Homework in elementary school is useless

The homework debate is raging once again. And Emma Waverman just doesn't see the benefit of giving kids more work to do after school.
Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

The studies are in. The results are conclusive. Homework in elementary school is useless.

In fact, it’s worse than useless. The stress of homework disrupts kids’ sleep and can make them hate school.

Harris Cooper of Duke University is the pre-eminent scholar on homework. Over the course of 16 years, from 1987–2003, he surveyed 120 studies on the efficacy of homework and reviewed another 60 studies in 2006, finding that giving high school kids less than two hours of daily homework moderately furthers their education. But middle school (grades 7 and 8) students only benefit from a small amount of homework. And what about elementary students? Cooper found that homework had no academic benefit on those kids—but it did make them have negative feelings towards school.

Cooper’s study came out 10 years ago, but it’s back in the news thanks to posts on Time and Salon by Heather Schumaker, author of It’s OK to Go Up the Slide. She wants to ban all homework in elementary school and argues that if we wanted kids to have better memories and higher test scores we would make sure our kids were getting more sleep, as well as more outdoor time.

The issue is that, no matter how loud or how often researchers say that homework doesn’t help kids, teachers, schools and parents insist that it’s instilling good skills, habits and is a necessary part of kids’ education.

I have fought my fair share of homework battles in the last 10 years, at home and in the classroom. Ironically, I’ve been on both sides of the war. I’ve been a homework cop, and a homework-avoiding accomplice. I’ve fought with teachers to get them to stop assigning so much busy work and I’ve fought with my kids over finishing their homework. I can tell you that no one has ever benefitted from these arguments.

Most parents will tell you that homework is turning their homes into a battleground. Some parents have started to outsource homework to babysitters or tutors just to avoid the drama of another night with the multiplication tables.

Personally, I’ve gained some incredible diorama skills and my geometry is improving thanks to all this homework. But I’m not sure it was worth the tears (hers and mine). I don’t need a Ph.D. in education to see that my kids’ homework was not improving their skills or their habits, but it was damaging our relationship.

The Toronto District School Board conducted a report on homework in 2008 and created new policies, including eliminating homework for kindergarteners. And kids in early elementary school have “homework,” but it’s only reading, playing games and doing activities, like cooking with their families.

Yet many years ago when I wrote a post saying that I did not make my kindergartener do her homework, I was called a terrible mother and irresponsible. I garnered more trolls from that post than almost any other thing I have written in my seven years of writing online (and I’m an advocate for public breastfeeding, think spanking is wrong and didn’t change my name when I got married).

I don’t get it.

Why are we parents so attached to the idea that our kids have to come home from school and do more work? They have spent the entire day sitting, listening and following the rules when, developmentally, they should be active, experimenting and being social. Academics are just one part of kids lives; they need time for other things too.

For a six-year-old, playing tag with her friends contains as much, or more learning than a worksheet. She’s learning about strategy and social boundaries and getting some much needed exercise. All these things bolster academic learning.

Advocates say that homework teaches responsibility and time management, but so does walking the dog, or loading the dishwasher.

My kids are now at a school that’s done its homework and realizes that after-school time is for other activities. The homework load is light, though the teachers have expectations that it will be done. My daughter is in grade 5, and now that the homework is manageable and is merely review, she approaches it confidently and without me having to stand over her.

I hope other schools do their reading and catch up.

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of which are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.

Read more:
How much homework is too much
Hate math? Then don’t help your kid with her homework

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