Kids are onto something: Homework might actually be bad

Do kids actually need homework? Even with increasing amounts of data, it's hard to know if homework is helping or hurting students.

When you’re a kid, your stance on homework is generally pretty simple: It’s the worst. When it comes to educators, parents, and school administrators, however, the topic gets a lot more complicated. 

Collective educational enthusiasm toward homework has ebbed and flowed throughout the 20th century in the US. School districts began abolishing homework in the ‘30s and ‘40s, only for it to come roaring back as the space race kicked off in the late ‘50s and drove a desire for sharper math and science skills. It fell out of fashion again during the Vietnam War era before it came back strong in the ‘80s.

As the country mostly transitions back to full-time, in-person schooling, the available research on homework and its efficacy is still messy at best. 

How much homework are kids doing?

There’s a fundamental issue at the very start of this discussion: we’re not entirely sure how much homework kids are actually doing. A 2019 Pew survey found that teens were spending considerably more time doing schoolwork at home than they had in the past—an hour a day, on average, compared to 44 minutes a decade ago and just 30 in the mid-1990s. 

But other data disagrees, instead suggesting that homework expansion primarily affects children in lower grades. But it’s worth noting that such arguments typically refer to data from more than a decade ago. 

How much homework are kids supposed to be doing?

Many schools subscribe to a “rule of thumb” that suggests students should get 10 minutes of homework for each grade level. So, first graders should get just 10 minutes of work to do at home while high schoolers should be cracking the books for up to two hours each night. 

This once served as the official guidance for educators from the National Education Association, as well as the National PTA. It also serves as the official homework policy for many school districts, even though the NEA’s outline of  the policy now leads to an error page. The National PTA also now relies on a less-specific resolution on homework which encourages districts and educators to focus on “quality over quantity.”

The PTA’s resolution effectively sums up the current dominant perspective on homework. “The National PTA and its constituent associations advocate that teachers, schools, and districts follow evidence-based guidelines regarding the use of homework assignments and its impact on children’s lives and family interactions.”

Even with these well-known standards, a study from researchers at Brown University, Brandeis University, Rhode Island College, Dean College, the Children’s National Medical Center, and the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology, found that younger children were still getting more than the recommended amount of homework by two or three times. First and second graders were doing roughly 30 minutes of homework every night. 

Does homework make kids smarter?

In the mid-2000s, a Duke researcher named Harris Cooper led up one of the most comprehensive looks at homework efficacy to-date. The research set out to explore the perceived correlation between homework and achievement. The results weren’t very impressive; Cooper reported “No strong evidence was found for an association between the homework–achievement link and the outcome measure (grades as opposed to standardized tests) or the subject matter (reading as opposed to math).” 

The paper does suggest that the correlation strengthens after 7th grade—but it’s likely not a causal relationship. In an interview with the NEA, Cooper explains, “It’s also worth noting that these correlations with older students are likely caused, not only by homework helping achievement, but also by kids who have higher achievement levels doing more homework.”

A 2012 study looked at more than 18,000 10th-grade students and concluded that increasing homework loads could be the result of too much material with insufficient instructional time in the classroom. “The overflow typically results in more homework assignments,” the lead researcher said in a statement from the University. “However, students spending more time on something that is not easy to understand or needs to be explained by a teacher does not help these students learn and, in fact, may confuse them.”

Even in that case, however, the research provided somewhat conflicting results that are hard to reconcile. While the study found a positive association between time spent on homework and scores on standardized tests, students who did homework didn’t generally get better grades than kids who didn’t. 

Can homework hurt kids?

It seems antithetical, but some research suggests that homework can actually hinder achievement and, in some cases, students’ overall health. 

A 2013 study looked at a sample of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper middle class communities. The results showed that “students who did more hours of homework experienced greater behavioral engagement in school but also more academic stress, physical health problems, and lack of balance in their lives.” And that’s in affluent districts. 

When you add economic inequity into the equation, homework’s prognosis looks even worse. Research suggests that increased homework can help widen the achievement gap between low-income and economically advantaged students; the latter group is more likely to have a safe and appropriate place to do schoolwork at night, as well as to have caregivers with the time and academic experience to encourage them to get it done. 

That doesn’t mean financially privileged kids are guaranteed to benefit from hours of worksheets and essays. Literature supporting homework often suggests that it gives parents an opportunity to participate in the educational process as well as monitor a child’s progress and learning. Opponents, however, contest that parental involvement can actually hurt achievement. A 2014 research survey showed that help from parents who have forgotten the material (or who never really understood it) can actually harm a student’s ability to learn. 

The digital homework divide

Access to reliable high-speed internet also presents an unfortunate opportunity for inequity when it comes to at-home learning. Even with COVID-era initiatives expanding programs to provide broadband to underserved areas, millions of households still lack access to fast, reliable internet

As more homework assignments migrate to online environments instead of paper, those students without reliable home internet have to make other arrangements to complete their assignments in school or somewhere else outside the home. 

How do we make homework work?

Some experts suggest decoupling homework from students’ overall grades. A 2009 paper suggests that, while homework can be an effective tool for monitoring progress, assigning a grade can actually undercut the main purpose of the work by encouraging students to focus on their scores instead of mastering the material. The study recommends nuanced feedback instead of numbered grades to keep the emphasis on learning—which has the added benefit of minimizing consequences for kids with tougher at-home circumstances. 

Making homework more useful for kids may also come down to picking the right types of assignments. There’s a well-worn concept in psychology known as the spacing effect, which suggests it’s easier to learn material revisited several times in short bursts rather than during long study sessions. This supports the idea that shorter assignments can be more beneficial than heavy workloads. 
Many homework opponents add that at-home assignments should appeal to a child’s innate curiosity. It’s easy to find anecdotal evidence from educators who have stopped assigning homework only to find that their students end up participating in more self-guided learning. As kids head back into physical school buildings, the homework debate will no doubt continue on. Hopefully, the research will go with it.

Stan Horaczek

Stan Horaczekis the senior gear editor at Popular Science and Popular Photography. His past bylines include Rolling Stone, Engadget, Men's Journal, GQ, and just about any other publication that has ever written about gadgets. For a short time, he even wrote the gadget page for Every Day With Rachel Ray magazine. He collects vintage cameras, eats pizza, and hopes you won't go looking at his Tweets even though the link is down there.