Against Homework

Good homework assignments might have helped a student learn a lot about, say, Ancient Egypt.

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And while one study found that parental help with homework generally doesn’t boost students’ achievement—and can even have a negative effect— another concluded that economically disadvantaged students whose parents help with homework improve their performance significantly.

That seems to run counter to another frequent objection to homework, which is that it privileges kids who are already advantaged.

One study found that lower-income ninth-graders “consistently described receiving minimal homework—perhaps one or two worksheets or textbook pages, the occasional project, and 30 minutes of reading per night.” And if they didn’t complete assignments, there were few consequences.

I discovered this myself when trying to tutor students in writing at a high-poverty high school.

In 2016, a second-grade teacher in Texas delighted her students—and at least some of their parents—by announcing she would no longer assign homework.

“Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance,” she explained.Students from less educated families are most in need of the boost that effective homework can provide, because they’re less likely to acquire academic knowledge and vocabulary at home.And homework can provide a way for lower-income parents—who often don’t have time to volunteer in class or participate in parents’ organizations—to forge connections to their children’s schools.Those arguments have merit, but why homework boost academic achievement?The research cited by educators just doesn’t seem to make sense.The research relied on by those who oppose homework has actually found it has a modest positive effect at the middle and high school levels—just not in elementary school.But for the most part, the studies haven’t looked at whether it matters what kind of homework is assigned or whether there are different effects for different demographic student groups.For example, there’s something called “retrieval practice,” which means trying to recall information you’ve already learned.The optimal time to engage in retrieval practice is not immediately after you’ve acquired information but after you’ve forgotten it a bit—like, perhaps, after school.These are things that schools of education and teacher-prep programs typically don’t teach.So it’s quite possible that much of the homework teachers assign just isn’t particularly effective for many students.

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