The Battle Over Homework
Last night we held parent/teacher conferences at our elementary school. I’ve been a principal at three different elementary schools over the past 13 years, and before that I was a classroom teacher for 18 years. Homework has always been a hot topic at parent/teacher conferences, and last night was no exception. Homework is an emotional issue, but emotion peaks when it is time to review student progress, celebrate the child, and set new goals. Why is homework–the tasks that are assigned to students by teachers that are intended to be completed during non-school hours–such a point of controversy? Harris Cooper (2007) explains:
Homework is a source of complaint and friction between home and school more often than any other teaching activity. Parents protest that assignments are too long or too short, too hard or too easy, and too ambiguous. Teachers complain about a lack of training, a lack of time to prepare effective assignments, and a lack of support from parents and administrators. Students gripe about the time homework takes from their leisure activities, if they understand its value at all. (p. ix)
Cooper (2007) concisely nailed the controversy over homework with his book title: The Battle Over Homework. There are many battles over homework raging in schools everywhere—battles in a real sense that precious resources of time, people, and money are directed towards homework—battles in the sense that there are many front-line casualties in relation to homework: parent casualities, student casualities, and teacher casualities.
Parents may become casualties in the battle over homework.
Because of work responsibilities, some parents honestly do not have time to help their children with homework. When families are in survival mode, the responsibility for homework completion is left entirely to the child. Many single parents struggle to balance work and family responsibilities, including finding time to help children with homework. Some parents do not speak English so they are unable to help with homework.
Some parents value after-school hours for family chores, for dance and music lessons and practice, for accelerated sports team participation or community sports and recreation, for gymnastics, for martial arts, for drama, for swim team—all sorts of activities to develop the whole child. Parents work to balance time spent on homework with extra curricular activities and family responsibilities.
There are some parents who may not value education for themselves or for their children. They are less likely to support and encourage homework completion by their children. But even when parents want to help their children with homework, they may not have the content knowledge or necessary skills to do this. I have had parents tell me that they are not able to help their children with math, for example, after 3rd or 4th grade because they themselves don’t understand the concepts. So what happens in junior high and high school? Parents who want to help, but don’t know how, often experience frustration over their children’s homework and become disenfranchised from school, thus becoming a casualty of homework.
Teachers may become casualties in the batle over homework.
Teachers often struggle with the idea of how much and what type of homework they should assign. Conflict can result that affects working relationships when members within a team have differing opinions about homework. When teachers value and assign homework, they often battle within themselves over the time it takes to give effective feedback to students. They struggle with how to motivate students to complete the work and how to respond when they don’t. They are conflicted about if, how, and what to grade and how to manage record keeping and reporting to students and parents. Teachers may become discouraged in the battle over homework as they work to positively impact student learning, while keeping the peace with all stake holders (students, parents, administration, and other teachers).
Students may become casualties in the battle over homework.
Increased student learning is the expected outcome from assigned homework. In addition to increased learning, students, even at an early age, can learn responsibility through completion of assigned homework. However, there are situations where homework actually hinders student growth and development. The old adage that “practice makes perfect” in reality should state “practice makes permanent.” If students do not receive guidance or corrective feedback on homework, they may practice the wrong answer, the wrong idea, the wrong application-- until it becomes permanent and then must be “unlearned.” Students may learn mediocrity when homework goes uninspected. If minimal effort, inaccurate answers, or sloppy work remain unchecked, poor habits are nurtured. When “zeros” are permitted for homework not completed or turned in, students learn they do not have to be accountable. A decrease in student motivation, self-esteem, work ethic, and responsibility may be unintended consequences of assigned homework. Frustration grows to disillusionment when students need help with homework and cannot find that help at home or at school. The goal of increased student learning may be ambushed when homework conditions are not right.
Optimal homework conditions promote student learning.
The charge for thoughtful, dedicated teachers and school leaders is to minimize–no, eliminate–casualties in the battle over homework by paying attention to key principles of effective homework.
Tips for Teachers
- Purpose - The purpose of homework should be for practice and preparation of previously taught skills. Avoid homework assignments on content which has not been previously taught or introduced. Unfinished class assignments become homework so that students are prepared for the next lesson.
- Time - Research suggests the right amount of homework is about 10 minutes per grade (10 minutes for 1st grade, 20 for second grade, and so forth). At our school we add home reading and math fact practice on top of this. Don’t overload kids with homework; it can ruin motivation.The NEA/PTA publication gives these homework guidelines:
- 10-20 minutes per day for students in grades K-2
- 30-60 minutes per day for students in grades 3-6
- In junior and senior high school the amount of homework will vary by subject.
- Training - Cooper (2007) found that training parents of elementary students can have a positive impact on higher rates of homework completion, fewer homework problems, and improved academic performance.
- Procedures - In Harry Wong’s (1998) First Days of School, he details the importance of teaching students procedures for submitting homework, procedures for labeling name and class period on all homework and assignments, as well as procedures that will be followed by teachers in returning student work and providing feedback. Assignments must be clear and precise with a consistent and familiar format that students can recognize as their homework. Tell students precisely what you want accomplished, then give them procedures to help them do it.
- Difficulty - Intersperse easy and hard problems throughout an assignment.
- Choice - Consider giving students choices and varying assignments according to students’ learning styles.
- Frequency - More frequent shorter assignments are better than fewer but longer assignments.
- Feedback - Do not grade or comment on every homework assignment, but still look for indicators of students’ learning difficulties or misconceptions even if the homework is not graded.
- Policy - Consider a school-wide homework policy that communicates to parents and students increasing homework expectations as students move from one grade to the next. The policy should include information on where students can go to receive help with homework.
- Completion - Make homework meaningful with a purpose; avoid redundancy and busy work. Then make homework required–not optional. Homework is optional if there is no consequence for uncompleted homework. Homework is optional if zeros are permitted. Create a system of support where students are required to complete the work. At our school, if a student comes unprepared today, there is an immediate consequence so that students do not get more than one day behind: loss of privilege, referral to skills class to complete the work during a lesser essential instructional block.
Cooper, H. (2007). The battle over homework: Common ground for administrators, teachers, and parents. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Wong, H.K. & Wong, R.T. (1998). The first days of school: How to be an effective teacher. Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications, Inc.