Which Family Made Homework

President Obama’s pick for Education Secretary, John King, Jr., is headed for confirmation Mar. 9. King’s track record shows he loves standardized testing and quantifying learning. If he loves numbers and research, he should welcome what some teachers and families have known for years: that homework at young ages does more harm than good.

Click here to get Time for Parents, a roundup of the week's parenting news that doesn't feel like homework.

We’re currently enmeshed in a high-pressure approach to learning that starts with homework being assigned in kindergarten and even preschool. Homework dominates after-school time in many households and has been dubbed the 21st century’s “new family dinner.” Overtired children complain and collapse. Exasperated parents cajole and nag. These family fights often ends in tears, threats, and parents secretly finishing their kid’s homework.

Parents put up with these nightly battles because they want what’s best for their kids. But, surprise, the opposite is more likely to be true. A comprehensive review of 180 research studies by Duke University psychologist and neuroscientist Harris Cooper shows homework’s benefits are highly age dependent: high schoolers benefit if the work is under two hours a night, middle schoolers receive a tiny academic boost, and elementary-aged kids? It's better to wait.

If you examine the research—not one study, but the full sweep of homework research—it’s clear that homework does have an impact, but it’s not always a good one. Homework given too young increases negative attitudes toward school. That’s bad news, especially for a kindergartener facing 12 more years of assignments.

Read More: Why You Shouldn’t Do Your Child’s Homework

Children rebel against homework because they have other things they need to do. Holler and run. Relax and reboot. Do family chores. Go to bed early. Play, following their own ideas. Children have been told what to do all day long at school—which is mostly sitting still and focusing on the academic side. Academic learning is only one side of a child. When school is out, kids need time for other things.

Some schools are already realizing this. New York City’s P.S. 116 elementary school made news last year when its principal Jane Hsu abolished homework and asked families to read instead. Individual schools and teachers from Maryland to Michigan have done the same, either eliminating homework in the elementary years or making it optional. But schools also report that if teachers don’t give it, some parents will demand it.

Believers in homework say it teaches soft skills like responsibility and good study habits. That’s another problem with homework in elementary school. Young kids can rarely cope with complex time management skills or the strong emotions that accompany assignments, so the responsibility falls on parents. Adults assume the highly undesirable role of Homework Patrol Cop, nagging kids about doing it, and children become experts in procrastination and the habit of complaining until forced to work. Homework overtakes the parents’ evening as well as the child’s. These roles aren’t easy to shake.

Read More: How Hard Is Too Hard to Push Kids?

When homework comes at a stage when it can academically benefit students, it can also be a student’s responsibility. That means a high school student should be expected to do her homework without being reminded. It may take a year or two of practice in middle school, but it doesn’t require years of practice. Before age 11, responsibility can be taught in other ways. For a 6-year-old, that means remembering to feed the cat and bring home her lunchbox.

If we want students to improve memory, focus, creative thinking, test performance and even school behavior, the answer is not more homework, the answer is more sleep. The National Sleep Foundation reports that our children are suffering sleep deprivation, partly from homework. If we pride ourselves on a rational, research-based approach to education, we must look at the right facts.

Parents often feel stuck with homework because they don’t realize they have a choice. But they do. Schooling may be mandatory, but homework isn’t. Families can opt out. Parents can approach the teacher either about homework load or the simple fact of doing homework at all, especially in elementary school. Many teachers will be more than happy with the change. Opting out, or changing the homework culture of a school brings education control back down to the local level.

That’s another thing the new Education Secretary has promised: to turn more control for education decisions over to states and local school districts. That could spell good news for students – if local teachers and principals do their own homework and read up on what the research says about making kids do school work after school is done.

POPULISM HAS TAKEN the world by storm.

Donald Trump. Brexit. Etc.

I have watched with dismay. In that light, I’m a little uncomfortable proposing what could be considered the most populist proposal ever.

No more homework.

It’s a wish I’m sure we all heard throughout our school lives.

Just thinking back to the mountains of work gives me a feeling akin to hearing fingernails on a blackboard.

As a wannabe politician, this one is definitely from the Napoleon Dynamite playbook.

As a campaign it has potential though.

A single sentence encapsulates the position clearly. In this age of slogans and chants, that seems to be important. So, really Bart Simpson’s Down with Homework t-shirt could be dusted off.

We wouldn’t even need to be very original with chants, a quick search of YouTube provides more than we could ever use.

All the ingredients are there.

So with the catch sorted, we move onto the detail.

Like all good populist campaigns, the devil will be in the detail. The campaign will really be No Homework for Primary School Students. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of homework for secondary school students.

There is an argument to be made that primary school homework gets students into the habit and increases from there. I don’t think years of practice are required. On the
contrary, it seems that six years of secondary school homework, often followed by
college is more than enough.

Why though?

Childhood obesity is a major problem in Ireland. The Childhood Obesity Surveillance
Initiative carried out by the Health Service Executive in conjunction with the National
Nutrition Surveillance Centre in UCD this year makes for worrying reading.

One in five of our children are overweight or obese. Schools have come a long way in terms of healthy eating campaigns and there is an emphasis on physical activity but more is needed.

The point of schooling is to learn and much of the time is inevitably spent sitting.

The Irish weather hasn’t improved since my time either. Often, it’s not possible to go outside during break. Technological improvements mean the TV-on-wheels no longer needs to be wheeled in but the projector provides the same result. After a day like this, our children are sent home with homework to do.

More time sitting – after a whole day of it.

Removing homework won’t be a magic bullet. Parents would need to ensure the homework time isn’t simply replaced with screen time. A strong campaign would be needed to encourage evening exercise.

Increased provision of walking and cycle ways as well as playgrounds would help too. Not all would comply, but many would. With such worrying obesity stats, it’s time to change our priorities.

There have been many studies carried out on the value of exercise.

Researchers at the Georgia Health Sciences University tested the effects of aerobic exercise on 171 sedentary, overweight kids between the ages of 7 and 11. They found improvements in IQ scores, as well as Maths ability, where physical activity levels were increased.

Canadian author and public policy contributor André Picard has also argued that homework is counterproductive.

He says research shows clearly that children being active is more important than homework for improving learning and test scores and health.

As a working parent, I find these arguments compelling.

Life during school term is a whirlwind.

Once I’ve collected my kids, made dinner, helped to get the homework done and taken them to an after-school activity (if there is one that day), it is bedtime. And we are all tired.

We are all busier these days. Quality time is at a premium. Let’s get rid of the
homework and build in more family activity time.

Instead of spending their early years teaching them to sit and do homework, we could be teaching them the joy of an active lifestyle.

Eric Nolan is the local area representative for the Labour Party in Cork East. He is a father of two and lives in Midleton. He works as an aviation firefighter at Cork Airport. Find him on Twitter @ericnolanlab
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