How much homework is too much?

The nation's youngest students are doing three times as much homework as is recommended. How are schools addressing homework overload?

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
At center, Doris Ellington helps her daughter Danaisha Hector (l.) with a math problem as Juselle Rivera (r.) studies at Phipps Neighborhoods Cornerstone Center, April 13, 2015 in Bronx, New York. A new study found that elementary school-aged kids are doing too much homework, leading to increased family stress.

If kids had less homework, would they spend more time with family or in front of the television? Would they suffer on standardized tests because they lack practice, or would they thrive because they haven’t gotten burned out?

In the debate over the merits of sending kids home for a “second shift” of school, these are the questions that plague parents and school officials.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Family Therapy found that early elementary school students are doing far more homework than they should be. "It was unsettling to find that in our study population, first and second grade children had three times the homework load recommended,” the study said.

Even kindergarteners – who should not have any homework, according to the National Education Association’s recommendations – worked an average of 25 minutes a night.

This barrage of work at such a young age contributed to family stress, the researchers found, and might not even help students learn.

"Although homework studies that compare achievement vs homework load have been equivocal," the authors wrote, "the general consensus is that excessive homework not only shows no benefit, but may be detrimental."

Several studies showing that homework offers diminishing returns have led to the NEA’s adoption of the “10 Minute Rule,” which says homework should start at 10 minutes a night for first graders, and increase in increments of 10 minutes per grade, culminating in two hours of homework for 12th-graders.

“Although the 10 Minute Rule has been apparently endorsed by the NEA since 2006, we did not find evidence that this standard was being uniformly applied,” the study said.

The 10 Minute Rule is only one of several new approaches to controlling the homework boom. Earlier this year, a Manhattan public school abolished homework entirely, blaming it for students’ “frustration and exhaustion, lack of time for other activities and family time and, sadly for many, loss of interest in learning.”

Hannah Sinha, a Montessori school teacher also in Manhattan, told the Christian Science Monitor’s Lisa Suhay that homework is necessary but must be tailored to students’ unique needs. “I can’t imagine giving 35 children the same homework assignment,” she said.

Some experts, including the authors of this study, recommend focusing on more practical assignments instead of worksheets and problem sets often criticized as busy work. They suggest having kids use math “to help build a birdhouse,” or calculate “money needed to buy a toy at the store, or balance a checkbook.”

But family involvement gets tricky as well, for kids without a quiet place at home to complete their assignments whose parents feel unequipped or too busy to do these kinds of interactive activities. Family stress increased when parents felt a greater need to be involved in their kids’ homework or had a lower perception of their abilities to do so, say the researchers.

Anti-homework advocate Etta Kravolec argues that pinning homework on parents “disempowers teachers and deprofessionalizes them.” Instead, the author of “The End of Homework” told the Monitor that eliminating homework for her college-bound students helped her “[think] differently about class time, which became work time.”

For younger kids, the best solution might be the simplest: just encourage students to read. Denise Pope, a Stanford professor and a co-author of "Overloaded and Unprepared," told Today that free reading is “the only type of homework that's proven to be beneficial to elementary school students.”

"Kids are not going to give up their extracurriculars, but then they are stuck with all this homework, so the things that get left out are actually really important things like chores, family time, and sleep," she said.

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