Is Homework Good for Kids? Here's What the Research Says

A s kids return to school, debate is heating up once again over how they should spend their time after they leave the classroom for the day.

The no-homework policy of a second-grade teacher in Texas went viral last week , earning praise from parents across the country who lament the heavy workload often assigned to young students. Brandy Young told parents she would not formally assign any homework this year, asking students instead to eat dinner with their families, play outside and go to bed early.

But the question of how much work children should be doing outside of school remains controversial, and plenty of parents take issue with no-homework policies, worried their kids are losing a potential academic advantage. Here’s what you need to know:

For decades, the homework standard has been a “10-minute rule,” which recommends a daily maximum of 10 minutes of homework per grade level. Second graders, for example, should do about 20 minutes of homework each night. High school seniors should complete about two hours of homework each night. The National PTA and the National Education Association both support that guideline.

But some schools have begun to give their youngest students a break. A Massachusetts elementary school has announced a no-homework pilot program for the coming school year, lengthening the school day by two hours to provide more in-class instruction. “We really want kids to go home at 4 o’clock, tired. We want their brain to be tired,” Kelly Elementary School Principal Jackie Glasheen said in an interview with a local TV station . “We want them to enjoy their families. We want them to go to soccer practice or football practice, and we want them to go to bed. And that’s it.”

A New York City public elementary school implemented a similar policy last year, eliminating traditional homework assignments in favor of family time. The change was quickly met with outrage from some parents, though it earned support from other education leaders.

New solutions and approaches to homework differ by community, and these local debates are complicated by the fact that even education experts disagree about what’s best for kids.

The research

The most comprehensive research on homework to date comes from a 2006 meta-analysis by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, who found evidence of a positive correlation between homework and student achievement, meaning students who did homework performed better in school. The correlation was stronger for older students—in seventh through 12th grade—than for those in younger grades, for whom there was a weak relationship between homework and performance.

Cooper’s analysis focused on how homework impacts academic achievement—test scores, for example. His report noted that homework is also thought to improve study habits, attitudes toward school, self-discipline, inquisitiveness and independent problem solving skills. On the other hand, some studies he examined showed that homework can cause physical and emotional fatigue, fuel negative attitudes about learning and limit leisure time for children. At the end of his analysis, Cooper recommended further study of such potential effects of homework.

Despite the weak correlation between homework and performance for young children, Cooper argues that a small amount of homework is useful for all students. Second-graders should not be doing two hours of homework each night, he said, but they also shouldn’t be doing no homework.

Not all education experts agree entirely with Cooper’s assessment.

Cathy Vatterott, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, supports the “10-minute rule” as a maximum, but she thinks there is not sufficient proof that homework is helpful for students in elementary school.

“Correlation is not causation,” she said. “Does homework cause achievement, or do high achievers do more homework?”

Vatterott, the author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs , thinks there should be more emphasis on improving the quality of homework tasks, and she supports efforts to eliminate homework for younger kids.

“I have no concerns about students not starting homework until fourth grade or fifth grade,” she said, noting that while the debate over homework will undoubtedly continue, she has noticed a trend toward limiting, if not eliminating, homework in elementary school.

The issue has been debated for decades. A TIME cover in 1999 read: “Too much homework! How it’s hurting our kids, and what parents should do about it.” The accompanying story noted that the launch of Sputnik in 1957 led to a push for better math and science education in the U.S. The ensuing pressure to be competitive on a global scale, plus the increasingly demanding college admissions process, fueled the practice of assigning homework.

“The complaints are cyclical, and we’re in the part of the cycle now where the concern is for too much,” Cooper said. “You can go back to the 1970s, when you’ll find there were concerns that there was too little, when we were concerned about our global competitiveness.”

Cooper acknowledged that some students really are bringing home too much homework, and their parents are right to be concerned.

“A good way to think about homework is the way you think about medications or dietary supplements,” he said. “If you take too little, they’ll have no effect. If you take too much, they can kill you. If you take the right amount, you’ll get better.”

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News Tip: ‘Homework is Like Good Medicine’ and Other Research-Based Back-to-School Advice

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The following Duke University experts share back-to-school advice for parents on homework, bullying and early identification of learning difficulties. 

             Harris Cooper on Homework

“Research shows that all children, even young children, learn better when they bring home school assignments. The key to success is that the assignments be appropriate to the student’s developmental level and home circumstances. For young children, homework should be short, simple, and lead to success. Older students can have more challenging assignments that involve both practice and the integration of skills.”

“Parents should not expect large achievement gains from homework in the early grades. But, homework teaches other important skills such as good study habits, time management and a recognition that academic learning can occur anywhere, not just at school. Homework can foster independent learning and responsible character traits.”

“Homework can also give parents an opportunity to see what’s going on at school and learn about their child’s academic strengths and weaknesses.”

“Opponents argue homework can lead to boredom with schoolwork and can deny students access to leisure activities that are fun and also teach important life skills.”

“When homework is properly prescribed, though, it is like good medicine: Too little and it has no effect, too much and it can make matters worse, just the right amount and our kids get better.”  

  • Bio: Harris Cooper has conducted a meta-analysis of studies on summer learning loss and is a noted expert on homework . He has published research syntheses in social, developmental and educational psychology, personality, education policy, marketing, and developmental medicine and child neurology.  
  • Archive video interview (different subject): (4:25 mark)  
  • For additional comment, contact Harris Cooper at: [email protected]


      William Copeland on Bullying

  • Quotes: “In any given year about 1 in 5 children report being a victim of bullying—and these children are at an elevated risk for experiencing academic difficulties and emotional problems now and later in life,” says William Copeland, a professor at Duke University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and an expert on bullying. “Parents can, however, make a difference by taking a few concrete steps: 

           -- ​​“First, ask your child about their day. What made you feel good or proud? Did anything make you feel sad? This includes asking y hem about how they are getting along with their friends.”

           -- “Second, note if there appears to be an unexpected change in their mood or social behavior. Are they feeling down, nervous, or even just reluctant to go to school all of a sudden? Sometimes this will express itself by a change in their appetite or sleep.”​

           -- “Third, check in with their teachers. Not all kids want to talk about what is going on with their peers, but teachers often can pick up on peer problems.”

          -- “Fourth, cyberbullying allows children to be bullied even when they are alone or at home. There are free apps that allow parents to check in on their children’s online activities without looking at their child’s device every day."

  • ​​​​​Bio:  William Copeland  is a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University and a faculty fellow of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. His research focuses on psychiatric disorders in childhood and adolescence.  
  • Archive video interview (different subject):  

         Amy Schulting on Early Identification of Learning Difficulties

“We know early identification and intervention is the best approach to address learning difficulties, like dyslexia, so having those conversations with teachers early in the school year helps ensure students get the appropriate support and intervention they need.”  

  • Bio: Amy Schulting is a visiting research scholar at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy and the dyslexia specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education. Her research includes teacher home-visiting to improve students’ transition to kindergarten and truancy prevention efforts in the elementary grades.  

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