I’ve worked in hundreds of schools over the years. Most for very short periods of time, some much longer. But one thing has been almost universally true: any group of kids larger than one has had different needs across different subjects.
In elementary school, even with the rise of departmentalization in the intermediate grades, most teachers teach most kids in more than one subject area. These folks see a lot of academic diversity.
Some kids seem to be good at everything. Many are far behind across the curriculum. All have different combinations of strengths and weaknesses. Teachers need all the flexibility they can get—including the flexibility to assign homework—in order to leverage kids’ unique interests and tie those interests to classroom work.
What the Research Says
I’ve read in respectable media sources that research in support of the “no-homework” movement is clear. But after reading a few studies, things get murky. At best, results are mixed. At worst, the most important things about homework seem not to have been studied at all.
However, according to Dr. Harris Cooper, former chairman of the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, one thing is clear in the battle over homework: “…research is consistent with the notion that homework can be a good thing if the dose is appropriate to the student’s age or developmental level.”
Who’s Researching the Research?
I see three reasons why the research on homework probably isn’t as good as it should be:
- Most teachers give the same homework to all kids. This isn’t a problem with homework, it’s a problem with homework selection. Giving kids with different needs the same homework doesn’t make sense, but this is the most common practice studied.
- Most homework isn’t tied directly to class work. Often, what comes home is busy work. This is the piling on of miscellaneous assignments in an attempt to appear rigorous. If homework isn’t tied explicitly to in-class work, how can its effectiveness be measured?
- Well-intentioned, but misinformed, parents render homework less effective by doing it for their kids. Many parents feel it is not only their obligation but their right to do their kids’ homework—most often in the elementary grades. I don’t think this issue has been studied nearly enough, but it could explain why homework seems to be less effective in elementary school than in middle and high school.
Even the most ambitious meta-studies on homework don’t account sufficiently for these realities. Things being what they are, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that “no-homework” policies are based on good research.
Calling the Research Into Question
After years of experience creating successful homework systems in hundreds of classrooms, I have three questions whose answers aren’t apparent in the research yet seem vital to a better understanding of homework effectiveness:
- Has any study presented results on student-selected approaches to homework?
- Has any study presented results on differentiated homework?
- Has any study presented results on any successful homework systems?
When questions as obvious as these remain not just unanswered but also unstudied, we haven’t yet done the “homework” on homework.
But Wait, It Gets Worse
Less advanced kids need more learning time during a given school year to reach levels of proficiency equal to those of more advanced kids. There’s definitely good research to support this idea. In my judgment, this turns “no-homework” policies into a more controversial issue than homework itself because of questions like these:
- Why aren’t teachers choosing appropriate homework for kids who are more than a year behind in reading, writing or math?
- Why is it fair to curtail homework for all kids when less advantaged kids and second language-learners need more time to get better at basic skills—and we know exactly who those kids are and what skills they need help with?
- Why is it a good idea to have a policy that discourages our most ambitious learners from doing additional work they might enjoy doing at home?
I understand why people are so excited about “no-homework” policies. Most kids don’t like homework, and most adults didn’t like it when they were kids. But the same can be said of school itself, and we’re not giving that up.
Innovative approaches to homework can and do exist. They just aren’t acknowledged. Education is complicated and t anyone who’s been in it for any length of time has probably learned at least one lesson: Never say never. This goes for homework, too.