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Here's Why No Homework Policies Don't Work

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The homework debate has waged in America for decades. Do we give too much homework? Do we not give enough homework? This has spurred no homework policies initiated by teachers all the way to school administrators. Despite the wave of no-homework policies, the reality is that they are ineffective in battling student underachievement.

The Homework Debate

Homework has long been a point of debate in K-12 education. For decades the standard supported by both the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and the National Education Association (NEA) has been ten minutes of homework per grade level per day. So, for example, a fifth grader should have no more than 50 minutes of homework. A student in high school should have about two hours of homework per night.

Unfortunately, across America this calculation has become far from the norm. Teachers are being confronted with increasingly rigorous academic standards, and encroachments into their instructional time through increases in standardized testing. Often the unfortunate consequence in these circumstances is more homework. As a result, no-homework policies have been popping up all over the country from school-wide and district-wide initiatives, and individual teachers leading the revolt in their classrooms.

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The Argument for No Homework Policies

The most common argument made for no-homework policies is that homework does not improve academic achievement. A Duke University meta-analysis of homework research was conducted looking at studies published between 1987-2003. This study found there was a stronger correlation between homework and academic achievement in grades 7-12 compared to grades K-6. This study has become the foundation of 'no-homework' policies in schools across the country.

Another argument for no-homework policies is that not all students have home lives conducive to doing hours of homework. Across America, there are children who have no one to help them be successful, or even ask questions to, about their homework. They are 'latchkey' kids who go home to empty apartments and homes, sometimes until late into the night. These children don't have anyone to turn to when they don't understand their homework.

Childhood obesity rates are another argument made against homework. In 2004 a University of Michigan study found that while in the 1980's 12-14-year-olds averaged about 6. 5 hours of physical activity per week. By 2002/2003 that had declined to 4.5 hours. Many schools and parents are arguing that homework is cutting into the time students have to spend on physical activity, which contributes to rising childhood obesity. Some teachers and administration use this to make the argument that kids will be healthier if we throw out the homework. The reality is that the issue is not that simple.

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The Importance of Homework

Many are distorting the Duke study of homework research to make it appear that it says that homework is ineffective. In fact, the authors themselves argue that is not what they found. Rather, there is a positive and statistically significant correlation between homework and academic achievement. A similar meta-analysis published by Paschal, Weinstein, and Walberg in 1984 found the same result. The study's authors state that there is a balance in homework, with too little or too much being ineffective in boosting academic achievement. The trick is to find that 'sweet spot' of just enough homework to be effective.

Homework Teaches Important Non-Academic Skills

The reality of no-homework policies is that students may fail to develop critical non-academic skills they will need for success in life and higher education. For example, how do students who have no homework develop study skills? When would they study for their tests? Many schools that have instituted no-homework policies have instituted longer school days to try and boost academic achievement. In these cases, schools are saying that yes students need the additional practice, but that they believe the practice is more effective when done inside as opposed to outside the classroom.

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Additionally, homework can teach kids a myriad of other non-academic skills. These include teaching them how to plan and manage their time, which most would agree is an important skill in the real world regardless of your career. Homework can also teach goal setting and patience because, in many households, students will be expected to complete their homework before they can engage in leisure activities such as television and video games.

The Reality of Excessive Homework

The number of students who report excessive amounts of homework (three hours or more) is about six percent according to most studies. The overload of homework in these cases could stem from a variety of causes.

For example, research shows that less experienced teachers are more likely to overload students with homework than an experienced teacher. Very few teacher training programs address homework as part of the curriculum. Teachers are emerging from college with fresh teacher credentials without the training to know how and when to assign homework to be effective in boosting academic achievement.

Even if you look at countries with stronger records of academic achievement for students, there are no absolute models to follow. For example, in Shanghai students can do more than fourteen hours a week. Meanwhile, in Finland, students are more successful than their American counterparts on less than three hours of homework a month. Homework policies are perhaps not a magic fix to any educational system, thus an outright ban is not a real solution.

By Rachel Tustin
December 2016
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