The Less-Homework Revolution
How fed-up parents are changing the way schools think -- and how you can, too
why it's worth a fight
Homework is such an established part of education, it's hard to believe it's not all that beneficial, especially in large quantities. But the truth is, a recent Duke University review of numerous studies found almost no correlation between homework and long-term achievement in elementary school, and only a moderate correlation in middle school. "More is not better," says Harris Cooper, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience who conducted the review. In fact, according to guidelines endorsed by the National Education Association, teachers should assign no more than ten minutes per grade level per night (that's ten minutes total for a first-grader, 30 minutes for a third-grader).
Pile on more and it can backfire. "Most kids are simply developmentally unable to sit and learn for longer," says Cooper. Remember: Many have already been glued to their desks for seven hours, especially at schools that have cut gym, recess, art, and music to cram in more instructional time. If you add on two hours of homework each night, these children are working a 45-hour week. Some argue that we need to toughen kids up for high school, college, and the workforce. But there are other ways to teach responsibility, such as the chores that parents often have to let slide because of studying. And too much homework is actually sapping our children's strength, natural curiosity, and love of learning. "Kids are developing more school-related stomachaches, headaches, sleep problems, and depression than ever before," says William Crain, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the City College of New York and author of Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society. "We're seeing kids who are burned out by fourth grade. Soon, it will be by second grade." Too much homework also means that kids miss out on active playtime, essential for learning social skills, proper brain development, and warding off childhood obesity.
All this work doesn't even make educational sense. "It's counterintuitive, but more practice or the wrong kind of practice doesn't necessarily make perfect," says Kylene Beers, president of the National Council of Teachers of English and author of When Kids Can't Read, What Teachers Can Do. For example, children are able to memorize long lists of spelling words -- but many will misspell them the following week.
"Instead, they should spend the time reading and writing, and practicing words that are at the appropriate level for each child," says Beers. According to the U.S. Department of Education, most often a math teacher can tell after checking five algebraic equations whether a student has understood the necessary concepts. Even more important, whether it's algebra or addition, five problems is enough to tell if a student doesn't understand a concept. Practicing dozens of homework problems incorrectly only cements the wrong method into his brain. Naturally, some kids need more practice before math skills become automatic, but pages of problems rarely help the whole class. In addition, teachers who assign large numbers of problems are often unable to do anything more than spot-check homework. That means errors are missed -- and some children truly are left behind.
So why are schools ignoring all these guidelines? "Many teachers are under greater pressure than ever before to assign more homework," says Beers. "Some of it comes from parents, some from the administration and the desire for high scores on standardized tests." And here's a surprise: Your child's teachers have probably never taken a course that covers what constitutes good or bad homework, how much to give, and the research behind it. "I'm disappointed to admit that colleges of education simply don't offer specific training in homework," says Beers. Cooper adds, "Teachers are winging it."