A second-grade teacher in Texas became a national hero by uttering two words: No homework.
While no one has erected a statue yet to teacher Brandy Young, parents at Godley Elementary School in Texas and around the country are applauding her policy against formally assigning homework. After a thrilled parent posted Young’s homework policy on Facebook this week, it quickly went viral, prompting stories in The New York Times, USA Today and the London Daily Mirror.
Researching the value of homework, Young told parents she found no evidence homework improves student performance. “Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early,” she wrote.
Duke University professor Harris M. Cooper, a national expert on time and learning, studies homework and has witnessed the homework battles that flare up this time every year. While he doesn’t disagree that homework in second grade is unlikely to spur great academic gains, Cooper told me Wednesday there’s value to homework appropriate to a child’s age and development.
“You are never going to show an enormous effect on achievement from homework with a second grader. But homework can have possible effects on learning and study habits, time management and on the parents’ ability to see what their child’s strengths and weaknesses are. It is helpful to think about homework the same way you think about prescribed medication or a dietary supplement. Take too little of it and it won’t have any effect at all. Take too much and it can kill you,” he said.
Cathy Vatterott is an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has been researching, writing, and speaking about homework for almost 20 years. Among her books: “Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs.”
In an interview Wednesday, Vatterott said, “We can’t prove homework works at the elementary school. It would make sense that a child who reads more becomes a better reader and a child who practices math gets better at math. But the reason we can’t prove it is because there is a lot of bad homework out there.”
So what is good homework? Vatterott maintains homework ought to address the child’s needs and learning style. She gives the example of teaching the multiplication tables and assigning practice multiplying by 7 for homework that week. One child may decide to recite the multiplication table to learn it, while another may write it down and still another may use a grid. “Homework should be about asking kids what they need to work on and then kids coming back and setting their own goals,” she said.
In general, Vatterott endorses the 10-minute rule, which Cooper advocated in his book, “The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents.” Cooper outlined a simple time/grade ratio for homework that has been widely adopted by U.S. schools: Children should begin with 10 minutes a night in first grade and add another 10 minutes each year. Do the math, and a third-grader should be doing 30 minutes a night while a high school senior should spend two hours.
In a caveat to that rule, Kenneth Goldberg, author of “The Homework Trap: How to Preserve the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers,” urges parents to define homework assignment by time spent rather than work finished. If children only complete half the math problems in the time the parent has allotted for homework, they stop regardless.
Vatterott said she became focused on homework when her own son struggled to complete all his homework due to learning disabilities. “What took an average child 20 minutes took him 45 minutes to do,” she said. Working and processing speeds vary by child, so Vatterott also recommends time-based homework rather than task-based.
If a child is not able to keep with homework, Cooper and Vatterott advocate figuring out why, including making sure the child is not distracted by a smartphone, computer or TV.
“Make sure homework is really taking an hour,” said Cooper. “In some instances, children are going into the room, closing the door and flipping back and forth between homework assignments and being online. If the parent has monitored homework and it is still taking the kid an hour, the best thing for the parent to do is talk to the teacher and ask, ‘What can we do to make this better?'”
As a historian of homework, Vatterott says today’s parents are becoming more militant about homework overload. That’s led to school policies on appropriate levels of homework, which used to fall to teachers to determine. “We’ve given teachers complete freedom and, therefore, some places are going to have way too much, and other places not as much as you think you should have,” she said.
Where teacher freedom in homework creates the most problems is in middle and high schools because multiple teachers are giving homework and not talking to each other, said Vatterott. “Teachers are so focused on the importance of their subject they are not thinking about the fact the student has homework in four to five other classes.”
Despite the annual gnashing of teeth over homework, Cooper said surveys consistently show 60 percent of parents are comfortable with their child’s homework load. The remaining 40 percent are divided between parents thinking there’s too little or too much homework.