Is homework a necessary evil?

7 Apr

For many students and parents who are high achievers, homework is a pressing issues. Peter Dewitt’s Education Week article, The Homework Debate outlines the issues:

Homework, if given at all, needs to be engaging for a student. If the student is the only one completing it at home, then it should certainly be student-centered because that will increase the likelihood that it will get done at all. The point, however, is to not give students something to do at night as busy work, because they can find their own engaging activities which can be more important to their development than homework.

Things to Remember:

  • The same homework assignment can take a short or long period to complete depending on the ability of the student
  • Not all home environments are conducive for completing homework
  • Students who struggle in school will continue to struggle on homework. The magic of a higher reading ability or math ability doesn’t happen when they walk in their house
  • Just because the teacher or parent had homework when they were younger doesn’t mean the students have to have homework as well. If educators want students to change with the times, their assignments have to change with the times as well.
  • Test prep should never be given for homework. It’s boring and sends the message that all the school thinks about is achieving high marks on a test.
  • Sometimes parents want to help their children with homework but may not know the “right” way or newest way of doing it, which could be counterproductive to getting it done correctly.

Vicki Abeles’ film “Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture” examined the pressure to succeed among certain populations of students and families.    

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post argued in his article, Why ‘Race to Nowhere’ documentary is wrong:

Some students and families overdo AP. Abeles is right to point that out. But AP, like the college pressure that concerns her, is concentrated in only a few places. My annual Challenge Index rankings, moving this year from Newsweek to, show that only 7 percent of high schools have AP participation rates higher than what would be achieved with only half of juniors and half of seniors taking just one AP course and test a year. The vast majority of high schools do far less.

Abeles says that low-income students still suffer from academic pressure because of a narrow focus on testing and lessons irrelevant to their lives. The urban high school teachers I know go to great lengths to be relevant and wish more students would worry at least a bit about exams. But like most American teens, those urban students can get by without doing much, and so do just that.

Abeles says she wants more authentic learning and imaginative teaching. That is the approach taken by imaginative urban educators like Deborah Meier, but it still requires significant homework.

Meier’s teachers assigned about 10 hours of studying beyond class time at her Central Park East Secondary School. If too much homework is, as the film says, a national problem, then don’t we have to conclude that it was wrong for Meier to insist her kids do so much more than what seems to be the national average of no more than an hour a night?

There are certain populations of children who will benefit from homework assignments.

Kenneth Goldberg, a clinical psychologist with 35 years of professional experience, the author of “The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers.” has written a Washington Post article about homework. In The homework trap and what to do about it Goldberg writes:

We know that people don’t spend large amounts of time engaging in tasks they do not do well. Yet, homework-trapped children are made to struggle for hours on end to get everything done. These children would be far better off if they were asked to work for a fixed amount of time (perhaps 10 minutes per night per grade) than to fall into an abyss of working all night to get every worksheet done.

The child, who is forced to keep on working without boundaries, will predictably learn how to avoid. Excessive homework pressures teach children to lie, forget, argue, and procrastinate. This eventually brings in the child study team, not to deal with learning problems, but because the child’s behavior has been bad. With that, the child may get sent to a different class or an alternative school where, voila, homework is no longer required. It’s an odd turn of events that these homework trapped children, who could have succeeded with some homework relief, only get that relief after they’ve acted out.

Because of this, I offer three very simple adjustments that are crucial for homework-trapped children, and which, frankly, I think should be policy for all. They are:

1. Time-bound homework. Just like school starts and stops by the clock, define homework as a fixed period of time. See what the child can do in a reasonable amount of time and work with that child on using the time well.

2. Reduced penalties. Zeros factored in 25 percent of the grade is too harsh of a penalty to alter behavior. Lesser consequences will prove more effective in both mobilizing the child and allowing the parent to approach the issue calmly.

3. Respect lines of authority. Teachers are in charge of their classrooms. Parents should tread lightly when it comes to telling them what to do. Parents are the people in charge of their homes; teachers should not tell parents how to organize their homes. Ultimately, when decisions are to be made about behaviors in the home (i.e. homework), the parent needs to be the one with the final say.

I am aware of the controversy over how much homework children should get. It’s an important debate but not the one I’m concerned with today. I’ll leave that to teachers, the experts in education, to figure out what makes the most sense. But in developing their models, it is critical for teachers to understand that homework assignments are using borrowed ground. Homework requires the tacit permission of the parents to allow it in their homes. While most parents will support the school in what it asks, they also need the power to withdraw that permission, if needed, without consequence to their child’s education.

Education is quite often a one-size-fits-all approach. Each population of children is different and education strategies MUST be designed to address the needs of the child. For some children whose backgrounds are not as enriched as others; it may mean homework is necessary to bring them up to grade level. Education programs must be tailored to the needs of each child.

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

3 Responses to “Is homework a necessary evil?”


  1. Getting real about homework « drwilda - September 9, 2012

    […] […]

  2. Indiana University study: Homework doesn’t improve grades « drwilda - November 17, 2012

    […] Is homework a necessary evil?                                 […]

  3. Brookings study: Homework amount consistent, people complaining more | drwilda - March 18, 2014

    […] […]

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