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Exploring the “No Homework” Versus “Better Homework” Debate

Michael Nutter

March 7, 2019

Amid swirling controversy over its utility, many school districts are opting to eliminate homework. But is homework really the problem, or just how schools have traditionally approached it?

The debate over homework’s value — or lack thereof — is almost as old as the concept of homework itself. All the way back in 1900, Ladies Home Journal Editor Edward Bok published an article bemoaning the evils of homework entitled, “A National Crime at the Feet of Parents.” Since then, the controversy has only grown more heated as widening socioeconomic disparities and evolving standardized testing requirements have entered the debate.

The arguments in favor of homework are clear: it reinforces at-school learning, gives young students an opportunity to practice study skills, and offers parents a window into what their children are learning at school. But does it actually do any of those things effectively? And if so, is it worth the time it takes away from playing, pleasure reading, and extracurricular activities?

Homework’s opponents would argue, “No” — and their voices are growing increasingly louder and more prominent. Homework, they say, drives an ever-expanding wedge between poor students whose parents might work multiple jobs and affluent students whose parents have the time and educational background to help them. Further, they argue, homework doesn’t actually achieve its ostensible goal: improving student outcomes.

These arguments have convinced many teachers, schools, and school districts to eliminate homework altogether. Some are opting to assign nightly reading instead, while others are simply encouraging students to spend more time playing, sleeping, or enjoying their family’s company. But when schools do away with homework, are they throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

The Problem with Homework

Homework naysayers are right about one thing: homework doesn’t help students improve their academic performance in a meaningful way. According to a new study from the Center for American Progress (CAP), however, this problem isn’t endemic to homework as such. Rather, homework’s ineffectiveness can be blamed on the way schools and teachers have traditionally conceptualized, created, and assigned take-home work.

The CAP report arrived at three key findings. First, it found that most homework is closely aligned with the Common Core standards. Relatedly, it found that homework is often focused exclusively on building low-level Common Core skills. Finally — and against the backdrop of its second finding, unsurprisingly — it found that homework frequently fails to challenge students.

“While…there was significant alignment between Common Core and the topics represented in the homework studied, most of the assignments were fairly rote and often did not require students to demonstrate the full depth of knowledge required by the content standards,” the study states. Further, nearly half of the parents included in the study’s survey reported that homework is too easy for their child.

For instance, according to the study, only 11 percent of the assignments comprising students’ math homework ask students to demonstrate high-level understanding, while 36 of the Common Core math standards require such competency.

When Homework Works

America’s existing homework system is clearly broken, but tossing it out altogether likely isn’t the best way to fix it. Though homework opponents sometimes argue that at-home assignments favor kids from affluent homes who are more likely to have a quiet space to work, an internet-connected computer, and highly-educated parents, research actually shows the opposite.

Indeed, not assigning homework (or assigning only ineffective homework) can amplify affluent students’ advantages. Students from poorer and less-educated families are in greater need of the academic boost effective homework can provide, as unlike their better-off peers, they’re not likely to acquire academic knowledge at home.

A study from the University of North Carolina (UNC) confirms this. Upon noticing that black and Hispanic students were failing her course more often than white students, a UNC professor began to give homework assignments that required students to quiz themselves without peeking at their notes. Performance increased for all students, but the gap between black and white students was halved, and the gap between Hispanic and white students closed completely.

It’s clear that homework isn’t entirely without value, but for it to be worthwhile, it needs to be made far more effective than it is now. That will require educating teachers about the kinds of homework that actually work, but rethinking how homework has been done for decades is no easy task.

Overhauling a district’s approach to homework takes resources, which is where Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform becomes invaluable. CheckPoint is both easier to use and more accurate than traditional spreadsheet-based EMIS reporting — many of our clients are shocked to discover the amount of funding EMIS reporting errors have cost them in the past. With CheckPoint, you can ensure your district has all the funding it needs to provide students with the best possible homework — and, by extension, the best possible learning outcomes.

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