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NPR: How much homework is too much?

Yesterday, NPR’s Day to Day interviewed Harris M. Cooper, a professor at Duke University and author of The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents. How much homework is appropriate? they asked. Cooper provided a simple rule:

Essentially what the guideline boils down to is what I refer to as the 10-minute rule, which means 10 minutes per night, per grade: first graders, 10 minutes, second graders, 20 minutes, third graders, 30 minutes, and so on. We do have research that shows that when middle school kids are doing between 60 to 90 minutes of homework a night they’re doing as well as kids who claim to be doing more.

If parents feel that their children are getting too much homework, Cooper says, they should begin by observing what really happens during homework time. Are the children focused solely on homework, or are distractions like text-messaging or television getting in the way? He provides tips for talking with teachers about homework, advising parents to take a non-confrontational teamwork approach.

Some homework opponents would do away with it altogether. Alfie Kohn argued in The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing and in a 2006 Q&A with Philissa at Insideschools.org that homework “dampen[s] children’s curiosity about the world,” and that research shows no benefit to homework. One math teacher says on his blog that he doesn’t assign homework because his students who need extra practice most are least likely to complete homework.

But Cooper makes a case for small amounts of homework: it helps children learn to study on their own and outside the classroom, important preparation for the demands of college, where most learning happens in the dorm room, library, or coffeehouse.

As a teacher, I encountered more parents worried that their children weren’t doing enough homework than that they were assigned too much. Many parents and teachers in the city view homework as an opportunity to close the achievement gap by squeezing in more academic time; schools like the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charters, and many regular public schools serving high-needs students, advertise strict homework policies and hours of homework each night. A 2003 review of Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom’s book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning argues that more homework, not less, is crucial to helping children who start school at a disadvantage catch up with their peers.

Underlying the conflicting perspectives on homework are the realities of life outside school in different communities. Some homework opponents say that homework displaces other activities like sports, arts, and community service, but not all children have those opportunities after school; schools with extended-day programs, built-in enrichment opportunities, and lots of homework believe that they are helping to level the playing field.

Missing from this discussion are guidelines on what kinds of homework assignments are best if a teacher decides to give homework. A Teacher Tips sheet from the American Federation of Teachers says homework should be related to content taught in class, creative and interesting, and not too time-consuming.

Teachers and parents, what’s your take on homework? How much is too much? What kind of assignments do you think are most useful: extra skills practice, assignments that encourage kids to talk to their family members about what they are learning, independent research projects, daily reading? And what about homework for parents?

By the way, Day to Day wants your input on what education issues to cover in the coming weeks… and so do we. Leave us a comment, or email us a tip.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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