Exercise the brain like a muscle or give kids time to work on the family farm?
Educators have been debating the effectiveness of homework as a tool for learning for more than a century. Support for and against homework has ebbed and flowed, and attitudes about it have been impacted by the economy, global politics, and societal influences. For the past two decades, the prevailing attitude has been one of less or no homework. As with most things, our attitudes often stem from our fears and beliefs, not facts. Parents, teachers, and policy-makers have deeply-held – and often emotionally-charged – beliefs that form the basis for their attitudes either for or against homework.
Now, I want to share two books I have read and reviewed about homework, “Rethinking Homework, Best Practices that Support Diverse Needs – 2nd Edition,” by Cathy Vatterott, and “Homework: The Evidence,” by Susan Hallam and Lynne Rogers, both of which have been recently updated and expanded.
Over the decades, researchers have tried to establish the effectiveness of homework. In 1989, Duke University Professor Harris Cooper, considered the leading expert on homework, published an exhaustive synthesis of the research. He found that there was little to no correlation between homework and academic achievement in the elementary grades. The correlation increased in middle school and high school. Since that research, later studies have continued to draw the same conclusions. In fact, there is zero correlation in the elementary years between homework and achievement. (In math, there is a small, but not statistically relevant, correlation.)
Author Alfie Kohn, in his 2006 work on homework, argued that correlation is not causation. He maintained that just because high-achieving students do more homework, it does not mean that doing homework results in higher achievement. The research on homework has been unable to tease out the effect of homework from prior learning. As Cathy Vatterott points out, “We don’t know if the same child would have scored just as well on the test without doing the homework, or how much better the child scored because of doing the homework.”
In 2009, John Haitte first published “Visible Learning,” which is considered the most exhaustive compilation of educational research on teaching strategies to date. He has since updated his research in which he synthesizes 800 meta-analyses related to student achievement and what works in schools. He ranked 138 influences on learning. Homework ranked 88th; teacher-feedback ranked 10th!
At the same time, we know that learning does not end when the bell rings at the end of the day. We know that practice and repetition can help solidify certain skills.
So how do we reconcile the evidence that homework has no positive impact in the elementary years with the knowledge that continued practice can sometimes help reinforce skills? There is a lot to unpack, and we owe it to our children to develop a homework policy that makes the most sense for their learning and our community.
To begin, we at Schechter strongly encourage parents to read aloud to their children, and to help ensure that your children are also reading independently in English and Hebrew. We do not consider reading homework. Just like eating is essential to sustain ourselves, so is reading. This year, homework is assigned in grades 1 – 8. The school follows the standard that Researcher Harris Cooper suggested and which the National Parent Teachers Association has endorsed. This standard is approximately 10 minutes of homework per grade level. We’ve added an additional five minutes because of our school’s dual curriculum.
We must remember that in the early grades, playing with friends is essential learning, and time should be allotted for that as well. It is a serious mistake to undervalue the power of play. Play is the “work” of younger children; it helps them to develop the emotional and social skills required to effectively navigate life. Plenty of research and parenting books support the necessity of play.
We are just beginning our conversation about homework at Schechter. There are many questions we need to ask and answer:
The research on homework emphasizes the importance of differentiated homework being assigned based on the needs of each individual student. This takes thought and work on behalf of the teachers. The research also supports using homework for feedback, especially in the older grades. Homework is most useful and practical when it is used to check for understanding, informs classroom learning, and provides practice opportunities to solidify skills.
The research also points out that teachers need to create and utilize effective homework strategies, but schools of education do not teach teachers how to design meaningful homework, and how to use it effectively to monitor learning and support mastery.
At Schechter, we want to strike the right balance between working at school and learning at home, and necessary downtime and sleep for our children. We will research what is best at each grade level, and make the necessary adjustments to best meet the learning needs of all of our students.
Meanwhile, I encourage you, our parents, to discuss homework matters with teachers; its purpose, whether or not it’s too long or difficult, and I strongly discourage you from completing the homework with or for your child. If an assignment is too difficult, please reach out to your child’s teacher so that he or she can help.
At Schechter we are certainly thinking about the place of homework in school. What about you?