Facts Why There Should Be No Homework Debate

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:

The issue

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 research

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.

The debate

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.”

A TIMSS (Trends in Math and Science Study) survey, conducted in 2007, revealed that fourth grader students in countries that set below average levels of homework were more academically successful in math and science than those in countries that set above average levels. In Japan – ranked second in the results table – only three percent of students reported a particularly heavy workload of over three hours a night while a staggering 20 percent of Dutch students – whose scores were in the international top 10 – claimed to do no homework whatsoever. This is in stark contrast to countries like Greece and Thailand, where higher workloads have done nothing to rectify lower scores.

 

These results are not alone in debunking the myth that homework in any way benefits the academic performance of elementary students. So why, we should ask, are policymakers and educators so hell-bent on enforcing it? In his 2006 publication The Homework Myth, prolific author and outspoken critic of the current educational system Alfie Kohn set out a well argued and evidentially attested thesis saying that the purpose of homework is twofold. Firstly it’s meant to instill an air of competitiveness in children, not only within the physical classroom, but, because of the quantitatively driven approach of policy experts, within the global classroom – against China, Singapore and Finland, for example. Secondly, homework is used as a weapon to combat adults’ inherent mistrust of children, keeping them busy so they don’t run riot. This latter suggestion may baffle belief, but a concerned parent’s response to the suggestion that homework be banned (‘we have to have homework… otherwise the kids won’t have structure and they will just come home and fool around’) attests to its current orthodoxy.

Conclusion

The thing about homework is that is doesn’t work. As shown by numerous studies, it brings no educational benefits, acts as a root cause of conflict between children, parents and teachers and has detrimental mental and physical effects on children that, by the fact that they’re avoidable, are absolutely inexcusable. Children are not the only ones to fear the evils of homework though. Teachers, under increasing amounts of pressure to meet targets, cover curricula and achieve grades, are incentivized to set more and more of it and grade more and more of it; something that wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t so aware of its utter pointlessness.

 

The most important problem, however, is that homework is more closely associated with punishment than with pleasure. Made to be completed during time that should be spent engaging in creative, playful and recreational pursuits, homework doesn’t even have the courtesy to be enjoyable by nature – as is completely apparent from my students’ faces when I fulfill my duties to the school in setting it for them. And such truth is not surprising when you consider that for homework to be enjoyable, it would have to be everything it’s not: optional instead of mandatory, creative rather than prescribed and objectively appreciated instead of subjectively assessed. Improvement to our children’s education, until we redefine what our definition of education really is, can only be achieved through one thing, its removal.

 

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