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The homework debate: are kids getting too much?

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Homework has transformed quite a bit since we were kids: on the one hand, kindergarteners, who are now expected to sit in desks and do academic work (!!!) are now also expected to do daily work at home as well. On the other hand, homework is also sometimes optional: writer Elizabeth Flora Ross asked her daughter’s first-grade teacher to let her opt out of homework, and the teacher admitted she wouldn’t even be grading the assignments! Navigating this changing landscape can be quite puzzling if you, like most of us, haven’t thought much about homework since you got out of school yourself. So let’s examine some of the information that’s out there.

The rule of thumb endorsed by the National Education Association and the National PTA is the “10 minute rule”: ten minutes of homework for each grade level, starting at grade 1 (and no homework for kindergarteners). However, schools are exceeding the 10 minute rule – sometimes by quite a bit –  and parents and researchers are worried. Nancy Kalish, co-author of The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It, began researching the topic when she found that excessive homework was making her bright and enthusiastic daughter hate school. Kalish maintains that “homework overload is compromising our parenting choices, jeopardizing our children’s health, and robbing us of precious family time.”

Researchers disagree on how much homework kids should be doing, or if they should even be doing any homework at all. Youki Terada at Edutopia cites research that demonstrates that homework IS beneficial to middle school and high school students, but only if there’s not too much.  Researcher Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, takes a harder line:

“It may surprise you, as it did me, to learn that no study has ever demonstrated any academic benefit to assigning homework before children are in high school. In fact, even in high school, the association between homework and achievement is weak — and the data don’t show that homework is responsible for higher achievement. (Correlation doesn’t imply causation.)

“Finally, there isn’t a shred of evidence to support the folk wisdom that homework provides nonacademic benefits at any age — for example, that it builds character, promotes self-discipline, or teaches good work habits. We’re all familiar with the downside of homework: the frustration and exhaustion, the family conflict, time lost for other activities, and possible diminution of children’s interest in learning. But the stubborn belief that all of this must be worth it, that the gain must outweigh the pain, relies on faith rather than evidence.”

(If you’re interested in the specific details of the research, Kohn reviews it at length here.)

It’s hard to believe that homework truly has no benefits – at the very least, reinforcement of concepts doesn’t sound useless on the face of it. However, whether you believe that homework is necessary at all or not, too much of it has definite consequences: first of all stress, both for you and for your child. Critics also maintain that homework gobbles up time that kids should be spending resting, relaxing, and enjoying time with their family.

And unstructured time is crucial for development: Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., of Temple University, writes, “Children continue to learn and develop throughout childhood… But they need time to recharge their batteries and process what they’ve learned. Free time allows them to explore, to be scientists, discoverers, creators, and innovators. They do that when they build pillow forts in the family room, sail away in a laundry basket to a foreign land, or find the remarkable in the mundane.”  We’ve weighed in a few times on the benefits of undirected play here at Spilling the Beans, and how playtime is essential for child development – fun isn’t frivolous, it’s necessary!

So, what do you do to push back against the tide if you think your kid is getting overwhelmed? Kalish and co-author Sara Bennett suggest approaching your school board, and also offer strategies in their book for judging how much work is too much and how to express to your child’s teacher why they “shouldn’t lose sleep in order to create a replica of the Pentagon out of Popsicle sticks.”  You can also read about parents who have successfully organized for less homework, and get some quick facts, at Bennett’s website, Stop Homework – there’s some great basic info in the FAQ here.

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