The Pleasanton Unified School District Board of Trustees is set to consider scaling back the time students spend on homework. The district is one of many across the country that are reevaluating homework in light of questions about its educational value — and concerns about overstressed and overscheduled kids.

Alfie Kohn, author of "The Homework Myth". His latest book is "Feel-Bad Education...And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling."
Parvin Ahmadi, superintendent of Pleasanton Unified School District
Harris Cooper, chair and professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. Author of "The Battle over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators."
Tom Loveless, senior fellow of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a former sixth grade teacher.

  • laager

    I’ve worked a lifetime of many different jobs and homework study for better skills, be it a job, or my next hobby, have become habit. I’m motivated and self-directed.

    Is this a skill I learned in school?

    Pacific NW

    • FayNissenbaum

      Probably not. You were a good student who caught on to how to organize and marshall information for later use. This should be taught. 

  • Lesley

    I grew up without homework until high school. Of course, I had a longer school day and year. I would not object to my children’s homework if it were enriching what they learn at school instead of “busy work.” Their homework is boring, irrelevant, and in my opinion, a waste of time.

  • Rita Tamerius

    I believe that homework is one of the most discriminatory parts of our education system. In homes where parents work, have inadequate education, are unable to help because of mental or physical illness, or are just not interested the unfortunate child is at a tremendous disadvantage. They show up in class the next day without the homework so they start and finish the day embarrassed, unable to understand was is being taught, frustrate their teacher, and develop a sense of inadequacy and hopelessness.

    • Globedit

      Is that a reason to banish homework or to educate the adult populace?  Many times, homework is the anchor for a child who comes home to an empty house with hours to wait before the parents’ arrival.

    • Speaktodragons

      What the Duck!!!!
      The parents work, yet they have inadequate education, they are sick, but still earn a income, the best part is they are not generally interested in their own child. If these are the child’s parents the child should be removed immediately for child abuse. 

      The parents they should do something to help their child with their education, even learn the subjects themselves. Helping your child succeed is the parents responsibly. If the parents cannot care for their children minimally put them up for adoption. 

    • Fleur H

      Actually if you read Kohn’s book he contradicts himself in a few places and makes an argument similar to Rita’s.  I found it quite sinister.

  • RB126

    Doesn’t Mr Kohn not discriminate between understanding and practice of an understanding…i.e. it is one thing to understand that multiplication is the adding of groups  versus memorizing the multiplication facts?  The first should be done in the classroom, the second can be done in the home.

  • Chris

    The problem is believing all students need the same amount of homework.but of course if you don’t parents will be in an uproar if it isn’t equal. Larger class sizes makes this worse because there is even a greater range.

    Disadvantaged doesn’t matter because students of parents who don’t speak english do fine.

  • lbrmouse

    “Homework” is too generic a term. Assignments that cannot be competed as part of classroom activities should have a definite objective, one that is grade-level appropriate, and preferably one that teaches a specific skill. But there will always be the problem that different students learn differently, so being judged (graded) to any substantial degree on “homework” penalizes students whose learning skills are out of the mainstream.

    Larry from San Francisco

  • Justin

    I wondered if your guests were familiar with Salman Khan who runs a
    non-profit called Khan Academy, which has over 2500 online lectures
    ranging from simple addition and subtraction up through differential
    equations and chemistry.

    Khan gave a Ted talk about “flipping the classroom,” which the Los
    Altos school district has adopted. The idea is simple: allow students
    to watch, pause, restart, and review the concepts through the online
    lectures as homework in their own time, at their own pace, thereby
    freeing up the classroom for more social interaction and project-based
    work between the teacher and students rather than one-sized fits all
    lecturing that tends to leave students behind.

  • FayNissenbaum

    I was a problem student.  I went on to earn a BS and JD. My misery in High School caused me to *learn how to learn*. 

    1) Teach HOW to take notes and what needs to be noted. There are several methods, from strict Harvard outlining to central concept arty stuff. This is a SKILL some students grasp and most don’t. It took me until I was 25 that I figured it out. Teach note-taking right away – it’s THE tool crucial to studying. 

    2)Instead of copious homework, REVIEW the class material after the class. 5 minutes to hit the takeaway issues. Research at Stanford (called the “ebbinghouse curve”) shows that 15 minutes after first exposure to the material is an ideal time to reinforce memory. Give time in school to reinforce and or teach in different manner on a more individual basis to those students who need extra help.

    There is no problem student on the panel today – that’s a mistake. Teachers as a group tend to be the students who did well in the classroom environment. Consult those who were not the better students as to what helped them get through. This is essential and should be a no-brainer. 

    Fay, -BS, JD
    The City

  • T. Lynn

    I am a teacher who is overwhelmed by workload.  Often, the curriculum ‘math pages’ are terrible.  It takes a lot of time to find quality practice pages.  Moreover, students who have reading logs, especially in the low-income or high needs demographic, don’t have a quiet place to read or need support in basic reading.  I don’t penalize students who don’t turn homework in and often feel that homework is something mandated from above and takes extra time and energy from an already demanding job (even harder with increased class size).

    • Varrinm

      I support you. thanks for what you’re doing. It’s a tough time to be teaching, trying to “leave no child behind” and all that.

    • Fleur H

      You don’t think math homework is important?  If the curriculum’s math pages are terrible, why can’t teachers design their own.

  • Michael D from Palo Alto, CXA

    We have three boys in elementary school who love learning and are considered “high achievers”. The number one factor that made this possible is the 15-20 minutes we spend with them each day doing homework that we ourselves assign to them. They love new concepts, get a quick lesson from us, and then practice their new skill in an old-fashioned workbook. Alfie Kohn accused the pro-homework crowd of being too ideological, and certainly many are, especially when they support teachers assigning homework to cover concepts not properly taught in class in the first place, and that represent time-wasting tasks in the second place, such as cutting and pasting instead of focusing on the actual concept. However, Mr. Kohn is just as ideological in his rejection of the value of individual learning. True comprehension takes place when one sees a concept in practice and confidence in that learning only takes place when one can prove to oneself that one can apply that concept with fluidity and without support. 15 minutes of high-quality homework beats 6 hours in the classroom in our experience. Both extremes are wrong in this debate.

  • acocotas

    “If practice is important”? I’m pretty sure Michael Jordan didn’t learn that jump shot strictly through games.

  • moseman233

    Claims of ideology are certainly as true for the play-based learning advocates as those who advocate lots of drill-based homework. It seems to me the way to square the circle of the way that both guests look at the data is not the amount of homework in minutes or its content, but that of time management and the other things that have come to fill our children’s day: video games, movies and faux-interactive television, piano and soccer, or just the lack of hours and hours of imaginative play every day that used to fill my time, even growing up in a bad neighborhood. 

    Parents compensate my loading their kids up with homework, which may or may not be bad in itself, but it is avoiding the problem of time management, context switching, and the decline of extended families. We need a balance that addresses the way our American society is now. 

  • Paul Nelson

    Im a 16 year Waldorf parent and I always get perplexed at this whole “what do we do about education?” discussion. Rudolf Steiner developed the science of Anthroposophy a hundred years ago, and the impearical data, not to mention my personal experience,is beyond reproach. All questions, homework, testing, grading, all of it is answered and clearly implemented resulting in 90 percentile achievement AND well balanced people who contribute to society.

    • Varrinm

      I don’t think you can easily separate the combined experience of Waldorf pedagogy and the small classrooms that come with it. Yes, I’m sure some of Steiner’s ideas are beneficial (and not far off from the way a lot of public teachers teach…trust me, it’s true, even though Waldorf advocates thing they have some big secret), but I think the benefits of small classes are incalculable and one advantage to it is less homework due to more in class teacher input.

  • Anna

    I work in an after school program with K-2nd grade.  Currently so many children do not do their homework at home, they do it in an after school program.  What I take issue with is homework being assigned to children under age 10.  Homework can be useful as a high school student, but I do not see how it is useful to an elementary school student. 
    The amount and quality of homework I see assigned to the children I work with is often appalling.  Many times I have looked at an assignment and wondered if the teacher even looked through the whole thing before giving it because it is far too difficult. 

  • Jesselliot

    I think it is in our best interest to keep away from universal ideas about homework.  I was witness to a 6th grade parent evening at a Waldorf School where the teacher discussed WITH the parents the amount of homework that will help their children.  Each child may have different needs, or each class might have different needs.  Besides that, the teacher and parents both placed great emphasis on work that is done at home.  REAL home work, like participating in chores and family life.  If we force the children to sit at their desk all afternoon, they have no time to participate with their family.

  • FayNissenbaum

    Fergawdsakes, let’s not turn the radio discussion into the typical permissive vs. strict child-rearing argument! The homework topic has to do with whether added homework causes stress, memory, and how different people learn, and ultimately how best to ‘get smarter’. 

    Tony Buzan, “Use Both Sides of Your Brain’ researched and wrote extensively about note-taking and memory. This radio discussion should bring in more discussion about learning research and less folk-wisdom about sparing-the-rod-and-spoiling-the-child foolery.

  • Kaufmancohen

    My third grader’s teacher stopped assigning traditional homework midyear this year.  As a result, he had time to read for 30 mins a night (this was her requirement) and practice his times tables.  His reading improved dramatically.  Time and energy is limited, and homework comes at the expense of other things (i.e.exercise and family time.)

  • AC

    As a long time educator who currently works in a high pressure school,  I agree with my colleague who mentioned the importance of play in learning.  When students are able to learn in a hands-on environment, the skills, concepts and value of what they are learning stay with them far longer than any worksheet. The larger issue, however, is that our students are doing more homework than hours that they are in school, and that this is leading to a fundamental moral disengagement on their parts. Cheating is rampant, they are up until 4 am and in class at 7 am, they are depressed and aggressive and out of it and have no sense of why they are working so hard except for some vague concept of “success” in the future. This is what I see on a daily basis, and this, the emotional life of our future population, is what concerns me the most.

    • Fleur H

      Some subjects lend themselves better to hands on learning than others.  What you say about play based learning is nice in theory, but I’n not sure that students always learn better.

      Our school had a very constructivist math curriculum at one time.  Problem was, very little math was actually done.  Guess what…some parents ended up teaching the kids math themselves.

  • Mark

    Excellent session, as usual.The key question isn’t for or against homework.
    Some key questions and points, among many, are:

    a) Can in school time be used more efficiently? It is in many European countries.

    b) Can homework assignments truly engage students with their families and communities?  If students and parents perceive the homework as tedious and meaningless, it doesn’t matter if a teacher sees it as important. 

    c)What is the level of increased stress created by homework assignments? Is the academic payoff worth the emotional costs?

    There is tremendous resistance to changing the homework system, because there is resistance to rethinking our whole approach to education.

    Mark Phillips

    • Globedit

      I have taught both overseas and domestically.  In many places internationally, the demands on students are extreme: 13 courses per week in high school, none of them softies like PE, and one do-or-die test over everything each semester.  Homework is done at home or with a tutor from 6-10 six nights a week.   Passing the finals means a chance at a good, free university.  Not passing means it is time to find a job.

  • Cuddlesmom

    The self-rightousness of those who are proud to undermine the classroom teacher always amaze me.

    To the parent that just terlls his children not to do the homework he deems unimportant:  Would you question the methods the builder of your home used to lay the foundation of your home?  I doubt it, so what gives YOU the right to undermine the foundation a teacher is trying to lay when they assign homework?

    I am a high school history teacher. Trust me, to do all the interesting, higher level group  activities that enhance critical thinking and students quite frankly enjoy, I the trained professional need to be allowed to lay the groundwork as I see fit,.

    • FayNissenbaum

      You, “the trained professional”, need to pay greater attention to what you write from your high horse.

      • Globedit

        If a grammar error is the basis for your dismissal of someone’s ideas, what does that say about your own critical thinking skills?

        • FayNissenbaum

          I didn’t come off with the haughty only-a-teacher-can-know attitude. In fact, we were all students and those of us with opinions about what worked for us should be listened to rather than being dismissed outright (as “high school history teacher” did). Trying reading more closely before you attack.

  • Chris

    Nobody has mentioned that when student is given homework, it’s assumed the student does it when in many cases, a parent does it for them or it’s copied off a classmate. when grades are heavily tires to homework a student can pass without demonstrating knowledge. A better approach might be levels of recommended topics and problems (so students who don’t understand can spend more time at home) without mandatory assignments then a quick quiz in the morning to see if the topic was comprehended.

  • 2 hours is 10 a week. The gentlemen talks as if this very little time. The problem is that each teacher teaches as if their class is the only subject that the student is taking. Especially at college level. each Professors loads up a student as if they are the only teacher. Each subject adds time

    • Globedit

      There are communication mechanisms available for teachers to let others know of big projects, exams, and other activities that may impact students’ homework volume.  When teachers communicate by posting such things, others can adapt their requirements.

  • Phredless

    I usually had 1-2 hours of homework a night if we did not finish the classwork. The difference I see now is that the classroom now is much less focused and challenges the student less, and much less is accomplished than 30 years ago.  Additionally, the school day was longer and (8-4:15 without an A period) and classes were longer.  There was only one standardized test a year, and class time was spent in learning a subject, rather than memorizing facts.  As a librarian, we are concerned with learning outcomes, and learning how to learn, and school seems to have forgotten this.  

  • Chuck Browne

    Learning a concept is not a binary operation, in which one moment you don’t understand the concept at all and the next moment you understand it entirely. Generally you build and deepen your understanding of a concept by working with it. Well constructed homework can help you build and deepen your understanding.

  • Lee Graham

    I did reasonably well in High School. Like many students, I coasted through HS but I did struggle with higher math. I pulled C’s in Algebra & Geometry… until one year I had Surveying Math as a math elective. Surveying Math was, in effect, applied Geometry & Trigonometry. For the first time, I was being asked to actually apply what I learned… rather than just doing homework, I was being shown how math was used, and how useful these abstract concepts actually were. That one class did far more for me than two years of homework. Too often we forget that the point of education is not to memorize facts, but to teach kids to think.

  • Guest Dave

    Homework is a very different experience for different individuals.  A “simple 30 problem homework set” in math may take somebody that is slower or needs more practice at it hours.  That same assignment may take somebody that fully understands it 15-20 minutes.  The first person needs the homework to do additional work on it, to hopefully more fully understand it after practicing it, and if not to have something on record to show the teacher that they may need to help this student with that area.  The second person thinks of the same assignment as busywork.

    A dynamic balance needs to be struck, where the only person that can make the educated call of how much and what type is a GOOD teacher that cares, based on knowing what that specific class is like.  Teaching the same material to another class the next year may need more practice in some areas and less in others.  This is all about the quality of the teacher, and how well they can dynamically adapt to their different students, and how to adapt the curriculum to still teach all of those students the same thing by the end of the year.

    With different types of learning styles, sometimes this means an entire shift in how the class is taught…such as adding in the reading of the text book explanation the night before you teach the topic, so that students of different styles can pick up all the concepts.  If a student knows they don’t learn as well from reading, or knows that they learn the entire concept and things are simple after the teacher’s explanation, then they don’t have to worry about the extra reading.

    There is a lot that can be said, on every side of the issue, but it basically boils down to this.  The teacher has to care to teach the students and find ways that they can learn.  The parents have to care that their students behave and do the work the teacher is requesting.  But the most important is that the students have to care and want to learn.  A student that wants to learn, even with a bad surrounding situation and a mediocre teacher…will learn.

    Today, teachers aren’t allowed to find and use the best way their kids can learn, and students aren’t allowed to really care about specific subjects/topics, because there is so much testing that nobody cares about anything other than the generic test score anymore.

    Coming from my generation (I graduated in 97) and seeing my brother’s generation (he just graduated), it is very different.  My homework was fairly consistent, I had maybe 2 hours a night, at most, across all subjects…and occasionally I had a project to do.  Sometimes we had group projects, but those were mostly done in the classroom.  All of those fostered a discussion or an understanding about the topic.  My brother on the other hand had on average 3 hours a night of homework, more projects that he had to do with groups outside of school and trying to figure out who was getting a ride to who’s house when to complete them, and most of his homework/projects were not even discussed or gone over with the class after the fact, making them meaningless.

    No kind of legislation will fix this.  More testing will only make it worse, not better.  Bring back the power of the teacher and make it advantageous for parents to spend time with their kids, and you’ll probably find kids being more interested and engaged.

  • luhai167

    I really don’t know what the “too much homework” thing is about. From what I remember, I almost always finish homework in half a hour (something doing so before, returning home. Since the book are way too heavy for the “knowledge” they contain) But the rest of the afternoon, instead of “work on a car with dad” or doing other creative play; I spent the time either watching TV or play computer games. And I don’t think my case is unique. It’s only when I started AP classes in high school do I really have real homework. 

    However, one thing though. I distinctly remember having to 200+ basic arithmetic questions (3+4=7, 96-56=40 type of stuff) in 5th grade. Even though I can finish it in less than 10 minutes in class and repeatedly told the teacher it’s too easy for me and completely useless, he kept on assign on these things to me. That’s annoying, a huge waste of time and effort and does not induce any learning. But after taking AP classes, even though there’s tons of homework, and I can say I truly learned things, and it does prepare me for college and  a later career as an engineer later on. 

  • Loribeth1007

    As a parent of 2 middle school children and a high school student here in Silicon Valley, I am horrified by the amount of homework assigned to children in this area and the increasing amount of pressure being put upon our family to accommodate the desires of certain populations whose only goal is academics.  I come from a highly academic background and believe academics are important, but so is time to play, to be creative, to be engaged in community activities and the like.  I realize that some of this pressure is cultural due to the demographics of our area and that this is not representative nation-wide, and I do believe that some reading at home and math might be fine, but this 2-4 hours a night of homework is causing our children to miss their childhoods, become depressed and stressed and for those that are not academically inclined, to believe they are failures.  There is more to life than getting a 100% on a test.

  • Matt R.

    What are the credentials of Alfie Kohn?  Does he have any background besides writing controversial books?   

    • Fleur H

      He makes money giving lectures to educators.  He makes some good points, but other times he is wasy off the mark.

  • ddloml

    For the life of me, I can’t understand this debate. 

    Really, what is it that we are trying to educate?  Sure, there are some concepts, mainly mathematical and perhaps some grammar rules and some important history facts, but I think most would agree, those are minor elements…important building blocks, but not the cathedral we desire.  Don’t we really want the “outputs” of our educational system to be young adults who can reason effectively and then clearly express the outputs or results of that reasoning?  

    Mr. Kohn argued that homework doesn’t help kids learn “concepts.”  I believe I understand his point and also the point of some of the people here:  Once you know how to add and subtract, is there any value to doing 200 subtraction problems a night?  

    But can you make the same argument about reading?  Once you can read, you don’t need to continue to read more challenging books and practice deducing conclusions from what you have read?  Do you want your kids spending the six hours a day they have at school reading?  Isn’t reading a book at home homework?  

    Can you make the same argument about geometry proofs or other logic/symbol manipulation exercises or even basic mathematical word problems that might require a picture or diagram to get to the correct formula/equation to solve the problem? Once you have done one word problem or one proof, you have done them all…QED?  Don’t you need to practice reasoning and problem-solving to get better at it?

    How about doing a little research (reading multiple sources), formulating an argument, and debating it?  Isn’t this capability one of the most important if not the most important aim of a educated citizenry?  If you do that once a year and do it all in class, is that enough?  Wouldn’t kids benefit from practicing that and doing some of that work…the research and argument formulation…on their own after school?

    And finally, what about writing for goodness sake?  Isn’t the ability to communicate clearly, in writing, important?  Can you possibly argue that once you learn the concept of a well-constructed paragraph/essay, that you don’t have to write on a regular basis to get better at expressing your views?  Once you know the concepts of a topic sentence, supporting/related sentences and a conclusion, do extended essays and books just emerge fully formed like Dionysus from the thigh of Zeus without hours and hours spent trying to express yourself clearly in black and white?  Shouldn’t you do some of that writing practice outside of class?  Isn’t that homework?

    Kids don’t need to be sent home with two hours of drill-and-kill worksheets.  But if you feel that classroom time alone is all we need to develop the reading, reasoning, problem-solving and writing skills required of an educated citizenry and to prepare for the economic realities of the 21st century, well, in my opinion, you haven’t done your homework.

  • christine

    I’ve been an educator for 37 years. I joined the “I Hate Homework Club” when my oldest was in 4th grade. Too much of he assigned is either busy work, or work the teacher didn’t get time to do in class. Ten minutes per grade should be sufficient; there is no reason for a 5th grader to be spending 2 hours a night at homework

  • Shubhra Srivastav

    I am appalled. As a mom of two boys in Pleasanton school district (one in middle and the other going to high school next year), I can vouch for how little homework they get in this school district and most times barely at all. If the homework is designed intelligently, it can l re-enforce the concepts and enable the students to apply what they have learnt in class in practical situations. Who are we kidding when we blame homework for overscheduled and overstressed kids. Are we sure we are not trying to ease the work on teachers and simply using this as an excuse? Without deep immersion (that homework can promote) these children will have  superficial knowledge in all the subjects. We should also stop complaining when the external reports show how much the US schools lag against those in Scandinavian and Asian countries on standardized tests. Instead of pushing the kids to realize their full potential, we have decided to free up their time for other non value added activities such as social networking and playing video games. What a shame and I can guarantee that this will be reflected in a decline in API/SAT scores and definitely the kind of colleges these kids get into.

  • Diane

    I have been a middle school math teacher for 19 years, and I currently teach Algebra and Geometry to 8th graders.  I can attest to the value of homework. At my school, the children are enrolled in 8 period lines daily. Math gets 42 minutes a day of instructional time. This restriction leaves no time for any type of meaningful practice. Without homework that solidifies the classroom lessons, the children would be unable to fully grasp and appreciate sequential material.

    When I assign homework, I choose problems that I know will give the students the necessary reinforcement. I also assign those problems that represent the common misconceptions. We begin each day covering those problems after the students have tried them on their own at home.

    Unless the basic building blocks are mastered, the desired outcome of a top notch 21st century education will never be fully realized. Strong problem solving ability, good reasoning skills, creativity, and logic will only follow from a strong foundation in basic numeracy.


    I desperately wanted to call in yesterday- this Great Homework Question (raging as Oakland tries to close FOURTEEN LIBRARIES (of eighteen)) and while we try to decide why our kids are so dang dumb…and ENTITLED…is totally looney.  To the father  (with accent) who phoned in and let us all know he tells his child not to do homework he doesn’t approve of I say this: My father (with accent) crossed the ocean for me to have a better life here. He and my mother (a grade school teacher) had the highest respect for our teachers, and relied on their PROFESSIONAL opinions to guide our progress at home. Let me tell you. I had American school, and I did homework. I went to piano lessons, came home, and PRACTICED (embarrassed the times I shirked my practice instructions the following weeks when it was CLEAR I had not PRACTICED).Greek School was twice a week- and guess what I did when I came home- you guessed it, HOMEWORK. IN GREEK.  I am 33 today, a lawyer, and a skilled pianist. Law school was homework. ALL HOMEWORK. Half of becoming an adult is taking things on your own and moving through them in a way that makes you comfortable taking them on in life. Of course there is probably unnecessary homework- but to the Father who decides (see, e.g., above), what a pompous *$&. His kid may excel in his own opinion, but most people who excel in this world must be subject to many opinions- and have a MODICUM of modesty, respect for others, and a good work ethic- even for work one doesn’t personally “deem necessary.” Yes I have bad eyesight, but according to the New York Times today, its because I didn’t get enough sunlight- not because my nose was buried in a book or on a page.  Get over yourselves.  I may MOVE to Pleasanton JUST to give my kids personal homework at home where they will then easily walk across the lazy, entitled, and mildly stupid heads of those peers whose parents Voted Away Homework in 2011…sigh. Grr.  People. (The Sun is the Best Optometrist, June 21, 2011).

  • Margyfs

    Everybody needs balance in their life, including kids. When my kids came home from school, they needed to relax and to pay attention to the other parts of life. Sometimes they wanted to read a book to unwind (a practice they didn’t get in school!) sometimes they wanted to go outside and play, wander in a woods and dream, swing in the backyard or in a park, play with a friend, lie down with a pet, the list of things that make life good goes on and on. These are important experiences that enhance ones life.
    The homework my kids brought home was, for the most part, worthless. Furthermore, it invaded their homelife and their balance. My kids all loved reading, and schools did not let them just simply read. I was very frustrated when my son did not have time to read but instead had to fill in worksheets of grammar practice when he knew it all already… simply reading.

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