President Obama’s pick for Education Secretary, John King, Jr., is headed for confirmation Mar. 9. King’s track record shows he loves standardized testing and quantifying learning. If he loves numbers and research, he should welcome what some teachers and families have known for years: that homework at young ages does more harm than good.
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We’re currently enmeshed in a high-pressure approach to learning that starts with homework being assigned in kindergarten and even preschool. Homework dominates after-school time in many households and has been dubbed the 21st century’s “new family dinner.” Overtired children complain and collapse. Exasperated parents cajole and nag. These family fights often ends in tears, threats, and parents secretly finishing their kid’s homework.
Parents put up with these nightly battles because they want what’s best for their kids. But, surprise, the opposite is more likely to be true. A comprehensive review of 180 research studies by Duke University psychologist and neuroscientist Harris Cooper shows homework’s benefits are highly age dependent: high schoolers benefit if the work is under two hours a night, middle schoolers receive a tiny academic boost, and elementary-aged kids? It’s better to wait.
If you examine the research—not one study, but the full sweep of homework research—it’s clear that homework does have an impact, but it’s not always a good one. Homework given too young increases negative attitudes toward school. That’s bad news, especially for a kindergartener facing 12 more years of assignments.
Read More: Why You Shouldn’t Do Your Child’s Homework
Children rebel against homework because they have other things they need to do. Holler and run. Relax and reboot. Do family chores. Go to bed early. Play, following their own ideas. Children have been told what to do all day long at school—which is mostly sitting still and focusing on the academic side. Academic learning is only one side of a child. When school is out, kids need time for other things.
Some schools are already realizing this. New York City’s P.S. 116 elementary school made news last year when its principal Jane Hsu abolished homework and asked families to read instead. Individual schools and teachers from Maryland to Michigan have done the same, either eliminating homework in the elementary years or making it optional. But schools also report that if teachers don’t give it, some parents will demand it.
Believers in homework say it teaches soft skills like responsibility and good study habits. That’s another problem with homework in elementary school. Young kids can rarely cope with complex time management skills or the strong emotions that accompany assignments, so the responsibility falls on parents. Adults assume the highly undesirable role of Homework Patrol Cop, nagging kids about doing it, and children become experts in procrastination and the habit of complaining until forced to work. Homework overtakes the parents’ evening as well as the child’s. These roles aren’t easy to shake.
Read More: How Hard Is Too Hard to Push Kids?
When homework comes at a stage when it can academically benefit students, it can also be a student’s responsibility. That means a high school student should be expected to do her homework without being reminded. It may take a year or two of practice in middle school, but it doesn’t require years of practice. Before age 11, responsibility can be taught in other ways. For a 6-year-old, that means remembering to feed the cat and bring home her lunchbox.
If we want students to improve memory, focus, creative thinking, test performance and even school behavior, the answer is not more homework, the answer is more sleep. The National Sleep Foundation reports that our children are suffering sleep deprivation, partly from homework. If we pride ourselves on a rational, research-based approach to education, we must look at the right facts.
Parents often feel stuck with homework because they don’t realize they have a choice. But they do. Schooling may be mandatory, but homework isn’t. Families can opt out. Parents can approach the teacher either about homework load or the simple fact of doing homework at all, especially in elementary school. Many teachers will be more than happy with the change. Opting out, or changing the homework culture of a school brings education control back down to the local level.
That’s another thing the new Education Secretary has promised: to turn more control for education decisions over to states and local school districts. That could spell good news for students – if local teachers and principals do their own homework and read up on what the research says about making kids do school work after school is done.
Sorry, but homework really does matter.
Annoying, yes. Boring, usually. Important for your academic success? Very much so.
See below for some important reasons why you probably should be doing your homework.
1. GradesRead more
- There is no single other larger measurement of your high school experience than your GPA. It opens or closes doors and will never change once you have graduated (or not).
- There are many more important things in high school than grades, but, in general, nothing has as much impact upon your future.
- Doing homework on time leads to better grades.
2. Having done your homework makes the next class time more meaningful, more understandable and less boringRead more
- If you don’t do your homework, you will most often not know what the teacher is doing in class the next day.
- Teachers teach to the students who do their homework.
- The rest of the students get left behind and lost.
- When your teacher assigns homework it is for two purposes:
- To reinforce something taught in class through “independent practice” by the students
- To expose students to something that will be discussed and reinforced in class.
- Doing your homework helps you to identify what you do and do not know.
- Doing your homework helps you to identify your needs.
- Always ask questions about the homework in class. This serves two important purposes:
- It shows your teacher you did your work (grades up).
- It helps you to clarify your understanding and ability to do the work you need for a high grade.
- If you do your homework late or at the end of the quarter, you won’t be learning, you won’t much improve your test grades, and you will have missed the feedback-cycle of:
Classroom learning reinforced by independent practice (homework) = learning = better grades
3. Doing homework leads to more overall learningRead more
- Homework is practice. You don’t get good at something without practice.
- Even if it seems easy and irrelevant, it is still practice and practice has enormous benefits:
- It creates a habit of just doing your work and helps to break procrastination cycles
- It can only help you, just like how one more time in sports increases performance, your brain, memory, and willpower benefit from repetition.
- Even if it seems easy and irrelevant, it is still practice and practice has enormous benefits:
- Doing homework (on time) leads to more learning which leads to better grades.
- In general, learning is probably one of the least impactful pieces of the high school experience on your life. I can’t remember much of anything that I learned in high school.
- However, you will learn a few things in high school that will have a huge impact on your life, that are life-changing.
- Doing your homework gives you exposure to learning and enables you to have success in a subject that you may not have known at age 15 was important to you at age 25.
4. Homework tells you what your teacher wants you to learn and / or do, especially on testsRead more
- Teachers give homework for some good and some bad reasons. Too bad you’re not the teacher, so you can’t decide.
- So, instead of judging your homework, listen to your teacher through the homework and the expectations it sets from your teacher.
- Teachers use test questions for homework and homework for test questions. They do it because 1) it’s fair to students, allowing them to practice what will be on the test; and 2) teachers are lazy.
5. Doing your homework helps you getting through bad classes and teachersRead more
- Many students blame teachers for their grades. Let’s agree that there are bad teachers and boring, worthless classes and homework. A couple things:
- You don’t pay your teacher’s salary. Your teacher gets paid whether you do your homework or not.
- Doing your homework punishes your teacher, because the easiest thing to grade for a teacher is nothing. Get revenge on your teacher and do your homework
- The less you do your homework, the worse the class will become. And your grades.
- Homework helps make class more meaningful, and thus more relevance.
- Homework is part of a circular process of classroom success. If you break that cycle by not doing your homework, you lose, because you get a bad grade.
- Say this five times really fast:
- “The more work I do the more I learn, the more I learn the more work I can do and I get better grades.”
- Doing your homework = better grades
- Doing your homework = class is more relevant
- Doing your homework = you learn
- Doing your homework = breaking procrastination cycles
If you want to improve your grades, try on some homework! Just get started and it won’t be so bad.
Look, I know it sucks to have to do stupid things you don’t want to do. I get it. But look at your grades. If they’re not where they could be, then let’s talk about doing some more homework.
Let me know if I can help.