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Should Elementary Students Have Homework?

Some research says homework doesn’t help young children

After a long day, my patient husband sits down with our 6-year-old daughter at the dining room table. Tears stream down her face and onto her latest homework assignment. Muffled cries of  “I can’t!” and “I don’t know!” fill the air, while a frantic dad Googles “mathematical decomposing.” Sound familiar?

As former students, we endured homework and lived to tell about it. However, as times and research change, so should the strategies that are currently in place. Some parents (and teachers) have begun to ask: Should students have homework?

Some teachers have already decided that elementary kids shouldn’t have homework—at least, not the traditional kind. Remember the homework assignment that went viral a few years ago where instead of a worksheet, a teacher gave a list of activities for the students to choose from, such as riding a bike or going for a walk? And three school years ago, a second-grade teacher at Godley Elementary southwest of Fort Worth made headlines after sending parents a note that she wouldn’t be assigning homework that year, asking them to read together and send their students to bed early instead.

For over a decade, I have worked in education, and I too have felt the push and pull of whether to give homework. The argument for homework is that it can be used to practice a skill or prepare for a test. According to Harris Cooper, a professor at Duke University who’s studied homework since the ’80s, some research suggests that elementary kids who do homework get better scores on unit tests.

Alternatively, homework can seem punitive, meaningless, easy to lose and easy to copy. (Raise your hand if you ever helped out a little too much on a science fair project.)

Is Homework Helpful or Harmful?

Carrollton resident Gina Van Bemmel has 11-year-old twin girls. She’s lived through the nightly meltdowns and says that after a long day at school (not to mention after-school programs), when it comes time for homework, her girls just want to decompress instead.

“The homework is redundant between content areas and is only 2 percent of their total grade,” she says. “At what point is homework just compliance?”

Cooper, the Duke University professor, says dozens of studies show little to no correlation between achievement and time spent on homework at the elementary level. For Van Bemmel, it’s not worth the trouble and the tears.

Cara Johnson, author of Flipped Mastery Learning and science instructional specialist in Allen Independent School District, explains that elementary students are cognitively exhausted by the end of the school day. Tired kids plus tired parents plus homework equals frustration and stress for all involved.

In fact, Brenna Tung claims that her two boys, who attend a private Montessori school in Arlington, have so many projects that she feels like she has too much homework. “Being an involved parent means checking their work and having them correct it,” she explains. Although her third-grader’s workload is not as intense, her fifth-grader has 60 minutes of online homework per week, plus various science projects, book reports and art projects.

Elementary students are so ready to grow up to do “big kid things,” including homework, says Laila Sanguras, author of Raising Children With Grit and adjunct professor of educational psychology at the University of North Texas. “They are so eager that they jump right in,” she explains, “but what happens is that meaningless homework assignments kill that initial excitement.”

Homework With a Purpose 

We all want our children to genuinely like school and to not have an aversion to the work that comes home. So should homework be nixed entirely, or is there a happy medium?

In order for homework to be meaningful for students, it needs to spark curiosity, stresses Sanguras. “Curiosity leads to passion, and passion builds an interest for the subject matter,” she explains.

I want homework to be purposeful for my child because it could lead her to love a certain subject or topic. If an assignment does come home, maybe it’s something that doesn’t have a “right” answer—have students volunteer to give them a sense of empathy, or make a series of questions when they watch the nightly news to create a conversation, or watch a slime video and then create their own.

At the very least, even more traditional homework can be in a form that students are more likely to embrace. For example, Johnson suggests that watching a video as a preview for the following day’s problem set could be beneficial. (Where was the video when we needed to know about mathematical decomposing?)

In the meantime, Sanguras points out, parents are left telling kids to grin and bear it. “Parents say, ‘You just have to do it,’ she says. “‘This is the game and this is how you play it.’”

Emailing your child’s teacher or principal about homework reform may not amount to much, but there is strength in numbers. If enough parents are willing to attend school board meetings and fight for more purposeful homework, it could make a tremendous impact on district policy—and perhaps your household sanity.

Reader Poll: How Much Homework Does Your Child Have?

In a poll of our readers, 18.9 percent of kindergarten to fifth-grade parents reported their children had 1–2 hours of homework per day.

Amount of homework per day Grades K–2 Grades 3–5 Combined percentage
None 19.4 2.6 10.8
Less than 10 minutes 13.8 7.9 10.8
10–20 minutes 19.4 7.9 13.5
20–30 minutes 25.0 7.9 16.2
30–40 minutes 8.3 13.2 10.8
40–60 minutes 5.6 23.7 14.9
1–2 hours 8.3 28.9 18.9
2–3 hours 0 7.9 4.1

Tori Tong is an instructional coach with Allen Independent School District.