The Great Homework Debate: What’s Getting Lost in the Hype

Doing homeworkHomework – is it an unnecessary evil or a sound and valuable pedagogical practice? The media coverage of the debate often zeroes in on these two seemingly polar opposite views, even though they may not be all that far apart. Homework can be good until – well, until it isn’t. Assign too much or the wrong kind (or both) and the law of diminishing returns kicks in, says Dr. Harris Cooper, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, resulting in undue stress for students, aggravation for parents and no academic pay-off. 

But as Cooper, author of “The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents,” recently told NEA Today, homework levels and parental attitudes haven’t really changed dramatically over the years. Cooper also concludes – perhaps a shock of those who are convinced that very little in our classrooms is working as it should – “the vast majority of educators have got it right.”  

There’s a lot of focus on homework now, but has it been scrutinized so heavily in the past? 

Harris Cooper: Throughout the 20th century, the public battle over homework was quite cyclical. You can go back to World War I or a little after, when it was considered important for kids to exercise their brain like a muscle and that homework was a way to do that. During the 1930s, opinions changed. In the 1950s, people were worried about falling behind the communists, so more homework was needed as a way to speed up our education and technology. During the 1960s, homework fell out of favor because many though it inflicted too much stress on kids. In the 1970s and 1980s, we needed more homework to keep up with the Japanese economically. More recently, as everything about education and teachers is being scrutinized, homework has come into question again.

What’s interesting is that the actual percentage of people who support or oppose homework has changed very little over the years. And the actual amount of homework kids are doing has changed very little over the last 65 years.

But haven’t we seen an uptick in the amount of homework assigned to elementary students?

HC: There is a little bit of an uptick in lower grades. But when you look at the actual numbers, we’re talking about the difference between an average of 20 minutes and 30 minutes. So you’ll find some people who say the amount of homework being given to 2nd graders, for example, has increased 50 percent. But If you look at the actual numbers, it’s ten more minutes per night.

And probably a driving force behind that is obviously end-of-grade testing and accountability issues. Perhaps more legitimately is the importance of early reading. As they say, in third grade you learn to read, and in fourth grade you read to learn. So this has led to more reading assignments.

While most high school students are still doing approximately the same amount of homework on average, there’s a great deal of variation. That’s due to choices some kids make about how rigorous an academic program to take and the increased competition over college admissions. So there are a lot of kids out there taking four or five advanced placement and honors classes now, which might not have been the case a while back.

According to the MetLife Foundation national homework survey, 3 out of 5 parents said their kids are getting just the right amount of homework. One said too much and one said too little. That survey is a few years old now but I doubt that’s changed.

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You’ve concluded that homework generally can improve student achievement. At what grade levels do we usually see this effect? 

HC: There’s very little correlation between homework and achievement in the early grades. As kids get older, the correlation gets stronger. But there are experimental studies even at the earliest grades that look at skills such as spelling, math facts, etc. where kids are randomly assigned to do homework and not do homework. They show that kids who did the homework performed better.

But we’re really talking about correlation here, so we have to be a little careful. It’s also worth noting that these correlations with older students are likely caused, not only by homework helping achievement, but also by kids who have higher achievement levels doing more homework.

But at a particular point more homework is not a good thing. You’ve heard of the “10-Minute Rule,” where you multiply a child’s grade by 10 to determine how many minutes you assign per night. This rule fits the data. So 20-minutes for a second grader is where you’d start. In middle schools, it’s between 60-90 mins for 6th through 9th graders, about two hours later in high school. When you assign more than these levels, the law of diminishing returns or even negative effects – stress especially – begin to appear.

Have school districts coalesced around the 10-minute rule?

HC: From my experience, I have never seen a school district that recommends anything that isn’t consistent with the 10-minute rule. They won’t use the term “10-minute rule” usually, but they’ll say, primary school grades will be assigned up to 30 mins., grades 4-6 up to an hour, things like that. But If you translate the policy to the 10-minute rule, it’ll be very similar. Nobody has a policy that says you can expect your second-graders to bring home two hours of homework. The only place you’ll see a warning about it is in high school: you can expect half an hour a night per academic subject. Again, if the kid is taking AP, expect more.

 What don’t we know about homework? Where are the gaps in the research?

HC: We need to know more about the the differing impacts by subject matter. Regarding the 10-minute rule, one question I am frequently asked is, “Does that include reading?” Generally, the answer would be yes, but if we’re interested in kids’ stress level, for example, they are more likely to burn out quicker doing math worksheets and studying vocabulary than if they were doing high-interest reading. So we really need more work on subject matter, on homework quality, on the level of inquisitiveness that it engenders and the way it motivates. Also we need to know more about the use of the Internet, especially as it relates to potential disparities between rich and poor and the ability to research at home.

Parental involvement is a huge homework-related issue. How can educators work with parents to keep their role constructive? 

HC: Parental involvement is more important in the earlier grades and teachers should try to make sure that parents have the skills to teach the material so to avoid any instructional confusion. Educators should also remind parents to not place great pressure on their child and to model behaviors, especially with young children. For example, when the child is doing math homework, a parent could balance the checkbook to demonstrate how the skill can be used in adult life, or they can they read their own book while their child is reading.

Homework also keeps parents aware of what their child is learning. I’ve had some very emotional parents come to me about having been told by teachers that their child is struggling, that there might be a learning disability. The parents don’t necessarily see it until they see their child work on homework.

If homework is going to have its intended affects, teachers should ask parents to take part less often as kids get older. If support from parents is withdrawn slowly, it can promote autonomous learning – teaching kids that they can learn on their own and they can learn anywhere.

Do you think overall the current debate or controversy over homework has been helpful and what, if anything, should educators take from it?

HC: Well, I recognize that the debate will always be there, but I generally choose to ignore it, or at least the people who, as the old saying goes, use science the same way a drunkard uses a lamp post – more for support than for illumination.

Homework is probably the most complicated pedagogical strategy teachers use because it’s open to variations due to child individual differences and the home context. But the vast majority of educators have got it right. They’re not going to satisfy everyone, because kids take homework home to different environments and to parents with different expectations. But, like I said before, three in five parents are satisfied and there’s one in each direction – too much homework or too little. That probably means teachers are doing their job properly.

Photo: Associated Press

  • TheFantasticMrsFarts

    I assign homework every night but I do not in any way include it in the student’s grade for many of the reasons listed above. Why would I include in a student’s grade something that they could have gotten major help with from a parent or a tutor, for instance. I do “spot check” to see if they have done the work and enter this into our online grading system under a “0%” heading just so parents can have an idea if their students are doing the homework.

    • Flaggd

      I do the same thing. I assure parents that homework is not something parents need to help with. Especially since I assume parents don’t know how do it themselves. I am the teacher for a reason. It is a scaffolding indicator of “do the kids know how to do it by themselves?” If kids are not doing well on the homework, then it’s intervention time.

      I teach 6th grade math at a high title 1 school. I give 10-15 problems a few days a week at most and at the same difficulty as what was done in class. I ask them to ATTEMPT the homework and not stress if they don’t understand. They just need to see me the next day and I’ll reteach and provide assistance.

      • Alvin Brinson

        Exactly. For my ESL classes, I’ve found that homework is a way to generate discussion questions in class! They take the homework home, and do the easy parts on their own. When they hit a confusing question they stop, and come to class the next day ready to complain about how confusing it was and we can pick up immediately the next day where the students need help.

        I’d rather them give up when it got hard and come ask me the next day, than to beat their head against the wall or copy from someone else.

        • Susan Toohey

          Yikes- “give up when it gets hard”??? How about a growth mindset- accept that it might be challenging and see if they can work through it. Stop after 30 minutes of actual work. Then, seek help. What kind of adults do we foster who “give up when it gets hard”!

        • dancinggirl1555

          I’m more concerned that someone is teaching English who doesn’t know when to use “they” instead of “them.” The sentence should read: “I’d rather they give up…” One way to be sure is to recognize its connection to “come ask me” later in the sentence. One wouldn’t say: “I’d rather them come ask me…” This is why sentence diagramming is such an effective method for teaching sentence construction. One learns to view the separate parts of a sentence and their connection to other parts of the sentence. With the “come ask me” part, one needs to ask “who” should come ask you. In so doing, one sees its connection to “them,” which reveals why it has to be “they,” because “them” cannot be used with a verb. We’d never say “them give us a present every year” nor “them come every week.” So, Mr. ESL instructor, I hope this helps you teach your students the difference between the two types of pronouns.

          • Alvin Brinson

            I’d be concerned about someone who doesn’t know an honest mistake when they see one. I know very well the difference, but thank you for schooling me anyway. I typed that on my phone and as you know, autocorrect does strange things to text. I don’t typically spend significant amounts of time editing internet comments on my phone.

          • dancinggirl1555

            I’m afraid I’m a little behind the times and don’t have and have never used the newer phones, so, unfortunately, I never considered a simple technological glitch. I apologize for my obvious ignorance. Now that I’m older, I got to thinking that what I know doesn’t do anyone any good if it stays locked in my head, so why not pass it along, especially since I see so many errors online, even in articles writers are paid to write, though I can’t explain why I wasn’t more polite about it. The main reason for the notion that I should pass on what I know is that I attribute these errors to the less-than-adequate education so many millions have received for over 40 years. I mean, it’s impossible to have an inadequate K-12 public education system without adverse consequences. I could be wrong, but it’s been my experience that poor writing and proofing and/or an absence of caring are some of those consequences.

            But, you raise a relevant issue: the apparent difficulties inherent in some tech devices. How does one view all the errors online with that as a factor? Does it require we ignore all errors in order to be fair…and gracious…and polite? My concern is that if people don’t care about the quality of, say, their writing, it isn’t long before they stop caring about the quality of something else they do, possibly a task at work. It’s much easier to do less and care less than it is to expend the effort to produce quality. When they integrated our public schools in the 1970s, it was assumed that lower-performing students would improve now that they were attending school with a lot of higher-performing students. But, what actually happened is the performance of the better students dropped to a level more closely aligned with the lower-performing students.

            When grade schools started giving out stars and awards for just showing up as a way of building self-esteem, they created, instead, millions of graduates who believe they know more and can do better than they actually can. Schools also created in them such a sense of entitlement that they believe they’re entitled to the big bucks just for showing up, and, based on my experiences with today’s corporate, legal and medical offices, they’re doing and learning the absolute minimum for those “big bucks.” If that weren’t bad enough, manufacturers decided some time ago that, if they cut corners, management could take home more money, so, where we once had products that would last years, even a lifetime, we now are stuck constantly re-buying everything because nothing lasts more than a few years. So, in an effort to promote quality, I’ve been sending corrections to writers online whenever an email address is available…as if they’d actually appreciate that… :-).

            But, there’s still the dilemma as to the Comment section of articles. Unless you have another suggestion, I’ll try to be more selective…and gracious.

            Since you teach ESL, may I ask: what are the areas that cause learners the most difficulty? All the different tenses of our verbs? How about the placement of words to form a more complex sentence? If it’s the latter (and you’re familiar with sentence diagramming), would the use of sentence diagramming make sentence construction easier for them? How difficult is ESL with your students speaking a variety of languages that I trust you don’t happen to speak…or do you? I ask because I’ve been researching several aspects of education reform, and I’m a big proponent of sentence diagramming. Thanks for the heads up as to today’s devices.

          • Alvin Brinson

            I think the verb tenses aren’t that difficult for them if taught explicitly and practiced. The surprising thing is that what is difficult varies based on a student’s L1 (original) language. Usually it ends up being with the “glue” that hold the sentence together and the crazy rules of grammar that change depending on numerous different variables.

            Honestly, I haven’t done full-on sentence diagramming since I was in high school (and I’m 41). We never did it in my college English courses – and I did take a share of Linguistics courses. Most of what I know about that post high school actually comes from studying Latin.

            Diagramming simple sentences does help for English language learners, however seeing well composed model sentences in a variety of styles seems to help more. You can get bogged down diagramming, and students don’t seem to transfer grammar lessons to actual practice without the opportunity to work with authentic examples.

            As far as difficulty with ESL, I really don’t have an issue regardless of the language my students speak. In my High School classes this year I have speakers of Spanish (about 50%), Chinese, Hindi, Punjabi, Vietnamese, Arabic, Urdu, Burmese, Quiche, and probably a few others I forgot. Some of those students speak two or more languages already. Myself, I speak Intermediate Spanish, which is useful sometimes. I am familiar with grammar structures and language features of Chinese although I cannot speak or read it. I make it a point to study the features of my students’ languages and learn a few words at least to show them I respect their language, plus I can bridge concepts in English to their own language. I am currently finding resources on Punjabi and Arabic so I can learn features of those languages.

            Even if I don’t speak a student’s language, though, it isn’t much of a barrier. Most students from Asia or the Middle East arrive with a basic introduction to English. Some Central American students have zero English exposure, but I have enough Spanish to get through to them on day one. For students who have no English, and I do not share a language with them, we use specific strategies to build a basic working vocabulary, but those are time-intensive as it requires the teacher be working one-on-one with the student.

            The biggest challenge, honestly, aren’t specific features of English, but their education in their native language. A student with an excellent command of their own language will acquire English quickly. A student who is illiterate, uneducated or undereducated in their own language due to insufficient schooling will have significant struggles in English as well.

          • dancinggirl1555

            Thanks so much for all the information. Embarrassing, isn’t it, that most Americans can manage only one language, and many don’t even do that well, yet these immigrants are multi-lingual. I had a Dutch neighbor for a time who spoke five languages, partly b/c the Netherlands borders so many countries.

            Don’t we do our own future citizens a disservice by not exposing them to a second language in elementary school, at a time when it’s easiest for them to learn it? Waiting until HS doesn’t seem to serve much purpose.

            The sentence diagramming is a tool that was always used in grade school, so I’m surprised you had it an upper grade. I find that English speakers have difficulty with placing additional adjective and adverb phrases in the right place…or the best place… and with certain comma placements, which sentence diagramming seems best at preventing, because it trains the brain to see sentences in parts Not too long ago, I found an error in a typed 10-12-line sentence in a sales contract the first time I read it, because of that skill. The error was an absence of both the subject and verb, so it was 10-typed lines of conditions with no punch line…no answer to the ifs.

            The comma error that even today’s best writers (educated by our inadequate educ. system I presume) make is to leave out one particular comma that’s needed, as in:

            …together, and if everyone would like, we can still attend…

            With the pair of commas where they are, the “and if everyone would like” becomes an additional phrase that can be removed without changing the correctness of the main sentence, which, of course, it cannot in every case.

            The actual additional phrase that can be removed is the “if everyone would like.” Ergo, the pair of commas separating the additional phrase from the main sentence have to be the one that’s missing after the a-n-d and the one already there after l-i-k-e.

            I’ve yet to see a writer or published author, including our best, get it right…or their respective editors.

            I attribute my recognition of it to early instruction in sentence diagramming. Does this reflect your memory of it? Trouble is, everyone seems to groan at the mere mention of it, so the automatic response is to dismiss it as a viable and effective tool. I’d like to change the minds of those making the reform decisions.

  • Richard Fitzhugh

    I have to comment the following. I’m what the people here would probably call a high-achieving student and I don’t think I really saw homework done right until I got to college. The reason why is simple: the homework we get in the upper-level engineering classes is so hard that anyone with any sense does it in a group. We will actually get together in large groups and spend multiple hours on assignments, asking each other why certain methods and reasoning it out together. Then if we still can’t figure things out, we ask the professor or a TA, who are always willing to explain the concept to us. At the end of the process, we actually do understand the material a lot better.

    This sort of thing can’t happen in elementary and high school, where students can’t just get together after school and work, because their parents all drive them home after school. (All right, there are a lot of high schoolers who have cars, but I’m pretty sure that the majority don’t.)