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Is Homework Helpful or Harmful?
Research suggests homework doesn’t make young kids smarter. But it may widen the achievement gap.
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Hello! I’m excited to be sharing my inaugural Dear Melinda column. This week it’s free for everyone, but next week my Friday column will only go out to paid subscribers, so don’t forget to subscribe. These columns will address a broad range of parenting questions with science.
Right before the pandemic hit, I dug into the science of homework. I had heard from parents that many elementary-aged kids were getting more than the recommended amount — the National Parent Teacher Association and the National Education Association have long advised that students should get a maximum of 10 minutes of homework per grade level per night, meaning that first graders should have at most 10 minutes, second graders 20 minutes, and so on — and I wondered: What do we know about how homework affects young kids? Does it help them learn? Does it pose any downsides?
Now that kids are back in school again (and my kids, at least, are once again getting homework), I thought it would be a good time to share what I learned.
First, it’s important to point out that kids didn’t always get homework. In the early 20th century, educators and politicians were adamantly against it. The California state legislature passed a law banning homework for children under the age of 15 in 1901, and in 1930, the American Child Health Association lumped homework in with child labor as the “chief causes of the high death and morbidity rates from tuberculosis and heart disease among adolescents.” Oh my.
Everything changed when the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957. Worries mounted that American children weren’t as smart as their Russian counterparts. At that point, “homework became an instrument of national defense policy,” explained Carnegie Mellon historian Steven Schlossman and education researcher Brian Gill in a 2011 paper. From 1952 to 1962, the proportion of homework that high schoolers reported doing every night tripled. It dipped again in the anti-establishment ’60s, but in 1983, President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education lamented that “our once unchallenged pre-eminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world” and called for more homework to help address that concern.
All that is to say: Arguments over homework aren’t new. What’s interesting about this historical back-and-forth, though, is that it has centered almost entirely around homework in high school. At no point did educators and politicians argue that elementary school students should be doing homework. Until very recently.
In 1984, just over 40 percent of American 9-year-olds were doing up to an hour of homework a night. In 2012, that percentage had risen to 57 percent. (These may well be underestimates, too: The numbers are from the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, which ask students how much homework they had the night before, but teachers often ease up on homework the night before standardized tests.) A 2015 survey of nearly 1,200 parents in Rhode Island revealed that even kindergartners were spending an average of 25 minutes each night on schoolwork.
Pro-homework experts argue that, in addition to helping young kids master lessons, homework is crucial because it teaches self-discipline, responsibility, resilience and conscientiousness. The anti-homework camp, on the other hand, thinks it’s busy work that does more harm than good: “Young children need time outside to move their bodies, free time to recover from the structure and demands placed on them, and quiet time to be alone with their thoughts,” said Emily W. King, a child psychologist in private practice in Raleigh, N.C., and a former school psychologist. Kids also need sleep, and yet surveys show that the more homework kids have, the less sleep they get.
In my house, there’s a four-hour window between the end of the school day and the beginning of the bedtime shuffle. After squeezing in sports, dinner and showers for my kids, there’s barely any time for downtime or imaginative play. The last thing I want to do is sit my kids back down to do more schoolwork.
Plus, overall, the research suggests that homework in elementary school doesn’t do much good.
In middle school and high school, research does generally find a positive association between homework and achievement (though the effects can be hard to tease out; kids who do more homework might fare better because they might come from higher-income families, attend better schools, or are simply more motivated). But that is not the case in elementary school.
In what is by far the most comprehensive analysis of the research on homework, published in 2006, Harris Cooper, a neuroscientist and social psychologist at Duke, and his colleagues found no relationship between the amount of homework elementary school students did and their overall academic achievement. In 2019, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, average mathematics test scores were actually lower among fourth graders whose teachers assigned more than 30 minutes of math homework a day.
“There is a misconception that the more homework you give, the more rigorous the education,” said Cathy Vatterott, a professor of education at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and a former middle school teacher and principal.
And yet some experts keep insisting on its value, arguing that homework helps children learn complex tasks and develop resilience. Cooper, the neuroscientist whose study found no relationship between homework and achievement in elementary school, agrees, arguing that homework builds conscientiousness.
I certainly want my kids to develop these skills. But when I hunted for research to support this assertion, all I could find was one 2017 study reporting that German fifth graders who spent more effort on their homework also became more conscientious over the next three years compared to students who put less effort into their homework. When I asked Cooper why, if homework makes elementary school kids more conscientious, this skill isn’t reflected in better academic performance, he told me it’s partly because kids aren’t doing enough homework for it to show an effect.
Even if homework does teach kids to be conscientious, other activities achieve the same goal. “Washing the dishes will teach discipline,” says Barbara Stengel, an education professor emerita at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education. “Making your bed in the morning will teach discipline.” My son developed resilience playing soccer (especially since his team usually lost); my daughter has learned self-control helping her dad make pancakes.
And too much homework can deprive kids of activities that we know are enriching. Childhood is the one and only period in which we get to enjoy imaginative play and explore diverse interests, yet adults seem hellbent on taking that freedom away and starting the never-ending grind of “real life” ever earlier. It’s cruel — and counterproductive. Studies have shown, for instance, that young kids learn more academic skills when they attend play-based schools rather than more academically oriented schools.
Many educators and psychologists therefore argue that elementary school homework is, for most students, more of a burden than a boon. This can be especially true for disadvantaged kids, who may not have a quiet place in which to do their homework, or who have to look after their siblings, or who don’t have parents (or tutors) available to help with confusing assignments. In these situations, homework can become a major source of stress, a situation in which “all we’re doing is taking family time away, reinforcing failure and causing confusion,” Stengel said.
Some research even suggests that homework worsens the achievement gap, which is as vast now as it was back in 1954.
In a 2011 study, the economist Marte Ronning analyzed data from more than 4,000 Dutch elementary school students, and found that in classes that assigned homework, the test score gap between the highest and lowest-achieving students was larger than it was in classes that did not assign homework.
In another 2011 study of American students, the sociologist Jonathan Daw analyzed how homework shapes individual achievement over time, concluding that homework widens the achievement gap in math, science and reading in secondary school.
A recent study published in American Sociological Review reveals an even more disturbing phenomenon — that disadvantaged kids, who often have the most trouble completing their homework, are also punished for their homework failings more than their wealthier classmates are. The research was conducted before the pandemic by Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University. She spent two and a half years studying the third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classes at a public elementary school in a suburb in the Northeast. She conducted in-depth interviews with teachers, administrators, parents and students, observed classes and collected data.
In the classes, the standard punishment for forgotten or incomplete homework was for students to stay in for recess and receive a lower grade. But high-income students, she found, were far less likely to be punished for missing homework than low-income students were.
Calarco attributes this discrepancy in part to teacher incentives. It’s not hard for teachers to discern their students’ economic backgrounds; in fact, it’s part of their job to know what students are dealing with at home. And it’s especially obvious which kids have the wealthiest parents: These are the parents who are most likely to volunteer their time in the classroom and raise money for the school as members of the parent-teacher association. Teachers, Calarco found, treat these children differently. The teachers know it, too, but they don’t feel they have a choice.
“They want to enforce the rules,” she explained, “but at the same time, they worry that if they do enforce those homework rules, they will end up creating conflict with especially the highly involved, privileged parents on whom they are most dependent.”
Calarco speculates that teachers may also subconsciously believe that poorer students needed more strict rules, because they assume the children are not getting that structure from their parents.
One fifth grade student Calarco interviewed for her study was a lower-income student whose mother ran a home day care. When he got home from school each day, he was surrounded by the children his mother cared for, many of whom didn’t leave until 6:30. His mother would try to get him to do his homework anyway, but he would often nod off, get distracted or need to help his ailing grandfather, who also lived with them. By the time she could really sit him down to work on it, it would be 8:30 or 9, and often he wouldn’t get it done. His teacher concluded that “school just isn’t a priority in their house,” and rarely granted him exemptions from the homework rules.
“My sense,” Calarco told me, is that the teachers thought the poorer kids “needed stability and consistency and rules” in a way that higher-income students did not. “And they made those judgments even when — and sometimes because — they knew what those students were facing at home,” she added.
This study is small, of course, based on just one school. But with the other evidence, it makes me wonder: Given that one of our country’s key educational goals is to close the achievement gap, do we really want to be doubling down on an educational tool that seems to do the exact opposite?
There’s a better way forward. Some schools and districts are cutting down on the more rote forms of homework — worksheets and the like — in elementary school. In 2019, 16 percent of American fourth graders reported getting no math homework the night before, compared with only 4 percent in 2015. Instead, many schools are focusing homework assignments on reading, and sometimes that’s all they require.
It’s hard to know how homework amounts will shift now that kids are back in school this year. I hope that they will continue to follow a downward trajectory (and a very unscientific poll I conducted on Twitter yesterday suggests that so far this year, they are), but I worry that some schools will be so focused on catching kids up after last year that they might, instead, start to assign more. This could be an unwelcome burden for students who are already struggling with the transition back to school amid strict Covid-19 protocols.
But maybe, after such a trying year, schools will recognize that the emotional health of their students should be priority — and that homework doesn’t provide much of a benefit. My second grader has had upwards of 40 minutes of homework some nights this fall — one afternoon walking home from the school bus, she burst into tears over how much she had — but I was relieved to hear her teacher tell us during their virtual Curriculum Night earlier this week that if homework causes our kids stress or frustration, we should skip it. We will absolutely do this when it feels warranted — and given what I know from the research, I will not second-guess my decision.
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