The Great Homework Debate
By Tracey Dowdy
Michelle’s eleventh grader has at least three hours of homework a day, seven days a week, while Jacki’s daughter, also in eleventh grade but at a different school, hardly ever has homework, and if she does, gets it done on her own. Sunny’s fourth graders attend a no-homework school, but they’re expected to read at home and to study for tests and Virginia’s Standards of Learning (standardized testing), while Jacqueline’s 4th grade son gets what his teacher refers to as “unhomework,” and students can choose whether or not to do it. Stephanie, a teacher herself, says, “My 3rd grader has had the exact same homework assignment every single night for the entire school year. He’s bored out of his mind. It used to take him about 15 minutes and now he can easily spend an hour on it, not because it’s long or difficult…just because it’s that boring. Homework should be used for students to practice what they learn in class, not just as something to do.”
Homework has once again come under fire as studies have shown the extra work outside the classroom may not be as effective as we’ve been told. A hundred years ago, educators and critics determined that homework made students “unduly stressed,” and so many school districts banned it for students under seventh grade. But, when the Cold War came along with its fear of American kids falling behind their Soviet counterparts, homework saw a resurgence, only to fall out of fashion once again during the progressive 1960s and 1970s when critics lamented that it was stifling student creativity and expression. Attitudes flip-flopped again in April of 1983 when then-President Ronald Reagan encouraged the press to publicize a government report warning of “a rising tide of mediocrity” eroding the American educational system.
For years, the “10-minute rule” has been the standard for assigning homework, meaning a daily maximum of 10 minutes of homework per grade level. So, third graders should have no more than 30 minutes of homework a night, while seniors in high school can expect about two hours of homework each night. Both the National PTA and the National Education Association support this standard. However, according to research by Pew, every day, American teenagers are averaging twice as much time spent on homework as their predecessors did back in the 1990s. It’s not just high schoolers. A 2015 study by The American Journal of Family Therapy discovered that despite expert’s recommendations that Kindergarteners have zero homework assignments, many were spending up to 25 minutes a night on it.
Joy Ashford, a teacher with over 18 years of experience in the classroom and leadership roles in education, says, “Homework is completely unnecessary before Jr. High/Sr. High. In elementary, it’s helpful to have parents read with their child(ren) but, when that is given as essential homework, you are creating a divide between kids who don’t have that supportive network in their home. I’ve taught all three levels of school – elementary, middle, (and) high school. In elementary, I only asked kids to read at home and I made sure I had time to read with them during the day so no one was left out. (For) Junior/Senior high, I feel the value of homework is to create work habits and skills. Never to cover new material and never a punishment. I think it’s so much more important to “play”… Homework for the sake of homework is not the hill I’m willing to die on.”
School districts and educators are becoming more conscious of Ashford’s point that homework often creates a divide between the haves and the have nots. Not all students have a parent or caregiver able to assist with difficult concepts, access to the internet, and a quiet or safe space in which to study, meaning students without such support are at risk of falling behind their peers based solely on access to resources, not ability. In a 2016 report, “The Condition of Education,” the National Center for Education Statistics found that children living in poverty were likely to experience lower levels of academic performance “beginning in kindergarten and extending through elementary and high school.”
A 2006 study by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper found that high school students who did homework performed better in school overall. However, the correlation was stronger for students grades seven through twelve—for students in elementary school, there was a weak relationship between homework and performance. Cooper’s report demonstrated that while homework improves study habits, attitudes toward school, develops self-discipline, curiosity, and independent problem-solving skills, some research showed that homework could lead to both physical and emotional fatigue, lead to negative attitudes about learning, and interfere with recreation and play time for children. After all his research, Cooper recommended that further study of the potential effects of homework is necessary.
Stephanie, a former high school teacher, now teaching at the college level, says, “At some point, students do need to get used to homework/projects/essays/studying at home if they are enrolled in college prep classes because they need to be prepared for college… One of the biggest concerns at the college level is that students are not coming in with study skills because a lot of high schools have eliminated homework and many are providing outlines/notes for their students instead of requiring them to be able to take their own notes. About 80% of the students at the college I work at are classified as underprepared (however we’re an open admission institution which will always be higher, but that gives you an idea of how well high schools are preparing their students for higher education).”
Perhaps the best answer is from a note Holly found in her sons’ room entitled “Declaration of Independence,” that I think sums up the attitude of more than just 4th-grade boys like himself. “We should start war wiht teachers. Stop homework…we will teach teachers not to be so rude to us. Homework is wrong.” Holly says, “You’ll note that the penmanship and spelling could use some attention, so I’ll say not all of the homework is a total waste of time.”
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.