Teenagers in the U.S. are spending twice as much time on homework today as they did in the 1990s. Kindergartners are doing homework for about 25 minutes every night, even though most experts agree they shouldn’t be doing any take-home work at all.
American children are being assigned a lot of homework these days — and now with a widespread switch to virtual learning, they’re also spending hours every day working from home in online classes. Does homework make sense with virtual learning? Read on to learn what the experts have to say.
Breaking down homework — is there value?
Historically, American educators and researchers have gone back and forth on the value of homework. In the early 20th century, progressive educators sought to ban homework for younger children in some school districts in order to reduce stress. But then, in the middle of the century, homework loads increased as the U.S. looked to compete with the Soviet education system. The anti-homework movement returned in the 1960s and ‘70s with a greater focus on creativity and play in American culture at large, only to fade again in the ‘80s as government researchers linked the U.S.’s economic woes to the rigor of its schools.
There’s no consensus about today’s homework load. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic caused many parents and educators to question current homework practices, some schools and districts were experimenting with rolling back take-home assignments.
As you might expect, research into the value of homework is contested — see below for a rundown of the pros and cons of homework.
Why is homework good for you?
The main argument in favor of homework is that it improves academic outcomes. A 2006 research review found evidence that students who reported greater homework loads (up to a point) had better grades and test performance across subjects. This connection was strongest for older students in grades 7-12.
Homework reinforces lessons from classes and offers students the opportunity to dive deeper into material. By taking charge of their homework, kids can also learn valuable lessons in responsibility and time management. And helping kids with homework can make parents feel more connected to their school community, which is especially important in underserved communities.
Why is homework bad for you?
Well, besides the fact that no child we've ever known likes doing it, a recent decade-long survey of students at high-performing middle and high schools by Challenge Success found that one of the top stressors reported by kids is homework. Some experts argue that the academic benefits of homework don’t justify the stress.
There is little evidence that homework delivers measurable academic benefits for younger kids in elementary and middle school. And causation hasn’t been established between homework and academic performance for older students. In some countries where students outperform their American counterparts on standardized tests (like Japan and Denmark), the average homework load is considerably lighter than in the U.S., while other countries that score lower on tests assign more homework.
More broadly, some experts suggest that the practice of homework focuses too much on academic outcomes to the detriment of other kinds of growth. The spotlight on test scores can make homework feel like busy work, and there’s little research into homework’s effect on social development, happiness, and other aspects of a fulfilling life.
There are also concerns of equity. The time commitment of homework can be especially difficult to shoulder for older kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, who sometimes work or look after siblings to support their families.
Does homework make sense with virtual classes?
With many kids in virtual classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of homework has only become more complicated. It can be difficult to get quality face-to-face time with teachers virtually, so at-home assignments can help fill an important gap in instruction. But “homework” and “classwork done at home” are hard to differentiate in a virtual learning setting, and they can blend together into what’s effectively a long, stationary workday. Plus, for kids who live in environments that aren’t conducive to studying (from lack of Internet, technology, privacy, or stability), it’s a challenge just to attend classes online.
So what should be done with homework? Challenge Success recommends that students only be given purposeful, high-quality assignments. That means work that wouldn’t be better done in class, that students can figure out on their own (especially now, when parents have limited bandwidth to help their kids), that takes a reasonable amount of time to complete, and that has clear value to students.