A second-grade teacher in Texas recently rekindled the annual debate over whether kids spend too much time on homework.
The teacher said she did not plan to assign homework this school year because it has not proven to correlate with achievement (not true) and because no homework would allow families to eat together and read together, and children to play outside and have an early bed time. If only dropping homework could make these things happen!
Research overwhelmingly supports the notion that students who do homework do better in school than those who don’t.
But research also suggests the amount and type of homework must take into account the child’s developmental level. Teachers refer to the “10-minute Rule” – homework time on any given school night should be equal to the child’s grade level times 10. So a second-grader should have 20 minutes of homework. The National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association agree with this philosophy.
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My internet searches have never uncovered a school policy that differs greatly from the 10-minute rule. If a second-grader brings home two hours of homework, that’s not good. If an 11th-grader does five hours, that’s too much. The amount of homework kids bring home generally does not diverge from those school policies.
The perception that American kids do too much homework is also belied by a national survey that asked parents, “Do you think your child’s teachers assign too much homework, too little homework or the right amount of homework?” Sixty percent said just the right amount, 15 percent said too much and 25 percent said too little.
Beyond achievement, homework can also lead to the development of good study habits and a recognition that learning can occur at home as well as at school.
Homework can also foster independent learning and responsible character traits – essential skills later in life when students change jobs or learn new skills for advancement at work.
And homework can give parents an opportunity to see what’s going on at school and learn about their child’s academic strengths and weaknesses. Two parents once told me they refused to believe their child had a learning disability until homework revealed it to them. Maybe that 20-minute assignment should involve parents and replace screen time, not dinner or interactive play.
Opponents argue homework can lead to boredom with schoolwork because all activities remain interesting only for so long. Homework can deny students access to leisure activities that also teach important life skills. And parents can get too involved in homework – pressuring their children and confusing them by using instructional techniques different from the teacher’s.
Regrettably, research on these effects of homework are rare. In the absence of data, common sense suggests that any of these effects can occur depending, again, on the amount and type assigned.
In my experience, the complaints over too much homework come from a definable but relatively small segment of the population – parents with conflicting desires to have their children excel in school and lead balanced lives that include school, play, aesthetics, citizenship and spirituality. Homework is an easy target to express their anxiety.
Educators also find themselves caught between irreconcilable alternatives. To them, it is the same parents who rail against homework who permit (encourage?) their children to load advanced placement classes into their academic schedules. More homework comes with these classes.
Educators also question whether homework really takes five hours or whether that time includes hours clicking back and forth between homework and texting, tweeting, Facebooking.
Time on homework reaches a point of diminishing returns; too little does no good, too much does more harm than good. Teachers should base their practices on what sound evidence and experience suggest is optimal. If the amount and quality are appropriate, parents won’t complain.
Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, is author of “The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers and Parents.”
Mark Trifilio, principal of the public pre-K-5th grade Orchard School in Vermont, sat down with the school’s 40 educators last summer to discuss the soon-to-start new school year and homework — how much kids were getting and whether it was helping them learn.
Trifilio had been pondering the issue for some time, he said, concerned that there seemed to be an uneven homework load for students in different classrooms within the same grade and that the differences from grade to grade didn’t make sense. He had looked up research on homework effectiveness and learned that, generally, homework in elementary school isn’t linked to better academic performance — except for after-school reading.
So at that meeting with teachers, he proposed an experiment: stopping all homework in every grade and asking students to read on their own at home — or, if they were not ready to read on their own, to do it with a parent or guardian. He said he was surprised when every one of them — classroom teachers as well as those who work with special-education students and English-language learners — signed on to the idea.
“All 40 voted yes,” he said, “and not just yes, but a passionate yes. When do you get 40 people to agree on something?”
So they instituted the policy, as this page on the school website shows:
No Homework Policy
Orchard School Homework Information
Student’s Daily Home Assignment
1. Read just-right books every night —
(and have your parents read to you too).
2. Get outside and play —
that does not mean more screen time.
3. Eat dinner with your family —
and help out with setting and cleaning up.
4. Get a good night’s sleep.
What’s the result?
Six months into the experiment, Trifilio says it has been a big success: Students have not fallen back academically and may be doing better, and now they have “time to be creative thinkers at home and follow their passions.”
Students are asked to read every night. Families are provided book recommendations, but kids are not required to fill out logs (because, he said, “we know that we all make up logs”).
Trifilio said he conducted a family survey asking about the policy, and most parents at the nearly 400-student school responded. The vast majority supported it, saying their kids now have time to pursue things other than math work sheets, and many report that students are reading more on their own than they used to. He said a small minority of parents are concerned that students are missing learning opportunities from doing homework and won’t be prepared for middle school.
The Burlington Free Press recently quoted parent James Conway as saying this about his son Sean, who is in kindergarten: “My son declared on Monday that he can read now and that he doesn’t need any help. So, something is working.”
What does the research say about the value of homework? While academics continue to study the subject, a meta-analysis of research on the subject, published in 2006 by researcher Harris Cooper and colleagues, is often cited. It found that homework in elementary school does not contribute to academic achievement and has only a modest effect on older students in terms of improving academic performance.
Homework: An unnecessary evil? … Surprising findings from new research
Homework: The useful and the useless
A new wrinkle in the research about the real value of homework
(Correction: Earlier version mistakenly said kids were being asked to read at school when it was supposed to be at home.)