Does More Homework Mean Better Grades?

The right kind of homework will teach rather than bore kids.

Nov. 20, 2009— -- The Milley children of Calgary, Alberta, will never have to do homework again thanks to a unique legal contract hammered out between their parents and the school. The "differentiated homework plan" spells out the responsibilities of both parties but the bottom line is a ban on homework.

Like many parents, Tom and Shelli Milley were tired of the nightly struggles with their children over homework. "My wife was getting disgusted with the sheer volume that was coming home and I was getting frustrated with the busy work," explained Tom Milley, an attorney in Calgary. And by busy work, Milley means assignments like color-by-number pictures for a French lesson or clipping pictures out of magazines.

The Milley's have three children, Jay, now 18 and off to college, Spencer, 11 and Brittany, 10. For most of the past 10 years, the family has spent their evenings following a frenzied schedule familiar to any parent of school-age children.

The late afternoon involved after school activities, in their case speed skating and girl scouts, which was followed by a rushed dinner and then heading up to the bedroom for several hours of homework. "Like most kids they whined and cried after an hour or two…and I would always tell my wife it's really hard to teach a weeping child anything," said Milley.

Those nightly battles escalated until the Milleys said enough is enough and started to crack the books themselves -- researching studies on homework. What they found was that in many cases – especially at the elementary level – more homework does not necessarily mean better grades.

For two years, the couple argued with teachers and administrators over the homework policy at their children's school, St. Brigid Elementary School in Calgary, until finally their "homework rebellion" resulted in the "differentiated homework plan." The contract spells out the responsibilities of both the teacher and the student. Brittany and Spencer will not have work sent home, and must be graded on what they do in class. For their part, the two tweens must read daily and complete all work assigned in class. And they must practice a musical instrument at home.

Hating homework is not a new phenomenon. There are dozens of anti-homework books and Web sites devoted to denigrating the time-honored practice. On Facebook a petition to ban homework has more than a million members.

Even those whose career involves researching the effectiveness of homework can have issues with it. Harris Cooper, a professor of social psychology at Duke University, described one particularly irksome Spanish assignment that his daughter brought home which seemed to involve nothing but coloring the months of the year.

"The only thing I could figure out is that they wanted her to stare at the word October in Spanish for 15 minutes while she colored and that didn't seem to be a good use of my daughter's time," said Cooper.

But Cooper argues that even students in second grade can benefit from homework as long as it is "simple and short." A good rule of thumb, said Cooper, and one used by many school districts, is 10 minutes per night per grade. So, a Grade 1 gets 10 minutes of homework, Grade 2 gets 20 minutes of homework and so on. The trouble seems to crop up in the elementary grades when kids do too much homework -- defined by some as an hour or more. Studies have shown a negative correlation between math scores and the amount of homework completed. In other words, the more homework the students did, the worse they performed on math tests.

These kinds of studies are often what parents point to when they argue against homework.

It's true that American middle school children log more homework time than even their counterparts in Taiwan, Korea and Japan, according to Professor Gerald LeTendre of Penn State University. The average amount of homework a middle-schooler gets in the United States is 2.5 hours a night.

And there is an important difference between America and its counterparts around the world. "In the U.S. teachers tend to be on a "remedial system," said LeTendre. "They are giving out homework not as a way of getting better but when the teacher senses a student or the class may be having trouble understanding a particular lesson or concept."

Karen Langton has been a teacher in Massachusetts for over 10 years, most recently teaching a high school business course. Her class is taught in blocks of time that run just under an hour.

"In that short span of time it is impossible for students," said Langton, "to practice everything that is taught." Langton maintains that homework is a "necessary reinforcement of what is being taught in the room." And rather than offer a high-stakes test, homework is a "low or no stakes way" to check for a student's understanding of a lesson.

Although the differentiated homework plan has been in place for less than two weeks, Tom Milley said nights at his house have already taken on a very different tenor. The tears and the struggles are gone. Spencer brings home his math book most nights and Milley said he looks at his son's work books and "if he understands it I say, hey, great, go out and play."