Think back to your kid self, and consider the news this week that a Kip’s Bay, New York elementary school has stopped assigning traditional homework. The majority of us, as our kid selves, would probably have rejoiced at this news. Yet, the announcement has infuriated members of the school community and is fueling several different debates, mainly that around the intrinsic value of homework.
What is Good about Homework?
Like many of the arguments we are engaged in today around education, one of the strongest defenses seems to be based on attachment to a paradigm that this is just the way it has always been. Think of how radical the concept of flipped classrooms seemed when that first came out. That being said, the most common arguments for maintaining homework as a standard component of the school experience are that it:
- Improves learning. Reviewing the day’s work or prepping for the next day’s in-class activities can reinforce the learning objectives of a particular class.
- Improves performance on testing. Practicing test-taking strategies and increased familiarity with the test questions and content can improve test scores.
- Teaches discipline, responsibility, and time management. Remember the family pediatrician’s advice to set aside a dedicated work area?
- Fosters the relationship between teacher and student. An assignment that gets handed in not only helps the teacher see more closely how the student is doing but can also become an instrument for communication between teacher and student.
- Keeps parents informed of what the child is learning and what is happening at school. Setting aside time to review homework with a child provides a birds-eye view of what the child is learning in school. This can also foster the relationship between parents and children.
What are the Arguments against Homework?
Much of the dispute over homework rests in the desire to separate school time from family or home life and to provide more time for free play and activities of a child’s choosing. A thorough article in neaToday last spring highlighted some specific objections.
- Homework can be a barrier to social equality. The theory here is that the economic gap between rich and poor translates to fewer resources at home for the latter and therefore diminished ability to complete homework accurately or at all. This was an argument that French President François Hollande made a few years ago as part of his education agenda.
- Contrary to the above, some studies show that “the help of parents often mitigated any of the positive effects of the work” meaning parents are either doing too much of the work or not doing it well (or both).
- Additionally, the researchers above found that math and science homework did not correlate to better grades but did to better performance on standardized tests. So, for these researchers, it’s not necessarily a matter of homework or no homework, but what type of homework is most valuable to what end.
- Others, like Alfie Kohn, child education expert and author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, argue that “There are simply no compelling data to justify the practice of making kids work what amounts to a second shift when they get home from a full day of school.”
- This meshes with arguments by Denise Pope, a researcher at Stanford University, who found that too much homework can increase stress and sleep deprivation. Kids need more time for other activities, including family and friends.
The discussion around more play and less work transcends homework and is relevant to the broader discussion here as well. With kids spending so much time on test prep, instructional time is lost, and in some schools, this translates to decreased or no recess time at all. There’s an oft-quoted piece on this in the Atlantic that lays out some of the issues around “All Work and No Play.”
Should We Eliminate Homework or Not?
Jane Hsu is the principal at P.S. 116, the New York school that has changed its homework policy and wrought the ire of many of the parent body in her school. In an article in DNAinfo, Hsu is quoted as stating that there is “no link between elementary school homework and success in school.” The revised policy replaces traditional homework with “opportunities for students to engage in activities that research has proven to benefit academic and social-emotional success in the elementary grades.” This includes playtime, conversations with relatives and unstructured reading.
There are a couple of lessons here for all of us. It’s important to note that:
- Hsu is not proposing eliminating homework altogether. Instead she and her school leadership team are proposing an alternative that may start kids on the path to discipline and responsibility but through planned engagement with family members and free reading time.
- You can spend hours researching studies regarding the correlation between homework, grades and test scores and find varying results. The one thing that people do seem to agree on is if there is any correlation, it is stronger in the upper grades than in elementary school.
At the end of the day, it’s not just about homework. We do need to rethink the homework paradigm, and we need to think about it in the very challenging context of today’s public school system. Are we best serving our students by increasing stressors in school with excessive testing and at home with hours and hours of homework? We need to teach kids to think critically, work independently and together to solve problems, and to sort through the cacophony of information at their disposal.
Let’s make time at school more valuable by decreasing the amount of test-taking, de-emphasizing grades, and enabling kids to spend more time at home with family and friends, playing, learning, and building a repertoire of skills more in line with their personal interests.