others, but there's not a ton of evidence that homework helps kids learn.”
As a parent and a former teacher, Williams avows there’s some value in homework gained from the sheer power of routine. But even that isn’t a no-brainer. “We know that kids who read with their parents more in the early years—birth to eight years old—often have better academic trajectories. So assigning kids to read with their parents in elementary school is a strong way to use homework. Assigning them math worksheets probably isn't.”
Of course, if American kids don’t want China’s star students to beat them to Mars, they’ll probably have to memorize their multiplication tables. But if we all make a little more room for kids to dive into what most captures their imaginations, we might not feel so tortured about the way we prepare to compete in life.