It was a crystallizing moment for Sara Youngblood-Ochoa. She was sitting with her first-grade son last winter as he struggled to do “extra credit” homework after a long day at school. Getting frustrated, she snapped at him. He cried.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ He said no, and I said, ‘I don’t either.’ ” And that was the end of homework for her 6-year-old.
She knew he was doing fine in school, so they just stopped doing the packets of worksheets that came home every week. “It took a load off our afternoons and made it easier for him to do after-school activities that he wanted to do,” said the Chicago-area mother. “If there’s something our son is struggling in, we’ll absolutely do the work. But after eight hours at a desk, to make him sit down and do more seems silly.”
After a summer of camps, freedom and running around outside, the transition back to school can be tough for any child — or parent. Add to that the scads of homework sent back with kids to complete before the next day, and parents can find themselves torn between wanting to encourage children to complete their work and wanting them to get exercise, play, just be a kid. And so for some parents, homework, particularly for kids in the younger grades, has become a big, fat zero. No more worksheets and reading logs. Other parents stop all homework if it takes longer than 10 or 15 minutes, believing the assignments should be a simple review of what was learned in school, not an hours-long process to struggle through. The conversation about banning homework, especially for young children, appears to be growing in popularity, even among teachers themselves. When a second-grade teacher in Texas recently sent a letter home explaining that she no longer would give homework, the letter went viral. Most important to parents, studies show that homework for younger children doesn’t actually correlate with improved school performance, and in fact, can hinder learning.
[Texas teacher stops giving homework. The Internet gives her an A.]
Homework, in other words, is really a sore subject.
When Jeanne Hargett’s youngest son started kindergarten in Arlington Public Schools last year, he was given weekly homework packets. “We just didn’t do it,” she said. “Honestly, he’s an active child. And I really feel like after asking him to sit on his bottom for most of the day, and asking him to come home and do it again, is not fair. I want him to go outside and exercise, look at bunnies and bugs and crawl around in the grass.” She said he didn’t get “dinged” for not doing the homework, and explained her stance to his teacher, but she is worried about first grade. “I’m hearing they give rewards to the entire class if everyone does their homework. That puts pressure on these 6-year-olds.”
That lack of free playtime is what most parents argue is missing when children are forced to come home and review what they did at school by doing worksheets. “It’s really important, especially for young kids, to play. Playing is a cornerstone for learning,” said Erica Reischer, a clinical psychologist and author of the book “What Great Parents Do.” “Playing is learning. That’s it. Parents need to protect that space.”
But what happens when parents simply stop forcing their kids to do homework? For those interviewed here, they explained their reasoning to teachers and principals and say they were mostly met with support, and their children didn’t fall behind. “There’s a long tradition of homework, and a lot of passion behind it from parents and teachers,” Reischer said. “It’s what we do. So it feels a little scary to let that go… It shouldn’t be a crazy idea that elementary school shouldn’t have homework.”
Of course, not everyone is ditching homework. For older students in particular, homework often has a purpose, including learning about time management and solidifying complicated lessons. Jonathan Brand, headmaster of Chelsea Academy in Front Royal, Va., said his school has general guidelines about homework amounts, even for older students. “We lower the homework requirement in younger grades,” he said. In grades 4 and 5, their youngest, teachers try to give no more than 30 minutes per night. “We’re very careful about the kind of homework assignments we give to students. The benefit they receive from homework diminishes significantly in the lower grades.”
Parents who are opting out are generally in a place of privilege, says Harris M. Cooper, a Duke University professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience, whose research often focuses on homework. “These are typically parents who have the resources and capacity to substitute their own choices of academic things to do after school.” For parents whose first language isn’t English, or parents who work long hours, homework can be a good resource and supplement to regular school days.
John Seelke, father to twin second-grade girls, and a former teacher who now works at the University of Maryland’s College of Education, said he’s torn about the homework issue at home. From a professional perspective, he knows there is sometimes too much emphasis put on homework, noting that research shows a disconnect between the amount of homework students are given and their success at school. “As a parent, though, I sort of like that my kids have something to work on,” he said. “In education, there’s a swing in the pendulum. First, the students get too much, especially in high school, with three to four hours a night. But then to swing completely in the other direction and say no homework?”
So he and his wife have set it up that the girls’ routine includes homework after school. If they have an activity at night, they can complete the work before school in the morning. “I also know that if my kids are struggling with something, we know what resources to go to because of my background,” he said. “I don’t know that every parent has those resources, especially if they are working two jobs or from another country. In some cases, for them, homework is a steady way of practice.”
In general, younger children’s homework shouldn’t last more than 10 to 20 minutes, Cooper said. “Parents should be watching their child, especially for signs of fatigue and frustration.” If they feel the homework is too much or inappropriate, “speak with the teacher. Because if enough parents have the same concern, a good educator will modify their practices.”
Annie Richman of Shaker Heights, Ohio, put that time limit on her children’s homework when they were young. “I think that’s enough time to focus” after a long day at school, she said. If her children ran out of time or got frustrated, Richman would write a note to the teacher. A former second-grade teacher herself, she rarely gave homework unless it was something that specifically needed to be done at home.
The policy in her children’s upper elementary school was 20 minutes of homework per teacher. But with four teachers, that added up. Plus they were told to read for 30 minutes and practice their instrument for 30 minutes. “So when are they going to eat dinner, have a bath and get to bed?” Richman asked. “It’s really important to rake the leaves, take responsibility for setting the table and play with friends.”
Cara Paiuk stopped her son’s homework last year, when he was in kindergarten at his school in West Hartford, Conn. She told his teacher, who was very receptive and didn’t seem bothered. As for this year? She’s going to watch what happens. “I think parents are the most challenging part for teachers, more than the kids, and I really try not to be a high-maintenance parent.”
That said, she felt last year that her young son should be spending his few hours after school with his younger sisters, instead of doing worksheets. “To see my children … playing together in the couple hours after school and before bedtime, that is so important for conflict resolution, learning how to play with different age groups,” she said. “To take time away from that to do homework doesn’t do it for me.”
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.