- (Note - If the homework load is too 'heavy' either the
students aren't learning or they aren't being taught a good curriculum
with good techniques. American students, on average, have never been less
able on graduation from high school; up to 70%, according to one study,
are essentially, functionally illiterate.)
- NEW YORK - It's late
afternoon, the kids have just had their after-school snack - and they're
already working on homework. Math problems, science reviews, reading assignments:
This could go on for hours. Are they getting too much homework?
- "Borderline," one parent says. "It's a
lot more than I used to get."
- In October, a survey by Public Agenda, a nonprofit research
group, found that 10 percent of parents think their kids are getting too
much homework. Two-thirds of parents felt their children were getting the
right amount - and 25 percent thought they were getting too little.
- "It's a small but vocal minority - mostly in affluent
neighborhoods," says Harris Cooper, PhD, chair of psychological sciences
at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is author of The Battle Over
Homework, a book for administrators, teachers, and parents. In his research,
Cooper reviewed more than 120 studies on homework.
- Evidently, this "vocal minority" is having
an impact on local school boards: Earlier this year, a New Jersey school
superintendent imposed a homework policy limiting nightly assignments.
Reportedly, congratulatory calls came in from parents across the country.
- In fact, about every 15 years a new public attitude emerges
toward homework, Cooper says. "I'm not sure if it's a generational
thing or reactions to reforms moving too far in one direction or another,"
he tells WebMD. In the 1950s, when the U.S. grew nervous over Russia's
launching of Sputnik, the nation's kids saw an upsurge in homework to prepare
them for complex technologies.
- As we eased into the 1970s, the tenor of the times begged
that less pressure and stress be placed on children.
- Then the mid-1980s report, Nation at Risk, alerted educators
that kids were not reading at expected levels, and the catch-phrase "rising
tide of mediocrity" was created. "One of the suggested solutions
was to increase homework," Cooper says. "The concern was about
staying economically competitive with the Japanese.
- "Today's educators are getting pressure from state
school boards to cover more material and in greater depth - all without
a corresponding expansion of the school day," Cooper tells WebMD.
"Students are spending homework time learning extra material rather
than reviewing the day's lessons."
- Also, competition-driven parents are placing "homework
pressure" on teachers - "to ensure that children will get into
the best colleges and universities when they graduate," Cooper says.
"But not all parents agree that more homework is the correct approach."
- Indeed, homework was invented for a good reason - as
Cooper's research shows. At least 70 percent of studies indicated that
students who do homework had higher achievement scores than those who didn't.
But that effect is strongest for kids in high school, he tells WebMD. "For
elementary school students, homework has little impact on how well they
will do in school."
- Another caveat: Homework's benefits vary according to
subject area. Homework in science and social studies has the largest impact
on achievement, followed by reading and English. Math homework, according
to Cooper's research, had the smallest impact. Also, doing more short assignments
per week is more effective than having one assignment that lasts several
- "We believe that children on average should receive
10 minutes of homework per night per grade, so that first-graders would
get 10 minutes, second-graders would get 20 minutes, on up through 12th
grade," Patty Yoxall, a spokeswoman for the National Parent-Teacher's
Organization, tells WebMD.
- "That's going to vary," Yoxall says. "There
are going to be times when students get 20 minutes of math homework one
night and maybe only five minutes of reading another night. But on average,
during the course of a week, during the course of a month, it would average
about 20 minutes a night for a second-grader."
- Young children simply have a limit to the amount they
can learn through self-study, Cooper says. "At some point, the benefits
diminish and the costs rise. Young children lack the attention span necessary
for long periods of study, especially in environments where there are lots
- For youngsters, homework exists "to teach them proper
study skills, how to apportion their time between hard and easy tasks,
and how to test themselves. They need [to] ... learn those kinds of skills
... educators should not expect that they know them already. What's nice
about the 10-minute rule, it gradually shapes the child's behavior,"
Cooper tells WebMD.
- "It's legitimate to push high school students more,"
Cooper says. "They can benefit from the extra study time whereas the
younger kids can't."
- The point of homework - especially for young children
- is review, says Sylvia Seidel, a spokeswoman for the National Educators
Association. "Children are bombarded with information during their
school day, and it's a lot to process. That is one of the benefits of a
homework assignment - to review what was not understood and prepare for
the next day. It's not so much so the child will get into the best college
later, but just so he will be successful in school."
- Setting up a good study place also is the parent's responsibility,
Seidel says. "Of course the child wants to play after school and get
rid of the cares of the school day. But the parent needs to provide a place
the child can go every single day, at some point in the early evening or
late afternoon ... someplace where they can think about the day and go
- Minimizing the distractions is key, Seidel says. "There
can't be frequent visits to the refrigerator or off to the TV. It truly
is concentrated quiet time ... that's very important."
- Parents can help the child understand and absorb the
material - but should not do the homework for them, Seidel tells WebMD.
"It's absolutely important for parents to get involved ... to go over
spelling words or mathematical concepts ... whatever they feel comfortable
with. But that does not mean that parents should do the homework in any
way. It's important for a child to understand that just as his parents
have work as their responsibility, school is the child's responsibility."
- When parents get involved in homework, it sends children
a lesson: that the parent values the learning experience, Seidel says.
"That's why it's important for the parent and teacher to be in communication.
If the parent feels the homework is too lengthy, too demanding, they need
to let the teacher know that. I think it's extremely important that communication
be made with the school. Teachers welcome the parent responses and support
in being able to do what's best for that child."
- "We also urge parents to talk with teachers, to
find out what the goals of homework assignments are, why the amounts of
homework are what they are," Yoxall tells WebMD. "There may be
times when a teacher is focusing on a particularly difficult subject like
chemistry, so there is more emphasis being given there rather than to French
lessons. The better the communication is, the more satisfied both parties
will be with the results - and the more opportunities the child has to
- Students also need to talk with teachers when homework
takes too long, Seidel says. "I always gave my students permission
to stop working on homework after 30 minutes or whatever time was appropriate
for that class at that grade level. I told them ... 'You have my permission
to stop where you are and tell me the next day ... because I am making
a judgment as well. If there's a problem, we need to pursue that. And they
felt they were part of the decision making.'
- "The NEA generally says that 20 to 30 minutes of
homework is enough for an elementary child under normal conditions ...
not a child with special requirements, who is a very slow reader and may
need help working at home if the assignment is a totally written text,"
Seidel tells WebMD.
- Cooper's advice to parents: "Make sure the child
is studying efficiently and effectively before approaching the school.
If it appears that it's still taking too long ... that it's indeed the
amount of homework that's of concern, then it is important for parents
to raise the issue with their child's teacher and also to discover if other
parents have similar concerns."
- But are homework policies - like that imposed in Piscataway,
N.J. - necessary? Actually, about one-third of school districts had homework
policies, according to a 1994 survey published in the Journal of Learning
Disabilities, Cooper says.
- "We're big into local control on these kinds of
questions," Cooper tells WebMD. "The best policies are formed
at the district, school, and classroom levels. School districts should
not get into the business of setting strict homework practices. They can
set guidelines for amount of homework, but most importantly they should
state the philosophy and goals - all children should be expected to do
homework as a cost-effective way of improving education."
- Parents must be part of the decision-making process,
Yoxall says. "If school boards are imposing these decisions from above
with no input from parents, that could be a problem. You're setting up
a we-they situation."
- Bottom line: The ballet classes, the soccer practice,
general playtime, homework - "It's all important," Cooper says.
"What's important is that kids lead a balanced life."
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