Letters: ‘Who Does Homework Work for?’

Readers consider whether after-school assignments are worthwhile for students.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

The Cult of Homework

American teenagers now average about twice as much time spent on homework each day as their predecessors did in the 1990s. Whether the practice is beneficial for learning, Joe Pinsker wrote in March, is highly contested. “As many children, not to mention their parents and teachers, are drained by their daily workload, some schools and districts are rethinking how homework should work—and some teachers are doing away with it entirely. They’re reviewing the research on homework,” Pinsker wrote, “and concluding that it’s time to revisit the subject.”

I am 12 years old. In my limited experience, the major issue with my homework is that I get out of school at 2:45 and I have to go to swim team at 4:15. I know that might seem like a huge gap but it is not really. I still have to pack for swim and have my chores to do, not to mention the fact that I get home at 8:15 every night. By the time I finish my homework it’s about 10 o’clock. I am already too tired to do my homework well and I am very tired for the next day. I think if we go to school for eight hours a day, we should not have to do any more school. I also agree that homework is totally unnecessary since it does nothing but stress me out—and I can still get good and possibly better grades without homework because I can go to bed earlier and will be more awake and alert come the next day, so I can learn more.

Sicily Annmarie Hegge
Elizabeth City, N.C.

As a second-year high-school teacher, I found your recent article on homework to be compatible with much of my own thinking and training on this subject. I tend to assign homework two to three times a week, usually 10 to 30 minutes a night. This was emphasized in my credential program and first-year training.

I would estimate that most sophomores I teach have about 60 to 90 minutes of homework every night if you combine my class (world history), math, English, etc. I always think intentionally about the homework I give, focusing on the purpose and value of each assignment. Your article summarized these debates well; many veteran teachers are certainly stuck in their ways when it comes to homework and curriculum in general. Homework is like any other learning tool; it works only when it is intentional, relevant, and engaging.

While your article succinctly summarizes the educational debate and history surrounding homework, it fails to fully explore the important socioeconomic and cultural differences that can lead to disparities in homework completion and sense of value. While you wrote about how white, middle-class families are often the loudest voices in education, I would have liked to see more about other types of families. Many of my students have jobs, take care of siblings, and/or participate in after-school activities. While some of these young people are high-achieving students with lots of support, others struggle to complete any homework given the physical, emotional, and mental demands they balance at school, work, and home. Still other students lack the support and “push” they need, choosing video games and YouTube over homework every night. These types of situations need to be addressed if we are to have a productive conversation about homework.

I often speak of the metaphorical “kitchen table”: that quiet, nondistracting place at home where kids can do schoolwork and maybe even get help from an educated adult. However, it also encompasses more than a mere physical space; it is having food on the table every night, access to books and the internet, and the presence of stable, loving adults. I was lucky to have that kitchen table, and it contributed to my success in countless ways. Many of my students simply do not have this space. Of course, the presence of the kitchen table is undoubtedly tied to race, class, immigration status, homeownership, mental and physical health, communal support, and a variety of other factors. But its presence or absence can forever alter a young person’s life.

Maybe the question is not “Does homework work?” but rather “Who does homework work for?”

Sam Eaton
Social Studies Department
John Henry High School
Richmond, Calif.

Homework in my school district is not graded. My mother finds that laughable—but I don’t laugh about how much homework I still do. I still study, because I’m scared of failure. It’s not enough to eliminate homework. Eliminating homework will do little to reassure the underlying anxiety of many students. Radical reform to testing, to how we admit kids to college, and to how we view failure and success is necessary. Eliminating homework—or similar policies, like not grading it—address the symptoms of a system that bases student worth on scores, not effort and character. Maybe it’s not a question of how much: It’s a question of what environment homework is in.

Alicia Liu
Hillsborough, N.J.

What this article didn’t discuss is the advent of video games and cellphones in modern students’ lives. The “free time” made available to students by reducing homework isn’t spent in a halcyon daze of getting outside to play, commune with nature, or engage in relationship-building with family or peers. Instead children while away hours immersed in their phones or video games, learning nothing and actually harming themselves physically, socially, and emotionally. At least with academic pursuits like homework, the time spent could have some meaningful effect on their future. I feel so lucky that both my children were raised (at least throughout high school) sans cellphones and with the structure and expectations of homework.

Carrie Freeman
Kennet Square, Pa.

I developed the math curriculum for grades seven to 12 in Essexville, Michigan, in 1965.

Our innovative approach never referred to homework. Instead students were enabled by the methods we used to educate themselves at the pace at which they wished to proceed. Courses were divided into approximately three-week batches. Students were able to “challenge” the final exam for each batch whenever they felt ready. There was no penalty for a failed challenge; the student just had to go over the material again, then challenge once more when they felt ready again.

Some students would complete the material in the three-week period, but it was more likely to take more or less than the (artificially!) planned time. One student completed the “year” in three months; another took 15 or 16.

If there was any homework done, it was the student assigning it to himself. Sometimes parents just felt they had to push, but the school stayed hands-off. Results were in so many ways phenomenal.

Chuck Josephson
Tuscon, Ariz.

When my kids were in public high school (a science-oriented lycée in France), they had about two hours of homework a night, at most three. They were in bed by 10 p.m., well rested for very densely programmed days in school. We never had to goad them to study, in part because they were self-motivated, but also because they knew how much they had to do, so it was a routine. Both of them got into their first-choice universities in the United Kingdom and thrived.

I was struck by the contrast with friends of ours in the United States: Their child, in an elite private school in Brooklyn, had so much homework that she often worked until 1 a.m. and was constantly exhausted. The assignments sounded interesting, but they were scattershot, not predictable in length, and—most important—they didn’t seem to contribute to a clear goal beyond simply working. What distinguished the French lycée—and we were very pleased with the level of general education our children got—was that the national curriculum pointed everything toward the goal of passing the baccalauréat exams at the end of high school. That meant that they knew what they had to learn, and virtually all homework was designed to contribute to that preparation. Of course, there are downsides to this kind of strict focus. For example, our elder child helped found a student newspaper, which the administration regarded as a nuisance. It is also inflexible: If you don’t fit with the plan, you’re pretty much out of luck. Nonetheless, it serves many very well, achieves high standards of education, and maintains a sane workload.

Robert J. Crawford
Talloires-Montmin, Rhone-Alps, France

After reading the article, I feel that just as researchers tend to fall into two camps, students also fall into two camps: Those who would excel irrespective of homework and those who would definitely benefit from homework. Hence homework needs to be balanced to offer enough learning freedom to the former group and to instill learning discipline in the latter group.

Sandeep Khabiya
San Jose, Calif.

Let’s face it. Class time is always going to be insufficient given that kids are always going to be at various levels of knowledge, intelligence, motivation, and capacity to learn. A one-size-fits-all system will either waste the time and lose the interest of the kids at the top or leave behind kids at the bottom.

Take away homework, and you subject the kids to rude surprises. Yes, they can skip the stress on a daily basis. But they will be shocked when they find a grand canyon of disconnect between what they know and what the teacher expects when they take a test.

Yes, there are types of homework that are a complete waste of time. But take away homework completely and you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Vinit Karandikar
Coppell, Texas

I am 52 years old. Forty years ago, in middle school, I began refusing to do homework. I did this partly as protest, partly as a consequence of the chaos of puberty and self-creation. What I couldn’t have known at the time was that those acts of defiance would become building blocks for the man I would become. My agency was born in reaction to a bad system. I draw strength even today from my actions then. As a high-school dropout, I am a self-employed writer and consultant in the computing industry.

I salute the parents who support their children as they stumble blindly to selfhood, refusing to comply for the sole sake of compliance.

James Marcus Bach
Eastbound, Wash.