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Is homework worth the kids’ effort?

Teachers assign unappealing tasks that kids often can't

Teachers assign unappealing tasks that kids often can't do on their own. Credit: iStock

The Long Beach school district recently announced that it will discontinue traditional homework — such as workbooks and repetitive drills — for elementary-aged students come September. In an announcement posted on the district’s website, Superintendent Jennifer Gallagher said that instead kids should “WRAP”: wonder, read, and play.

Long Beach isn’t alone. There’s a growing movement to drastically alter or do away with homework for elementary school children. Mark Trifilio, principal of the Orchard School in Vermont, scrapped traditional homework in 2016, and last year all of Marion County, Florida, did away with it as well. Citing the work of Professor Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee, Marion County schools Superintendent Heidi Maier said that research “showed that students who are given a preponderance of homework do not perform better, or get better grades, than those who do not.” Like Gallagher, she suggested instead that parents spend that time selecting texts and reading with their kids.

Gallagher based her decision on the work of Australian educational expert John Hattie. He has found that homework, as it’s done now, has a net effect of “zero” on academic achievement. He hasn’t advocated doing completely away with homework, but has said it’s important to gauge its effectiveness and make changes when necessary.

Harris Cooper, a professor at Duke University who has studied the effects of homework for more than 30 years and led a research team that analyzed more than 60 studies on homework, has found that homework does make a difference. But Cooper says that difference is much greater in middle and high school than in elementary school, where the effect is minimal.

As a professional tutor, I’ve seen the effects of homework on young children. I’ve witnessed frustrated parents trying to explain directions to kids and have watched kids grow bored and angry when performing mundane tasks that provide little intellectual stimulation.

Time is a commodity: every minute a kid is kept inside filling out worksheets is time that kid isn’t reading a book, playing a sport, riding her bicycle, or exploring woods — all of which also provide opportunities to learn. Is it worth it? If the homework is just doing worksheets rather than reading, investigating, or finding creative solutions, I say it’s not.

Too often teachers assign young kids homework that is repetitive, not age appropriate, or just too time-consuming. Kids need time to play, have fun, and relax. If you’re going to diminish that time, what they get in exchange ought to be something extremely valuable. And, right now, it isn’t.

Homework can have benefits if it’s done right: kids can learn to follow directions, analyze and solve problems, and come up with creative solutions. Asking, say, for kids to conduct experiments once a week, construct their own model bridges, or figure out how many feet it is from the Earth to the Moon, could both interest kids and get them thinking. But that’s not how homework is being done at most elementary schools today. Teachers are assigning unappealing tasks that young kids often can’t do on their own and are overburdening them with excessive homework. Even Professor Cooper, who counts himself as a homework advocate, agrees that younger children should be given significantly less homework than older ones.

Kids need the chance to explore their own interests. They already have long days at school, where they’re often forced to sit still and ignore their natural inclinations to move around and explore. Once they’re home, turn off the TV and open up a book, but don’t make them suffer through any more boring, unhelpful, argument-inspiring homework.

Ross Rosenfeld of Lynbrook is the founder of Ross Tutoring.