Is Homework Necessary? Education Inequity and Its Impact on Students
Schools are getting rid of homework from Essex, Mass., to Los Angeles, Calif. Although the no-homework trend may sound alarming, especially to parents dreaming of their child’s acceptance to Harvard, Stanford or Yale, there is mounting evidence that eliminating homework in grade school may actually have great benefits, especially with regard to educational equity.
In fact, while the push to eliminate homework may come as a surprise to many adults, the debate is not new. Parents and educators have been talking about this subject for the last century, so that the educational pendulum continues to swing back and forth between the need for homework and the need to eliminate homework.
- The Problem with Homework: It Highlights Inequalities
- How Much Homework Is Too Much Homework?
- When Does Homework Actually Help?
- Negative Effects of Homework for Students
- How Teachers Can Help
The Problem with Homework: It Highlights Inequalities
One of the most pressing talking points around homework is how it disproportionately affects students from less affluent families. The American Psychological Association (APA) explained:
“Kids from wealthier homes are more likely to have resources such as computers, internet connections, dedicated areas to do schoolwork and parents who tend to be more educated and more available to help them with tricky assignments. Kids from disadvantaged homes are more likely to work at afterschool jobs, or to be home without supervision in the evenings while their parents work multiple jobs.”
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While students growing up in more affluent areas are likely playing sports, participating in other recreational activities after school, or receiving additional tutoring, children in disadvantaged areas are more likely headed to work after school, taking care of siblings while their parents work or dealing with an unstable home life. Adding homework into the mix is one more thing to deal with — and if the student is struggling, the task of completing homework can be too much to consider at the end of an already long school day.
While all students may groan at the mention of homework, it may be more than just a nuisance for poor and disadvantaged children, instead becoming another burden to carry and contend with.
Beyond the logistical issues, homework can negatively impact physical health and stress — and once again this may be a more significant problem among economically disadvantaged youth who typically already have a higher stress level than peers from more financially stable families.
Yet, today, it is not just the disadvantaged who suffer from the stressors that homework inflicts. A 2014 CNN article, “Is Homework Making Your Child Sick?”, covered the issue of extreme pressure placed on children of the affluent. The article looked at the results of a study surveying more than 4,300 students from 10 high-performing public and private high schools in upper-middle-class California communities.
“Their findings were troubling: Research showed that excessive homework is associated with high stress levels, physical health problems and lack of balance in children’s lives; 56% of the students in the study cited homework as a primary stressor in their lives,” according to the CNN story. “That children growing up in poverty are at-risk for a number of ailments is both intuitive and well-supported by research. More difficult to believe is the growing consensus that children on the other end of the spectrum, children raised in affluence, may also be at risk.”
When it comes to health and stress it is clear that excessive homework, for children at both ends of the spectrum, can be damaging. Which begs the question, how much homework is too much?
How Much Homework Is Too Much Homework?
The National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association recommend that students spend 10 minutes per grade level per night on homework. That means that first graders should spend 10 minutes on homework, second graders 20 minutes and so on. But a study published by The American Journal of Family Therapy found that students are getting much more than that.
While 10 minutes per day doesn’t sound like much, that quickly adds up to an hour per night by sixth grade. The National Center for Education Statistics found that high school students get an average of 6.8 hours of homework per week, a figure that is much too high according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It is also to be noted that this figure does not take into consideration the needs of underprivileged student populations.
In a study conducted by the OECD it was found that “after around four hours of homework per week, the additional time invested in homework has a negligible impact on performance.” That means that by asking our children to put in an hour or more per day of dedicated homework time, we are not only not helping them, but — according to the aforementioned studies — we are hurting them, both physically and emotionally.
What’s more is that homework is, as the name implies, to be completed at home, after a full day of learning that is typically six to seven hours long with breaks and lunch included. However, a study by the APA on how people develop expertise found that elite musicians, scientists and athletes do their most productive work for about only four hours per day. Similarly, companies like Tower Paddle Boards are experimenting with a five-hour workday, under the assumption that people are not able to be truly productive for much longer than that. CEO Stephan Aarstol told CNBC that he believes most Americans only get about two to three hours of work done in an eight-hour day.
When Does Homework Actually Help?
In the scope of world history, homework is a fairly new construct in the U.S. Students of all ages have been receiving work to complete at home for centuries, but it was educational reformer Horace Mann who first brought the concept to America from Prussia.
Since then, homework’s popularity has ebbed and flowed in the court of public opinion. In the 1930s, it was considered child labor (as, ironically, it compromised children’s ability to do chores at home). Then, in the 1950s, implementing mandatory homework was hailed as a way to ensure America’s youth were always one step ahead of Soviet children during the Cold War. Homework was formally mandated as a tool for boosting educational quality in 1986 by the U.S. Department of Education, and has remained in common practice ever since.
School work assigned and completed outside of school hours is not without its benefits. Numerous studies have shown that regular homework has a hand in improving student performance and connecting students to their learning. When reviewing these studies, take them with a grain of salt; there are strong arguments for both sides, and only you will know which solution is best for your students or school.
Homework improves student achievement.
- Completion of take-home assignments has been shown to improve students’ standardized test results.
- Source: The High School Journal, “When is Homework Worth the Time?: Evaluating the Association between Homework and Achievement in High School Science and Math,” 2012.
- Students who typically complete their assigned amount of homework are more likely to attend college.
- Source: IZA.org, “Does High School Homework Increase Academic Achievement?,” 2014. **Note: Study sample comprised only high school boys.
Homework helps reinforce classroom learning.
- Students typically retain 50% or less of what they hear, read or see in class; additional engagement with course content helps increase that retention.
- Source: “Debunk This: People Remember 10 Percent of What They Read,” 2015.
Homework helps students develop good study habits and life skills.
- Being responsible for completing at-home assignments helps students practice organization, time management, following directions, critical thinking and independent problem-solving.
- Sources: The Repository @ St. Cloud State, “Types of Homework and Their Effect on Student Achievement,” 2017; Journal of Advanced Academics, “Developing Self-Regulation Skills: The Important Role of Homework,” 2011.
- Practicing good study habits at home helps students improve their in-class performance, resulting in better grades and report cards.
- Source: Journal of Advanced Academics, “Developing Self-Regulation Skills: The Important Role of Homework,” 2011.
Homework allows parents to be involved with their children’s learning.
- Parents can see what their children are learning and working on in school every day.
- Parents can participate in their children’s learning by guiding them through homework assignments and reinforcing positive study and research habits.
- Homework observation and participation can help parents understand their children’s academic strengths and weaknesses, and even identify possible learning difficulties.
- Studies have shown that parents’ involvement in their children’s homework can improve in-classroom performance and achievement.
- Source: Phys.org, “Sociologist Upends Notions about Parental Help with Homework,” 2018.
Negative Effects of Homework for Students
While some amount of homework may help students connect to their learning and enhance their in-class performance, too much homework can have damaging effects.
Students with too much homework have elevated stress levels.
- Students regularly report that homework is their primary source of stress.
- Source: USA Today, “Is It Time to Get Rid of Homework? Mental Health Experts Weigh In,” 2021.
- Higher-achieving students — those who may have more homework — are at particular risk for stress-related health issues including sleep deprivation, weight loss, stomach problems and headaches.
- Source: Stanford University, “Stanford Research Shows Pitfalls of Homework,” 2014.
- Excessive homework takes time away from activities that boost students’ social-emotional development, such as extracurricular activities, hobbies and socializing.
- Source: Stanford University, “Stanford Research Shows Pitfalls of Homework,” 2014.
Students with too much homework may be tempted to cheat.
- Under pressure to finish at-home assignments, many students resort to copying others’ work, plagiarizing or using creative tech “hacks” in order to hand something in.
- Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, “High-Tech Cheating Abounds, and Professors Bear Some Blame,” 2010.
- Parents who are sympathetic to their childrens’ stress levels (or desire to see their child succeed) may complete their homework for them.
- Source: The American Journal of Family Therapy, “Homework and Family Stress: With Consideration of Parents’ Self Confidence, Educational Level, and Cultural Background,” 2015.
Homework highlights digital inequity.
- Today, homework often requires a computer and/or internet connection, which many students do not have access to outside of school.
- Sources: NEAToday.org, “The Homework Gap: The ‘Cruelest Part of the Digital Divide’,” 2016; CNET.com, “The Digital Divide Has Left Millions of School Kids Behind,” 2021.
- Students in low-income families are disproportionately affected by a lack of internet access, which further exacerbates the social and economic divide between them and their more affluent peers.
- Source: Investopedia, “Digital Divide,” 2022; International Journal of Education and Social Science, “Getting the Homework Done: Social Class and Parents’ Relationship to Homework,” 2015.
- During the COVID-19 lockdowns, lack of digital equity affected all schoolwork, as students were required to attend class remotely; those who could not suffered academically.
- Source: World Economic Forum, “COVID-19 exposed the digital divide. Here’s how we can close it,” 2021.
Homework does not help younger students.
- The amount or presence of homework, especially at younger grade levels, does not result in elevated standardized test scores.
- Source: Review of Educational Research, “Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Researcher, 1987-2003,” 2006.
How Teachers Can Help
To help students find the right balance and succeed, teachers and educators must start the homework conversation, both internally at their school and with parents. But in order to successfully advocate on behalf of students, teachers must be well educated on the subject, fully understanding the research and the outcomes that can be achieved by eliminating or reducing the homework burden. There is a plethora of research and writing on the subject for those interested in self-study.
For teachers looking for a more in-depth approach or for educators with a keen interest in educational equity, formal education may be the best route. If this latter option sounds appealing, there are now many reputable schools offering online master of education degree programs to help educators balance the demands of work and family life while furthering their education in the quest to help others.
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