Friday, May 25, 2012

Opt-out of homework

Over the years, I've had many conversations with people who lament over how homework ruptures their relationships with their children.

My daughter Kayley is starting kindergarten next September and as her parent and first teacher I take my responsibility for nurturing her love for learning very seriously.

Here is an opt-out of homework letter that first appeared on Alfie Kohn's website here:

Dear [name of teacher],

First of all, I'd like to tell you how pleased I am that you're Sandy’s teacher this year. Sandy experiences you as very kind, which couldn't be more important to me.

I respect you as my child's teacher, so I want to take the time to tell you why I'm going to pull Sandy out of the homework program this year. I know that homework is routine in first grade, but the more I've thought about the issue and watched the effects of homework on both of my own children, the more convinced I am that it isn't right for Sandy. . . .

I'm sensitive to your concern that learning be supported at home, and I intend to do this as best I can. I know that the easiest students to teach are the curious, interested, motivated ones, and examples of things we'll do at home to foster those qualities might include: finding a weird spider outside, looking up its scientific name and feeding habits and making a "home" for it in a Tupperware container or talking about why we should set it free; reading books every night before bed; planning and cooking a meal together; counting all the change in my pocket and then going out for ice cream; telling stories; writing letters to grandparents and friends; and taking pictures of all the critters we find in the ocean when we go to Mexico and sending them to class to share. Again, I'm interested in supporting Sandy’s learning. I'm just worried that homework provokes anxiety and often gets in the way of family activities and the kind of play (and downtime necessary to develop an internal life!) that help make Sandy such a cool, funny kid.

Please do let me know if there is an assignment such as interviewing a family member -something that simply couldn't be done at school but that is important to the things you're doing in class - and we'll be happy to work on that together. Please also let me know if you have any questions or concerns about my decision, or if you notice Sandy feeling "left out" when homework folders are pulled out - I'm sure we can figure out some way around that. I'm happy to talk - in person or by email if that is more convenient for you.

Have a great year!


  1. Just my opinion...

    While homework should be "light and purposeful," I disagree with a no homework policy. As a young child my daughter loved coming home with assignments that showed what she did during the day. It prompted discussion about school work and reinforced responsibility to complete work. Now a current 7th grader, she has the structure to complete assignments without us ever having to remind her or check up on her. I owe this to the fact there has always been a homework routine.
    As a teacher, I bring work home. When I was a college student, I was expected to complete work outside of the allotted class time. In raising self-reliant children, we need to prepare them to deal with the world, not just shield them from it.
    Why assume the teacher is going to give homework that is a waste of time? Perhaps a meeting at the start of the year to talk about the teacher's homework policy and purpose would be more beneficial. It would give the teacher a chance to explain their thoughts on the benefits of their assignments, and it would position you and the teacher to be on the same side... the best interests of your child.

  2. I agree with mrsgw. As a high school teacher that only assigns work worthy of a student's time, I find it laughable to think that a parent could institute this type of 2-tiered classroom and then expect their child to do well in school. On top of that, she then expects the teacher to figure out how to make the child "feel good" despite not doing all of the work that the other students have done. If you have this belief, then enroll your child in a Montessori school.

    Additionally, the research on learning and the brain tells us that reinforcing something that's learned at a different time of day or through repetition is highly beneficial. Cutting off that particular way of improving student learning is just dumb.

  3. There is a lot of conventional wisdom around homework that just ain't true:

    1. There is absolutely no research to support the idea that there are non-academic benefits to homework. It's easy to say "I truly believe that homework helps kids be responsible..." but it's quite another to show evidence or research that supports such a claim. I find it problematic to define "responsibility" simply as "do as your told without even being told to do it" - and yet this is exactly what people mean when they say that homework teaches kids to be responsible for doing homework without being coerced or manipulated to do it. I wrote more about this here:

    2. I get a chuckle when I hear teachers say "I only ever assign good homework." No teacher ever wants to admit they assign stupid, make-work, waste of time, mindless drivel homework, and yet we all know it happens -- somebody is stuffing their backpacks with it...

    3. Where does it say in the curriculum that homework is a mandatory or necessary part of learning? Where does it say that without homework, it is unreasonable to expect children to do well in school? If we send kids to school for 6 or 7 hours, shouldn't that be enough? And if it's not enough, please tell me how much would be enough?

    4. To suggest that parents can't address homework inside of public education and that they should go elsewhere (Montessori) is at best arrogant and at worst unprofessional and undemocratic.

    5. I would love to see how brain research can be used to defend how most children conduct their homework... Most kids not only hate homework, but they do it in such a mindless way that it should take us all of 5 seconds to see how silly all this really is.

    Common sense around homework doesn't make a lot of sense and is far too common.

  4. If your child hasn't begun public school it isn't too late to save her.

    Homework serves an important function - it fills the rest of the child's day with schooling in order to prevent their education. If you want to make sure that your child grows up to be a big baby who depends on the state to manage her life...then send her to public school and have her do the homework. Otherwise homeschool, private school, no school, or anything but public school.

    1. My child has WAY more mindless homework in private school than she did in public school. Just sayin'...

  5. Hi Joe,
    I am a middle school math teacher and for the first time this year I did not assign homework. It has been VERY controversial in my math department and at my school. How can the students learn math if they don't complete practice problems at home? Interestingly my students did fewer problems than the rest of the math students at my school, but learned just as much. How can that be?

    Yes, teachers take work home, but it is not assigned by the principal and when we are asked to participate in a book group or something that takes our time, it is voluntary. I think it is ridiculous that my middle school students spend 8.5 hours SITTING in school and then are expected to complete 2 hours of homework a night!

    When I leave school to pick up my son from his school, I drive home, make dinner for/with my family, bath/read/play time, bedtime, clean up and then I get less than two hours before I go to bed to work out or relax. I choose not to take school work home and I do not expect my students to complete work for my class at home. Students need to have a life or just sit and listen to music or do whatever it is that relaxes them.

    What has happened to my homework deprived students? They have achieved equally if not more so on common assessments and district assessments. There is a mutual respect in my class which motivates the students to utilize class time efficiently. I have found less confusion and fewer misconceptions that I have to correct or re-teach during class from students "practicing problems" incorrectly at home. The students work on standards they need to practice so they are all over the place in their learning of pre-algebra and algebra 1 which would make assigning "quality" homework impossible.

    I get the same arguments from my colleagues, I should be teaching my students responsibility - that is a behavior and I am a mathematics teacher.

    I teach at a public middle school in California and I have proved this year that my students can/will succeed at meeting the mathematics standards without wasting their time practicing math problems at home.

    Please teachers read the research on homework and grading! I spent last summer researching both areas before I made the decisions I did to not assign homework and use standards based grading. These two changes have positively impacted my students' learning and the atmosphere in my classroom.

    I am planning on sending this letter to my students' parents next year and tweaking it to explain my reasoning for not assigning homework.

    Thanks Joe for impacting my teaching in a positive way this year!

    1. PLEASE MOVE TO GEORGIA! I too am a middle school math teacher. People look at me like I've sprouted another head when I say I don't give homework. I want to spend time with MY children in the evenings and I want my STUDENTS to spend time with THEIR families in the evening as well.

    2. Hey Carmen, I'm right there with you. Although we have very hot summers hitting 110 degrees, I'm not sure I could handle the humidity in Georgia. How about we fight the good fight on our opposite ends of the country together and support each other! Are you on twitter? I am @teachteKBeck let's connect there!

  6. I am non traditional when it comes to homework. Some it may be related to my Montesorri education, but honestly I realized how disruptive homework is a few years back. My kiddos were al scheduled out with gymnastics, baseball, basketball, swimming, karate, and scouts. They struggled to complete it & engaged in impressive power struggles with me & their parents over it.

    Since going towards a more open policy where I enourage kiddos to practice facts in fun ways, read with their families, & once in a while assign something that is directly related to our learning and can't be completed in school I have seen more relaxed & engaged students. Although making this change meant I made necessary changes to my instruction as well. The result? My students do just as well and sometimes better than their third grade peers in homework classrooms. Where's the data that homework works?

  7. Good stuff here, Joe.

    I think what the comments show is that if we're ever going to get people to think differently about homework, we have to (1). change the perceptions of both parents and teachers about what "learning" can really look like in action and (2). narrow our curricula to the point where teachers don't feel the pressure to jam content down kids' throats at all hours of the day.

    I'd LOVE it if the parents of my students did all of the things that are mentioned in Alfie's letter. Better yet, it wouldn't be hard for me to craft a bunch of suggested activities like that which would extend my curriculum. Maybe providing regular suggestions like that would make people feel better about a "no homework" policy.

    And maybe if the stakes weren't so high for schools, we'd be more inclined to embrace the notion that learning doesn't HAVE to happen in the structured, artificial moments that we create for kids.

    Thanks for making me think this morning...

  8. You're doing well at getting people thinking again! Keep it up, whether people think you are wrong or right! We need to continually challenge our practices, or things will stay stagnant! @joykirr

  9. When the stakes are high, we are often at our worst. Homework is yet another example of something we've done for a long time without seriously examining our underlying assumptions about learning.

  10. Thanks, Joe, for keeping a spotlight on this issue. It is also particularly relevant with the rise in popularity of "flipped teaching".

    Homework, whether flipped or not, effectively usurps the personal time of students and their families in order to address school objectives. However well-intentioned homework may be, it is effectively a resource grab; the school is effectively expanding school-hours in order to address school objectives, but does so at the personal expense of students and their families. Is that necessary? Is it desirable?

    Shouldn't schools set goals such that those goals can realistically be completed during school-hours? Isn't that the kind of good planning schools need to teach and model?

    Students and their families need their personal time in order to explore and pursue their personal goals, interests and relationships. We all do if we want to have a healthy and balanced life. There is a lot more to life than just school and work ;-)

    I have come across very little discussion or debate regarding these issues so I am looking forward to seeing more.

    I posted related comments on the BC Education Plan website here:
    1. Regarding Homework (Part 1)
    2. Regarding Homework (Part 2)
    3. Regarding Flipped Teaching (Part 1)
    4. Regarding Flipped Teaching (Part 2)

  11. This is so bold... and good. I'm feeling more and more that homework is often unnecessary, and even creates more work for the teacher. In Korea, its the worst as anxiety due to academics and grades have helped Korea to have one of the highest rates of suicide among adolescents in modern societies. Good word

    Chris Mitchell | MS/HS Science Teacher in Korea

  12. With five children ranging from 4th grade to a senior in high school, I despise homework! Once my children began school and fell into the rut of being assigned homework each night, I realized what torture I was inflicting upon my own students. Before my children, I couldn't understand why it was so impossible for my first graders' parents to read with them for 20 minutes.
    Now as a middle school teacher, the only work students do at home is anything not finished in class.

    I will definitely create some version of Mr. Kohn's letter to give to my children's teachers next year.

  13. Has anyone implemented a no homework policy at a school where the majority of parents don't have the time and resources or skills to enrich their children's education as described in the letter? What were the outcomes?

  14. I love reading teachers reviews and comments regarding homework, it always amazes me how adamant they are about it's benefits.

    So I wish to take this opportunity to set the teachers and advocates of the benefits of homework..some homework!

    Without the aid of Google could any of you tell me the origins of homework?

    Would any of you supply me with established data where schools who have no homework policy have lower exam results over those that do implement homework for their students. I don't mean two random schools, but two identical intakes of similar social class and geographical location.

    And finally, just for those teachers..let me know what is wrong with this post as far as it's grammar is concerned.

    Look forward to your replies.

  15. I love reading teachers reviews and comments regarding homework, it always amazes me how adamant they are about it's benefits.

    So I wish to take this opportunity to set the teachers and advocates of the benefits of homework..some homework!

    Without the aid of Google could any of you tell me the origins of homework?

    Would any of you supply me with established data where schools who have no homework policy have lower exam results over those that do implement homework for their students. I don't mean two random schools, but two identical intakes of similar social class and geographical location.

    And finally, just for those teachers..let me know what is wrong with this post as far as it's grammar is concerned.

    Look forward to your replies.


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