Educational Myths: Homework and Achievement

Homework is a major issue for many families — and it’s one of the things that kids hate most about school. It’s not unusual for parents to report that it takes several unhappy hours every evening to get their children to complete homework. Tantrums and screaming are commonplace. There are whole books written about how to handle homework issues! Homework battles can be destructive to relationships at home, and parents see homework as a major source of stress for their children. There is even a documentary film, “Race to Nowhere”, that targets homework as an important factor in the “dark side of America’s achievement culture”.

Here’s the question that really matters in the long run: how effective is homework in increasing academic achievement? It turns out that the notion that homework is a necessary part of a quality education for all students is just not true! It’s an educational myth — something that parents and teachers believe without much evidence to back it up. Dr. Harris Cooper at Duke University has done the most extensive research on the relationship between homework and academic achievement. Here’s what the research says:

*Homework is effective in increasing academic achievement for high school students up to about two hours per night. Spending more than two hours on homework does not result in higher achievement.

*Homework is moderately effective in increasing academic achievement for middle school students — about half as effective as it is in high school. Spending 60-90 minutes on homework seems to be the optimal level — more than that does not increase academic achievement. In one study, homework in science, English, and history had little effect on test scores in those subjects, but there was a positive relationship between homework and test scores in mathematics.

*Homework is not effective at all in increasing academic achievement for elementary school students — research studies indicate no measurable effect. A head start on establishing good study habits is the most positive outcome from elementary school homework — that and giving parents the opportunity to keep track of their child’s progress in the curriculum.

*Homework that is reviewed and discussed by the teacher is three times more effective than homework that is simply turned in.

Parents are often concerned about the amount of time their children spend on homework — either too much time or too little. Most school systems have a “rule of thumb” about the appropriate amount of homework: the Ten Minute Rule is the most common — ten minutes per grade level. So your first grader should have 10 minutes of homework, your fifth grader should have 50 minutes of homework, and so forth. The National Education Association and the National PTA both have homework guidelines that mirror the Ten Minute Rule. Here are Dr. Cooper’s guidelines:

Grades 1-3: One to three assignments a week, 15 minutes or less.

Grades 4-6: Two to four assignments a week, 15 — 45 minutes.

Grades 7-9: Three to five assignments a week, 45 — 75 minutes.

Grades 10-12: Four to five assignments a week, 75-120 minutes.

It’s interesting to note that recent surveys show that the majority of American public school students, K-12, spend less than one hour a day on homework, and this has been true for at least 50 years! The only level at which the homework load has increased is elementary school — the one level at which homework does not positively affect academic achievement!

Another policy issue is the effect of homework on the final grade. Many students get poor grades because they don’t do homework and get zeroes in the grade book. If the purpose of grades is to measure a student’s mastery of the curriculum, then giving zeroes for lack of homework is inappropriate — if homework affects mastery, failure to do it will be reflected in test and quiz grades. In my school system, the homework policy recommends that homework be no more than 15% of the grade in elementary and middle school, and no more than 20% in high school. My personal stance is that homework grades should be used to help diligent students get a higher grade in the class, but should never be used to lower a student’s overall grade in the class.

The type of homework that teachers assign is also important — busy work just wastes everyone’s time. Effective homework includes 1) practice and review of material covered in class, 2) preparation for new material that will be introduced in class, or 3) interesting assignments that extend a student’s learning. Effective homework has a purpose!

Teachers and administrators worry that the big differences among students in the level of home support and available resources mean that homework is automatically unfair to some children — and usually those children who need all the help and support they can get. Making homework equitable for all children — especially if it is graded — is an issue for many schools. Common solutions include teacher availability before and after school for help and assistance, open computer labs before and after school for students who do not have access at home, and after-school homework labs.

So here’s the deal: Homework effectively increases academic achievement for high school students, and is moderately effective for middle school students. Children in elementary school do not benefit academically from homework assignments. The Ten Minute Rule is reasonable, and no student should be doing more than two hours of homework a night. Homework assignments need to have a clear purpose, and teachers should review and discuss the assignments in class. Homework grades should help students, not hurt them. Schools should provide students with the resources to get homework done if their parents cannot.

Assignment: Find out if your child’s school or the school system has an official homework policy. In my school system, the homework policy is located on the central office website, Board of Education tab, Policies and Regulations. Look up the policy and read it over. Pay particular attention to the purpose of homework, the parents’ responsibilities, and any guidelines about the amount of time homework should take.

~ Alice

Our very own education specialist Alice Wellborn is now a regular contributor at FlyLady.net and we are thrilled to share her wise words with all of you. Alice is a school psychologist and the author of the amazingly helpful book No More Parents Left Behind. You can ask Alice your questions and Get the book at: http://www.nomoreparentsleftbehind.com/