Homework: The great debate

How much is too much? Educators and parents weigh in on the controversy.

Story By Marc D. Allan

School Child

Comedian Gerald Kelly tells a joke about the time he helped his 10-year-old son Joshua with homework because he wanted to give the kid a break.

“The dude came back from school on Monday with two red zeroes on his homework,” Kelly said. “He said the teacher asked who helped him with his homework, and he told her that his dad did most of it. I asked why she put two zeroes and he said, ‘She said, ‘One for me and one for you.’”

The story always gets a laugh, he said in an interview, but it happens to be true. Kelly feels his son gets too much homework, which interferes with family plans and keeps him tethered to his books when he should be out being a kid.

Tension over how much homework is too much is an ongoing debate in homes and schools around the world. On one side are parents and schools who say that children need to study more to maintain an advantage in an increasingly competitive world. The contention on the other side is that seven or eight hours of school is enough, and kids need time for other activities.

In the United States, the National Education Association endorses the so-called “10-Minute Rule”—10 minutes of homework a night for each grade level. So a second-grader should get 20 minutes, a third-grader 30 minutes and so on. Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, author of “The Learning Habit” and contributing editor for a homework study by Brown and Brandeis universities, says children in early grades shouldn’t have homework.

“The job of children when they’re 5, 6, 7 years old is to learn how to interact with the world. To play.”

“The job of children when they’re 5, 6, 7 years old is to learn how to interact with the world,” she says. “To play. To learn social skills. Homework takes time away from free play, from the development of motor skills, learning creative thinking. So rather than learning social skills, kids learn stress and performance anxiety.”

Beyond those years, she likes the 10-minute rule—as long as it’s rigidly timed. That means after the child has come home, had a snack and playtime, he sits down at a designated place, and a timer is set. He takes out the homework and does it. If he finishes before the timer goes off, he spends the remaining time reading.

“What happens when kids have this kind of schedule is they learn how to manage their time,” she says. “They know they’re going to be sitting there for 40 minutes, anyway. So they learn to monitor themselves and focus for 40 minutes, because they know after 40 minutes they’re free and can do whatever they want.”

Four years ago, Heather Shumaker wrote a letter to her son’s third-grade teacher in which she said, in part, “I don’t believe in homework for children ages 11 or under. … There is such a short amount of time in every day. School learning takes up most of the day, and when school is out kids need space and time for other things.”

Go to School

She posted the letter online and subsequently heard from hundreds of thousands of people with nightmare stories about homework overload. Shumaker says the teacher appreciated having a supportive family that was actively involved in their child’s life and learning. Some teachers will react that way, she says. Others will reduce homework for the whole class because they hadn’t realized it was a problem. But there will be teachers who disagree so much that it causes a bad relationship. Most commonly, the parents and teacher meet and compromise.

Since that letter, Shumaker did a lot of research on homework for her book “It’s OK to Go Up the Slide” and found that the benefits of homework are highly age-dependent. In high school, there’s some benefit—if it’s not piled on—and in middle school there’s a slight benefit. “But in elementary school,” she says, “what they’re finding—and this is not just one study but a review of 180 peer-reviewed studies on homework—is that there was zero correlation between time spent on homework and academic achievement in elementary school.”

“Math is something you don’t get good at unless you practice. And 15 minutes of math homework every day is not excessive.”

Shumaker’s sons are now 11 and 8. The middle-schooler does homework. For the elementary-schooler, homework is “joyous and optional. If he gets the homework and he’s excited about the subject, we’re not going to stand in his way. But if he needs to go outside and whack a tree with a stick, that’s more important.”

That approach wouldn’t cut it in Steve Gold’s school district. Gold teaches seventh-grade pre-algebra in the ultra-competitive West Windsor-Plainsboro, New Jersey, Regional School District, which was profiled in The New York Times on Christmas Day 2015 in part because 40 students had been hospitalized the previous school year due to extreme stress. Gold says the district guidelines are generally about 30 minutes a night of homework for each class—three hours in total. He said he gives 10 to 15 minutes of homework nightly to reinforce what he teaches in class.

“Math is something you don’t get good at unless you practice,” he says, “and 15 minutes of math homework every day is not excessive. If you sit and you don’t have an iPad in front of you and you don’t have the TV on, 15 minutes is not a long time. Most schools in America have study halls. We have a 40-minute study hall every day. Every kid does their math homework in study hall.”

The homework debate occurs worldwide. In 2012, French President François Hollande proposed banning homework, saying work should be done at school. Schools in Finland, one of the world’s leaders in education, give little to no homework. In Canada, the Toronto District School Board recommends to teachers and parents that students have no more than 10 minutes multiplied by the grade level.

Child with the Tablet

“I’m OK with that,” says Rose Felvo, who teaches Grade 4 science, social studies, math, English and French at Toronto’s Jackman Avenue Public School, a French immersion school. “I don’t assign extra work, extra drill, for homework. For the most part, homework in my classroom is assignments that were not finished in class and need to be finished at home. The only thing I do add on is, I ask students to read 15 minutes a night, alternating in French and English.”

Tomoko Nakatani, who teaches junior and senior high school at Seikyo Gakuen, a private school in Kawachinagano City, Japan, says she gives about an hour of homework a night. She teaches English for communication and English to express ideas, and students are asked to translate, look up meanings and so on. “We believe the homework will help them to understand the lesson,” she says. “We have no rules for the amount of homework. We can give as much as we like, and the parents want more. We want our students to study at least a couple of hours every day.”

Nakatami says parents expect their kids to study harder and go on to “excellent” universities. That refrain—“How will my kid get into an elite college?”—is a concern heard around the globe. So we asked Yale University: Does more homework help applicants? A spokesman directed us to two links on its website, one for advice in selecting high school courses, the other detailing what Yale looks for in prospective students.

The word “homework” does not appear on either page.


This story originally appeared in the August 2016 Kiwanis magazine.

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