Mom Talk: I Wrote an Open Letter About Revamping Homework, and It Seriously Worked

Gail Cornwall’s daughter and son reading together at home. (Photo courtesy Gail Cornwall)

A version of this piece first appeared on The Huffington Post.

The following letter was written at the request of my daughter’s first-grade teacher, whose name has been changed for anonymity, so that she could have something in hand when taking my concerns, with which she agrees, to her superiors. It worked.

Dear Ms. Case,

I can’t thank you enough for your persistent kindness in dealing with us parents and the kids you skillfully shepherd. You’re inculcating a love of both school and learning in my daughter, a priceless gift if ever there was one.

Unfortunately, one issue has been weighing on our family: homework.

Each night you assign 20 minutes of reading, either solo or with a parent. My daughter easily meets this flexible requirement, curling up on the couch with a Magic Treehouse book, asking me to read aloud from a library selection like A Cricket in Times Square, or listening to the picture books chosen by her siblings. We even count minutes she spends perusing a magazine, a toy instruction booklet, or the side of a cereal box.

But there’s also the nightly page of math. She has no desire to do it. She also often can’t complete it without help. Sometimes I take a look, and I’m unable to figure out what’s being asked of her despite my postgraduate education.

I’m left with two options. I can nag her about the math, reminding her each evening to get it out and then walking her through it. Since we don’t have a TV or an iPad, this means ripping her away from a book or creative pretend-play with her little brother and sister. It also teaches her that she can’t handle schoolwork on her own and sets her up for the life of academic dependence decried in How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University, and The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey.

My other choice is to keep doing what I’ve been doing: telling her homework is between you and her, and that it’s her responsibility to sort out when and how to complete it. I want my daughter to learn time management, and to experience frustration but then keep trying so she realizes she can almost always find her own way to a solution. I believe this to be the best approach for inculcating grit, perseverance, self-control, and other markers of success described in a third book, Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed.

On this path, however, when the homework doesn’t interest her or is too difficult or confusing, she just doesn’t do it. She then either is penalized or, worse, in the absence of repercussions, comes to believe that all work is optional.

We are left adrift, biting our tongues and nails as we leave her to her own devices, then stepping in to direct and assist after seeing an entire week of the workbook untouched.

Luckily, there’s a third way.

Recent research shows that elementary school homework is at best unnecessary and unproductive. Specifically, there is no evidence that homework reinforces academic lessons at the elementary level, even in math, according to a meta-analysis of nearly 200 studies on homework.

Assigning it can even be detrimental. Homework can have a negative impact on children’s attitudes toward school and damage family relationships (when caregivers are asked to sign off on or otherwise police homework, power struggles and resentment can result). Time spent doing homework also displaces activities shown to help with brain growth, like cooking with a parent, playing outside, or — possibly the most worthwhile of the bunch — being bored.

A lot of folks assume homework teaches study skills and responsible habits, but that turns out not to be true either. Many, like my daughter, even have the opposite lesson reinforced: that duties may be ignored or completed hastily.

There are also equity issues at play. Some students have access to technology, books, quiet spaces, and adults after school while others do not. Mandatory homework even exacerbates pre-existing inequalities, because some receive additional instructional time.

The three articles below ably summarize the relevant social science data:

In light of our personal experience and the information provided by these articles, I ask that you move toward getting rid of homework entirely, raising the issue with your teaching team and school administration. At the very least, please consider limiting it to flexible assignments like your current reading requirement.

I want my daughter to continue to build positive associations with school, to be given the freedom to use her time outside its gates to learn through play, and to grow to be independent and capable.

Thank you for your time, and for your invaluable service to our hearts’ joy and nation’s future,

Gail Cornwall

Rooftop School in San Francisco last year piloted a “We Provide, You Decide” optional homework policy for grades K-4. Teachers still put together traditional homework packets, so that the resource is available, but families are free to decide if they’d rather read, play, or socialize. In doing so, the California public school joined a national trend toward abolishing mandatory homework. Any parent armed with these arguments can help lend that movement momentum by bringing them to the attention of their PTA and/or school administrators.

Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco.

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