The question about homework shouldn't be whether kids get an excessive amount. It should be whether they benefit from any at all, argues educator Alfie Kohn in his new book, "The Homework Myth."

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The question about homework shouldn’t be whether kids get an excessive amount. It should be whether they benefit from any at all, argues educator Alfie Kohn in his new book, “The Homework Myth.”

Unless teachers can justify that assignments are important and worthwhile — not just generic “practice” or “reinforcement” — Kohn advocates for a default of no homework, especially in elementary school.

“After students spend six or seven hours in the classroom, I don’t think schools should dictate what families do with their time at night,” Kohn said in an interview. “Homework is time-consuming, stress-inducing and of dubious value.”

Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish are two moms who agree, successfully advocating for a new homework policy at their children’s Brooklyn middle school, including limited weekend work and a ban on vacation assignments. Their book, “The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It,” is out this month.

“Homework overload is not a parenting problem,” they write. “It’s a school problem that’s been dumped in our laps.”

“The Homework Myth”

Alfie Kohn
Da Capo Press, $24

While there’s some crossover between the two books, in many ways they’re complementary. Kohn, a long-time education critic who would also do away with standardized tests and grades, focuses more on research and homework’s effect on learning.

He dismisses arguments in favor of homework one by one, citing a range of educators and studies.

“The Case Against Homework”

Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish

Crown, $24.95

“The Case Against Homework” also cites research but features more parent anecdotes and frustrations. (The best is the “Homework Hall of Shame,” including one assignment to do 52 math problems, translate them into an alphanumeric code and plot them on a graph to look like Abraham Lincoln.)

The book’s second half is very helpful, with practical advice on approaching teachers and working to change district standards.

Both will appeal to parents who have watched tedious book reports squelch their kids’ love of reading or endured homework devouring family time, hobbies and exploration. Pick up “Case” for yourself, and give “Myth” to a teacher.

Questioning homework isn’t new, but Kohn believes it’s even more important now, because teachers feel pressured to assign homework at younger grades to meet test demands.

“The research casting doubt on the value of homework is increasingly persuasive, while the amount of homework assigned, especially to young children, is rising precipitously,” he said.

Kohn concedes there’s more support for homework in the secondary grades but questions why it’s standard down to kindergarten. Harris Cooper, a national expert who researches homework, reviewed dozens of studies and concluded that “for students in grades 3 through 5, the correlation between time spent on homework and achievement was near zero,” according to a 2001 article in Educational Psychologist.

Kohn also debunks the assertion that young students need to get used to homework since it will be piled on in later years. “There’s not a shred of evidence that’s ever been produced that homework teaches good work habits or improves character,” he insists. “It teaches you how to put up with your parents’ nagging.”

He believes most homework fails the critical test: Does it encourage a desire to learn? Just the opposite, he contends. “It may be the single most reliable extinguisher of the flame of curiosity.” So even if it did raise test scores, “it still wouldn’t be worth the trade-off.”

Instead of traditional homework, Kohn prefers free reading (without assigned pages or book reports) or educational family activities, such as cooking or playing games together.

Bennett and Kalish offer these tips for parents:

Talk to the teacher. Often, parents complain to one another but not the person who can do something. Start with the teacher, not the principal.

Keep it specific. Don’t argue homework’s general merits; explain how it’s impacting your family and how you want it to change. Key phrase: “It’s not working for my child.”

Don’t say your child hates an assignment. That suggests you’re just trying to let your kid off the hook. Instead, question the educational purpose of busywork. Mention if homework is affecting your child’s overall attitude toward school.

Be willing to accept lower grades. Some teachers ding students for incomplete homework. If it’s before high school and kids are still learning, is it worth the tradeoff for more family time?

Stephanie Dunnewind: sdunnewind@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2091.