President Obama’s pick for Education Secretary, John King, Jr., is headed for confirmation Mar. 9. King’s track record shows he loves standardized testing and quantifying learning. If he loves numbers and research, he should welcome what some teachers and families have known for years: that homework at young ages does more harm than good.
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We’re currently enmeshed in a high-pressure approach to learning that starts with homework being assigned in kindergarten and even preschool. Homework dominates after-school time in many households and has been dubbed the 21st century’s “new family dinner.” Overtired children complain and collapse. Exasperated parents cajole and nag. These family fights often ends in tears, threats, and parents secretly finishing their kid’s homework.
Parents put up with these nightly battles because they want what’s best for their kids. But, surprise, the opposite is more likely to be true. A comprehensive review of 180 research studies by Duke University psychologist and neuroscientist Harris Cooper shows homework’s benefits are highly age dependent: high schoolers benefit if the work is under two hours a night, middle schoolers receive a tiny academic boost, and elementary-aged kids? It’s better to wait.
If you examine the research—not one study, but the full sweep of homework research—it’s clear that homework does have an impact, but it’s not always a good one. Homework given too young increases negative attitudes toward school. That’s bad news, especially for a kindergartener facing 12 more years of assignments.
Read More: Why You Shouldn’t Do Your Child’s Homework
Children rebel against homework because they have other things they need to do. Holler and run. Relax and reboot. Do family chores. Go to bed early. Play, following their own ideas. Children have been told what to do all day long at school—which is mostly sitting still and focusing on the academic side. Academic learning is only one side of a child. When school is out, kids need time for other things.
Some schools are already realizing this. New York City’s P.S. 116 elementary school made news last year when its principal Jane Hsu abolished homework and asked families to read instead. Individual schools and teachers from Maryland to Michigan have done the same, either eliminating homework in the elementary years or making it optional. But schools also report that if teachers don’t give it, some parents will demand it.
Believers in homework say it teaches soft skills like responsibility and good study habits. That’s another problem with homework in elementary school. Young kids can rarely cope with complex time management skills or the strong emotions that accompany assignments, so the responsibility falls on parents. Adults assume the highly undesirable role of Homework Patrol Cop, nagging kids about doing it, and children become experts in procrastination and the habit of complaining until forced to work. Homework overtakes the parents’ evening as well as the child’s. These roles aren’t easy to shake.
Read More: How Hard Is Too Hard to Push Kids?
When homework comes at a stage when it can academically benefit students, it can also be a student’s responsibility. That means a high school student should be expected to do her homework without being reminded. It may take a year or two of practice in middle school, but it doesn’t require years of practice. Before age 11, responsibility can be taught in other ways. For a 6-year-old, that means remembering to feed the cat and bring home her lunchbox.
If we want students to improve memory, focus, creative thinking, test performance and even school behavior, the answer is not more homework, the answer is more sleep. The National Sleep Foundation reports that our children are suffering sleep deprivation, partly from homework. If we pride ourselves on a rational, research-based approach to education, we must look at the right facts.
Parents often feel stuck with homework because they don’t realize they have a choice. But they do. Schooling may be mandatory, but homework isn’t. Families can opt out. Parents can approach the teacher either about homework load or the simple fact of doing homework at all, especially in elementary school. Many teachers will be more than happy with the change. Opting out, or changing the homework culture of a school brings education control back down to the local level.
That’s another thing the new Education Secretary has promised: to turn more control for education decisions over to states and local school districts. That could spell good news for students – if local teachers and principals do their own homework and read up on what the research says about making kids do school work after school is done.
Camilo Jené, 51, watches as his daughter Clara, 14, does her homework at their dining table. She refuses to do homework on weekends now. Lauren Frayer for NPR hide caption
Camilo Jené, 51, watches as his daughter Clara, 14, does her homework at their dining table. She refuses to do homework on weekends now.Lauren Frayer for NPR
On a typical weekday evening, 14-year-old Clara Jené spreads out her homework across the dining table in her family's apartment in a leafy northern suburb of Madrid. She gets about three hours of homework a night — and more than twice that on weekends.
"Often we're sitting down to dinner, and I have to tell her to put away the books," says Clara's father, Camilo Jené, a 51-year-old architect. "It's cutting into our family time."
Keep in mind that Spaniards sit down to dinner around 10 p.m. Clara often resumes her homework after that, staying up as late as 1 a.m.
A recent World Health Organization study found 64 percent of 15-year-old girls and 59 percent of boys the same age in Spain said they feel "pressured by schoolwork." Twenty-seven percent of Spanish 11-year-old girls and 38 percent of boys said the same.
In comparison, 54 percent of 15-year-old American girls and 42 percent of 15-year-old boys said the same.
So last month, Spanish students went on strike. Clara is among millions of kids in primary and secondary schools across the country who've been refusing to do any assignments on Saturdays or Sundays.
"Last weekend, I spent time with my family. One day we went to visit my grandparents at our relatives' house in the mountains," Clara says. "I learned how to build a campfire outdoors."
Normally, she would have spend that time studying.
Lots of children around the world want to do less homework. But in Spain, parents and even some teachers are backing the kids up. Clara's father — a member of a national parents' association — is the one who suggested that she participate in the strike.
"It's complicated," Jené says, "because we all want our children to succeed."
He acknowledges that Clara's grades may not be as good as those of classmates who completed all their assignments. But the Jené family wants Spain's education system to change. They say it relies too much on busywork and rote memorization.
Spanish teenagers get more homework than the average for about three dozen developed countries surveyed annually by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD found that the average homework load for Spanish students of all ages is 18.5 hours a week.
But that doesn't translate into higher scores on standardized tests. Spain consistently ranks below average in the OECD's rankings for student performance in reading, math and science.
"We think the reason is that our educational system is ancient. It dedicates a lot of time to memorization rather than participatory learning," says Marius Fullana, an astrophysicist, father of two and spokesman for the parents' association in 12,000 Spanish school systems, which called the homework strike.
Finland, in contrast, boasts some of the highest student performances in Europe — and some of the highest teacher salaries — but teachers there assign less homework than almost anywhere else in the world.
Fullana estimates that about half of public school students across Spain took part in the strike in November. It was supposed to finish at the end of that month. But it received so much attention — and in some cases, resulted in less assigned homework — that many students plan to continue the strike through the end of 2016, he says.
While many were docked points on their grades for failing to do November weekend assignments, they're demanding not to be penalized in December. That will be up to individual teachers and school principals.
Some teachers have complained about the strike, saying it unfairly targets their profession and puts them in an adversarial relationship with their students, the parents' association says. But many other teachers have been sympathetic. Some stopped assigning weekend homework altogether.
Fullana says he hopes that becomes the norm.
In Spain, education policy is made by local governments in 17 autonomous regions across the country. A spokesman for the Department of Education in the Madrid region told reporters that there is no government mandate for homework on weekends. It's up to the discretion of individual teachers and school principals, he said.
Some experts say this homework strike has exposed a larger problem in Spanish society.
"It's much broader than just homework. Why? Because of working schedules. They're really not family-friendly," says Catherine L'Ecuyer, author of a bestselling book in Spain called The Wonder Approach to Learning.
L'Ecuyer, a French-Canadian education researcher and consultant who has lived in Spain for several years, says to change Spanish children's homework load, you first have to change their parents' workload.
"The basic work schedule in Spain, for instance, is not 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., as it is in other countries. It's 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. — and for professionals, it's 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. or 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.!" she says. "So what do you do with your child when he comes home at 4 p.m., after school?"
The child does homework — for hours and hours. It fills a gap for Spanish families. But experts like L'Ecuyer say data show those hours of homework never actually benefit the kids themselves.
"Some educators, they tend to consider education as 'more is better' — more activities, more homework, more hours of school — more everything. And it's not true," L'Ecuyer says. "What we have to look at is quality."
So for now, parents and caregivers arrive at schoolyards across Spain on Fridays to pick up their children — many of whom will spend the weekend playing, rather battling their way through hours of homework.