If you're a parent of a child in grade school, you're likely familiar with the ordeal: You wrestle your child into a chair to finish his or her homework -- a bevy of assignments that are sometimes frustrating and occasionally incomprehensible. After an hour (or two, or three) of negotiation, occasional tears and shouting, everyone is exhausted.
And you're left wondering: Is all this homework really necessary?
For an increasing number of educators in New Jersey and nationwide, the answer is no. In recent years, Woodbridge Township, Princeton and West Windsor-Plainsboro school districts have experimented by either doing away with traditional homework or opting for "homework-free" days or weekends. The "no homework" movement is proving especially popular with parents (and -- perhaps not surprisingly -- young students), who see it as an opportunity for children to spend more time with family or pursue their own passions.
Experts say the movement is growing, even as conventional thinking still holds that homework is a good way for young students to establish an academic routine, and concerns remain about the ability of American children to compete globally.
Of course, who wouldn't like more recess and less homework?
Though no local studies have tracked the trend, New Jersey public schools have placed restrictions on homework since at least 2013, when students and parents reacted favorably to limits on homework in the Hopewell Valley School District. The district later extended the policy, setting specific time restrictions, like one that disallowed third graders from doing more than 30 minutes of assignments.
In 2015, Princeton schools began periodically implementing homework-free weekends, following the lead of West Windsor-Plainsboro schools (which began offering some homework-free nights in 2014). And last year, Robert Mascenik School #26 in Woodbridge Township deemphasized traditional homework in favor of reading. Administrators said children should spend the time playing and interacting with their families. So did Port Reading School #9, another elementary school in the same district.
In 2016, the no-homework movement went viral when Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher in Godley, Texas, sent a note to parents letting them know she wouldn't be giving any homework. Young explained that research didn't bear out the benefit of homework for young students, saying it was more important for them to play and get to bed early.
Parents are celebrating no-homework policies as a kind of forward-thinking approach to early education. Consider Jennifer Rittner, who felt that her son Theo's kindergarten homework was so unnecessary and detrimental that she was willing to put him in private school.
"I can't draw, I can't do math, I can't read," he would say. Rittner, who lives in Montclair, placed part of the blame on the "depressing" worksheets that followed Theo home after school. When first grade rolled around, he left for a private school -- the Montclair Cooperative School.
There, students kept nightly journals where they could log whatever they wanted to read. Later, they were assigned "ownwork," for which they performed and logged a weekly "self-initiated task." For Theo, now 7, that could mean playing darts or making a paper airplane.
"The work that we do with children needs to be productive, not just kill time," says Amanda Marchesani, Theo's former teacher at the school. She reconsidered her approach to homework after hearing Alfie Kohn, a scholar of progressive education known for his views on reward-based learning (no gold stars, please) and grading (it shouldn't exist), speak at a conference.
Does that mean teachers who see homework as indispensable -- even at a young age -- are wrong?
In 2006, Harris Cooper, a psychology professor at Duke University, published an analysis of research conducted between 1987 and 2003, finding that even a little bit of homework could have a positive influence. But the association held strongest in grades seven to 12; younger students did not demonstrate the same benefit.
Homework, he wrote, could trigger loss of interest in a subject or make students see school in a negative light. Despite this, he advised teachers to put stock in the "10-minute rule," the notion -- endorsed by the PTA and National Education Association -- that 10 minutes of homework should be added per grade level, starting with 10 in first grade and topping out at two hours in 12th.
So are worksheets like the ones assigned to Theo in kindergarten really going to help students get into Harvard one day? Rittner thinks the push to start so young is reflective of parental neurosis.
"I think it's generalized social anxiety that children in our country are falling behind children in other countries," says Rittner, who teaches social justice and design for graduate students at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Still, many educators believe that young children should do homework to foster a love of learning, says Kedra Gamble.
"Homework when done well is a wonderful place to do that," says Gamble, assistant professor at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education in New Brunswick.
She adds, "The function of school is very different than it was 20, 30 years ago. You can get content from everywhere. Now we're teaching them to think, to posit questions, to conduct research, to solve problems."
Steven Isaacs teaches a game design class at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge where he asks students to design their own games in the context of Minecraft, covering topics such as narrative and coding. A former special education teacher, he was never a fan of homework. Why? It changes the focus of school, he says.
"It's not about the learning, it's about the finishing the homework, and that really bothers me," Isaacs says. He frames his class as a "studio" where students pick passion projects.
"When a kid has agency and is excited about something, there's a good chance when they come home they're going to continue working on that," Isaacs says.
But in the face of school benchmarks, creative freedom isn't always a possibility. Not all districts have the resources of the Bernards Township School District, and priorities can be different in a disadvantaged school.
Moreover, in high school, hours of homework remain a necessary part of life as students move towards college. For those hoping to get into a top school, this can mean a fiercely competitive admissions process. If relieved of homework in subjects like math, history and English, would students become less desirable candidates for the academic rigor that awaits?
Well, no. But yes, too. Ashley Kollme is a college counselor for IvyWise, a New York college planning company that ministers to New Jersey students whose parents plunk down thousands of dollars for tutoring and advising -- in effect, giving them more homework.
Following a full slate of extracurriculars that creeps into early evening, students come home to so much work that they end up sacrificing sleep, she says.
"Something has to give," Kollme says. "There are only 24 hours in a day." An oppressive amount of homework doesn't necessarily mean better college preparedness, she says.
"Colleges are not focused so much on just the numbers -- what are your test scores and what are your grades," Kollme says.
The broader question: "Do you have a love of learning?"
Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmyKup or on Facebook.
Does homework help? Only if it's the right homework, expert says
By Jonathan Hepburn and Paige Cockburn
Posted August 24, 2016 19:47:50
Homework is not useless but its quality is far more important than quantity and schools should think very carefully about why they are setting it, an education expert at the University of South Australia says.
Over the past week an anti-homework note sent to parents by a teacher in Forth Worth, Texas, has spread around the world after being posted to Facebook by a parent.
"After much research this summer, I am trying something new," the note from Mrs Brandy Young, which has been shared more than 70,000 times, says.
"Homework will only consist of work that your student did not finish during the school day. There will be no formally assigned homework this year."
The note goes on to say that research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance.
Instead, Mrs Young urges parents to spend their evenings doing things like reading together, playing outside, and getting their children to bed early, which "are proven to correlate with student success."
Not surprisingly, the note was posted to Facebook with the comment "Brooke is loving her new teacher already!"
External Link: Facebook no-homework note
Good homework is 'purposeful, specific, and reinforces learning'
However, "she's not quite right," says Brendan Bentley, a PhD candidate and lecturer in the Education Department of the University of South Australia.
In 2006, a review of American research conducted between 1987 and 2003 found that "there was generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement."
The review, led by Dr Harris Cooper of Duke University, found that evidence was stronger for students in grades seven to 12 than for kindergarten to grade six, and for when students, rather than parents, reported how much time they spent doing homework.
On the other hand, in 2013, Australian academics Richard Walker and Mike Horsley published Reforming Homework, in which they reviewed international research and found that for young primary school children, homework is of little or no value and students are regularly given too much.
The issue is that although if you do something more often you get better at it, you have to be doing the right thing in the first place.
"Homework has to be purposeful, specific, and reinforce learning. If it's just to finish work, that may not help the student at all," Mr Bentley said.
In fact, too much homework can be worse than useless: It can be detrimental.
"For students in grades three or four, more than 20 minutes of homework can exhaust them. They go into cognitive load, and their ability to learn goes into a decline," Mr Bentley said.
"They can develop a negative attitude towards learning. It's about getting the balance right."
Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used: a heavy cognitive load creates errors or interference.
That 20 minutes is not a guideline for each day: "There needs to be a good argument for having homework every single night," Mr Bentley said.
"Schools have to understand why they are giving homework. Without a good purpose and a rationale: Reconsider it."
He says that homework can be ramped up as students get older, but even in grade 10, research shows that, "if it's more than an hour, it's a waste of time."
Designing effective homework also depends upon how much the student is able to learn.
"Adults can learn about seven things at a time. For young children, that's maybe two or three," Mr Bentley said. "You only need 20 minutes to reinforce that."
However, he says the benefits of homework are not just about reinforcing learning, and that if it does not turn students off, it can teach important study habits.
He agrees that family time and relaxation can be more important than homework.
"Developing good habits and attitudes through interaction with parents can be good — every time you interact with your children, you are teaching assumptions," he said.
On the other hand, too much homework can lead to conflicts with parents.
"Parents are keen for their children to be the best, so they may ask about homework, and may do it for their children, which defeats the purpose," Mr Bentley said.
Topics:education, children, secondary-schools, primary-schools, schools, youth, australia
- Academics agree that too much homework can harm learning
- Good homework is 'purposeful, specific, and reinforces learning'
- Time spent with family after school can be more important than more study