When Is Homework Harmful?

Some of my friends who have third grade kids at home are spending 2+ hours on work at home each night.
03/23/2017 08:09 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2017
Teresa Short via Getty Images

Previously published on Family Footnote.

There has been debate over the last few years regarding homework. As an educator and a parent, I feel like I have multiple personalities in this area of life.

I vacillate between wanting my students to extend their knowledge beyond the classroom with savoring the quality non-school related time with my own children when they are home.

Throughout the years, my children have had many teachers, each holding a different philosophy regarding homework. As a high school English teacher, I put a lot of thought into what my students take home with them, and I am always questioning what I want them to gain from the work. This is not a new debate, but I had never dug into the research before now.

What I found will definitely impact my practice as an educator.

As a Parent

I appreciate what my children’s elementary school has done regarding homework. Each of my kids has had homework in elementary school, but I have always felt that it was balanced.

The first aspect of homework I loved as a parent was that it was predictable. My husband and I always knew if they were receiving a spelling list, a math practice, or a reading assignment each week. It happened on a regular basis, and we understood to look for these items in their backpacks. The only additional assignments were ones they could not complete during class time. This happens sometimes as my children can be chatty and their work doesn’t always get finished during the time allowed in class.

When it comes to homework in elementary school, an article by Time magazine called Is Homework Good for Kids?, mentions two different views. Many educators believe homework should take about 10 minutes per grade level. A 3rd grader would be fine spending 30 minutes of studying a night, whereas an 11th grader may be expected to complete an hour and a half.

Some of my friends who have third grade kids at home are spending 2+ hours on work at home each night. Their complaints are that some of what is assigned is lengthy and in the form of benign worksheets that don’t seem to extend knowledge. My children have been blessed with the 10 minute per grade rule, but even that much can be a struggle for a second grader. 

However, in another study done by Duke regarding achievement and homework completion in 2006, they found that students who had homework each night were oftentimes higher performing.

“Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, who found evidence of a positive correlation between homework and student achievement, meaning students who did homework performed better in school. The correlation was stronger for older students—in seventh through 12th grade—than for those in younger grades.”

This Duke study led me to more questions. I know that some homework is essential, but I found it hard to believe that they could prove that more homework completed meant that the student was automatically a higher achiever.

The article went on to quote Cathy Vatterott, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who had my same concerns. “Correlation is not causation,” she said. “Does homework cause achievement, or do high achievers do more homework?” This is the heart of the debate.

Do students benefit from doing homework at home, or can long nights of homework begrudge children from learning? Should they be enjoying their families, playing, running off that energy? A teacher in Texas agrees that they should be sent home with nothing to complete from the classroom.

In August of 2016, a Texas 2nd grade teacher by the name of Brandy Young vowed a “no homework” policy to be law in her classroom. She sent a note home to her students’ parents asking them to read, play, and be together rather than completing curriculum at home. She received as many praises as she did criticism, and many people are anxious to see how this year went for her students.

I applaud this level of consideration, although I don’t feel that small bits of homework are bad. As a parent, I appreciate the communication of expectations. If my kids are doing homework, I enjoy that it is predictable.

Communicating with parents that yellow papers are homework, that a spelling list will be sent home every Monday, or that the white papers are for enrichment, and not necessarily a grade helps us keep our children focused on a common goal. I find my kids don’t mind completing these tasks at home.

If they do have homework, I want them to become more intelligent from it; I don’t think they should complete it just because. Becoming a parent has absolutely helped me become a better teacher, and I have a different perspective on homework than I initially did when I was a 22-year-old, fresh out of college.

As a Teacher

Homework has been a battle for me since day one of teaching. I find that I give homework for two reasons: to extend knowledge and to finish what we could not in the classroom. The teachers with whom I work would tell you the same.

The struggle I find myself in consists of extending their knowledge in reasonable levels without overwhelming, but maintaining high expectations that mirror what will be expected in college.

In the article Is Too Much Homework Bad for Kids’ Health by Sandra Levy, she found that it very well could be damaging to send home too much to complete. Many students surveyed in the study reported completing over three hours of homework a night, and many were active in extracurricular activities or busy with part time work.

“The data shows that homework over this level is not only not beneficial to children’s grades or GPA, but there’s really a plethora of evidence that it’s detrimental to their attitude about school, their grades, their self-confidence, their social skills, and their quality of life.”

Could we, as educators, be causing our students unneeded stress based on our expectations? I turned to my own students for answers, understanding completely that the week I was requesting information was a tough one. It was right after daylight savings, directly after prom, days before the end of quarter 3, and during “Tech Week” for my thespians. It’s beneficial to keep in mind what is going on in their world when they respond to me about their opinions regarding school.

When I asked my juniors and seniors, on average, how many hours of homework did they do per night from 9th grade on up, most said two or three hours. When I polled my sophomores who were enrolled in an Early College High School program, they agreed that three to four hours was accurate. Most of those high achieving students admitted that many nights, they didn’t get it all done due to activities or exhaustion.

In addition, these studies have not specifically outlined the unique challenges of special education students, students who speak English as a second language, or students who struggle socioeconomically. Students with these obstacles outside of the classroom are already experiencing a different kind of stress each day, and if grades are largely homework-dependent, they can fall behind based on expectations that reach beyond the classroom walls.

Many school districts are doing what they can to level the playing field. My district has chosen to give each high school student his or her own laptop, some districts are extending the school day by an hour, and even others are redesigning their entire curriculum to be project-based where many subjects center around a common theme for the day.

Throughout all of my research, studies found that teachers wanted to keep expectations high and extend knowledge; however, the data proved that too much homework was detrimental to their mental and physical health.

As an English teacher, I still battle with how to get the literature read if we do not have homework. One California educator I respect immensely named Catlin Tucker has forgone many novels and has dug deeper into those texts. This is not something I am ready to do, but I applaud her efforts to balance the school-home-activity-work life of her students.

I’m finishing my 15th year of teaching, and I still do not have the right answers. All I can do is try to make sure I am capitalizing on classroom time with my students and that I am assuring the homework I do assign aids in their knowledge and ignites their curiosity to learn more.

It is my hope that If they see the purpose in what I assign, the stress could be lessened and achievement can soar. The balance is just as hard for teachers to find as it is for students, but I can tell you that becoming a parent has given me a valuable perspective of what it’s like for kids to come home with a heavy backpack.

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