The Homework Dilemma: How Much Is Too Much?

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You can sleep when you're in college. (Photo:apdk/Creative Commons)

For most parents and children, homework is a necessary evil. Resigned to the nightly struggle, families squeeze school assignments into their evening routines.

But when kids as young as 5 years old bring home packets of worksheets from kindergarten, and older children struggle to carry book-filled knapsacks, moms and dads are right to wonder: How much homework is too much? And what should we do about it?

TakePart asked homework experts Dr. Etta Kralovec and Dr. Harris Cooper to shed some light on the line between necessary and evil.

THE UNINVITED GUEST

As a former high-school teacher and principal, and a parent herself, Dr. Etta Kralovec knows the personal and professional sides of homework.

Currently the director of teacher education at the University of Arizona South, she co-wrote The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning.

Kralovec’s homework misgivings began in the late 1990s when she did research for Maine’s state department of education.

While interviewing 50 former high-school dropouts attending alternative schools, Kralovec noticed a trend: every single student cited homework as a reason they decided to drop out. “I had never considered homework as a contributing factor to pushing kids out of school,” Kralovec tells TakePart.

Following the study, Kralovec launched her own investigation into homework’s consequences. “Every piece of research that I looked at made me question homework more and more,” she says.

Kralovec describes homework as though it were a guest that teachers send home with students every night. How that guest is received depends on the home in question.

“Homework enters into American homes, and those homes are very different,” she says. “Homework impacts different families differently. So there isn’t a standard that we can say ‘this is too much homework’ or ‘this isn’t too much homework.’ Each home is really different. Parents need to understand and reflect on how homework is impacting family life.”

Kralovec claims that in many cases, homework completion takes time away from other activities that parents plan for their children. In others, children have parents who don’t speak English, work long hours, or are simply unable to provide assistance. These children are put at a disadvantage compared to wealthier classmates, which widens the achievement gap.

The homework complexities hit home for Kralovec during a radio show she did promoting her book.

“A father called in and said that he was a single parent, and his fourth grader was having trouble reading. The homework that came home was that he was supposed to read with his fourth grader for 20 minutes a night. And there was this long pause, and he said: ‘Well, not only can my son not read, but I can’t read either. I can’t help him with the reading. I’m ashamed that I can’t read, and I don’t want people to know I can’t read. What should I do?”

For Kralovec, it was a tear-jerking realization. “I hadn’t thought of that aspect before,” she says. “But in this country, by some accounts, a third of adults are illiterate. When we send homework home, we don’t really know what it’s entering, and when we do that to parents, I think it’s…I’m not going to say criminal…but I think as educators we don’t stop and reflect on what might be the challenges that kids have at home.”

THE 10 MINUTE RULE

Dr. Harris Cooper is a professor of education and a chair/professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. In 2006, he led a team of researchers that synthesized more than 60 homework studies done between 1987 and 2003.

Cooper tells TakePart that the research points to a simple conclusion: “Homework can have a positive effect on kids’ achievement.”

To be clear, Cooper points out that few high-quality research studies have been done on the impact of homework on other variables related to children’s well-being, such as their attitudes or stress levels.

However, research focused on the relationship between homework and achievement demonstrates that all children can benefit from homework—as long as it doesn’t exceed certain limits.

Those limits, he says, are actually ones that teachers developed through craft knowledge.

“Educators have a rule that they refer to as the 10 minute rule. What it says is, take a kid’s grade and multiply it by 10 minutes. That’s essentially a guideline for how much homework children should be doing each night.”

Cooper explains that homework assignments are especially beneficial when they involve subjects that are learned through memory, and require practice and repetition. Examples include reviewing spelling words the night before a quiz, practicing vocabulary words, and reciting the capitals of states.

“Those are the kinds of things where it’s pretty easy to demonstrate that the extra practice that homework can afford will lead to higher achievement,” he says. “But if you send home massive amounts of repetition homework every night of the week, you’re probably going to burn the kid out. It always has an optimum usage.”

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

Both Etta Kralovec and Harris Cooper agree that parents who take issue with the amount or type of homework sent home should discuss it with their child’s teacher.

But Kralovec recognizes that confronting a teacher is sometimes easier said than done. She admits to being “a little intimidated” when she went to her kids’ schools to have a homework talk:

“I went to my daughter’s eighth-grade science teacher and said, ‘You know, I think there’s too much homework, and I think that kids need a break.’ He told me that I needed to organize my family life better, and that I was a professional woman, and maybe I was feeling a little guilty because I couldn’t help my daughter with homework. Parents need to be prepared for that kind of attack that they may get from the school,” she says.

Kralovec encourages parents to go to the school in groups because “one voice can be dismissed, but five voices are harder for a school to dismiss.”

She adds that once parents start talking to each other about the challenges of homework, “like the consciousness-raising of the '70s,” they’ll realize they’re not alone. Many other families in the same community will share their concerns.

Kralovec thinks school officials are often willing to re-examine their homework policies, but it’s up to parents to take up the banner. In her words:

“It has to come first and foremost from parents who say: ‘Wait a minute. My child is in school eight hours a day, or nine hours a day. Isn’t that enough time for the school to be in charge of what my child is spending their time doing?’”

Photo: apdk/Creative Commons via flickr

Feature photo: Spiritinme/Creative Commons via Flickr

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