Homework: The Battle Continues

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 over a century. Support for and against homework has ebbed and flowed, and the economy, global politics, and societal influences have all impacted attitudes about it. 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, and parents, teachers, and policy makers all have deeply-held, and often emotionally-charged beliefs that form the basis for their attitude either for or against homework.

Now, two books 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, have been recently updated and expanded. I spent a portion of winter break reading and reviewing these books.

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 work on homework in 2006, argued that correlation is not causation. He argued that just because high-achieving students do more homework, it does not mean that doing homework causes 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 the most exhaustive compilation of educational research on teaching strategies. He has since updated his research in which he synthesizes 800 meta-analyses relating to student achievement and what works in schools. He ranked 138 influences on learning. Homework ranked 88th, while teacher feedback ranked 10th!

At the same time, we know that learning does not end when the bell rings at 3:30 p.m. We know that practice and repetition help to solidify 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 help reinforce skills? At Hillel, we strongly encourage parents to read aloud to their children, and to ensure that their children are also reading independently in English and Hebrew.  Teachers are expected to send home ideas and activities that reinforce math skills in creative, contextual, and playful ways so that young children see the impact of math in their daily lives. We prefer to call this “learning at home,” not homework.

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 navigate life effectively. Plenty of research and parenting books support the necessity of play.

While homework, per se, should not be assigned in third and fourth grades, by then, if teachers and/or parents see their children struggling to master certain skills, it is important to provide structured opportunities at home for children to practice skills. It is crucial, however, that new skills are not introduced at home. All new learning of skills needs to take place at school. Teachers and parents should communicate to arrange for appropriate practice and reinforcement to solidify existing skills, and build confidence where necessary. It is here that feedback and close communication between school and home are crucial.

Meaningful homework becomes useful from fifth grade on. The research on homework in the middle and high school years emphasizes the importance of homework being differentiated for the needs of each individual student. This takes thought and work on behalf of the teachers to do just that. The research also supports using homework for feedback, and not for grading. In fact, if homework is about learning and practicing, it should never be graded. 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. This will be an area we will spend time on at Hillel.

At Hillel, we want to strike the right balance between working at school, learning at home, homework in the older grades, and necessary downtime and sleep for our children.  We will continue to research what is best at each grade level, and make the necessary adjustments to best meet the learning needs of all of our students.

To learn more, please attend our State of the School on Tuesday, January 22, at 7:00 p.m. I also highly recommend “Rethinking Homework,” by Cathy Vatterott.


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