Changing How We Look at Homework: How Parents & Kids Can Take Back Their Nights

The following is an excerpt from New York Times bestseller, Beyond Measure, Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation. Published by Simon & Schuster (2015). Copyright 2015 by Vicki Abeles. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. 


The Big Three—the trio of forces that demand the most of kids’ time and do the most to disrupt their health and learning are homework, testing, and college admissions. These are also the ripest areas for reinvention. Let’s take a look at the first one: Homework.


Stephanie Brant started seeing the ills of homework in her students during her first year as principal of Maryland’s Gaithersburg Elementary School. She spotted it on her morning rounds, in the look of gloom on children’s faces. “I started noticing students that came into school very discouraged,” she said. “So often our students would be confused or feel bad about what they didn’t get done at home.” beyond-measure-9781451699234_lg

Brant, a chipper dynamo who started her career as a teacher and literacy specialist, raised the concern with her staff. The Gaithersburg faculty read the research on homework and examined its effects on the young children they served. Ultimately, their investigation led them to a stunning fact: there is no scientific evidence to support the value of most of the homework our children are assigned. This supposedly wholesome practice—which has spiraled to such extremes that it shreds family life, steals children’s chances to explore and play and deprives growing minds and bodies of essential rest—does not even help students learn. So the teachers sought a better way to enrich the kids’ learning instead of squashing their enthusiasm for it. And in so doing, they upturned this toxic old educational tradition that has typically gone unquestioned.

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Homework holds a special place in the American psyche. This insistent, uninvited guest possesses a mythology all its own. We have long considered homework a rite of passage, a necessary evil, part of the training required for success in college and life beyond. Idiomatically, someone who “does his homework” is a diligent, well-prepared person. And at one time, I myself was a believer, even directing my young children to spend weekend time studying instead of playing if their grades were down. Like most of my friends, I accepted my children’s ceaseless nighttime slog as the hallmark of a strong education, a vehicle for learning the value of self-discipline and persistence. This idea of developing a fierce work ethic felt especially important to me, as someone who grew up amid financial insecurity and saw education as the way out.

Yet our devotion to the myth—and a myth it is—has reached the absurd. We have confused quantity with quality, busywork with challenge, conformity with discipline. We consistently ask our still fragile and growing children to put in second and third shifts, logging more hours in a day than many adults I know. As parents, we give up our authority over the afterschool hours, allowing schools to claim as much of our family time as they desire. Combining their time in school with school-sponsored activities and homework, many children’s work hours today remind me chillingly of the unhealthy way I worked while on Wall Street. Aren’t seven hours of school, plus perhaps a sport or a music lesson, enough for a child?

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The Intruder

As Race to Nowhere, the documentary that I directed and produced about education and how we prepare our children for success, screened in communities across the country, parent after parent stood up and identified homework as one of the most malignant aspects of the race. They worried about how to get their teens to go to bed before one a.m., or grew heartsick watching the spark of curiosity fade from their kindergarteners’ eyes. Instead of playing board games or reading books together with their children, parents were engaging in nightly battles with eight-year-olds who (understandably) didn’t want to do a lifeless worksheet after a full day at school. It was clear that the truckloads of assignments being dumped on children today are nothing like the modest homework our generation had as kids, when we could finish our work, get to bed on time, and still hold an after-school job and ride bikes with friends. Homework has become an act of home invasion.

“Now that my daughter’s in fifth grade, three hours of schoolwork comes in the door with her,” said a mom and professional therapist at a screening on the Stanford University campus. “I’d rather she come to this movie, or go to my music group with me, or work on just making pasta the way she likes it or making a musical instrument out of rubber bands. That’s what counts to us.”

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One father of three—a sitting school superintendent, no less—said to me bluntly: “Homework is destroying my family.”

I saw the same problems in my own home. Every day, including weekends, was cast under homework’s shadow; every errand, family outing, and gathering with friends had to be shoehorned into the few hours of space that remained.

This has got to stop—and it can. I know because I’ve seen it done, by pioneering schools and families across America.

In the wake of screening Race to Nowhere and reviewing the research showing that homework does not improve learning, the public K-8 Hillcrest School in Oakland courageously abolished homework entirely for the primary grades. The superintendent of schools in Swampscott, Massachusetts, declared a monthly homework-free night. Galloway, New Jersey, banned weekend homework for children in grades K-6. Mango Elementary School in Fontana, California, replaced homework with “goal work” tailored to individual children’s needs and completed on a flexible schedule. At the Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a public “gifted and talented” program, homework is optional.

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These changes might seem radical, yet the sky has not fallen. Indeed, it seems brighter than ever for the children in these districts.

Meanwhile, parents have secured similar reforms in hundreds of communities by banding together and insisting that teachers, schools, and districts provide relief. In their own homes, many individual parents now simply say no, opting their child out of homework when sleep, health, and other life lessons and experiences are more important.

Of all the aspects of the race that need changing, homework is actually the easiest place to start. Change can begin with individual parents, teachers, administrators, and students. From there, it grows, as families and schools work together to take back our nights.


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