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An Interview about Homework

Many readers of this site are familiar with Sara Bennett, co-author of The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It

Get a copy of this book! It is a must-read for all parents and educators- especially those concerned with the "state of homework" today. You will also want to visit Sarah's Stop Homework site.

Sara was interviewed by Rat Race Rebellion. The interview so good, I asked if I could share it as a permanent page on this site!


RRR: How did you become an advocate for less homework?

SARA BENNETT: It started when my first child, now seventeen, was in first grade. I didn't know that young kids got homework, so when he came home with his first assignment -- fill out a reading log with the name of the book, the title, the number of pages read -- I was taken aback by the very idea of it. He could barely write, so I couldn't see the point in turning our nightly family routine into a chore. And instead of making him do it, my husband or I filled out that log ourselves.

At our first parent/teacher conference, when the teacher -- 22 years old and straight out of college --chastised us for not making our son do his homework, I became an advocate for no homework. (I think my background as a criminal appeals attorney helped, since I'm very used to arguing unpopular positions.)

Every year after that, my husband and I spoke up at back-to-school nights, spoke with the teachers regularly, met with the school heads, and imposed our own limits on how much work we were willing to let my kids do.

But it wasn't until 2000, when a school district in Piscataway, New Jersey, was featured in the New York Times for reducing its homework load, that I knew that there were other people who disliked homework as much as I did. And, the following year -- by then my kids were in 5th and 2nd grade – “The End of Homework” was published. After that, I had solid research on my side and I really amped up my anti-homework mission.

RRR: Some parents are afraid that if they "push back" against homework with teachers and school administrators, they'll be labeled as troublemakers, and their children will pay the price. (I've heard that fear from parents here in Northern Virginia, where budget cuts, immigration, overcrowded classrooms and No Child Left Behind are stressing the system, and parental input may not be as welcome as it once was.) What advice would you have for these parents?

SARA BENNETT: I understand parents' fear and there's some merit to their concerns. But the price of not speaking up is too great. Children start to hate school, homework interferes with children's opportunities to develop and pursue their own passions, parents fight with each other and their children over homework, children become depressed and manifest all kinds of physical ailments including stomachaches, headaches, sleeplessness, etc.

And, as someone who has always spoken up, I have to say that it's the rare teacher who takes it out on the student. Even when teachers disagree, they usually are able to separate the parent's actions from the child's, especially when the child is in elementary school.

But no matter how old your child, I don't think you should stand by and watch your child be beaten down by something so detrimental to their development. They depend on you to stand up for them.

RRR: For historical context, how did public schools come to assume that private family time was theirs, rather than ours? Not so long ago (as I'm sure you know), the situation was reversed: schools deferred to the family, often letting students miss class altogether -- to work on the family's farm. (Perhaps this is because the teacher's compensation was tied directly to the families' well-being. Now, with taxes paying teachers' salaries and "farmers" sitting in cubes, the bond has been severed. The school is still deferential toward the source of its funding, but it no longer sees the family as the source: It believes that funds come from functionaries, such as school boards.)

This loss of family status seems to be a key factor in the homework issue, and may explain why so many parents feel daunted when they contemplate "facing" a teacher or administrator over the problem. What do you think?

SARA BENNETT: There has always been an intrusion of school into what, in my opinion, belongs in the realm of the family. Corporal punishment and prayer are two good examples of schools stepping into decisions that rightfully belong to the parents.

And, at different points in history, schools have become less mindful of the time outside of school. Right now, we're at an all-time high in terms of the amount of work children are expected to do after school. We're also at an all-time high in terms of the kinds of parental involvement schools expect.

I don't think it's due to a loss of family status. I think education is run like any big business -- in fact, most policies are set by business leaders, not by educators -- and there's such a worry about being able to compete in the global economy, that those who make policy have completely lost sight of what's developmentally appropriate. That's why you see things like standardized tests for kindergartners, no more recess, lunch periods in elementary schools that are incredibly short (10 minutes or so), no lunch periods for high schoolers, school days for teenagers that start at 7:00 a.m., etc. If the people making education policy knew anything about children and teenagers, none of these kinds of policies would exist.

RRR: We've said here that public schools often seem like a "Dilbert factory" -- increasingly structured to produce good employees (obedient, punctual, trustful of authority, etc.), and discouraging the thinking and behaviors associated with dreamers, entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, and other "creative types." Assuming this is true, what's your advice for parents who have no alternative to public school?

SARA BENNETT: Keep your eye on what's important for your children. If you want them to have unstructured time so that they can dream and find what interests them, make sure that happens. Don't worry about their getting all A's in school. Don't worry about their grades at all. When they're young, make choices for them about how they're going to spend their time outside of school. Make sure they get plenty of sleep. Send all of the homework that's taking up too much time back to school undone. Write a note to the teacher explaining why you wouldn't let your child spend their limited time like that. Don't let the school take away the love of reading, but instead let your child read whatever s/he wants. Their vocabulary, writing, spelling, and analytical skills will improve much more if they read voraciously than if they spend that same time on vocabulary and spelling sheets.

In other words, be the best parent you can be and do what's right for your child. The public school cannot kick your child out -- unless it's one of those high-powered schools like Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia that expels students who have an average less than a B-, in which case you should ask yourself whether it's worth it. Your child only has one childhood. It shouldn't be akin to that of a high-powered executive who has no time to spend with his/her family.

RRR: Many parents have contacted you about their children's "homework problem." What's the worst case you ever saw, and how was it resolved?

SARA BENNETT: That's a tough question. There have been so many heartbreaking stories. But I think the one that got to me the most was the one from a teacher who wrote:

"My 7th grader typically has 2-3 hours of homework each night. Many of the (Social Studies especially) homework assignments are “time-fillers” (time killers). I have signed off on homework stating that it wasn’t to be considered ‘late’ and have been confronted by the teacher(s). I am particularly protective of my 7th grader and our family time together. My older son was killed in a bus accident 19 months ago…."

RRR: Goodness. That is heartbreaking…. That poor family.

Are there any associations or groups that you might recommend for parents who want to collectively address the homework problem?

SARA BENNETT: Of course, I recommend that parents call on me for help in organizing against homework in their communities. In addition to what's in “The Case Against Homework,” I'm in touch with people all over the country, and in Canada, Europe, and South America as well, who are working to change homework policies in their communities. I help people figure out the best way to advocate, depending on their particular situation and I'll help with any kind of advocacy, including writing letters or opinion pieces to local media outlets, drafting school policies or legislation, or even just talking to the teacher. I also provide support to teachers and administrators who want to change policy.

If parents are in a school where they think they can get the administrators on board, I recommend they get in touch with Stressed Out Students at Stanford University.

Want your own homework peace?

Homework Organization

Homework Packets

Homework Advice for Parents

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