Every school day brings something new, but there is one status quo most parents expect: homework. The old adage that practice makes perfect seems to make sense when it comes to schoolwork. But, while hunkering down after dinner among books and worksheets might seem like a natural part of childhood, there's more research now than ever suggesting that it shouldn't be so.
Many in the education field today are looking for evidence to support the case for homework, but are coming up empty-handed. “Homework is all pain and no gain,” says author Alfie Kohn. In his book The Homework Myth, Kohn points out that no study has ever found a correlation between homework and academic achievement in elementary school, and there is little reason to believe that homework is necessary in high school. In fact, it may even diminish interest in learning, says Kohn.
If you've ever had a late night argument with your child about completing homework, you probably know first-hand that homework can be a strain on families. In an effort to reduce that stress, a growing number of schools are banning homework.
Mary Jane Cera is the academic administrator for the Kino School, a private, nonprofit K-12 school in Tucson, Arizona, which maintains a no-homework policy across all grades. The purpose of the policy is to make sure learning remains a joy for students, not a second shift of work that impedes social time and creative activity. Cera says that when new students are told there will be no homework assignments, they breathe a sigh of relief.
Many proponents of homework argue that life is filled with things we don't like to do, and that homework teaches self-discipline, time management and other nonacademic life skills. Kohn challenges this popular notion: If kids have no choice in the matter of homework, they're not really exercising judgment, and are instead losing their sense of autonomy.
At the Kino school, Cera says children often choose to take their favorite parts of school home. “A lot of what we see kids doing is continuing to write in journals, practicing music with their friends, and taking experiments home to show their parents,” she says. Anecdotal information from Kino graduates suggests that the early control over their education continues to serve them well into college; they feel better equipped to manage their time and approach professors with questions.
One of the reasons that we continue to dole out mountains of homework, Kohn says, is our obsession with standardized tests. This concern is especially relevant with the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results placing American students 25th in math and 21st in science. “The standards and accountability craze that has our students in its grip argues for getting tougher with children, making them do more mindless worksheets at earlier ages so that we can score higher in international assessments,” Kohn says. “It's not about learning; it's about winning.”
Even if we can agree on the importance of kids doing better on tests like PISA, Kohn says, there is no research to suggest that homework is our ticket to success. Our “competitors” in the global marketplace are coming up with the same conclusions about homework. A recent comparative study of kids in China, Japan and two U.S. cities shows there is no correlation between time spent on studying and academic achievement.
How Much Is Too Much?
So, what's the solution? The National Parent Teacher Association suggests children in kindergarten through second grade should do homework for no more than 10 to 20 minutes a day, and for third through sixth graders the limit is 30-60 minutes a day. Kohn says the question isn't just, "How much homework is too much?" Many parents would be delighted if teachers reduced the amount their children are getting, but he says the quality of those assignments needs to be addressed as well. “Some of this stuff isn't worth two minutes of their children's time,” he says.
Kohn believes that the “default” setting for schools should be no homework, but that if evening work was assigned on occasion, it better be for a good reason. That means repetitive practice problems from 500-page textbooks get tossed out the window. Instead, Kohn says parents should be asking two fundamental questions:
- Does this assignment make kids more excited about the topic and learning in general?
- Does this assignment help kids to think more deeply about questions that matter?
What You Can Do
For parents who want to probe deeper into the quality of homework their child is getting, Kohn says the first step is to check the school's policy. In the case where poorly designed homework is being given, it's time to talk to the teacher, sit down with the principal, write a letter to the editor, and/or speak up at the next school board meeting. “It makes sense to do this with other parents,” he says. “Ten parents saying that homework does more harm than good are hard to ignore.”
Wherever the homework debate goes next, be it the front pages or on the back burner, it's worth taking a moment to examine if we're asking the right questions about our children's education. The good news is, it's never too late to start.
For more information on Alfie Kohn and his latest book, The Homework Myth, visit www.alfiekohn.org
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As kids return to school, debate is heating up once again over how they should spend their time after they leave the classroom for the day.
The no-homework policy of a second-grade teacher in Texas went viral last week, earning praise from parents across the country who lament the heavy workload often assigned to young students. Brandy Young told parents she would not formally assign any homework this year, asking students instead to eat dinner with their families, play outside and go to bed early.
But the question of how much work children should be doing outside of school remains controversial, and plenty of parents take issue with no-homework policies, worried their kids are losing a potential academic advantage. Here’s what you need to know:
For decades, the homework standard has been a “10-minute rule,” which recommends a daily maximum of 10 minutes of homework per grade level. Second graders, for example, should do about 20 minutes of homework each night. High school seniors should complete about two hours of homework each night. The National PTA and the National Education Association both support that guideline.
But some schools have begun to give their youngest students a break. A Massachusetts elementary school has announced a no-homework pilot program for the coming school year, lengthening the school day by two hours to provide more in-class instruction. “We really want kids to go home at 4 o’clock, tired. We want their brain to be tired,” Kelly Elementary School Principal Jackie Glasheen said in an interview with a local TV station. “We want them to enjoy their families. We want them to go to soccer practice or football practice, and we want them to go to bed. And that’s it.”
A New York City public elementary school implemented a similar policy last year, eliminating traditional homework assignments in favor of family time. The change was quickly met with outrage from some parents, though it earned support from other education leaders.
New solutions and approaches to homework differ by community, and these local debates are complicated by the fact that even education experts disagree about what’s best for kids.
The most comprehensive research on homework to date comes from a 2006 meta-analysis by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, who found evidence of a positive correlation between homework and student achievement, meaning students who did homework performed better in school. The correlation was stronger for older students—in seventh through 12th grade—than for those in younger grades, for whom there was a weak relationship between homework and performance.
Cooper’s analysis focused on how homework impacts academic achievement—test scores, for example. His report noted that homework is also thought to improve study habits, attitudes toward school, self-discipline, inquisitiveness and independent problem solving skills. On the other hand, some studies he examined showed that homework can cause physical and emotional fatigue, fuel negative attitudes about learning and limit leisure time for children. At the end of his analysis, Cooper recommended further study of such potential effects of homework.
Despite the weak correlation between homework and performance for young children, Cooper argues that a small amount of homework is useful for all students. Second-graders should not be doing two hours of homework each night, he said, but they also shouldn’t be doing no homework.
Not all education experts agree entirely with Cooper’s assessment.
Cathy Vatterott, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, supports the “10-minute rule” as a maximum, but she thinks there is not sufficient proof that homework is helpful for students in elementary school.
“Correlation is not causation,” she said. “Does homework cause achievement, or do high achievers do more homework?”
Vatterott, the author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, thinks there should be more emphasis on improving the quality of homework tasks, and she supports efforts to eliminate homework for younger kids.
“I have no concerns about students not starting homework until fourth grade or fifth grade,” she said, noting that while the debate over homework will undoubtedly continue, she has noticed a trend toward limiting, if not eliminating, homework in elementary school.
The issue has been debated for decades. A TIME cover in 1999 read: “Too much homework! How it’s hurting our kids, and what parents should do about it.” The accompanying story noted that the launch of Sputnik in 1957 led to a push for better math and science education in the U.S. The ensuing pressure to be competitive on a global scale, plus the increasingly demanding college admissions process, fueled the practice of assigning homework.
“The complaints are cyclical, and we’re in the part of the cycle now where the concern is for too much,” Cooper said. “You can go back to the 1970s, when you’ll find there were concerns that there was too little, when we were concerned about our global competitiveness.”
Cooper acknowledged that some students really are bringing home too much homework, and their parents are right to be concerned.
“A good way to think about homework is the way you think about medications or dietary supplements,” he said. “If you take too little, they’ll have no effect. If you take too much, they can kill you. If you take the right amount, you’ll get better.”