When I toured a public elementary school last spring, one question in particular seemed to make the principal squirm. Do the kindergartners get homework, I asked? Yes, he replied, explaining that it can help to solidify concepts—but he quickly conceded that some parents weren’t at all happy about it.
The debate over elementary school homework is not new, but the tirades against it just keep coming. This fall, the Atlantic published a story titled “When Homework Is Useless”; you might have also seen the Texas second-grade teacher’s no-homework policy that went viral on Facebook around the same time. “Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performances,” the teacher wrote to class parents.
OK, but I had questions. If the issue really is this black-and-white, why do elementary school teachers still assign homework? How much homework are elementary kids getting, how much is too much, and how is “too much” even determined? What should parents do if they want to put an end to it?
What I discovered, after lots of digging, is a more complex issue than you’d expect. Young students are indeed getting more homework than they used to. But what’s not clear is exactly how this heavier workload is affecting their well-being. Homework has only been evaluated through the myopic lens of how it influences academic performance (spoiler: in elementary school, it doesn’t seem to). And while researchers have all sorts of ideas about how it might affect kids more generally, these possibilities haven’t been tested rigorously. The upshot, then, is that we really don’t know what homework in elementary school is doing to our kids—but there’s reason to think it can do more harm than good, particularly among disadvantaged students.
First, let’s take a close look at the science on how homework affects school performance. By far the most comprehensive analysis was published in 2006 by Duke University neuroscientist and social psychologist Harris Cooper, author of The Battle Over Homework, and his colleagues. Combing through previous studies, they compared whether homework itself, as well as the amount of homework kids did, correlates with academic achievement (grades as well as scores on standardized tests), finding that for elementary school kids, there is no significant relationship between the two. In other words, elementary kids who do homework fare no better in school than kids who do not. (Their analysis did, however, find that homework in middle school and high school correlates with higher achievement but that there is a threshold in middle school: Achievement does not continue to increase when kids do more than an hour of homework each night.)
For kids from low-income families, especially, homework can be a source of stress.
Cooper doesn’t interpret the elementary school findings to mean that homework at this age is useless. For one thing, he says, we can’t make causal conclusions based on correlational studies, because things like homework and achievement can easily be influenced by other variables, such as student characteristics. If a kid is really struggling in school, he might spend twice as long on his homework compared with other students yet get worse grades. No one would interpret this to mean that the increased time he is spending on homework is causing him to get worse grades, because both outcomes are driven by whatever is giving him academic trouble. Likewise, a really motivated student may be more likely to finish all of his homework and get higher grades, but we wouldn’t say the homework caused him to get better grades if his motivation was the main driver. Correlations can give us hints about causal relationships (or in this case, a lack of causal relationship), but they don’t prove them.
(It’s worth mentioning that Cooper’s analysis also included a few small interventional studies that tracked outcomes between kids who had been randomly assigned to receive homework each night and those who had not; these studies did suggest that homework provides benefits, but these studies, Cooper and his colleagues noted, “were all flawed in some way that compromised their ability to draw strong causal inference.”)
There are, of course, many other ways that homework could affect a young child—in both good ways and bad. Cooper points out that regular, brief homework assignments might help young kids learn better time management and self-regulation skills, which could help them down the line. Regular homework also lets parents see what their kids are working on and how well they’re doing, which could tip them off to academic problems or disabilities. “For a 6-year-old to bring home 10 minutes of homework is almost nothing, but it does get them to sit down and think about it, talk to Mom and Dad, and so on,” Cooper says.
On the other hand, homework can also be a source of stress and family tension. For kids from low-income families, especially, homework can be tough because kids may not have a quiet place to work, high-speed internet (or computers for that matter), or parents who are available or knowledgeable enough to help. A 2015 study surveyed parents in Providence, Rhode Island, and found that the less comfortable parents were with their kids’ homework material, the more stress the homework caused at home. “I’ve talked to parents—a lot of parents, actually—who feel very burdened by the fact that kids have to do homework at night, and the parents feel responsible for getting it done, and that starts to dominate the home life,” says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early-childhood education specialist at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the author of Taking Back Childhood.
Homework could also take kids away from other enriching activities like music, sports, free play, or family time. “It’s sort of an opportunity cost issue,” says Etta Kralovec, a teacher educator at the University of Arizona South and the co-author of The End of Homework. “I’m a fifth-grader, and I either can go play with my friend or hang out with my grandmother—or I can go home and do a worksheet for math. Those are the kinds of choices that kids have to make.” One eighth-grader told me that when he was in sixth grade, he had so much homework he couldn’t participate in the sports or music classes he wanted to. Cooper points out, however, that homework could also take the place of television or video games, which might be a good thing (but is yet another complicated topic).
Then there’s the argument that as elementary school has become more rigorous in recent years—a result, many say, of No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top Fund, both of which made schools much more accountable for low test scores—the last thing overworked, exhausted young students need is more work when they get home. “We’re seeing rates of school phobia and unhappiness and angst about school among young children at higher rates than ever before,” says Carol Burris, a former high school principal who is now the executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education. “I think that giving them a break after 3 o’clock in the afternoon is an awfully good idea.”
But the crux of the problem is that, while all of these points are potentially legitimate, no one has studied how homework affects children’s well-being in general—all we’ve got are those achievement findings, which don’t tell us much of anything for elementary school. How likely is it that regular homework will help first-graders manage their time? Will it do so to a degree that offsets the added family stress or the loss of much-loved soccer practice? Is 20 minutes of homework OK, but 30 minutes too much? This research hasn’t been done, so we don’t know.
The other big question—also tough to answer—is how much homework elementary school kids are actually getting. There are some highly publicized estimates of average homework time derived from a standardized test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is given annually to most American students. It includes the following question for 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old test takers: “How much time did you spend on homework yesterday?” Compared over time, the answers suggest that 9-year-olds have more homework today than they used to, but not by a ton. Yet many researchers question the validity of these answers, because, they say, students aren’t typically given much homework the night before a standardized test anyway. And the data from this questionnaire—along with the data from a 2007 MetLife survey of third- to 12th-graders that is also frequently quoted as evidence that homework levels remain flat—don’t tell us what’s happening with young elementary school kids.
But in the 2015 study in Providence I mentioned earlier, researchers did attempt to answer this question. They had 1,173 parents fill out a homework-related survey at pediatricians’ offices and found that the homework burden in early grades is quite high: Kindergarten and first-grade students do about three times as much homework as is recommended by the “10-minute rule.” What’s the 10-minute rule, you ask? It’s a standard, adopted by most public schools around the country (more on this later), recommending that students spend roughly 10 times their grade level in minutes on homework each night—so first-graders should be spending 10 minutes on homework and fifth-graders 50. (By this rule, kindergarteners shouldn’t be getting any homework.) Considering these numbers in combination with their findings on how homework can increase family stress, the researchers concluded, “the disproportionate homework load for K–3 found in our study calls into question whether primary school children are being exposed to a positive learning experience or to a scenario that may promote negative attitudes toward learning.”
Bottom line is this: You’re the best judge of how homework is affecting your child.
That’s just one study, conducted in one city, so it’s hard to generalize from it; clearly, we need more data. But another national online survey suggests that homework time for the younger grades has been increasing over the past three years. Annual teacher surveys conducted by the University of Phoenix reported that in 2013, only 2 percent of elementary teachers assigned more than 10 hours of homework per week. This figure quadrupled to 8 percent in 2015. On the bright side, though, several elementary schools in recent months announced that they have stopped assigning homework entirely.
Let’s now revisit that 10-minute rule. It is a recommendation backed by the National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association that teachers have been using for a long time—but it is not based on any research. When teachers saw Cooper’s analysis of the homework data and noticed that the amounts of homework that correlated with the highest achievements in middle school and high school were similar to their rule, they used it as evidence that their rule was appropriate. But here’s the thing: While the 10-minute rule implies that 10 minutes of homework a night per grade is appropriate even starting in elementary school, Cooper’s data do not support this conclusion.
In a nutshell, then, we don’t have evidence that homework is beneficial for young kids, yet studies suggest that they are doing more homework than even the pro-homework organizations recommend, and the amounts they’re getting also seem to be increasing. So, if you’re a parent of a first-grader who’s getting 30 minutes of homework a night, what should you do?
“The first thing you should do is talk to the teacher and let the teacher know how long it’s taking the child to do homework,” Burris says. It’s best not to be confrontational—sometimes the teacher really has no idea that it’s taking so long and will make adjustments. Laura Bowman, the Virginia chapter leader at Parents Across America, a nonprofit organization for parents who want to strengthen public schools, explains: “I always feel that the initial conversation with the teacher is so important, and at that point a lot of teachers will say, ‘I did not realize how long it was taking, and if it’s going to take your child more than 10 minutes, then just do it for 10 minutes.’ ” Also, in early grades, homework should be really easy. “The assignments should be short, they should be simple, and they should lead to success,” Cooper says. “We want these kids to have a successful experience doing schoolwork on their own in another environment.”
If the teacher isn’t responsive, try the principal next, Burris suggests. Connect with other parents first to see if their kids are having similar experiences. “Go up the chain of command—if you have to go to a school board meeting, then you do, and you bring a few other parents with you, because there’s strength in numbers,” Bowman says. “The parent voice is a powerful one, and we all have to do what’s in the best interest of our own children.” Parents Across America has a handy toolkit for parents who want to organize other parents around a particular issue.
If you still can’t make headway, you can also tell the teacher that your child simply won’t be doing homework, or won’t be doing more than a certain amount. I know several parents who have done this without suffering any consequences other than a little side-eye from the teacher at school events. If this kind of confrontation makes you squeamish, get a letter from a pediatrician or psychologist that says it for you.
Bottom line is this: You’re the best judge of how homework is affecting your child. If you’ve got a second-grader who whizzes through his worksheets, then stick with the status quo, no harm done. But if your first-grader is struggling for an hour each night, or the homework is taking him away from other activities you feel are more important, take the above steps to remedy the problem. You want your kid’s earliest education experiences to be as positive as they can be; what happens in elementary school will forever shape his relationship with the classroom and his motivation to learn. We, as parents, have more power than we realize, and we should not feel ashamed to wield it for the sake of our children.
The Tyranny of Homework: 20 Reasons to Stop Assigning Homework Over the Holidays
By Miriam Clifford
December 20th, 2012Features
Many students agree that assigning homework over the holidays really is a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
Upon returning from winter break, you’ll probably have a handful of students saying the dog ate their homework or it got blown away in a winter storm. But you’ll probably be surprised to learn that some research suggests assigning too much homework can be a bad thing. A 2009 article in the Los Angeles Times, suggests that some districts have cut back on the amount of homework in the effort to consider children’s social development. In fact, the San Ramon Valley district modified its homework policy and no homework is allowed over weekends and holiday vacations, except for reading.
The US National Education Association recommends no more than ten minutes (of homework) per grade level, per night.
Homework has fallen in and out of favor over the decades. California even established a law in 1901 limiting the amount of homework teachers could assign. Assigning homework is highly in favor now a days. With recent trends of information overload, packed activity schedules, and childhood obesity, it’s no wonder educators are reconsidering their stance on homework.
Learn more about how to progress in your teaching career with an online Certificate in Education Support today.
Here are 20 reasons why you shouldn’t assign homework over the holidays. Perhaps one of your students will print this list and encourage you to reconsider your ideas about homework.
- Students are learning all the time in the 21st century. According to a recent article in MindShift traditional homework will become obsolete in the next decade. Thanks to computers, learning is occurring 24/7. With access to software programs, worldwide connections, and learning websites such as the Khan Academy, learning occurs all the time. According to Mindshift, “the next decade is going to see the traditional temporal boundaries between home and school disappear.” Try to see if you can bridge the gap between school and home by getting students interested in doing their own research over holiday break. Rather than assigning homework, create a true interest in learning. They will often pursue learning about topics they like on their own. After all, this is the way of the 21st century and information is everywhere.
- More homework doesn’t necessarily equate to higher achievement. Yes, too much homework can actually be a bad thing. A 1989 Duke University study that reviewed 120 studies found a weak link between achievement and homework at the elementary level and only a moderate benefit at the middle school level. In a similar recent review of 60 studies, researchers at Duke U found assigning homework was beneficial, but excessive amounts of homework was counterproductive. The research found homework was more beneficial for older students than younger ones. The study was completed by Harris Cooper, a leading homework research and author of “The Battle over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents”. Cooper suggests that teachers at the younger level may assign homework for improving study skills, rather than learning, explaining why many studies concluded less benefit for younger children. Many teachers do not receive specific training on homework. Cooper suggests that homework should be uncomplicated and short, involve families, and engage student interests.
- Countries that assign more homework don’t outperform those with less homework. Around the world, countries that assign more homework don’t see to perform any better. A Stanford study found that in countries like Japan, Denmark, and the Czech Republic little homework was assigned and students outperformed students in counties with large amounts of homework such as Greece, Thailand, and Iran. American and British students seem to have more homework than most counties, and still only score in the international average. In fact, Japan has instituted no homework policies at younger levels to allow family time and personal interests. Finland, a national leader in international tests, limits high school homework to half hour per night. Of course, there are other factors not taken into account in the study, such as length of the school day. But in itself, it is interesting to see this issue from a world perspective.
- Instead of assigning homework, suggest they read for fun. There are great holiday stories and books you can recommend to parents and students. If you approach the activity with a holiday spirit, many students will be engaged. They may want to check out the stories on their own. You can start by reading the first chapter in class and leaving them intrigued. For instance, you can read the first chapter of TheGift of the Magi and suggest students read it over winter break. With younger students, you might promise roles in a play for students who read over break.
- Don’t assign holiday busy work. Most academics agree that busy work does little to increase learning. It is best to not assign packets of worksheets if they do nothing to add to student learning. You also don’t want to waste valuable time grading meaningless paperwork. Some studies show that much homework may actually decline achievement. Assigning excessive amounts of homework may be detrimental. In fact, a 2006 study by Yankelovick found that reading achievement declined when students were assigned too much homework. Actually, interesting reading such as Harry Potter produced higher reading achievement.
- Have students attend a local cultural event. You can let parents know that instead of assigning homework, you are suggesting students attend a particular event that relates to your classroom. For instance, if you are reading Shakespeare, they might attend a related play or ballet.
- Family time is more important during the holidays. Assigning less homework makes it easier for families to have time together. Family studies at the University of Michigan, show that family time is extremely important to achievement and behavior. Studies on family meals, suggest that students who have dinner with their family have better academic scores and behavioral outcomes. Perhaps this is only a correlation, but family time is undeniably important to child development. Students spent most of their days at school while parents are at work. When all is said and done, remember what it was like being a kid. The things you remember most about the holidays aren’t the assignments you took home, but the time you spend with family and friends.
- For students who travel during the holidays, assigning homework may impede learning on their trip. The Holiday time is the one time of year that many families reconnect with distant family members or travel. I remember having to pack hoards of books over some holidays to Spain and it was not fun. I wanted to enjoy the time with family and experience the country fully. Traveling in itself is a learning activity. Let students experience their travels fully.
- Kids need time to be kids. A recent article from Australia’s Happy Child website, “What is the value of Homework: Research and Reality” considers this issue and explains how children need unstructured play time. Homework can have a negative influence on early learning experiences. Suggest students use holiday time to do physical activity, such as ice-skating or sledding. Many kids don’t get enough exercise. Childhood obesity is a major problem in the United States. Suggesting students play outside or participate in a sport is a good way to get them to value physical activity. The holidays are a great time for kids to go sledding in the snow or play with friends outside. If no one has homework, classmates might exchange phone numbers to play together. You can suggest this to parents. If the teacher thinks physical activity is important, students will too.
- Some education experts recommend an end to all homework. Etta Kralovec and John Buell, authors of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning, controversially suggests that homework may be a form of intrusion on family life, and may increase the drop-out rate in high schools. The authors blame homework for increasing the achievement gap due to socio-economic differences in after-school obligations. Consider challenging your own views of the benefits of homework and try to create a level playing field when considering assignments.
- Send a letter to parents explaining why you are not assigning work. You might want to take the Christmas holiday as a chance to engage parents to play a learning game or do some art with their kids. If families know there is an intentional purpose to not assigning work, they may take the chance to spend more one-on-one time with their child.
- You can make the holidays a time for an “open project” for extra credit. Students might take this time to do something related to the curriculum that they would like to explore on their own terms. Before the holidays, you might talk about topics or provide books students for students to take home. Learning for fun and interest, might produce more meaningful engagement than assigning homework.
- Suggest they visit a museum instead. With families at home, the holiday time is a great time for students to see an exhibit that interests them or do a fun activity at a nearby museum. Sometimes encouraging these field trips may be more beneficial than assigning homework. You might want to print coupons, a schedule, or a list of upcoming exhibits so that families have the information at their fingertips.
- Encourage students to volunteer during the holiday time. The holidays are a great time for students to give back. Students might volunteer at a local soup kitchen or pantry. Volunteer organizations are often at their busiest during the holiday time. Plus, students learn a lot from the experience of doing community service. I remember visiting a group home during the holiday time in high school and helping kids wrap Christmas gifts for their families. This is a great alternative to assigning homework, especially for Generation Y who highly values civic involvement.
- Develop a class game. You might have the class play a learning game the week before vacation and have them take it home to show their family. My fourth grade teacher had hop-scotch math. We often drew with chalk outside to replicate her game at home. Try to think of a holiday-themed game or one that the whole family can get involved in.
- Students might learn more from observing the real world. Learning isn’t just about paper and pencil activities. Teachers should also inspire students to seek ways to learn from real-world experiences. They might cook with their parents and practice measuring. Or tag along with a parent who is putting up holiday lights or building a shed. Ask students to observe a job around the house or ask their parents about their job over holiday break. They might be enlightened to learn more about the real world and different jobs they might pursue in the future. Perhaps some students might be able to go to work with their parents instead of a formal assignment.
- Go on a hike. Students learn a great deal from nature. Tell students to go outside on a walk and be ready to share their experience when they get back. Did they observe natural phenomena you talked about in science class or different types of rocks you discussed in geology? Or can you tie their walk into a discussion of poetry?
- Tell students to visit an amusement park. If you are teaching physics or math, amusement parks give ample room to explain the laws of physics and mathematical probability. This outing would allow students to think about the real world implications of science. You may want to even plan a lesson beforehand that ties this idea in. On another level, it allows students to create a lasting memory with their own families.
- Kids need rest! Everyone needs a mental breather and the holidays are the best time for students to play and take a break from school. Kids need a full ten hours of sleep and adequate rest. The vacation time is a great time for students to take a mental breather from school. With many family outings and vacations during the holiday time, they will have less time to complete homework. They will come back to school feeling re-energized.
- Many parents and students dislike holiday homework. You want parents to buy-in to your classroom community and support your endeavors with students. Assigning homework over the holidays is usually unpopular with parents because it may the one time of year they have to give children their undivided attention. Instead, you might want to take a survey to see if parents agree with the idea. You can then send a letter with the survey results. Taking parents’ perspectives into account shows you value their opinions and feedback. Students prefer some free time too. Not surprisingly one student created a Facebook page, titled, “Why do teachers give us homework over the holiday.” If the students know you are giving them a break over the holidays they may work harder for you when they get back.
If you’re still not convinced, check out this fact sheet based on The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish. If you still plan on assigning homework over the holidays, at least keep in mind some guidelines.
The US National Education Association recommends no more than ten minutes per grade level, per night. If you must assign homework make sure it is meaningful and doesn’t take away from time with families. And most of all, remember what it was like being a kid during the holiday time. Homework is generally not a part of those memories, nor should it be. Those days playing outside and spending time with family are lifelong memories just as important as school.
Childhood is over in the blink of an eye.
About Miriam Clifford
Miriam Clifford holds a Masters in Teaching from City University and a Bachelor in Science from Cornell. She loves research and is passionate about education. She is a foodie and on her time off enjoys cooking and gardening. You can find her @miriamoclifford or Google+.