School Just Wants Kids to Have Fun—But Parents Demand More Homework

The students are probably cheering the end of nightly assignments, but moms and dads at P.S. 116 in New York City are outraged.

(Photo: Kaori Ando/Getty Images)

Mar 6, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s a common complaint of parents—and some teachers—whose hyper-pressurized, stressed-out, over-tested schoolchildren stay up past bedtime finishing an assignment: “Why does my kid have so much homework?

So the principal at one school in New York City, citing frustration and “loss of interest in learning” that the practice work causes, abolished it completely. Instead, she wants kids to turn off the computer, read a book, play outside, or maybe get to know their family a little bit better.

“The topic of homework has received a lot of attention lately, and the negative effects of homework have been well established,” Jane Hsu, principal of P.S. 116, wrote in a letter to parents. “They include: children’s frustration and exhaustion, lack of time for other activities and family time and, sadly for many, loss of interest in learning.”

The kids at P.S. 116 are probably thrilled by Hsu’s decision:

(Photo: Giphy.com)

The parents of her students, however, aren’t happy with the change. Their calculations—schoolkids minus homework equals their child left behind—have prompted a backlash against Hsu and the school committee that decided on the change.

“They didn’t have much to begin with, but now homework is obsolete,” Daniel Tasman, the father of a second-grader at P.S. 116, told the local news website DNAInfo.com.“They’ve decided that giving homework to younger ages [elementary school students] isn’t viable. I don’t necessarily agree. I think they should have homework—some of it is about discipline. I want [my daughter] to have fun, but I also want her to be working toward a goal.”

In the letter, Hsu writes that the no-homework policy came about after the school studied the idea for more than a year and concluded that the benefits of independent reading and free play are far more beneficial than traditional homework.

“In fact, you may be surprised to learn that there have been a variety of studies conducted on the effects of homework in the elementary grades, and not one of them could provide any evidence that directly links traditional homework practices with current, or even future, academic success,” she wrote.

According to National Education Association teaching guidelines, the recommended amount of homework ranges from a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes of “practice, preparation or extension” learning after classes in elementary school, gradually increasing to as much as three hours per night in high school.

“Individualized assignments that tap into students’ existing skills or interests can be motivating,” say the guidelines. “At the elementary school level, homework can help students develop study skills and habits and can keep families informed about their child’s learning. At the secondary school level, student homework is associated with greater academic achievement.”

But in an interview with Yahoo Parenting, Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, said there’s not much evidence “of any benefit of homework at the elementary school level.”

Homework, he said, “is all pain, no gain.”

At the same time, there are grassroots movements to end homework, and studies have shown homework-related stress can trigger physical illnesses such as ulcers, migraines, and sleep deprivation.

Given that P.S. 116 teaches only kindergarten through fifth grade, it’s probably unlikely that students suffered problems associated with the more serious end of the homework-stress spectrum. Still, there’s no sign that Hsu intends to retract the policy anytime soon.

“We are excited that we are redefining the landscape of homework—but we are certainly not eliminating homework,” she said in a statement to DNAInfo.com, emphasizing that reading and unstructured play are as educationally valuable as practice reading, writing, and arithmetic.

“We are creating opportunities for students and their families to engage in activities that research has proven to benefit academic and social-emotional success in the elementary grades,” she wrote. “We look forward to seeing the positive impact our newly designed homework options will have on our students and their families.”