A+ Advice for Parents

Students Must Apply Lessons in Classroom at Home to Succeed

Q: My husband and I argue about our kids' homework. The older they get, the more they have. He says it won't kill them, but it takes away from the family time I prize. What's the value of homework when some teachers don't even check it?

A: Educators have debated homework for decades with parents chiming in, pro and con. Some parents equate homework with academic rigor and want lots, while others decry the pressure it can add to family life.

Time spent on homework by elementary students has risen more than 50 percent since 1981, despite the fact that "no research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school," says educator Alfie Kohn, author of "The Homework Myth" (Da Capo Press, 2006).

Harris Cooper, a professor at Duke University, has studied the impact of homework for more than two decades. He believes there's a stronger positive correlation between the amount of homework and achievement for students in grades seven through 12 rather than in the early grades. He is a proponent of the "10 minutes per grade level" homework policy.

"All kids should be doing homework, but the amount and type should vary according to their developmental level and home circumstances," Cooper says. "Homework for young students should be short, lead to success without much struggle, occasionally involve parents and, when possible, use out-of-school activities that kids enjoy, such as their sports teams or high-interest reading."

Effective homework assignments can give students opportunities to practice and apply skills introduced in class, says University of Virginia professor Robert Tai, co-author of a 2012 study, "When Is Homework Worth the Time?"

"Students shouldn't spend hours every night poring over new material," he says.

Proponents of the "flipped classroom" see it differently. They point to emerging evidence from the online resource Flipped Learning Network, suggesting that when students are assigned teacher videos of new material and then discuss that material with teachers the following day, they retain the information more effectively.

No matter what the instructional model, students need opportunities to practice and apply new learning. There's not enough class time to nail all spelling words or a new math skill. Well-designed homework can make the learning "stick." This is one reason Kohn emphasizes "home work" -- activities that parents can do with kids to extend learning. This helps them understand how to use what they learn in school to make better sense of the world outside the classroom.

Family time in itself brings academic benefits. "There's data suggesting that when parents talk to children about school every day, read with them, play and eat dinner together, it can significantly boost grades," says Stephen Wallace, director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University.

"According to a large study by the University of Michigan," he adds, "family meals are the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems for children ages 3 to 12. When kids feel their parents' support and expectations at home, they are likely to rise to those expectations in school."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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