When it comes to the continuing debate over homework for school children, Duke University professor Harris Cooper offers some important insight: “A good way to think about homework is the way you think about medications or dietary supplements. 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.”
Vancouver Public Schools is the latest district to adjust its thinking about what is the right amount, with officials recently announcing that they will eliminate homework next year for students from kindergarten through third grade. While there is some strong reasoning behind the policy, we believe a blanket elimination of homework goes too far and will overall prove detrimental to students.
Proponents of a no-homework policy say that after-school assignments are not beneficial for young students, and a 2007 article from the Center for Public Education states, “there is no conclusive evidence that homework provides any benefits — either academic or nonacademic — for students.” Yet a policy of about 10 minutes of homework per grade level is supported by both the National Parent Teacher Association and the National Education Association. Having a small amount of homework can help reinforce the lessons learned during the school day, improving retention. It also can help teach students responsibility and self-discipline.
To be sure, completing homework is not the only way for students to learn outside of the classroom. Engaged play and interaction with adults also provide important lessons that help students learn how to navigate the world, embracing the understanding that social skills are just as important as book learning for lifelong success. Evergreen Public Schools is developing a program that provides students with after-school activities such as playing in the gym or working on arts and crafts in place of structured homework — an idea that has strong merit.
The debate over homework is an old one. As Cooper told Time magazine last year: “The complaints are cyclical, and we’re in the part of the cycle now where the concern is for too much. 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.”
The key is to find the right amount of homework, assigning it at a level that makes students better. In this regard, there is no one-size-fits-all solution; each student is different and has varying abilities, and an overload of homework can prove stressful and counterproductive for even the most gifted of students. Because of that, it is important for districts and for teachers to have leeway regarding how to best serve their students.
Yet the argument from Vancouver Public Schools that eliminating homework for young students will allow them to spend more time with family or encourage those families to eat dinner together rings hollow. Assigning 10 minutes of homework to a first-grader or 20 minutes to a second-grader will not significantly take away from family activities, and insisting that homework be completed before playing outside or turning on the TV will stress the importance of education and help students develop priorities. Eliminating homework is akin to telling kids they don’t need to eat vegetables just because they don’t like them.
Returning to the analogy between medicine and homework, a little bit of work after school will help produce healthier students.