When Finnish students enroll in school at age seven, they can expect to take three or four classes a day. There are frequent breaks, plus a daily 20-minute recess. What’s more, when school is dismissed, there’s rarely any work to be completed at home. Nonetheless, Finnish students consistently rank among the world’s highest achievers in reading, math and science.
Experts attribute this to the country’s low (5.8 percent) poverty rate, extensive social welfare system, 12-to-1 student-teacher ratio, and classes that fully integrate special needs students into general education classrooms. They also note that the Finnish government values teachers and encourages staff to prioritize collaboration, network building and the sharing of best practices.
Contrast this with the United States. Throughout the country, many elementary schools have completely eliminated recess. Eighteen percent of students live in poverty and approximately 1.3 million of the nation’s 50.7 million public school students are homeless.
And then there’s homework, which is increasingly assigned to students as young as five. In fact, by high school, the average time teenagers spend on homework is now 3 hours and 58 minutes a night, up from 2 hours and 38 minutes — an increase of 51 percent — over the past several decades.
The reason for this, say pro-homework teachers and administrators, is to raise the scores of U.S. students on standardized tests.
It hasn’t worked. While progressive educators agree that testing is not the only, or even the best, marker of academic achievement, it is still startling that the U.S. ranks 21st in educational outcome among the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) competing countries, while Finland comes in third.
For their part, the National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association support assigning 10 minutes of homework per grade. Under this policy, first graders would be given homework taking no more than 10 minutes a day, while 12th graders would be given up to two hours of daily work.
But many schools have sidestepped these recommendations, with kindergarteners, first and second graders often getting 25-30 minutes of work per night. Among older students, researchers have noted that excessive homework assignments have led to an increase in stress-related headaches, exhaustion, sleep difficulties and stomach ailments. They also suggest that it contributes to alcohol and drug abuse.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
A Duke University study found that homework does little to boost elementary school achievement, a finding that has led a smattering of K-6 schools in California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Vermont to either eliminate homework completely or eliminate it during school breaks.
“Kids are terribly stressed about school, grades, peers, parental expectations and the known threats and ideation around climate change,” Nancy Romer, a longtime New York City activist and former psychology professor at Brooklyn College, told Truthout. “Many kids live in a state of impending doom.”
Add in other worries — about gun violence, racial bias, police brutality and sexual assault — and it is obvious that students of all ages have good reason to be fearful and anxious.
But can eliminating homework address even a small part of this anxiety-producing equation, increase academic achievement and lift morale?
The Upside to Homework
Jessie Winslow teaches sixth grade social studies at the Ephraim Curtis Middle School in Sudbury, Massachusetts, a wealthy community with a median household income of more than $170,000.
Winslow acknowledges that her students are coming into school with more anxiety and depression than previous academic cohorts. Nonetheless, she says she feels conflicted about the idea of skipping homework because she thinks that by middle school, students should be able to do some independent work at home. “Homework teaches time management and other coping skills,” she continues. “These kids are going to have situations that will cause them stress and they need to figure out how to handle it.”
Virginia Naughton, a grandmother in Brooklyn, New York, says she sees homework as the most direct way to know what’s going on in kids’ daily lives. “Homework is sort of a pulse, a starting point, to talk about classes, school friends and whatever else is going on,” she says.
Sid Kivanoski, a recently retired teacher at one of New York City’s highly competitive specialized high schools, is also a proponent of homework. He explains that because New York students have to pass Regents exams in English, math, science and social studies to earn a diploma, assigning homework ensures coverage of material that might appear on the exam, but that he was unable to address during class.
“I also gave homework to get them thinking about things that we’d talk about the next day, for example, why they thought the U.S. fought a war in Vietnam,” he says.
Barriers to Homework Completion
Still, Kivanoski knows that many of his students faced enormous challenges in completing their assignments. “I had one kid who would wake up at 2:00 a.m. to do homework because that was the only time it was quiet at home. Another went to the library on the way home every afternoon for the same reason. It was the sole place she could concentrate.”
Likewise, Chicago elementary school teacher Mariam Cosey sees the impact of poverty, hunger, and insecure or overcrowded housing in her classroom each and every day. “I always give my students a choice packet where they can choose which homework assignment they want to complete — word finds or word games, worksheets, or special projects — and it’s always due at the end of the week or on Monday, to give them the opportunity to get it done,” she begins. “Furthermore, I always make sure that there is something that every child has the ability to do.”
She does this despite mandates from the Chicago Board of Education dictating what should be taught and how much homework should be assigned for each grade level. In addition, Cosey offers incentives for her students to encourage assignment completion. The incentives help Cosey assess how a particular student is doing in a specific subject, and also give a window into her students’ home situations. “Kids can pick their prizes. When a child chooses gloves over candy, it tells me what’s going on in that child’s life. We love on these students, wash their faces, bring in clothes for them, and are compassionate. As teachers, we know that these kids need extra love and we give it to them.”
Homeless students face even greater hurdles when it comes to finishing their work. “There are so many barriers,” Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization that works to improve the educational achievement of homeless youth, told Truthout. Some are related to the living situation, with barriers like not having a quiet place to study or do homework, or no computer or internet access.
“But remember,” Duffield explains, “only 14.4 percent of students who are homeless are even staying in a shelter. Most are in hotels or motels, moving from couch to couch, or living on the streets. No matter where they’re staying, they may also be caring for their parents or younger siblings. Most are struggling to stay safe. They may be working 30 hours a week while going to school. The notion that homeless students have the time, space and consistency for good home study is seriously flawed.”
This is something that San Diego State University student Destiny Dickerson, the recipient of a SchoolHouse Connection scholarship (which grants post-secondary scholarships to students who’ve experienced homelessness), understands well. Six years ago, when Dickerson was in her first year of high school, her family was evicted from their three-bedroom home. For a short time, they lived with her grandmother, but severe overcrowding made this situation untenable and the family — four kids and two adults — ended up in a series of motels and hotels in and around Rancho Cucamonga, California.
“I would do as much homework as I could in school because there was no guarantee that we’d have WIFI at the hotel,” she explains. “In addition, all of my textbooks were stolen when someone broke into my mom’s car. My parents had told us to keep our homelessness quiet because it was embarrassing to admit that we’d lost our residence, so no one at school knew that I had no books. Some days I’d go to the library to do my homework and some hotels had a communal computer I could use, but sometimes I forgot about doing assignments because I was so focused on what was going on outside of class. I also missed assignments that were posted online since I did not have reliable access to a computer.”
Still, Dickerson maintained a B average throughout high school and reports that her teachers learned of her situation only after she won the SchoolHouse Connection scholarship. “They were shocked,” she says, “and the school cleared all the fees owed for the stolen textbooks and helped me pay for all the senior year activities.”
Dickerson considers herself lucky — she now has an affordable, stable, off-campus apartment, a laptop computer and consistent internet access — and expects to graduate with a degree in psychology in 2022.
Homework for Parents
Shomari Gallagher, a parent in Brooklyn, New York, says that while she appreciates that homework gives her a window into what her 10-year-old son is learning in school, it also often puts parents in the position of being teachers. “If the homework reinforces what they learned in school, fine,” she says. “But to have students struggle to learn something new without the benefit of a teacher’s instruction seems unfair. I sometimes look at my son’s math homework as if it’s a foreign language and have had to watch YouTube videos in order to help him. Homework is the only thing my son and I fight over. At the end of the school day he’s tired and gets frustrated.”
This set-up, Gallagher continues, also favors richer, better-educated parents who already grasp the subject matter, or have the time, research skills and English language proficiency to assist their kids. Moreover, she believes that homework serves an insidious function: “I think it trains kids to become adults who take work home from their jobs,” she says.
A Different Way
The debate over the efficacy of homework is not new. Nonetheless, the U.S. has a long way to go before consensus is reached.
Gin Langan, a mother and substitute teacher in Hayward, California, who is also an active member of the Bad Ass Teachers Association, is an outspoken critic of excessive homework. Nonetheless, she told Truthout that she is distressed by the lack of organizing on this issue.
“Many people are under the impression that homework is something that has to be done,” she begins. I talk to people about this all the time, and I always stress the social inequities in education. I speak about how inappropriate and ineffective it is for homework to be given in lower grades, and how difficult it is for kids who don’t have a quiet place to work. I discuss why we need to shift away from a white middle-class paradigm. But many parents have bought the line that homework is necessary for their kids to be competitive and get into a good college.”
Even worse, she says, in locales like Fremont, California, the district has mandated that homework be given in every grade, K-12, five nights a week.
Nevertheless, Langan believes that fact-based conversations about reducing or eliminating homework are the best way to chip away at the conventional wisdom.
Thankfully, she has the Duke University study and other research to draw on.
A white paper composed by Challenge Success, a California-based educational advocacy group, is one such resource. The paper, “Changing the Conversation about Homework from Quantity and Achievement to Quality and Engagement,” offers concrete recommendations for schools, school administrators and parents.
Teachers, the paper concludes, should assign work that students can do on their own, without adult intervention. Moreover, it argues, this work should be doable — not too easy, not too hard, and not too time-consuming — to give the students a sense of accomplishment. Furthermore, the paper suggests that instructors give students a clear overview of the assignment before they leave for the day, and try to focus as many assignments as possible on tasks that can’t be completed at school.
For example, the paper suggests having students conduct interviews that will later be used to compile oral histories or require them to collect soil samples or other materials for a science experiment. Lastly, they caution against busy work, recommend quarterly “no homework nights” for middle school and high school students, and support the elimination of summer and vacation assignments.
As for parents, the paper reminds them that different kids have different study and learning styles — and that they should not elevate one modality over another. To wit: kids who like to get their work done in one sitting immediately after school ends are not inherently superior to kids who prefer taking breaks, working to music, or completing tasks late at night. They also remind parents not to overschedule their children, hover over them, or do the work for them.
But the gold standard may still be the model developed by Finnish educators. There, 15-year-olds spend an average of 2.8 hours a week outside of class doing homework and typically use their free time to play team sports, read, volunteer or socialize with family and friends.