Skylar Burris's Reviews > The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It

The Case Against Homework by Sara  Bennett
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's review
Oct 31, 09

bookshelves: sociology, education
Recommended for: kids who want to get out of doing homework
Read in October, 2009

In my article on the anti-homework revolution, I gave a brief over view of the arguments for and against assigning homework. I believe there are valid arguments on both sides, but I found this book to be a weak case against homework.

If you're a kid who hates to do his boring homework, it must be great to have a criminal defense appeals attorney as your mother. Yep, that's the profession of one of the authors (which may go a long way toward explaining her frequent use of the Twinkie defense--the homework made me do it). You might hope the other co-author would be an educational researcher, a sociologist, or a statistician, but you'd be disappointed if you did. She's a...journalist. And that, of course, explains a lot about the book too.

I am not a fan of busy work. I loathed school projects as a child, particularly those requiring and rewarding artistry (rather than, say, knowledge of the actual subject of the class), and I felt they squandered my precious time and taught me little. Down with dioramas! But I certainly believe some amount of homework (and perhaps even more than five division problems) is useful for review and necessary for mastery of skills and growth in critical thinking, and I am skeptical that the often outrageous anecdotes in this book can or should be regarded as some kind of national trend that constitutes a homework crisis.

Basically, this book takes just about any modern problem with children you can imagine and ascribes its cause to…homework. All the problems you might have previously thought were caused by overscheduling, too much parental involvement, too little parental involvement, divorce, too many technological distractions, inefficient uses of time, demographic shifts, or laziness, you will now learn are, in fact, caused by…homework. Homework causes childhood obesity, drug addiction, ADHD, and stupidity. The authors concede there are also other causes to these sorts of problems, of course, but we must acknowledge that homework is a "major" cause.

I wonder how many of these horror homework stories have more to do with individual, inefficient uses of time than with over-assignment. For example, the authors offer all these schedules showing how precious little “downtime” these children enjoy. Yet these schedules seem to have one thing in common. Most of these elementary-aged kids seem to get home at 5:30 after some non-descript “after school program” (otherwise known as day care?). Now, that means they’ve probably had at least 1.5 hours they COULD have been doing their homework already, if they had wanted to be. But clearly they didn’t. So…haven’t they had more play time and hang out time than this book implies? Or were they being drilled in Latin in that after school program? And then there are entries like this: “6-9 homework (with some texting).” Some texting? In college, I remember many a student pulling an “all nighter” to study for an exam, in which approximately two hours was ACTUALLY spent studying. Then there are anecdotes of children taking "hours" to do 45 multiplication problems. Ummm...if it's taking your kid "hours" to do 45 multiplication problems, maybe you should teach him his multiplication tables first. Just a suggestion.

Here's another reason I think these horror stories might have more to do with time management (or a rare, horrible teacher) than with national trends. The authors keep pulling out these stories of two, three, four, or even five hours of homework A DAY (or the nondescript woeful "hours of homework a day,") and then saying that the amount of homework has vastly increased. This leaves one with the impression that the typical elementary school age kid is doing two or more hours of homework A DAY. But what does the actual big picture data show? It shows an average of less than 30 minutes a day of homework for elementary aged kids and less than an hour in middle and high school. That, of course, means that some kids are doing more, and some kids are doing less, but "hours a day" hardly seems the norm.

Part of the problem is that the authors seem to take the word of children as evidence. For instance, in attributing obesity in part to homework, the authors say that a number of obese children, whom they describe as "highly motivated" to lose weight, claim they don't have time to exercise because of homework. Clearly we should accept this lame excuse as statistical data proving that homework causes obesity.

There are some horrifying stories in this book. A child assigned to read four novels and write essays on all of them over an eight day winter break. If true, that’s more than a bit much, and I never received any assignment like that. (Of course, now that I think of it, I believe I routinely read a novel a day for pleasure over holiday breaks. But kids aren’t doing that anymore, I understand, because of…homework.) These stories, however, are all hand-selected incidents, anecdotes of people I don’t know.

As for the argument that homework doesn’t improve academic performance, the only research the authors site is a study of multiple studies on homework, and what does that show? That homework IS positively correlated with academic achievement. The correlation is “little” in elementary school and “moderate” in junior high and high school, but how these authors go from a little and/or moderate positive correlation to “absolutely no” correlation or even a negative correlation, I don’t know.

The book is unscientific, to say the least. The authors draw wholesale conclusions such as “more homework means lower tests scores” from observations such as the fact Japan assigns less homework and has higher test scores than the U.S. I guess they never heard the statistical adage, “correlation does not necessarily imply causation.” Let’s not consider the massive differences between both the cultures and the educational systems of Japan and the U.S. (Such as the fact that Japanese culture is extremely homogenous and places a high value on teachers and that Japanese students are in school 243 days a year as compared to an American student’s 200). Homework. Just homework. The amount of homework assigned, clearly, is the key manner in which these nations differ. But, wait, further proof: Finnish test scores are also higher than U.S. test scores, and they have less homework, so, clearly, homework lowers tests scores. Nevermind that the Finnish selection process for teachers is vastly more difficult than the process in the U.S., and that less than 15% of applicants to university teacher training programs are even selected to participate, or that Finnish students are separated into college prep and vocational tracks early on. It must be the lack of homework that’s driving those Finnish test scores up.

Then the book goes on to tell us how to advocate for our children to make sure they don’t have too much homework. Frankly, I feel for anyone who has the guts to be a public school teacher these days. They have to deal with pressures from as many conflicting lobbies as Congressmen do, but without the $174,000 salary, and with access to an even smaller magical money-growing tree. I’m not saying the teacher is always right, or that I won’t “advocate” for my own child if I feel it’s necessary, but…whew.

Now, I agree that a lot of homework assignments are silly and useless, and I would like to see fewer of them. But I did my time in public school with dioramas and science fair projects and posters of newspapers in Ancient Egypt (complete with crossword puzzle and horoscope), and I emerged largely unscathed and fairly well educated. So I see it more as an annoyance than as a crisis. And I'm a little concerned about what we would be teaching our kids if we tell them they should never be bored by school, education should ALWAYS be fun, and that if they don't see the point of something or don't find that it's "working for them," they should be accommodated with a different assignment or no assignment at all, and their parents should intercede to rescue them. I also worry what happens when we infantilize our children to the degree that this book seems to do. My favorite quote (not from the authors, but from an expert the authors quote to bolster their arguments): “Parents and teachers might think children are lazy or stubborn when they forget to bring a book home or remember all their assignments. But even asking high schoolers to assume that adult level of planning and organizing is placing a very great demand on them. Most simply aren’t ready for it.” Read that again, please. Most high schoolers simply aren’t ready for the responsibility entailed in remembering to bring a book home from school. They are, however, apparently ready for the responsibility entailed in driving cars, holding part-time jobs, and having sex. But expecting them to remember to bring home a book? Why are we putting so much pressure on our babies!!!

Yes, homework can be boring and not always pointed. But so can the ridiculous things your boss tells you to do at work. However, if every time the boss asks you to draw up a graph you don't think the company needs, you say, "That's boring and doesn't really teach the company anything. How about, as an alternative, I surf the internet and play on Facebook for awhile?", you might find you don't get the same response you got from your public school teacher when mommy told her the homework just wasn't "working" for you. Lots of things in life are boring. Sometimes you have to do boring and even useless things; you can fight against having to do them, or you can learn to do them as efficiently as possible so you can get on with doing the things you really love. I've found the latter course cosnumes less time and energy and causes less drama. Perhaps the real skills homework teaches is how to manage time, see patterns that help you to cut corners, and figure out what other people want of you and how to give it to them with as little effort as possible. I'm sure I sound cynical, but these are valuable job skills.

My oldest child is only in kindergarten, and has maybe ten minutes of homework A WEEK, if you don't count the daily reading aloud to her, which we would be doing anyway. So maybe I’ll be singing a different tune later as I witness my children wind their way through school and watch my own time sucked away by homework assistance. Maybe I'll be checking out this book again and using some of the authors' condescending scripts on my kids' teachers. But, at the moment, I still think there’s room for disagreement on this issue. Yes, I’d like to see less time wasted on busywork in both homework and in school. For that matter, I’d like to see less time wasted in busy work in the workplace. And I'd like to see the school day shortened and less time wasted in the classroom. Nevertheless, I’m not prepared, just yet, to encourage my child to refuse do her assigned work and advocate for her right to watch Wheel of Fortune instead.

ADDENDUM: I thought I’d revisit my opinions now that my daughter goes to a new school where she has 25-30 minutes of homework a day, every day except Friday, in 1st grade. I admit I look forward to Fridays because I don’t have to check over her homework, and she doesn’t have to interrupt her play time. That said, I still don’t believe homework is a travesty. The homework she receives reinforces her math skills, prepares her to do better on her spelling tests, and helps her to practice her phonics. She has far more homework than she did in Kindergarten, but it is also far more pointed and curriculum driven. I see precisely what she is doing in school, so I feel I know far more about what she is learning than I did last year, and that reassures me. In the course of a year, she has learned to manage her own time very well and to do her homework on her own with only the occasional reminder. Does she need this homework? Is it essential? I think she does need to study her spelling words, certainly, but not in the prescribed way assigned. I think the math worksheets do help her to reinforce her skills, much like practicing the piano. If, however, she were bringing home “projects” and having to make posters all the time, I’d have a different attitude. I don’t think the problem is quantity of homework so much as quality of homework and the open-endendess of many assignments, which lead perfectionist children to expend more time.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Skylar, Great review! I also enjoyed your recent review about another homework book, the title of which escapes my memory.

Skylar Burris Thanks, Chandra and Lisa. The other homework book was The Homework Myth, which had some of the same arguments, but expanded them into arguments against virtually all methods of traditional education as a whole.

message 3: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Skylar, Thanks for the reminder. I really enjoyed your review o fThe Homework Myth too.

message 4: by Kressel (new)

Kressel Housman I always say that homework is harder on the parents than the kids. I HATE it! My two boys are up at 6:30 am for prayers and don't get home from yeshiva till 6:00 pm. Then I have to force them to do HOMEWORK???

message 5: by rivka (new)

rivka I might suggest that the issue has more to do with the length of their school day. I don't personally believe any yeshiva ketana (approx. tr.: elementary school) should have a dismissal later than 4:30. (I'm assuming it takes about 30 minutes for your kids to get home.) Regardless, the school absolutely should have homework policies that take into account their schedule.

message 6: by Kressel (new)

Kressel Housman If they're going to learn English, the day has to be long.

message 7: by rivka (new)

rivka My son's school gets out at 4:30. Which is still plenty long.

Skylar Burris Kressel, if my kids had a 10 hour school day I'd find homework a problem too. The public school day is 6.5 hours, though. (And here it is 4.5 on Mondays for elementary school.)

message 9: by Sylvia (new)

Sylvia Excellent review and opinion piece. From your canny observation of the authors' experience, to your no-nonsense demand for applicable (not cherry-picked) statistics, you've made a very strong case against this book. Thanks!

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