The debate about “how much homework is the right amount of homework” has been raging on and off for over a century. Even in the earliest years of public education, experts could not agree, stating either support of or objection to homework based on how it was valued for academic progress or character building, or how it was affected by issues outside of the teacher’s control.
The History of the Homework Controversy
As early as the beginning of the 20th century, pediatricians were concerned about students who were not receiving enough fresh air, sunshine and exercise as increased homework was assigned to younger and younger students. Many progressive educators recommended eliminating homework for students under the age of 15. While many districts did not abolish homework entirely, the trend was to limit the amount and eliminate it in primary grades.
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, however, the no-homework trend quickly turned around. The United States wanted to stay competitive in an increasingly technological world, and homework was seen as a means to accelerate learning and keep pace with global changes. In addition, the admissions process for college was becoming increasingly demanding and complex, according to Time.
During the last half century, the homework debate has continued to swing back and forth. For a while, homework was believed to cause excessive pressure on students, followed by an era when students were expected to work more and harder. By the late 1990s, the tide had turned again, when homework for young students was under fire from many parents, teachers and administrators.
Does Homework Increase Academic Success?
Despite the hope of parents and teachers alike, there is little evidence that homework significantly helps students progress. Studies have been done, like the 2006 meta-analysis by Harris Cooper at Duke University, to find what effect, if any, homework has on the success of students at every age. Books have been researched and written, like Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs by education professor Cathy Vatterott, investigating the correlation or causation of homework and achievement.
While Cooper’s conclusion gives credit to homework for improving study habits, self-discipline and independent problem-solving, the study also showed that “homework can cause physical and emotional fatigue, fuel negative attitudes about learning, and limit leisure time for children.” Vatterott argues that, even with evidence of a correlation between homework and academic achievement, there is no proof that homework causes the achievement.
The Misconceptions and Drawbacks of Homework
In her book, Vatterott explains how parents, teachers and administrators have traditionally bought into the philosophy of homework every night simply because it appeared to have a positive effect on student achievement. In addition, making changes to a system that appeared to be working seemed risky. There are, however, several reasons why this tradition at the elementary level is misguided and even problematic.
Assigning homework reflects the belief that intellectual activity is more valuable than other activities. Temple University Professor Dr. Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek offers an example of how real life provides the same benefit as a math worksheet.
“Believe it or not, you learn about math when you’re playing different board games,” Hirsh-Pasek explains. “And you learn about space when you put together train tracks and play with Legos. You learn important skills, like how to get along with other people when you play with other people. They’re learning way more important skills when they’re not doing their homework.”
Homework can be seen as the means to teach responsibility and time management. While the requirement to finish a specified assignment at home may instill a sense of responsibility in students who can and do work well independently, that assumes parents have little involvement in the exercise.
If a student has an involved parent who does a backpack check every morning, the student — not the parent — is considered responsible. If students must finish their assignments before television, video games or playtime, again, the motivation is just a means to an end.
Some educators and communities believe that more homework is the sign of a rigorous curriculum. Vatterott does not agree that “more is better.” In fact, with respect to homework, that argument “ignores the quality of work and the level of learning required.”
“Rigor is challenge — but it is not necessarily the same challenge for each student. Given the diverse nature of students, challenging learning experiences will vary for different students.”
Students who do not complete homework are perceived to be “bad” students. This narrow definition does not take into account the presence or lack of parental support, the students’ family responsibilities, the students’ ability to function independently, or the students’ need for support or accommodation. It is true that many “good” students consistently turn in completed homework.
It should not be assumed, however, that all students have equal access to adults capable of helping them or that they have sufficient time, physical space or cognitive ability to work on their own. For students in single-parent families, in families experiencing extreme or generational poverty, or in dual-language families, daily homework can add disproportionate stress.
Is there an Appropriate Amount of Homework for Elementary Students?
Educational researcher Youki Terada reports that the National PTA and the National Education Association support the traditional 10 minutes of homework per grade in school but that both parents and teachers are quick to qualify that standard.
At the elementary level, when students are learning how to learn, assigning even 10 or 20 minutes of homework to children who are not yet prepared to work independently can lead to a growing dislike for school and learning in general. It also puts undue pressure on families that place a high value on both quality time together and the importance of daily chores.
However, there is one activity that researchers, parents and teachers agree is worth making time for: reading. According to Hirsh-Pasek, “There is practically nothing that will be more important than reading time. It’s a time when kids learn integrated narrative. It’s a time when they learn about relationships and hear vocabulary that they don’t hear anywhere else.” In fact, the current trend is to eliminate homework entirely except for independent and family reading time.
The Future of Homework
Outside of the generic 10-minute standard, there has been no consensus drawn in the homework debate. Those who promote no homework are not convinced that the benefits of homework outweigh the disadvantages while those who believe in the value of homework will not recognize the concerns.
As experts continue to research this subject and the world continues to find new areas to investigate, good teachers will continue to assess the true value of sending work home each day. As concerned educators, they must carefully determine what is best for each student, especially in the elementary grades.
Second-grade teacher and contemporary no-homework pioneer Brandy Young puts it this way: “Spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success … eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside and get your child to bed early.”
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