Should We Cool It With Homework?

Portrait of a cute little boy sitting in library before books. Isolated over white background.

I often seek out, proactively, feedback from parents on how our school is doing and how their child’s experience is going. Cafes, hallways, phone calls, focus groups, Starbucks, chit-chat along the soccer sidelines—wherever.  These occasions would be me reaching out to parents, not parents setting appointments with me regarding specific elements of their child’s experience.  I do believe I get a truer and more balanced read on what’s happening when parents don’t have the ramp-up time to a scheduled meeting that they have set, which is usually an occasion for parents to concoct an extensive list of what’s going wrong.

One thing I hear a lot, which will be no surprise to anybody who works in schools, is a concern about whether we are dishing out enough homework for our younger students, specifically those in the K thru 4th elementary grades.  Notice the bias in the question: parents typically are vying for more homework. We sometimes hear the opposite issue in middle school, where too much busy and tedious homework is assigned. High schools are another matter altogether—the issue there was about kids spending five or six hours a night, with no coordination or sensitivity between teachers from different academic departments. But let’s focus on the younger students in this blog.

In recent years, the advice to schools coming from the national educational associations has used this rule of thumb: No homework in kindergarten, followed by ten minutes per night multiplied by the grade, so that first graders have ten minutes, second graders twenty, and on up to two hours for twelfth graders.

Here’s a quick summary of the research. For researchers who pool together dozens of studies done on the effectiveness of homework, the correlation between homework time spent and academic achievement follows this pattern: for high schools, the correlation is a positive one—more homework is generally associated with higher academic achievement.  For middle school, the results are a bit more mixed, with the positive correlation occurring with homework strategies that are more in line with best practices—when homework is engaging, relevant, and supports learning. For lower elementary school, the correlation between amount of homework and academic achievement is just not there.

You can definitely find research reports out there, studying all divisions within the K12 environment, that refute some of my summary conclusions above, but the bulk of the research available will fall into my summaries.

I don’t have a problem with the “ten minutes X the grade level” rule of thumb, provided the homework emerges from thoughtful teachers and principals who are giving full consideration to what they are asking of their students, leveraging meaningful educational aims, and factoring in the proper role of the parents vis-à-vis their child’s homework.

What I want to address is the default criticism among many parents of elementary kids, which is that schools aren’t dishing out enough of it. The mania is that more homework is always better, Homework Without Tearsthat more means rigor, that more means high standards, that more means challenging, and that more means getting ahead.

This obsession with “more” is a facet of our consumer culture. The attitudes toward education have been turning for decades, away from its humanistic, liberal arts aims of critical thinking, creativity, and citizenship, and more toward the extrinsic and economic benefits of obtaining a degree. The desire for “more” also reflects the way that we seek to quantify and measure educational quality—yes there are ways to bring measures into our school assessments, but is more time spent on something really the governing criteria of the depth and richness of that experience?

One of the best blogs I have encountered on the topic of this mania about “more” in our society and in schooling can be found by the blogger who authors the “Filling My Map” website. Kelly is her name, and she spent time in Finland as a Fulbright researcher studying their educational system. Finland happens to have the highest achievement scores on the international assessments (PISA) in science, math, and reading. While there are many differences between the Finnish way of doing things in their schools and the American way, one of the more intriguing factors is that in Finland, there is hardly any homework at all in the younger grades (and very little after that as well).

Check out what Kelly is saying about why Finland’s “less is more” approach is best:

Kids Playing OutsideLet me also add, if you haven’t clicked to read Kelly’s blog above, that schools in Finland have shorter days than American schools, that most all the students get their work done at school, that in Finland formal schooling doesn’t even begin until age seven. The Finnish people actually believe in the “less is more” mantra. Their homes are more simple, their personal possessions more meager, and their desires for personal advancement are more modest (for example, in Finland you wouldn’t find any of the hysteria surrounding tutoring like you have in America). All these “less” examples, and still the Finnish kids are outscoring their top Asian counterparts on all the testing.

Back to the homework topic, I strongly urge teachers, academic leaders, and parents to appreciate the fullness of what a young child’s life should be—getting out to experience nature, culture, and recreation; spending time with family and siblings and neighborhood friends; pursuing personal interest projects and hobbies. Do you really want to replace all that by affixing your children to a desk, with all the frustrations and tedium and isolation that simply more homework would mean?


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