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The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It

reviewed by Karen McCarthy - April 09, 2007

coverTitle: The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It
Author(s): Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish
Publisher: Crown Publishers,
ISBN: 0307340171 , Pages: 304, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

There are few things in education as dependable as homework—it is such an accepted, ordinary aspect of our educational system that few outside the field may stop to think deeply about it. The Case Against Homework attempts to change all that. Its goal is to force readers to rethink their ideas about homework, to show that the majority of homework is not constructive—and is, in fact, destructive—and to provide tools and encouragement to parents so they may change the homework system in their communities.

Authors Sara Bennett, a criminal defense appeals attorney, and Nancy Kalish, a former senior editor at Child and current magazine columnist, are both parents who became concerned with the toll excessive homework was taking on their children and families. The Case Against Homework is their response:

Here’s a radical thought: It’s time to trust your own instincts. Don’t let the schools tell you that you have to accept things the way they are. If you see your child is suffering because too much homework is sapping his energy and breaking his spirit, something is wrong. If you’re giving up precious family time for hour upon hour of assignments—time you’ll never get back—something is wrong. If the time you have left over is marred by irritating discussions or arguments over when, where, and how homework is going to get done, something is wrong—and it’s okay to do something about it. The solution is to say enough is enough. (p. 155)

The book is organized into two parts. The first attempts to persuade the reader, primarily through first-person stories by parents and families, that there are problems associated with homework. The second offers tools (sample homework policies, letters, scripts) that readers may use to change the current situation.

The more than 100 pages comprising Part One focus on the book’s namesake—the case against homework. This section is presented in multiple testimonials describing the harm homework does to children, parents, and families. It reads like a laundry list of complaints—the authors argue that most homework in America works to destroy family relationships, contribute to childhood obesity, create anxious and exhausted children, take the joy out of learning, and much more. There are some serious jumps in reasoning, including the suggestion that children, who must be relieved from chores in order to complete homework, may wind up in troubled marriages as they learn to place work before household responsibilities and would subsequently argue over performing chores in their adult relationships.

The authors rely on countless anecdotal stories with a sprinkle of research to back their claims. Most examples are geared toward elementary and middle school, however the authors assure the reader that their arguments also apply to high school situations. The tone is strikingly dramatic—perhaps in an attempt to convince the reader of the seriousness of this seemingly mundane topic. Phrases like “time their family will never get back” (p. 4) and “feels like abuse” (p. 10) are heard amongst the series of stories lamenting what the families could do together if they had time—time taken away by homework. There are stories of parents exhausted from arguing with their children over homework completion, stressed from trips to the craft shop to purchase supplies for dioramas, and children who no longer take part in pleasure reading or extra curricular activities due to the excessive toll homework has taken on their free time. Some examples are so incredible they could make a critical reader doubt their sincerity, for example, “…if you live in Lancaster, Texas, you ignore holiday homework at your peril. In January 2006, nearly one thousand students were suspended for not completing their Christmas assignments and some were even visited by police” (p. 19) or, “think twice before giving your child a book as a holiday present. There’s no time to read it—at least if you live in Grand Island, New York, where one ninth-grader had to read four assigned novels and write essays on each of them over the break” (p. 19). These examples are so outlandish that no reasonable person could argue there was not a problem with homework in those communities, yet by emphasizing such extreme examples Bennett and Kalish may overstate the actual crisis—straying from a typical parent or student experience—and thereby undermining their argument’s credibility and their own objectives.

The book’s reliance on anecdotes is one of its main weaknesses, obscuring quantitative evidence critical readers long for. The Case Against Homework includes little hard research apart from data gathered from surveys and polls and a smattering of academic quotes and text boxes primarily from Duke University professor Harris Cooper. Nevertheless, if the reader can manage not to be overwhelmed by the lengthy series of anecdotes, there are some good points to be found; significantly, that homework has not been proven to increase student achievement. Another notable point is the lack of training teachers have in constructing appropriate or meaningful assignments. Through surveying teachers and contacting schools of education, the authors discover that “the overwhelming majority of teachers have never taken a course in homework, and that, contrary to popular belief, there is little solid research demonstrating benefits from the current homework system—if we can even call it a system” (p. 3).

The authors provide a brief historical overview—beginning with the view that homework was considered child abuse in the 1900s, to the competitive urgency of the Cold War and the legacy of A Nation at Risk (both of which called for more homework), bringing us up to the current system of high-stakes testing under No Child Left Behind, which they argue results in inexperienced or poorly trained teachers resorting to lengthy homework assignments in order to make up for material they cannot possibly cover in class. Bennett and Kalish do argue convincingly that homework has become central to a competitive, fast-track mentality, which is misguided in its methods for success. In fact, they cite nations such as Japan, Denmark, and the Czech Republic which consistently outperform the United States on standardized tests and give substantially less homework than U.S. school systems.

The authors also include testimony on the developmental needs of children, arguing that they are out of step with long periods of sitting listlessly completing homework assignments. This may hurt brain formation, social skills, and even classroom behavior; in the authors’ opinions it is also a leading cause of childhood obesity (due to long sedentary work periods). Teenagers need time away from homework to find their interests and identities. Children need time to play in order to develop social skills. A strong component of their argument is that children need time to enjoy being children.

Part Two is entitled: “Ending Homework Hell.” In this section the authors pull together stories of parents who confronted the system and were, to a large or small extent, successful in changing it. The book stresses that this is a systemic school problem, not a parent problem, but encourages parents to collaborate to create change. Ensuing chapters offer advice on how to determine when to allow your child to not do a homework assignment, how to approach teachers, where to begin, and how to organize with other parents. Suggestions include looking into or working to establish a homework policy for your school— they believe this is essential, for it helps with accountability, gathering allies amongst other parents, setting up meetings before homework becomes a problem, being open to temporary change, and even simply jotting down notes before going into a meeting. They argue for independent reading as a replacement for most homework (however, teachers may argue that it is difficult to check if this type of assignment is actually done), and to discuss with your children what they are learning or doing in school rather than placing emphasis on the amount of homework they have and engaging in power struggles to get it done. This section includes nearly 35 pages of scripts and model letters to aid the reader, an abundance of exemplars, which might be better placed in an appendix for readers to reference if needed.

The book may succeed in widening the conversation about a topic that has been largely ignored by families, who nevertheless feel its effects daily. It may also bring to the general public some critical facts about the value (or lack there of) of homework. Unfortunately each interesting fact or piece of information is mired in repetitive, overly dramatic statements that a reader must filter through to find the essence of the argument. There are some good, but generally obvious points (e.g., young children should not have several hours of nightly homework), yet ultimately their argument is not truly about homework as much as it is against generally poor educational practice.

The Case Against Homework is not a book to pick up if you are seeking serious research on homework. Educators will be disappointed in the dearth of educational theory and lack of concrete strategies to improve assignments. The audience for this book is clearly parents, as many of the anecdotes pertain to the tribulations of their role in this system. Much of the key information could be delivered in a pamphlet or found in the concluding section “Tools for Homework Reform” (which consists of 14 pages of sample homework policies, surveys, and a two-page fact sheet that summarizes the bulk of their research and recommendations in bulleted form). There are certainly problems with excessive or meaningless assignments in many communities, but a balanced discussion of the value of homework—and how to make it meaningful—would best be found elsewhere.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 09, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14160, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 8:30:49 AM

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About the Author
  • Karen McCarthy
    Boston Public Schools
    E-mail Author
    KAREN L. MCCARTHY is a high school English teacher and special educator in the Boston Public Schools. She has worked with middle school children on Martha's Vineyard, taught math and reading to children in Guatemala, and has written for Let's Go Travel Guide in Spain and Portugal. After extensive travel, she earned a masterís degree in education from Harvard University and entered the classroom. She teaches a graduate class in special education to teachers in training, and works with a team to design and facilitate professional development at her school where she also serves as a teacher leader, and presents at professional development conferences throughout the Boston area. Her professional interests include urban education, the achievement gap, brain-based learning, literacy, and special education.
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