By Harris Cooper
A second-grade teacher in Texas recently rekindled the annual debate over whether kids spend too much time on homework.
The teacher said she did not plan to assign homework this school year because it has not proven to correlate with achievement (not true) and no homework would allow families to eat together, read together, and children to play outside and have an early bed time.
If only dropping homework could make these things happen! So let's step back and look at some facts regarding homework.
Research overwhelming supports the notion that students who do homework do better in school than those who don't.
But research also suggests the amount and type of homework must take into account the child's developmental level. Teachers refer to the "10-minute Rule" - homework time on any given school night should be equal to the child's grade level times 10. So a second grader should have 20 minutes of homework (2 times 10). The National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association agree with this philosophy.
My Internet searches have never uncovered a school policy that differs greatly from the 10-minute rule. If a second grader brings home two hours of homework, that's not good. If an 11th grader does five hours, that's too much. The amount of homework kids bring home generally does not diverge from those school policies.
The perception that American kids do too much homework is also belied by a national survey that asked parents, "Do you think your child's teachers assign too much homework, too little homework, or the right amount of homework?" Sixty percent said just the right amount, 15 percent said too much, and 25 percent said too little.
Beyond achievement, proponents of homework argue that it can have many other beneficial effects, including the development of good study habits and a recognition that learning can occur at home as well as at school.
Homework can also foster independent learning and responsible character traits - essential skills later in life when students change jobs or learn new skills for advancement at work.
And homework can give parents an opportunity to see what's going on at school and learn about their child's academic strengths and weaknesses. Two parents once told me they refused to believe their child had a learning disability until homework revealed it to them. Maybe that 20-minute assignment should involve parents and replace screen time, not dinner or interactive play.
Opponents argue that homework can lead to boredom with schoolwork because all activities remain interesting only for so long. Homework can deny students access to leisure activities that also teach important life skills. And parents can get too involved in homework - pressuring their children and confusing them by using different instructional techniques than the teacher.
Regrettably, research on these effects of homework are rare. In the absence of data, common sense suggests that any of these effects can occur depending, again, on the amount and type assigned.
In my experience, the complaints over too much homework come from a definable but relatively small segment of the population - parents with conflicting desires to have their children excel in school and lead balanced lives that include school, play, aesthetics, citizenship and spirituality. Homework is an easy target to express their anxiety.
Educators also find themselves caught between irreconcilable alternatives. To them, it is the same parents who rail against homework who permit (encourage?) their children to load advanced placement classes into their academic schedule. More homework comes with these classes. If homework is eliminated, who will parents hold responsible if college credit isn't earned on the standardized final exam?
Educators also question whether homework really takes five hours or does that time include hours clicking back and forth between homework and texting, Tweeting, Facebooking?
I'm concerned that teachers have over-responded to parent demands to push their children to absolute perfection. Time on homework reaches a point of diminishing returns; too little does no good, too much does more harm than good. Teachers should base their practices on what sound evidence and experience suggest is optimal for their children. If the amount and quality is appropriate, parents won't complain.
I'm also concerned that parents who ask for a ban on homework will be disappointed if they get their way. Their children's achievement may slow, they may be less prepared to be lifelong learners, and the anxieties their children experience will not diminish much.
Neither extreme is ideal. Restoring balance in the lives of achievement-focused families will require a balanced approached.