Trend Lines: How Important Is Homework?

Winter 2019

By Alison Baran

Homework has been a deeply rooted feature of the primary and secondary education system for well over a century. And it’s an extremely divisive topic—homework seems to be considered either all good or all bad. There’s no in-between.

Throughout the 20th century, the debate about homework seemed to be guided by cultural and political pressures. During the early 1900s, the emphasis for work outside of school was placed on rote tasks such as memorization of multiplication tables. In the 1940s, leading education scholars, primarily progressive ones, pursued a campaign to abolish homework, maintaining that it caused more harm than good to both children and their families. On the flip side, with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 and the suggestion that a lack of homework was to blame for our country’s education difficulties, homework was ramped up.

Recently, however, a number of schools and school districts have decided to take a hard look at their homework policies, particularly at the elementary level. In Marion County, Florida, the superintendent of schools, Heidi Maier, made the decision to ban homework for elementary-age children, citing a lack of research about any benefits. Instead, Maier focused on having students read for a certain period of time outside of school. At Farley Elementary School in Stony Point, New York, two fifth-graders recently petitioned their school district asking to do away with homework for reasons related to stress.

Despite how this conversation heats up and goes away, homework continues to be ingrained in the culture of schooling, and with a few exceptions, educators and parents rarely call it into question. Research has attempted to argue homework on its merits: When does it work, when doesn’t it, what is the case for and against standard homework practices? But, any way it’s examined, homework has been and continues to be viewed as a statement about how to raise healthy, educated children.

Doing Our Homework

The readings about both the historical role of homework in American education and more recent research make it clear that at the national level, there is limited evidence to support the claim that homework bolsters student achievement or the development of work habits—especially during the elementary years. According to Harris Cooper in The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents, “…correlational studies suggest the homework-achievement link for children on broader measures of achievement appears to be weak; in fact, it borders on trivial.” The belief that we, as a society, have in the effectiveness of homework seems to be a matter of a sense of security rather than legitimacy.

One issue that re-emerges in examining the existing research on homework is that what we, as teachers, ask our students to do should not be based on unexamined practices. It is striking to consider the fact that homework is the only major part of schooling that occurs away from our view. We assign it with the hope that tasks will take a certain period of time, that they will be completed efficiently and accurately, and then turned in when due. But homework has the capacity to create significant amounts of stress—not just for students, but for caretakers, too.

And it is not just those students with learning differences who grapple with how to manage their lives outside of school. What about children who arrive home alone, who have working parents or guardians, and are expected to not only tend to household responsibilities, but then are also asked to independently make their way through what might be a challenging assignment? Or the dedicated student musician or athlete for whom several hours of practice might be not only obligatory, but also be satisfying and essential to their identity?

In her book Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, Cathy Vatterott argues that the model for homework has not been, and is not, sustainable for students: “Inherent in the old paradigm are the assumptions that all students can do the work (not all of them can), that all students have the time to do the work (not all of them do), and that students should take as much time as is necessary to do the work (not all of them will).”

A Sign of the Times

At The Park School of Baltimore (MD), lower, middle, and upper school teachers and administrators have wrestled with the issues associated with homework through their own divisional lenses. In 2011, our school’s health team created a “Blueprint for Health Education” to clarify how each division was engaging in social, emotional, and ethical learning. In addition, our faculty and administration watched and discussed the documentary Race To Nowhere. This film calls into question how we prepare children to be successful and looks at homework as a contributing factor in the stress level of students. At Park School, we knew that homework contributed to some degree of student stress and that it was incumbent on us to ask questions.

In the summer of 2016, we were given the opportunity to explore this further when we received funding through our professional development program, the F. Parvin Sharpless Faculty and Curricular Advancement program. A cross-divisional group of teachers examined the current research around homework (see “Readings and Resources” at end of article). Discussions continue to take place today. Some of our teachers from the upper school history and English departments have reduced the amount of reading they assign, at least one middle school teacher has stopped giving writing assignments as homework, and the lower school developed a Homework Philosophy statement to guide it.
We believe in homework that is meaningful, purposeful, and designed to meet students' needs. In lower school, we assign homework that supports and extends classroom learning, strengthens the home-school relationship, and forges connections between classroom learning and the greater world.

What we’ve learned so far is that when it comes to homework, we cannot practice a one-size-fits-all approach. It has always been our default to assign homework, but what would happen if we conducted an experiment? What if not giving homework became our default setting? What if we asked ourselves: Is there a specific reason that this homework assignment is necessary? Then maybe we could truly be mindful of our students’ lives outside of school, and put the learning and well-being of students first.

Take 10

As part of their professional development, faculty members at The Park School of Baltimore (MD) explored the role that homework plays at their school. They built the following guidelines, which serve as a tool for teachers to create a new model for assigning homework.
  1. Children have the right to playtime, extracurricular activities, downtime, and adequate sleep.
  2. Teachers should assign homework with a clear sense of why it is being given.
  3. The purpose of the homework assignment should be articulated to the students, including the fact that a certain task might be a challenge. Research shows that when children know why they are doing the homework, they are more engaged and inspired.
  4. Tasks should be personally relevant to students and should allow for choices. Children are motivated when they have ownership in their learning.
  5. Over the course of time, the kinds of homework should vary depending on what is happening in class.
  6. Homework assignments better serve students when they feel competent and confident with the material being assigned.
  7. Children deserve feedback about the homework that they have completed.
  8. Teachers should differentiate for individual needs across all grade levels. This might mean adjusting number of math facts, amount of reading, etc.
  9. Parents have the right to control their child’s time outside of school without being judged.
  10. If you have doubts about whether the assignment will further learning, consider that the default might be to have no homework, or think about conducting an experiment of not doing homework for a set period of time.

Readings & Resources

Alison Baran

Alison Baran is a fourth grade teacher at The Park School of Baltimore in Maryland. She’s also the lower school new faculty coordinator.