When I toured a public elementary school last spring, one question in particular seemed to make the principal squirm. Do the kindergartners get homework, I asked? Yes, he replied, explaining that it can help to solidify concepts—but he quickly conceded that some parents weren’t at all happy about it.
The debate over elementary school homework is not new, but the tirades against it just keep coming. This fall, the Atlantic published a story titled “When Homework Is Useless”; you might have also seen the Texas second-grade teacher’s no-homework policy that went viral on Facebook around the same time. “Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performances,” the teacher wrote to class parents.
OK, but I had questions. If the issue really is this black-and-white, why do elementary school teachers still assign homework? How much homework are elementary kids getting, how much is too much, and how is “too much” even determined? What should parents do if they want to put an end to it?
What I discovered, after lots of digging, is a more complex issue than you’d expect. Young students are indeed getting more homework than they used to. But what’s not clear is exactly how this heavier workload is affecting their well-being. Homework has only been evaluated through the myopic lens of how it influences academic performance (spoiler: in elementary school, it doesn’t seem to). And while researchers have all sorts of ideas about how it might affect kids more generally, these possibilities haven’t been tested rigorously. The upshot, then, is that we really don’t know what homework in elementary school is doing to our kids—but there’s reason to think it can do more harm than good, particularly among disadvantaged students.
First, let’s take a close look at the science on how homework affects school performance. By far the most comprehensive analysis was published in 2006 by Duke University neuroscientist and social psychologist Harris Cooper, author of The Battle Over Homework, and his colleagues. Combing through previous studies, they compared whether homework itself, as well as the amount of homework kids did, correlates with academic achievement (grades as well as scores on standardized tests), finding that for elementary school kids, there is no significant relationship between the two. In other words, elementary kids who do homework fare no better in school than kids who do not. (Their analysis did, however, find that homework in middle school and high school correlates with higher achievement but that there is a threshold in middle school: Achievement does not continue to increase when kids do more than an hour of homework each night.)
Cooper doesn’t interpret the elementary school findings to mean that homework at this age is useless. For one thing, he says, we can’t make causal conclusions based on correlational studies, because things like homework and achievement can easily be influenced by other variables, such as student characteristics. If a kid is really struggling in school, he might spend twice as long on his homework compared with other students yet get worse grades. No one would interpret this to mean that the increased time he is spending on homework is causing him to get worse grades, because both outcomes are driven by whatever is giving him academic trouble. Likewise, a really motivated student may be more likely to finish all of his homework and get higher grades, but we wouldn’t say the homework caused him to get better grades if his motivation was the main driver. Correlations can give us hints about causal relationships (or in this case, a lack of causal relationship), but they don’t prove them.
(It’s worth mentioning that Cooper’s analysis also included a few small interventional studies that tracked outcomes between kids who had been randomly assigned to receive homework each night and those who had not; these studies did suggest that homework provides benefits, but these studies, Cooper and his colleagues noted, “were all flawed in some way that compromised their ability to draw strong causal inference.”)
There are, of course, many other ways that homework could affect a young child—in both good ways and bad. Cooper points out that regular, brief homework assignments might help young kids learn better time management and self-regulation skills, which could help them down the line. Regular homework also lets parents see what their kids are working on and how well they’re doing, which could tip them off to academic problems or disabilities. “For a 6-year-old to bring home 10 minutes of homework is almost nothing, but it does get them to sit down and think about it, talk to Mom and Dad, and so on,” Cooper says.
On the other hand, homework can also be a source of stress and family tension. For kids from low-income families, especially, homework can be tough because kids may not have a quiet place to work, high-speed internet (or computers for that matter), or parents who are available or knowledgeable enough to help. A 2015 study surveyed parents in Providence, Rhode Island, and found that the less comfortable parents were with their kids’ homework material, the more stress the homework caused at home. “I’ve talked to parents—a lot of parents, actually—who feel very burdened by the fact that kids have to do homework at night, and the parents feel responsible for getting it done, and that starts to dominate the home life,” says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early-childhood education specialist at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the author of Taking Back Childhood.
Homework could also take kids away from other enriching activities like music, sports, free play, or family time. “It’s sort of an opportunity cost issue,” says Etta Kralovec, a teacher educator at the University of Arizona South and the co-author of The End of Homework. “I’m a fifth-grader, and I either can go play with my friend or hang out with my grandmother—or I can go home and do a worksheet for math. Those are the kinds of choices that kids have to make.” One eighth-grader told me that when he was in sixth grade, he had so much homework he couldn’t participate in the sports or music classes he wanted to. Cooper points out, however, that homework could also take the place of television or video games, which might be a good thing (but is yet another complicated topic).
Then there’s the argument that as elementary school has become more rigorous in recent years—a result, many say, of No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top Fund, both of which made schools much more accountable for low test scores—the last thing overworked, exhausted young students need is more work when they get home. “We’re seeing rates of school phobia and unhappiness and angst about school among young children at higher rates than ever before,” says Carol Burris, a former high school principal who is now the executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education. “I think that giving them a break after 3 o’clock in the afternoon is an awfully good idea.”
But the crux of the problem is that, while all of these points are potentially legitimate, no one has studied how homework affects children’s well-being in general—all we’ve got are those achievement findings, which don’t tell us much of anything for elementary school. How likely is it that regular homework will help first-graders manage their time? Will it do so to a degree that offsets the added family stress or the loss of much-loved soccer practice? Is 20 minutes of homework OK, but 30 minutes too much? This research hasn’t been done, so we don’t know.
The other big question—also tough to answer—is how much homework elementary school kids are actually getting. There are some highly publicized estimates of average homework time derived from a standardized test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is given annually to most American students. It includes the following question for 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old test takers: “How much time did you spend on homework yesterday?” Compared over time, the answers suggest that 9-year-olds have more homework today than they used to, but not by a ton. Yet many researchers question the validity of these answers, because, they say, students aren’t typically given much homework the night before a standardized test anyway. And the data from this questionnaire—along with the data from a 2007 MetLife survey of third- to 12th-graders that is also frequently quoted as evidence that homework levels remain flat—don’t tell us what’s happening with young elementary school kids.
But in the 2015 study in Providence I mentioned earlier, researchers did attempt to answer this question. They had 1,173 parents fill out a homework-related survey at pediatricians’ offices and found that the homework burden in early grades is quite high: Kindergarten and first-grade students do about three times as much homework as is recommended by the “10-minute rule.” What’s the 10-minute rule, you ask? It’s a standard, adopted by most public schools around the country (more on this later), recommending that students spend roughly 10 times their grade level in minutes on homework each night—so first-graders should be spending 10 minutes on homework and fifth-graders 50. (By this rule, kindergarteners shouldn’t be getting any homework.) Considering these numbers in combination with their findings on how homework can increase family stress, the researchers concluded, “the disproportionate homework load for K–3 found in our study calls into question whether primary school children are being exposed to a positive learning experience or to a scenario that may promote negative attitudes toward learning.”
That’s just one study, conducted in one city, so it’s hard to generalize from it; clearly, we need more data. But another national online survey suggests that homework time for the younger grades has been increasing over the past three years. Annual teacher surveys conducted by the University of Phoenix reported that in 2013, only 2 percent of elementary teachers assigned more than 10 hours of homework per week. This figure quadrupled to 8 percent in 2015. On the bright side, though, several elementary schools in recent months announced that they have stopped assigning homework entirely.
Let’s now revisit that 10-minute rule. It is a recommendation backed by the National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association that teachers have been using for a long time—but it is not based on any research. When teachers saw Cooper’s analysis of the homework data and noticed that the amounts of homework that correlated with the highest achievements in middle school and high school were similar to their rule, they used it as evidence that their rule was appropriate. But here’s the thing: While the 10-minute rule implies that 10 minutes of homework a night per grade is appropriate even starting in elementary school, Cooper’s data do not support this conclusion.
In a nutshell, then, we don’t have evidence that homework is beneficial for young kids, yet studies suggest that they are doing more homework than even the pro-homework organizations recommend, and the amounts they’re getting also seem to be increasing. So, if you’re a parent of a first-grader who’s getting 30 minutes of homework a night, what should you do?
“The first thing you should do is talk to the teacher and let the teacher know how long it’s taking the child to do homework,” Burris says. It’s best not to be confrontational—sometimes the teacher really has no idea that it’s taking so long and will make adjustments. Laura Bowman, the Virginia chapter leader at Parents Across America, a nonprofit organization for parents who want to strengthen public schools, explains: “I always feel that the initial conversation with the teacher is so important, and at that point a lot of teachers will say, ‘I did not realize how long it was taking, and if it’s going to take your child more than 10 minutes, then just do it for 10 minutes.’ ” Also, in early grades, homework should be really easy. “The assignments should be short, they should be simple, and they should lead to success,” Cooper says. “We want these kids to have a successful experience doing schoolwork on their own in another environment.”
If the teacher isn’t responsive, try the principal next, Burris suggests. Connect with other parents first to see if their kids are having similar experiences. “Go up the chain of command—if you have to go to a school board meeting, then you do, and you bring a few other parents with you, because there’s strength in numbers,” Bowman says. “The parent voice is a powerful one, and we all have to do what’s in the best interest of our own children.” Parents Across America has a handy toolkit for parents who want to organize other parents around a particular issue.
If you still can’t make headway, you can also tell the teacher that your child simply won’t be doing homework, or won’t be doing more than a certain amount. I know several parents who have done this without suffering any consequences other than a little side-eye from the teacher at school events. If this kind of confrontation makes you squeamish, get a letter from a pediatrician or psychologist that says it for you.
Bottom line is this: You’re the best judge of how homework is affecting your child. If you’ve got a second-grader who whizzes through his worksheets, then stick with the status quo, no harm done. But if your first-grader is struggling for an hour each night, or the homework is taking him away from other activities you feel are more important, take the above steps to remedy the problem. You want your kid’s earliest education experiences to be as positive as they can be; what happens in elementary school will forever shape his relationship with the classroom and his motivation to learn. We, as parents, have more power than we realize, and we should not feel ashamed to wield it for the sake of our children.