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Why Homework Matters: It's Not Just About Grades

A local school teacher on why homework is more important than you think

Published on: April 16, 2019

Teenage boy doing homework

High school is when many students first learn about calculus, dating, and the technicalities of parallel parking. In the future, high school may come with yet another first: the first homework assignment.

In recent years, the homework debate has been raging among elementary school communities: to assign or not to assign. Those in the anti-homework camp are quick to point to Harris Cooper’s research, which suggests that homework is ineffective and has little academic value for elementary-aged children.  

The equity gap  

Equity issues are also central to the debate. Low-income students spend considerably less time on take-home assignments than their peers in higher-income households.

Citing these equity and productivity concerns, several Seattle-area elementary schools have eschewed homework in recent years.

Canceling homework in the name of equity is a lazy and ineffective move. Equity issues don’t disappear when homework does. When Orchard School in Vermont eliminated homework, they added the caveat that extra time should be spent reading, playing outside and having quality family time — activities that are more likely to take occur if a parent is at home to support them. For students without constant parental presence, homework can provide the structure needed to practice academic knowledge and vocabulary — skills that low-income students are less likely to acquire without school support. 

This equity argument, problematic in elementary school, completely falls apart in high school.  

High school students, particularly those taking AP and college prep classes, must do homework. A lot of it. There is simply too much to cover in a high school course if students are given copious class time to complete readings and practice math problems. That work must be done outside of school. 

Equity issues don’t merely persist in high school — in many cases, they are exacerbated. Low-income elementary kids grow up to be high school students with more than their fair share of responsibilities. Many provide round-the-clock child care for younger siblings, work part-time jobs, or experience homelessness, bouncing from one friend’s couch to another. This is not an optimal time to learn how to do homework. Teachers in low-income areas, unable to cajole their hundreds of students to complete reading notes and algebraic proofs at home, typically give up and assign less homework, contributing to the diminished rigor of schools in high-poverty areas.  

On the other side of the equity bar, parents of more privileged students also take a step back during high school years. Elementary school events and conferences are madhouses, while high school open house nights often resemble ghost towns. With less parental involvement and no habit to fall back on, it is unclear how these high school freshmen will suddenly learn how to do homework.  

Developing the habit 

Parents who gleefully avoided homework meltdowns during their children’s formative years will suddenly find themselves wondering how to strap a 16-year-old to a desk for the two hours necessary to complete an essay. 

Though Cooper’s research questions the effectiveness of homework in elementary school, he acknowledges that “The average correlation between time spent on homework and achievement was substantial for secondary school students….For high school students, the positive line continues to climb until between 90 minutes and 2.5 hours of homework a night.”

Even with the recognition that homework lacks academic value for young kids, he still recommends adhering to The National Education Association Parents’ Guide of 10–20 minutes of homework a day for K–2 students and increasing that amount 10 minutes a year.

The primary purpose of elementary school homework should be building the homework habit.

The primary purpose of elementary school homework should be building the homework habit. The real benefit is simply learning how to do it: How to set aside time, complete a task outside of school, and struggle through problems even when a teacher or helpful classmate is not nearby. If students don’t learn those skills while they are young, they will find it harder to succeed in high school and college.   

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