Reformers in the Progressive Era (from the 1890s to 1920s) depicted homework as a “sin” that deprived children of their playtime. Many critics voice similar concerns today.
Yet there are many parents who feel that from early on, children need to do homework if they are to succeed in an increasingly competitive academic culture. School administrators and policy makers have also weighed in, proposing various policies on homework.
So, does homework help or hinder kids?
For the last 10 years, my colleagues and I have been investigating international patterns in homework using databases like the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). If we step back from the heated debates about homework and look at how homework is used around the world, we find the highest homework loads are associated with countries that have lower incomes and higher social inequality.
Does homework result in academic success?
Let’s first look at the global trends on homework.
Undoubtedly, homework is a global phenomenon; students from all 59 countries that participated in the 2007 Trends in Math and Science Study (TIMSS) reported getting homework. Worldwide, only less than 7% of fourth graders said they did no homework.
TIMSS is one of the few data sets that allow us to compare many nations on how much homework is given (and done). And the data show extreme variation.
For example, in some nations, like Algeria, Kuwait and Morocco, more than one in five fourth graders reported high levels of homework. In Japan, less than 3% of students indicated they did more than four hours of homework on a normal school night.
TIMSS data can also help to dispel some common stereotypes. For instance, in East Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan – countries that had the top rankings on TIMSS average math achievement – reported rates of heavy homework that were below the international mean.
In the Netherlands, nearly one out of five fourth graders reported doing no homework on an average school night, even though Dutch fourth graders put their country in the top 10 in terms of average math scores in 2007.
Going by TIMSS data, the US is neither “A Nation at Rest” as some have claimed, nor a nation straining under excessive homework load. Fourth and eighth grade US students fall in the middle of the 59 countries in the TIMSS data set, although only 12% of US fourth graders reported high math homework loads compared to an international average of 21%.
So, is homework related to high academic success?
At a national level, the answer is clearly no. Worldwide, homework is not associated with high national levels of academic achievement.
But, the TIMSS can’t be used to determine if homework is actually helping or hurting academic performance overall, it can help us see how much homework students are doing, and what conditions are associated with higher national levels of homework.
We have typically found that the highest homework loads are associated with countries that have lower incomes and higher levels of social inequality – not hallmarks that most countries would want to emulate.
Impact of homework on kids
TIMSS data also show us how even elementary school kids are being burdened with large amounts of homework.
Almost 10% of fourth graders worldwide (one in 10 children) reported spending multiple hours on homework each night. Globally, one in five fourth graders report 30 minutes or more of homework in math three to four times a week.
These reports of large homework loads should worry parents, teachers and policymakers alike.
Empirical studies have linked excessive homework to sleep disruption, indicating a negative relationship between the amount of homework, perceived stress and physical health.
What constitutes excessive amounts of homework varies by age, and may also be affected by cultural or family expectations. Young adolescents in middle school, or teenagers in high school, can study for longer duration than elementary school children.
But for elementary school students, even 30 minutes of homework a night, if combined with other sources of academic stress, can have a negative impact. Researchers in China have linked homework of two or more hours per night with sleep disruption.
Even though some cultures may normalize long periods of studying for elementary age children, there is no evidence to support that this level of homework has clear academic benefits. Also, when parents and children conflict over homework, and strong negative emotions are created, homework can actually have a negative association with academic achievement.
Should there be “no homework” policies?
Administrators and policymakers have not been reluctant to wade into the debates on homework and to formulate policies. France’s president, Francois Hollande, even proposed that homework be banned because it may have inegaliatarian effects.
However, “zero-tolerance” homework policies for schools, or nations, are likely to create as many problems as they solve because of the wide variation of homework effects. Contrary to what Hollande said, research suggests that homework is not a likely source of social class differences in academic achievement.
Homework, in fact, is an important component of education for students in the middle and upper grades of schooling.
Policymakers and researchers should look more closely at the connection between poverty, inequality and higher levels of homework. Rather than seeing homework as a “solution,” policymakers should question what facets of their educational system might impel students, teachers and parents to increase homework loads.
At the classroom level, in setting homework, teachers need to communicate with their peers and with parents to assure that the homework assigned overall for a grade is not burdensome, and that it is indeed having a positive effect.
Perhaps, teachers can opt for a more individualized approach to homework. If teachers are careful in selecting their assignments – weighing the student’s age, family situation and need for skill development – then homework can be tailored in ways that improve the chance of maximum positive impact for any given student.
I strongly suspect that when teachers face conditions such as pressure to meet arbitrary achievement goals, lack of planning time or little autonomy over curriculum, homework becomes an easy option to make up what could not be covered in class.
Whatever the reason, the fact is a significant percentage of elementary school children around the world are struggling with large homework loads. That alone could have long-term negative consequences for their academic success.
Do bulging backpacks mean learning? With his new book, The Homework Myth, expert Alfie Kohn says no. Here's why.
After spending most of the day in school, students are given additional assignments to be completed at home. This is a rather curious fact when you stop to think about it, but not as curious as the fact that few of us ever stop to think about it. It’s worth asking not only whether there are good reasons to support the nearly universal practice of assigning homework, but why it’s so often taken for granted—even by vast numbers of teachers and parents who are troubled by its impact on children.
The mystery deepens once you discover that widespread assumptions about the benefits of homework—higher achievement and the promotion of such virtues as self-discipline and responsibility—are not substantiated by the available evidence.
The Status Quo
Taking homework for granted would be understandable if most teachers decided from time to time that a certain lesson really needed to continue after school was over and, therefore, assigned students to read, write, figure out, or do something at home on those afternoons.
That scenario, however, bears no relation to what happens in most American schools. Rather, the point of departure seems to be, “We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week). Later on, we’ll figure out what to make them do.” This commitment to the idea of homework in the abstract is accepted by the overwhelming majority of schools—public and private, elementary and secondary. And it really doesn’t make sense, in part because of what the research shows:
• There is no evidence to demonstrate that homework benefits students below high school age. Even if you regard standardized test results as a useful measure (which I don’t), more homework isn’t correlated with higher scores for children in elementary school. The only effect that does show up is less positive attitudes on the part of kids who get more assignments.
• In high school, some studies do find a relationship between homework and test scores, but it tends to be small. More important, there’s no reason to think that higher achievement is caused by the homework.
• No study has ever confirmed the widely accepted assumption that homework yields nonacademic benefits—self-discipline, independence, perseverance, or better time-management skills—for students of any age. The idea that homework builds character or improves study skills is basically a myth.
Overtime in First Grade
In short, there’s no reason to think that most students would be at a disadvantage if homework were reduced or even eliminated. Yet the most striking trend in the past two decades has been the tendency to pile more and more assignments on younger and younger children. (Remember, that’s the age at which the benefits are most questionable, if not absent!)
Even school districts that had an unofficial custom not so long ago of waiting until the third grade before giving homework have abandoned that restraint. A long-term national survey discovered that the proportion of six- to eight-year-old children who reported having homework on a given day had climbed from 34 percent in 1981 to 64 percent in 2002, and the weekly time they spent studying at home more than doubled.
In fact, homework is even “becoming a routine part of the kindergarten experience,” according to a 2004 report.
The Negative Effects
It’s hard to deny that an awful lot of homework is exceptionally trying for an awful lot of children. Some are better able than others to handle the pressure of keeping up with a continuous flow of work, getting it all done on time, and turning out products that will meet with approval. Likewise, some assignments are less unpleasant than others. But in general, as one parent put it, homework simultaneously “overwhelms struggling kids and removes joy for high achievers.” Even reading for pleasure loses its appeal when children are told how much, or for how long, they must do it.
Even as they accept homework as inevitable, parents consistently report that it intrudes on family life. Many mothers and fathers spend every evening serving as homework monitors, a position for which they never applied. One professor of education, Gary Natriello at Columbia University, believed in the value of homework until his “own children started bringing home assignments in elementary school.” Even “the routine tasks sometimes carry directions that are difficult for two parents with advanced graduate degrees to understand,” he discovered.
What’s bad for parents is generally worse for kids. “School for [my son] is work,” one mother writes, “and by the end of a seven-hour workday, he’s exhausted. But like a worker on a double shift, he has to keep going” once he gets home. Exhaustion is just part of the problem, though. The psychological costs can be substantial for a child who not only is confused by a worksheet on long vowels or subtraction but also finds it hard to accept the whole idea of sitting still after school to do more schoolwork.
Furthermore, every unpleasant adjective that could be attached to homework—time-consuming, disruptive, stressful, demoralizing—applies with greater force in the case of kids for whom academic learning doesn’t come easily. Curt Dudley-Marling, a former elementary school teacher who is now a professor at Boston College, interviewed some two dozen families that included at least one struggling learner. In describing his findings, he talked about how “the demands of homework disrupted...family relationships” and led to daily stress and conflict.
The “nearly intolerable burden” imposed by homework was partly a result of how defeated such children felt, he added—how they invested hours without much to show for it; how parents felt frustrated when they pushed the child but also when they didn’t push, when they helped with the homework but also when they refrained from helping. “You end up ruining the relationship that you have with your kid,” one father told him.
And don’t forget: The idea that it is all worth it because homework helps children learn better simply isn’t true. There’s little pro to weigh against the significant cons.
Play Time Matters
On top of causing stress, more homework means kids have less time for other activities. There’s less opportunity for the kind of learning that doesn’t involve traditional skills. There’s less chance to read for pleasure, make friends, play games, get some exercise, get some rest, or just be a child.
Decades ago, the American Educational Research Association released this statement: “Whenever homework crowds out social experience, outdoor recreation, and creative activities, and whenever it usurps time that should be devoted to sleep, it is not meeting the basic needs of children and adolescents.” It is the rare school that respects the value of those activities—to the point of making sure that its policies are informed by that respect. But some courageous teachers and innovative schools are taking up the challenge.
A New Approach
There is no traditional homework at the Bellwether School in Williston, Vermont, except when the children ask for it or “are so excited about a project that they continue to work on it at home,” says Marta Beede, the school’s top administrator. “We encourage children to read at home—books they have selected.” She and her colleagues figure that kids “work really hard when they’re at school. To then say that they’re going to have to work more when they get home doesn’t seem to honor how much energy they were expending during the day.”
Teachers ought to be able to exercise their judgment in determining how they want to deal with homework, taking account of the needs and preferences of the specific children in their classrooms, rather than having to conform to a fixed policy that has been imposed on them.
High school teacher Leslie Frothingham watched her own two children struggle with enormous quantities of homework in middle school. The value of it never seemed clear to her. “What other ‘job’ is there where you work all day, come home, have dinner, then work all night,” she asks, “unless you’re some type A attorney? It’s not a good way to live one’s life. You miss out on self-reflection, community.” Thus, when she became a teacher, she chose to have a no-homework policy.
And if her advanced chemistry students are thriving academically without homework, which they are, surely we can rethink our policies in the younger grades.
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