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Rethinking Homework

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Does Homework Help?” by Alexandria Neason in Education Update, January 2017 (Vol. 59, #1, p. 1, 4-5), ASCD member log-in access at
In this Education Update article, Alexandria Neason reviews the research on the impact of homework, which is decidedly mixed. One study showed a correlation between completing homework and better scores on unit tests, but the link was weaker in elementary schools. Other studies found no strong evidence of homework leading to higher grades. “We still can’t prove it’s effective,” said education professor Cathy Vatterott, author of a 2009 book on homework. “The research is flawed and idiosyncratic.”
What’s indisputable is that lower-income students find homework a challenge, and not completing homework has a disproportionate impact on their grades. Myron Dueck, a Canadian school leader and author, says one of the most serious effects of homework is “the exacerbation of social and economic inequities that already exist.” Students who are struggling with food insecurity, unstable housing, noisy and distracting home environments, inadequate computer access, after-school jobs or child care, and the normal challenges of adolescence often find homework too much to handle. And indeed, studies of high-school dropouts cite homework as one of the top reasons for throwing in the towel.
Given this gap-widening effect (“We are basically punishing them for their poverty,” says Vatterott) what should schools do? Neason summarizes some possible policy tweaks:
• Beef up the rigor and engagement of in-school lessons so that missing homework takes less of a toll on achievement. One district made a point of including music and sensory objects in heavily scaffolded lessons.
• Give students opportunities to complete homework in school with a conducive study environment and good computer access.
• Use homework to reinforce already-mastered skills or complete assignments that were launched in class rather than introducing new material. “Homework should reinforce students’ confidence in their abilities, not shatter it,” says Neason.
• Don’t assign busywork. Each homework assignment should have a clear rationale and add value.
• Don’t assign homework that requires students to buy special materials like poster board.
• Don’t portray homework as a test of responsibility. Students may be ashamed to tell teachers about out-of-school struggles that make homework difficult for them to complete.
• Rethink the weight of homework on grades. Students might be graded on what they learn rather than on process pieces such as homework assignments. One approach is to make homework optional and check for understanding with a quick quiz the next day.
• Rethink zero-to-100 grading scales, which have a devastating effect when a student gets a zero for missed homework. A 6-5-4-3-2-1 scale mitigates this effect.
• A variation on this is limiting homework to 10 percent of students’ grades or giving a grade of incomplete with time to complete it, perhaps during lunch or recess.
• At the elementary level, eliminate homework entirely. Some elementary schools have stopped assigning homework and encourage students to play and read after school.

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