It's Time To Kill Homework

Somebody please...make my 2nd grader's teacher stop giving homework.

Sure, putting vocabulary words in ABC order, doing two pages of math problems, writing 3-5 sentences in a journal and reading for 20 minutes might not seem like a lot to you, but this afternoon my son was crying halfway through the second page of the math problems.

I don't blame him. He was so miserable, I wanted to cry too.

What do we think is so redeeming about making kids do homework? We work all day and we sure as heck don't want to bring work home with us, so why do we expect our kids to do so?

I think we think they're going to end up as failures if they don't have homework.

Without homework, kids will bomb the almighty standardized tests.

Without homework, the next thing you know China will be the only super power.

When I first started teaching, I assigned tons of homework to my students. I believed they needed as much practice as possible because they were so far behind on so many key concepts.

The problem was that unless I checked all that homework and talked through the answers, there was no point to assigning it. Kids don't learn when a teacher just collects the homework and lets it sit in a bin without reviewing it.

"Who has the answer to number three?" How many times did you sit in a class and hear a teacher ask a question like that? I'm sure you remember the times kids (maybe even you) responded to the teacher's query with the wrong answer.

If the teacher says, "No, that's not correct," and moves on to someone else who has the right answer, all you're left with is a wrong answer on your paper. Hearing someone else say the right answer doesn't teach anything.

Kids learn by deconstructing how they arrived at a correct or incorrect response. If the teacher isn't going to take the time to reteach the concepts that led to the kid getting to that wrong answer, well, what's the point?

One of my favorite education experts, Alfie Kohn wrote a great piece back in 2007 about how homework needs to be completely rethought in our culture. He says,

"Homework in most schools isn’t limited to those occasions when it seems appropriate and important. Rather, the point of departure seems to be: “We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week). Later on we’ll figure out what to make them do.”
I thought about that as I heard my second grader sob, "I hate this. I hate this homework!"

What could I do but tell him to suck it up and finish it? He has no choice in the matter. If he doesn't finish the homework, he gets a bad grade. He gets in trouble.

My son wanted to write in his school journal about how much he hates his homework... but he said his teacher said if he did that, he'd show it to the principal.

The rabble rouser in me says, DO IT! After all, he'd be writing the truth... and the truth is a whole lot of kids hate homework. And, they'd be better served by doing homework (what educators call "independent practice") in class with the teacher monitoring them and available if they have questions or get stuck.

Speaking of principals, let me get wonky on you again and go back to Kohn's thoughts about homework because I think his sentiments apply a whole lot to what passes as education in our high-stakes testing, competitive education, "Waiting For Superman" environment.

Kohn says schools,
"need principals who question the slogans that pass for arguments: that homework creates a link between school and family (as if there weren’t more constructive ways to make that connection!), or that it “reinforces” what students were taught in class (a word that denotes the repetition of rote behaviors, not the development of understanding), or that it teaches children self-discipline and responsibility (a claim for which absolutely no evidence exists)."
Hmm... If we all think education needs to prepare kids for the realities of a 21st century global economy, maybe we need to shift our approach to homework into the modern era.

I admit I considered telling my kid all the answers just so I wouldn't have to deal with the completely crushed spirit and the deluge of tears. I'm sure there are lots of parents out there who've felt the some way, and plenty more who've actually gone there and done that.

In the meantime, I'm prepared for more tears and more hours trying to convince my son of the value of homework - even though I don't really believe in it myself.

*photo courtesy of Flickr user Jaqian


davita said…
That really stinks that homework is such a negative experience for your son. It really ruins the learning process.

I think it's kind of funny that you mentioned China, because those kids are doing work ALL day and even go to school on Saturday. Growing up I read two hours a night in addition to my homework. In the summer I read two hours each day and did math workbooks. My mom is old school and is Chinese, born in Taiwan. Even though she worked the double shifts as waitress 6 days a week and the dinner shift on the 7th day, she always made sure that I was on top of my school work. And I knew for as long as I could remember that my job was school and that I needed to do my best so that I could get into college. Heck, I knew that I wanted to go to UC Davis ever since I was 8 years old. I personally think that my mother pushed me even harder because I was half black and she didn't wanted anyone [other Chinese] saying ANYTHING negative about her child. And the fact that we left Taiwan so that I could have the life that I would have never been able to have as a half black child in Taiwan. When I was in HS, she worked extra shifts so that I could have a tutor for chemistry and math.

My eldest is in the 4th grade. His homework consists of one or two worksheets and reading 30 minutes a day. The worksheets are supposed to be a review and something that should take less than 20 minutes and can be done on his own. In fact, ever since the 1st grade his teachers have stressed that homework is not supposed to be a battle, it's a review which should take 15 to 20 minutes without parental help. They use it as a tool to make sure the students are actually understanding what is being taught in class. As in, do they know the material on their own without coaxing?

My daughter who is kindergarten has about 10 minutes of homework consisting of writing a particular letter 6 times and then some activity like draw two things that rhyme with bus. And then I read to her for 15 minutes every night.

I personally believe that practicing math facts keeps you sharp and that reading is a wonderful thing. It triggers the imagination, expands the vocabulary, and invites critical thinking via discussion. Something the average student is lacking.

I also see homework as a means for parents to see for themselves where their child is academically so that they can give them assistance if necessary. I think 1-2 hours of homework each night for an elementary student is excessive. But 20 minutes of review/practice to see where their skills are and some reading, is not a big deal to me. My kids just get it done, then go outside to play until dinner time.

I do really hope that you will be able to come up with a solution for homework time with your son. I believe that aside from our love and acceptance, the power of being able to read and instilling a love/craving for learning are the two most precious gifts that we can give our children.
Liz Dwyer said…
Both my sons hate homework but one has the personality to not question it and just do it. My youngest questions everything and the very idea of homework does not make sense to him, even when it's very easy.

Yep, I lived and taught school in China so I know what that's like there. Kudos to your mom for doing what she needed to do for you. ;)

I'm not against kids working hard or excelling academically, I'm all for that! But I'm not sure our current system of assigning homework contributes to learning as much as it should, and I don't think the homework my boy's getting is furthering his understanding. My kids read all the time and write all the time - whether they're in school or it's summer vacation - we probably could practice math more! ;) I guess I don't believe homework helps unless the teacher's going to review it with the class and take the time to reteach on the spot.

I interviewed Sal Khan, (you can read it at -he's the founder of the Khan Academy. I dig his ideas of flipping around where and when we give kids independent practice.
nick said…
Very interesting. I'd never thought about whether homework is actually worth doing. I certainly had plenty to do when I was at school. I don't remember resenting it but that's probably because I was a boarder and everyone was doing their homework at the same time. But yes, if the pupil isn't learning anything useful, if the teacher doesn't go through the homework later, and it just seems like a pointless chore, then some rethinking is urgently needed.
Tracy said…
Awesome to see an actual educator who gets how ridiculous homework is! I graduated 12 years ago but I can still remember how much I hated homework! Homework was the reason I hated school even though I was a curios and intelligent kid. I was a child who read the classics on my own but I could not bring myself to do homework! Even when I was 10 years old, I could see how pointless it was and I felt like it was a waste of my time. Going over homework is a complete and utter misuse of classroom time. Spending an hour checking homework in class is an hour not learning.
Anonymous said…
I have a son in second grade and I think homework is a good thing. And when he doesn't get enough homework, I make up some just to give him added practice. :)
Jameil said…
I like homework when it's useful. I always liked the opportunity to show how smart I was. Lol. The problem is the inconsistency in getting rid of non-useful homework for the kids who get it. And I'm sure you know homework starts a cycle, the kids who need it don't do it, the ones who don't need it, do, sometimes with frustration. Teaching on multiple levels in one classroom, giving homework to try to catch people up. MAN!! I don't envy elementary school teachers. It's difficult enough dealing with that on the collegiate level in introductory courses.
April said…
I strongly encourage you to write your own letter to both his teacher and principal, using much of the same information you included in this post as to why you object to this homework, and that you will be setting your own limits to homework in your house. Remember, also, that very few people will be looking at what he got on his 2nd grade report card, and that even if he is marked down, it probably won't harm him too much. also has some great tips on how parents can change homework policies; it's a site run by one of the co-authors of The Case Against Homework, which I also strongly recommend!
(I know of two principals who are trying to get their teachers to assign less homework, and having support from parents could really help. For all you know, the Principal would support your ideas and help get them implemented in your son's class!)
Bronwyn said…
When I was in the classroom, I assigned lots of homework but made sure the parents knew that they were the ones who knew their kids and how much was good. they always had the option to just sign the homework and I would know that meant the child had completed all that he or she could that day and the parent approved it. then they'd get full credit. You never know when people have family stuff going on or some other reason why they don't have time for homework.

Also, your son should be able to write WHATEVER HE WANTS in his journal as long as it's not a threat. I always told the kids that they could say what they were feeling without getting in trouble. No threats, but they could talk about feelings. For a lot of them, it was the first time they were ever told their feelings were OK.
Call Family said…
Nothing in my elementary teacher training (14 years ago)promoted homework as a best practice. It would be interesting to know the feelings of the other parents at your sons school, because in my experience the primary reason I assign homework is because the parents expect it and complain if it's not provided. Another reason is because subsequent grade levels communicate that if students have not had the expectation to practice skills at home in earlier grades then they have a more difficult time with this responsibility later on.If the teacher is looking at it as a measure of ability than they are creating unncessary work for themselves and should likely be putting more energy into other areas of their teaching. Grading homework of second graders is stupid. After an 11 hour day, the last thing I want to do is battle with my kid over homework, but to be honest I'd rather her be doing worksheet practice than watching TV.
Christie D. said…
Do they give letter grades each term to elementary students in the States?

My older son had trouble with homework in elem. school (forgetting to bring it home, doing it but forgetting to turn it in, not being able to do it because of long hours of baseball team practice, etc.) We placed baseball and sleep both as higher priorities than homework -- baseball because it was so helpful to his emotional and social growth.

Luckily, at all the 3 elem. schools he went to - a state school in England, an intl. school in Japan, and a regular state school in Japan - the term report cards did not contain letter grades. There were evaluations of various facets of learning, behavior, etc., marked Very Good, Average, or Needs Improvement -- that kind of thing. Basically, the report cards were quite nebulous in tone, and never caused us much trouble, whether his homework had been done or not.

Personally, I think there are so many more important things to work on in elem. school, than just grades, so I would not like to see elem. schools giving term letter grades to the students.

P.S. Luckily, my older son matured some at around the time he started 7th grade, and was able to step up to the plate and get A's and B's. He's in 10th grade now.
Anonymous said…
I agree that homework is useful but has to make sense. In my own opinion, HW is a way teacher to push "parents" to more involved in school work. My son is 1st grade. He has 1 math page everyday (M-TH) which he usually does all of it on Monday afterschool. And a spelling list that he has to do alphabet order than write 3x. I talked to the teacher since I thought that was not necessary if the already knows the words and the teacher compromise we do the 3x on challenge list, which I and my DS came out the list ourselves. Teacher has a reading log but never ask if we didn't bring it back.Now he is only 1st grade in private school so I am not sure how it gonna work out in the future. But my theory is that parents need to work with the kids. If u see that work is unreasonable, raise your opinion to the teacher and give them a reason why. I, too,am a Chinese raised in Taiwan and have very high standard on my kids. If your teacher knows that you are a highly invloved parents and the kids are not going to slack if not doing HW. My guess is teacher will be ok with it.
I am little bugged that why US parents so stressed out on 20-30 mins homework but has no problem to have kids involved in the sports 2 nights a week, 2 hrs a time. My first grader played soccer in Kindy and that was 1 Sat/week but next semister will be 2 x a week and 2 hrs each time. (practice/game) that just seem ridiculous when you hearing those very same parents complaints about HW>

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