Is it time to rethink homework?

Joan Goodchild

Before she was a homework reform advocate and public speaker, Dr. Cathy Vatterott was the frustrated mom of a fifth-grade student with learning disabilities. 

“I often say it was the word search that put me over the edge, but maybe it was the fractions,” said Vatterott, only half-joking at a recent presentation at Shrewsbury High School.

With what she thought was an overwhelming amount of work for her child to do each night, and difficulties getting it done due to the learning disabilities, Vatterott thought there must be a better way. She embarked on a journey to find relevant research and data on just how much homework is effective and necessary for a child’s education.

Based on those findings, Vatterott, a professor of education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, authored Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs. She now speaks at venues around the country about her findings and urges school districts and educators to consider the data when crafting homework guidelines.

There are several compelling findings about homework that should be used to guide how much schools give students, and Vatterott laid many of them out in her session. Consider this: studies cannot show homework causes higher academic achievement. And there is no proof about the non-academic benefits of homework, like increased responsibility, she noted. 

But Vatterott wants to make clear she is not suggesting eliminating homework completely. She advocates for reasonable, age-appropriate amounts.

“The research is about time not task,” she said. “If a kid does a certain amount of homework, it helps his achievement. But when we get to a certain point, achievement starts to go down when the kid is overloaded with homework.”

Wait a minute. Doesn’t someone who reads become a better reader, you might be asking. Doesn’t someone who practices multiplication tables become better at math? Vatterott knows these are the concerns of worried parents who only want the best outcome for their kids. 

“It’s hard to make the statement that it (homework) is definitely good and definitely bad. I’m for reasonable amounts,” said Vatterott. “I’m for work that helps learning. There are schools eliminating it at elementary level.”

For schools that have a homework expectations in all grades, a good rule of thumb is 10 minutes per grade, she said. A first grader should only have ten minutes. A high school senior should have no more than two hours.

“Parents differ in their opinion about the role of homework and that is OK,” said Vatterott. “But parents have the right to control their kids’ free time. And sleep and downtime are critical to your child’s health.”

Vatterott said the issue of too much homework is wrapped into a much larger cultural issue around learning and achievement in childhood. Kids are stressed out with too much to do and tremendous anxiety over performance, she noted. 

Since she first began her research on homework levels, the issue around childhood stress and anxiety has cropped up and is a newer concern, driven by what she said were a pressure-cooker school culture and too much parental focus on achievement today. Think: expecting and pushing your children to get into an elite college. 

“What psychologists are now telling us is when parents put too much focus on achievement and getting into the elite school, what happens is teenagers have a unique ability to misinterpret that message and it gets interpreted as conditional love,” she said. “(They think) if I come home with a B, I’ve really disappointed my parents.”

Add to this the stress of social media and an always-on digital society. Kids are looking to likes and shares as affirmation of their self-worth, said Vatterott. And they are spending too much time on screens in exchange for healthy amounts of sleep. 

“Lack of sleep exacerbates anxiety and depression, and it affects academic performance,” said Vatterott. “When our kids aren’t getting enough sleep, they aren’t performing well and they’re struggling.”

In addition to the ten-minutes of homework per grade guideline, Vatterott advocates what she calls “common sense fixes” to the current climate of overworked, stressed students. They include:

  • Teachers should state the purpose of the assignments they give out

  • Set time limits for the work assigned

  • Eliminate daily homework – move toward longer deadlines 

  • Prohibit weekend and holiday homework 

  • Encourage consistency among teachers 

  • Encourage coordination among teachers. When one teacher is giving a major test, others should consider the workload they are giving at the same time so students are not overwhelmed.

“We are confusing rigor with workload,” said Vatterott. “But how good is the task we are asking kids to do?”

Vatterott also has advice for parents; stop packing your kids’ schedules in an attempt to build an overstuffed resume. Respect their need for downtime and reaffirm your unconditional love.

“We have to be the stewards of what is good for our kids. If we see our kids are stressed out and not getting enough sleep, we need to reconsider those activities.”

Joan Goodchild is a veteran writer and editor and mom of two living in Central Massachusetts.