As a parent and an educator, I have concluded that homework has no place in elementary school. This has been a very unpopular opinion among educators, policy makers, and even fellow parents. Homework seems to be symbolic of what’s considered a good education, but there are many compelling reasons to discontinue its use in elementary schools and to re-examine its use in middle and high schools. Below are what I consider the most compelling reasons to do away with homework as well as some suggestions for how elementary schools can handle this pedagogical shift.
The number of hours devoted to learning is not developmentally appropriate
School districts across the nation typically have elementary school students in their buildings for 6.5 to 7.5 hours a day. If I were to take the shortest day and take off 30 minutes for lunch, we can say that elementary school children are engaged in learning activities for about 6 hours a day. That’s 30 hours a week of learning. Let’s compare this number to your typical undergraduate college student and working adult. The number of hours a college student spends in class ranges from 12-16 hours a week. However, we have to consider that a college student is doing a lot more work outside of class. Usually, we say that for every hour an undergraduate student is in class, they have one hour of homework, but for some colleges and majors, a student might spend two hours studying for every hour in class. So a college student would be engaged in a learning activity for a range of 24 to 48 hours a week. Additionally, adults work about 40 hours a week although some work more.
Let’s weigh this information against what’s developmentally appropriate. We know that the attention span of an 8-year-old is certainly much shorter than an 18-year-old’s, so time spent on learning tasks should be shorter for younger students, with more breaks. So then, is it reasonable to expect elementary school children to concentrate on learning activities for more than 30 hours a week (if we include homework time), which is about the same as the average college student (36 hours)?
We also have to consider that child psychologists recommend unstructured play time for elementary school children, considering it an important part of a child’s development. Yet, we ask elementary students to attend to information for the same length of time as a college student. The setting might be different. The activities might be different. But we’re still asking that the brain works and learns. A 30-hour work week for elementary students is more than what’s appropriate. There is no need to add more. If it is necessary to add more time and activities for the sake of learning, then school districts are not doing their job, and homework should not be put in place to fill the gap.
Understanding the parent population
Another major problem with homework has to do with most school districts not understanding changes in family structures over the past several decades. They simply don’t know what’s reasonable to ask of students and parents once students are home. There is great variety in family structure. Even if we incorrectly assume that a child lives with a parent or parents, we have to consider that there are more single parents who must work to support their family. Also, most two-parent families require that both parents work full time in order to support the family.
As a consequence, children are with daycare providers until the end of the work day. Sometimes, daycare providers are willing to help with homework or provide homework time. But even in daycare centers with trained staff, homework is often treated as an optional activity. So, working parents, who get home at 6pm who also hope to have their children tucked into bed by 9pm, have three hours to fit in making and eating dinner, taking care of evening cleaning (including the house and personal hygiene), family time, and homework. This becomes even more problematic for parents who wish to have their children play a sport or participate in some other type of enrichment activity.
And what about when a student isn’t sure how to complete the homework assignment? Schools assume that parents are able to help with homework. There are several situations families can be in which makes it difficult for the parent of an elementary school child to help with homework. One example that I think affects most families is the common core math curriculum.
For example, I’m quite good at math and took math through pre-calculus, but I’ve struggled to help my children even with simple addition and subtraction problems. I can get the right answer, but I can’t arrived to the answer using the same method my child learned in class. And my child can’t remember exactly all of the steps from class. What’s worse, my child has often felt pressured to arrive at an answer in exactly the same way the teacher did in class. So then math homework becomes a battle with me telling my child to “just do it this way so you can say you did it” and my child insisting that my way is wrong.
This situation illustrates two very important problems with homework: 1. You can’t ask a child to practice something at home that they did not master at school and 2. You can’t ask or expect parents to then reteach the lesson. So then homework becomes a waste of precious time for many families as well as a source of stress.
The myth of preparedness and responsibility
For many years now, I have heard the argument that doing homework in elementary school prepares you for homework in middle school and eventually high school. This is flawed reasoning. First, and I’ve said this before, you have my student physically in the school for 6 or more hours a day. That’s plenty of time. Second, this reasoning looks more like a slippery slope argument: If you don’t do it, you will have dire consequences later on. Homework in high school is preparation for college, homework in middle school is preparation for high school, homework in elementary school is preparation for middle school. I can just see the dominos falling. So what’s next, homework in preschool? Infant homework? There has to be a line. And when we draw this line, we should be looking at what activities are appropriate at each age level.
We know that one activity should build and lead to the next, but they don’t have to be the same activity. Take learning to read for example. When you first learn to read, you’re not actually reading. As toddlers and pre-schoolers, you’re listening to stories, anticipating what happens next in a story, listening to sounds, and rhyming. As pre-schoolers and kindergarteners, you’re working more with sounds and rhyming, and you get introduced to letters and the relationship between certain sounds and letters. Then you move onto simple words, simple sentences, spelling rules, vocabulary, verb forms, etc. But you don’t start by practicing reading.
You don’t have to start with homework to teach responsibility preparedness either. Also, I don’t think that this is what’s truly important at elementary school. Learning how to make friends and the responsibility of citizenship are much more important for that age group than the responsibility of unnecessary homework. And at home, elementary school children should be learning how to contribute to the working of the home by doing chores, taking care of personal hygiene, learning to get along with other family members, etc. The same lessons in personal responsibility that homework supposedly teaches can also be taught with cleaning your bedroom every day and learning to share with a sibling.
Research has yet to support the practice of assigning homework
Probably the most compelling point I can make is that the research on homework does not support its use in elementary or middle school. Alfie Kohn, through his research, has concluded that homework in elementary school has no educational value, meaning children learn nothing extra when doing homework. What’s more, in elementary school, homework can have what Kohn calls a negative value. Because families often have to fight to get their children to do homework, it can actually decrease a child’s love of learning and harm family relationships.
Other researchers (see the research of H. Cooper) are more conservative, concluding that the role of homework in the academic development of elementary students is questionable at best. Some studies have indicated a 6 point percentile gain on standardized tests for elementary school students who complete homework. Another study found that those percentile gains could also be related to the socio-economic status of the student’s family.
The research simply doesn’t support the practice. The Center for Public Education, does an excellent and objective review of the research on homework and offers suggestions to teachers and school districts who wish to continue assigning homework to their students.
When it is appropriate to assign homework?
The aforementioned link provides some good ideas regarding how to assign homework. One part of the article focuses on three areas: purpose, interaction, and teacher feedback. I would like add my own thoughts to those areas. Homework must have a purpose that is known to the student. Students must be able to complete the assignment independently (interaction). And teacher feedback is necessary (a simple check off assignment won’t do). Feedback can mean different things, but the most important thing is that the homework assignment is an integral part of the lesson where teachers respond to what their students did on their homework assignment or ask students to refer to it in a lesson.
On a related note, larger projects should be done at school because parents don’t always understand the directions, and if the kids don’t, too, then there’s confusion and frustration. Additionally, schools should be providing all of the resources for these projects because the economic status and resources available to a particular family should never be assumed.
So let’s say that teachers and schools have weighed all of the above factors and still want to assign homework, I propose an additional requirement or step be implemented before any work goes home, and that’s a conference with the parent or parents. Because parents are the supervisors of homework, it makes sense to ask parents what resources they have, including time, and what’s reasonable to expect of the family when it comes to homework. These are not classroom plans. These are individual family plans.
One teacher in my school gives his students a list of homework assignments to complete by the end of the week. When the students complete that list is up to them. However, students must complete all assignments by Friday. Incredibly flexible, but it didn’t quite work for us. It took several emails, phone calls, and talks with the principal before I could convince the teacher to send incomplete work home over the weekend, a time when I could better supervise and enforce the completion of homework. For my family situation, the weekends really are the best time (though I continue to argue that homework is not required at all).
I want to take a minute to talk about the importance of reading practice. While I do think schools should schedule within the school day time for reading, it’s still very important to read at home consistently. So, I definitely support some reading coming home during the week. Most elementary schools ask families to fit in 15 to 20 minutes a night, and students get to choose what they read. In middle school and high school, students might have to read more nonfiction so to decrease the amount of time spent on lecture and reading in class (more about that in the next section).
However, we should still be cautious when assigning reading homework. Schools must consider the fact that some parents can’t read, don’t read English, can’t afford books or computers for internet reading, or can’t find the time to set aside for reading (consider parents who work late shifts or single parents working two jobs), so we can’t completely relegate the responsibility of learning to read or improving reading skills to parents or the home. I again defer to an individualized family plan.
Flipping the classroom to maximize practice time
Flipped classrooms is a relatively new idea in education, and the research regarding it is promising and exciting. It also provides some insight and solutions to guided and independent practice which is usually the type of homework students get in elementary school.
The traditional classroom model requires that students listen to lectures (maybe take notes, maybe read) and some some limited practice with the information in class. Outside of class, students work more deeply with the information by doing additional practice, projects, research etc.
In a flipped classroom, homework consists of reading and watching instructional videos, so the business of taking in information happens outside of the class. This opens up class time for teacher-led and teacher-supervised practice, projects, and research. The flipped classroom model takes care of some of the problems parents have with homework, most notably being unable to help with homework or not having the time or resources for projects. Families tend to find it easier to build in reading time or screen time into a child’s day, like when dinner is being made or before bedtime, so delegating these activities to homework can make a big difference in optimizing classroom time.
Unfortunately, the flipped classroom assumes students have access to a computer for viewing lectures and that they will actually read once home. However, some low-income school districts have found solutions to this problem as well. Building in study hall time at the end of the day or as an extension of the day allows students access to computers and reading material. This can do double duty for working parents because it’s less time that they may need to pay for daycare. Some elementary schools divide their classrooms in half. Half of the students participate in a structured online lesson which includes reading, videos, and simple practice while the other half of the class works directly with the teacher on more complicated tasks. Edutopia has a great article on how to do this. Here is a great Upworthy article about a high school principal who flipped classrooms in his school.
There are many reasons to say no to homework in elementary school. It is unnecessary and, at best, should be an option discussed with each individual family. School districts and elementary schools that want to increase practice time for their students should consider a flipped classroom model. Because school boards enact homework policies, teachers cannot bring about change in homework policies as quickly as parents can. Parents who want to change their district’s homework policy need to contact their school board and ask that the district reconsider their policy or conduct an inquiry that will either justify their current policies or reform current policies.