HOUSTON (AP) — On paper, it looked like second-grader Rocco Phillips only had about 30 minutes of homework each night, but add in all the time lost to stalling, squirming and distractions, and it really took the Katy Independent School District student two or three hours.
The Houston Chronicle reports it also gave his dad, Justin Phillips, the unfortunate role of “nagger in chief” on weeknights.
“It’s not just that he’s tired — it’s frayed nerves for all of us,” Phillips said. “It’s time to get to bed, but he hasn’t finished homework and needs to get it done. It happens four days a week.”
This coming school year, Rocco and his father may have a few more enjoyable evenings as the Katy ISD embedded six no homework “family nights” in its 2017-2018 calendar — a rare move pleasing parents and students by a school district trying to balance academic progress with students’ emotional and social well-being.
Schools and districts across the country are taking a second look at the amount of homework they assign as parents complain that students are overworked and stressed out by increasingly demanding course loads.
A second-grade teacher in Godley, near Fort Worth, made national headlines last year after she told parents she would not assign homework, asking instead that parents eat, read, play and bond with their children during after-school time.
In Florida’s Marion County, elementary school students will not be assigned traditional homework during the coming school year. Instead, teachers will ask students to read a book of their choosing for 20 minutes each night.
Experts almost universally agree that high-quality homework helps boost academic performance, but the research becomes mixed when discussing how much homework is right and whether it benefits younger students as much.
Katy Superintendent Lance Hindt said a handful of schools had been toying with family nights and that students lobbied hard to make them district-wide events.
“Family engagement is really important for us in Katy ISD,” Hindt said. “We do a lot in our buildings, but we thought why not extend out of the buildings into the community?”
While it’s a start, Phillips said six days a year is not enough to make a meaningful difference in his time with his now third-grade son, rising first-grade daughter and two younger children.
“It’s a joke,” Phillips said. “When I saw it I thought, ‘Really? Oh that’s great, maybe it will be once a week.’ In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have the type of homework we have now.”
Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University who has studied homework for more than a decade, said a good rule-of-thumb is the 10-minute rule: Multiply the student’s grade level by 10, and that’s how many minutes they should spend doing homework. That would mean third-graders should get about 30 minutes, and sophomores in high school should have about 100 minutes’ worth.
“Homework is like medicine — if you take the right amount it will help you get better,” Cooper said. “If you don’t take it, it won’t help at all, and if you take too much, you can get sick.”
Cooper said nightly homework should take most students no more than two hours to complete. And while homework is good practice for elementary schoolers, he said it often doesn’t make much difference in their day-to-day academic performances. Instead, simple homework assignments serve a larger purpose for younger children: help students learn to self-study and manage their time and tasks after school. Those softer skills will serve those students well in years to come, Cooper said.
Such skills also serve college-bound high school students, like those at Houston ISD’s Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy. Principal DeLesa O’Dell Thomas said her students need homework each night so they can practice time management and studying before they head to college. No homework nights simply would not work, she said.
“When you think about what we’re doing, we’re conditioning girls for college, getting them into that mindset,” Thomas said. “You and I both know if we don’t read or study before class, we won’t be prepared for what the professor discusses.”
She said that’s especially true of subjects such as mathematics and foreign languages, but her teachers are careful not to overload students with mountains of busy work.
But in Phillips’ ideal world, homework — at least for elementary school students — would become a thing of the past.
“I would like to go home and enjoy time with my kids, eat dinner, go outside and play,” Phillips said. “Now I’m just the father’s who’s gone at work, and when he shows up, he nags his kids to death over homework.”
Hindt acknowledged that six nights out of a 176-day student academic year is not a large reprieve but does not anticipate more than six no-homework “family nights” in future calendars.
“We’re probably going to stick with the one designation per six weeks because these kids are in school and homework is important, practice is important,” Hindt said, adding he’d be open to conversations about adding more family nights. “I’ve had a couple of superintendent buddies call me and say ‘Oh come on,’ because now they’ve got more pressure to do it, too.”