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Homework wars: how much homework is enough?

Evaluating the homework policies of schools

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In choosing a school for your child, you’ll want to look at its homework policies. You might be surprised by how much these vary between schools.

 

Figure 1: The distribution for the amount of homework assigned in grade six among schools featured on OurKids.net.

 

There’s a long-standing and contentious debate over homework. Should homework be assigned to school-age children? If so, in what grades? And how much homework should be assigned? There’s no shortage of disagreement about these questions.

On the one hand, traditionalists are pro-homework. They claim that homework helps students learn. They also claim schools should start assigning it in grade 1, and increase the amount in each grade.

Progressives, on the other hand, are anti-homework. They claim that homework is mostly ineffective, and that schools should assign little, if any, homework—especially in the earlier grades.

Understanding this debate can help you evaluate the homework policy of any prospective school. And this can help you decide if a school’s a good fit for your family.

 

Figure 2: The average amount of homework assigned by grade for schools featured on OurKids.net

Contents

(1) The case for homework

(2) The case against homework

(3) Recent research on homework

(4) Homework in public schools

(5) Homework in Canadian private schools

(6) Guidelines for evaluating homework policies

 

(1) The case for homework

It has long been held that homework—assuming it’s well-designed—is crucial to learning and development.

In Cultural Literacy (1987), the traditionalist Hirsch argues for the value of homework. Homework, he urges, gives students more time to reinforce knowledge they’ve learned in the classroom. And this gives them a stronger basis for future learning.

For example, by memorizing the multiplication tables or the location of every country in Europe, students can learn important concepts and expand their body of knowledge. Coming back to material after a period away from it is a time-tested strategy for retaining information. Homework provides exactly that, supporters argue. And this enables students to move on to new material during class.

In addition, it’s argued, regular homework also helps students practice skills. Many skills require lots of practice to become ingrained habits, says Michael Zwaagstra, a well-known homework advocate. Why, he asks (in What’s Wrong with our Schools? 2009), would academic skills be any different?

A pianist can improve by practicing scales and a basketball player can improve by spending hours in the gym. In the same way, students can improve skills learned in school through practice. 

Basic skills like grammar, spelling, and multiplication tables require drill, says Barr (2007). Learning how to begin projects, searching for answers, and problem-solving are skills that adults use daily, and must be learned early through homework.

Homework not only helps with academics, but it also builds study skills and character.

This view aligns with the frequently discussed “practice principle.” According to Malcolm Gladwell, among others, one needs at least ten thousand hours of practice to master challenging skills, such as playing the guitar, writing a short story, or serving a tennis ball.

Arguments for homework:
  • It gives students a time and context to reinforce knowledge gained in the classroom.
  • It gives students a time and context to practice skills learned in the classroom and needed for future studies, and life.
  • It can instill study habits and organization skills.
  • It can lead to better self-direction and self-discipline.
  • It can allow students to work on things not directly covered in class (for instance, through independent studies or book reports). This can expand the breadth and depth of learning.
  • It allows parents to be more involved in their children’s studies by encouraging them to help out with homework.
  • It can lead to a willingness to learn during leisure time, and inspire a love of learning.

Sometimes homework can be frustrating for students and parents. Often, though, these problems stem from homework being poorly designed, it’s argued. In other words, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater:

The best way to address the homework issue is for teachers to ensure they have a good reason for assigning the homework. Homework should be meaningful and provide students with the opportunity to practice skills and concepts they have recently learned in school. Ensuring that homework is properly designed and relevant to what students are learning is the best way to alleviate concerns about its effectiveness. (Zwaagstra, 2009)

  • 84% of schools featured on OurKids.net start assigning homework in grade 1 or earlier.
  • 9% of schools featured on OurKids.net don’t start assigning homework until grade 7 or higher.
  • 5.6% of schools featured on OurKids.net don’t assign homework at any grade level.

 

Figure 3: The average amount of homework assigned by grade for traditional schools featured on OurKids.net.

 

(2) The case against homework

The case for homework seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, not according to homework’s critics. In the last forty years or so, homework has been criticized by many.

Critics claim homework can interfere with student motivation and family life. Alfie Kohn (in “The Homework Myth”), a well-known progressivist and homework opponent, sums up this line of thinking:

"The negative effects of homework are well known. They include children’s frustration and exhaustion, lack of time for other activities, and possible loss of interest in learning. Many parents lament the impact of homework on their relationships with their children; they may also resent having to play the role of enforcer and worry that they will be criticized either for not being involved enough with the homework or for becoming too involved."

 

Kralovec and Buell (in “End Homework Now”, 2001), two other homework opponents, describe how homework can be a major source of stress for families:

Homework squeezes family life. All parents have educational agendas for their children. They want to pass on their cultural heritage, religious beliefs, and important life skills. They want to teach their children how to be good citizens and how to share in the responsibilities of running a home. More homework makes parents put their own agendas on hold even as they often struggle to help their children cope with homework assignments. Additionally, families need time to constitute themselves as families. According to a 1998 survey by Public Agenda, nearly 50 percent of parents reported having a serious argument with their children over homework, and 34 percent reported homework as a source of stress and struggle. Parents often have conflicting feelings about homework, viewing it as a way for their children to succeed but also as imposing serious limits on family time.

Zwaagstra (2009), meanwhile, tries to address this kind of claim:

Perhaps the most specious and troublesome claim is that homework takes away time for more valuable activities for students, such as exercising or talking to parents. Using the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research data—often quoted by homework opponents—one quickly finds that the average television viewing for school-aged children is more than two hours a day. If there is anything that takes time away from constructive childhood activities, it is watching mindless television programs. (One wonders whether homework opponents plan to encourage governments to pass laws that restrict the number of hours that children are permitted to watch television during weeknights.)

But parent concerns over homework are real. In Canada, a 2007 study from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) showed that—at least in Ontario—many parents question both the amount of homework and the nature of homework.

The study revealed that much assigned homework seems unnecessary to parents, isn’t taken up in class, shared or evaluated, and when it is, it’s often not quick enough. It also revealed that many parents are concerned about the affect homework has on their family life.

Responses to the parent survey included:

I feel that my child is being asked to complete homework that is too difficult for her to do on her own. She needs the help of one or both parents. This seems to me to be inappropriate. I do not mind helping my child with homework, but it seems that at least she should be given at least some homework that she can complete on her own.

It would seem that the teachers are either too rushed or can't be bothered to communicate well what is expected from the homework assignments.

That there is so much quantity, I wonder if the benefits of learning from the work is being outweighed by the negative effects such as less ‘down’ time, less family time, stress of completing assignments, emphasis on completing work instead of learning something.

I think most of the assigned homework thus far has been either busy work and a complete waste of time, or it is part of the curriculum that the teacher has not had time to cover and is sending it home to extend the school day.

Homework starts too young. Children are in structured activities all day between school and daycare. For working parents —as soon as you get home you have to start in on all of the assigned homework. This is impacting the quality time you are able to spend as a family unit. Under the age of 10 I highly question how homework actually contributes to learning outcomes. I believe that if kids had time for free play, family time, and outdoor activity —academic results would actually be higher in the end.

Indeed, the argument against homework goes beyond the question of infringing on family time and being annoying. Homework’s critics also question how effective it is at improving grades —especially in the early school years (such as preschool and elementary school).

In fact, Kohn, one of homework’s harshest critics, has argued homework has no positive effects. This is a common view in the anti-homework camp.

Numerous studies conducted since the 1980s have looked at the benefits of homework, and according to Kohn (not to mention Kralovec, Buell and others), none have proven its value. In particular, they show no positive correlation between homework and high grades.

Arguments for less homework:
  • For children, spending time on homework means that they aren’t spending as much time on other valuable activities. These may include spending time with family and friends, and engaging in sports and other extracurricular activities. For teens, too much homework makes it hard to balance their academic and social lives.
  • Homework is often assigned as “busy-time” work, with little pedagogical value.
  • The research on homework outcomes, critics maintain, doesn’t support assigning it, especially in the younger grades.
  • Homework—especially in large amounts —can lead to frustration, exhaustion, and poor mental and physical health in some students.
  • For some students, homework can interfere with the love of learning that’s crucial, both in the school years and beyond.
  • There’s a strong correlation between homework and dropout rates, studies show.

Assigning homework often turns into a way for teachers to offload the job of teaching students in class, critics argue. Students should be able to learn the required material and skills within class—even if that means finding more class time for practice and review.

 

Figure 4: The average amount of homework assigned by grade for progressive schools featured on OurKids.net.

 

(3) Recent research on homework

So, who’s right? Is homework a good thing or not? And in terms of what academic outcomes? And, what does research say about the effectiveness of homework?

The Duke homework study

Well, there have been several studies on homework. One of the biggest was the Duke study, led by Harrison Cooper. In this study, Duke University researchers reviewed more than sixty research studies on the effectiveness of homework between 1987 and 2003. It concluded that homework does have a positive effect on student achievement, such as grades.

According to Cooper, the study shows the right amount of homework depends on the grade level. For elementary school students, no amount of homework—large or small—affects academic achievement.

For middle school students, academic achievement continues to improve with more homework, until assignments last between one and two hours a night. For high school students, the more homework, the higher the achievement, up to a limit of about two to three hours a night.

While the study seemed to show that homework’s a critical part of the learning process, Cooper noted it also showed that too much homework can be counter-productive for students at all levels.

The research appeared to be consistent with the “10-minute” rule,  now quite commonly accepted, at least in traditional, academically-oriented schools. According to the 10-minute rule, teachers should add 10 minutes of homework for each grade a student completes, starting with the first grade. In other words, a first-grader would be assigned 10 minutes of homework, a second-grader 20 minutes, a third-grader 30 minutes, and so on.

Criticisms of the Duke study

Yet many have disputed these results. Kohn, for example, has argued that the results, taken as a whole, are inconclusive. At best, the research shows that homework can have minor benefits on the achievement levels of high school students:

There is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school. For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement. At the high school level, the correlation is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied. Meanwhile, no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits.

The results of the Duke study have also been disputed for other reasons. First, many of the research studies were poorly designed. Second, the research focused mostly on academic achievement as the desirable outcome. Only a few studies looked at homework’s affect on attitudes toward school and subject matter. And no studies looked at other outcomes such as study habits, cheating, or participation in community activities.

Overall, research on the effectiveness of homework is less than conclusive. Some studies have led to different, and in some cases, conflicting interpretations of the data. Yet we can draw some tentative conclusions from the research. These conclusions include the following:

What the research says about homework:
  • Completing homework seems to have little or no impact on the academic achievement of elementary school students.
  • Completing homework seems at least weakly correlated with academic achievement in high school and possibly middle school students.
  • There’s an upper limit to the amount of homework that should be assigned to students at any level.
  • It becomes counter-productive to assign very large amounts of homework.
  • Some homework is not well-designed, given feedback, or returned promptly by teachers.
  • Some homework is not monitored very closely by teachers.
  • The question of how homework influences attitudes towards school, study habits, and work ethic requires further study.

(4) Homework in public schools

As a parent, it’s important to select a school that’s the right fit for your child. Part of this decision will involve looking at a school’s homework policy.

In both the public and private school system, homework policies vary widely. Different schools have different homework policies, and these policies can vary among classes and teachers within the same school.

Yet in public schools, unlike private schools, homework policies can be regulated by the government. If your child is in a public school, it’s important to know whether the government regulates homework policies in your school district, and if so, how.

Consider the following example:

TDSB homework policy

One homework policy was recently enacted by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), in April of 2008. This policy emerged in response to complaints from parents and students about the amount of homework assigned.

The new policy allowed teachers in Toronto to assign only a minimal amount of homework to elementary students: no more than one hour per evening to grade 7 and 8 students (in total), and no more than two hours per evening to high school students (in total). In addition, the policy forbid teachers from assigning homework over holidays and from disciplining students who fail to complete their homework on time.

This policy has received mixed reviews, and it’s unclear whether it’s achieved its objectives. Some teachers claim that the restrictions on homework significantly slow down the pace of class. This results in more advanced students sometimes feeling unchallenged and unstimulated in class. This is because much in-class time is spent covering material that could be completed as homework.

On the other hand, some have defended these kinds of policies. They’ve claimed they tend to free up extra time. Children can spend more time with their families, participate in extracurricular activities, socialize with friends, and pursue other interests and hobbies.

(5) Homework in Canadian private schools

In private schools, like public schools, there’s a wide range of homework policies. Unlike in public schools, though, private school policies aren’t regulated by the government. Private schools are normally free to come up with their own homework policies.

Yet, private schools vary in their educational objectives. And these objectives affect their homework policies.

Private schools can be divided into two main homework camps:

Traditional private schools

On the one hand, traditional, academic schools tend to be more pro-homework. These schools have a standard curriculum which is content-based and rooted in the core disciplines. Their teachers typically deliver a unified and tightly structured curriculum through direct instruction.

These schools also tend to have what we at Our Kids define as a rigorous academic culture. This means they highly value academic performance and use many tests and assignments to evaluate it.

Traditional schools view homework as essential to education. They assign homework to school-age students on a regular basis, increasing the amount and level of difficulty with each grade.

Progressive private schools

On the other hand, progressive schools tend to be more anti-homework. These schools include (but aren’t limited to) Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia schools. They typically provide little direct instruction, and less objective evaluation than traditional schools.

Instead of teaching core subjects through transmitting factual knowledge, progressive schools place children’s interests and ideas at the heart of the learning experience. They also tend to have what we at Our Kids call a supportive academic culture, one focused largely on instilling a love of learning and lifelong curiosity in students.

Many progressive schools view homework as less essential to education and assign less homework to students than traditional schools, especially in the upper grades. In fact, some progressive schools do not assign homework in any grade.

Classroom flipping

Many of these anti-homework progressivist schools use a practice called classroom flipping. In these schools, students do more “sit-down” learning at home, such as reading or writing. Meanwhile, they do more applied learning activities in class, such as group exercises or in-class presentations.

Classroom flipping is similar to the way some university courses are taught. At this level, students often do “sit-down” reading and studying at home, and then have class and group discussions in school.

Because classroom flipping is a fairly new practice, there’s been little to no research done on it. We’ve begun, though, to compile some data on classroom flipping, including which schools featured on OurKids.net use this practice. Our main aim is to be able to draw some conclusions about its value, in comparison with more traditional approaches to homework.

  • 20.3% of schools featured on OurKids.net use the practice of classroom flipping.

 

Figure 5: The average amount of homework assigned by grade for traditional versus progressive schools, as featured on OurKids.net. Note that while traditional schools on average assign more homework than progressive schools, a significant difference doesn’t emerge until the high school years, from grades nine to twelve.

  

(6) Guidelines for evaluating homework policies

The jury is still out on homework. Despite lots of research, there’s little agreement on the merits of homework, and its merits versus its costs. But research seems to suggest, if nothing else, that homework can enhance learning in many ways.

Part of choosing the right school for your child involves looking at schools’ homework policies. To start, you should find out whether your child’s current or prospective school has a homework policy. If the school doesn’t have a homework policy, you should find out whether any of its programs, classes, or teachers have homework policies.

If your child’s school (or program or class) does have a homework policy, you should ask for a hard or soft copy of the homework policy document. With this in hand, you can take a close look at the homework policy, and decide whether it’s appropriate and well-suited for your child.

Although there’s no such thing as the perfect or “one-size-fits-all” homework policy, good ones provide an explicit set of guidelines for assigning homework.

These guidelines should be well-supported by the relevant research. Ideally, they should also be clearly communicated to teachers and educators, and in some cases, students and parents.

Below, we provide you our own set of guidelines for evaluating a school’s homework policy. This is meant to help you decide whether a school's homework policy passes muster. Keep in mind, this list is not exhaustive.

Best homework practices
  • Homework should be carefully designed and monitored to achieve the right learning outcomes for students: improved learning, better study habits, higher academic achievement, and the like.
     
  • Homework should have a specific purpose: “busy time” homework with no pedagogical value isn’t permissible.
     
  • Homework should be differentiated according to students’ particular learning needs, where appropriate.
     
  • Teachers should typically provide written or oral feedback on homework within a reasonable time-period.
     
  • Too much homework shouldn’t be assigned: the maximum should be approximately one to two hours a day for high school students and one hour a day for elementary and middle school students.
     
  • The amount of homework assigned to students should be gradually increased with each grade, by around ten minutes.
     
  • Homework may be designed to involve parents/guardians in supporting their children’s learning. But parents should rarely, if ever, be asked to play a formal instructional role in their homework.
     
  • Homework shouldn’t require resources or technology to which students may not have access.
     
  • Homework should be designed and communicated so that students understand what’s expected of them before leaving school.
     
  • Homework should be designed to require no additional teaching outside the classroom.
     
  • Ideally, homework help should be offered.
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