Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Interview with Sara Bennett on Homework

I recently interviewed education activist and advocate, Sara Bennett. Sara co-authored “The Case Against Homework” and has a blog on the subject at www.stophomework.com. The book shows how homework not only does not boost academic achievement, it also causes a whole host of problems for children and families. It is peppered with both homework horror stories and success stories of parents who have successfully handled the homework issue. Specific examples are given of how to advocate on your child’s behalf and significantly lighten (or eliminate) the load, including how to talk to teachers or administrators with diplomacy and how to form committees to change school policy. The results are surprisingly positive and even when the outcome is not as what was hoped for, she suggests a homework triage system and guides the reader on recognizing homework assignments that add value and those that do not. It proposes a much more careful approach to homework to make it meaningful rather than burdensome busy work.

Sara, as a lawyer for battered women, you are no stranger to advocating for those who don’t have much of a voice. How did you get into doing this work?

I was shocked when my oldest child went to first grade and brought home homework. I thought it was a bad idea from the very beginning, and back then it was only a reading log. We would fill it out without telling him, but at the Parent Teacher Conferences, his teacher said that he needed to write it. But he couldn’t write yet and that didn’t seem to be the way to practice writing, by entering in book titles. We also didn’t want to artificially limit his reading time to 10 minutes, making him think it odd to want to read more. We wanted him to continue to love being read to and eventually to love to read to himself.

At the time I was already forty and very self confident, so I wasn't at all intimidated by his teacher who was young enough to be my daughter. After that, every year my husband would have a yearly chat with the head of the school about the philosophy of homework. Even when the head, whoever it happened to be, admitted that we had some valid points, we were told that we were the only family who considered homework to be a problem. As the years progressed, I got a reputation for being vocal about homework and parents started to come up to me and ask me whether I could raise the issue with the teacher or at a school meeting. By 2004, when my oldest child was in 8th grade, I went to a meeting where people were talking about all the practices that were in place so that kids could get their homework done, even when they had stayed at home because they were sick. It just seemed ridiculous, and I stood up and said that I wanted to form a committee to look at homework and was anyone else interested in joining me. Several parents did and I discovered that I wasn't the only voice in the school complaining about the homework load. By the end of that year, we changed several things in the homework policy.

My son always had a really easy time in school and he could do his homework quickly and efficiently. That made us very good advocates, because no teacher or principal could ever even hint that homework was a problem because he might have a learning issue. He could do it; we just didn't want him spending his time that way, especially since the homework seemed to be busy work.

What kind of homework is more meaningful and what kind of homework is not useful?

Most homework is not meaningful. Elementary school homework is waste of time. There is no correlation between homework and academic achievement. Projects tend to be the worst because kids most often can’t do it alone and there is not much learning that happens, it’s just compulsory. Reading is always important, but it's not important what a child reads, so I would encourage pleasure reading. Math homework is especially problematic in that it is difficult to find homework exercises that add value. Typical homework in history or English is to read and answer questions at the end, which is completely useless. It trains the kids not to read for interest or comprehension, but to look for the answers embedded in the text. I know my point of view is radical, but there are plenty of teachers who don’t assign homework. They utilize their class time, making homework unnecessary. In college you take 3-4 classes and for every class you expect about 3-4 hours of homework. This makes sense because your classroom hours are minimal and you need to have independent study time in preparation for the classes. In grade school the students are in school the majority of the day, so this model doesn’t make sense.

What do you say in answer to the defense that homework is a great way to understand what your child is working on in class and how well he or she understands it?

A student should not need to spend a lot of time on homework every day so that parents know what they are doing. Ask them what they are doing! Communicate with the teacher! If there is something that is really interesting at school, you will hear about it.

There is such a climate of fear about our economic competitiveness that is leads to more academic rigor. Yet, the very zealous focus on academic achievement is causing problems for students academically, socially, physically and emotionally. Why is balance so important?

Because we are more than just academic learners, we are whole people with other needs and interests. Not everyone is going to use everything that is learned in school. Most of us use very little of what we learned outside of basic reading and math. It is important to find what we are each passionate about and time outside of academics is necessary to learn this. We cannot predict what the future will bring so we need to be well rounded and know our interests. I just read an article in the New York Times that talked about recent graduates from the Wharton School being unable to find jobs using their degrees. It had the positive affect of freeing them up to do what they are passionate about and they actually felt relieved. Their parents had pushed them to go to school, but now they were doing what they really wanted to do. One talked about going to rabbinical school, another talked about founding a shoe company that designs collapsible shoes.

Do you think homework is a function of the standardized testing machine, in that a teacher must “get through the year” having to cover a certain amount of topics that will be tested?

Yes, that is part of it. Teachers are teaching to the test, trying to make sure kids have the material to do well on the test.

When looking for schools for their children, what can parents look for that will help them make choices that lead to balance and sanity when it comes to work load?

It depends where you live, as the smaller communities don’t always have a choice. If there is a choice, parents should pay attention to what interests their children have and what learning styles work for them. Go on a school tour and see how big the school is (the bigger the school the harder it is to make a difference and make a change, but, then again, it might be easier to find what you're looking for). See whether the teachers are excited about what they're teaching, whether they're using innovative methods, ask what they do to excite kids. Do they encourage exploration and alternative options?

Parents frequently mention their preference for a school with a high degree of academic “rigor”. When you look up the word rigor in a dictionary it mentions severity, harshness, austerity, inflexibility. Do you think parents really want that kind of school life for their children?

No, I don’t think we want that kind of school life for our children, but that is what we have.
I think they want a place where their children will love learning and be introduced to new and exciting ideas.

Students are not the only ones subjected to homework. How do parents and families suffer when homework is such a presence in the lives of their children?

Family’s lives revolve around homework. We hear all of the time about kids and families having to give up events for homework. There is no time for whatever the kid loves, whether it's music or art or reading or doing nothing, let alone a visit to a grandparent or an out of town wedding. We hear about kids having to do homework on vacation, in the car, even at play dates before the play can begin. Often parents have to put a significant amount of time helping or doing the homework. There can be a lot of negative interactions, especially between teenagers and parents. For the younger kids there are temper tantrums. A lot of parents are expected to teach the homework concepts but are not good at teaching and don’t want to have that kind of dynamic with their kids. It causes a lot of family friction.

You give many good, specific examples in your book of how to diplomatically address the issue of homework overload with teachers and principals. Can you give some examples of your advice?

When kids are little, stop the homework the moment it creates anxiety and write the teacher a note. Teachers are almost always fine with it. Once you know that there is no correlation between homework and academic success, it’s easier to make decisions on homework. My main advice is for parents to speak up to teachers and administrators. Teachers don’t know if you don’t tell them. If no one speaks up they don’t know. Advocate on a larger scale, form committees of parents against homework. Speak up to school board or superintendent, legislators. At every different level there is impact.

In your experience do these meetings or requests typically end well?

Not always but mostly. 1st through 7th grade went well. When we talked to the teacher we got the homework reduced by half or three-quarters. A teacher in my son’s 8th grade and my daughter’s 5th grade were more difficult. No matter what I said did not make a difference, so we wrote a respectful note acknowledging our differences and informing the teacher that they would no longer be doing homework. Even that wasn’t so bad. Initially my daughter was a little a little embarrassed to be the child who wasn't handing in homework, but she quickly got over that and was happy to have free time after school. It is also great for the kids to see you standing up to authority in a respectful and reasonable way and getting your needs met. It’s a good lesson.


  1. Good interview! You bring up some salient points about ways to rethink how we administer homework to our young students.

  2. I like your mention of "rigor." I've heard Alfie Kohn speak of that, too, and I totally agree that type of mentality has no place in education!

    You should also interview Vicki Abeles of the film "Race to Nowhere" www.ReelLinkFilms.com

  3. I really enjoyed reading your post. Very thought provoking!