Considering I taught in the public schools for 25 years, you would expect me to be a big proponent of homework. At the end of the day, I am not, as it might be a waste of time and in some cases might do more harm than good. Here are 5 considerations regarding homework.
1. Homework Does Not Give the Bang for the Buck You’d Expect
Considering all of the emphasis put on homework, you would expect it to make an enormous difference in student outcomes. And while homework can improve student performance, there are a lot of guidelines for what makes effective homework and how much should be given. In my experience, teachers mostly do not give homework that meets researchers’ recommendations for kind and amount. Furthermore, I think most teachers—especially those without children of their own—have only a vague notion of the impact their assignments are causing at home.
2. Most Teachers Assign Homework That Is Easy to Grade—Or They Don’t Grade It Properly
I was an extremely hard-working and effective teacher. I actually did assign writing assignments that actually did take me hours to grade. I kid you not. An essay took at least 20 minutes to read, write comments on and assign a grade. With 90-150 papers depending on the week, grading took a minimum of 30 hours to grade. If I assigned an essay every three weeks or so, that was 10-15 hours of grading a week minimum. That alone might have been manageable, but that did not include the vocabulary, spelling and grammar work that I felt compelled to assign along side of that. Swamped by the piles of paper I needed to process, those secondary assignments got short shrift (which students took full advantage of, writing ever more meaningless sentences such as “The boy was lethargic”).
3. Homework That Is Not Thoughtfully Graded and Returned to the Student Promptly Does Not Fulfill Its Purpose.
Let’s take the vocabulary sentences example again. A teacher assigns using the weekly vocabulary words in a sentence in order to show understanding of the words’ meanings. Either the student writes a sentence so banal and without context that the word could mean anything (In “The boy was lethargic,” lethargic could as easily mean fat or kind hearted as apathetic) or the student uses the word incorrectly because he does not understand the meaning of the word. If the teacher does not correct his paper and get it back to him the next day, he will not be able to correct his understanding before he fixes the word in his mind for a test. In this case, not only has homework failed in its positive benefit, it has actually hurt the student be reinforcing a false concept.
4. Teachers Mostly Do Not Assign Recommended Amounts of Homework
I used to tell my students to work 25 minutes and stop. Seventh graders at my school were supposed to get 25 minutes of work in each core subject (math, LA, social studies and science) adding up to a total of 100 minutes. [Note: research recommendations would be 70 minutes.] With the understanding that students took different amounts of time, we assumed that we were giving between an hour to two hours of homework a night. (After two hours the efficacy of doing homework falls off completely). The reality was that kids were spending much longer on some teacher’s homework—either because they were struggling with the material and needed the time or because they were super conscientious and wanted a top grade no matter how long it took them. The longer I taught, the more anxious kids got about their grade, and the more kids I had that fell into the last category. But mostly, teachers didn’t know how long assignments took because they didn’t ask.
5. Parents give the wrong kind of help with homework.
Ideally, assignments would be just long enough to test or reinforce a concept. Kids would do homework on their own; teachers would grade it immediately to assess whether or not the kids got the concept. Parents would support the homework process by providing a quiet place to study (away from electronics) and asking open-ended questions like, “What strategy could you use to approach this problem?” or “Did you go back and review the material?” Ideally, parents’ focus would not be on the specific content but on helping the child develop strategies for breaking down and managing the work.
6. MY RECOMMENDATION
If homework in your house is taking more than the recommended 10 minutes per grade, I would start by keeping a log for a couple of weeks. Write down how much time each child is spending on each subject. Make note of how much help you need to give and what kind of help you have had to give. If you end up regularly teaching concepts at home, ask to have a parent-teacher conference. Ask the teacher if your child is paying attention and asking questions in class. If no, that is where you need to help your child make changes. If yes, then share with the teacher how much teaching you have had to do at home and ask her what her expectation is. A good teacher will say, “If you teach at home and your child comes to school back with perfect homework, I assume I have taught the concept effectively. I will not know that I need to adjust my teaching or leave more time for review.” A poor teacher will complain about the number of standards she has to teach and whine that there is no way to get through them in a single year. At that point, you might consider a conversation with the principal (bring your log). In any case, I would put my foot down in my home and limit the amount of time students could spend on homework. Children need play, they need downtime, and they need to participate in helping out with family life. When we let homework dominate the day, we do a grave disservice.
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