School is done and it’s summer vacation so why am I writing about homework? Because a lot of other people are too.
A recent article in the New York Times about principal supported efforts to decrease homework generated more than 500 comments. An article in the Los Angeles Times about a new policy to reduce how much homework contributes to grades garnered more than 400 comments. And an episode of Forum on National Public Radio focusing on “Rethinking Homework” produced 50 written comments in addition to numerous calls and emails while airing.
The titles and tones of these editorials highlight the continuing debate regarding the value of homework and its role in fostering children’s achievement.
Homework is part of the daily routine for most school-aged children. As traditionally envisioned, homework provides an opportunity for students to review material and practice concepts that have been learned in the classroom. In theory, homework also serves as a bridge between home and school and reinforces the complementary roles of parents and teachers in educating children.
Theories are lovely aren’t they? (In theory, that is.)
When I wrote my doctoral dissertation on enhancing parent involvement in homework over a decade ago, I described homework as an area where the spheres of home and school overlap. Now collide might be a more apt description.
Unfortunately, like so many other aspects of education, homework has become a source of opposition. Children vs. parents. Parents vs. teachers. Teachers vs. administrators. Pick a side. Pick a stance. Pick a subject.
What happened to homework?
First homework was good. Homework was touted as a way to enhance achievement and parent involvement – particularly for children from low income families. It had the potential to help improve grades and decrease the achievement gap. It was a way to keep parents informed about and involved in what children are learning at school. And so, teachers gave more homework.
Then homework was bad. It was a source of anxiety for children and parents alike. It kept children from playing, exercising, sleeping, and eating. It wasn’t the golden ticket to educational equity and success after all. And so, parents demanded less homework.
But the achievement gap persists. Teachers assert they don’t have enough time
to adequately cover material during the school day. Reports on how poorly students in the United States are performing on standardized tests abound. And many parents still want their well-rounded, well-rested, well-adjusted children to get the high grades and SAT scores deemed necessary for admission to an ivy league college.
Maybe homework is just misunderstood.
We are so invested in investing that we demand the biggest bang for our buck. We want transparency and accountability. (I’m sure you haven’t heard those phrases enough lately…) We want conclusive evidence that if our children are required to do homework it will lead to beneficial outcomes – higher grades, higher test scores, higher admission rates to Harvard.
Well surprise, it doesn’t. And how could it? When has a worksheet of math problems ever been that powerful?
So does homework help or hurt? And what exactly does it help or hurt?
Alas homework is not only hard to do, it’s hard to do research on. Homework assignments and practices vary within and across schools and are inherently difficult to examine, isolate, and compare. The nature of homework also shifts as children progress through school.
Despite the complexities research has shown a positive link between homework and achievement, although this relationship is stronger for children in grades 7 – 12. Homework is also related to higher scores on tests administered at the end of a class unit on a particular topic for children across grade levels.
However, even Harris Cooper - one of the most esteemed researchers in the field - acknowledges the importance considering how homework impacts non-academic outcomes. (No article on homework could be complete without a reference to Harris Cooper. And if you want to talk about homework and don’t know of him, well then you haven’t done your homework).
Homework has the potential to promote study skills, self-management and discipline, and problem-solving. Homework also strengthens the connection between home and school, and facilitates parent involvement. When parents and teachers are consistent in the messages and methods they use to foster learning, children do better. Children whose parents are more involved in their education show higher school attendance, grades, and test scores, as well as increased self-esteem, improved behavior, and more positive attitudes toward school.
Yet the most valuable aspect of homework may be teaching children that learning doesn’t stop once you leave school. There isn’t enough time in a day (let alone a six hour school day) to teach children everything about everything. There is always a word to look up. A math fact to master. A topic to research. A new place to discover. There is always an opportunity to learn more.
And learning is most meaningful when it put it into context. Counting change at the grocery store is a useful way to develop math skills. Writing a letter to a relative is a great way to build writing skills. Reading a book is still the mosteffective way I know of to foster reading skills (and it comes with the benefits of increasing vocabulary, comprehension, and knowledge about the world).
Besides homework is a part of life for most people and most professions. Isn’t that why everyone everywhere is always on a Blackberry or iPhone? Hasn’t the boundary between home and work become obsolete?
Instead of razing homework, let’s renovate. The narrow definition of homework we continue to rely on isn’t going to help educate our children. We are creating a generation that can complete a worksheet and take standardized test, but don’t have the tools necessary to solve real problems. The answers to those questions are rarely limited to A, B, or C. And almost never involve a number two pencil.
The world we live in is increasingly complex and to be successful in school and in life, children need to be literate in the broadest sense of the word. They need to be proficient readers, and writers, and mathematicians. But they also need to be adept at problem-solving and critical thinking, as well as possess social-emotional skills such as self-awareness and empathy.
We can’t give our children all the answers – we can’t even anticipate all the questions they will encounter. The best we can do is give them the competence and confidence to find the solutions.
And hope they recognize when to ask for help with their homework.
About this blog
Michelle Albright is a psychologist who has worked with schools across the country to develop, implement, and evaluate programs to promote children’s socia-emotional health and academic achievement. She is a Weston resident and the director of Albright Educational Consulting (www.albrighteducationalconsulting.com).