Homework is a sensitive topic for parents and students alike.
The fact is, homework is a complicated nut to crack for scientists. First and foremost is the issue of control and observation. Homework is done at home, which adds a level of complexity to tracking and reporting what is done and how much help is given, especially in younger grades. Add to that the fact that a worksheet is in no way similar to a book report and the issue of measurement gets more multi-faceted. Regardless of these challenges, both the benefits and drawbacks of homework are real, studied and documented by researchers.
What We Know
U.S. High School students do, on average, 6.8 hours of homework per week according to Data from a 2007 National Center for Education Statistics survey. Elementary school students, however, spend more time with an average of 9.1 hours per week. This is counter-intuitive, not just because little ones need more time to play, but also because research shows there is no testing score or grade benefit for those doing homework before 5th grade.
Most proponents of elementary homework believe it teaches discipline and responsibility. Others note that studies of elementary school children and homework can be unreliable since parental involvement might skew numbers, both in regards to the hours reported or whether the work was done independently.
It’s also important to note that, across all grades, time spent on homework for children globally, in all age groups, is in line with the amount done by U.S. students. There are a few exceptions, however, like Finland and Singapore, whose students spend less than 3 hours a week on homework and still get top PISA test marks.
There are some media articles that talk of private high school nightmare homework levels, but for the most part, schools here in the U.S. stick with the National Education Association (NEA) recommendations — 10 minutes per night per grade level. Meaning a third grader should have no more than 30 minutes of homework per night, a seventh grader 70 minutes, and a senior in high school no more than two hours.
While elementary school homework shows no benefit, in general, homework benefits middle schoolers and has substantial benefits at the high school level. A 2015 study on homework in science and math found students whose teacher systematically assigned homework scored nearly 50 points higher on the standardized test. The amount of time students spent on homework, in this study, actually didn’t matter. What mattered was that the homework was consistently scheduled and assigned.
Homework’s influence on grades, however, is another matter entirely. While there is a “consistently positive significant relationship between homework and performance on standardized exams,” there is no consistent significant relationship between time spent on homework and grades.
But even with test score performance enhancement, there is a sweet spot. In this 2014 Stanford study, researcher Denise Pope found that the test score benefits plateau at the two-hour mark for homework and then decline. This 2015 Spanish study found diminishing returns started even earlier. When middle school students were assigned more than an hour and a half of homework per day, their math and science test scores began to decline. Pope’s Stanford study has data backing up why this is likely the case. She found too much homework led to greater stress levels amongst students. In fact, 56 percent of students list homework as a greater stressor than tests or grades. It also led to sleep deprivation, loss of time with friends and family and a drop in hobbies and extracurriculars.
The Waldorf Approach to Homework
Hype aside, it would seem a reasonable amount of homework for older students is a good thing. One of the very first homework assignments at The Waldorf School of Philadelphia is a model house building project as part of the 3rd-grade curriculum. Homework however does not usually start until 4th-grade and begins with math and vocabulary at a very manageable level. Nightly string instrument practice is expected and is considered part of a homework rhythm, as is nightly reading. In the upper grades, quizzes in math, Spanish language, spelling and vocabulary are given at the teachers’ discretion to challenge the students and assess their progress. Typical homework assignments for 4th-grade includes 20 math problems and 10 spelling words per week. Teachers advise parents that if the work takes more than 30 minutes, the child should stop. Thus giving teachers an indication of the student’s learning level which can inform the need for appropriate learning supports.
As the children mature and build higher executive functioning skills (working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control), new homework projects are layered into the schedule, but the time limits still match up with NEA recommendations of 10 minutes per grade. Eighth graders rarely spend more than an hour and 20 minutes on homework once or twice a week.
Building executive function is the primary purpose of homework here at The Waldorf School of Philadelphia. It is a learning opportunity in self-regulation, unsupervised reasoning and planning, task and time management, organization skills and scheduled accountability. We want to be sure our students are truly prepared for the rigors of high school, which will tap into executive function in an often demanding way as homework levels rise to 90+ minutes per night along with extracurriculars. Waldorf students are accepted into a wide range of public and private admissions tested high schools including Central High School, Science Leadership Academy, the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, Germantown Friends School, La Salle High School and Springside CHA.
What we feel is most important is that homework is not a stressor for our students. It can present a challenge, accountability, and a training ground for more adult expectations, but it should never be an unmanageable burden for our students or their families.
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