The Homework Wars

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Illustration by João Fazenda

It was like we didn’t even know each other: There was my 10-year-old son, nostrils flared, chin down, vibrant blue eyes turned red from tears and anger, looking like a possessed mini Minotaur. And then there was me, the livid and indignant mom, absolutely certain that I was right.

“I can’t have a son who doesn’t do his homework!” I said. Actually, I didn’t say it. I full-on yelled it. Six inches from his face. Okay, maybe I was the one who’d actually turned into the bull.

In my defense, by the time I got to yelling we’d been fighting for more than 30 minutes, and I certainly wasn’t the first between us to lose it. But I was abnormally pissed. He’d been caught lying about having fully done his homework for weeks, and his teacher and I had just discovered it together. Admittedly, this wasn’t your garden-variety scrum over homework: It was what can only be described as a knock-down, drag-out battle with someone one-quarter my age. My opponent believed he was desperately fighting for his freedom; I thought I was desperately fighting for his life.

It wasn’t just that he’d lied to me (though that was bad enough); no, I remember feeling absolutely overwhelmed with panic. The soliloquy ricocheting in my head was: If he’s not taking this seriously now, he never will. This is his entire future we’re talking about.

Like plenty of my friends and fellow parents, I was raised to believe in the value of homework. I had two perfectionist parents, both shaped by New England puritanical notions of diligence, who taught me that doing lots of homework—in fact, working overtime at just about any pursuit—was always a sign of virtuousness. Besides that, it also seemed to imply to the world that you were smart, and that you valued education—two other longtime New England ideals. Oh, and that you’d go to a good college, and go on to do well in life. So no matter how much you griped about algebra or despised memorizing facts about Christopher Columbus, you muddled through.

But as I would soon find out after doing some homework of my own, all of that may soon become passé—and not among the kind of laissez-faire parents one might presume. Across Massachusetts’ swath of competitive schools that prize academic achievement—and arguably overachievement—a growing number of voices are rising to join a national movement calling to either decrease the amount of homework young kids receive, or ban it outright. And they make a persuasive case.

This new crop of anti-homework rebels cite studies by Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor of psychology and neuroscience, who after more than 25 years of research found little evidence of academic benefit from hours of homework among elementary-school-age children—but plenty of evidence that it created a negative attitude toward school. They invoke documentaries such as 2010’s Race to Nowhere, which sparked a national conversation about the pressure kids feel to achieve academically. They point to books like The Case Against Homework, by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish—a great read if you want to find out why the National Education Association and National Parent Teacher Association both recommend no more than 10 to 20 minutes of homework per night through second grade, and 30 to 60 minutes per night in grades three to six. They also hold up excellent local private and public schools that strictly limit homework time, such as Mason-Rice, in Newton, which has some of the highest test scores in Massachusetts yet limits reading homework to 30 minutes per night.

But mostly, they talk about their personal experiences, and how they think homework has robbed them of family time and kept their kids from appreciating creative, independent behavior.

I can relate. My two kids—Zach, 10, and Cleo, nine—have between one and two hours of homework every night. I spend at least half of that time prodding them or helping them through it, when I could be doing about a million other things with them, or just letting them unwind and play.

The good news in all of this, at least for the moment, is that it’s May. School’s out soon, and we have all summer to kick back and forget about this until the next school year. That is, of course, unless you consider the problem of summer homework…and summer camp.

Our obsession with overloading our kids, it seems, has even spilled over into summertime, thanks to vacation homework and the deluge of expensive summer camps for “gifted” kids, where nine-year-olds study genetic-code encryption and the architectural influence of Frank Lloyd Wright rather than play flag football and swim. I know that my children will have to spend some of their precious vacation time grinding through summer reading lists when they could be outside climbing trees. In previous years, I had taken this for granted, but now I started to wonder: Why do we do this to ourselves—and, more important, why do we do it to our kids?


“I can tell you exactly why we’re doing this,” says Tilia Jacobs, who is currently entrenched in a giant war with teachers at her child’s private school in Natick over what she feels is excessive homework during weekends and vacations. “It’s because we’ve all drunk the Kool-Aid. We all assume homework is inherently good, which means that more homework must therefore be better, right? Wrong.” To be clear, Jacobs herself is no slouch. A former middle school teacher, she has a master’s degree and a certification in secondary education from Harvard. “When I was a teacher,” she says, “we were told by the school to give kids a lot of homework, which was pointless academic busywork designed to make parents feel like they were getting more bang for their buck.”

She felt the inverse effects of that paradigm one night last year, when her 12-year-old son—a strong student who won a national writing competition—came to her in tears after staying up until 10:30 p.m. for the third night in one week. He’d been doing homework straight through the evening and still wasn’t finished. “He had between three to four hours of work every evening regularly,” she says. “He’s a perfectionist, and the pressure was killing him. Every morning he would wake up and say to me, ‘Mom, I hate school.’ When you’ve got kids who excel academically who are saying that, there’s a real problem.”

When she and her husband brought it to the attention of her son’s teachers, Jacobs says that the teachers bristled, declaring that assigning homework to keep kids from playing video games was simply part of their job.

Some parents, however, say the demand for these excessive assignments starts in the home, not the school. “A lot of time it’s the parents who want the homework more than the teachers,” says Vanessa Allen, a Newton mom of Toby, age 10, and Gigi, 12. She remembers feeling “highly annoyed” when Toby was in second grade and was assigned a complex project that included a diorama and a business plan. “It was just way too complicated,” she says. “It was ridiculous.” Allen says that although some parents shared her concerns about the assignment, others were totally fine with it. “The next year in third grade, parents complained that there wasn’t enough homework,” she says. “Those parents can go buy their extra homework from some crazy Russian math institute. Those expectations don’t have to be for everyone.”

Even at my kids’ school, parents seem to be pressuring teachers to pile it on. When I spoke with my daughter’s third-grade teacher about summer-vacation homework, she told me that the reading lists and math projects they hand out to kids at the end of the school year aren’t required by the school at all, but are for the parents who want their kids practicing through June, July, and August.

At the heart of many parents’ concern: Do these assignments promote real learning and critical-thinking skills? “Homework can show you in real time what your kid is able to do, or not able to do,” Allen says. And as anyone who’s taken a language or history class knows, it’s often crucial to memorize things such as pronunciations, conjugations, and eventful dates. “But there’s a lot of busywork,” she says, rather than real learning.

Newton resident and mom Susannah Heschel, an award-winning author and a professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, understands that “some parents find it somehow reassuring that [tons of homework] means their kids will get into an Ivy college one day, and then have a financially successful life. [But] so many of the assignments don’t address important things, such as intellectual curiosity or creative learning.”

So when do our kids get that time to explore? Isn’t that what summer vacation is for?


This past winter, sifting through the camp options for Zach and Cleo, I was faced with two choices: traditional camp (meaning team-building programs focused on the outdoors and physical activities) or any of the hundreds of camps marketed toward “gifted” children. Gifted camps weren’t around when I was a kid, so I went to traditional summer camp—and loved it. But if these academic camps are the new norm, does sending my kids to a regular ol’ camp somehow mean that they are less smart or will be lower achievers in life?

As I dug in and started poring over the options, I was shocked by the intensity of the programs that I found: There are places like the Summer Institute for the Gifted at Boston University Academy, a two-week program for tykes five through 12, where courses include chemistry for five- to six-year-olds, writing or cartography for seven- to eight-year-olds, and prelaw classes that teach “persuasive argumentation skills crucial to success in future professions, both legal and otherwise” to 11- to 12-year-olds. Zach’s into computer coding. So should I send him to a camp at Harvard in July to study Java programming for two weeks? Within a year for Zach and three years for Cleo, they’ll be old enough to go to the Lumos Debate Summer Institute at Andover Newton Theological Institute, a two-week debate camp where sixth graders can practice case-writing, cross-examinations, and rebuttals. (As if I need to empower my kids to argue with me more? Let alone teach them how to actually win?)

What the hell ever happened to camps where kids mastered swimming, played baseball, danced, caught fireflies, and learned how to make and manage friendships? They’re still out there; they’re just not as desirable to many parents, who enjoy the sound of the term “camp for gifted children” as it rolls off their tongue. On one hand, I understand the point that several friends and fellow parents made when they told me about the benefits of gifted kids spending time with one another over their summer break. As the National Association for Gifted Children argues, kids who during the school year are enrolled in “regular education classrooms may have learning needs that teachers are unable to address during the regular school year.”

But what about the value of kids using their summer free time to explore other parts of themselves that may not be academic or career-driven—at, you know, the ripe old age of nine or 10?

It all reminds me of something I promised myself in my early twenties, two decades ago, while living in France. It was the first time I’d been in a culture that put a premium on leisure and family time. There, all adults are entitled to (and take) up to nine weeks’ vacation with family every year. Workaholism isn’t valued, a high standard of living is—and that includes the freedom to focus on relationships and creativity, and actually enjoy life. After experiencing that, I’d made the decision that if I ever had children, I’d never put the American get-ahead mentality above raising kids who learned to be happy human beings. Dartmouth College’s Heschel agrees, and believes that summer vacation is essential to nurturing children. “We can’t just make them into little machines that sit there in a cubicle and turn out to be so separate from everyone else around them that they can barely relate,” she says.

Somehow, in the intervening years, I’d let my vision of the kind of family I’d wanted fall by the wayside. Now I was confronting a choice: Would I rather have my kids learn to excel, or learn to take a break and love learning for its own sake?

If the latter is my goal, Zach assures me that, for him, homework is backfiring. When I ask him why he hates it so much, he doesn’t miss a beat: “Because I know I just have to get it done, so I rush through. And I don’t really like doing it or pay attention.”

“Is there anything you like about it at all?” I ask.

Cleo, ever the people-pleaser, pipes up: “Well, I like some homework. I mean, it’s good practice for what we learned that day. But maybe just not as much homework as we have would be really good.”

Zach’s response: “Well, I guess maybe…I would do reading. So maybe if they banned all homework except for reading, yeah.”

What can I say? The kid loves to read. “So if teachers gave you less than an hour of homework, and you could do something from school you loved, you’d be okay with it?”

“Sure,” he says. “Yeah.”

It was that afternoon that I booked both kids into a traditional summer camp—complete with Wiffle ball, arts and crafts, and annoying sing-alongs. A few hours later, I was still imagining how much less stress that camp would create—for Zach and for me. That was when Zach asked me if I’d requested his teacher change his school’s homework policy yet.

“Nope,” I answered. “But I’m glad we’re on the same side now, and we don’t have to fight so much.”

Until puberty, anyway.

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