How Much Homework Is Too Much?
A move to dial back homework in two NJ elementary schools is sparking a discussion about whether the extra work is helpful or harmful.
© iStockphoto.com / alvarez
Get your no. 2 pencils out; it’s time for a quiz. Homework is a) an effective tool, b) a waste of time or c) damaging to elementary school-age kids and their families. Answer: Depends on who you ask.
While some parents believe doing work at home helps elementary school students reinforce what they learn in class, others feel it’s an unnecessary burden that eats up family time. “At best, homework is practice. At worst, it’s frustrating and depresses a love of learning,” says Christopher H. Tienken, an associate professor of education leadership, management and policy at Seton Hall University.
The Case Against Homework in Elementary School
In September, Robert Mascenik School #26 in Woodbridge Township made headlines by announcing a decision to cut back on homework. In lieu of assignments at home, the school encouraged parents to spend time doing other activities with their kids.
“The most important things students can do when they go home each day are play, eat dinner with their family, engage in conversations, help with family responsibilities or chores and read by themselves or with a family member,” wrote Judith Martino, the school’s principal, in a note to parents. “The skills of responsibility, time management and creativity are all fostered through the aforementioned activities.”
Research from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which assesses student learning nationwide, shows no direct association between how much homework elementary school students were assigned and test results in reading and math—even when compared with students who had no homework at all, Tienken notes.
The move to eliminate daily homework, which is also being tested in Woodbridge’s Port Reading School, isn’t meant to do away with take-home assignments altogether, but rather to ensure that work done at home is meaningful and relevant, district superintendent Robert Zega clarified. And that may mean fewer worksheets and a greater emphasis on reading and long-term projects. The move by both Woodbridge schools is in line with ongoing research on elementary school homework, Tienken says. “There seem to be [few] benefits of homework, from report card grades or standardized test scores in the elementary years,” he says.
Woodbridge isn’t the only school trying to lessen the workload. Hopewell, Princeton and West Windsor started testing the waters last year with one homework-free period each semester. The districts also banned projects from being due the day after a long break.
The idea to scale back homework is sparking discussion outside New Jersey, too. Brandy Young, a teacher at an elementary school in Godley, Texas, sent a note home in August to parents saying she wouldn’t be assigning homework during the school year.
“Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside and get your child to bed early,” Young wrote in a letter that went viral, racking up more than 72,000 shares on Facebook.
How Much is Too Much?
During the elementary school years, more than 30 minutes of homework a night is a waste of time, says Tienken. Research supports his claim. Fourth grade student test scores were shown to decline with more than 45 minutes of math homework a night, the NAEP research shows.
“Younger students simply do not have the attention span, nor are they developmentally ready to focus that much after having been in school all day,” Tienken says. “The more homework they have, the less effective it is.”
The results are marginally better for middle and high school students, though there may be some benefits to certain kinds of homework as kids get older.
“In terms of the influence of homework on report card grades at middle school and high school the results are very mixed,” says Tienken. “There seems to be a slight benefit on overall grades for about 45 minutes of homework when it is used to reinforce concepts from class—if the homework is something the student can do independently, like a review for a test.”
Heather Shumaker, author of the book It’s OK to Go Up the Slide, which includes resources to help parents and teachers opt out of homework, believes “it has no place in elementary school.” Not only is it ineffective, she says, it also comes at a cost.
“Young kids have better things to do with their time—play, cope with big emotions, do chores, go to bed early,” Shumaker says. “If we want to raise grades and achievement in school, the answer is not homework; the answer is more sleep. It’s not sexy, but it’s how human brains work.”
And it’s not just sleep that’s at stake. Studies indicate that family dinners are a stronger predictor of academic success for school-age children than, well, almost anything—including time spent in school, doing homework or extracurricular activities. One recent Columbia University study concluded that adolescent children who ate with their family between five and seven times a week were twice as likely to get As on their report cards than those who ate meals with their families less than twice a week.
To be sure, homework has plenty of supporters. Danne Davis, PhD, an associate professor in Montclair State University’s early childhood, elementary and literacy education department, believes “young children in particular should get it nightly.”
Although her students weren’t happy about the take-home assignments, parents welcomed them, Davis says. She made sure it was “meaningful to students’ lives or pertinent to the in-school lesson” rather than time-consuming “cookie-cutter worksheets and irrelevant busy work.” On occasion, she even asked students to make up their own homework assignments.
Supporters also point out that homework might give older students a leg up in certain subjects. A 2016 study by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) found that introducing an online homework tool to seventh graders in Maine benefited student performance. Students who used the tool, which provided feedback and hints in real time, resulted in significantly higher math standardized test scores at the end of the year.
Davis contends that homework prepares young people for professional responsibilities. She says the growing movement against homework tends to come from more affluent communities where kids are involved in after-school activities arranged by parents and caregivers. “Often times, [parents of] children who live in underserved communities where supplemental resources and opportunities are minimal or where families lack the cultural capital to create meaningful out-of-school lessons expect school professionals like their children’s teachers to supplement learning outside the classroom,” Davis says.
It’s an excellent point. Still, proponents of less or no homework like Shumaker celebrate what they hope is a growing movement away from homework for homework’s sake among parents and educators.
“I think it’s wonderful that people are taking a thoughtful look at research and reevaluating children’s real needs at these young ages,” says Shumaker. “Homework has been so entrenched for so long; it takes a lot of courage to question it, but people are beginning to trust their gut and realize something is wrong with the status quo.”
Amy Reiter is a parenting, lifestyle and health writer. She lives in New York with her husband and two kids.