When Brandy Young handed out a letter explaining her new homework policy to parents, she had no idea that it would become an overnight sensation and make her a public champion of the “#NoHomework” movement.
The 2nd-grade teacher from Northern Texas wrote to parents:
“After much research this summer, I am trying something new. Homework will only consist of work that your student did not finish during the school day. There will be no formally assigned homework this year.
“Research has been unable to prove that 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.”
A happy parent posted a photo of the letter on Facebook, and the photo went viral. The original photo has been shared 73,000 times, and that does not include the seemingly endless tweets and screenshots circulating the internet.
And with that, the argument over homework began once more. But where does the debate currently stand?
It is commonly acknowledged that education culture in the United States values homework. Most teachers and parents believe that homework is key to their students’ academic progress. However, researchers have taken a more complicated stance on homework and, more often than not, studies show the negative impact of homework rather than its merits.
“I think the reason for homework overload is that, in many schools and communities, we mistakenly equate rigor with excessive homework load,” said Jerusha Conner, associate professor of graduate education at Villanova, “but I don't think that is what rigor really is. It is not drowning in projects and assignments and tests, but it’s being able to go deep into an issue of interest and something that you are curious about and being able to explore multiple facets and think and reflect.”
In 2006, leading homework researcher Harris Cooper wrote a review of all the educational literature published about the topic from 1987 to 2003 (he had previously done this with all research published between 1962 and 1986). One finding was that “in elementary school, homework had no association with achievement gains.”
Although the National Education Association recommends no more than 10 minutes of homework per grade (for example, 1st graders get 10 minutes, 2nd graders get 20 minutes, 3rd graders get 30 minutes, etc.), a study published in 2015 in the American Journal of Family Therapy showed that the average amount of time that elementary school students were spending on homework was three times the recommended amount. Additionally, kindergartners — who are supposed to have no homework — were shown to be spending about 25 minutes per night on homework.
For high school students, research has shown a positive correlation between time spent on homework and academic achievement. Some studies, such as one published in 2012, find competing information showing that more homework only correlates with higher test scores, rather than higher grades.
But even with the evidence that more homework in high school can lead to higher academic achievement, research also shows that the benefit of homework maxes out at 2.5 hours total per night and, according to Cooper and Conner, “too much homework may diminish its effectiveness, or even become counterproductive.”
Many high school students are doing more than three hours of homework per night, and students are experiencing serious consequences. A 2013 study co-written by Conner looked at the impacts of homework in privileged, high-performing schools. Conner found that there were clear negative impacts of the amount of homework expected of these students.
Seventy-two percent of students reported being “often or always stressed over schoolwork,” and 82 percent reported experiencing at least one physical symptom of stress in the last month. Of that 82 percent, 44 percent experienced three or more physical symptoms of stress in the last month.
Additionally, students reported an average of 6.80 hours of sleep on school nights, while the National Sleep Foundation recommends 8.5 to 9.25 hours per night for healthy adolescent development. Sixty-eight percent of students reported that their schoolwork was often or always the reason for getting less sleep. Sixty-one percent said they had to drop an activity they enjoyed due to their schoolwork.
“I definitely think there is too much," said Conner. "I think that when we speak to students about their experiences and hear how they are not getting enough sleep, we can see that this too much is taking a toll. It's stress, it's moving many of them to justify cheating and cutting corners because they simply cannot get it all done.”
But even for those who are skeptical of student complaints about being overworked, Conner has an argument.
“It is just an ineffective practice,” she said. “They really don't have time to do the in-depth exploration, and in fact, they forget much of what they are cramming into their brains.”
Conner explained that students in her study were not demanding the abolition of homework, but simply a more reasonable expectation for how much was too much and for recognition that some homework was “busywork,” rather than being intellectually stimulating.
And parents are stepping in to demand the same thing, as evidenced by how many parents rallied around Young’s no-homework letter. And these parents are demanding change.
Here in Pennsylvania, concerned parents are spearheading the ongoing discussion about homework. Five years ago in Lower Merion, a parent-led effort to limit the amount of homework their children were receiving was adopted by the school board.
Now the school district follows the 10-minutes-per-grade model recommended by the NEA. If students reach that amount of time and are still not finished, parents or students (depending on the grade) can write a note explaining that the student had done their required time, even if the assignment was not finished. Conner notes that it is always harder to implement in practice than to write into policy, but the new guidelines have been met with relatively positive feedback so far.
Danielle Arnold-Schwartz, a parent and teacher in Lower Merion who was a part of the push to limit homework in schools, said that the schools and teachers do seem to honor the new homework guidelines.
”The homework regulation was incredibly helpful to my children in elementary school and middle school,” she said, noting that she wished it could have gone even further. Students in honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes are exempt from the homework regulations.
Arnold-Schwartz said the movement came out of a public screening of the documentary Race to Nowhere and parent discussions about writer Alfie Kohn’s book “The Homework Myth.”
“I think parents are just paying attention to their children and to the research,” said Arnold-Schwartz. “Parents want what is best for their kids, and that is balancing their children’s lives, because at every age, children need to play and children need time to unwind. Most adults even put in a work day, and then they come home, and our kids need to do that as well.”
A similar measure is being considered in Radnor.
Young’s letter has certainly struck a chord with parents who feel as if many schools and teachers are not listening to them, and perhaps more important, to research. Among the hashtags and retweets is a call for an informed discussion about how perceptions of homework and of “rigor” are impacting our kids and their ability to learn. And if suburban Philadelphia school districts are any indication, that conversation has started to take place in a meaningful way.