A colleague recently asked for advice for parents wishing to opt-out their children from school assigned homework.
This is what we did. Every person we have shared this strategy with found it to be successful. In most cases, teachers not only agree with our stance, but aren’t quite sure why they assign homework in the first place.
 
Dear Teacher X,
We are concerned by the lack of evidence supporting the use of homework and the toll the practice is taking on our child and family. Homework needlessly reduces ___’s time for free play, relaxation, independent reading, exercise, practicing his/her instrument, and healthy family interaction. There is no reason for my child to work a second unpaid shift when he/she returns home from school. I object to the imposition of homework into what might otherwise be domestic tranquility.
 
The daily checking of homework robs valuable instructional time that could be used for more authentic learning experiences, such as project work. Homework may also have a deleterious effect on a child’s affection for school and is unfair to children with diverse lives outside of the classroom.
 
I understand that you may be required to assign homework – perhaps even the amount of it kids get per night. Such policies contradict any argument that homework is intended for reinforcement purposes. In other words, if some kids may benefit from different levels of “practice” or “reinforcement,” then it makes no sense for every student to be assigned the same homework.
 
Therefore, we propose the following. Each night when ____ comes home from school we will survey the assigned homework. If we believe that it has any merit, our child will complete just enough exercises or problems to demonstrate understanding of the concept. Once that is completed to our satisfaction, we will sign the incomplete work and have our child return it to you unfinished.
 
We hope you will respect our decision and not punish our child in any way, shape, or form for the actions of his/her parents. Please feel free to share this letter with your principal.
 
You might find these articles interesting.
Say the word and I will buy you one of the books making the case against homework.
 
Have a great school year!
Sincerely,
Parent
 

Check out our books by educators for creative educators.

In First Chance to Make a Learning Impression, my friend Will Richardson shares his disappointment with the “back-to-school” packets he just received in anticipation of his children’s next school year. Will explains how the focus of the packet is on everything but learning.

Just for fun, I set out to see how long it would take to find the word “learning” somewhere in the mix. Nothing on the first page, or the second, or the third…by the time I finally found the first instance I had stopped counting. It was a buried line in a letter from the principal explaining that due to NCLB, every teacher has to be “highly qualified” and that “every teacher continues life-long learning through professional development activities.”

Will’s 2013 article reminded me of a similar article I wrote for District Administration Magazine way back in 2004. I recommend reading Will’s article as well.

Gary Stager on One-sided Parent Contracts
Here’s a list of promises I think schools should keep
By: Gary Stager
District Administration, Sep 2004

DA Archive

The back-to-school commercials each summer fill me with dreadful flashbacks of my own days as a student. As a parent, the end of summer is signaled by a last-minute desire to squeeze in a bit more family fun and the arrival of a large ominous envelope from the local high school. The package contains countless documents commanding our immediate attention and signatures in triplicate.

This enormous collection of murdered trees contains countless rules, regulations and a list of innumerable sanctions the school intends to visit upon my child. As if this draconian catalogue of crimes and subsequent punishments were not bad enough, I am then expected to sign the documents, implying that I agree with them.

This recent and disturbing phenomenon leaves me with many unanswered questions. What if I don’t sign the forms? When did the local public school become a gulag? Was there a public meeting in The Hague at which these rules and sanctions were compiled and democratically agreed to? Is this the best way to start a fresh school year? Can I have Johnnie Cochran look over the documents before I affix my signature?

If the school expects parents to sign-off on a list of ways school discipline may be enforced, perhaps I can circulate a list of expectations for how I expect the school to educate my child. It only seems fair.

So here’s my list, in no particular order:

  • School to home communications will be proofread and spell-checked
  • Teachers will take reasonable steps to maintain expertise in their subject area
  • Homework will be purposeful and only assigned when necessary to reinforce a concept, engage in a long-term project or as the result of work not completed in-class
  • Children will be encouraged to play
  • Classroom libraries will be stocked with interesting books
  • Students will not be treated as numbers
  • Teachers will discuss current events with their students
  • Students will be encouraged to talk about books they read, not just create mobiles and book reports
  • School personnel will publish their e-mail addresses and respond to e-mail promptly
  • The school district Web site will be updated more often than every five years
  • Class sizes will be 20 or lower
  • Teachers will attend at least one professional learning event outside of the school district per year
  • Teachers will not talk down to children
  • Punishment will be viewed as a last resort
  • The school will offer rich visual and performing arts opportunities for all students
  • Curriculum will endeavor to remain relevant and connected to the world
  • Classroom rules will be developed democratically
  • There will be formal and informal opportunities for parents to interact with teachers
  • The principal will be accessible to students and parents
  • Administrators will make an effort to interact with students in positive contexts
  • Student diversity will be valued and celebrated
  • Cooperation will be valued over competition
  • The school will refrain from sorting, tracking, streaming and labeling children
  • Students will play a large role in all aspects of the life of the school;
  • Authentic forms of assessment will be used
  • A modern functioning computer will be available whenever a child needs one
  • Teachers will embrace opportunities to learn with and from students
  • The school will take teacher input seriously
  • Teachers will feel supported and encouraged to take risks
  • Effective models of professional development will be designed and include the participation of the principal
  • Equal attention and resources will be applied to the arts as to sports
The Coalition of Essential Schools offers 10 common principles for schools concerned with excellence–www.essentialschools.org/pub/ces_docs/about/phil/10cps/10cps.html

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this article. I realized I had already published it one year ago. Senseless Acts of Homework in The Huffington Post describes my contempt for the loathsome practice of summer homework.

However, this summer, my nephew’s high school cranked the stupid dial up to 11.

I am against homework for lots of reasons.

  • The public equates it with education
  • Kids hate it
  • It encroaches on a student’s private life
  • It is coercive
  • It is too often busy-work provided by a textbook company who knows nothing about the learner
  • It wastes class time when kids swap papers and grade homework; a tedious process that leads to zero benefit for learners

In the face of a glaring absence of evidence, teachers argue that homework is used for practice or reinforcement. (I’ll save how this is a misinterpretation of “practice” for anther day) If homework is for skill development then every student should have different homework each night, right?

Nah, one-size-fits-all kids!

If there was a shred of evidence that homework was good for kids or had anything to do with learning, I would be sympathetic. However, the crazy train has now gone one station beyond forcing kids to do something they hate, that makes them hate school and that robs them of free time.

If homework is intended for reinforcement, how does one possibly justify assigning homework to students during the summer before they set foot in your class? Let me say that again. Schools are giving homework to kids before they start a course!

This is personal

Homework at the steps to the Acropolis

Three years ago, my nephew became fascinated by genealogy and has spent a great deal of time since researching our family history. He has done a remarkable job with the Ancestry.com account I pay $30/month for, has reached out to experts and fellow researchers across the globe in grammatically perfect email messages and has developed sophisticated habits of mind. I’ve long since given up hope that schools (and teachers) at most schools (The Big Picture Schools are an exception) will take notice of student interests, connect with them and provide the intellectual support to go farther than they could have gone on their own.

Kids don’t receive credit for what they are passionate about and school rarely values outside activities, except for assigned homework. I would love for my nephew’s teachers to respect his genealogical research, but it would be even better if they helped him learn what he needs to know in order to be a better historian.

My nephew’s school district does just about everything wrong – endless test prep, tracking, “honors” classes and mountains of homework.

When I realized how serious the kid was about genealogy, I promised to take him to places he learns our family is from. So, I am writing from a hotel lobby in L’Viv, Ukraine. We spent the day touring Zboriv, Ternopil and Zolochow, the villages where the learned that 3/4 of my ancestors came from. My nephew’s clue that that my great great great grandfather owned a mill in Zboriv led us to a small museum where an old historian said that there was a large mill that provided flour for the Austria-Hungarian empire down along the Strypa River. Our guide was our translator and took us to stand on the spot where my ancestors worked and fire killed their young daughter. We walked through the remaining disheveled Jewish cemeteries, visited too many monuments marking the sites of  World War II exterminations, ate Ukranian food and learned about the Zboriv battle of 1649. We discussed Eastern European politics, Soviet occupation and US politics. Our guide and driver was Alex Dunai, one of the world’s experts on Jewish life in Galicia and invaluable researcher for Daniel Mendelsohn’s magnificent book. “The Lost – A Search for Six of Six Million.”

Tomorrow night we head to Krakow and Auschwitz, followed by Vilnius, Lithuania before we rush back to the USA so the kid won’t miss a day of school. Prior to this, we spent two days in London, where we saw pieces of the Parthenon at the British Museum, and five in Athens where we went to the Acropolis, Acropolis Museum and Temple of Poseidon. The kid spent a bit of time hanging out at the Constructionism Conference where I presented a paper. My nephew not only had the opportunity to attend a SNAP! programming workshop led by Dr. Brian Harvey, but had dinner with linguists, mathematicians, computer scientists, master educators and with friends of mine who worked with Jean Piaget, Paolo Friere and Seymour Papert. He got to see his uncle speak, watch really smart people argue passionately in a civil fashion and share his work with interested adults.

Sounds good, right? The only problem is the kid has been in a hotel room trying to guess how to respond to open-ended homework prompts from teachers he hasn’t met? Did the teachers spend their summer working an unpaid second shift like my nephew did? Why did we have to schlepp a backpack full of school shit (the technical term) half-way around the world?

Before anyone says, “not every kid has an uncle who does such cool things with his nephew,” I’ll respond by saying that I would rather a kid play basketball, take a trumpet lesson, swim, go to summer camp, read for pleasure or just watch television then memorize a chapter in a science textbook before any science occurs.

I don’t know any nicer way of saying this, but preemptive summer homework seems a lot like a clear case of an abuse victim battering an even less powerful subordinate. This cycle of insanity has to end.

Defend preemptive summer homework! C’mon! I dare you!

Here is the article I published last year…

Senseless Acts of Homework – August 25, 2011

I’m a big fan of summer. I still have the same “back-to-school” nightmares I experienced as a kid as the days get shorter each August. I think that “Back-to-School” sales before Independence Day are a form of child abuse. I believe that casual neighborhood play, family vacations, scouting and organized camps produce powerful learning experiences unrivaled by school.

When I hire new teachers, I look for people who worked at a summer camp. These are teachers who love kids and know how to engage them in meaningful (and fun) activities without coercion or a scripted curriculum. In 2007, I took issue with then Senator Clinton’s call for more tutoring and suggested that the federal money allocated for tutoring children in “underperforming schools” be spent on summer camp (My Plan to Fix NCLB). The richest nation in the world can afford high-quality summer activities for even its poorest children.

Also in 2007, I published When the Jumbotron says, “Read,” You Read! That article addressed the folly of forced summer reading assigned by schools, the outlandish claims made on behalf of the practice and the punishments meted out for non-compliance. I marveled at the quality of books assigned as summer reading when compared with the standardized drivel “read” during the school year and mourned the absence of meaningful discussion accompanying the reading.

When I was a kid, the only time you heard the combination of the words, “summer” and “school” was if you misbehaved or failed a course during the school year. How I long for the good ol’ days.

Just when I think that schooling can not get any more punitive or heavy-handed, things get worse. Schools no longer feel constrained by the impulse to ask kids to read Homer Price, Holes or Because of Winn-Dixie for pleasure under a tree on a balmy summer day. Now, school leaders view children as their serfs and every waking minute of a child’s life as their property. Such megalomania may be rooted in the paranoia created by the testing uber-alles policies of NCLB and Race To The Top. Whatever the motivation, robbing children of summer is irresponsible, ineffective and malicious.

Wow! Those are strong words, Dr. Stager. What are you talking about?

My “niece,” let’s call her “Miss Summer,” just completed eighth grade in a Northern New Jersey public school district. Miss Summer is an excellent student with perfect attendance and a great many interests she looks forward to pursuing during the summer. They include swimming, playing with her brother, developing friendships, practicing the trumpet, fishing, genealogy, reading and doing nothing at all but staying in her pajamas on rainy days and watching cartoons. When I was a kid, our society valued those activities and embraced childhood. That is no longer the case.

At the end of eighth grade, Miss Summer received a substantial packet of work to be completed before she sets foot in her new high school. The transition from primary to secondary school is stressful enough, but now a mountain of homework hung over a carefree summer like a rain cloud ruining your beach vacation. Miss Summer’s school district is no longer content with suggested summer reading for parents interested in supplementing a child’s education. Hell no!

Miss Summer has assignments in nearly every subject, is expected to read Dickens’ Great Expectations alone and without teacher support, write a thesis or two and submit the work by assigned due dates via a Web-based plagiarism site, Turnitin.com.

This mountain of homework is not only cruel, it is irresponsible, miseducative and profoundly unfair for the following reasons.

  • Miss Summer has not met any of the teachers this work is being submitted to. She neither knows their personalities, values or expectations.
  • Great Expectations is pretty heavy for a fourteen year-old without teacher assistance or classroom discussion. Will it inspire or hinder a greater interest in English literature?
  • Thesis writing has not yet been taught and is unnecessarily anxiety producing for a kid who has yet to enter your school for the first time.
  • Three is an assumption made by the school district that every student knows how to use the specialized web site and has sufficient computer access to complete and submit assignments.
  • Due dates assume that children have no plans for the summer. Should camp or family vacations be ruined by these deadlines? Should a student take a laptop and satellite modem on a hike?
  • The same impulses to assign massive amounts of homework to students you’ve never met predicts that there will be little follow-up of that work when students return to school.
  • These practices are coercive, intrude upon families and seek to overrule parental decisions.
  • You are ruining kids’ summer!

I do everything I can to combat to the misguided federal education policies turning schools into joyless test-prep factories. I’ll march. I’ll write. I’ll speak out. I’ll organize. I’ll donate. I’ll provide educators with alternative strategies and help them improve their practice. I will challenge the plutocrats who threaten teachers and children.

What I will not do is defend educators who transfer their misery to innocent children. It is unconscionable for teachers to outsource their corpulent curriculum to children. You have no right to surveillance when a child is at home. If kids cannot count on you to stand between them and madness, who will protect them?

For more arguments against homework, read Alfie Kohn’s book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing or watch his DVD, No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.

This weekend, my nephew could not fully attend to visiting his grandmother in the hospital because he had very important homework to finish. That’s right, this fourteen year-old high-achieving student needed to color a worksheet of an Aztec God for Social Studies class. Grandma would just have to wait! Coloring is apparently one of those “21st Century Skills” you hear so much about.

Although the positive effects of homework are largely mythical, there is plenty of evidence that is detrimental in countless ways. One under-discussed issue surrounding homework policies is just how much homework is time-wasting crap designed, as John Taylor-Gatto reminds us, to extend the surveillance powers of the school into the personal time and space of children.

Teenagers being asked to spend their non-school hours coloring know that the assignment is ridiculous and may feel the same way about you.

So teachers, why do you do it?

Is the moronic consumption of kids’ time based on a lack of imagination and slavish adherence to someone else’s curriculum or because “the devil made me do it?” The “Flip Wilson defense” is as inexcusable and unconscionable as the “Nuremberg Defense.”

If children cannot count on you to insulate them from the madness of the world, who can they trust?


Read more:

I also wrote about coloring in high school in the 2003 article, “A Whole Lotta Coloring Going On.

  1. The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn
  2. The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning by Etta Kralovek and John Buell
  3. The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish

Homework articles by Alfie Kohn: