The Homework Debate: What It Means for Lower Schools

Janet, parent of third grader Zach, is in my office at the San Diego Jewish Academy (CA) lower school. The conversation turns—as it so often does—to homework. “I feel like I am chasing him down every night,” she says. “I’ve tried everything, but it always turns into a battle.”
Having spent nearly two decades as a lower school principal, I have heard this lament time and again. Homework is causing conflict and eroding time for other activities such as reading, outdoor play, family dinner, extracurriculars, and sleep. A practice that often runs on autopilot is compromising the well-being of young children and their families.
Does homework prepare students for middle school and beyond? To create a better policy that centers on student needs, faculty members and I decided to investigate the value of homework. We reviewed scholarly research on the effects of homework, as well as several popular articles addressing both sides of the homework debate. With some direct consultation and guidance from researchers Harris Cooper and John Hattie, together we crafted an approach that translates research into practice.

Digging through the Research

The question of homework’s effect on student achievement has been studied for years. Hattie, professor of education and director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, has compiled the largest body of educational research on the subject to date. He has found that homework has a more positive effect on student achievement at the middle and high school levels. In the elementary grades, however, there is little to no correlation between homework and performance. Also, the positive effects of homework are negatively related to the length of time spent on homework. In other words, for all grade levels, shorter is better.
In a 2006 meta-analysis of research on homework, Harris Cooper, Duke University psychology professor, provides corroboration: “There is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.” Denise Pope, senior lecturer at the Stanford School of Education, and co-authors state in a 2013 study published in The Journal of Experimental Education: “Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is inherently good.” According to a 2015 Obesity Society article, homework is linked to negative outcomes, including stress, weight gain, lowered immune system defenses, poor cognitive performance, and negative attitudes about school.
Meanwhile, according to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s meta-analysis, the daily amount a child reads independently is positively linked to higher-order literacy skills and long-term academic success. And there are activities that promote academic performance and wellness simultaneously: physical exercise (60 minutes per day); proper sleep (10–11 hours a night for young children); shared family meals (three or more per week); and time to explore talents, interests, and passions. 

Home Learning Replaces Homework

Learning should be at the heart of everything we do, yet the word is absent in homework. So, with research in hand at San Diego Jewish Academy, we began our overhaul of traditional homework practices by giving it a new name: “home learning.” This inspires us to think intentionally about promoting student learning in thoughtful, research-based, and developmentally appropriate ways.
Hefty weekly math packets used to be the norm and often eliminated time for healthy, academically beneficial activities. With home learning, our focus is now on nightly reading for 20 minutes. For our youngest students, this means reading with a parent. Occasionally, we recommend extra learning activities such as math games or tying shoes. We ask parents to limit these activities to no more than 10 minutes for kindergarten through second grade and 20 minutes for third through fifth grades.

What We’ve Learned

Most parents at our school welcomed the switch and felt an immediate sense of relief. I received numerous positive emails with comments such as “Thank you for letting our kids be kids a little longer!” and “You have given our family our evenings back.” We did hit a few bumps along the way. These are some of the lessons we’ve learned and still keep top of mind.
Communicate the plan. At Back-to-School Night, teachers need to be well-prepared to explain the new policy and to field numerous questions about it—including from the few parents who don’t agree. We had to be very clear that home learning does not mean no homework. Reading is required, along with anything else that the teacher deems necessary.
Be prepared to customize. There will inevitably be a handful of parents who want suggestions for activities to do at home or who want the traditional math packet. As much as parents may not like homework, it provides some structure and gives them a peek at what their child is learning. When some parents started to feel out of the loop, we began to share curriculum plans and updates through weekly emails, our learning management system, and apps such as Seesaw, which showcases student portfolios.   
Anticipate questions. Parents will want to know how children will learn time-management and study skills. We made sure to implement a more structured study-skills curriculum in fifth grade and mandated the use of student planners in third through fifth grade. There are a few deadline-driven projects during the year for the lower school, and teachers work closely with students to stay on track.
Establish assessments. Be prepared to discuss the variety of ongoing assessments teachers use and how they are a better evaluation of independent mastery. Parents were concerned that teachers wouldn’t know how their child was doing without having homework. This gave us the opportunity to explain the many assessments that teachers use (observation, discussion, exit tickets, unit tests, etc.) that provide a wealth of information about each child’s learning. Homework was never a good source of information about student learning because it so often involves parent assistance.
Keep communicating. During our first year of implementation, and as questions arose, the need for ongoing communication was high. I held several “coffee talks,” one-on-one parent meetings, and wrote newsletter articles. As we enter the fourth year of implementation, it is critical that we continue to re-norm and realign with our entire faculty to ensure consistency and to avoid sliding back to old habits.
We are mindful about the impact of our programmatic decisions, particularly on enrollment. Our academic scores have continued to climb. In 2018, three years after implementation of home learning, the lower school was designated as a National Blue Ribbon School. Our K–5 enrollment has grown by 12%, and prospective parents consistently inquire about our homework approach.
While schools can’t eliminate every stressor in children’s lives, homework is well within our sphere of control. Rethinking homework in all grades, and especially in the lower grades, is critical and timely work. For our school, it has been a powerful means for enhancing the mental, physical, and emotional health and wellness of children as well as the quality of family life.
For another look at how a school revamped its homework protocol, check out the Independent School article “Trend Lines: How Important Is Homework?
Kelley King

Kelley King retired in 2021 as the associate head of school and head of lower school at San Diego Jewish Academy in San Diego, California. She is the author of three books in the field of education and provides professional development to educators around the world.