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Homework: The great debate
School days! School daze! Homework haze! Ugh. Homework…It can be a challenging or rewarding time for parents and their children.
The academic benefits of homework have been debated since the late 1800s. In the late 19 th and early 20 th century, homework was primarily assigned to students in fifth to eighth grades and was seen as an activity to exercise the “brain muscle.” During the 1930s the Great Depression was central to the homework debate where teachers and parents were concerned that homework led to increased child stress. By the 1950s, at the start of the Cold War, student achievement became a central focus as the United States competed with Russia. Homework was seen as a tool to help improve student achievement to enhance the ability of the U.S. to compete with Russia. During the 1960s, when the U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War, the educational pendulum swung once again toward less homework where educators and parents saw homework as adding to student stress levels at home. During the 1980s, academic achievement in the U.S. began to fall behind other countries, such as Japan. Therefore, homework was again seen as a necessary tool to help students in the U.S. compete with students in Japan. This philosophy continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s. At the turn of the 21 st century, however, with passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the value of homework has been debated again, with concerns that increasing levels of homework may lead to student burn-out. Interestingly, studies found that the amount of homework students are assigned has not changed much over the past 50 years.
Research about the academic benefits of homework has mixed results. Some studies show homework is more beneficial academically to students in middle school and high school, with minimal academic benefit for elementary school students. Other studies find that certain types of homework can be beneficial to students in all grades. Still other research questions the value of homework all together.
With busy family schedules, making sure children complete their homework can be stressful for parents and children. Researchers do agree that homework can provide non-academic benefits, such as teaching students self-discipline, time management and prioritizing. Since your child or children are bringing homework home, here are some practical tips for helping it be less stressful for parents and students alike:
- Homework time : Set aside homework time where the household environment is conducive to studying—no television, telephone or unnecessary distractions. Everyone in the household should respect homework time. If a child does not have homework, then they can read a preferred book, put together a jig saw puzzle or do a pencil-and-paper puzzle during that quiet time. When determining how much time you should set aside for homework, consider the “10-minute Rule”—homework should take 10 minutes per grade level. For example, a second grader should spend 20 minutes completing homework, a third grader 30 minutes, and so forth.
- Homework space : Set aside a homework space in your home. Every household is different and every child’s needs are different. Your homework space should contain a table or desk, comfortable chair, plenty of lighting and have the necessary school supplies. I discourage having children do homework while lying in bed. My rule is “Do not sleep where you study or study where you sleep.” This sends the brain mixed signals.
- Homework box : To prevent your child from wandering around the house searching for school supplies, create a homework box for each child. An old shoe box can do the trick. Your children can even decorate their homework boxes. Only provide them with the necessary school supplies—pencils, pens, hand-held sharpeners, index cards, highlighters, scissors, timer, etc.
- Homework chunking : Often children become distracted while working on non-preferred homework assignments. I suggest chunking homework, or breaking assignments down, into amounts your child can complete in a specific amount of time based upon how long she can pay attention to a non-preferred task. For example, if your daughter can focus on a non-preferred task for four minutes without become distracted, then that is how long she should work on her homework at a time and then take a timed one minute break. Providing chunks of work sets a specific goal to be completed in a specific amount of time. Allowing for scheduled timed breaks prevents mental fatigue. My rule is five minutes of work for a one minute break; 10 minutes for a three minute break; 15 minutes of work for a five minute break.
- Homework practice : Incorporate learning activities into daily life experiences, such as using math in the grocery store or to balance your check book; reading recipes while cooking; or reading driving directions. Parents can read out loud with their children and discuss the books in order to make reading more enjoyable and bring life to the story.
If your child is having a significant challenge completing homework, please consider talking to his teacher about it and develop a plan of action, such as hiring a homework tutor or modifying his assignments.
For more homework tips, you can visit the following resources:
- Discovery Education
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- NEA Foundation
The Great Homework Debate: What's Getting Lost in the Hype
Homework - is it an unnecessary evil or a sound and valuable pedagogical practice? The media coverage of the debate often zeroes in on these two seemingly polar opposite views, even though they may not be all that far apart. Homework can be good until - well, until it isn't. Assign too much or the wrong kind (or both) and the law of diminishing returns kicks in, says Dr. Harris Cooper , professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, r esulting in undue stress for students, aggravation for parents and no academic pay-off.
But as Cooper, author of "The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents," recently told NEA Today, homework levels and parental attitudes haven't really changed dramatically over the years. Cooper also concludes - perhaps a shock of those who are convinced that very little in our classrooms is working as it should - "the vast majority of educators have got it right."
There's a lot of focus on homework now, but has it been scrutinized so heavily in the past?
Harris Cooper: Throughout the 20th century, the public battle over homework was quite cyclical. You can go back to World War I or a little after, when it was considered important for kids to exercise their brain like a muscle and that homework was a way to do that. During the 1930s, opinions changed. In the 1950s, people were worried about falling behind the communists, so more homework was needed as a way to speed up our education and technology. During the 1960s, homework fell out of favor because many though it inflicted too much stress on kids. In the 1970s and 1980s, we needed more homework to keep up with the Japanese economically. More recently, as everything about education and teachers is being scrutinized, homework has come into question again.
What's interesting is that the actual percentage of people who support or oppose homework has changed very little over the years. And the actual amount of homework kids are doing has changed very little over the last 65 years.
But haven't we seen an uptick in the amount of homework assigned to elementary students?
HC: There is a little bit of an uptick in lower grades. But when you look at the actual numbers, we're talking about the difference between an average of 20 minutes and 30 minutes. So you’ll find some people who say the amount of homework being given to 2 nd graders, for example, has increased 50 percent. But If you look at the actual numbers, it's ten more minutes per night.
And probably a driving force behind that is obviously end-of-grade testing and accountability issues. Perhaps more legitimately is the importance of early reading. As they say, in third grade you learn to read, and in fourth grade you read to learn. So this has led to more reading assignments.
While most high school students are still doing approximately the same amount of homework on average, there's a great deal of variation. That's due to choices some kids make about how rigorous an academic program to take and the increased competition over college admissions. So there are a lot of kids out there taking four or five advanced placement and honors classes now, which might not have been the case a while back.
According to the MetLife Foundation national homework survey, 3 out of 5 parents said their kids are getting just the right amount of homework. One said too much and one said too little. That survey is a few years old now but I doubt that's changed.
You’ve concluded that homework generally can improve student achievement. At what grade levels do we usually see this effect?
HC: There's very little correlation between homework and achievement in the early grades. As kids get older, the correlation gets stronger. But there are experimental studies even at the earliest grades that look at skills such as spelling, math facts, etc. where kids are randomly assigned to do homework and not do homework. They show that kids who did the homework performed better.
But we're really talking about correlation here, so we have to be a little careful. It's also worth noting that these correlations with older students are likely caused, not only by homework helping achievement, but also by kids who have higher achievement levels doing more homework.
But at a particular point more homework is not a good thing. You've heard of the "10-Minute Rule," where you multiply a child’s grade by 10 to determine how many minutes you assign per night. This rule fits the data. So 20-minutes for a second grader is where you'd start. In middle schools, it's between 60-90 mins for 6th through 9th graders, about two hours later in high school. When you assign more than these levels, the law of diminishing returns or even negative effects - stress especially - begin to appear.
Have school districts coalesced around the 10-minute rule?
HC: From my experience, I have never seen a school district that recommends anything that isn’t consistent with the 10-minute rule. They won't use the term "10-minute rule" usually, but they’ll say, primary school grades will be assigned up to 30 mins., grades 4-6 up to an hour, things like that. But If you translate the policy to the 10-minute rule, it’ll be very similar. Nobody has a policy that says you can expect your second-graders to bring home two hours of homework. The only place you'll see a warning about it is in high school: you can expect half an hour a night per academic subject. Again, if the kid is taking AP, expect more.
What don't we know about homework? Where are the gaps in the research?
HC: We need to know more about the the differing impacts by subject matter. Regarding the 10-minute rule, one question I am frequently asked is, “Does that include reading?" Generally, the answer would be yes, but if we’re interested in kids' stress level, for example, they are more likely to burn out quicker doing math worksheets and studying vocabulary than if they were doing high-interest reading. So we really need more work on subject matter, on homework quality, on the level of inquisitiveness that it engenders and the way it motivates. Also we need to know more about the use of the Internet, especially as it relates to potential disparities between rich and poor and the ability to research at home.
Parental involvement is a huge homework-related issue . How can educators work with parents to keep their role constructive?
HC: Parental involvement is more important in the earlier grades and teachers should try to make sure that parents have the skills to teach the material so to avoid any instructional confusion. Educators should also remind parents to not place great pressure on their child and to model behaviors, especially with young children. For example, when the child is doing math homework, a parent could balance the checkbook to demonstrate how the skill can be used in adult life, or they can they read their own book while their child is reading.
Homework also keeps parents aware of what their child is learning. I've had some very emotional parents come to me about having been told by teachers that their child is struggling, that there might be a learning disability. The parents don't necessarily see it until they see their child work on homework.
If homework is going to have its intended affects, teachers should ask parents to take part less often as kids get older. If support from parents is withdrawn slowly, it can promote autonomous learning - teaching kids that they can learn on their own and they can learn anywhere.
Do you think overall the current debate or controversy over homework has been helpful and what, if anything, should educators take from it?
HC: Well, I recognize that the debate will always be there, but I generally choose to ignore it, or at least the people who, as the old saying goes, use science the same way a drunkard uses a lamp post - more for support than for illumination.
Homework is probably the most complicated pedagogical strategy teachers use because it's open to variations due to child individual differences and the home context. But the vast majority of educators have got it right. They're not going to satisfy everyone, because kids take homework home to different environments and to parents with different expectations. But, like I said before, three in five parents are satisfied and there's one in each direction - too much homework or too little. That probably means teachers are doing their job properly.
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Special Topic / The Case For and Against Homework
The Case for Homework
The case against homework, the dangers of ignoring the research, grade level, time spent on homework, parent involvement, going beyond the research.
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Special Topic / The Case For and Against Homework - table
Two meta-analyses by Cooper and colleagues (Cooper, 1989a; Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006) are the most comprehensive and rigorous. The 1989 meta-analysis reviewed research dating as far back as the 1930s; the 2006 study reviewed research from 1987 to 2003. Commenting on studies that attempted to examine the causal relationship between homework and student achievement by comparing experimental (homework) and control (no homework) groups, Cooper, Robinson, and Patall (2006) noted, With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant. Therefore, we think it would not be imprudent, based on the evidence in hand, to conclude that doing homework causes improved academic achievement. (p. 48)
In a third book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (2006a), Kohn took direct aim at the research on homework. In this book and in a recent article in Phi Delta Kappan (2006b), he became quite personal in his condemnation of researchers. For example, referring to Harris Cooper, the lead author of the two leading meta-analyses on homework, Kohn noted, A careful reading of Cooper's own studies . . . reveals further examples of his determination to massage the numbers until they yield something—anything—on which to construct a defense of homework for younger children. (2006a, p. 84)He also attacked a section on homework in our book Classroom Instruction that Works (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001).
- Grades 4–6: ES = .15 (Percentile gain = 6)
- Grades 7–9: ES = .31 (Percentile gain = 12)
- Grades 10–12: ES = .64 (Percentile gain = 24)
The pattern clearly indicates that homework has smaller effects at lower grade levels. Even so, Cooper (1989b) still recommended homework for elementary students because homework for young children should help them develop good study habits, foster positive attitudes toward school, and communicate to students the idea that learning takes work at home as well as at school. (p. 90)
- For students in the earliest grades , it should foster positive attitudes, habits, and character traits; permit appropriate parent involvement; and reinforce learning of simple skills introduced in class.
- For students in upper elementary grades , it should play a more direct role in fostering improved school achievement.
- In 6th grade and beyond , it should play an important role in improving standardized test scores and grades.
One of the more contentious issues in the homework debate is the amount of time students should spend on homework. The Cooper synthesis (1989a) reported that for junior high school students, the benefits increased as time increased, up to 1 to 2 hours of homework a night, and then decreased. The Cooper, Robinson, and Patall (2006) study reported similar findings: 7 to 12 hours of homework per week produced the largest effect size for 12th grade students. The researchers suggested that for 12th graders the optimum amount of homework might lie between 1.5 and 2.5 hours per night, but they cautioned that no hard-and-fast rules are warranted. Still, researchers have offered various recommendations. For example, Good and Brophy (2003) cautioned that teachers must take care not to assign too much homework. They suggested that homework must be realistic in length and difficulty given the students' abilities to work independently. Thus, 5 to 10 minutes per subject might be appropriate for 4th graders, whereas 30 to 60 minutes might be appropriate for college-bound high school students. (p. 394)
Cooper, Robinson, and Patall (2006) also issued a strong warning about too much homework: Even for these oldest students, too much homework may diminish its effectiveness or even become counterproductive. (p 53)
- Parents receive clear guidelines spelling out their role.
- Teachers do not expect parents to act as experts regarding content or to attempt to teach the content.
- Parents ask questions that help students clarify and summarize what they have learned.
Good and Brophy (2003) provided the following recommendations regarding parent involvement: Especially useful for parent-child relations purposes are assignments calling for students to show or explain their written work or other products completed at school to their parents and get their reactions (Epstein, 2001; Epstein, Simon, & Salinas, 1997) or to interview their parents to develop information about parental experiences or opinions relating to topics studied in social studies (Alleman & Brophy, 1998). Such assignments cause students and their parents or other family members to become engaged in conversations that relate to the academic curriculum and thus extend the students' learning. Furthermore, because these are likely to be genuine conversations rather than more formally structured teaching/learning tasks, both parents and children are likely to experience them as enjoyable rather than threatening. (p. 395)
Riehl (2006) pointed out the similarity between education research and medical research. She commented, When reported in the popular media, medical research often appears as a blunt instrument, able to obliterate skeptics or opponents by the force of its evidence and arguments. . . . Yet repeated visits to the medical journals themselves can leave a much different impression. The serious medical journals convey the sense that medical research is an ongoing conversation and quest, punctuated occasionally by important findings that can and should alter practice, but more often characterized by continuing investigations. These investigations, taken cumulatively, can inform the work of practitioners who are building their own local knowledge bases on medical care. (pp. 27–28)
Research-Based Homework Guidelines
Assign purposeful homework. Legitimate purposes for homework include introducing new content, practicing a skill or process that students can do independently but not fluently, elaborating on information that has been addressed in class to deepen students' knowledge, and providing opportunities for students to explore topics of their own interest.
Design homework to maximize the chances that students will complete it. For example, ensure that homework is at the appropriate level of difficulty. Students should be able to complete homework assignments independently with relatively high success rates, but they should still find the assignments challenging enough to be interesting.
Involve parents in appropriate ways (for example, as a sounding board to help students summarize what they learned from the homework) without requiring parents to act as teachers or to police students' homework completion.
Carefully monitor the amount of homework assigned so that it is appropriate to students' age levels and does not take too much time away from other home activities.
Balli, S. J. (1998). When mom and dad help: Student reflections on parent involvement with homework. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 31 (3), 142–148.
Bangert-Drowns, R. L., Kulik, C. C., Kulik, J. A., & Morgan, M. (1991). The instructional effects of feedback in test-like events. Review of Educational Research, 61 (2), 213–238.
Bennett, S., & Kalish, N. (2006). The case against homework: How homework is hurting our children and what we can do about it . New York: Crown.
Bloom, B. S. (1984). The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to one tutoring. Educational Leadership, 41 (8), 4–18.
Cooper, H. (1989a). Homework . White Plains, NY: Longman.
Cooper, H. (1989b). Synthesis of research on homework. Educational Leadership, 47 (3), 85–91.
Cooper, H. (2007). The battle over homework (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C., & Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research, 76 (1), 1–62.
Corno, L. (1996). Homework is a complicated thing. Educational Researcher, 25 (8), 27–30.
Epstein, J. (2001). School, family, and community partnerships: Preparing educators and improving schools . Boulder, CO: Westview.
Epstein, J. L., & Becker, H. J. (1982). Teachers' reported practices of parent involvement: Problems and possibilities. Elementary School Journal, 83 , 103–113.
Fraser, B. J., Walberg, H. J., Welch, W. W., & Hattie, J. A. (1987). Synthesis of educational productivity research [Special issue]. International Journal of Educational Research, 11 (2), 145–252.
Gill, B. P., & Schlossman, S. L. (2000). The lost cause of homework reform. American Journal of Education, 109 , 27–62.
Good, T. L., & Brophy, J. E. (2003). Looking in classrooms (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Graue, M. E., Weinstein, T., & Walberg, H. J. (1983). School-based home instruction and learning: A quantitative synthesis. Journal of Educational Research, 76 , 351–360.
Hattie, J. A. (1992). Measuring the effects of schooling. Australian Journal of Education, 36 (1), 5–13.
Hoover-Dempsey, K. V., Bassler, O. C., & Burow, R. (1995). Parents' reported involvement in students' homework: Strategies and practices. The Elementary School Journal, 95 (5), 435–450.
Kavale, K. A. (1988). Using meta-analyses to answer the question: What are the important influences on school learning? School Psychology Review, 17 (4), 644–650.
Kohn, A. (2006a). The homework myth: Why our kids get too much of a bad thing . Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
Kohn, A. (2006b). Abusing research: The study of homework and other examples. Phi Delta Kappan. 88 (1), 9–22.
Kralovec, E., & Buell, J. (2000). The end of homework: How homework disrupts families, overburdens children, and limits learning . Boston: Beacon.
Marzano, R. J., & Pickering, D. J. (2007). Response to Kohn's allegations . Centennial, CO: Marzano & Associates. Available: http://marzanoandassociates.com/documents/KohnResponse.pdf
Marzano, R. J., & Pickering, D. J. (in press). Errors and allegations about research on homework. Phi Delta Kappan .
Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement . Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
National Education Commission on Time and Learning (1994). Prisoners of time . Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Paschal, R. A., Weinstein, T., & Walberg, H. J. (1984). The effects of homework on learning: A quantitative synthesis. Journal of Educational Research, 78 , 97–104.
Perkins, P. G., & Milgram, R. B. (1996). Parental involvement in homework: A double-edge sword. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 6 (3), 195–203.
Riehl, C. (2006). Feeling better: A comparison of medical research and education research. Educational Researcher, 35 (5), 24–29.
Van Voorhis, F. (2003). Interactive homework in middle school: Effects on family involvement and science achievement. Journal of Educational Research, 96 , 323–338.
Walberg, H. J. (1999). Productive teaching. In H. C. Waxman & H. J. Walberg (Eds.), New directions for teaching practice research (pp. 75–104). Berkeley, CA: McCutchen.
Wallis, C. (2006). Viewpoint: The myth about homework. Time, 168 (10), 57.
• 1 For a more detailed response to Kohn's views on homework, see Marzano & Pickering (2007) and Marzano & Pickering (in press).
Robert Marzano is the CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory in Centennial, CO, which provides research-based, partner-centered support for educators and education agencies—with the goal of helping teachers improve educational practice.
As strategic advisor, Robert brings over 50 years of experience in action-based education research, professional development, and curriculum design to Marzano Research. He has expertise in standards-based assessment, cognition, school leadership, and competency-based education, among a host of areas.
He is the author of 30 books, 150 articles and chapters in books, and 100 sets of curriculum materials for teachers and students in grades K–12.
The late Debra J. Pickering consulted with schools and districts nationally and internationally as vice president of field services for Marzano Research Laboratory. She passed away in 2020.
In addition to her work with schools, Pickering coauthored (with Robert Marzano) educational books and manuals, including Dimensions of Learning , Classroom Instruction That Works , Classroom Management That Works , and Building Academic Vocabulary .
With a combination of theoretical grounding and more than three decades of practical experience, Pickering worked with educators to translate theory into practice. In later years her work continued to focus on the study of learning and the development of resources for curriculum, instruction, and assessment to help all educators meet the needs of all students.
Pickering had a master's degree in school administration and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, with an emphasis in cognitive psychology.
ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.
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Homework in America
Part II of the 2014 Brown Center Report on American Education
The Journal was an influential magazine, especially with parents. An anti-homework campaign burst forth that grew into a national crusade. [i] School districts across the land passed restrictions on homework, culminating in a 1901 statewide prohibition of homework in California for any student under the age of 15. The crusade would remain powerful through 1913, before a world war and other concerns bumped it from the spotlight. Nevertheless, anti-homework sentiment would remain a touchstone of progressive education throughout the twentieth century. As a political force, it would lie dormant for years before bubbling up to mobilize proponents of free play and “the whole child.” Advocates would, if educators did not comply, seek to impose homework restrictions through policy making.
Our own century dawned during a surge of anti-homework sentiment. From 1998 to 2003, Newsweek , TIME , and People , all major national publications at the time, ran cover stories on the evils of homework. TIME ’s 1999 story had the most provocative title, “The Homework Ate My Family: Kids Are Dazed, Parents Are Stressed, Why Piling On Is Hurting Students.” People ’s 2003 article offered a call to arms: “Overbooked: Four Hours of Homework for a Third Grader? Exhausted Kids (and Parents) Fight Back.” Feature stories about students laboring under an onerous homework burden ran in newspapers from coast to coast. Photos of angst ridden children became a journalistic staple.
The 2003 Brown Center Report on American Education included a study investigating the homework controversy. Examining the most reliable empirical evidence at the time, the study concluded that the dramatic claims about homework were unfounded. An overwhelming majority of students, at least two-thirds, depending on age, had an hour or less of homework each night. Surprisingly, even the homework burden of college-bound high school seniors was discovered to be rather light, less than an hour per night or six hours per week. Public opinion polls also contradicted the prevailing story. Parents were not up in arms about homework. Most said their children’s homework load was about right. Parents wanting more homework out-numbered those who wanted less.
Now homework is in the news again. Several popular anti-homework books fill store shelves (whether virtual or brick and mortar). [ii] The documentary Race to Nowhere depicts homework as one aspect of an overwrought, pressure-cooker school system that constantly pushes students to perform and destroys their love of learning. The film’s website claims over 6,000 screenings in more than 30 countries. In 2011, the New York Times ran a front page article about the homework restrictions adopted by schools in Galloway, NJ, describing “a wave of districts across the nation trying to remake homework amid concerns that high stakes testing and competition for college have fueled a nightly grind that is stressing out children and depriving them of play and rest, yet doing little to raise achievement, especially in elementary grades.” In the article, Vicki Abeles, the director of Race to Nowhere , invokes the indictment of homework lodged a century ago, declaring, “The presence of homework is negatively affecting the health of our young people and the quality of family time.” [iii]
A petition for the National PTA to adopt “healthy homework guidelines” on change.org currently has 19,000 signatures. In September 2013, Atlantic featured an article, “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me,” by a Manhattan writer who joined his middle school daughter in doing her homework for a week. Most nights the homework took more than three hours to complete.
The Current Study
A decade has passed since the last Brown Center Report study of homework, and it’s time for an update. How much homework do American students have today? Has the homework burden increased, gone down, or remained about the same? What do parents think about the homework load?
A word on why such a study is important. It’s not because the popular press is creating a fiction. The press accounts are built on the testimony of real students and real parents, people who are very unhappy with the amount of homework coming home from school. These unhappy people are real—but they also may be atypical. Their experiences, as dramatic as they are, may not represent the common experience of American households with school-age children. In the analysis below, data are analyzed from surveys that are methodologically designed to produce reliable information about the experiences of all Americans. Some of the surveys have existed long enough to illustrate meaningful trends. The question is whether strong empirical evidence confirms the anecdotes about overworked kids and outraged parents.
The Transformation of Title IX
No child left behind, one percent for the kids.
Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provide a good look at trends in homework for nearly the past three decades. Table 2-1 displays NAEP data from 1984-2012. The data are from the long-term trend NAEP assessment’s student questionnaire, a survey of homework practices featuring both consistently-worded questions and stable response categories. The question asks: “How much time did you spend on homework yesterday?” Responses are shown for NAEP’s three age groups: 9, 13, and 17. [iv]
Today’s youngest students seem to have more homework than in the past. The first three rows of data for age 9 reveal a shift away from students having no homework, declining from 35% in 1984 to 22% in 2012. A slight uptick occurred from the low of 18% in 2008, however, so the trend may be abating. The decline of the “no homework” group is matched by growth in the percentage of students with less than an hour’s worth, from 41% in 1984 to 57% in 2012. The share of students with one to two hours of homework changed very little over the entire 28 years, comprising 12% of students in 2012. The group with the heaviest load, more than two hours of homework, registered at 5% in 2012. It was 6% in 1984.
The amount of homework for 13-year-olds appears to have lightened slightly. Students with one to two hours of homework declined from 29% to 23%. The next category down (in terms of homework load), students with less than an hour, increased from 36% to 44%. One can see, by combining the bottom two rows, that students with an hour or more of homework declined steadily from 1984 to 2008 (falling from 38% to 27%) and then ticked up to 30% in 2012. The proportion of students with the heaviest load, more than two hours, slipped from 9% in 1984 to 7% in 2012 and ranged between 7-10% for the entire period.
For 17-year-olds, the homework burden has not varied much. The percentage of students with no homework has increased from 22% to 27%. Most of that gain occurred in the 1990s. Also note that the percentage of 17-year-olds who had homework but did not do it was 11% in 2012, the highest for the three NAEP age groups. Adding that number in with the students who didn’t have homework in the first place means that more than one-third of seventeen year olds (38%) did no homework on the night in question in 2012. That compares with 33% in 1984. The segment of the 17-year-old population with more than two hours of homework, from which legitimate complaints of being overworked might arise, has been stuck in the 10%-13% range.
Former brookings expert.
The NAEP data point to four main conclusions:
- With one exception, the homework load has remained remarkably stable since 1984.
- The exception is nine-year-olds. They have experienced an increase in homework, primarily because many students who once did not have any now have some. The percentage of nine-year-olds with no homework fell by 13 percentage points, and the percentage with less than an hour grew by 16 percentage points.
- Of the three age groups, 17-year-olds have the most bifurcated distribution of the homework burden. They have the largest percentage of kids with no homework (especially when the homework shirkers are added in) and the largest percentage with more than two hours.
- NAEP data do not support the idea that a large and growing number of students have an onerous amount of homework. For all three age groups, only a small percentage of students report more than two hours of homework. For 1984-2012, the size of the two hours or more groups ranged from 5-6% for age 9, 6-10% for age 13, and 10-13% for age 17.
Note that the item asks students how much time they spent on homework “yesterday.” That phrasing has the benefit of immediacy, asking for an estimate of precise, recent behavior rather than an estimate of general behavior for an extended, unspecified period. But misleading responses could be generated if teachers lighten the homework of NAEP participants on the night before the NAEP test is given. That’s possible. [v] Such skewing would not affect trends if it stayed about the same over time and in the same direction (teachers assigning less homework than usual on the day before NAEP). Put another way, it would affect estimates of the amount of homework at any single point in time but not changes in the amount of homework between two points in time.
A check for possible skewing is to compare the responses above with those to another homework question on the NAEP questionnaire from 1986-2004 but no longer in use. [vi] It asked students, “How much time do you usually spend on homework each day?” Most of the response categories have different boundaries from the “last night” question, making the data incomparable. But the categories asking about no homework are comparable. Responses indicating no homework on the “usual” question in 2004 were: 2% for age 9-year-olds, 5% for 13 year olds, and 12% for 17-year-olds. These figures are much less than the ones reported in Table 2-1 above. The “yesterday” data appear to overstate the proportion of students typically receiving no homework.
The story is different for the “heavy homework load” response categories. The “usual” question reported similar percentages as the “yesterday” question. The categories representing the most amount of homework were “more than one hour” for age 9 and “more than two hours” for ages 13 and 17. In 2004, 12% of 9-year-olds said they had more than one hour of daily homework, while 8% of 13-year-olds and 12% of 17-year-olds said they had more than two hours. For all three age groups, those figures declined from1986 to 2004. The decline for age 17 was quite large, falling from 17% in 1986 to 12% in 2004.
The bottom line: regardless of how the question is posed, NAEP data do not support the view that the homework burden is growing, nor do they support the belief that the proportion of students with a lot of homework has increased in recent years. The proportion of students with no homework is probably under-reported on the long-term trend NAEP. But the upper bound of students with more than two hours of daily homework appears to be about 15%–and that is for students in their final years of high school.
College Freshmen Look Back
There is another good source of information on high school students’ homework over several decades. The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA conducts an annual survey of college freshmen that began in 1966. In 1986, the survey started asking a series of questions regarding how students spent time in the final year of high school. Figure 2-1 shows the 2012 percentages for the dominant activities. More than half of college freshmen say they spent at least six hours per week socializing with friends (66.2%) and exercising/sports (53.0%). About 40% devoted that much weekly time to paid employment.
Homework comes in fourth pace. Only 38.4% of students said they spent at least six hours per week studying or doing homework. When these students were high school seniors, it was not an activity central to their out of school lives. That is quite surprising. Think about it. The survey is confined to the nation’s best students, those attending college. Gone are high school dropouts. Also not included are students who go into the military or attain full time employment immediately after high school. And yet only a little more than one-third of the sampled students, devoted more than six hours per week to homework and studying when they were on the verge of attending college.
Another notable finding from the UCLA survey is how the statistic is trending (see Figure 2-2). In 1986, 49.5% reported spending six or more hours per week studying and doing homework. By 2002, the proportion had dropped to 33.4%. In 2012, as noted in Figure 2-1, the statistic had bounced off the historical lows to reach 38.4%. It is slowly rising but still sits sharply below where it was in 1987.
What Do Parents Think?
Met Life has published an annual survey of teachers since 1984. In 1987 and 2007, the survey included questions focusing on homework and expanded to sample both parents and students on the topic. Data are broken out for secondary and elementary parents and for students in grades 3-6 and grades 7-12 (the latter not being an exact match with secondary parents because of K-8 schools).
Table 2-2 shows estimates of homework from the 2007 survey. Respondents were asked to estimate the amount of homework on a typical school day (Monday-Friday). The median estimate of each group of respondents is shaded. As displayed in the first column, the median estimate for parents of an elementary student is that their child devotes about 30 minutes to homework on the typical weekday. Slightly more than half (52%) estimate 30 minutes or less; 48% estimate 45 minutes or more. Students in grades 3-6 (third column) give a median estimate that is a bit higher than their parents’ (45 minutes), with almost two-thirds (63%) saying 45 minutes or less is the typical weekday homework load.
One hour of homework is the median estimate for both secondary parents and students in grade 7-12, with 55% of parents reporting an hour or less and about two-thirds (67%) of students reporting the same. As for the prevalence of the heaviest homework loads, 11% of secondary parents say their children spend more than two hours on weekday homework, and 12% is the corresponding figure for students in grades 7-12.
The Met Life surveys in 1987 and 2007 asked parents to evaluate the amount and quality of homework. Table 2-3 displays the results. There was little change over the two decades separating the two surveys. More than 60% of parents rate the amount of homework as good or excellent, and about two-thirds give such high ratings to the quality of the homework their children are receiving. The proportion giving poor ratings to either the quantity or quality of homework did not exceed 10% on either survey.
Parental dissatisfaction with homework comes in two forms: those who feel schools give too much homework and those who feel schools do not give enough. The current wave of journalism about unhappy parents is dominated by those who feel schools give too much homework. How big is this group? Not very big (see Figure 2-3). On the Met Life survey, 60% of parents felt schools were giving the right amount of homework, 25% wanted more homework, and only 15% wanted less.
National surveys on homework are infrequent, but the 2006-2007 period had more than one. A poll conducted by Public Agenda in 2006 reported similar numbers as the Met Life survey: 68% of parents describing the homework load as “about right,” 20% saying there is “too little homework,” and 11% saying there is “too much homework.” A 2006 AP-AOL poll found the highest percentage of parents reporting too much homework, 19%. But even in that poll, they were outnumbered by parents believing there is too little homework (23%), and a clear majority (57%) described the load as “about right.” A 2010 local survey of Chicago parents conducted by the Chicago Tribune reported figures similar to those reported above: approximately two-thirds of parents saying their children’s homework load is “about right,” 21% saying it’s not enough, and 12% responding that the homework load is too much.
Summary and Discussion
In recent years, the press has been filled with reports of kids over-burdened with homework and parents rebelling against their children’s oppressive workload. The data assembled above call into question whether that portrait is accurate for the typical American family. Homework typically takes an hour per night. The homework burden of students rarely exceeds two hours a night. The upper limit of students with two or more hours per night is about 15% nationally—and that is for juniors or seniors in high school. For younger children, the upper boundary is about 10% who have such a heavy load. Polls show that parents who want less homework range from 10%-20%, and that they are outnumbered—in every national poll on the homework question—by parents who want more homework, not less. The majority of parents describe their children’s homework burden as about right.
So what’s going on? Where are the homework horror stories coming from?
The Met Life survey of parents is able to give a few hints, mainly because of several questions that extend beyond homework to other aspects of schooling. The belief that homework is burdensome is more likely held by parents with a larger set of complaints and concerns. They are alienated from their child’s school. About two in five parents (19%) don’t believe homework is important. Compared to other parents, these parents are more likely to say too much homework is assigned (39% vs. 9%), that what is assigned is just busywork (57% vs. 36%), and that homework gets in the way of their family spending time together (51% vs. 15%). They are less likely to rate the quality of homework as excellent (3% vs. 23%) or to rate the availability and responsiveness of teachers as excellent (18% vs. 38%). [vii]
They can also convince themselves that their numbers are larger than they really are. Karl Taro Greenfeld, the author of the Atlantic article mentioned above, seems to fit that description. “Every parent I know in New York City comments on how much homework their children have,” Mr. Greenfeld writes. As for those parents who do not share this view? “There is always a clique of parents who are happy with the amount of homework. In fact, they would prefer more . I tend not to get along with that type of parent.” [viii]
Mr. Greenfeld’s daughter attends a selective exam school in Manhattan, known for its rigorous expectations and, yes, heavy homework load. He had also complained about homework in his daughter’s previous school in Brentwood, CA. That school was a charter school. After Mr. Greenfeld emailed several parents expressing his complaints about homework in that school, the school’s vice-principal accused Mr. Greenfeld of cyberbullying. The lesson here is that even schools of choice are not immune from complaints about homework.
The homework horror stories need to be read in a proper perspective. They seem to originate from the very personal discontents of a small group of parents. They do not reflect the experience of the average family with a school-age child. That does not diminish these stories’ power to command the attention of school officials or even the public at large. But it also suggests a limited role for policy making in settling such disputes. Policy is a blunt instrument. Educators, parents, and kids are in the best position to resolve complaints about homework on a case by case basis. Complaints about homework have existed for more than a century, and they show no signs of going away.
Part II Notes:
[i] Brian Gill and Steven Schlossman, “A Sin Against Childhood: Progressive Education and the Crusade to Abolish Homework, 1897-1941,” American Journal of Education , vol. 105, no. 1 (Nov., 1996), 27-66. Also see Brian P. Gill and Steven L. Schlossman, “Villain or Savior? The American Discourse on Homework, 1850-2003,” Theory into Practice , 43, 3 (Summer 2004), pp. 174-181.
[ii] Bennett, Sara, and Nancy Kalish. The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It (New York: Crown, 2006). Buell, John. Closing the Book on Homework: Enhancing Public Education and Freeing Family Time . (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004). Kohn, Alfie. The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006). Kralovec, Etta, and John Buell. The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).
[iii] Hu, Winnie, “ New Recruit in Homework Revolt: The Principal ,” New York Times , June 15, 2011, page a1.
[iv] Data for other years are available on the NAEP Data Explorer. For Table 1, the starting point of 1984 was chosen because it is the first year all three ages were asked the homework question. The two most recent dates (2012 and 2008) were chosen to show recent changes, and the two years in the 1990s to show developments during that decade.
[v] NAEP’s sampling design lessens the probability of skewing the homework figure. Students are randomly drawn from a school population, meaning that an entire class is not tested. Teachers would have to either single out NAEP students for special homework treatment or change their established homework routine for the whole class just to shelter NAEP participants from homework. Sampling designs that draw entact classrooms for testing (such as TIMSS) would be more vulnerable to this effect. Moreover, students in middle and high school usually have several different teachers during the day, meaning that prior knowledge of a particular student’s participation in NAEP would probably be limited to one or two teachers.
[vi] NAEP Question B003801 for 9 year olds and B003901 for 13- and 17-year olds.
[vii] Met Life, Met Life Survey of the American Teacher: The Homework Experience , November 13, 2007, pp. 21-22.
[viii] Greenfeld, Karl Taro, “ My Daughter’s Homework Is Killing Me ,” The Atlantic , September 18, 2013.
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Should kids have homework? The great debate.
The great homework debate: While some experts say homework leads to good study habits, others say it has little bearing on academic success, (PeopleImages)
The start of a new school year means the return to daily homework, an often dreaded task and the root of parent-student strife that leaves some parents of elementary school students wondering if it’s worth it. The answer, experts say, is complicated.
Some point to studies that find that appropriate take-home work in the right amounts can enhance younger students’ learning and prepare them for a routine of studying as they get older. But others say homework has little to do with academic achievement in elementary school and can get in the way of other life experiences like spending time with family and much needed downtime for often over-scheduled kids.
“There’s no one answer,” said Susan Goldman, professor of psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-director of the UIC Learning Sciences Research Institute. Homework “has to be taken in the context of who are the kids, who are the teachers, what kind of instructional time do they have in school and what kind of support do kids have for getting work done.”
“It’s a complex kind of situation,” Goldman added.
Homework isn’t effective if the student doesn’t understand the lesson during class time, she said. And often homework requires support at home, which isn’t practical for all students, Goldman said. However, if the homework has a clear purpose to all involved — parents, teachers and students — the child can benefit.
While the benefits of homework continue to be debated, there are clear camps on each side: Some tout an often cited 10-minutes-per-grade-level - per-day standard, while others shun homework altogether.
The case against homework
Education consultant James Gray instituted a no-homework policy at Hamilton Elementary School in Lakeview four years ago when he was principal of the Chicago public school.
“My perspective changed a lot after I had my own kids,” said Gray, whose two oldest children still attend Hamilton. He recalled a time when his daughter and wife were arguing about violin practice, reminding him of the family conflicts over homework time. While his daughter wasn’t required to play violin, many students are required to do homework.
“It made me think a lot about what schools do to families,” he said. “I heard from parents over the years about this massive fight that happens at night. It creates this antagonistic relationship between parent and child.”
“It didn’t seem worth it for what schools are trying to get out of homework,” Gray added.
After researching and finding little evidence that primary-level students benefit academically from homework, Gray decided to do away with homework at Hamilton in 2014. At first the policy applied to kindergartners through second-graders. Then it expanded through fourth grade and remains in place at the school, even though Gray left at the end of the 2016-17 school year.
“Kids can become disenchanted with school easily,” Gray said, explaining the additional family and relaxation time at night is actually better for young students.
“Learning happens all the time at home, whether you’re cooking a meal, playing a game or reading a book,” he said.
Gray’s policy was well-received, he said. While he was expecting some backlash, it didn’t come.
“Parents would tell me, ‘We played Clue last night, and it was so nice to sit down for an hour,’ or, ‘My child sat down and read a book on his own without being prompted.’”
Gray said he heard from parents and educators in other schools in Chicago and across the country wanting to create their own no-homework policies.
“I’m hoping (Hamilton’s policy) sticks around,” he said.
The case for homework
But others say homework shouldn’t go away completely, even for younger students.
Harris Cooper, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, has studied the correlation between homework and academic success. He said all students should have some homework, but the amount and type of homework should vary depending on age and developmental level.
Cooper said he believes in the 10-minutes-per-grade-level-per-day standard. Too much homework can bore students and take away from other valuable experiences, like after-school clubs and playtime, he said.
“This is not rocket science,” he said. “You may have brought home a pre-test for spelling on Thursday before you take a test on Friday, and you did better because you brought the pre-test home.”
While homework is not a significant predictor of academic success in early grades, Cooper said, it does create good study habits that will help students as they get older
“Is (homework) going to cause a great leap in (students’) achievement? No it is not,” he said. “What it’s really doing is shaping their behavior, so they begin to learn how to study at home.”
Cooper said homework also provides an opportunity for parents to tune into their child’s academic abilities and challenges. Instead of relying on a teacher to tell them, parents can see for themselves where their child might be struggling. It also can spark greater communication among parents, teachers and students, he said.
“With all young children, assignments should be short, simple and lead to success,” he said.
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Are you down with or done with homework.
By Lory Hough
Homework Policy Still Going Strong
The debate over how much schoolwork students should be doing at home has flared again, with one side saying it's too much, the other side saying in our competitive world, it's just not enough..
It was a move that doesn't happen very often in American public schools: The principal got rid of homework.
This past September, Stephanie Brant, principal of Gaithersburg Elementary School in Gaithersburg, Md., decided that instead of teachers sending kids home with math worksheets and spelling flash cards, students would instead go home and read. Every day for 30 minutes, more if they had time or the inclination, with parents or on their own.
"I knew this would be a big shift for my community," she says. But she also strongly believed it was a necessary one. Twenty-first-century learners, especially those in elementary school, need to think critically and understand their own learning — not spend night after night doing rote homework drills.
Brant's move may not be common, but she isn't alone in her questioning. The value of doing schoolwork at home has gone in and out of fashion in the United States among educators, policymakers, the media, and, more recently, parents. As far back as the late 1800s, with the rise of the Progressive Era, doctors such as Joseph Mayer Rice began pushing for a limit on what he called "mechanical homework," saying it caused childhood nervous conditions and eyestrain. Around that time, the then-influential Ladies Home Journal began publishing a series of anti-homework articles, stating that five hours of brain work a day was "the most we should ask of our children," and that homework was an intrusion on family life. In response, states like California passed laws abolishing homework for students under a certain age.
But, as is often the case with education, the tide eventually turned. After the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, a space race emerged, and, writes Brian Gill in the journal Theory Into Practice, "The homework problem was reconceived as part of a national crisis; the U.S. was losing the Cold War because Russian children were smarter." Many earlier laws limiting homework were abolished, and the longterm trend toward less homework came to an end.
The debate re-emerged a decade later when parents of the late '60s and '70s argued that children should be free to play and explore — similar anti-homework wellness arguments echoed nearly a century earlier. By the early-1980s, however, the pendulum swung again with the publication of A Nation at Risk , which blamed poor education for a "rising tide of mediocrity." Students needed to work harder, the report said, and one way to do this was more homework.
For the most part, this pro-homework sentiment is still going strong today, in part because of mandatory testing and continued economic concerns about the nation's competitiveness. Many believe that today's students are falling behind their peers in places like Korea and Finland and are paying more attention to Angry Birds than to ancient Babylonia.
But there are also a growing number of Stephanie Brants out there, educators and parents who believe that students are stressed and missing out on valuable family time. Students, they say, particularly younger students who have seen a rise in the amount of take-home work and already put in a six- to nine-hour "work" day, need less, not more homework.
Who is right? Are students not working hard enough or is homework not working for them? Here's where the story gets a little tricky: It depends on whom you ask and what research you're looking at. As Cathy Vatterott, the author of Rethinking Homework , points out, "Homework has generated enough research so that a study can be found to support almost any position, as long as conflicting studies are ignored." Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth and a strong believer in eliminating all homework, writes that, "The fact that there isn't anything close to unanimity among experts belies the widespread assumption that homework helps." At best, he says, homework shows only an association, not a causal relationship, with academic achievement. In other words, it's hard to tease out how homework is really affecting test scores and grades. Did one teacher give better homework than another? Was one teacher more effective in the classroom? Do certain students test better or just try harder?
"It is difficult to separate where the effect of classroom teaching ends," Vatterott writes, "and the effect of homework begins."
Putting research aside, however, much of the current debate over homework is focused less on how homework affects academic achievement and more on time. Parents in particular have been saying that the amount of time children spend in school, especially with afterschool programs, combined with the amount of homework given — as early as kindergarten — is leaving students with little time to run around, eat dinner with their families, or even get enough sleep.
Certainly, for some parents, homework is a way to stay connected to their children's learning. But for others, homework creates a tug-of-war between parents and children, says Liz Goodenough, M.A.T.'71, creator of a documentary called Where Do the Children Play?
"Ideally homework should be about taking something home, spending a few curious and interesting moments in which children might engage with parents, and then getting that project back to school — an organizational triumph," she says. "A nag-free activity could engage family time: Ask a parent about his or her own childhood. Interview siblings."
Instead, as the authors of The Case Against Homework write, "Homework overload is turning many of us into the types of parents we never wanted to be: nags, bribers, and taskmasters."
Leslie Butchko saw it happen a few years ago when her son started sixth grade in the Santa Monica-Malibu (Calif.) United School District. She remembers him getting two to four hours of homework a night, plus weekend and vacation projects. He was overwhelmed and struggled to finish assignments, especially on nights when he also had an extracurricular activity.
"Ultimately, we felt compelled to have Bobby quit karate — he's a black belt — to allow more time for homework," she says. And then, with all of their attention focused on Bobby's homework, she and her husband started sending their youngest to his room so that Bobby could focus. "One day, my younger son gave us 15-minute coupons as a present for us to use to send him to play in the back room. … It was then that we realized there had to be something wrong with the amount of homework we were facing."
Butchko joined forces with another mother who was having similar struggles and ultimately helped get the homework policy in her district changed, limiting homework on weekends and holidays, setting time guidelines for daily homework, and broadening the definition of homework to include projects and studying for tests. As she told the school board at one meeting when the policy was first being discussed, "In closing, I just want to say that I had more free time at Harvard Law School than my son has in middle school, and that is not in the best interests of our children."
One barrier that Butchko had to overcome initially was convincing many teachers and parents that more homework doesn't necessarily equal rigor.
"Most of the parents that were against the homework policy felt that students need a large quantity of homework to prepare them for the rigorous AP classes in high school and to get them into Harvard," she says.
Stephanie Conklin, Ed.M.'06, sees this at Another Course to College, the Boston pilot school where she teaches math. "When a student is not completing [his or her] homework, parents usually are frustrated by this and agree with me that homework is an important part of their child's learning," she says.
As Timothy Jarman, Ed.M.'10, a ninth-grade English teacher at Eugene Ashley High School in Wilmington, N.C., says, "Parents think it is strange when their children are not assigned a substantial amount of homework."
That's because, writes Vatterott, in her chapter, "The Cult(ure) of Homework," the concept of homework "has become so engrained in U.S. culture that the word homework is part of the common vernacular."
These days, nightly homework is a given in American schools, writes Kohn.
"Homework isn't limited to those occasions when it seems appropriate and important. Most teachers and administrators aren't saying, 'It may be useful to do this particular project at home,'" he writes. "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). … This commitment to the idea of homework in the abstract is accepted by the overwhelming majority of schools — public and private, elementary and secondary."
Brant had to confront this when she cut homework at Gaithersburg Elementary.
"A lot of my parents have this idea that homework is part of life. This is what I had to do when I was young," she says, and so, too, will our kids. "So I had to shift their thinking." She did this slowly, first by asking her teachers last year to really think about what they were sending home. And this year, in addition to forming a parent advisory group around the issue, she also holds events to answer questions.
Still, not everyone is convinced that homework as a given is a bad thing. "Any pursuit of excellence, be it in sports, the arts, or academics, requires hard work. That our culture finds it okay for kids to spend hours a day in a sport but not equal time on academics is part of the problem," wrote one pro-homework parent on the blog for the documentary Race to Nowhere , which looks at the stress American students are under. "Homework has always been an issue for parents and children. It is now and it was 20 years ago. I think when people decide to have children that it is their responsibility to educate them," wrote another.
And part of educating them, some believe, is helping them develop skills they will eventually need in adulthood. "Homework can help students develop study skills that will be of value even after they leave school," reads a publication on the U.S. Department of Education website called Homework Tips for Parents. "It can teach them that learning takes place anywhere, not just in the classroom. … It can foster positive character traits such as independence and responsibility. Homework can teach children how to manage time."
Annie Brown, Ed.M.'01, feels this is particularly critical at less affluent schools like the ones she has worked at in Boston, Cambridge, Mass., and Los Angeles as a literacy coach.
"It feels important that my students do homework because they will ultimately be competing for college placement and jobs with students who have done homework and have developed a work ethic," she says. "Also it will get them ready for independently taking responsibility for their learning, which will need to happen for them to go to college."
The problem with this thinking, writes Vatterott, is that homework becomes a way to practice being a worker.
"Which begs the question," she writes. "Is our job as educators to produce learners or workers?"
Slate magazine editor Emily Bazelon, in a piece about homework, says this makes no sense for younger kids.
"Why should we think that practicing homework in first grade will make you better at doing it in middle school?" she writes. "Doesn't the opposite seem equally plausible: that it's counterproductive to ask children to sit down and work at night before they're developmentally ready because you'll just make them tired and cross?"
Kohn writes in the American School Board Journal that this "premature exposure" to practices like homework (and sit-and-listen lessons and tests) "are clearly a bad match for younger children and of questionable value at any age." He calls it BGUTI: Better Get Used to It. "The logic here is that we have to prepare you for the bad things that are going to be done to you later … by doing them to you now."
According to a recent University of Michigan study, daily homework for six- to eight-year-olds increased on average from about 8 minutes in 1981 to 22 minutes in 2003. A review of research by Duke University Professor Harris Cooper found that for elementary school students, "the average correlation between time spent on homework and achievement … hovered around zero."
So should homework be eliminated? Of course not, say many Ed School graduates who are teaching. Not only would students not have time for essays and long projects, but also teachers would not be able to get all students to grade level or to cover critical material, says Brett Pangburn, Ed.M.'06, a sixth-grade English teacher at Excel Academy Charter School in Boston. Still, he says, homework has to be relevant.
"Kids need to practice the skills being taught in class, especially where, like the kids I teach at Excel, they are behind and need to catch up," he says. "Our results at Excel have demonstrated that kids can catch up and view themselves as in control of their academic futures, but this requires hard work, and homework is a part of it."
Ed School Professor Howard Gardner basically agrees.
"America and Americans lurch between too little homework in many of our schools to an excess of homework in our most competitive environments — Li'l Abner vs. Tiger Mother," he says. "Neither approach makes sense. Homework should build on what happens in class, consolidating skills and helping students to answer new questions."
So how can schools come to a happy medium, a way that allows teachers to cover everything they need while not overwhelming students? Conklin says she often gives online math assignments that act as labs and students have two or three days to complete them, including some in-class time. Students at Pangburn's school have a 50-minute silent period during regular school hours where homework can be started, and where teachers pull individual or small groups of students aside for tutoring, often on that night's homework. Afterschool homework clubs can help.
Some schools and districts have adapted time limits rather than nix homework completely, with the 10-minute per grade rule being the standard — 10 minutes a night for first-graders, 30 minutes for third-graders, and so on. (This remedy, however, is often met with mixed results since not all students work at the same pace.) Other schools offer an extended day that allows teachers to cover more material in school, in turn requiring fewer take-home assignments. And for others, like Stephanie Brant's elementary school in Maryland, more reading with a few targeted project assignments has been the answer.
"The routine of reading is so much more important than the routine of homework," she says. "Let's have kids reflect. You can still have the routine and you can still have your workspace, but now it's for reading. I often say to parents, if we can put a man on the moon, we can put a man or woman on Mars and that person is now a second-grader. We don't know what skills that person will need. At the end of the day, we have to feel confident that we're giving them something they can use on Mars."
Read a January 2014 update.
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Finding common ground.
A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com . Read more from this blog .
The Homework Debate
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- Sometimes parents want to help their children with homework but may not know the “right” way or newest way of doing it, which could be counterproductive to getting it done correctly.
Why do teachers believe that homework is so important? Is it really important at all? Do teachers believe that whatever they teach is so extraordinary that students must continue to work on assignments at home as well as school? Or, are administrators making top-down decisions that homework must be a part of a student’s nightly practice? Is homework being used to teach students time management techniques? Whatever the reason, homework still continues to be a hot topic among educators and parents.
Like any good debate, the one over homework has valid points on both sides. When done correctly, homework can be an extension of school where students continue to work on projects from home that they began in the classroom. Some assignments are so engaging to students that they want to continue doing research when they go home. It can also provide parents with important insight into what their children are doing in the classroom.
Unfortunately, if homework is an evening of worksheets it can be a chore more than a learning experience. Some educators send home homework because it is what they have always done. It’s important to keep in mind that the homework that is sent home provides parents a window into their classroom. If teachers are sending home worksheets or other homework that is more boring than engaging, the parents may think their child’s classroom provides the same experience during the day.
For students who struggle with school, homework can be an extension of the agony they feel on a daily basis. When a student struggles during the day, that struggling doesn’t magically disappear when they get home. Sometimes their parents struggle as well, and they cannot provide assistance to their child. Homework can act as a reminder of what they do not know and it’s easier to not complete the homework than it is to complete it. Asking students to do more of the same will not make them better at it.
The Homework Routine When I began teaching, my principal made classroom teachers give homework based on the student’s grade (kindergarten was ten minutes, first grade was twenty minutes, etc.). I taught first grade so we had to give about twenty minutes of homework every night. Twenty minutes was easy, after all it was important for students to review what we did during the day. Unfortunately, I found out weeks later that some students struggled for an hour each night with the homework that was supposed to be twenty minutes. Other students got through it on the bus and never had to complete it at home.
Parents didn’t want to tell me that their child was struggling with homework because that could potentially mean that there was something wrong with their child. As much as I asked parents to write a note on top of the paper if their children became frustrated, they did not follow that direction.
We also had to give homework packets for vacation. When the students left for holiday, winter or spring break, they left with a packet of worksheets and a journal. After a few years of this practice a parent, who also happened to be a teaching assistant, told me she would not allow her child to complete the assignment because that was their special time with one another. She assured me that they did other types of educational work together, and the school need not send anything home.
Other parents were not as honest but they were very savvy. The students went all vacation without doing anything and then two days before they went back to school they sat down to complete the packet. I would hang a lot of it up on the wall because I wanted it to seem relevant, but even I felt it was merely busy work to do during the week.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are times when parents get mad at educators for not giving their children enough homework. Those parents believe homework prepares their children for the future. They also ask for extra worksheets if their child is high achieving. That can potentially add to a child’s dislike of school.
In the End Homework succumbs to outside influences. Teachers and students may control their classroom environment but they do not control the home environment of their students. What may be easy to complete during the day may be a chore for the student at home. Teachers and administrators need to understand that the point of giving homework is not a routine, but relevant practice for what their students are doing in the classroom.
Homework, if given at all, needs to be engaging for a student. If the student is the only one completing it at home, then it should certainly be student-centered because that will increase the likelihood that it will get done at all. The point, however, is to not give students something to do at night as busy work, because they can find their own engaging activities which can be more important to their development than homework.
Things to Remember:
- The same homework assignment can take a short or long period to complete depending on the ability of the student
- Not all home environments are conducive for completing homework
- Students who struggle in school will continue to struggle on homework. The magic of a higher reading ability or math ability doesn’t happen when they walk in their house
- Just because the teacher or parent had homework when they were younger doesn’t mean the students have to have homework as well. If educators want students to change with the times, their assignments have to change with the times as well.
- Test prep should never be given for homework. It’s boring and sends the message that all the school thinks about is achieving high marks on a test.
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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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Is Homework Good for Kids? Here's What the Research Says
A s 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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The Homework Debate: The Case Against Homework
This post has been updated as of December 2017.
It’s not uncommon to hear students, parents, and even some teachers always complaining about homework. Why, then, is homework an inescapable part of the student experience? Worksheets, busy work, and reading assignments continue to be a mainstay of students’ evenings.
Whether from habit or comparison with out-of-class work time in other nations, our students are getting homework and, according to some of them, a LOT of it. Educators and policy makers must ask themselves—does assigning homework pay off?
Is there evidence that homework benefits students younger than high school?
The Scholastic article Is Homework Bad? references Alfie Kohn’s book The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing , in which he says, “There is no evidence to demonstrate that homework benefits students below high school age.”
The article goes on to note that those who oppose homework focus on the drawbacks of significant time spent on homework, identifying one major negative as homework’s intrusion into family time. They also point out that opponents believe schools have decided homework is necessary and thus assign it simply to assign some kind of homework, not because doing the work meets specifically-identified student needs.
“Busy work” does not help students learn
Students and parents appear to carry similar critiques of homework, specifically regarding assignments identified as busy work—long sheets of repetitive math problems, word searches, or reading logs seemingly designed to make children dislike books.
When asked how homework can negatively affect children, Nancy Kalish, author of The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It , says that many homework assignments are “simply busy work” that makes learning “a chore rather than a positive, constructive experience.”
Commenters on the piece, both parents and students, tended to agree. One student shared that on occasion they spent more time on homework than at school, while another commenter pointed out that, “We don’t give slow-working children a longer school day, but we consistently give them a longer homework day.”
Without feedback, homework is ineffective
The efficacy of the homework identified by Kalish has been studied by policy researchers as well. Gerald LeTendre, of Penn State’s Education Policy Studies department points out that the shotgun approach to homework, when students all receive the same photocopied assignment which is then checked as complete rather than discussed individually with the student, is “not very effective.” He goes on to say that, “If there’s no feedback and no monitoring, the homework is probably not effective.”
Researchers from the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia had similar findings in their study, “ When Is Homework Worth The Time ?” According to UVAToday, these researchers reported no “substantive difference” in the grades of students related to homework completion.
As researcher Adam Maltese noted, “Our results hint that maybe homework is not being used as well as it could be.” The report further suggested that while not all homework is bad, the type and quality of assignments and their differentiation to specific learners appears to be an important point of future research.
If homework is assigned, it should heighten understanding of the subject
The Curry School of Education report did find a positive association between standardized test performance and time spent on homework, but standardized test performance shouldn’t be the end goal of assignments—a heightened understanding and capability with the content material should.
As such, it is important that if/when teachers assign homework assignments, it is done thoughtfully and carefully—and respectful of the maximum times suggested by the National Education Association, about 10 minutes per night starting in the first grade, with an additional 10 minutes per year after.
Continue reading — The Homework Debate: How Homework Benefits Students
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.
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The great homework debate
by: Christina Tynan-Wood | Updated: October 16, 2018
Your first grader is in the middle of a tea party with six of her stuffed animals. It seems to be going well, despite a recent argument between the stuffed giraffe and his zebra stepbrother. You are enjoying eavesdropping on the dialogue as you clean up the dinner dishes, but it’s time for homework. You dutifully get your child set up at her study spot and redirect her attention to a worksheet of math facts. “I hate homework!” she wails , after an hour of struggle and avoidance. Exhausted and frustrated, you are inclined to agree with her .
Your child is not the only one howling about this nightly ritual. The debate over homework has been going on for decades, with the pendulum swinging back and forth between more and less homework for American students. Adding new fuel to the debate is that today’s kids are getting more homework in earlier grades. “The amount of homework that younger kids – ages 6 to 9 – have to do has gone up astronomically since the late ’80s,” says Alfie Kohn, author of the 2006 book The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing .
Homework detractors point to research that shows homework has no demonstrated benefits for students in the early elementary grades. They say younger students are not developmentally ready to learn the time management and work habits that nightly homework is assumed to teach, and that having grades depend on homework penalizes low-income students who may not have the resources at home to support nightly study sessions. On the pro-homework side are educators and parents who say that homework is necessary for reinforcing the lessons learned during the school day and that doing homework prepares kids for the work they’ll have in middle school, high school, and college.
Too young for nightly homework
Kohn falls solidly in the no-homework camp. He argues that homework in the elementary school years is more likely to drive students away from learning than to improve academic outcomes. What’s more, he says, time spent on homework is time not spent doing important activities like play, rest, and family time. He’s not alone in his view.
“The research clearly shows that there is no correlation between academic achievement and homework, especially in the lower grades,” says Denise Pope, senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and the author of the 2015 book, Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy Successful Kids .
“Homework only really helps in high school,” agrees Heather Shumaker, author of It’s OK to Go Up the Slide . “In elementary school, there is no evidence that it has academic benefit. And yet, we are piling it on more and more, younger and younger.”
Some elementary schools have made headlines in recent years by announcing no-homework policies. Gaithersburg Elementary School in Maryland issued a ban on homework in 2012, asking students to read at home each evening instead. Last year, the principal of New York elementary school P.S. 116 sent home a letter to parents explaining why students would not be assigned any homework.
But it’s not clear how widespread the trend is. “We tried to study what school districts have homework policies. But there are thousands of school districts in the U.S. It is very difficult to know what schools are doing,” says Gerald Le Tendre, Head of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of Promoting and Sustaining a Quality Teacher Workforce .
The pro-homework camp
Parents are among the most vocal detractors of banning or reducing homework in the elementary school grades. “Some teachers would like to not give homework,” says Shumaker. “But they are pressured to do it by either by administrators or parents. Parents want what is best for their kids. And many of them think having homework is it.”
Le Tendre agrees. “The amount of homework gets equated with some sort of academic rigor,” he explains. “Though I have seen nothing to support that idea.” But that doesn’t mean that all work done at home is bad. “If you have a highly motivated kid who loves mathematics and loves spending hours every night on Kahn Academy, they can get substantial benefit from doing homework,” says Le Tendre.
Studies show that homework has positive effects for certain students under certain conditions. For example, students with learning disabilities can benefit from homework if they have the support they need to complete it. Middle and high school students benefit from doing homework, though high school students get more benefit more than middle schoolers, and more homework definitely isn’t better — too much homework (more than about an hour and a half a night for middle schoolers and more than two and a half hours for high schoolers) has been shown to negatively affect academic performance.
And if the assigned homework is to spend time reading for pleasure, no one is likely to argue with that. “One thing we know does have a correlation with academic achievement is free reading time,” says Pope. “We know that that is something we want schools to encourage.”
In praise of purposeful homework
Points and counterpoints aside, elementary school homework is probably not going to disappear any time soon. But that doesn’t mean that your child should struggle with those worksheets beyond a reasonable amount of time. The National PTA’s research-based recommendation is ten to twenty minutes of homework a night in first grade and an additional ten minutes per grade level thereafter. If your child’s homework takes longer than that, tell their teacher. (The teacher can’t know that homework is a tear-filled, hours-long event that is making your child dread school if you don’t tell her.) Work with the teacher to make sure that the homework your child receives is appropriate for them. Homework should be challenging enough to be thought-provoking, rather than just busy work, and your child should be able to complete it independently and successfully most of the time.
Make sure you understand the teacher’s goal for assigning homework. Is the purpose of a particular assignment to review a concept covered in class? Get extra practice at a skill your child is working on mastering? Explore a topic further, according to your child’s interest? When homework is purposeful and assigned in an amount and at a difficulty level that is appropriate for your child, it will likely be easier to incorporate into your home life — and less likely to negatively affect your child’s attitude toward school.
And happily, if your child’s homework is to read for pleasure, you won’t have to ask her to put away her toys and sit down to a worksheet. Ask her to read a story to her friends while they have tea instead. Everyone will be happier.
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