As kids return to school, debate is heating up once again over how they should spend their time after they leave the classroom for the day.
The no-homework policy of a second-grade teacher in Texas went viral last week, earning praise from parents across the country who lament the heavy workload often assigned to young students. Brandy Young told parents she would not formally assign any homework this year, asking students instead to eat dinner with their families, play outside and go to bed early.
But the question of how much work children should be doing outside of school remains controversial, and plenty of parents take issue with no-homework policies, worried their kids are losing a potential academic advantage. Here’s what you need to know:
For decades, the homework standard has been a “10-minute rule,” which recommends a daily maximum of 10 minutes of homework per grade level. Second graders, for example, should do about 20 minutes of homework each night. High school seniors should complete about two hours of homework each night. The National PTA and the National Education Association both support that guideline.
But some schools have begun to give their youngest students a break. A Massachusetts elementary school has announced a no-homework pilot program for the coming school year, lengthening the school day by two hours to provide more in-class instruction. “We really want kids to go home at 4 o’clock, tired. We want their brain to be tired,” Kelly Elementary School Principal Jackie Glasheen said in an interview with a local TV station. “We want them to enjoy their families. We want them to go to soccer practice or football practice, and we want them to go to bed. And that’s it.”
A New York City public elementary school implemented a similar policy last year, eliminating traditional homework assignments in favor of family time. The change was quickly met with outrage from some parents, though it earned support from other education leaders.
New solutions and approaches to homework differ by community, and these local debates are complicated by the fact that even education experts disagree about what’s best for kids.
The most comprehensive research on homework to date comes from a 2006 meta-analysis by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, who found evidence of a positive correlation between homework and student achievement, meaning students who did homework performed better in school. The correlation was stronger for older students—in seventh through 12th grade—than for those in younger grades, for whom there was a weak relationship between homework and performance.
Cooper’s analysis focused on how homework impacts academic achievement—test scores, for example. His report noted that homework is also thought to improve study habits, attitudes toward school, self-discipline, inquisitiveness and independent problem solving skills. On the other hand, some studies he examined showed that homework can cause physical and emotional fatigue, fuel negative attitudes about learning and limit leisure time for children. At the end of his analysis, Cooper recommended further study of such potential effects of homework.
Despite the weak correlation between homework and performance for young children, Cooper argues that a small amount of homework is useful for all students. Second-graders should not be doing two hours of homework each night, he said, but they also shouldn’t be doing no homework.
Not all education experts agree entirely with Cooper’s assessment.
Cathy Vatterott, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, supports the “10-minute rule” as a maximum, but she thinks there is not sufficient proof that homework is helpful for students in elementary school.
“Correlation is not causation,” she said. “Does homework cause achievement, or do high achievers do more homework?”
Vatterott, the author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, thinks there should be more emphasis on improving the quality of homework tasks, and she supports efforts to eliminate homework for younger kids.
“I have no concerns about students not starting homework until fourth grade or fifth grade,” she said, noting that while the debate over homework will undoubtedly continue, she has noticed a trend toward limiting, if not eliminating, homework in elementary school.
The issue has been debated for decades. A TIME cover in 1999 read: “Too much homework! How it’s hurting our kids, and what parents should do about it.” The accompanying story noted that the launch of Sputnik in 1957 led to a push for better math and science education in the U.S. The ensuing pressure to be competitive on a global scale, plus the increasingly demanding college admissions process, fueled the practice of assigning homework.
“The complaints are cyclical, and we’re in the part of the cycle now where the concern is for too much,” Cooper said. “You can go back to the 1970s, when you’ll find there were concerns that there was too little, when we were concerned about our global competitiveness.”
Cooper acknowledged that some students really are bringing home too much homework, and their parents are right to be concerned.
“A good way to think about homework is the way you think about medications or dietary supplements,” he said. “If you take too little, they’ll have no effect. If you take too much, they can kill you. If you take the right amount, you’ll get better.”
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After spending most of the day in school, students are given additional assignments to be completed at home. This is a rather curious fact when you stop to think about it, but not as curious as the fact that few of us ever stop to think about it. It’s worth asking not only whether there are good reasons to support the nearly universal practice of assigning homework, but why it’s so often taken for granted—even by vast numbers of teachers and parents who are troubled by its impact on children.
The mystery deepens once you discover that widespread assumptions about the benefits of homework—higher achievement and the promotion of such virtues as self-discipline and responsibility—are not substantiated by the available evidence.
The Status Quo
Taking homework for granted would be understandable if most teachers decided from time to time that a certain lesson really needed to continue after school was over and, therefore, assigned students to read, write, figure out, or do something at home on those afternoons.
That scenario, however, bears no relation to what happens in most American schools. Rather, the point of departure seems to be, “We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week). Later on, we’ll figure out what to make them do.” This commitment to the idea of homework in the abstract is accepted by the overwhelming majority of schools—public and private, elementary and secondary. And it really doesn’t make sense, in part because of what the research shows:
• There is no evidence to demonstrate that homework benefits students below high school age. Even if you regard standardized test results as a useful measure (which I don’t), more homework isn’t correlated with higher scores for children in elementary school. The only effect that does show up is less positive attitudes on the part of kids who get more assignments.
• In high school, some studies do find a relationship between homework and test scores, but it tends to be small. More important, there’s no reason to think that higher achievement is caused by the homework.
• No study has ever confirmed the widely accepted assumption that homework yields nonacademic benefits—self-discipline, independence, perseverance, or better time-management skills—for students of any age. The idea that homework builds character or improves study skills is basically a myth.
Overtime in First Grade
In short, there’s no reason to think that most students would be at a disadvantage if homework were reduced or even eliminated. Yet the most striking trend in the past two decades has been the tendency to pile more and more assignments on younger and younger children. (Remember, that’s the age at which the benefits are most questionable, if not absent!)
Even school districts that had an unofficial custom not so long ago of waiting until the third grade before giving homework have abandoned that restraint. A long-term national survey discovered that the proportion of six- to eight-year-old children who reported having homework on a given day had climbed from 34 percent in 1981 to 64 percent in 2002, and the weekly time they spent studying at home more than doubled.
In fact, homework is even “becoming a routine part of the kindergarten experience,” according to a 2004 report.
The Negative Effects
It’s hard to deny that an awful lot of homework is exceptionally trying for an awful lot of children. Some are better able than others to handle the pressure of keeping up with a continuous flow of work, getting it all done on time, and turning out products that will meet with approval. Likewise, some assignments are less unpleasant than others. But in general, as one parent put it, homework simultaneously “overwhelms struggling kids and removes joy for high achievers.” Even reading for pleasure loses its appeal when children are told how much, or for how long, they must do it.
Even as they accept homework as inevitable, parents consistently report that it intrudes on family life. Many mothers and fathers spend every evening serving as homework monitors, a position for which they never applied. One professor of education, Gary Natriello at Columbia University, believed in the value of homework until his “own children started bringing home assignments in elementary school.” Even “the routine tasks sometimes carry directions that are difficult for two parents with advanced graduate degrees to understand,” he discovered.
What’s bad for parents is generally worse for kids. “School for [my son] is work,” one mother writes, “and by the end of a seven-hour workday, he’s exhausted. But like a worker on a double shift, he has to keep going” once he gets home. Exhaustion is just part of the problem, though. The psychological costs can be substantial for a child who not only is confused by a worksheet on long vowels or subtraction but also finds it hard to accept the whole idea of sitting still after school to do more schoolwork.
Furthermore, every unpleasant adjective that could be attached to homework—time-consuming, disruptive, stressful, demoralizing—applies with greater force in the case of kids for whom academic learning doesn’t come easily. Curt Dudley-Marling, a former elementary school teacher who is now a professor at Boston College, interviewed some two dozen families that included at least one struggling learner. In describing his findings, he talked about how “the demands of homework disrupted...family relationships” and led to daily stress and conflict.
The “nearly intolerable burden” imposed by homework was partly a result of how defeated such children felt, he added—how they invested hours without much to show for it; how parents felt frustrated when they pushed the child but also when they didn’t push, when they helped with the homework but also when they refrained from helping. “You end up ruining the relationship that you have with your kid,” one father told him.
And don’t forget: The idea that it is all worth it because homework helps children learn better simply isn’t true. There’s little pro to weigh against the significant cons.
Play Time Matters
On top of causing stress, more homework means kids have less time for other activities. There’s less opportunity for the kind of learning that doesn’t involve traditional skills. There’s less chance to read for pleasure, make friends, play games, get some exercise, get some rest, or just be a child.
Decades ago, the American Educational Research Association released this statement: “Whenever homework crowds out social experience, outdoor recreation, and creative activities, and whenever it usurps time that should be devoted to sleep, it is not meeting the basic needs of children and adolescents.” It is the rare school that respects the value of those activities—to the point of making sure that its policies are informed by that respect. But some courageous teachers and innovative schools are taking up the challenge.
A New Approach
There is no traditional homework at the Bellwether School in Williston, Vermont, except when the children ask for it or “are so excited about a project that they continue to work on it at home,” says Marta Beede, the school’s top administrator. “We encourage children to read at home—books they have selected.” She and her colleagues figure that kids “work really hard when they’re at school. To then say that they’re going to have to work more when they get home doesn’t seem to honor how much energy they were expending during the day.”
Teachers ought to be able to exercise their judgment in determining how they want to deal with homework, taking account of the needs and preferences of the specific children in their classrooms, rather than having to conform to a fixed policy that has been imposed on them.
High school teacher Leslie Frothingham watched her own two children struggle with enormous quantities of homework in middle school. The value of it never seemed clear to her. “What other ‘job’ is there where you work all day, come home, have dinner, then work all night,” she asks, “unless you’re some type A attorney? It’s not a good way to live one’s life. You miss out on self-reflection, community.” Thus, when she became a teacher, she chose to have a no-homework policy.
And if her advanced chemistry students are thriving academically without homework, which they are, surely we can rethink our policies in the younger grades.
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