Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Do elementary school students need to do homework to be successful? For that matter, do any students need to do homework to be successful?
The data on this topic is hopelessly mixed. Of course, the lack of strong data doesn't prevent people (teachers, parents, administrators, students) from having very strong feelings on the subject. However, very few of these opinions can be backed up by actual data - on either side of the argument.

In researching this topic I found a study by Duke University that synthesized the results of many different studies on homework between 1989 and 2003. Harris Cooper, the author of the study, found that homework was beneficial if assigned using the 10-minute rule. This rule states that students should be assigned 10 minutes of homework for every year in school starting with first grade. This would mean a second grader would do 20 minutes of homework a night and a ninth grader would do 90 minutes. Cooper found that any homework beyond this did not raise student grades.

I have one big problem with Cooper's conclusion. He definitely found a correlation between homework and grades - any teacher could tell you that relationship exists. When I taught middle school I could predict students final grades by looking at what percentage of homework was completed. I had an almost perfect record. However, is the homework leading to higher grades, or do the students who understand the work and are motivated to succeed, do the homework?

To be fair, I didn't read the actual study by Cooper, just an article on the study, but this is a question I have not been able to find the answer to anywhere. Does doing homework make kids smarter, or do smart kids do homework?

Last year was my first year teaching in elementary school. I tried to assign about forty minutes of homework a night. This by itself proved a challenge because I would have kids finish the homework in 15 minutes while others would work for two hours. I don't know how much of the two hours was actually working (not getting a snack, sharpening pencils, looking for a book, etc...), but there was such a huge discrepancy that I had to make the 45 minute rule. If a student worked for 45 minutes, but didn't finish the homework they would be excused from whatever he or she didn't finish. This rule worked pretty well because for the most part, kids that did the homework were able to finish within 45 minutes, and if they didn't finish it wasn't a huge deal.

However, I had several students who just didn't do their homework. Ever. These were the kids that had busy parents that just didn't have time to monitor their kids' homework situation. So, who ended up with that job? Yep, me. By the end of the year I was e-mailing three parents with the homework assignments - every night. This led to homework occasionally getting done at home. I would then spend most of my recess time sitting in my classroom while the students worked on the homework they hadn't done that night. I was very frustrated that I was missing my opportunity to make last minute copies, set up the next lesson, or go to the bathroom to watch these kids drag their feet working on homework.

This year I moved down to third grade. I have to say that I absolutely love third grade, and one reason is that I made the big decision to not assign homework. Actually, the kids have homework every night, but I don't have to collect anything. They each have to read for as long as they can and get some sort of physical exercise. I added the exercise because, unlike the research on homework, the research on physical activity in kids is very clear - a healthy and active body leads to a healthy and active mind.

I can't tell you how amazing the beginning of the year was. I didn't have extra stress, the kids didn't have extra stress, and the parents didn't have extra stress. The kids came in every morning refreshed and ready to learn. Instead of checking homework (the entire process would take 45 minutes most days last year) I was able to sit down one on one with the kids that were struggling and help them make real gains. We had more time for direct instruction and practice in the classroom that I could observe.

Well, a few days into maternity leave, I got the word that the third grade all needed to assign the same amount of homework. This means my kids are now getting homework every night. Which leaves me thinking about what I will do when I get back to school. I hate to assign homework that I am not going to do anything with, but I also hate to give up all that time we had to actually learn.

I had been planning on comparing notes with my colleagues who were assigning homework to compare the improvement of our students over the first trimester. If my kids were at the bottom I would know that homework really does matter, but if they weren't it would be strong evidence that homework isn't as necessary as everyone thinks.

I am still mulling all of this over. So, here is my question: what would you do?

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