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What is the Value of Homework? Research and Reality

Raise the topic of homework with parents of school age children and watch the sparks fly. Parent opinion on homework ranges from those who’d like to see it eliminated altogether to those who set extra work for their children to make up for what they see as an overly relaxed approach.  

Teachers are caught in the middle – not to mention kids - and even education experts are unable to present a united front about the value of homework.

What is the Value of Homework in the Primary School Years?

If parents were to trawl through the research, they’d find little or no evidence of a connection between homework and academic gains in the primary school years. However, supporters of homework claim that homework promotes:

  • good work habits,
  • a sense of responsibility,
  • a connection between school and home, and
  • an outlook that learning happens everywhere.

Opponents argue that there is no evidence to show homework produces these benefits; their opinion is that rather than teaching responsibility, homework merely rewards compliance. Dr. Denise Pope, Senior Lecturer in Education at Stanford University and co-founder of the Challenge Success program, says “Kids who come out of ‘no homework’ elementary schools do just as well with responsibility in high school.”

Research has shown that in the primary years, in-class study has superior educational value, and a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology indicated that that there is “a negative association between the increasing amount of homework set in early childhood and students’ attitudes to schooling.”  And there is evidence that primary school children benefit more from time spent on traditional childhood activities such as time with family and reading books. A large study by the University of Michigan in 2001 found that for children aged three to twelve, “family meals are the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioural problems” and reading for pleasure  was found to be the most beneficial educational at-home activity for primary school children . To add to concerns about the intrusion of homework, a 2006 study of American school children by Scholastic/Yankelovich found that reading for fun declined sharply after age eight due to the time demands of too much homework.

Homework for children in the primary school grades is viewed by some as doing more harm than good because:

  • it can the reduce number of positive interactions parents have with children , putting the parent in the role of enforcer or “homework cop” ,
  • rather than creating a positive link between home and school, homework can create a negative experience of learning,
  • it robs children of much needed unstructured time, free play  and family time, and
  • it contributes to problems associated with a sedentary lifestyle, leading to a decline in the time children spend playing sports.  

Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, authors of The Case Against Homework, believe that homework has a detrimental impact on the whole family, saying that:
“One unrecognized side effect of homework is that it isolates siblings from one another. A sixth-grader who is stuck at her desk doesn’t have time to play with a younger sibling. This means that their play relationship is severed earlier than it might have been. And because the parent needs to help each sibling with homework, reading a nightly story to them together becomes difficult.”

How Much is Too Much Homework?

Education experts in the United States agree that homework in the primary school years should not exceed ten minutes per night per grade level. In the UK, the Office for Standards in Education recommends a maximum of twelve minutes per night in Years 1 and 2, eighteen minutes in Years 3 and 4, and thirty minutes in Years 5 and 6.  In Australia, homework policy is set at a state level and generally leaves room for discretion for individual schools. For example, Victoria recommends that homework not exceed thirty minutes per day in Years 1 to 4 and thirty to forty five minutes per day in Years 5 and 6 (with no homework on weekends or during school holidays).  

Finland – a top performing nation in education on international academic testing - assigns minimal homework with high school students doing no more than half an hour per night.  And Japan began instituting no homework policies in its primary schools in the 1990s to allow children more time with family and their own interests.  In recent years, a range of Australian voices have questioned the benefits of homework, including child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, who advocates that no homework be assigned until students are in Year 10.

Harris Cooper, Professor of Education and Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, recommends that homework in the primary years “should be brief, should involve materials commonly found in the home, and should not be too demanding.”  This approach prevents homework from becoming a source of stress for parents and children, especially for those who are already stretched to the limit in terms of time and/or money.  And Dr. Denise Pope recommends that primary schools assigning homework should focus on free reading and play-based activities, ensuring that any homework is “engaging, meaningful and able to be done independently by the student”. Above all, Dr Pope believes homework activities in the primary school years should never be at the expense of “playtime, downtime, and family time” all elements required for a healthy and happy childhood.

What is the Value of Homework in the High School Years?

Research may not demonstrate educational value of homework in the early years, but there is compelling evidence of academic benefits of homework during high school, particularly in the senior grades.