Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The World Is Flat Thomas Friedman tells a story about how when he was growing up, his parents would say, “Finish your dinner because people in China and India are starving.” Since then, the story has changed. These days, he tells his own daughters, “Finish your homework because people in China and India are starving for your job.”
Friedman might find himself a lone voice in his appreciation for the academic and vocational value of schoolwork done at home. In fact, homework has become a flashpoint in arguments and comparisons with the rest of the world about whether American schools have become fixated on test scores and proficiency metrics to the detriment of student and teacher mental and physical health. Is this disdain for homework just a fad? Or is it a real issue based on the academic and psychological needs of our kids?
For now, the jury’s out, because the research—and there’s been plenty—is decidedly mixed. Nonetheless, school districts in New Jersey are taking note of parental concerns, and some local school boards are even re-evaluating their policies.
Alfie Cohen, a well-known educator and anti-homework activist, is certain, as he writes in The Washington Post, that “no research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school. In fact, there isn’t even a positive correlation between having younger children do some homework (vs. none), or more (vs. less) and any measure of achievement. If we’re making 12-year-olds, much less five-year-olds, do homework, it’s either because we’re misinformed about what the evidence says or because we think kids ought to have to do homework despite what the evidence says.”
Cohen does concede that there is a “statistically significant” if “modest” link between homework given to high-schoolers and academic growth.
On the other hand, Harris Cooper, chairman of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University and author of The Battle Over Homework, notes in The New York Times that “about three-quarters [of studies] find the link between homework and achievement is positive. But, most interesting, these results also suggest that after a certain amount of homework, the positive relationship disappears and might even become negative. So, research is consistent with the notion that homework can be a good thing if the dose is appropriate to the student’s age or developmental level.”
How Much Homework is Too Much?
Clearly there’s a point of diminishing return: The learning benefits for high school students fade out after more than two-and-a-half hours of after-school assignments. But Cooper also says that homework helps elementary school kids “build study habits and learn skills developed through practice.”
“Teachers should avoid extremes,” he says. “All children can benefit from homework, but it is a very rare child who will benefit from hours and hours of it.”
Moderation in all things, right? Sensible advice. But that’s hardly the message in a documentary that has sparked much of the outrage. According to the film’s website, Race to Nowhere depicts an “achievement-obsessed education system and culture that fosters not learning but sleep deprivation, stress and even suicide.” The film’s producer Vicki Abeles warns that this “pressure to perform—and its shadow, the fear of failure—represented a silent epidemic. Our competitive, high-stakes culture is the culprit. Our children are the victims.”
And a number of school boards in New Jersey agree. Princeton Regional Public Schools (Mercer County) is instituting some homework-free weekends and is barring homework during spring and winter breaks. Princeton mom Laurie Troilo told a local paper, “I think we can go overboard, especially in a town like this where people are so hyper-focused on education and college acceptance.”
Likewise, Ridgewood High School (Bergen County) implemented a policy to stop assigning homework over winter break after a series of tragedies—the suicides of a current and former student—forced administrators to realize that kids were overworked and stressed out and something needed to change.
Hopewell Township Public Schools (Mercer County) recently set limits on homework for kindergarten through eighth-grade after parents expressed concerns about the “toxic stress” induced by long assignments. According to the Star-Ledger, third-graders may get no more than 30 minutes per day of homework, with weekends and holidays off. Sixth-graders may be assigned no more than 45 to 60 minutes of homework per night; eighth-graders will work no more than 70 to 80 minutes a night.
Valerie Goger, the former superintendent of Bernards Township Public Schools (Somerset County) spearheaded an initiative in the district to cut down on student stress, which had become a major issue among concerned parents, by making homework off-limits during extended school breaks and vacations.
“We heard from parents that [during] vacations that were supposed to be happy times with their families, the students were instead stressing out over assignments,” she told the local paper, The Bernardsville News, at the time. “The message was received loud and clear.”
Few educators and parents would want all homework to go away. But at least in higher-income New Jersey school districts, where kids often have access to multiple after-school activities, the daily routine of hours of homework is suddenly under fire. Children in China and India may be starving for jobs, but New Jersey kids are starving for downtime.
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