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Is homework necessary?

I used to be Mr. Homework, frowning at all the hand-wringing softies who said we were hurting our kids by piling on the assignments. Two years ago I had a slight change of heart. I suggested, since research showed that elementary school homework did no good, that the little kiddies just be encouraged to read something--their choice--for an hour or so a day. But now I am wondering if my faith in homework for middle and high schoolers has been misplaced.

Every education idea I have ever had came from the teachers who patiently explain to me how things actually work in schools. Some of the best of them have been suggesting that, at least for the majority of high schools where little homework is done, my devotion to a couple of hours of after-class studying a day won't get us very far. Most students won't do it. If they do, teachers won't make great use of it. They have ideas for going in another direction.

Warning flag! Sirens! Bells! Please read this and remember. I do NOT favor changing the homework policies of schools that have managed to create a culture where solid homework is expected, and most students do it. I figure this covers about ten percent of our high schools, although that percentage is much higher in our most affluent suburbs, like the ones in the Washington area where there are many Post subscribers. You folks should stop reading this now. Go sample one of my other blog posts.

For everybody else, where research shows the average high schooler does no more than 50 minutes of homework a day, the alternative methods described by some teachers might be worth trying. I would still say the goal should be to increase the amount of homework assigned, but that has to be a gradual change, like the way my editors gave me just one new blogging chore a year so that i could adjust painlessly to the new era in journalism.

For the time being, these teachers say, it might work best to keep track of individual student progress---an important function of homework---by giving a ten-question, five-minute quiz in every class. It won't take long to take, or long to grade. It will give the teacher a good idea of what has not been absorbed by the students. The same might work with very regular, but shorter and more carefully defined, homework assignments, to get the same sense of student understanding and not just to make sure the students and their parents don't think the teacher is going soft.

Have I lost my grip? Are my teacher advisers wrong? Let me know.

By Jay Mathews  | October 27, 2009; 3:04 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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As a middle school teacher (albiet in one of our more affluent DC suburbs), I think what you propose is right on the money. My homework assignments have now evolved to the point where I give students a quick question to answer either on a Blackboard discussion board or in the form of a five question quiz. It forces students to think about the topic we've covered in class that day and let me know who is still struggling with a concept.

Posted by: HistoryTchr | October 27, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Homework in schools 1 to 5 is useless and only teaches children to hate school when they should be learning to love reading and the idea of learning.

"Homework" for younger children would be effective when we provide children with One Laptop Per Child and there is software that combines learning and a child's desire to use the laptop. Of course this requires the United States actually thinking about education outside of the idea of the one room school house. Never mind that the billions that will be wasted on local meaningless "standardized" tests and computer systems for these tests would easily defray the costs of One Laptop Per Child and software.

Homework after the fifth grade should be reading assignments with spot quizzes at the start of class based upon the reading assignment. These take 5 minutes at most and are effective.

The current idea of millions of pieces of paper produced by totally meaningless homework is simply more damage from a system where no thought is given to learning while the only concern is with teaching.

Only the politicians could have created such a system where children are simply ignored and assumed to be identical widgets on a factory line going through the process of being educated by the worker teachers.

Public school education has to change with the idea that teachers can only lead children to the water, but they can not force children to drink the water.

Currently we are not even leading the children to water.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 27, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Maybe have a mandatory in-school study hall where students actually do their homework rather than fool around? Isn't that one of the things that the KIPP schools do?

Posted by: CrimsonWife | October 27, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

Since I changed my homework policy for my junior high students, I get about a 90% return. I stopped grading on a scale. Everyone gets 100% for doing the homework assignment. The purpose of homework is practice. It is designed (or should be) to give feedback to the teacher. Have they learned the concept? Do I need to reteach it? If over 80% "get it" I can move on. I teach English and face it, not everyone will ever understand the use of an adverb or a predicate noun. If my students do their best, make the attempt, they receive credit. With a full 10 or 20 points per assignment, the points add up and can make a difference between a C or a B. And, nearly all of my kids (who are ELL learners) know the difference between the gerund and the same word used as a verb. Do you?

Posted by: corkkelly | October 27, 2009 6:25 PM | Report abuse

Since I changed my homework policy for my junior high students, I get about a 90% return. I stopped grading on a scale. Everyone gets 100% for doing the homework assignment. The purpose of homework is practice. It is designed (or should be) to give feedback to the teacher.

Posted by: corkkelly
A quiz provides feedback.

There is no value in homework as feedback since one has absolutely no idea of how the home work was performed.
With a grade for simply turning in the homework most students will simply get rid of this chore as soon as possible and put the least amount of thought into it.

What are these kids practicing in junior high school anyway?

Give a reading assignment or simply tell them to study for a quiz or exam.

About the only homework that makes any sense is to give arithmetic tests or other type of tests with questions to answer but even with these it is better to give a quiz in class.

Teach them to study at home for the quiz that they will get in class.

Homework was okay for penmanship but I think they gave that up in the schools.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 27, 2009 6:56 PM | Report abuse

No homework? That explains a lot about why most graduating students simply aren't worth hiring. If you can't do a simple job like homework, why should any employer hire you to do a complicated job which requires, not only the application of basic homework skills but often additional thinking skills often learned on the job to actually do a real job. These namby-pamby slackers just don't get it; real homework gives you the additional PRACTICE that helps hone your skills, just like when you're learning the intricacies of a new video game or learning to throw a football like a pro. I don't see football coaches canceling practice, which is another name for homework, so why are some parents so un-supportive of homework, unless they're total idiots to begin with. Education should be considered national defense and slackers whether students or un-supportive parents should be considered unpatriotic for their unwillingness to defend our country's progress by promoting slacker, "no can do" attitiudes!

Posted by: paulusarchitect | October 27, 2009 7:17 PM | Report abuse

A better question: when can classes be eliminated in favor of on line learning?

Teachers could teach at a distance. Students would progress at their own paces, learning via multimedia classes, adjudged by tests to be competent or not to move to the next stage. Learners who made below a certain score on the test would receive personal email consultations, with instant messaging as needed, until they learned the task at hand.

Look at kids today. By heavens they text so quickly one wonders if they will develop finger arthritis by middle age! Unlike us oldsters, they may not need orally imparted wisdom to understand concepts.

Posted by: Martial | October 27, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

fr paulusarchitect:

>...These namby-pamby slackers just don't get it; real homework gives you the additional PRACTICE that helps hone your skills, just like when you're learning the intricacies of a new video game or learning to throw a football like a pro...<

Homework is an utter waste of time, and only increases a struggling students' frustration. I should know. For YEARS I struggled with math and nobody took the time to have me tested. To this day, 45 years later, I still have trouble with anything but basic math, because I learn different than others. Thank Heavens for calculators, or I'd be in REAL trouble. Averages and percentages I can usually do in my head, but I kept getting E's on the "homework" with snarky "show your work" comments from grade school "teachers", because nobody took the time to have me tested.

Posted by: Alex511 | October 27, 2009 7:34 PM | Report abuse

My son needed more structure and reinforcement that I could give from home. He had over 10 folders to keep by the time he was in third grade and casual grading exaggerated his problems more. He was very hyper and diagnosed with ADHD. He needed a doable task and he needed to be held to that task. He got neither; he suffered a great deal and still does as an adult.

There is never a one size fits all policy. When things are too easy, kids are misguided about life in general. When a kid is missing it, they need that feedback right away. I really feel that improving technology so that it was very easy to track these things.

Posted by: sharonp1z | October 27, 2009 7:40 PM | Report abuse

Ten minutes per grade level is still adequate. And not because they must "practice" something, or learn something that I didn't have time to teach in class. Good homework reinforces the importance of independent, organized study habits. I teach sixth grade students.

Posted by: PostReader63 | October 27, 2009 7:57 PM | Report abuse

No homework? That explains a lot about why most graduating students simply aren't worth hiring. If you can't do a simple job like homework,
Contrary to popular belief homework is something new in the public schools. In my generation that made the highest gains in education homework was hardly given. The only homework was to read a book or to prepare for a test.

Of course this was a generation where you were expected to be able to read and there was no concept of "basic" on reading. Children either could read at their grade level or not. By the way does "basic" in reading mean that the child can read only 2 letter words or three letter words.

My public school education was pretty bad but at least I was not given meaningless homework and instead had time to read a book. Of course this was a different time when the country actually believed in education. Now the country simply believes in beating teachers over the head. I guess that this is cheaper for an impotent population that can not afford therapy.

Let us see we now we have a system where a child fails in grade 4, 5, 6, and when this child fails in the grade 7 we hold the teacher in grade 7 accountable and threaten to fire that teacher. Perfectly rational system.

Glad I was in public schools before homework and glad I am not a teacher.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 27, 2009 8:43 PM | Report abuse

No homework? That explains a lot about why most graduating students simply aren't worth hiring. If you can't do a simple job like homework, why should any employer hire
Quite right. Any employer should expect that prospective employees can do totally meaningless make work. Employers should also expect that prospective employees can wash dishes.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 27, 2009 8:56 PM | Report abuse

"Shorter, more carefully defined" assignments would be sufficient. I well remember the overburdened feeling students get from EVERY teacher acting like their class is the only one that matters, or that has homework associated with it.

It was the 1960s and I was in about the third grade. I remember sitting at our kitchen table, overwhelmed, and crying that I couldn't do all of my homework. My dad - a Mr. Homework like you, Mr. Mathews - gave me a stern lecture about the importance of knuckling under and getting it done. Then he looked over everything I had to do: several lengthy assignments from several different teachers, amounting to hours of homework, much of it repetitive - like 50 similar math problems where 5 would have sufficed - and of little learning value. He was astounded. Any ONE of the assignments was almost too much for a third-grader, and here I had three or four of them. Was I being punished? No, everyone had the same assignments. At that point, he was livid, told me to stop doing the work, and he let the school have it the next day. Other parents must have done the same, because the school backpedaled and said there had been "a mistake." While that was by far the worst incident I can recall, the phenomenon persisted of assigning work without any consideration of the student's other workloads. You see your parents come home from work and put their feet up, while you just have... more work. It DOES make one resent school.

Posted by: Lila1 | October 27, 2009 10:12 PM | Report abuse

Again, much of this is generalizations and too broad. Homework (or practice) can be effective if carefully and thoughtfully tailored to the information and skills you desire your students to possess. I teach 10th grade AP history. They have a once-weekly homework assignment that covers one chapter of our textbook. That homework could include mapping skills, thesis writing, compare/contrast, outlining, analysis of cause/effect, and so on. The homework is designed to help them organized the textbook into more manageable chunks and also to provide extra practice on writing. But that is only one strategy to accomplish that. Any policy or way of doing things can be beneficial and further educational goals if properly structured to the class. Too often in education, I have seen teachers, parents and administrators chasing after the latest "thing" rather than reflexively thinking about the appropriateness of that action for various disciplines and levels. Sadly, there needs to be MORE thinking in education, not just "doing what he's doing."

Posted by: gatorpaige | October 28, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I'm delighted you're always rethinking homework. I'm glad that the teachers you're talking to are also thinking more about homework. One of the biggest issues missing from the homework debate, in my opinion, is the quality of the homework. If my memory is correct, you no longer have any children in high school, so maybe you haven't had a chance to take a look at the kind of homework most kids are getting.

I do still have a child in high school, so I get to see, on a nightly basis, the homework that teachers give and that society still thinks is so important. And I'm pretty sure my daughter's New York City public high school is typical of any large school.

I don't think my daughter has yet had one homework assignment last year or this that was worth any time at all. Nevertheless, most of her teachers assign homework every night, and homework counts toward her grade. Most teachers provide no feedback on the homework whatsoever; they mainly spot check to make sure the students have complied with the requirements. None of it requires original thinking, there is very little writing or reading, and there are a lot of projects similar to the posters and "characters in a can" that she did in elementary school.

Whenever I'm on a talk show, there's always someone who claims that homework is very important, as though students are being assigned interesting, challenging work that involves creative and analytic thinking. Neither in 9th grade, nor so far this year in 10th, has my daughter written an essay that was returned with any feedback. So the one skill that students really need, writing, isn't being taught at all. It's no wonder that when I taught writing to first year law students, I had to do so much remediation.

The real problem, in my opinion, is that education in general isn't very good. Sure there's a school here and there where students are involved in thrilling discoveries, sit in small seminars, have interesting and engaged teachers, and get a fantastic education. But the majority of kids sit in classes where teachers drone on and on from outdated textbooks and give the same tests they've been giving for as long as they've been teaching. (Have you read The Global Achievement Gap? The author takes "walking tours" of schools and explains what he sees going on in the classroom.)

As I stated at the outset, I'm glad to see you're still thinking about homework and not taking it at face value. May I suggest that you take a look at the assignments the kids in your local public high schools are getting and see whether you think they're worth spending any time on. (Or, if you'd like, I'd be happy to describe the work my daughter receives on a nightly basis.) I stand by my longstanding advice: Let students of all ages read, rather than inundate them with busywork. They'll all end up more literate and able to think.

All best,

Sara Bennett
co-author, The Case Against Homework
founder, Stop Homework

Posted by: sbennett1 | October 28, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

I remember that I always learned the most in school when I was doing the most homework. This would either be in the form of drill for leaning times tables, spelling, etc. or for more cognitive work such as solving math problems, writing or reading. Homework, effectively administered can reinforce and supplement the classroom learning. And, if school is being taught in an effective manner, there is not enough time in the class for all the learning that must take place.

I now teach in a community college and find that the students that are doing the best job of mastering the material are the ones that 1.) do their homework and 2.) actually do the work. Unfortunately, too many students coming out of high school haven't learned much in the self-integrity realm and still see school as a big copy-fest. But, this alludes to a broader problem with society. Too many parents don't take school seriously or, worse, don't take a serious interest in their children and their futures.

Posted by: gschultens | October 28, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Great comments. I will return to this soon.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 28, 2009 7:07 PM | Report abuse

I am a middle school math teacher in downtown Los Angeles. When students are operating at 2 or more grade levels behind their suburban peers, it is unreasonable to assume they will ever catch up during a normal 1 hour period of math instruction a day. In my class, it is a minimum expectation that homework is completed every day. Even if it is only 5 problems, students need some kind of reinforcement of what they learned outside of school.

However, I have no idea how the homework is completed, whether it has been copied, or whether an older sister or parent has helped. It cannot be a true gauge of what a student knows. I give a daily 5 question assessment that lets me know exactly where they are. Students must get at least 4/5 to earn mastery, and are allowed to retake different versions of this quiz as many times as necessary. I came to the realization this year that although I knew WHAT I was teaching, ultimately I had little idea on a day-to-day basis what my students were learning. All I can truly assess my students on is what they can do in my classroom. Even projects and papers that are completed outside of class give a hazy indicator of where the student is at.

Posted by: Walterego | October 28, 2009 10:17 PM | Report abuse

I disagree with Mr. Mathews' idea that the problem is non-completion of homework.

I live in a wealthy suburban school district, where parents take school very seriously. Kids in this district are assigned lots of homework, with a high completion rate. Does this mean the kids are well-educated? No. It means the kids are stressed out.

Teachers in our district are required to give a certain amount of homework every night. The homework assignments I've seen, given to my daughter and her friends, are uniformly tedious and unchallenging. Homework of poor quality doesn't help our kids learn -- it just wastes their time.

Homework, like all of school, should be thoughtful, carefully designed, and really help our kids learn. It should be assigned only when kids are old enough to do it reliably on their own, without enlisting Mom as homework cop. The quantity should be limited so that kids have time to develop their own interests, have a social life, and grow as complete human beings.

What I see in our "good" public school district is that excessive pointless homework is just one piece of a broken school system. Our smart, hardworking kids graduate from our district schools badly educated and burnt out.

Posted by: FedUpMom | October 29, 2009 8:40 AM | Report abuse

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