Does Homework Help or Hurt?
Parents' complaints prompt changes at many schools.
Back-to-school for many families means one thing – back-to-homework battles.
After a summer off from the nightly grind of math worksheets and book reports, you and your child may be bracing for another year of tearful fits or late-night cramming.
But the angst and debate over homework is also taking place on a much larger stage, with parents, educators and advocates for children weighing in on the value of out-of-school assignments, questioning their usefulness and asking how much is too much.
A number of public school districts and private schools across the country have begun reassessing their homework policies or even waiving homework in exchange for free reading time.
This summer, some 15,000 parents petitioned the National PTA through the website www.change.org to adopt guidelines that say homework should be student-directed, useful and limited to school days. The group is led by organizers behind the documentary Race to Nowhere, a film directed by mother and education activist Vicki Abeles that examines the high-stress atmosphere in our schools.
Helpful or Harmful?
“Homework is destroying our kids,” Studio City, Calif., mom Amy Jackson wrote as she signed the petition to the National PTA. “Our kids need to come home and have family time, play sports and just be kids. Not sitting down and wasting time doing busy work. I’ve had it. … When it comes to my sixth-grader having three hours [of homework], this is unheard of.”
Alfie Kohn, an outspoken opponent of the regular use of homework and grades to mark educational achievement, agrees. “There’s far more homework being assigned over the last generation to far younger children,” said Kohn, the Boston-based author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing and 11 other books challenging the current education system, competition and the use of rewards. “There’s no good evidence for any homework, but that very concept makes people nervous.
“Homework makes kids frustrated and exhausted, sets up conflict in the family, takes away time from other things they like to do and, in most cases, makes kids less excited about learning,” Kohn said. “Everyone knows that. We just think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. The surprising fact is that it’s all pain and no gain.”
Not so, counters Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, a renowned researcher on the effects of homework.
While his work is frequently quoted by both homework detractors, such as Kohn, and supporters as justification for their arguments, Cooper says the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
“There is [research] support for homework, but only in moderation,” said Cooper, author of The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers and Parents. “That is especially true in the earlier grades.”
Cooper supports the “10-minute rule,” which advises 10 minutes of homework a night multiplied by the child’s grade level. Thus, a first-grader would have 10 minutes of homework per night, a second-grader 20 minutes, and homework time would increase by grade level up to two hours for a high-school senior.
The National PTA and National Education Association (NEA), one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions, endorsed the 10-minute rule in the mid-1990s, but it is not widely followed.
Cooper believes that out-of-school practice – on tasks such as spelling words, math facts or foreign language – can make a difference in student achievement, even for children as young as second grade. He also believes that homework helps children to develop good study habits and to become independent learners.
But he acknowledges that the correlation between homework and achievement is minimal in elementary school. It increases in middle school and is highest in high school, although the effects level off after a certain amount of time on task – at about 90 minutes for middle-school students and two hours for high-school students, according to some studies.
Is There Really Too Much?
Cooper is not convinced that the amount of homework assigned to children has gone up substantially over the years. Parents, he says, have been bemoaning homework for the last century.
Challenge Success, a nonprofit group at the Stanford University School of Education, recently reviewed the body of research on homework and found that the data on the effects of homework time is inconclusive.
But anecdotally, many parents say the amount of homework their kids are currently doing is excessive and takes a toll.
“Homework is a huge thing in our house,” says mom Elizabeth Terry, whose children are 11, 8 and 2. “My 8-year-old is in third grade and probably has at least an hour and a half of homework [a night], which includes reading time. My son in fifth-grade has a minimum of two-and-a-half hours of homework, with reading time included.
“Plus, both are working on a project of some sort that always drags homework out longer,” she said. “Kids have way too much homework.”
Lori Harris, a mother of two, finds that some homework is meaningful and can help children plan and organize. But she, too, says the amount of work is excessive. Worse, she says, teachers often don’t coordinate with each other, so homework, projects and tests can pile up at the same time.
“My biggest issue with homework is that it should never, ever be assigned over school-vacation weeks. Children need a real vacation, just like their parents do,” Harris said. “Both of my children start each vacation week with packets or projects that must be completed by the Monday [they] return.”
Change Is Afoot
The growing concern and debate over homework has prompted some school districts to re-evaluate their policies. When the 15,000-student Pleasanton Unified School District in the San Francisco Bay Area received complaints from parents, particularly those of middle-school students, it dusted off its largely ignored homework policy, and administrators, teachers and parents worked for more than a year to change it.
The new policy that resulted has been in place for a year now; it strongly discourages weekend and holiday homework for elementary-school students and limits homework assignments for middle- and high-school students to five nights a week, though they can choose to do it over the weekend.
The policy also encourages better coordination of assignments and tests among teachers at the middle- and high-school levels and sets time guidelines per grade – following the 10-minute rule in elementary school, 15 minutes per class period in middle school (or up to one hour and 45 minutes a night) and 20 minutes per class period in high school (or up to two hours a night).
The policy states that rest and “unscheduled” down time are important for student health and urges teachers to make homework “clear, purposeful and relevant.”
Now, “teachers look very carefully at what they are assigning. Is it necessary and is it worthwhile?” said Jane Golden, the district’s director of curriculum and special projects, who spearheaded the new policy. Still, she says, the time limits agreed upon are more than she would have liked, and more than she thinks the research supports.
“We’re a very high-performing district. Teachers are afraid student achievement will go down, kids won’t learn the material as much and test scores will go down,” she said.
Beyond Pleasanton, school districts from Swampscott, Mass., to Bleckley County, Ga., have instituted “no homework” nights, weekends or vacations or placed limits like the 10-minute rule on homework amounts. Some have scrapped traditional homework assignments for free reading or optional assignments. Los Angeles Unified, one of the nation’s largest school districts, has adopted a policy that homework assignments cannot account for more than 10 percent of a student’s final grade.
Still, Denise Pope, co-founder of Stanford University’s Challenge Success, says efforts to change the amount of homework are missing the point.
“Rather, we would serve our kids better if we inquired about the quality of the work being assigned and if we determined whether or not the homework is valuable and meaningful to the student’s learning experience,” she said.
A meaningful homework assignment is open to interpretation, by teachers, parents and students. But even homework opponents say that at-home reading, especially of the student’s choice, and student-directed research can be engaging and beneficial.
“If students have a say in what they’re doing, it could have a positive impact, as opposed to being coerced into something they understandably don’t want to do,” Kohn said.
Janine DeFao is an associate editor with Dominion Parenting Media.
© Copyright Dominion Parenting Media 2012
Guidance for Frustrated Parents
If you believe that your child is receiving more homework than he can reasonably handle, talk to his teacher.
But before you complain that he’s spending three hours a night on homework, make sure that it’s time “on task,” and not spent texting, chatting on the phone or surfing the Internet.
If your child is consistently struggling and you find yourself locked in nightly homework battles, her teacher may be willing to make accommodations, from setting time limits for at-home assignments to reducing the workload.
But if the problems seem widespread among your child’s classmates, Alfie Kohn, a Boston-based longtime critic of homework, competition and rewards for kids, advises researching your school’s homework policy – if there is one – and organizing with other parents to speak with the principal or district officials about what changes can be made.
Meantime, Challenge Success, a project of the Stanford University School of Education that researches and advocates for positive change in the education system, offers these tips to parents trying to guide their kids through nightly homework assignments:
- Act as cheerleaders, not homework police. Provide necessary supplies and express interest in the content, but let the teacher intervene if the child regularly fails to finish homework or do it correctly.
- When scheduling after-school activities, keep in mind your child’s homework load. Work with your child to determine a healthy schedule of activities that allows for homework, studying, adequate sleep and play.
- Recognize that children learn in different ways and have different work styles. Some kids can get it done all at once; others need breaks. Some like quiet spaces while others prefer music. Discuss with your child what works best for her.
- Advocate for healthier homework policies at your school. Start by communicating with your own child’s teacher.
- Let children make mistakes and experience “successful failures.” Help your kids organize and prioritize, but regularly rescuing them may hinder their resilience.
– Janine DeFao
Local Resources for Student Support
If you find that your child needs supplemental help in schoolwork, the following businesses offer tutoring.
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The Kumon method uses an individualized approach that helps children develop a solid command of math and reading skills. Through daily practice and mastery of materials, students increase confidence, improve concentration and develop better study skills.
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Reading help and advanced skills for ages 4 through grade 6
• The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers and Parents, by Harris Cooper, Corwin Press, 2007.
• The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It, by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, Three Rivers Press, 2007.
• The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, by Alfie Kohn, DaCapo Press, 2007.
• Challenge Success – www.challengesuccess.org – This project of the Stanford University School of Education advocates for improvements in the education of children.
• Healthy Homework petition – www.change.org/healthyhomework – Created on behalf of the community behind the education documentary Race to Nowhere, this petition asks the National PTA to adopt new recommendations and guidelines on the assigning of homework.