At the start of the 2013-14 school year, the Fentress County School District in Tennessee announced that it would enforce a district-wide ban on graded homework assignments.
Administrators explained their decision by pointing to the large majority of students who lacked at-home resources to help them with their homework. Anywhere between 65%-75% of each school’s student body qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, so it was decided that students should not be singled out for failing to adequately complete take-home assignments.
“We don’t want kids to be unfairly penalized for their work because they don’t have the resources or support they need at home,” explained Randy Clark, Fentress County Schools’ Curriculum and Instruction Supervisor. “Our new motto for assignments is ‘review and preview.”
That means that homework in the district now constitutes an ungraded review or preview of current course work that’s the students’ responsibility to independently complete. Spelling words, vocabulary practice, and study guides for testing all fall under this purview.
The Great Homework Debate
Some educators aren’t fans of the new policy. Tammy Linder, a sixth grade teacher at Allardt Elementary School, is one of them.
“Students have not had that daily homework practice in any subject that keeps the concepts ‘alive’ and moving in their brains, so that means that much of the practice time and teaching time and testing time had to come during the class time each day,” Linder says.
Still, other districts across the country are taking second looks at the practice. The principal of Gaithersburg Elementary in Maryland decided to ask students to spend only 30 minutes in the evening reading. The decision was reached out of the realization that worksheets and other assignments had been assigned merely out of a sense of obligation to dole our homework to students.
Across the country, parents, teachers, and students are also voicing their opinions in the homework debate. On the issue of the actual educational value of homework, it may seem straightforward to many educators that reviewing lessons and practicing concepts after school would correlate to a greater retention of course material, but studies suggest that the link between assigned homework and academic achievement is drastically overinflated.
Researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education found in a 2012 study that math and science homework didn’t correlate to better student grades, but it did lead to better performances on standardized tests. And when homework is assigned, the help provided by parents often mitigated any of the positive effects of the work. Critics of this type of parental involvement say it can be counterproductive because parents may assume too great a role and/or may not fully understand the lessons being taught.
In April, Denise Pope, a researcher at Stanford University, found that too much homework can negatively affect kids by increasing stress and sleep deprivation and generally leaving less time for family, friends, and activities. According to Pope, homework should not be simply assigned as a routine practice.
“Rather, any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development.”
Video: Do Students Really Have Too Much Homework?
No Homework the New Norm?
“There are simply no compelling data to justify the practice of making kids work what amounts to a second shift when they get home from a full day of school,” says Alfie Kohn, an expert on child education, parenting, and human behavior, as well as the author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.
Should schools then assign less homework or at least reevaluate what they assign? No, says Kohn, school shouldn’t assign any homework. Teachers who do assign it need to have a very compelling reason for extending a student’s school day.
“My general suggestion is to change the default: No homework should be the norm,” Kohn says, “Six hours of academics is enough—except on those occasions when teachers can show strong reason to infringe on family time and make these particular students do more of this particular schoolwork.”
Still, homework is so ingrained in the fabric of schooling that studies revealing its minimal positive benefits have been largely shrugged off or ignored altogether. For most educators, completely cutting homework out of schools isn’t a viable alternative – at least not yet. And many, if not most, teachers are unconvinced that gutting homework from their repertoire of learning tools is the best idea anyway.
Tammy Linder says that teachers haven’t had the amount of teaching time they usually need to enforce classroom lessons and concepts. With the heavy focus on standardized testing already in schools, losing precious out-of-school homework time drastically diminishes how long teachers can devote to thoroughly covering a given subject, as well as the depth and amount of topics they can cover in a school year.
“I have calculated that I have averaged only two to three ‘teaching’ days per week, depending upon re-teaching for those hard to conquer standards and testing,” Linder says. “My students have not covered as much material as students in the past have because of these factors. Nightly practice of any concept keeps the brain engaged in the topic and helps the student focus.”
Karen Spychala, a teacher in San Jose, believes homework has value, but is concerned about its potential to consume too much time outside the school day.
“Homework has its place: to practice skills and most importantly to involve families in their child’s learning” Spychala explains. “But too much homework that takes over everyone’s lives should never happen. There should be agreed upon standard homework times per grade level.”
Are there ways to deemphasize the overreliance on standard homework assignments and allow students to learn through other conducive means?
One option is changing the paradigm of assigned homework to infuse hands-on, student-led engagement with class lessons as a way of piquing student interest in the material. And instead of simply limiting homework to the teacher/student/parent sphere, allowing students the opportunity to show off exceptional homework to a larger audience can give them a further incentive to put in their best effort.
Angela Downing, an elementary school teacher in Newton, Massachusetts, has found great success in displaying excellent student homework on the walls inside and outside of her classroom. By doing so, homework becomes disassociated from the standard teacher-student relationship and gains a whole new level of importance that draws students into the assignment.
“This practice sends the message to students that their work and their learning are important and valued,” Downing says. “Students take special care to do their best work when they know that the final piece will be displayed in the hall or on the classroom bulletin board.”
But for Bonnie Stone, an elementary school teacher in Tulsa, too much homework is too much homework. She saw the impact on her own children and vowed to curtail what she assigned her students.
“As a result of their experience, I vowed never to assign more than 30 minutes of outside reading enrichment for my students,” Stone recalls. “They work hard in class all day. After that, they need to be kids and teens. And I’ve seen no change in the achievement level of my students since I stopped assigning homework.”
A Q&A with Thierry Karsenti, Canada Research Chair in technologies in education, on why we should hold off on banning homework.
The usefulness and effectiveness of homework is a question that comes around at the start of every school year. Some Québec school boards have gone so far as to abolish it, a move viewed with regret by Thierry Karsenti, professor of education sciences at the Université de Montréal. Dr. Karsenti, holder of the Canada Research Chair in technologies in education, reviewed 300 studies on the question. He chose just over 200 for his book entitled Homework: What the research says (Original title in French: Les devoirs : ce que dit la recherche les stratégies gagnantes, l’impact des technologies), which aims at providing a better understanding of the issue in order to help teachers, parents and students make homework “a positive, beneficial experience,” the author told University Affairs.
University Affairs: Why did you take an interest in the homework question?
ThierryKarsenti: It’s currently a hot topic. Students don’t like homework, and parents see it as a source of conflict at home. Teachers don’t quite know where to stand – we often forget, but homework can saddle teachers with an excessive workload.
Several school boards in Québec have come out against homework, claiming that it doesn’t help students to succeed. But is it possible that more work is not good for success? We asked ourselves the question, and we wanted to get to the bottom of the matter, to find out whether or not homework has an impact on success. We also wanted to understand all the nuances surrounding the question of school homework.
What conclusions did you come to? Is homework beneficial?
T.K.: Overall, homework does have a positive impact on success. When we separate primary from secondary school, homework becomes one of the factors that has the greatest impact on kids’ success. In one of the larger meta-analyses on the subject, the author, John Hattie, talks of a 0.64 fact impact in high school. To simplify, homework explains about 46 percent of academic success in high school; that’s a lot. In primary school, the connection is much weaker, but it’s still positive. Some media have misinterpreted this finding: Hattie did not say that the impact of homework in primary school was negative, or zero; he said that the impact was “around zero.” But “around zero” does not mean “negative ”! And to be able to do homework in high school, students have to have had some practice, and that’s why it’s important to start homework in primary school.
This is why we wanted to undertake this research. It must be remembered that the guidelines we provide are not to be taken as absolute rules. Teachers’ discernment must come into play. Nevertheless, these studies are important because they provide what we call conclusive data. But both teachers and parents need to understand that “conclusive data” is not always synonymous with irrefutable proof – particularly in human sciences. So we have to find a balance between the data and teachers’ practical knowledge.
Most people ask, “Is homework good, or isn’t it?” We say: that’s not the right question to ask! Homework is good, but it depends on the type, how it is given, and how long it takes.
How can homework be beneficial?
T.K: We isolated a dozen factors that are especially important if students are to get the full benefit from their homework. For example, homework must not take too much time, and it must be neither too easy nor too difficult. In addition, social differences must not be highlighted: if we set work that is too difficult, only the most advantaged children, those who have the greatest resources at home, will be able to do it. We have to give homework where children, and not parents, are really in charge of the work (which is not the case when the exercise is too complex). Homework has to motivate children, by giving them choices, by making them feel more competent, which ultimately favours success.
There are also other positive elements to homework. Homework allows teachers to create links with parents, to establish a connection between school and home, and it helps students become more organized. Some improve by collaborating with other students – an important skill to develop, and one which will be useful in secondary school, at CÉGEP and at university.
How do you explain that a country like Finland, where children do practically no homework, can have such a high success rate?
T.K: Let’s be clear, Finland has never abolished homework. In addition, students in difficulty must participate in remediation, which can be seen as a form of homework.
In your view, what would be the “ideal” quantity or type of homework?
T.K: This is something that is very complex to determine, but we have designed a table giving time guidelines. Incidentally, a lot of the guidelines were inspired by Finland! These are not rules or laws, but guidelines: the art of teaching, of setting homework, cannot be ruled by research. Research must serve as a reference point to inform practice. So our table is designed to counter the fact that some teachers give much too much (or too little) homework: in grade 5, some students have two hours of homework to do in the evening! This is far too much: research shows that homework that is too time-consuming has a demotivating effect that will transfer onto everything connected with school. In our table, for example, we recommend 30 minutes of homework in grade 6, and not necessarily every evening.
What do you say to critics who assert that it would be better to replace homework with a short period of study or reading?
T.K:The term “homework” covers a number of things: homework, lessons – they’re the same thing. A short reading period at home is homework! There are a great many studies to show that in primary school, academic success is closely tied to reading. French is the exam with the lowest success rate in Québec; in math, 30 to 35 percent of the mark can be explained by comprehension of the wording. Not enough reading is done at school, so we must read at home. In short, homework is school work that we do at home.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.