The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families,
Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning
By Etta Kralovec and John Buell
192 pages, $18
A few years ago, an old friend put the Excessive Homework Question
on the map for me with this story about his 8-year-old son, Charles.
Charles' third-grade class had been given the assignment to design
a presentation illustrating some aspect of a non-U.S. culture's
way of life. Charles' father labored with his son for two evenings
to construct a model Cherokee teepee, along with descriptions of
Cherokee culture. Confident and excited, Charles bounded proudly
into school to present his project to the class.
The other project scheduled for that afternoon examined various
features of South Korean culture. Garbed in full traditional Korean
costume, this student had cooked samples of Korean food for the
entire class. While they ate, she discussed South Korean folkways.
To cap off the presentation, she distributed to every student a
bound copy of a computer-generated cookbook of Korean recipes. Whew!
Now that's a lot of homework. Not surprisingly, she got an A for
her (and her parents') efforts; Charles (and his Dad) got a C.
My friend recounted this story not as a matter of sour grapes--indeed,
he felt a bit
chagrined about encouraging his kid to rely on that hoary old standby,
the teepee--but to raise questions about how much homework is too
much, whether children are doing more homework than they used to,
and how early in life children should be expected to do schoolwork
at home. These questions grew into a rising refrain in the late '90s,
and even caught the attention of Time and Newsweek,
which featured the homework question as cover stories two years ago.
And now we have Etta Kralovec and John Buell's The End of Homework,
a title that announces the broad intent of what they hope will become
a grassroots movement.
The authors' case for ending homework, or for at least keeping
it to a bare minimum, is cast within a larger critique of today's
corporate culture. They claim that the pressures of the go-go new
economy have distorted our otherwise praiseworthy work ethic. Furthermore,
they invoke Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis' New Left critique that the
purpose of education since the '50s has been not to teach critical
thinking or a specific body of knowledge, but to socialize children
for work in the corporate workplace--or for the "reserve army" of
the unemployed. In today's economy, with its growing class stratification
and reliance on computer technology, children from poor and working-class
families are placed even further behind the educational and economic
eight ball than they were 25 years ago, when the public school system
was already coming apart at the seams.
So what does homework have to do with all this? And how on earth
might curtailing homework provide an issue around which to organize
resistance to the new economic behemoth? Before you mock Kralovec
and Buell as hopelessly permissive, pie-eyed children of the counterculture,
consider their very credible point of view. Circumstantial evidence
suggests that homework is increasing, they observe, and that it
is being relied upon to do the work of teachers who are strapped
for time and resources in a climate ungenerous with education funding.
Parents are, in effect, doing "unpaid labor" when they come home
at night--labor that should be done by teachers. For that matter,
so are children, whose "work" should be confined to the 40-hour
week for which labor unions fought long and hard.
The best that can be said for the increase in homework is that
it involves parents in their children's formal learning process,
and keeps them abreast of what's going on--or missing--in the classroom.
But in addition to forcing parents and children to do "unpaid labor,"
there are many other difficulties with rising homework expectations.
On a personal level, it turns the kitchen table into a battle zone
between exhausted parents--who are already giving enough of their
energy to the new economy, thank you very much--and their children,
most of whom are already overextended with family obligations and
extracurricular activities like sports and community service.
Furthermore, excessive homework leaves unfulfilled the developmental
needs of children--for fresh-air activity and social play--at the
same time that it intrudes on the nondisciplinary, nurturing aspects
of parents' relationships with their kids. Politically, homework
is no longer just a big drag; it has become downright oppressive.
As teachers rely more heavily on homework to "cover" all that they
are expected to teach, the authors argue most persuasively, education
becomes less an equal-opportunity leveler and more a dividing wedge
between social classes. Children with educated parents, a home library,
a computer and quiet study quarters are obviously more likely to
do their homework, and to excel at it, than those who lack these
Enmeshed in larger political troubles, the authors claim, excessive
homework requires an organized political response. They advise forming
"consciousness-raising groups," akin to '70s-era feminism, as a
prelude to organizing on the local school-board level. And their
ambitions go well beyond this: "We believe that reform in homework
practices is central to a politics of family and personal liberation.
Taking back our home lives will allow us to begin the process of
enriching our community lives. Drawing a clearer line between the
school and the home may enable families to reconstitute themselves
as families, and help parents to pass on to their children something
other than the exhaustion of endless work."
Kralovec and Buell's analysis is compelling--so compelling, in
fact, that it deserves a better book than the one they've written.
Generally it is intended to frame broadly the terms of a movement
consisting of parents, educators, academics and policy-makers alike.
But the authors offer only the thinnest of gruel for each.
For empirical weight, they rely heavily on Harris Cooper's 1989
study Homework, a monograph survey of extant research on
the topic, which shows that the influence of homework on student
achievement cannot be verified. Studies are about evenly divided
on the question, though they incline toward showing that homework
is more beneficial on the high school level than in grade school.
So the authors support more "ethnographic" case studies, and research
based on the "ecological" methods developed in the new field of
"family studies"--all of which may be, one must wonder, just as
intrusive as homework itself. Oddly, the only original research
here comes unfreighted with education-school heavy artillery, and,
though only briefly described, it is convincing: Kralovec's successful
one-semester experiment with a homework-free high-school classroom.
Remarkably, Kralovec and Buell don't really prove that homework
is actually on the increase, though it sure does seem that way.
What has changed--and this goes unmentioned by the authors--is the
passage of a series of federal education laws in 1994, with which
the states have been scrambling to comply. Anticipating these changes
in 1993, Massachusetts, for example, established regulations that
mandated the number of "structured learning time" hours students
must spend in school each year. The most zealous administrators
have cut study halls and other kinds of unstructured in-school time,
during which students in the past had been able to do a good share
of their homework. Discussion of the new laws and how they are being
implemented might have given reformers something substantial with
which to gird themselves for battle with local school boards. So,
too, might have discussion of how homework may be affected by the
inveterate public head-butting between education reformers and teachers
In a general historical chapter, the authors regale would-be activists
with tales of anti-homework crusades in the past, notably during
the Progressive Era and the '60s. It is interesting to note that
in the early years of the 20th century, Edward Bok, editor of Ladies'
Home Journal, conducted a nearly one-man anti-homework campaign
that resulted in some schools abolishing homework altogether. This
is encouraging, but it would have been more useful to learn about
how anti-homework reformers have viewed the place of education in
a democracy. After all, not all of those opposed to homework were
"progressives," as the authors imply; many were conservatives, some
of whom questioned the very concept of public education, the absence
of biblical teaching in the schools, and progressivism itself. How
did these people work together? Or did they?
Although the authors do not grapple with such questions, The
End of Homework is a useful volume that begins to frame the
argument against homework and offers a liberal brief for "family
values" absent in the all-too-common pedocentric cant--no mean feat,
considering the subject. Kralovec and Buell are, on the whole, persuasive--despite
the leaps of faith they ask of their readers, and their unexamined
commitment to "personal and family liberation," whatever that means.
Liberated or not, parents must have some control over the daily
rhythm and discipline of their families, and we've all heard enough
horror stories by now to know that external demands on our children's
time--including homework--is making that more difficult.
Catherine Tumber is a fellow in the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute
for Afro-American Research at Harvard University.