Experts say kids still have way too much homework

Children need unstructured play time, experts say — and over-assigning homework is disrupting that

Published December 8, 2019 7:30PM (EST)

Girl doing homework (Getty Images)
Girl doing homework (Getty Images)

Just about every parent has had the homework battle at some point. The arc of the fight is familiar: the parents nag, the children avoid or procrastinate; the cycle continues ad infinitum. Is the stress of homework an inexorable childhood experience? It turns out that even though the concept of homework is ingrained in American school systems, experts have serious questions about whether it is even necessary at all — at least to the extent to which it is forced on American kids.

Studies have shown that homework has become a major source of stress — for children and for parents. "In the last 20 years, homework has increased only in the lower levels — an increase that is associated with neutral (and sometimes negative) effects on student achievement," according to the National Education Association (NEA). Though the NEA and the National Parent Teacher Association recommend 10 minutes of homework each day per grade level (e.g. 20 minutes for second grade, 120 minutes for twelfth), the most recent study to examine the issue found that elementary-level students received about three times the amount of recommended homework.

Hester Aba, a full-time working mother of two and publisher of New York Family magazine, told Salon that homework caused tension and arguments between her and her children, ages 7 and 9. She said it was difficult to manage the amount they have after coming home tired from a full-day.

"The homework sessions would end with me shouting and them crying, and nobody feeling good about the experience," she said. "My children find their math homework challenging and ask for help. I am also not naturally good at maths and didn't learn maths the way that the U.S. public schools teach it — I'm from the U.K. — so I would often have to work out the answers for myself first and check them before walking them through it."

All of those extra assignments can lead to family stress, especially when parents don't feel confident about their ability to help their kids tackle assignments or talk with the school about trouble at home with homework. Indeed, there is a class element at play in the ability of children to do their homework well, as writer and critic Barbara Ehrenreich noted. "[Homework] gives the children of stay-at-home college grads a huge and unfair advantage over the children of working moms," Ehrenreich wrote on Twitter in 2017.

"Homework often sets up a dynamic of conflict between parents and children, which can take over the time they have to spend together on school days," Dr. Nicole Beurkens, a clinical child psychologist, told Salon. "Parents feel it is their duty to get kids to do their homework, and many will go to great lengths to accomplish this, even if it means sacrificing their relationship and precious time with the children in the evenings."

The idea of parents being actively involved in their child's homework is at the heart of the debate surrounding equity and access in public education. Indeed, not every young student has a parent at home willing or able to work with them. Some young children don't have access to the resources they need to complete assignments at home, while others may have great responsibilities after school, such as taking care of siblings or helping prepare dinner.

Tired of waging a nightly battle over multiplication tables and grammar worksheets, some parents, in fact, have stopped forcing their kids to complete assignments.

Karen Mensing, a former first- and second-grade teacher and mother of two girls, ages 4 and 6, told Salon that while she assigned daily homework during her 10-year tenure as an educator, she now believes that homework for younger children should be greatly reduced or eliminated.

"Students in K-3 should not have homework besides daily reading. It is much more important for children to be playing a sport, learning an instrument, hanging out with friends or doing nothing at all than stacks of useless worksheets," Mensing said. "Elementary students are already in school for over six hours a day. They need an opportunity to relax and be kids after school."

That lack of free time is what some parents argue is missing when children are forced to come home from school and do pencil and paperwork. Experts interviewed by Salon agreed that it's important for children to relax, run and reboot when school is out.

"Kids need time for free, unstructured play everyday. It's a protective factor for them. It's important for their future development," said Dr. Denise Pope Clark, professor at Stanford University and author of  "Doing School: How We Are Creating A Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, And Miseducated Students." She noted that "there's not a lot of time in a kid's day that isn't scheduled, and homework just encroaches further and further away, taking time away from what we know they really need."

Elisabeth Stitt, a retired school teacher and parenting coach, echoed that sentiment, telling Salon, "children today are way too overscheduled. It takes children time to wind down enough to engage in creative or pretend play. If their total number of playtime minutes is split up by soccer practice, ballet lessons and homework, they never get into the 'flow' of playing."

On the other hand, some elementary-school homework advocates argue that homework instills values, such as discipline and time management, that kids will need when they're older. They claim that if we reduce or eliminate homework in elementary school, younger students and parents will be deprived of opportunities to develop skills associated with academic success — despite research findings that says homework at the elementary-level does not improve student performance.

Notably, not everyone is reducing or eliminating homework. In fact, in middle- and high-school, homework is strongly associated with developing crucial skills like time management and boosting grades and test scores. Still, that doesn't mean older students should be doing homework from the minute they get home after school until they go to sleep.

"Even as kids get into the teen years, their need for movement and play doesn't decrease. It looks different than when kids are young, but teens need time, space and opportunities to do non-school focused tasks just as much as elementary-age children do," said Beurkens, the child psychologist.

Clark Pope, the Stanford professor, pointed out that just because some parents and teachers are ditching homework doesn't mean that students will not have assignments. She noted that though most research on the matter focuses on quantity rather than quality, perhaps because the former is easier to measure, homework can promote academic success when appropriately utilized.

"When teachers ask me how much homework to give, that's the wrong question. I would ask, 'What is the purpose of the homework?'" she said. "Even though homework has been around since the 1900s, it's almost been like a tacit understanding that a good teacher gives homework. And what we're trying to say is, actually, that's not the case."

By Shira Tarlo

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