When my son started school in the fall of 2015, I knew there would be a few challenges to overcome. Because he was attending a francophone program, the catchment zone was quite large, and he would have to start each day with a forty-five-minute bus ride across downtown Toronto. My husband and I both worked full time, so my son would have to be in after-school care until one of us could get him, which would usually be around 6 p.m. Taking transit home took around forty-five minutes, which meant that we didn’t arrive at our apartment until close to 7 p.m. Add dinner and a bath into the mix, and that made for a long day. Still, I wasn’t too worried. I thought it would all be fine—and, honestly, it was fine right up until the homework started.
The worksheets began trickling home during grade one, and by the next year, my son was getting thick weekly packets of them. The board policy was that children in his grade were supposed to receive around twenty minutes’ worth of work per night, but in our house, the agony was never that brief. One week in grade two, my son came home with seventeen pages of homework, printed front and back—thirty-four worksheets filled with math problems and language exercises. He worked on them every night, but by Sunday, he was only about three quarters of the way through. He cried as he struggled to finish the homework. I cried as I emailed his teacher to tell her he hadn’t been able to finish it. We both felt like we’d failed.
We were told that the work wasn’t mandatory, but that put me in a difficult position. I felt like, as a parent, I should be supporting what his teachers wanted from him, not acting against it. Besides, I believed that homework was necessary to set my son up for success. But it turns out that homework might not be as useful as we think.
“Homework is seen to benefit time management, self-discipline, [and] organizational skills, but there have been no studies that really have shown that homework actually either develops those skills or reinforces them,” says Etta Kralovec, professor emerita at the University of Arizona and author of The End of Homework and Schools That Do Too Much. She’s not the only homework researcher who is questioning how and why homework is done. Linda Cameron and Lee Bartel from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education have critiqued homework practices in Canada, noting, in 2010, that homework “may well be the ‘tipping point’ for the next educational reform movement” because the issue is “now uppermost in many parents’ and teachers’ minds.” Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, has found that, for many students, homework is the greatest source of stress in their lives. Homework stress can lead to burnout and negative impacts on academic achievement.
Kralovec tells me that there is no benefit to homework for elementary school students at all. A meta-analysis published in 2006 by Harris M. Cooper, distinguished professor emeritus at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, looked at all of the homework research that had been done in the United States between 1987 and 2003 and found that homework had “no association with achievement gain” in students from kindergarten through grade five. And while there is a link between homework and academic success in middle and high school students, Kralovec says that might be more correlation than causation. One example she gives is that students taking advanced placement classes in high school typically do more homework than their peers in other classes: Are they having more academic success because they do more homework, or are they doing more homework because those advanced classes tend to assign more of it?
Kralovec says that not only are the benefits of homework questionable but the practice also has clear detriments. It takes time away from more meaningful things that families can do together, like reading or playing. It can create tension between parent and child by placing them in the role of teacher and student—especially if the child already finds that a nerve-wracking role to play at school. It might also limit the extracurricular activities the child can participate in, especially if they’re expected to do homework every night.
Part of the issue is that children, like adults, perform better when they have adequate outlets for stress—like exercise or leisure. In a groundbreaking educational program in Vanves, France, that started in 1950, students showed improved academic achievement when classroom time was shortened and physical education was extended. Follow-up studies, including some done in Canadian cities like Victoria, BC, and Trois-Rivières, Quebec, have produced similar results. Another facet to consider is that academic competency is not the only capability children need to develop: a study by Mollie Galloway, Jerusha Conner, and Denise Pope found that students overloaded with homework were “not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills.”
And not all students have a quiet, well-lit space in their homes where they can work. Many parents aren’t home in the afternoons and evenings—due to shift work or because they attend evening classes—and students in those households are often expected to care for younger siblings and cook dinner after school. Students may not have access to computers at home, meaning that they can’t complete work assigned online. Since work assigned to be done at home may make up a portion of a student’s overall grade, those whose home lives aren’t conducive to homework may struggle to maintain a high grade point average. Kralovec says this creates “a system of homework which further advances kids who are privileged.”
But Kralovec thinks change is on the horizon. COVID-19 disrupted how school work was done, an experience that caused many of us to re-evaluate our attitudes toward education. In 2021, the National Education Association published an article, “Will the Pandemic Change Homework Forever?,” that explored how COVID-19 lockdowns, which collapsed the boundaries between school and home, caused educators to re-examine what works and what doesn’t. Last year, Jessica McCrory Calarco, Ilana S. Horn, and Grace A. Chen published a paper, “‘You Need to Be More Responsible’: The Myth of Meritocracy and Teachers’ Accounts of Homework Inequalities,” that showed that teachers often interpret struggles with homework as lack of responsibility or motivation on students’ part and then react punitively instead of supporting students’ needs—which only serves to exacerbate social inequalities in the classroom. More recently, the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, suggested that homework should be banned, saying that schoolwork should stay at school and students “should be able to use their time for other creative things” (though the president’s role is largely ceremonial and does not involve making policy).
Homework used to send my son into a nightly spiral. To him, the work seemed endless, and he felt like he was constantly coming up short—something that made him dread going to school. But when we relocated to Kingston, Ontario, he was delighted to learn that the teachers at his new school prefer not to assign homework. He’s expected to finish any incomplete classwork at home and sometimes has projects he has to do outside of school, but most of his nights are free. We’ve been enjoying the time together: reading, watching TV, and, in his words, “just vibing.”
I used to think that he couldn’t succeed without filling out some set amount of worksheets. Now I feel like I’ve completely changed my opinion on homework. Without the extra work, I’ve been able to see how much more enthusiastic my son actually is when it comes to learning.