Ruth Bass: Less homework might mean fewer hours of nagging


RICHMOND — Millions of parents are tired of the need to suggest, cajole and threaten their 9-year-olds every evening after dinner. They'd rather be watching Jeopardy or Anderson Cooper. But the homework looms.

Given that experts on education have known for more than 10 years that giving homework in elementary school is a dead end — a non-productive, time-consuming exercise — an outsider might well wonder why it goes on. The only thing accomplished, apparently, is creation of an evening of frustration and irritation for parents. As for the children, the homework has proved to be educationally unnecessary and possibly damaging.

The damage comes when kids in the elementary grades spend a lot of time at the kitchen counter or at a desk doing homework assignments instead of playing games, running around outside, reading a book that's not required and perhaps just lolling on the couch watching TV or — heaven forfend — playing a video game.

Harris Cooper of Duke University did a couple of studies that have been widely hailed as valid. One was released in 1989, the other in 2006, and he has declared that he found "no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students."

And yet, in hundreds of homes, starting in a week or two, little kids will pore over the papers they take out of their backpacks, and their parents will be expected to hover nearby to lend a hand when they stumble. (That helping-out factor has created a certain amount of suffering, as well, since many parents have found themselves completely buffaloed, for instance, by new ways to do math.)

It seems amazing that a nation that talks constantly about improving education should still be ignoring this issue after more than 10 years — even longer if educators noticed the study in 1989. Some schools have paid attention, however, and only this past week, a second grade teacher in Texas announced her personal ban on homework, a move that earned her an incredible response on Facebook and no doubt means that her little pupils are in love with her already. While love may not be the main goal here, it certainly beats the negative attitude kids have about teachers who think weekends and holidays should include hefty assignments.

Whatever became of the idea that little kids should have fun? That they should tear into the house when afternoon is fast disappearing, drop their backpacks and head out to have a good time? And that they'd never be sweating out an assignment when they should be in bed getting the recommended 10 hours of sleep?

The other question would be why teachers want to burden themselves with the extra work of assigning homework and the need to then look at all those extra sheets and correct them. If it's the best thing academically and also creates a smidgen of joy with parents and teachers, getting rid of homework seems like a no-brainer.

Even the old "but we've always done it this way" doesn't wash. The two older offspring in our family never had homework until sixth grade, which is middle school these days, so the seepage downward has been fairly recent.

In addition, the evidence indicates that after-school assignments for middle-schoolers should be minimal, probably mainly in math where skills need to be learned through practice. For high school, the widespread thinking of experts is that two hours a night is the max. Plenty of teenagers, however, are at it from 7 to 11 or after and then have to get up before 6 to make the school bus.

Some kids are tired all the time. Some are very stressed about family, friends, growing up, succeeding and failing — not to mention the turmoil of the global world around them, if they notice that. If educators knew all this in 2006, why does the homework keep coming?

But it persists. Little kids are at home, pecking out answers on the computer or writing them out on paper. Their parents are nagging. When it's his/her turn, the teacher will nag. Some changes probably have to be made to get it all done in school, or at an after-school session with the teacher.

Imagine making history of that time-honored (and lame) excuse of "the dog ate my homework."

Ruth Bass is author of two novels that take place in the one-room school era. Her website is The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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