The Homework Question Revisited

homeworkNothing much has changed since the last time I wrote about homework, in 2010. The most recent research supports earlier data that shows little to no correlation between homework and achievement in the elementary grades, with one caveat:  there is some correlation in math and, of course, reading. By high school, however, the evidence shifts. In middle and high school, there is a positive correlation between homework and student achievement on unit tests. It seems to help.

Some homework in all grades makes sense. How much? Harris Cooper, a social psychologist at Duke University, has extensively researched the subject, and concludes that the common rule should be 10 minutes of homework for each grade level. So, a first grader would have 10 minutes of homework while an eighth grader may have 80 minutes of homework. At the middle school level, there appears to be diminishing returns after 90 minutes of homework. The national PTA endorses this approach.

At Hillel, we believe that any homework must be meaningful, and reinforce the learning at school.  In the lower grades, homework should be kept to nightly reading to improve fluency and comprehension, math, to work on skills and math facts, and Hebrew, to reinforce what was learned in school. Reading, especially, in English and in Hebrew, should be a part of the evening routine. It is particularly important that students learn their math facts in the early grades, and this requires practice.  The practice can take many forms, including games and drills, on paper and online.

If projects have real learning value, then they are important enough to do in school, not at home. With few exceptions, if it is not valuable enough to do at school, then it is not valuable enough to do at home. Projects should be part of the learning process, and it makes the most sense for them to take place at school.

The 5/6 division is the bridge between the elementary level and the upper middle grades. Some homework should be assigned in these grades which, beyond reading, math and Hebrew, should include meaningful writing assignments; some home research in preparation for class activities; and study skills. 60 minutes of homework in this division is more than adequate. Again, any meaningful projects should be done at school.

In the 7/8 division, the correlation between homework and achievement does begin to appear, though homework should be limited to between 60 and 80 minutes.

In all cases, students should understand the rationale behind an assignment.  For example, homework can be useful to further explore something that blossomed in class. Even trivial-seeming homework has value: getting a form signed by a parent, and returned to school, teaches responsibility and timeliness in completing a task.

I encourage parents to discuss homework matters with teachers; its purpose, whether or not it’s too long or difficult, and I strongly discourage parents from completing the homework with or for their students. If an assignment is too difficult, contact the teacher so that he or she can help.

Finally, when our children finish homework, and ask us, “Is this good?”, perhaps the best answer to give is, “Did you make your best effort? Are you satisfied?”

You – and your children – may be surprised by their determination to give it their all – no matter how long or short the assignment.

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