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The Homework Myth July 6, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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I’m beginning to question the whole “homework reinforces learning and teaches responsibility” crap argument. Recently, I stumbled upon a Q&A with Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, that was published in the American School Board Journal.

Okay, I’ve still got to do my homework on homework (as in, buy and read the book), but according to the interview, there are NO studies that show that assigning homework in elementary school (grades K-3) improves achievement.  I know what you’re thinking.  At least it promotes self-discipline, right?  But according to Kohn, there’s no scientific evidence to prove this is true either.  Hey, is that my pig that just flew by?

I’ve always assigned homework.  Your reading log must be signed by a parent every night.  “I don’t care if your parent is passed out on the couch,” I’ve been known to say.  “It’s your responsibility to put a pen in their hand and move it around!”  Students who come to school without a parent signature are benched for morning recess.  Okay, it’s only 15 minutes, and they can still use the bathroom, but it’s the thought that counts.  I’ve had students weeping over the loss of that 10 minutes of runaround time.  We spend maybe 15 minutes a day correcting homework and another ten minutes talking about the homework that’s to be done that night.  It adds up.

For the record, I’ve spent two years designing and fine turning homework that incorporates the week’s spelling and vocabulary words, and English Language Conventions (read Skills) that we’re studying that week.  But I’m not sure this homework actually helps the kids who need help the most.

I’ve taught a cluster of English Language Learners (ELLs) for the past two years.  The other half of my students are English speakers, and last year I even had one boy who read at a 7th grade level.  They’re all over the spectrum. In a perfect world, I’d be differentiating homework.  But to be honest, I don’t have the time.  I could ask my student from Mexico to practice her English sight words every night, but there’s no one at home who speaks English. And when I looked at the homework one of my Korean students turned in, I could see his father had translated it word by word and then written the spelling sentences for him.

I’m hearing more and more that it’s not “practice makes perfect,” but “perfect practice makes perfect.”  So how does homework promote that?   Or should it?  Do students really need to work a second shift?

I do remember one homework assignment that yielded results.  Our vocabulary word was “exist” and I had students ask their parents (or whoever was in charge) about things we have now that didn’t “exist” when their parents were in the third grade.  Oh, the list we made!  Cell phones, iPods, Invisalign braces –  the list went on and on.  Of course, one girl’s father told her toilets didn’t exist, but I chalked that up to him growing up in rural Mexico (or maybe he just didn’t understand the question).

I also sent students home with plastic straws and paperclips and had them construct right, isosceles, and obtuse triangles, which they had to “hand in” the next morning by sorting them into the correct piles.  If only homework was always that interesting.

Once my students got the hang of Accelerated Reading (AR), I let them take home books from the class library so they could  take the on-line quiz the next day.  Talk about motivated readers!  And my students can alphabetize their spelling words and draw a line between a vocabulary word and its meaning, but still…

I’ve only had a few parents over the years who asked for more homework. They tend to congregate in the GATE clusters.  When parents do ask for more, I tell them their child would be better off watching the Discovery Channel or baking a cake.  Some look relieved.  Others are confused.

The week my students took THE TEST (the one that will determine who’s getting left behind), teachers were told not to assign homework.

A collective sigh of relief echoed through the hallways.  No dashing down to copy homework only to find the copier was broken.  No dashing down to find the copier had been commandeered by one of those upper grade teachers, who are always in the midst of printing out 35+ packets.  Waiting to use the copier is a lot like standing in line at a Methadone clinic waiting for my fix turn.  Fifty some teachers, two copiers.  You can do the math.  If life was fair, there’d be a technician chained to the copier 24/7.

To avoid this, I have all the homework on my computer at home and print it out on Sundays.  Did I mention that Sunday has become my least favorite day of the week?

In my master’s program, we had to pick a topic to do an Action Research project on over the next year.  My cohort’s topic is…homework!  No sooner had we decided on our topic than our district revamped its homework policy. The new guidelines cite the importance of daily homework to “reinforce learning” and report that “homework promotes responsibility.”

Okay, the jury’s still out, but it should be interesting to see what our research reveals.  In the meantime, if you don’t have that parent signature on your reading log, you’re benched.


1. Christine - July 6, 2009

Glad to see you have a timely action research project. You know I’ve always thought you assigned YOURSELF too much homework. Does Richard have to sign the permission slip? (Or does he like having you benched?)


2. Catherine Sherman - July 7, 2009

The homework assignments that my children seemed to learn the most from were hands-on projects like your straw and paper clip geometric shapes. You do so much homework yourself! I feel like such a slacker whenever I read one of your school/teaching posts. You’ll recognize this comment. I copied and pasted it from my facebook comment on your post. Now that’s lazy!

Catherine – I give you an A for effort! I’ve had so many great comments on facebook, but most people are too lazy/scared? to press the COMMENT button, so their comments will appear here. Feel free to cut and paste away.:) The straws and paperclip project was a last minute idea because I hadn’t had time to copy the homework. I sent all the materials home in plastic sleeve protectors! Necessity IS the mother… Jan


3. Michelle - July 7, 2009

Now that my 2nd grader soon to be 3rd grader is on summer break, I breath a sigh of relief that she has no homework. That packet that she takes home every Monday is just extra work for me. I have a very bright child, but she doesn’t want to do her homework. It becomes a tug of war between parent and child. This year, she had to do a report on … Read Morethe life cycle of a housecat. I almost had a heart attack! I have to write a report! Not only did I have to do the research online, but I also had to spoon feed her the sentences. At a certain point, I just stopped spoon feeding her and wrote the damn thing myself. This project was way over a 2nd graders head, and she didn’t learn a thing. When she got the report back and received 34 out of 36 points, I was tempted to go to the teacher and tell her I wanted my 2 extra points. My point is, that homework at this level is a bit of a waste. But I think she is receiving a lesson in self-discipline. I am enjoying the summer break…

MIchelle – Sounds like you learned a lesson in self-discipline too, as spoon feeding is hard work! When I taught second grade, students had to write an animal report. I cringed when one girl got to the the part where the animal “urinated to mark its territory.” Not only couldn’t the girl pronounce it, but she had no clue what she was talking about because her mother had written the report.

Glad you’re enjoying the summer. And I’ll give you those 2 extra points for honesty. 🙂 Jan


4. moxey - July 7, 2009

When you have a student who does not love school, homework is akin to torture. For the student, and for the parent. I have had many moments where I considered letting Spawn off the hook and letting the chips fall where they may.

In my humble opinion, homework for the lower grades is bunk. Pure and simple. A project once in a while, sure — we’ve had some good times doing a diorama. But the day in, day out, overwrought process of take-home reading/writing/’rithmatic? Gah. *I* hate school.

I remember having homework starting in about the 6th grade, and at that, it wasn’t much. I remember being slightly excited because this meant that I was “grown up.” It didn’t last long, and I learned to dread homework along with the rest of my peers. But at least I had escaped the drudgery up to that point.

My best friend has been doing her son’s homework for years. I always ask her how her grades are. She was salutorian of my senior class, so she’s no slouch. But her son has such a boatload of homework (he’ll be a Soph. this year) that there is no way he can get it done, participate in extracurriculars, and also rest every night. It’s insane.

One of the private schools in my area has a no-homework policy. If it weren’t outrageously expensive and out of my way, we’d consider sending Spawn there. The students there are consistently high achievers who go on to top-notch colleges. Information like that makes you go “hmmm.”

Moxey – I hear ya. I still remember my dad helping me make a flour and salt map of Alaska. I was basically an innocent bystander. What I’ve found is that the kids who are going to do well in school, don’t need to do homework. And the kids who struggle at school, struggle even more with homework and to what end? Many of my students don’t have an adult who speaks English at home.

Our supply budget has been cut way back for next year, so I’m looking for ways to save a few trees and spare myself and parents those homework-induced headaches. Jan


moxey - July 8, 2009

Hm, you’ve given me an idea. Our theme this year for school is “go green” – meaning the school is trying to reduce the amount of paper it uses. Newsletters, supply lists, etc will be emailed rather than printed and sent via snail mail. (Saves postage, too.) Save the trees! It’s a perfect argument for reducing homework!

Of course this argument will be akin to tilting at windmills, but oh well.


5. elissestuart - July 7, 2009

Jan: You are so right kids who do well in school don’t need to do homework. My youngest son spent the last month of school reviewing everything they learned all year. He about died of boredom. I had to tell him that 90% of his class didn’t get it the first 12 times they were taught the concept, the teacher had to go over it another 7 times.

I was proud of him for getting an award for scoring Proficient on the STAR test in English. Secretly I thought to myself, why didn’t he score Advanced? Then I realized that he was the only one who scored Advanced. Everyone scored basic or below.

He is looking forward to being in honors classes where he doesn’t have to wait for everyone else to catch up.

BTW is that Petey or Reese posing for you? Good job!

Elisse – I’d jump for joy if all my students scored Proficient! Congrats to Sam. BTW, that’s Reese, and she always does the homework before she eats it. Jan


6. Jessica Pasternak - July 9, 2009

Jan — As a parent, my experience with and feelings about homework were much the same as those voiced in the comments above and your blog. As a first grade teacher, I am required to assign homework. So I try very hard to follow the dictum that it is meant to practice and reinforce a skill the students are in the process of learning. I NEVER send home a weekly “homework packet,” as this misses the point entirely. Instead, I spend the last 10 minutes of every lunch break putting together the homework for that day. It is always a practice of something we have worked on that day. It is always one skill in language arts and one skill in math that I THINK they’ve mastered…not one that I already know needs reteaching. We never go over HW in class…instead, I use 10 minutes of my precious one hour of aide time to have her go over the HW quickly. She tells me what they seem to have gotten, what clearly needs reteaching, eliminating all those obviously done by the parents. There are no consequences for not turning in HW…but students who do regularly turn it in get a lot of praise and positive feedback for doing so. It is sort of like practicing the piano, boring, repetitive, but if you do it you will get better at playing than those who don’t. For my 80-90% ELL students, here are some reasons I think HW is a good thing: they have to practice the English language for an extra half hour each day. Their overworked, exhausted parents are forced to spend an extra half hour sitting and working individually with the student…something they might understandably not do if HW didn’t have to be done. Plus, as several mothers have informed me, it helps the parents learn English. (I have actually had parents ask for more HW because they like the little stories and vocabulary practice!)

Jessica – What’s an aide? Jan


7. Jessica Pasternak - July 9, 2009

PS: (Didn’t have enough space to finish…) Just wanted to say that mine is not an argument FOR homework…as I said, I agree with everything YOU said. But seeing that I have to do it….any suggestions, comments, or great ideas for FUN HW projects would be gratefully accepted!

Jessica – Since our district has adopted a NEW, but not that different from the OLD, homework policy, I think part of our Action Research is going to be helping explain this to parents and to teachers, along with offering examples/alternatives. This should make for an interesting year. Jan


8. Jessica Pasternak - July 9, 2009

PSS: –Oh, yeah, that part about helping parents learn English WAS meant as a joke…but it is also true that many of my students’ parents are recent immigrants, extremely poor, and without other resources…so in fact, I believe them when they tell me it helps them as well.


9. Bev from england - July 11, 2009

ahhhh now my son is older i think….im not 100% sure of american grades :-S …over the years hes had some HW but not too much…i found i often didnt really understand what he had to do tho…so how can i help when im not sure? lol

since hes been at the senior school HW was hard work…i had to ask him every day had he got any n what..and made a list of it to cross off cos neither of us could read what he wrote in his diary….i did ask would someone please make sure it was legible but to no avail. Hed never just not do the work…but many times we just didnt know what he was meant to do. Once he was in the nurture group it was easier cos they didnt give any for a long time n by the time i realised he was getting some it was a bit late….oh well terms almost over but next year when hes back in main stream i must make my list again….

i totally agree about ?? how useful the HW actually is too….and i think home is a place to relax from school, still a place to learn but not in a formal way.



10. janelleholden - July 13, 2009

I’m about ready to reveal a shocking detail about my life. Ready? I was home-schooled until sixth grade – primarily because the trend at the time was to not teach phonics and my mother was very against the grain in that regard and there was only one choice for elementary school. So … I always achieved in the 90th percentile in the standardized testing (they required it for home-schooled children) and my day went something like this – from 8:00 – 12:00 reading/language, math, music, and assignments for each) and from 1:00 – 3:00 read together until nap or play time outside. Evenings were for more reading or more outside time or more music. I never had homework until I entered public school in 6th grade and I was fine. Then, when I got to Middle School, most of the time it was “busy work” that I brought home (find your spelling word in the word puzzle sort of stuff). I didn’t have justifiable homework until high school.

Janelle – How interesting. I homeschooled my oldest son from for two years (5th to 7th grade). It was after we’d lived outside Seattle where homeschooling was much more common. Taylor was such a bright child, but was bored silly at school and opted to quiz out of high school. He’s just now starting college at 26. I think it’s taken him this long to get over his aversion to school. Jan


11. katrinastonoff - September 10, 2010

I think it’s *always* the parent who “learns discipline” when young children have daily homework (assuming anyone learns it at all).

My children have such a short window to play and be active outside between arriving home at 4 p.m. and the time it gets dark. I think that’s much more important than doing a word search of their classmate’s names (honest to dog, that was one of my fourth-grader’s assignments this week).

Katrina – Oh my dog! A perfectly good word search squandered as homework! This would have been a great thing to leave for a sub to kill, er I mean fill, time. One of the things mentioned in The Homework Myth was that’s it usually the parent who develops “discipline.” 😦 Jan


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