Why Do Kids Have Homework


Milo reads. (Lauren Knight)

I watch as my 8-year-old pushes through the front door ahead of me, tosses his coat to the right, somewhere in the direction of the coat hooks lined along the entryway, kicks off his shoes slightly further down the line, and grabs the thick sixth book of Harry Potter, which he is devouring in record time, for the fourth time. He then plops down on the couch, not to be disturbed or interrupted by even the loudest yells and shrieks of joy from his younger brothers for the next two hours. His after-school routine during the winter months looks something like this not because he has been prescribed a reading list by his teacher, but because he has been freed of the unnecessary burden of homework. Two years ago, at a different school, this was not the case.

Milo entered kindergarten a week after his sixth birthday, two weeks after he learned to read, one day after he sat in our living room and devoured an enormous stack of library books all by himself. He was unstoppable, proud beyond measure. His thirst for knowledge in the form of books, a new magical world suddenly and miraculously opened up to him. And then, during his first week of kindergarten, he came home with a thick packet of worksheets along with instructions to complete the work by the following Monday. At first, he eagerly tackled the work: the coloring pages, the sight words, the beginning math in the form of counting and circling things in different colors. But then as the weeks wore on, he started to dread the work. It wasn’t that the worksheets were difficult (on the contrary, they were more like busywork), it was that they were disruptive. They kept him from doing what he wanted to do with his after-school time, which was read, or sometimes play outside, or wrestle around in the living room with his brothers. More than once, the same packet was sent home — the same, exact worksheets, all stapled together in the same exact order — and the obvious pointlessness of it all was not lost on Milo. He whined, “I’ve already done all of these!” but begrudgingly went through the motions so he could get back to what he really wanted to do, which was learn.

And that was when I started to question it all. Was homework really necessary, and moreover, was it doing more harm than good?

The homework debate isn’t all that new. People question how much homework is too much, or too little, and ask How can we improve homework completion and How can we motivate our children to complete or be more enthusiastic about homework? But what if we, as parents, are asking the wrong questions about homework? What if, instead of asking How much time per night or How will this affect my child’s overall grade in this class or How involved should I be in getting my child to complete his homework? we asked, Why homework? What is the benefit of homework for my child? What effect will homework have on my child’s well-being and emotional health?

Articles entitled “Too Much of a Good Thing?” and “The Homework Ate My Family” freely cover the wide range of harms imposed by homework, yet fail to ask, Why should children be doing it in the first place? My argument: they shouldn’t be.

[When a kindergarten assignment is really for the parents]

Alfie Kohn, author of “The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing,” examined the usual defenses of homework — that it promotes higher achievement, reinforces learning, and teaches study skills and responsibility — and found that none of these assumptions actually passes the tests of research, logic, or experience. The startling trend, despite research showing that homework for elementary students is not an effective predictor of academic success (and on the contrary, contributes to more negative attitudes towards school in general), is that the age at which homework is being assigned has dropped lower and lower over the past 30 years. School districts that used to hold off on assigning homework until the third grade are now piling it on to kindergartners on a regular basis. Kindergartners, some of whom just recently gave up taking afternoon naps, are spending seven hours in school only to come home to more work. Kohn argues that homework is a burden on parents, stressful for young children, and leads to family conflict.

In addition to these negative dynamics, homework leaves less time for other activities. Children spend all day in school. When they walk out the door of their school and into their homes, shouldn’t they have the right to just be home? Where is the time to just hang out with parents or siblings they haven’t seen all day? Isn’t seven hours a day in school enough?

Kohn and others argue that children and families need their time outside of school for living: for playing, exercising, cooking and enjoying food with their families, doing chores, playing music or drawing pictures, exploring nature, reading for pleasure, discussing things with parents and just goofing around. Children need time to be children. Just as your job does not have the right to dictate to you how you spend your time outside of work, neither should a child’s school be able to dictate how he spends his time outside of school. This is not a new way of thinking by any means; in the mid-1960s, the American Educational Research Association stated: “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.” So why are we moving backwards, assigning more homework instead of less, or none at all?

Much of the push for homework comes from a mistrust of children’s innate need to learn. Parents and educators fear that without constant pushing and prodding, a child will learn nothing at all, seek out no knowledge, and fail to thrive academically. But the reverse may be true. Deborah Meier, American educator and founder of the modern small schools movement, stated in the Homework Myth, “Kids are natural learners: we do not need to inspire them to be so — we need to keep from extinguishing it.” Homework, unfortunately, seems to do just that. Most children hate and dread homework, put it off for as long as possible. According to Kohn, homework may be the “single most reliable extinguisher of the flame of curiosity.”

What homework does seem to teach is not critical thinking skills or a love for learning, but an ability to do what one is told, complete instructions, and regurgitate facts onto a test the following day. This is in fact an extremely shallow view of learning, as standardized tests are a poor measure of intellectual proficiency. In fact, more recent studies, such as those conducted by Sandra L. Hofferth and John F. Sandberg (Journal of Marriage and Family, 2001) show that time commitment to homework was “not associated with higher or lower test scores on any [achievement] tests.” Rather, the amount of time children spend reading for pleasure was strongly correlated with higher test scores. If, as Kohn revealed from such studies, there is no academic benefit to homework, why do some still argue its importance?

A common argument from homework proponents is that the act of doing homework every night is in itself “character building,” that it helps with study skills and self-discipline, initiative, and independence. However, these ideas are just that: ideas, with no studies to support them. One might argue that time management and study skills can be learned during the seven hours children are in school; nothing magical happens when they enter their own homes to make time management skill acquisition happen. Oftentimes the burden of enforcer simply transfers from teacher to parent once the child is home — the parent is expected to remind the child of her responsibility to complete her homework before she engages in any other activities, or even introduce reward or punishment systems in order to reinforce homework completion. If the parent leaves the child to remember to do her homework herself, there is often backlash from the school in the form of phone calls, emails, notes home, or meetings regarding the lack of homework enforcement. How much responsibility or independence is a child really learning through this dynamic? Perhaps what we mean here is “conformity” rather than responsibility, as in this sense, we are speaking of a child’s willingness or acceptance of what she has been told to do. True independence and responsibility (including greater academic self-confidence) comes when a child is given a greater sense of autonomy, which is, not surprisingly, associated with more successful learning. Homework, or homework, should be chosen by the child if it is to encompass true learning.

So what happens when a teacher decides to stop giving out homework, and instead focuses on covering the entirety of the material during class time? When students are intrigued or inspired by something they learn about in school, they naturally seek out more knowledge on their own, in their own time. They take charge of their own learning. Children and adolescents have an intrinsic motivation to learn; when freed from homework, they often create their own assignments and projects out of their curiosity and interest. I have seen this firsthand time and time again with my own children. Inspired by a lesson on geometry and interested in learning about algebra, Milo recently asked my husband to teach him the basics; they spent time on Khan Academy’s site together. Afterwards, Milo asked for equations to solve and sat at the dining room table completing them. Other times, I have watched as my 6-year-old, Oliver, writes out square root charts to himself (inspired by what he had learned earlier that day in school) while I read aloud at bedtime. They read constantly, and ask to be read to. No one forces them, or even suggests to them that they should be doing this work. They do so because they choose it, because they are inspired, because they have been allowed the space to learn.

To those who will inevitably jump to the conclusion that parents who don’t support homework don’t support education — think again. It is exactly those parents who support a true and genuine love of learning, who value curiosity and observe the human desire and thirst for knowledge, who will question and research and challenge the status quo. It may be argued that parents who question homework policies love education most of all, for to challenge a position, one must thoroughly think about it. One must hold it in one’s mind, turn it upside-down, and dump its contents out, sift through its components to discover and rediscover its value. Out of love for our children and their joy of learning, we must realize that there is a different way to approach education — that just because we have always done something does not mean it is the right path for the future. More parents are saying no to homework. Maybe you should too.

Lauren Knight is a frequent contributor to On Parenting. She blogs at Crumb Bums.

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Why schools are failing our boys

Many students and their parents are frazzled by the amount of homework being piled on in the schools. Yet researchers say that American students have just the right amount of homework.

“Kids today are overwhelmed!” a parent recently wrote in an email to GreatSchools.org “My first-grade son was required to research a significant person from history and write a paper of at least two pages about the person, with a bibliography. How can he be expected to do that by himself? He just started to learn to read and write a couple of months ago. Schools are pushing too hard and expecting too much from kids.”

Diane Garfield, a fifth-grade teacher in San Francisco, concurs. “I believe that we’re stressing children out,” she says.

But hold on, it’s not just the kids who are stressed out. “Teachers nowadays assign these almost college-level projects with requirements that make my mouth fall open with disbelief,” says another frustrated parent. “It’s not just the kids who suffer!”

“How many people take home an average of two hours or more of work that must be completed for the next day?” asks Tonya Noonan Herring, a New Mexico mother of three, an attorney and a former high school English teacher. “Most of us, even attorneys, do not do this. Bottom line: students have too much homework and most of it is not productive or necessary.”

Homework studies

How do educational researchers weigh in on the issue? According to Brian Gill, a senior social scientist at the Rand Corporation, there is no evidence that kids are doing more homework than they did before.

“If you look at high school kids in the late ’90s, they’re not doing substantially more homework than kids did in the ’80s, ’70s, ’60s or the ’40s,” he says. “In fact, the trends through most of this time period are pretty flat. And most high school students in this country don’t do a lot of homework. The median appears to be about four hours a week.”

Education researchers like Gill base their conclusions, in part, on data gathered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.

“It doesn’t suggest that most kids are doing a tremendous amount,” says Gill. “That’s not to say there aren’t any kids with too much homework. There surely are some. There’s enormous variation across communities. But it’s not a crisis in that it’s a very small proportion of kids who are spending an enormous amount of time on homework.”

Etta Kralovec, author of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning, disagrees, saying NAEP data is not a reliable source of information. “Students take the NAEP test and one of the questions they have to fill out is, ‘How much homework did you do last night’ Anybody who knows schools knows that teachers by and large do not give homework the night before a national assessment. It just doesn’t happen. Teachers are very clear with kids that they need to get a good night’s sleep and they need to eat well to prepare for a test.

“So asking a kid how much homework they did the night before a national test and claiming that that data tells us anything about the general run of the mill experience of kids and homework over the school year is, I think, really dishonest.”

Further muddying the waters is a AP/AOL poll that suggests that most Americans feel that their children are getting the right amount of homework. It found that 57% of parents felt that their child was assigned about the right amount of homework, 23% thought there was too little and 19% thought there was too much.

One indisputable fact

One homework fact that educators do agree upon is that the young child today is doing more homework than ever before.

“Parents are correct in saying that they didn’t get homework in the early grades and that their kids do,” says Harris Cooper, professor of psychology and director of the education program at Duke University.

Gill quantifies the change this way: “There has been some increase in homework for the kids in kindergarten, first grade and second grade. But it’s been an increase from zero to 20 minutes a day. So that is something that’s fairly new in the last quarter century.”

The history of homework

In his research, Gill found that homework has always been controversial. “Around the turn of the 20th century, the Ladies’ Home Journal carried on a crusade against homework. They thought that kids were better off spending their time outside playing and looking at clouds. The most spectacular success this movement had was in the state of California, where in 1901 the legislature passed a law abolishing homework in grades K-8. That lasted about 15 years and then was quietly repealed. Then there was a lot of activism against homework again in the 1930s.”

The proponents of homework have remained consistent in their reasons for why homework is a beneficial practice, says Gill. “One, it extends the work in the classroom with additional time on task. Second, it develops habits of independent study. Third, it’s a form of communication between the school and the parents. It gives parents an idea of what their kids are doing in school.”

The anti-homework crowd has also been consistent in their reasons for wanting to abolish or reduce homework.

“The first one is children’s health,” says Gill. “A hundred years ago, you had medical doctors testifying that heavy loads of books were causing children’s spines to be bent.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems. There were also concerns about excessive amounts of stress.

“Although they didn’t use the term ‘stress,'” says Gill. “They worried about ‘nervous breakdowns.'”

“In the 1930s, there were lots of graduate students in education schools around the country who were doing experiments that claimed to show that homework had no academic value – that kids who got homework didn’t learn any more than kids who didn’t,” Gill continues. Also, a lot of the opposition to homework, in the first half of the 20th century, was motivated by a notion that it was a leftover from a 19th-century model of schooling, which was based on recitation, memorization and drill. Progressive educators were trying to replace that with something more creative, something more interesting to kids.”

The more-is-better movement

Garfield, the San Francisco fifth-grade teacher, says that when she started teaching 30 years ago, she didn’t give any homework. “Then parents started asking for it,” she says. “I got In junior high and high school there’s so much homework, they need to get prepared.” So I bought that one. I said, ‘OK, they need to be prepared.’ But they don’t need two hours.”

Cooper sees the trend toward more homework as symptomatic of high-achieving parents who want the best for their children. “Part of it, I think, is pressure from the parents with regard to their desire to have their kids be competitive for the best universities in the country. The communities in which homework is being piled on are generally affluent communities.”

Homework guidelines

What’s a parent to do, you ask? Fortunately, there are some sanity-saving homework guidelines.

Cooper points to “The 10-Minute Rule” formulated by the National PTA and the National Education Association, which suggests that kids should be doing about 10 minutes of homework per night per grade level. In other words, 10 minutes for first-graders, 20 for second-graders and so on.

Too much homework vs. the optimal amount

Cooper has found that the correlation between homework and achievement is generally supportive of these guidelines. “We found that for kids in elementary school there was hardly any relationship between how much homework young children did and how well they were doing in school, but in middle school the relationship is positive and increases until the kids were doing between an hour to two hours a night, which is right where the 10-minute rule says it’s going to be optimal.

“After that it didn’t go up anymore. Kids that reported doing more than two hours of homework a night in middle school weren’t doing any better in school than kids who were doing between an hour to two hours.”

Garfield has a very clear homework policy that she distributes to her parents at the beginning of each school year. “I give one subject a night. It’s what we were studying in class or preparation for the next day. It should be done within half an hour at most. I believe that children have many outside activities now and they also need to live fully as children. To have them work for six hours a day at school and then go home and work for hours at night does not seem right. It doesn’t allow them to have a childhood.”

International comparisons

How do American kids fare when compared to students in other countries? Professors Gerald LeTendre and David Baker of Pennsylvania State University conclude in their 2005 book, National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling, that American middle-schoolers do more homework than their peers in Japan, Korea or Taiwan, but less than their peers in Singapore and Hong Kong.

One of the surprising findings of their research was that more homework does not correlate with higher test scores. LeTendre notes: “That really flummoxes people because they say, ‘Doesn’t doing more homework mean getting better scores?’ The answer quite simply is no.”

Homework is a complicated thing

To be effective, homework must be used in a certain way, he says. “Let me give you an example. Most homework in the fourth grade in the U.S. is worksheets. Fill them out, turn them in, maybe the teacher will check them, maybe not. That is a very ineffective use of homework. An effective use of homework would be the teacher sitting down and thinking ‘Elizabeth has trouble with number placement, so I’m going to give her seven problems on number placement.’ Then the next day the teacher sits down with Elizabeth and she says, ‘Was this hard for you? Where did you have difficulty?’ Then she gives Elizabeth either more or less material. As you can imagine, that kind of homework rarely happens.”

Shotgun homework

“What typically happens is people give what we call ‘shotgun homework’: blanket drills, questions and problems from the book. On a national level that’s associated with less well-functioning school systems,” he says. “In a sense, you could sort of think of it as a sign of weaker teachers or less well-prepared teachers. Over time, we see that in elementary and middle schools more and more homework is being given, and that countries around the world are doing this in an attempt to increase their test scores, and that is basically a failing strategy.”

Additional resources

Books

The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning by Etta Kralovec and John Buell, Beacon Press, 2001.

The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents by Harris M. Cooper, Corwin Press, 2001.

Seven Steps to Homework Success: A Family Guide to Solving Common Homework Problems by Sydney Zentall and Sam Goldstein, Specialty Press, 1998.

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