Kindergarten has taken some getting used to for Walker Sheppard, who didn’t attend preschool or day care. Besides all the new rules to remember, there’s a new nightly routine: homework.
“We spend anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour on it,” said Michael Sheppard, Walker’s dad.
When the 5-year-old comes home every day, Sheppard said, his son is tired and not ready to sit down and figure out his assignments.
“He doesn’t like it,” said Sheppard, who lives in Pulaski, Va. “The first week he went to school he asked us why he was having to do schoolwork at home.”
That’s a question a lot of parents are asking, especially when it comes to the youngest pupils. Studies by researchers including Harris Cooper, a Duke University psychology and neuroscience professor who wrote The Battle Over Homework, have consistently shown that homework has minimal academic benefits for children in the early-elementary years.
Instead, both the National Education Association and the National PTA endorse Cooper’s so-called 10-minute rule, which calls for roughly 10 minutes of homework a night per grade level beginning in 1st grade. So children in 2nd grade would have 20 minutes, those in 3rd grade would have 30 minutes, and so on. In high school, students may exceed that recommendation depending on the difficulty of the courses they choose.
Those guidelines don’t even mention kindergarten. But that’s not stopping educators in many places from assigning homework.
Delilah Orti said that every Monday her daughter, Mia, a kindergartner last year in the Miami-Dade Public Schools system in Florida, received a homework packet with about 25 worksheets that were due at the end of that week.
Orti said the packet included work on phonics, spelling, reading comprehension, and social studies. She describes her daughter as a quick learner who was already reading in kindergarten but still needed her help with word problems and science worksheets.
“She could read the words, but she had no idea what they meant,” said Orti.
Orti said Mia spent 30 minutes reading every night and an hour on the packet.
“I felt that it was inappropriate for that age,” said Orti. “What she was getting for homework was more busywork. I don’t think she was getting anything out of it and I think it was way too much.”
But such concerns aren’t shared by administrators or parents at Arlington Traditional School, a countywide elementary school in Arlington, Va., with a waiting list of parents eager for their children to attend.
Kindergartners there are expected to do 30 minutes of homework a night, Monday through Thursday.
Every student at the school is expected to spend 15 minutes reading a night. For kindergartners who can’t read yet, that means their parents are expected to read to them. The other 15 minutes is spent doing things like dictating a story to their parents using words that start with a sound they’ve been learning in class or exercises that involve circling that letter.
“We feel that this is a connection that we want with parents,” said Holly Hawthorne, the school’s principal. “We want them to know what their children are learning at school, we want them to know how they’re doing in school, if the work is too hard, if it’s too easy, we want them to be able to support what the kids are learning at school at home as well.”
Still, some kindergarten teachers remain firm in their opposition to mandatory homework.
Barbara Knapp used to assign her kindergarten pupils at Bradley Elementary School in Corralitos, Calif., weekly homework packets. But that all changed 10 years ago during the Great Recession.
“Teachers were only given two reams of paper a month at my school, so we were forced to cut back,” said Knapp.
She and some of her colleagues at the school located about 90 miles south of San Francisco decided a good way to do that would be to eliminate those homework packets. During that time, she said, she started to research homework and found the case against it for young elementary pupils very compelling.
“The research showed that there was no correlation between school success and the traditional paper-pencil homework in kindergarten,” said Knapp, who has 19 years of classroom-teaching experience.
When she was assigning homework, Knapp said parents sometimes complained that it was frustrating for their children. Other times, it was obvious the parents had done the work rather than the child.
Now, Knapp only assigns nightly reading of her pupils’ choice, a move that she credits with making them better readers. She adds that she hasn’t seen any deterioration in other skills since she eliminated traditional homework, and she’s been able to spend more time on lesson preparation rather than grading homework.
“It’s been great not having to focus on homework,” said Knapp. “Putting together the packet, running them all off, grading them all, it was a huge amount of time that was being taken instead of us planning really wonderful, rich, in-class lessons. Homework took away a lot of planning time for just a bunch of busywork.”
Risk of ‘Busywork’ vs. Parental Bonding
Cathy Vatterott is no fan of busywork at any grade level and doesn’t think homework should be part of kindergarten. She’s a professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the author of Rethinking Homework. “There’s enough of an adjustment for young children in kindergarten without throwing in homework,” said Vatterott.
And she worries that adjusting to school routines combined with homework could turn off young students to learning.
“I want to make sure that they don’t hate school,” said Vatterott, who noted that young children learn best through play.
She also points to a 2016 University of Virginia study, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” which found that kindergarten in 2010 was more like the 1st grade of the late 1990s. Vatterott says she’s concerned that children who aren’t developmentally ready for this work might “internalize that they’re not smart or that they’re not good at school.”
But keeping the bond strong between home and school is one of the reasons that Duke researcher Cooper doesn’t mind homework for pupils in kindergarten, with a few caveats.
“The assignments need to be short, simple, and lead to success,” said Cooper. “We don’t want young children to get frustrated with homework. We don’t want them to get bored, and we don’t want them to begin thinking that schoolwork is too difficult for them so that they begin to develop a self-image of not being a good student.”
Finding a Balance
Some kindergarten teachers are embracing short, unique assignments for their pupils that don’t involve worksheets.
Shannon Brescher Shea’s son’s kindergarten teacher provides a list of activities the children can do at home if they choose. The activities ask them, for instance, to draw a picture of what they did over the weekend or collect and count a handful of leaves by ones.
Shea says after visiting her son’s classroom in suburban Rockville, Md., and seeing how much work he does, she’s even more against the idea of mandatory homework for children in kindergarten.
“They are going through so much energy and so much focus at school already and exerting so much self-control that to then have these kids come home and do homework on top of that is a recipe for them not wanting to go to school and not enjoying learning,” said Shea.
Jennifer Craven’s daughter is also in kindergarten this year, and she said so far the young girl has been asked to “practice tying shoes, practice writing her name, and read two books each night.”
Craven, who lives in Meadville, Pa., a city about 90 miles from Pittsburgh, said her family would be doing these activities anyway, and for now, her daughter thinks homework is fun.
“I think this is very age appropriate and I don’t mind the use of the term ‘homework’ at this age, as they will realize what real homework is soon enough,” said Craven.
Michael Sheppard talked to his son’s teacher in Pulaski about the homework she assigns. He said the 30-year classroom veteran acted like it was out of her hands.
Sheppard, 42, who attended school in the same district as his son, Walker, said he didn’t have to deal with homework until well after kindergarten.
“Maybe there should be homework,” said Sheppard. “I just think it would be better starting at 3rd grade.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as Kindergarten Homework Debate: Too Much Too Soon?