The following questions come from my own research and experience as a university professor and, more importantly – a father of five children.
Historically, there have been three basic arguments to justify homework. The first was the argument based on “character development,” the second was the argument based on “academic achievement,” and the third was the argument based on “parent involvement.”
The Character Development Justification for Homework
Historically, teachers believed that homework helped students develop strong moral character because the very act of completing homework required “responsibility,” “time management,” “independence” and “task completion.” Thus, homework fit nicely into the American ideal of rugged individualism and personal responsibility.
Unfortunately, there is no proof that homework develops or improves any of these traits of character. We do know, however, that children who are responsible, hard working, and manage their time well are the ones who get better grades in school and turn in better homework anyway. It isn’t because homework makes them more responsible and more capable of managing their time, it is the fact that they were raised to be more responsible, hard working, and more accountable for their time management in the first place.
Another way to look at this issue of “character development” as a justification for giving homework is to ask the schools the following:
1. Why does it take 13 years of giving homework to develop these character traits?
2. If a child demonstrates mastery of these character traits in February of his third year in school does he have to keep doing homework the rest of the year?
3. What kind of data does the school collect on my child to determine that he has mastered the necessary level of character considered sufficient to have homework reduced, stopped or perhaps, increased, if he is lacking in character?
4. Who keeps the data that is used to measure how effective homework is in developing these and other character traits for my child?
5. How and when were the data collected on my child to determine if he has met the necessary level of character development?
6. Is there any standardized test that my child can take to demonstrate that he has mastered the necessary level of character development to have homework waived?
7. Why do the schools have to begin giving homework in kindergarten and first grade, wouldn’t it be a good idea to begin giving homework, say perhaps, in the first year of high school. And perhaps only for the first semester?
8. If there are certain important character traits associated with homework, couldn’t they be better taught under the watchful and evaluative eye of the teacher in class?
9. Couldn’t time management, task completion, and independent/responsible behaviors related to learning and achievement be easily demonstrated and assessed in classroom activities?
10. If character is considered so important to success in life, why do schools leave it to be developed as a by-product of homework, especially since homework affects different children in different ways?
11. Has our district ever considered that homework might have a deleterious effect on character?
12. Do some types of homework undermine a child’s desire to work or complete tasks?
13. If one child believes that homework is a waste of time and another child loves homework, how does it influence the development of his character?
14. Are there any data that indicate which types of homework work best for gifted students? Special needs students? Or students in general education classes?
15. Are we to believe that all homework is equally beneficial to all types of students in the development of character traits?
16. Is there a list of homework assignments that are considered improper, harmful, or counter-productive to certain students?
17. Who was the last teacher or administrator in our school or district who designed a test or an instrument to measure the effectiveness of homework as a means of enhancing character development?
18. Where are the results of any test or instruments that our school or district uses to measure the effectiveness of homework for students or specific types of students?
19. Has our district ever investigated the differential effects of homework for children in different grade levels?
20. What data does our district keep on the actual amount of time our children spend doing homework across the grade levels? If we have recommended amounts of time per grade level, why don’t we collect data and determine if our recommendations are consistent with reality?
The Academic Achievement Justification for Homework
Historically, schools believed that homework enhanced academic achievement of students and helped schools in their mission to educate. This argument sounds logical since it appears that there would be an obvious relationship between homework and academic achievement. The flaw with this argument is twofold. First, is the confusion of words. When we hear the word “homework” we assume that it means “studying.” Unfortunately, homework is seldom pure studying. Homework usually involves disproportionate amounts of busy work and seldom involves studying. Busywork needs no explanation, except to say that it is the misuse of time for carrying out trivial and miscellaneous activities that do not enhance learning.
The second flaw with the argument that homework helps with academic achievement is that there are no data to support this relationship between academic achievement and homework. We do know that good, hard-working, responsible students do good homework. That’s why the straight “A” student does straight “A” homework. The correlation between grade point average and students doing good quality homework is incorrectly interpreted. It isn’t homework that makes the student get the higher grades, it is the character of the student that brings about good grades. Good students do their best at everything, from homework to class participation. Homework doesn’t make the straight “A” student do better in class, or make him a good student in general, but the other way around. The character of the good student is why the student does good homework. And, there is one other aside with this argument. There is no research which compares student grades with different grades of homework. There is no way to evaluate the quality of homework and compare it with grade point averages. There is no objective scale that allows a teacher to rate a homework assignment as “A,” “B,” “C,” etc., and then correlate the letter grade with academic achievement. The only thing that research can show is the better students do better homework. By better is meant that it is on time, it is thorough, and it is neat and done well.
Another way to look at this issue of “academic achievement” as a justification for giving homework is to ask the schools the following questions:
1. Where is the research that my school or district uses to establish its policy on homework?
2. Where is the research that indicates that homework is effective for academic achievement for specific types of students at different grade levels in our school or district?
3. What kind of training do our teachers get about effective assignment and use of homework as a means to enhance academic achievement for specific types of students in different grade levels?
4. When was the last in-service training session that our teachers took to explain the research about efficacious use of homework for specific types of students at different grade levels?
5. Where is the research – not opinions – that supports the amount of time that different types of students should spend doing homework at different grade levels?
6. Where is the data about the effectiveness of homework for students from our district? Who collects it and exactly what do they collect and where is it kept?
7. Where is the research that supports how much of a student’s end-of-semester grade should be based on homework? Do we have a district policy regarding this process?
8. Where is the research that cautions teachers against the misuse and abuse of specific types of homework for specific types of students at different grade levels?
9. What does the research recommend about the developmental needs of children to play and have the freedoms to enjoy their lives as children?
10. What education codes of the State of California authorize teachers to use unlimited amounts of time for the completion of homework? Are there no stipulations regulating the amount of time schools may demand?
11. Since research and common-sense indicate that physical fitness is important, and since schools teach physical education as part of the school curriculum, why don’t teachers assign five miles of running and five hundred sit-ups and push-ups.
12. Since research and common sense indicate that there are major benefits to parent involvement in school related activities, why don’t teachers make our family attend school-sponsored events?
13. Are there some limitations on what constitutes homework?
14. Why do teachers give homework in some subjects, like math and science, and writing, that are better left to the teacher to supervise than to the untrained and unlicensed parent or guardian?
15. Do some subjects or some types of assignments lend themselves better to homework than others? How do we know?
The Parent Involvement Justification for Homework
Historically, it was believed that homework would provide a golden opportunity to involve parents in the education of their children. The intention of the school was to have parents actively involved in their child’s homework in order to guarantee that the parent was taking a responsible part in the educational process. Unfortunately, the schools have forgotten that a significant majority of families are two-parent working couples or single parent families and the time necessary to supervise and in many cases, to police homework activities, is simply not there. Add this to the already mentioned fact that homework seldom involves a simple fifteen-minute period of time. It takes that long for most children to sit down. The homework ordeal is both long and tedious. Not only do parents find it difficult to squeeze into the routine of the evening, but the frequent controversies that flourish around homework, such as, parents not understanding the assignments, children insisting that the teachers “don’t do it that way anymore,” and children simply refusing to do or complete assignments is beyond the scope of many parents. Life is tough enough without having to police children every evening. A simple newsletter with weekly updates will suffice to keep parents informed and perhaps, more appropriately than having them share the burdens of homework.
The Recommended Time By Grade Level Justification for Homework
Every school district publishes a set of guidelines regarding the recommended amount of time that children should spend doing homework. Typically, schools suggest about ten minutes per night per grade level, resulting in forty minutes for fourth graders, fifty minutes for fifth graders, etc. These recommendations, however, are groundless. There is no definitive research that proves a certain amount of time is best for a certain age level. This is impossible since the nature of the homework assignment itself would have more to do with the amount of time spent than the number of minutes. Homework that is too difficult, too confusing, or that causes strife between parent and child is debilitating and it is not the time required to complete the assignment that should be of importance, but rather its effect on the child and his or her attitudes toward school and learning that is of importance. Hence, to consider time as the most important, and often the only variable that is used in setting district policy is ridiculous. There is no way to compare thirty minutes of memorizing times tables with thirty minutes of practicing a musical instrument, or reading an interesting story. Ten minutes of reading for a child with reading problems is an eternity as well as a taste of hell. District policies do not reflect the affective component of forcing homework on the child. It is sad to say, however, twenty minutes spent under the watchful eye of an abusive parent who makes the completion of homework more strenuous than necessary compounds the problem of homework completion.
It isn’t the time that should be of concern since the more important variable is the child’s experience throughout the homework process. If a student likes the assignment it isn’t homework, it’s more like home-play. The enjoyment of homework has more to do with its effect on a child’s life than the amount of time, and the enjoyment has so much to do with personality, temperament, values, family support and attitudes, and basic beliefs about schooling and education.
The amount of time recommended by the schools for each grade level is also inappropriate since the recommended time is often far different than the actual completion time. Teachers might believe that an assignment should only take fifteen minutes, when in fact it could take an hour or more, depending on the child’s abilities. For some children, task completion is a major accomplishment irrespective of the recommended time. Some children are simply slow and take more time than others. This is a matter of personality as much as ability. Recommended time is often far more than actual time.