Here’s a Helpful Rundown of the Homework Debate

Photo: bwancho

Homework is one of the most frequently and fiercely argued-about questions when it comes to education. On the one hand are the nightmare stories of schools loading students down with hours a night; on the other is the idea that students coming from lower-class backgrounds might need extra work to “catch up” to their more privileged peers.

It often ends up making for a passionate but not particularly evidence-based debate. That’s why a new article on the subject in the APA’s Monitor on Psychology by Kirsten Weir is such a helpful rundown — it synthesizes a lot of research about homework in a very readable way. The short “answer” to the homework question is: Yes, homework helps kids learn stuff, but it’s easy to reach a point at which, by causing kids to stress out and become less engaged with their schoolwork, it can have diminishing or even negative returns. As for the idea that homework “might confer [nonacademic benefits] such as the development of personal responsibility, good study habits and time-management skills,” the there just isn’t hard evidence to support this notion (though that doesn’t mean it’s false, either).

Research into the effects of homework and how homework actually “works” at the level of an individual school or school system are two different things, of course. And near the end of her article, when she’s talking about the tendency among some teachers and administrators to over-assign, Weir nicely sums up some of the tensions at work here:

[C]hanging the culture of homework won’t be easy. Teachers-to-be get little instruction in homework during their training, [says Denise Pope, PhD, a professor of education at Stanford University]. And despite some vocal parents arguing that kids bring home too much homework, many others get nervous if they think their child doesn’t have enough. “Teachers feel pressured to give homework because parents expect it to come home,” says Galloway. “When it doesn’t, there’s this idea that the school might not be doing its job.”

Galloway argues teachers and school administrators need to set clear goals when it comes to homework — and parents and students should be in on the discussion, too. “It should be a broader conversation within the community, asking what’s the purpose of homework? Why are we giving it? Who is it serving? Who is it not serving?”

This is all a fancy way of saying there’s often a serious lack of communication between researchers and those most affected by the homework debate — teachers, administrators, parents, and kids. It sounds like teachers often aren’t instructed in a rigorous way on the actual purposes and limits of homework, which doesn’t help matters either. Parents, for their part, are responding to fears that their kids will be “left behind” — and administrators are responding to those fears. That’s part of the reason the homework debate has become such a morass.

Here’s a Helpful Rundown of the Homework Debate