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Homework’s Diminishing Returns

child with long hair works on homework worksheet at a table

A revived movement to ban homework is making itself felt in some American school districts, as advocates press for a better quality of life for students – and maybe a better diet for their proverbial homework-eating pets.

Pushback against homework as a concept is nothing new. Ladies’ Home Journal presented a variety of anti-homework arguments to its readers in the early years of the 20th century, and the California Legislature banned homework in grades K-8 in 1901. Like many matters of educational theory, homework sentiment has proven somewhat cyclical. In the 1990s, most parents and educators agreed homework was an effective tool, with only a few dissenters on the fringes. Today the pendulum has begun to swing in the other direction.

Part of the current backlash springs from the amount of homework that kids face. The U.S. Department of Education reports that in 2016, the latest year of available data, high school students spent an average of 7.5 hours a week on homework, compared to 6.8 hours in 2007. But a variety of studies have supported the conclusion that varying methodology means that there is significant variation between schools, and even between teachers, in the amount of homework assigned. Some students may have much more than the reported average, and some have much less.

Responses to increasing amounts of homework have varied. Some schools, including public schools in Ridgefield, Connecticut, now place time limits on how much homework teachers may assign per night. The Ridgefield Public School system also bans homework outright on weekends, school vacations and certain other days for elementary and middle school students, and does not allow teachers to count homework toward those students’ grades, The Wall Street Journal reported. Other school districts allow teachers to assign homework but tell them not to grade it. Still others tell teachers not to assign homework as a rule, but will allow them to assign work to students they think need extra reinforcement. Some American (and Canadian) schools have done away with homework altogether, though usually only for younger students.

The stated goals behind limiting or banning homework are worthy ones: giving children more time to spend with family, develop their reading skills and rest. However, some teachers and parents have expressed concerns. Homework offers a way to reinforce the day’s lesson, and also gives parents a window into what their children are learning. In turn, homework opponents point out that some students receive extensive parental help, meaning homework does not accurately reflect students’ mastery of the subject. Other critics connect heavier homework loads with rising levels of anxiety in adolescents.

Different children have different needs, and their parents may want different things from their education. One parent told The Wall Street Journal that he withdrew his daughter from public school after her school stopped giving homework, and enrolled her at a private school instead. A public charter school in Texas, Kauffman Leadership Academy, offers an extended school day to avoid sending work home. Making school choice available to all parents, regardless of economic means, would ensure that a particular school’s approach to homework need not suit every family’s outlook.

School districts that are considering banning homework altogether should familiarize themselves with the law of diminishing returns. A lot of homework likely will not go proportionately further than a little homework. On the other hand, no homework at all won’t accomplish anything that a little homework might. This should lead educators to a conclusion that practically any parent could have suggested – the problem may not be homework itself, but too much homework. Some schools are recognizing this in their approach to limit it, rather than banning it altogether. Many educators, along with the National Education Association and National Parent Teacher Association, support the “10-minute rule:” Students should do no more than 10 minutes of homework per night per grade level, topping out at a maximum of about two hours by the end of high school.

Of course, there are also logistical challenges involved in limiting homework. A school district in central Florida told teachers to stop assigning what the superintendent calls “meaningless homework” for elementary school students and to substitute reading time instead. But I doubt many teachers were purposely assigning homework they thought was “meaningless.” And time limits like those imposed by Ridgefield Public Schools may become complicated when factoring in the different pace of various students’ work, or high school schedules in which many teachers are assigning homework without necessarily knowing how much homework students have from other classes. None of these challenges are insurmountable, but they will require thoughtful strategies to navigate successfully. In this context, it is easy to see why administrators are sometimes tempted to ban homework outright instead.

Yet administrators might also bear in mind that teachers, like all people, respond to incentives and costs. In most cases, a child losing out on time with his or her family due to homework will not have immediate and tangible costs for the teacher assigning that work. If the teacher is graded or compensated according to how children perform on a test, however, that teacher will focus on test performance, potentially to the exclusion of other goals. This doesn’t make the teacher evil. It makes the teacher human. “What gets measured gets done” is a phrase much-used, but not without a foundation in truth. If schools want teachers to respect children’s time at home, they cannot also penalize teachers when it takes longer to prepare those children for tests.

To that end, we should remember that the law of diminishing returns applies to testing, too. Yes, we want to make sure children are learning all they need to know. But the rush to label any aspect of education, whether homework, tests or anything else, a cure-all or a disaster makes it harder for good teachers to do their jobs.

“Moderation in all things” is another venerable saying worth applying, and teaching, in our schools. A little homework can go a long way.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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