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.”
It common for parents to want to help their children with their homework, but there is a fine line between helping your child and doing their homework for them. If you are doing even a small amount of their homework instead of guiding them, you are doing a disservice to your child.
Website Ask.com recently released results of a national survey of 778 parents with kids younger than age 18 about homework.
The survey showed that 43 percent of parents admitted to doing their child's homework for them. And in the South, 87 percent of parents admitted to doing their children's homework. The big question is why?
Teachers indicate that parents may do their child's homework for many reasons, with better grades topping the list. Parents are often quick to "take over" projects that involve research, creativity and model construction. While teachers can almost always spot a parent product vs. a child-produced one, it's often difficult to prove. But, better grade or not, the child suffers in the end because he hasn't actually learned what he was supposed to by doing the project in the first place.
Another reason cited for doing a child's homework is lack of time to do the work. Many parents have kids in daycare or after-school care until 6 or 6:30 p.m., and then tow the kid to an extracurricular activity after that.
Dinner is often something fast and on the run. By the time a child gets home, he's too exhausted to do his homework. Rather than changing the family schedule to provide ample time for homework and relaxation, well-meaning but misguided parents will actually do the homework for the child to turn in the next day.
Not only does that demonstrate unethical cheating to a child, but it also denies him a chance to master the content being taught. At test time, a child's knowledge (or lack) of the material will certainly come to light. While helping a child with homework is to be encouraged, especially one who is struggling with the assignment, actually doing a child's homework is parent involvement gone bad!
Would you cheat for your child?
Here are the key findings from the Ask.com survey:
- 87 percent of parents in the south admitted to doing their child's homework.
- 43 percent of parents nationwide admitted to doing their kid's homework.
- 47 percent of dads nationwide did their children's homework.
- 39 percent of moms nationwide did their children's homework.
- 38 percent of the homework done by parents is math.
- 28 percent of the homework done by parents is English.
Next time you think doing your child's homework is saving them time and stress, think again. Sit with your kids and provide them with guidance. Your child will thank you for it later.
Updated by Jill Ceder