Homework Editorial

As kids return to school, debate is heating up once again over how they should spend their time after they leave the classroom for the day.

The no-homework policy of a second-grade teacher in Texas went viral last week, earning praise from parents across the country who lament the heavy workload often assigned to young students. Brandy Young told parents she would not formally assign any homework this year, asking students instead to eat dinner with their families, play outside and go to bed early.

But the question of how much work children should be doing outside of school remains controversial, and plenty of parents take issue with no-homework policies, worried their kids are losing a potential academic advantage. Here’s what you need to know:

The issue

For decades, the homework standard has been a “10-minute rule,” which recommends a daily maximum of 10 minutes of homework per grade level. Second graders, for example, should do about 20 minutes of homework each night. High school seniors should complete about two hours of homework each night. The National PTA and the National Education Association both support that guideline.

But some schools have begun to give their youngest students a break. A Massachusetts elementary school has announced a no-homework pilot program for the coming school year, lengthening the school day by two hours to provide more in-class instruction. “We really want kids to go home at 4 o’clock, tired. We want their brain to be tired,” Kelly Elementary School Principal Jackie Glasheen said in an interview with a local TV station. “We want them to enjoy their families. We want them to go to soccer practice or football practice, and we want them to go to bed. And that’s it.”

A New York City public elementary school implemented a similar policy last year, eliminating traditional homework assignments in favor of family time. The change was quickly met with outrage from some parents, though it earned support from other education leaders.

New solutions and approaches to homework differ by community, and these local debates are complicated by the fact that even education experts disagree about what’s best for kids.

The research

The most comprehensive research on homework to date comes from a 2006 meta-analysis by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, who found evidence of a positive correlation between homework and student achievement, meaning students who did homework performed better in school. The correlation was stronger for older students—in seventh through 12th grade—than for those in younger grades, for whom there was a weak relationship between homework and performance.

Cooper’s analysis focused on how homework impacts academic achievement—test scores, for example. His report noted that homework is also thought to improve study habits, attitudes toward school, self-discipline, inquisitiveness and independent problem solving skills. On the other hand, some studies he examined showed that homework can cause physical and emotional fatigue, fuel negative attitudes about learning and limit leisure time for children. At the end of his analysis, Cooper recommended further study of such potential effects of homework.

Despite the weak correlation between homework and performance for young children, Cooper argues that a small amount of homework is useful for all students. Second-graders should not be doing two hours of homework each night, he said, but they also shouldn’t be doing no homework.

The debate

Not all education experts agree entirely with Cooper’s assessment.

Cathy Vatterott, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, supports the “10-minute rule” as a maximum, but she thinks there is not sufficient proof that homework is helpful for students in elementary school.

“Correlation is not causation,” she said. “Does homework cause achievement, or do high achievers do more homework?”

Vatterott, the author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, thinks there should be more emphasis on improving the quality of homework tasks, and she supports efforts to eliminate homework for younger kids.

“I have no concerns about students not starting homework until fourth grade or fifth grade,” she said, noting that while the debate over homework will undoubtedly continue, she has noticed a trend toward limiting, if not eliminating, homework in elementary school.

The issue has been debated for decades. A TIME cover in 1999 read: “Too much homework! How it’s hurting our kids, and what parents should do about it.” The accompanying story noted that the launch of Sputnik in 1957 led to a push for better math and science education in the U.S. The ensuing pressure to be competitive on a global scale, plus the increasingly demanding college admissions process, fueled the practice of assigning homework.

“The complaints are cyclical, and we’re in the part of the cycle now where the concern is for too much,” Cooper said. “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.”

Cooper acknowledged that some students really are bringing home too much homework, and their parents are right to be concerned.

“A good way to think about homework is the way you think about medications or dietary supplements,” he said. “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.”

Students in Hartford's North End shouldn't have to depend on a fast-food hot spot to do their homework. But there's often nowhere else for them to get high-speed internet service at night.

Most suburban families take the internet for granted. But in the poorer neighborhoods of Hartford, many families can't afford it, as the state's consumer counsel eloquently explained in a recent op-ed. Their kids depend on free Wi-Fi at schools and library branches, some of which close as early as 5 p.m. Or they use McDonald's.

Jessica Rosenworcel, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission who has been renominated and who is a native of West Hartford, calls this "the homework gap" — the evening hours in which students from low-income families can't get online. This stark disparity, this digital divide, is a big reason why city students are falling behind their suburban counterparts in Connecticut. It can mean the difference in their futures.

The Albany library branch, for example, closes school nights at 6 p.m. and isn't open weekends, even though 500 kids depend on its computers, says Denise Best, chairman of the Upper Albany Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, in a report on the homework gap in Hartford.

Kids aren't the only ones held back by the lack of connectivity in the North End of Hartford. Small businesses are also hurt by spotty, costly internet service. And rural parts of the state where poorer families live also are broadband deserts.

Hartford City Hall, unfortunately, isn't in a great position to help financially. It's considering bankruptcy. Library branches are closing. Schools will be consolidating. All these will lengthen the already long lines for computers in remaining libraries.

The Trump administration appears less concerned about bringing broadband to poor neighborhoods than the Obama administration was. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently cut a program that helps poor households buy service.

For the moment, however, being designated a federal Promise Zone revitalization project does give the North End priority in federal grants. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma used its Promise Zone designation to get low-cost, high-speed service for its public housing residents.

In the meantime, North Hartford has to rely on the kindness of McDonald's, broadband providers and local companies. Comcast's Internet Essentials offers low-cost high-speed service and laptops to families with children in school lunch programs.

But there remain, alas, entire streets and neighborhoods with the equivalent of dial-up speeds. They could use more local businesses providing more and longer hot spots.

Connecticut's courts have said the state has a constitutional duty to provide adequate public education. That ought to include adequate access to the internet, the greatest learning tool of all time.

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