Back to school headlines – do your homework

Stories in the news like this drive me crazy: Kids have three times too much homework, study finds; what’s the cost?

It starts out:

Nothing quite stresses out students and parents about the beginning of the school year as the return to homework, which for many households means nightly battles centered around completing after-school assignments.

Now a new study may help explain some of that stress.

The study, published Wednesday in The American Journal of Family Therapy, found students in the early elementary school years are getting significantly more homework than is recommended by education leaders, in some cases nearly three times as much homework as is recommended.

I agree with questioning homework. Alfie Kohn makes the case in his book, The Homework Myth better than I ever could. (If you want to read a summary of his thoughts on homework, try this article from Principal magazine.)

So I start reading the CNN article with a personal bias towards agreeing with it, and hoping it makes good points that parents and teachers can really act on. The article says that kids are being assigned too much homework, even in kindergarten, where no homework is the recommendation of experts across the board.

However, I’m soon disappointed. First, they cite the “10 minute rule” from the National Education Association and the National Parent-Teacher Association. (10 minutes per grade level per night, starting in first grade.) However, if you click on the link, it takes you to an article on the PTA website, Hints to Help Reduce Homework Stress, which does not provide any information or research support for this rule. Poking around the sites shows a link to studies by Harris Cooper, PhD, such as this article Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement?: If So, How Much Is Best? with a sidebar summarizing his own analysis of homework research:

“The authors found that all studies, regardless of type, had design flaws. However, both within and across design types, there was generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement. Studies that reported simple homework-achievement correlations revealed evidence that a stronger correlation existed in grades 7–12 than in grades K–6 and when students, rather than parents, reported time on homework. No strong evidence was found for an association between the homework-achievement link and the outcome measure (grades as opposed to standardized tests) or the subject matter (reading as opposed to math). On the basis of these results and others, the authors suggest future research.”

While this is hardly strong evidence (especially in early grades), Alfie Kohn decimates even this, “For starters, 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.”

So, to me, there’s controversy about homework being worth ANY time, even the “10 minutes per grade”.

But even if you decide that some homework is a good idea, where does this “10 minute rule” come from? In her book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices that Support Diverse Needs, Cathy Vatterot says “origin unknown”. It’s just something that’s been “long endorsed” by the NEA and the PTA. So it’s a rule that’s become a rule because lots of people repeat that it’s a rule. Vatterot also provides a long and interesting discussion about the limits and contradictions found in research on homework.

But back to CNN – to their credit, they forge on to present evidence that homework doesn’t help students, that homework stress is directly related to real medical problems, and that homework discriminates against families where parents are poor, less well educated, or speak limited English.

Then comes the “what can parents do” part of the article. Instead of suggesting that parents use the evidence that homework is useless, they quote experts about “solutions” like finding a quiet spot, and encouraging your child (but with vague warnings about not helping them too much).

If that doesn’t work, parents are encouraged to communicate with their child’s teacher to “problem solve” together. Is the problem solving about getting rid of homework? No, it’s about how to get the child to do the work, perhaps in less time or with fewer tears, but to still do the work.

So how about helping parents fix the actual problem – the homework. Why not suggest that parents take on the “10 minute rule” because it’s bogus. Why not suggest that teachers push back on homework policies in their districts – isn’t this the age of differentiated instruction? Don’t we care about research? This is especially true in schools where the 10-minute rule has morphed from “no more than 10 minutes” to “10 minutes every night”.

This is what bugs me. Articles for parents are always about fixing the child, or the environment, or their own attitudes. Even when studies show that the problem is the educational practice, parents are being told the problem is them and their children.

 

One Reply to “Back to school headlines – do your homework”

  1. Great response to this. Our district uses the PTA position paper to support our policy. When I read the paper(I have to locat it) years ago, I was appalled at the section that read something like this: There is little research that suggests a positive effect of homework. There may even be a negative effect at the elementary grades. However we suppprt 10 minutes of homework per grade.

    To this day I am trying to figure out how anyone who says they have the best interests of children at heart can suppprt this message. And I am slowly on my own way trying to change practice at our school.

    Thanks for provided more information to help that effort.

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