Dear Highlights Podcast: Do Kids Have Too Much Homework?
In this Dear Highlights podcast, Christine French Cully, Highlights Editor-in-Chief, and Hillary Bates, Director of Purpose and Impact, talk with Dr. Harris Cooper about the effectiveness of homework and establishing positive habits and attitudes related to homework.
Christine starts the conversation by asking Dr. Harris what kind of student he was growing up. She enquires about whether he reliably did his homework or if he was more likely to shirk off his assignments.
Dr. Cooper doesn’t hesitate to say that it wasn’t an option in his house growing up about whether he’d do his homework. His parents made sure they had a good relationship with his teachers and knew what was happening in the classroom and what was expected from him when it came to homework. He explains that he was studious and did his homework right after school so he could play outside.
It might not come as a surprise that Dr. Cooper dedicated his career to studying the value of homework, but Christine is curious about the reasoning for this career choice. Dr. Cooper gives several reasons:
- There’s a lot of controversy related to homework and its effectiveness.
- There’s a lot of research related to homework that required a deeper dive to understand.
- There was a professional and personal relevance since his wife was a third-grade teacher, and they had children who would soon be receiving homework assignments themselves.
Kids who do homework in the second grade do better than kids who don’t, but the magnitude of achievement won’t be as great as it will as they progress through school.
He says people in his field kept saying, “homework is one of these areas that is a confusing mess in the research literature,” and he knew he needed to help shed light on how homework plays into overall school success.
Hillary notes that homework demands vary by school and communities across the country. She asks about how much homework kids are doing in elementary school.
Dr. Cooper explains there’s a lot of variability, but in general, teachers use the “10-minute rule.” This rule says that you take a child’s grade level, multiply it by 10 and that’s how many minutes that student should spend on homework assignments per night (e.g., a second grader would have about 20 minutes of homework a night). Dr. Cooper says, however, that some students might have more, some might have less, and some might have no homework at all.
Given the variability in theories around homework and the varying amount of time spent on it, Christine asks, “What do we know about the impact of homework on learning for elementary school students? How does affect their attitudes about school?” She points out that “even if it’s 10 minutes, we can hear a lot of complaining from parents and kids because it can impact their time together.”
Dr. Cooper acknowledges the concern about too much homework being assigned to young children. But it’s important to distinguish between the time commitment with what it does for kids. For elementary school kids, homework isn’t going to demonstrate an immediate impact on a child’s learning. For example, Dr. Cooper notes, kids who do homework in the second grade do better than kids who don’t, but the magnitude of achievement won’t be as great as it will as they progress through school.
He notes there are a couple of key elements to homework and its effectiveness:
- Scaffolding—Homework lays the foundation for learning that will assist kids as they get older. Even young students can learn the discipline of doing homework (i.e., when to do it, when to ask questions, etc.).
- Attitude—The attitude toward homework is often a reflection of their parent’s attitude and sometimes the parent’s relationship with the teacher. If a child sees parents and teachers as a team, there’s a respect for assignments and what is expected of students.
Dr. Cooper also notes a few other hallmarks of changes in a child’s achievement related to homework:
- expressing individual attitudes
- valuing education
- establishing good habits
Beyond attitudes about and commitment to homework from a student’s perspective, Dr. Cooper shares the importance of parents building a solid relationship with teachers because teachers are often “the first agent in society who will interact with parents in an evaluative way.”
He explains that it’s natural for parents to feel defensive or skeptical when a teacher recommends their child be evaluated for something like dyslexia or other issues that might be affecting their learning. Dr. Cooper says parents will tell him they didn’t realize their child might have a learning difficulty, until they started bringing home homework, and then they realize the teacher was right.
Hillary thanks Dr. Cooper for bringing up the topic of learning differences. She shares that she, like Dr. Cooper, always did her homework and was a very successful student. In a way, she notes, “homework was a way to have another experience of success at home.” She explains that now she has one child who is similar to how she was in school—successful and enjoys the challenges of learning—but she also has a neurodivergent child who has opened her eyes to what homework means when a student has difficulty with school tasks.
She asks whether there’s research about the effects of homework on kids who have learning difficulties or kids who have other school struggles. She wonders if homework extends that struggle into home life and interactions with their parents.
Dr. Cooper explains there was such a study, and it showed that kids who are having difficulties in the classroom, it’s important for the parents and teachers to do “just more of the same.” He explains this typically means using what works in the classroom and bringing it home, such as
- Children having less homework.
- Parents being more vigilant.
- Teachers being sensitive to levels of difficulty.
When thinking about homework in the early grades, the best recommendation, Dr. Cooper shares, is assignments should be short and simple.
Homework doesn’t serve the child well if they’re struggling and having altercations with parents.
Hillary shifts the conversation to how we’re in a historic moment for education. She stresses how kids “have experienced so much disruption over the last few years, and our institutions have yet to wrestle with how far behind kids are.” She explains there’s a lot of pressure both at home and at school with how we’re going to help kids catch up.
She asks Dr. Cooper about how homework can play a role getting kids caught up. If homework isn’t for new learning but for reinforcing success, how should we think about homework helping kids in the current situation?
Dr. Cooper says it’s an interesting topic because for about a year and a half, “school became homework.” New techniques emerged to help kids study at home, and kids learned new technologies at an accelerated pace. He shares one thing that worries him, though: educators might use homework to speed up learning. That’s not the purpose of homework. This is especially troublesome, he stresses, if homework crowds out other things that were missing during COVID lockdowns—playing with friends, organized sports, volunteer opportunities, etc.
He suggests an alternative to using homework to help kids catch up by turning to the school by noting educators can
- Extend the school year.
- Improve summer learning opportunities.
Christine thanks Dr. Cooper for explaining how much time kids should be spending on homework, and she asks about the types of homework tasks that have the most benefit.
Dr. Cooper says it depends on the subject matter, but there are three elements to consider for primary school children:
- Practice—for primary school kids, practice is key because it reinforces foundational ideas.
- Preparation—these tasks reinforce lessons, but go a step further to see if the student can use the skills they’ve learned to figure out a new concept (e.g., a homework assignment in adding two-digit numbers, but the last question is about adding three-digit numbers).
- Communication—it’s essential for parents and children to talk to one another about assignments.
Hillary notes that most parents are sensitive to how difficult teaching has been the last couple of years, and some parents have shared that they don’t want to bug teachers. However, she notes homework is a great way to connect with a teacher. Dr. Cooper agrees.
He says it’s good to open the conversation with acknowledging how much you appreciate what a teacher does and how hard the job is. It’s essential for parents to let a teachers know they want to be part of a team and have open lines of communication about what’s happening in the classroom and at home because sometimes assignments and expectations might not make sense.
Dr. Cooper provides two examples about the importance parent-teacher communication from when his daughter was in middle school. In one example, his daughter was coloring a calendar for Spanish class, and it wasn’t clear to him why coloring would help his daughter learn Spanish. The teacher explained that as the students spend time coloring, they’re seeing the months and days in Spanish and that helps to learn and remember that vocabulary.
In the other example, his daughter was reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which she had already read in fourth grade. Dr. Cooper called his daughter’s fourth grade teacher to ask why she was rereading the book in seventh grade. The fourth-grade teacher explained that in seventh grade they’re learning about allegory. Using a familiar story helps students grasp the new literary concept easier. If he hadn’t talked with the teachers, he might have projected his skepticism onto his daughter and that could’ve influenced her dedication to the assignments.
However, it’s not just about parents keeping the lines of communication open, Dr. Cooper notes, it’s important for teachers to communicate about what’s happening and going to happen in the classroom as well so information flows both ways.
Christine shares her gratitude for teachers and the work they do. She says she tutored virtually during the COVID lockdown and just how challenging and difficult it was. It really showed her “just how much relationships factor into a solid teacher-parent-student bond.”
Christine ends the podcast with asking the same question she asks every guest, “At Highlights, one of our core beliefs is that children are the world’s most important people. What would we do differently in school if we truly cherished and believed that children were worthy of our most loving and thoughtful attention.”
Dr. Cooper responds with one simple word: Money. He explains, “It’s shameful how little of our wealth is spent on our children. We could solve so many problems for the coming generations simply by giving them the economic attention they need. Putting money into the education system is paramount, but also into resources for families who are struggling themselves economically.” He notes that this economic help isn’t just for families with children, but also those who do not have children because “the best way to serve the next generation is by rearranging our priorities, particularly where we as a society put our wealth.” He finishes with a final thought on ensuring school success: “We need to be together and be in it together.”
For 75 years, Highlights’ magazine has received thousands of letters and email from kids every year, and we answer every single one. ‘Dear Highlights’ has always served as a way to help ease children’s concerns and help encourage them to become their best selves. In so doing, we’ve sustained an ongoing, authentic dialogue with kids that has deepened our understanding of their worries and fears, as well as their hopes and dreams. Our goal of the’ Dear Highlights’ podcast is to elevate the voices of children from these letters and help parents raise kids to be curious, creative, caring, and confident.