The start of a new school year means the return to daily homework, an often dreaded task and the root of parent-student strife that leaves some parents of elementary school students wondering if it’s worth it. The answer, experts say, is complicated.
Some point to studies that find that appropriate take-home work in the right amounts can enhance younger students’ learning and prepare them for a routine of studying as they get older. But others say homework has little to do with academic achievement in elementary school and can get in the way of other life experiences like spending time with family and much needed downtime for often over-scheduled kids.
“There’s no one answer,” said Susan Goldman, professor of psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-director of the UIC Learning Sciences Research Institute. Homework “has to be taken in the context of who are the kids, who are the teachers, what kind of instructional time do they have in school and what kind of support do kids have for getting work done.”
“It’s a complex kind of situation,” Goldman added.
Homework isn’t effective if the student doesn’t understand the lesson during class time, she said. And often homework requires support at home, which isn’t practical for all students, Goldman said. However, if the homework has a clear purpose to all involved — parents, teachers and students — the child can benefit.
While the benefits of homework continue to be debated, there are clear camps on each side: Some tout an often cited 10-minutes-per-grade-level-per-day standard, while others shun homework altogether.
THE CASE AGAINST HOMEWORK
Education consultant James Gray instituted a no-homework policy at Hamilton Elementary School in Lakeview four years ago when he was principal of the Chicago public school.
“My perspective changed a lot after I had my own kids,” said Gray, whose two oldest children still attend Hamilton. He recalled a time when his daughter and wife were arguing about violin practice, reminding him of the family conflicts over homework time. While his daughter wasn’t required to play violin, many students are required to do homework.
“It made me think a lot about what schools do to families,” he said. “I heard from parents over the years about this massive fight that happens at night. It creates this antagonistic relationship between parent and child.”
“It didn’t seem worth it for what schools are trying to get out of homework,” Gray added.
After researching and finding little evidence that primary-level students benefit academically from homework, Gray decided to do away with homework at Hamilton in 2014. At first the policy applied to kindergartners through second-graders. Then it expanded through fourth grade and remains in place at the school, even though Gray left at the end of the 2016-17 school year.
“Kids can become disenchanted with school easily,” Gray said, explaining the additional family and relaxation time at night is actually better for young students.
“Learning happens all the time at home, whether you’re cooking a meal, playing a game or reading a book,” he said.
Gray’s policy was well-received, he said. While he was expecting some backlash, it didn’t come.
“Parents would tell me, ‘We played Clue last night, and it was so nice to sit down for an hour,’ or, ‘My child sat down and read a book on his own without being prompted.’ “
Gray said he heard from parents and educators in other schools in Chicago and across the country wanting to create their own no-homework policies.
“I’m hoping (Hamilton’s policy) sticks around,” he said.
THE CASE FOR HOMEWORK
But others say homework shouldn’t go away completely, even for younger students.
Harris Cooper, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, has studied the correlation between homework and academic success. He said all students should have some homework, but the amount and type of homework should vary depending on age and developmental level.
Cooper said he believes in the 10-minutes-per-grade-level-per-day standard. Too much homework can bore students and take away from other valuable experiences, like after-school clubs and playtime, he said.
“This is not rocket science,” he said. “You may have brought home a pre-test for spelling on Thursday before you take a test on Friday, and you did better because you brought the pre-test home.”
While homework is not a significant predictor of academic success in early grades, Cooper said, it does create good study habits that will help students as they get older
“Is (homework) going to cause a great leap in (students’) achievement? No it is not,” he said. “What it’s really doing is shaping their behavior, so they begin to learn how to study at home.”
Cooper said homework also provides an opportunity for parents to tune into their child’s academic abilities and challenges. Instead of relying on a teacher to tell them, parents can see for themselves where their child might be struggling. It also can spark greater communication among parents, teachers and students, he said.
“With all young children, assignments should be short, simple and lead to success,” he said.