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Image: A mother helps her daughter with homework
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Has your child started gearing up for this school year's homework demands?
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TODAY.com
updated 7/27/2012 8:56:01 AM ET 2012-07-27T12:56:01

It seems the smoke has barely cleared from those Fourth of July celebrations, but in many parts of the U.S., parents are trying to light fires under their kids in an effort to get them studying for the new school year.

Unfortunately, new research shows the amount of time kids clock in out of school may not pay off.

Kids who do more homework actually perform worse on standardized tests, according to research by Sydney University educational psychologist Richard Walker, author of the forthcoming book, Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policies.

Homework only boosts student scores in the final three years of high school, says Walker, and only these older high school students should be doing a couple of hours of homework a night. Younger students only benefit from small assignments, if they’re getting help at home.

But that's not the end of the homework hurdles.

High-achieving students who are swamped with homework can suffer from poor mental and physical health,says Stanford University professor Denise Pope.

In fact, findings consistently show that homework has very limited value in the elementary grades.

In response to this new research, many educators are acknowledging homework’s flaws (much to the delight of students, no doubt). Homework now only accounts for 10 percent of a student’s grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District. And other school districts state they expect high schoolers to spend only about 30 minutes of homework for each class.

Some schools are assigning even less.

Tera Maxwell’s three children -- ages 2, 5, and 8 -- don’t have any homework at the Montessori International Children’s House in Annapolis, Maryland.

“When you make homework mandatory, it becomes a chore, rather than a joyful activity,” she says.

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Other organizations -- such as the National PTA -- go with a policy supported by Duke University social psychologist Harris Cooper, who advises giving students about 10 minutes of homework each night, per grade level starting in first grade. According to Cooper's recommendation, a fifth grader would have about 50 minutes of homework per night.

While Cooper, author of The Battle over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents, has found homework at every grade level does improve test scores, too much can be detrimental.

How much is too much?

At the middle school level, students max out after 90 minutes, according to Cooper. High school students show diminishing returns somewhere between 90 minutes and two and a half hours. In elementary school, small take-home assignments may help form study habits.

Unfortunately, what may seem a ant-sized assignment to a biology teacher may come across as a whale of a project to a student in the class.

Research shows the majority of teachers underestimate the amount of homework they give by 50 percent, says Ann Dolin, author of Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools, and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework.

“That’s a huge discrepancy," she says.

Another problem for the homework fatigued? The home itself.

When kids are working in the classroom, they are usually quiet and focused, says Dolin. But at home, they are distracted by TV, siblings and other family responsibilities.

“Teachers base their homework load on what they see their students accomplishing in class," she says. "But often, this is far different than what goes on at home."

According to a survey by the U.S. Dept of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the majority of ninth graders spend less than three hours on homework or studying during a typical school day. But there’s a huge variation in the amount of homework students are doing, say experts.

“We have a whole lot of students who don’t do nearly enough homework at the high school level and we see a decent number of students who probably do too much homework at the other extreme,” says Jim Hull, a senior research analyst at the Center for Public Education.

At the Bay School in San Francisco, teachers not only limit the load they assign, they also carefully choose the types of assignments.

“That’s how you produce someone who is an expert,” says the school’s Academic Dean Andy Shaw, who says he tries help parents understand that more is not always better. “The idea that you might send your kid to school that gives less homework is a scary one. In our society, the amount of homework has become a proxy for rigor.”

He also points out that his students have more time to step away from their coursework to focus on other activities and become more well-rounded people.

“Time spent with family, constructing engineering projects, volunteering, or being involved in musical theater can end up changing a student’s life just as much as what goes in classroom,” he says.

Dawniel Patterson Winningham, mother of a 16-year-old son who plays football and two 14-year-old twin daughters who play basketball, says her teens are busy enough with their afterschool activities.

“I have seen them stay up as late as midnight trying to juggle both extracurriculars and homework,” says the Houston, Tex., mom.

Shaw says the importance of a teen’s sleep is one of the reasons behind the low-homework policy at his school.

“We can’t mandate a bedtime, but we’ve reduced the amount of homework so the students can get more sleep," he says. "That’s good for them physiologically and intellectually -- they perform better when they get more sleep.”

More of TODAY's Back to School guide:

Creative lunch ideas make food fun for kids

Anxiety allergy: Fear in the new school year

Former principal spills the real rules of back-to-school

Corey Binns writes about health, science, and social innovation for publications including Popular Science and the Stanford Social Innovation Review. You can follow her on Twitter @coreybinns

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Video: Help your child beat the back-to-school blues

  1. Transcript of: Help your child beat the back-to-school blues

    AL ROKER reporting: This morning on BACK TO SCHOOL TODAY , easing your kid's anxiety about starting a new school year, and maybe yours, as well. It can be hard to transition from summer fun to the hard work of the classroom. So how do you make it a little bit easier for your kids? Dr. Charles Sophy is a child psychiatrist and the author of " Side By Side ." Good to see you, Dr. Sophy .

    Dr. CHARLES SOPHY (Child Psychiatrist): Good morning. Nice to see you.

    ROKER: So our TODAY -- we asked folks on today.com, asking our viewers if they

    think their children are ready to return to school: 65 percent said yes, they're ready and excited; 35 percent said, no, it's going to be a tough transition. Those numbers surprise you?

    Dr. SOPHY: Well, they surprise me because I don't think parents are really aware that they think everyone's ready, but they're not ready themselves and they don't realize that. And that's really where the issue becomes.

    ROKER: Mm-hmm.

    Dr. SOPHY: Because mom and dad have to really get themselves together.

    ROKER: OK. So let's get started with some tips. First of all, for the parents, whatever you're feeling and whatever you project, their -- your kids are going to feel that.

    Dr. SOPHY: Totally. Because if you're anxious, you're not comfortable, your child isn't going to go from you. So oftentimes you'll see separation anxiety in younger children.

    ROKER: Mm-hmm.

    Dr. SOPHY: They're not going to want to leave you because they don't feel secure enough to leave you because you don't feel secure yourself.

    ROKER: So if you -- if you present a positive attitude about it.

    Dr. SOPHY: Absolutely. Let your child go freely, they go freely and enjoy it.

    ROKER: And it's not just little kids, though, too. I mean, kids getting ready to make that transition into middle school , high school or even college.

    Dr. SOPHY: Right. Absolutely. How does a parent feel with that separation and that child leaving is all about how they handle it so that that child can go again. If you have fears about your child entering a new school or a junior high or college, deal with those because your kid picks them up.

    ROKER: And one of the things you say to help is make sure you've got a schedule in place, for work, for their schoolwork, for meals.

    Dr. SOPHY: Absolutely. Yes, and homework.

    ROKER: And homework.

    Dr. SOPHY: The dreaded homework.

    ROKER: Yeah.

    Dr. SOPHY: So eating, sleeping, getting up at the right time, doing homework at the right time. But also with homework, it's really important to know how and where it's going to be done.

    ROKER: So you need to designate a space.

    Dr. SOPHY: You definitely need to designate a place. And you also need to know who's going to do it with your child .

    ROKER: Mm-hmm.

    Dr. SOPHY: How you're going to handle that so you're not dealing with a screaming, frustrated child at 8:00 at night.

    ROKER: Yeah. Absolutely. And there's no shame in admitting you probably -- you as a parent may need help helping them with their homework.

    Dr. SOPHY: Totally. And that's what the point is. Please look at yourself. Parenting begins with you.

    ROKER: That's right . OK. Well, you've got this great thing, it's the SWEEP list.

    Dr. SOPHY: Right.

    ROKER: S-W-E-E-P.

    Dr. SOPHY: Right.

    ROKER: Starting off with sleep.

    Dr. SOPHY: Right. These are five key areas that you've got to look at and if you keep them in balance between yourself and your family, you're fine. Sleeping, quality and quantity. We've got to go to sleep at the right time and we've got to sleep really, really deeply and good so you wake up.

    ROKER: Not just our -- not just our kids, but us, parents, as well.

    Dr. SOPHY: Absolutely. The whole house. Everybody's got to sleep and sleep well .

    ROKER: OK. Work and school .

    Dr. SOPHY: Work and school . Work is those eight hours of the day. How are they spent? Are they meaningful for your child ? Are they learning in school ? If they're not, figure that out. Don't waste those eight hours year after year after year. Figure it out. And for you, make sure you're happy at work.

    ROKER: Got to fuel the mind and the body, eat. Not just quality food, but the right quantities.

    Dr. SOPHY: Exactly. And together as family because you've got to be able to have a place where your kids can talk.

    ROKER: And speaking of talking, you talk about expression, emotional expression of self. Everybody's got to feel free to talk about what's going on.

    Dr. SOPHY: Absolutely. Because that's the time and the place where your child can talk about how they feel about bullying, if they're being pressured into something, Internet stuff, technology stuff, rules for your BlackBerrys , rules for the phones, on and off, that's the place where everybody can express their feelings, but safely.

    ROKER: But it's also important because each kid is different about where they're comfortable expressing that and at what time.

    Dr. SOPHY: Yes. Right. But the earlier you start with your child around a table or whatever mechanism...

    ROKER: Mm-hmm.

    Dr. SOPHY: ...the safer they feel and it becomes just a place where they do it.

    ROKER: And finally, the last part, make sure you play.

    Dr. SOPHY: You've got to play. You've got to play by yourself. You have to have hobbies, you have to have things you do as a family and you have to have things that you do as a couple and with your friends. Got to have fun.

    ROKER: All right. Dr. Charles Sophy , thanks so much.

    Dr. SOPHY: Thank you.

    ROKER: Appreciate it. Hopefully, school is a rocket place to go.

    Dr. SOPHY: I hope so.

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