Homework: Too Much of a Bad Thing?


A recent article shined a spotlight on the growing role that organized athletics and sports training play in the lives of many children and their parents. But the overstressing of kids isn’t limited to the playing fields. In fact, some say it begins in their assignment pads.

A growing chorus is questioning the homework burden carried by our children. The case against homework is thoughtfully articulated in a book aptly titled The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting Our Children and What Parents Can Do About It. This movement is a wholesale pushback against current homework practices. The authors suggest that the homework our kids are getting is not very good. Adding insult to injury – there’s too much of it!

The National Education Association recommends that kids get 10 minutes of homework per grade level each night beginning in first grade. Under this formula, a ninth-grader should have no more than 90 minutes of homework. But anecdotal evidence from students in academically competitive environments suggests that students are being given significantly more homework. There is a growing body of research driving resistance to excessive homework. Momentum is building–evidenced in books, op-eds, and position papers–and it’s coming from a variety of sources: academics, parents, and professional groups are uniting under the Less Homework / Smarter Homework umbrella.

The various constituencies within the “Say No to Homework” movement come to the issue with different rationales for the same position. Parents like Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, authors of The Case Against Homework, contend that the 5 PM homework wars waged in households everywhere rob families of valuable evening time spent together. Academics and education watchers argue that there is no meaningful correlation between homework and learning. Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, sites research going as far back as the 1800s that debunks the notion that more homework makes for smarter kids. Kohn also argues that the ancillary “benefits” of homework (time management, discipline, self-editing) are illusory. Teachers and administrators are also, to some degree, embracing the vibe. The NEA homework advisory policy suggests that school districts, in forming a homework policy, address not only the frequency and amount of homework assigned, but also consider a more fundamental question: “What is the purpose of homework?’

Harris Cooper is a social psychologist at Duke University and one of the nation’s top homework scholars. His research suggests that homework in the elementary grades has little correlation to achievement. His research regarding the value of homework in the higher grades is a mixed bag. Cooper seems to have identified a sweet spot of homework, at least in terms of quantity. Some homework, he concludes, is associated with improved scores on standardized tests, but excessive amounts of homework—more than 60 to 90 minutes in middle school, and more than 2 hours in high school—is actually associated with lower standardized test scores. Essentially, Cooper’s research affirms the NEA’s 10-minute guidelines.

A recent issue of Time For Kids, a news magazine for elementary schoolers, featured a cover story entitled, “Too Much Homework?” The TFK piece cites an oft-quoted 2004 University of Michigan study that shows a 51% increase in the amount of time American  kids spend on homework since 1981, with much of that increase coming from the youngest schoolchildren. Ironically, the magazine’s website offers a homework help center.

Most students, parents, and teachers agree that homework is a useful tool, and certainly one that isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. But those agitating for a re-think of homework remind us that students don’t exist in a vacuum. Each is part of a family, a household, a neighborhood, a team, and a community. All of those interconnected and interdependent circles can suffer the ripple effects of homework overload.