Review: The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning

Chris McNutt
February 9, 2020
The End of Homework by Etta Kralovec and John Buell offers a succinct and researched account of why homework does little to actually improve academic performance, and instead hurts a family’s overall well-being.

(An updated version of this piece is available at this link.)

The End of Homework by Etta Kralovec and John Buell offers a succinct and researched account of why homework does little to actually improve academic performance, and instead hurts a family’s overall well-being. Kralovec and Buell analyze and dissect homework studies over the last few decades, finding that most research supports their claims or, at-best, makes dubious claims on the affects of homework. Although written in 2000, The End of Homework makes arguments that are only strengthened today: homework is discriminatory toward the poor (and the wealth gap has grown), it separates families from their children (and families work longer hours, and homework assigned has increased), and academic results are mixed (and recent studies reflect this.)

At Human Restoration Project, one of the core systemic changes we suggest is the elimination of homework. Throughout this piece, I will include more recent research studies that add to this work. I believe that the adverse affects of homework are so strong that any homework assigned, outside of minor catching up or incredibly niche cases, does more harm than good.

Summarized within The End of Homework, as well as developmental psychologists, sociologists, and educators, are the core reasons why homework is not beneficial:

Homework is Inequitable

In the most practical terms, calls for teachers to assign more homework and for parents to provide a quiet, well-lit place for the child to study must always be considered in the context of the parents’ education, income, available time, and job security. For many of our fellow citizens, jobs have become less secure and less well paid over the course of the last two decades.

Americans work the longest hours of any nation. Individuals in 2006 worked 11 hours longer than their counterparts in 1979. In 2020, 70% of children live in households where both parents work. And the United States is the only country in the industrial world without guaranteed family leave. The results are staggering: 90% of women and 95% of men report work-family conflict. According to the Center for American Progress, “the United States today has the most family-hostile public policy in the developed world due to a long-standing political impasse.”

As a result, parents have much less time to connect with their children. This is not a call to a return to traditional family roles, or even to have stay-at-home parents. Rather, our occupational society is structured inadequately to allow for the use of homework, and Americans must change how labor laws demand their time. For those who work in entry level positions, such as customer service and cashiers, there is an average 240% turnover per year due to lack of pay, poor conditions, work-life balance, and mismanagement. Family incomes continue to decline for lower- and middle-class Americans, leaving more parents to work increased hours or multiple jobs. In other words, parents, especially poor parents, have less opportunities to spend time with their children, let alone foster academic “gains” via homework.

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Source: American Center for Progress. Although income has risen in recent years, the wealth gap has grown to its highest point in American history.

In an effort to increase engagement in homework, teachers have been encouraged to create interesting, creative assignments. Although this has good intentions, rigorous homework with increased complexity places more impetus on parents. As Gary Natrillo, an initial proponent of creative homework, stated later:

‘…not only was homework being assigned as suggested by all the ‘experts,’ but the teacher was obviously taking the homework seriously, making it challenging instead of routine and checking it each day and giving feedback. We were enveloped by the nightmare of near total implementation of the reform recommendations pertaining to homework…More creative homework tasks are a mixed blessing on the receiving end. On the one hand, they, of course, lead to higher engagement and interest for children and their parents. On the other hand, they require one to be well rested, a special condition of mind not often available to working parents…’

Time is a luxury to most Americans. With increased working hours, in conjunction with extreme levels of stress, many Americans don’t have the necessary mindset to adequately supply children with the attention to detail for complex homework. As Kralovec and Buell state,

To put it plainly, I have discovered that after a day at work, the commute home, dinner preparations, and the prospect of baths, goodnight stories, and my own work ahead, there comes a time beyond which I cannot sustain my enthusiasm for the math brain teaser or the creative story task.

Americans are some of the most stressed people in the world. Mass shootings, health care affordability, discrimination, sexual harassment, climate change, the presidential election, and literally: staying informed have caused roughly 70% of people to report moderate or extreme stress, with increased rates for people of color, LGBTQIA Americans, and other discriminated groups. 90% of high schoolers and college students report moderate or higher stress, with half reporting depression and lack of energy and motivation.

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Source: APA Stress in America 2019

Perhaps the solution to academic achievement in America isn’t doubling down on test scores or increasing the work students do at home, but solving the underlying systemic inequities: the economic and discriminatory problems that plague our society? Kralovec and Buell note,

Citing the low test scores of American students has become a favorite cocktail party game. However, some scholars have offered a more nuanced explanation for the poor showing by U.S. students in international academic performance comparisons, suggesting that it may have more to do with high levels of childhood poverty and a lack of support for families in the United States than with low academic standards, shorter school days, and fewer hours spent on homework.

Finland, frequently cited as a model education system, enjoys some of the highest standards of living in the world:

Outside of just convincing you to flat-out move to Finland, these statistics reflect that potentially — instead of investing hundreds of millions of dollars in initiatives to increase national test scores, such as homework strategies, curriculum changes, and nationwide “raising the bar” initiatives — the US should invest in programs that universally help our daily lives, such as universal healthcare and housing. The solution to test scores is rooted in solving America’s underlying inequitable society — shining a light on our core issues — rather than making teachers solve all of our community’s problems.

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Source: Washington Center for Equitable Growth. A worthy response to this type of data being used to actually measure academics was published recently by Nick Covington.

But Wait, Despite All This…Does Homework Even Work!?

‘Extensive classroom research of ‘time on task’ and international comparisons of year-round time for study suggest that additional homework might promote U.S. students’ achievement.’ This written statement by some of the top professionals in the field of homework research raises some difficult questions. More homework might promote student achievement? Are all our blood, sweat, and tears at the kitchen table over homework based on something that merely might be true? Our belief in the value of homework is akin to faith. We assume that it fosters a love of learning, better study habits, improved attitudes toward school, and greater self-discipline; we believe that better teachers assign more homework and that one sign of a good school is a good, enforced homework policy.

Numerous studies of homework reflect an inconsistent result. Not only does homework rarely demonstrate large, if any, academic gains for testing, there are many negative impacts on the family that are often ignored.

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Source: Pell Institute

By bringing schoolwork home, the well-intentioned belief of promoting equity through high standards has the adverse affect of causing further inequity. Private and preparatory schools are notorious for extreme levels of homework assignment. Yet, many progressive schools assign no homework and achieve the same levels of college and career success. Again, the biggest predictor of college success has nothing to do with rigorous preparation, and everything to do with family income levels. 77% of students from high income families graduated from a highly competitive college, whereas 9% of students from low income families did the same.

School curriculum obsession in homework is likely rooted in studies that demonstrate increased test scores as a result of assigned homework. The End of Homework deciphers this phenomena:

Cooper’s work provides us with one more example of a problem that routinely bedevils all the sciences: the relationship between correlation and causality. If A and B happen simultaneously, we do not know whether A causes B or B causes A, or whether both phenomena occur casually together or are individually determined by another set of variables…Thus far, most studies in this area have amounted to little more than crude correlations that cannot justify the sweeping conclusions some have derived from them.

If other countries demonstrate educational success (albeit measured through standardized testing) with little to no assigned homework and limited school hours, shouldn’t we take a step back and analyze the system as a whole, rather than figure out better homework schemes?

A Reflection of Neoliberal Society

According to New York State’s Teacher of the Year in 1990:

‘[Schools] separate parents and children from vital interaction with each other and from true curiosity about each other’s lives. Schools stifle family originality by appropriating the critical time needed for any sound idea of family to develop — then they blame the family for its family to be a family. It’s like a malicious person lifting a photograph from the developing chemicals too early, then pronouncing the photographer incompetent.’

Education often equates learning with work. I have to stop myself from behaving like an economics analysist: telling students to quit “wasting time”, stating that the purpose of the lesson is useful for future earnings, seeing everything as prep for college and career (and college is ultimately just for more earnings in a career), and making blanket assumptions that those who aren’t motivated will ultimately never contribute to society, taking on “low levels” of work that “aren’t as important” as other positions.

Since the nineteenth century, developmental psychology has been moving away from the notion that children are nothing more or less than miniature adults. In suggesting that children need to learn to deal with adult levels of pressure, we risk doing them untold damage. By this logic, the schoolyard shootings of recent years may be likened to ‘disgruntled employee’ rampages.

This mentality is unhealthy and unjust. The purpose of education should be to develop purpose. People live happier and healthier lives as a result of pursuing and developing a core purpose. Some people’s purpose is related to their line of work, but there is not necessarily a connection. However, the primary goal stated by districts, states, and the national government of the education system is to make “productive members of society.” When we double down on economic principles to raise complex individuals, it’s no wonder we’re seeing such horrific statistics related to childhood.

Further, the consistent pressure to produce for economic gain raises generations of young people to believe that wealth is a measurement of success and that specific lines of work create happiness. Teachers and parents are told to make their children “work hard” for future success and develop “grit.” Although grit is an important indicator of overcoming obstacles, it is not developed by enforcing grit through authoritarian classrooms or meaningless, long tasks. In fact, an argument could be made that many Americans accept their dramatically poor work-life balance and lack of access to needs such as affordable health care by being brought up in a society that rewards neoliberal tendencies of “working through it” to “eventually achieve happiness.”

Kralovec and Buell state,

Many of us would question whether our fighting with our children for twelve years about homework could possibly foster good habits. In contrast, participating in the decisions of the household and collaborating with others on common chores, from cooking to cleaning to doing routine repairs, are important life skills that also require good work habits. For many children, these habits are never learned because homework gets in the way of that work.

Americans have more difficulty than ever raising children, with increasing demands of time and rising childcare costs. Children often need to “pick up the slack” and help taking care of the home. In fact, children with chores show completely positive universal growth across the board. When teachers provide more and more homework, they take away from the parents’ ability to structure their household according to their needs. As written in The End of Homework,

Most of us find we do not have enough time with our children to teach them these things; our ‘teaching’ time is instead taken up with school-mandated subjects. We often wonder if we wouldn’t have less tension in our society over prayer in schools if our children had more time for religious instruction at home and for participation in church activities. When school is the virtually exclusive center of the child’s educational and even moral universe, it is not surprising that so many parents should find school agendas (with which they may or may not agree) a threat to their very authority and identity.

Of course, this is not to say that it is all the teacher’s fault. Educators face immense pressure to carry out governmental/school policies that place test scores at the forefront. Many of these policies require homework, and an educator’s future employment is centered on enacting these changes:

As more academic demands are placed on teachers, homework can help lengthen the school day and thus ensure ‘coverage’ — that is, the completion of the full curriculum that each teacher is supposed to cover during the school year…This in itself places pressure on teachers to create meaningful homework and often to assign large amounts of it so that the students’ parents will think the teacher is rigorous and the school has high academic standards. Extensive homework is frequently linked in our minds to high standards.

Therefore, there’s a connection to be made between “work”-life balance of children and the people who are tasked with teaching them. 8% of the teacher workforce leaves every year, many concerned with work-life balance. Perhaps teachers see an increased desire to “work” students in their class and at home due to the pressures they face in their own occupation?

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Source: Education Evolving
We have little opportunity to enjoy recreation, community events, local politics, or family life. Our diminished possibilities in this regard in turn reinforce our reliance on wages and the workplace. And even the family time that remains after the demands of work and commuting are met is increasingly structured by the requirements of the workplace and school.

The more we equate work with learning, and the more we accept a school’s primary purpose to prepare workers, the less we actually succeed at promoting academics. Instead, we bolster the neoliberal tendencies of the United States to work hard, yet comparably to other countries’ lifestyle gains, achieve little. The United States must examine the underlying inequities of peoples’ lives, rather than focus on increasing schools’ workloads and lessening children’s free time for mythical academic gains that lead to little change. Teacher preparation programs and popular authors need to stop promoting “interesting and fun ways to teach ‘x’!” and propose systemic changes that radically change the way education is done, including systemic changes to society at large. Only then will the United States actually see improved livelihoods and a better education system for all.


Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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