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Research Preschool Homework

As kids return to school, debate is heating up once again over how they should spend their time after they leave the classroom for the day.

The no-homework policy of a second-grade teacher in Texas went viral last week, earning praise from parents across the country who lament the heavy workload often assigned to young students. Brandy Young told parents she would not formally assign any homework this year, asking students instead to eat dinner with their families, play outside and go to bed early.

But the question of how much work children should be doing outside of school remains controversial, and plenty of parents take issue with no-homework policies, worried their kids are losing a potential academic advantage. Here’s what you need to know:

The issue

For decades, the homework standard has been a “10-minute rule,” which recommends a daily maximum of 10 minutes of homework per grade level. Second graders, for example, should do about 20 minutes of homework each night. High school seniors should complete about two hours of homework each night. The National PTA and the National Education Association both support that guideline.

But some schools have begun to give their youngest students a break. A Massachusetts elementary school has announced a no-homework pilot program for the coming school year, lengthening the school day by two hours to provide more in-class instruction. “We really want kids to go home at 4 o’clock, tired. We want their brain to be tired,” Kelly Elementary School Principal Jackie Glasheen said in an interview with a local TV station. “We want them to enjoy their families. We want them to go to soccer practice or football practice, and we want them to go to bed. And that’s it.”

A New York City public elementary school implemented a similar policy last year, eliminating traditional homework assignments in favor of family time. The change was quickly met with outrage from some parents, though it earned support from other education leaders.

New solutions and approaches to homework differ by community, and these local debates are complicated by the fact that even education experts disagree about what’s best for kids.

The research

The most comprehensive research on homework to date comes from a 2006 meta-analysis by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, who found evidence of a positive correlation between homework and student achievement, meaning students who did homework performed better in school. The correlation was stronger for older students—in seventh through 12th grade—than for those in younger grades, for whom there was a weak relationship between homework and performance.

Cooper’s analysis focused on how homework impacts academic achievement—test scores, for example. His report noted that homework is also thought to improve study habits, attitudes toward school, self-discipline, inquisitiveness and independent problem solving skills. On the other hand, some studies he examined showed that homework can cause physical and emotional fatigue, fuel negative attitudes about learning and limit leisure time for children. At the end of his analysis, Cooper recommended further study of such potential effects of homework.

Despite the weak correlation between homework and performance for young children, Cooper argues that a small amount of homework is useful for all students. Second-graders should not be doing two hours of homework each night, he said, but they also shouldn’t be doing no homework.

The debate

Not all education experts agree entirely with Cooper’s assessment.

Cathy Vatterott, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, supports the “10-minute rule” as a maximum, but she thinks there is not sufficient proof that homework is helpful for students in elementary school.

“Correlation is not causation,” she said. “Does homework cause achievement, or do high achievers do more homework?”

Vatterott, the author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, thinks there should be more emphasis on improving the quality of homework tasks, and she supports efforts to eliminate homework for younger kids.

“I have no concerns about students not starting homework until fourth grade or fifth grade,” she said, noting that while the debate over homework will undoubtedly continue, she has noticed a trend toward limiting, if not eliminating, homework in elementary school.

The issue has been debated for decades. A TIME cover in 1999 read: “Too much homework! How it’s hurting our kids, and what parents should do about it.” The accompanying story noted that the launch of Sputnik in 1957 led to a push for better math and science education in the U.S. The ensuing pressure to be competitive on a global scale, plus the increasingly demanding college admissions process, fueled the practice of assigning homework.

“The complaints are cyclical, and we’re in the part of the cycle now where the concern is for too much,” Cooper said. “You can go back to the 1970s, when you’ll find there were concerns that there was too little, when we were concerned about our global competitiveness.”

Cooper acknowledged that some students really are bringing home too much homework, and their parents are right to be concerned.

“A good way to think about homework is the way you think about medications or dietary supplements,” he said. “If you take too little, they’ll have no effect. If you take too much, they can kill you. If you take the right amount, you’ll get better.”

A Facebook friend recently posted her frustration with trying to get her third-grade daughter to sit down and do her nightly homework. “Oh, yeah?” replied a friend of said friend in the comments, a New Jersey mother named Jennifer. “You should try it with a 4-year-old.”

My youngest son has yet to enter preschool, and when my older child was there, he spent more time in “circle” than on worksheets. Jennifer said that nightly homework assignments sent home with her preschooler frustrated both of them. “I watch him slumped over our coffee table, fake crying and moaning, begging to play. I know he’s not ready for the discipline, but I feel compelled to make him turn in his assignments. He’s not ready and neither am I!” As a parent, I wasn’t ready either. Jennifer’s story had to be a wild aberration, far from the norm — one child, one family, one wildly competitive preschool perhaps?

It wasn’t. Most preschoolers may not be lugging backpacks of books yet, but when I reached out to friends and friends of friends via a Facebook post of my own, I found a diverse group of parents all over the country completing — or attempting to complete — nightly homework with their wiggling preschoolers, ostensibly to “prepare” them for kindergarten homework.

The parents I spoke with, who send their children to paid preschool in places like Chicago, the five boroughs of New York, New Jersey and the St. Louis suburbs, are looking at a range of kindergarten options, from private to public to magnet to charter. The homework in question is typically worksheets — copying or coloring letters and numbers and name-writing practice, proficiencies that are required for some magnet school entrance “assessments.” And while most parents agreed that the idea of preschool homework was absurd, most also went along with it anyway.

Yet according to the education and parenting expert Alfie Kohn, the author of “The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing,” a close look at all the research available contradicts this practice. In an e-mail regarding homework for young children, Mr. Kohn told me, “No research has ever found any benefit. It’s all pain and no gain.”

Homework may also take away from valuable play and family time, as the teacher and parent Jessica Lahey laments in her post on this blog, “I Hate Homework. I Assign It Anyway.” Early childhood experts tell us that play should be the top priority in preschool, and documentaries like “Race to Nowhere” remind us that many kids are burned out by the time they get to high school.

So after a day at school, why are we bringing home more work for the barely potty-trained? I remember being horrified when my oldest son brought home nightly homework in public kindergarten. Tired and spent from a full day of academics, he couldn’t focus, he begged for it to be over, and my husband and I spent hours coaxing him to fill out a worksheet that should have taken five minutes.

But did I say anything to the teacher about it? Not a word.

Neither did the preschool parents I spoke with. What’s more, they didn’t want to say anything at all. Several parents refused to be quoted on the topic. One parent put it plainly: getting into a decent school is hard enough, I don’t want this to come back and haunt me. Why are parents afraid to say they don’t like preschool homework? If we parents think that homework (or any policy or practice) is making our children miserable, why wouldn’t we say something about it?

Pressure to test preschoolers for entrance into coveted gifted and talented programs makes it even harder to protest. Vassiliki, a mother from Chicago, did balk; she told me she refused to turn in her preschool daughter’s nightly homework. “The idea was revolting to me,” she said. But Vassiliki also acknowledged that her daughter’s private preschool, located within a Chicago public magnet school, had a cozy relationship with the magnet’s gifted and talented program. “The kids get primed to ace the ‘gifted’ system-wide tests.” Homework (whether it’s turned in or not) is part of that priming.

One reason parents may be reluctant to speak up, says Mr. Kohn, is our nearly unconditional acceptance of schools’ authority. Instead, busy parents may spend more time finding ways to deal with the unpleasant homework instead of confronting the school. Jennifer from New Jersey eventually asked her child’s preschool teachers if there was a way to reduce his workload. “They said it shouldn’t be about frustrating the kids, so now he will be given just one sheet of letters to practice per week. They said, ‘Look, this is only preschool.”

But we should be asking bigger questions — like if the real reason we’re not saying no to preschool homework is because, in today’s rush to get young children into academics, we fear our child will fall behind. We parents should stick up for what preschool does well — teaching kids how to socialize, take turns, and work in a group. Preparing children to read and write during the hours of the school day is fine, but a preschooler’s “homework” should be exploring, playing and listening to bedtime stories.

As we demand academics from younger and younger children, will there come a time when 4-year-olds are no longer prepared for the demands of pre-K?  And then is homework for 3-year-olds around the corner? A few years ago, preschool homework might have been a headline in The Onion, but we don’t seem to be laughing. Instead, somewhere out there, someone is busily developing “Worksheets for the Womb.”


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