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Is Homework Really Worth All The Trouble?

A new school year is upon us and I can already hear the crying and fighting in so many homes over homework assignments. Does homework really serve a purpose? While it has some relevance in high school, the benefit of homework in middle school is much less consistent. At the elementary level, homework has still less value than believed...other than to bring in more unneeded stress and disrupted bedtimes.

Homework is practice. Homework should – only – be given in smaller portions and proportionate to age starting at no more than about 30 minutes (on some nights of the week) for elementary age children. Homework should also and only include that which the teacher is generally certain his/her students know based on the classroom instruction by the teacher each day.

Homework should never be given to teach new material; it should never be used as punishment or presume or ‘force’ parent participation who, of course, are not paid school staff. If kids can’t do a homework assignment on their own and without parent/adult help, it should not have been assigned. Homework should also not be to ‘build responsibility’ outside of the classroom. Teachers need to teach and prioritize student responsibility and follow through during the school day.

Some years ago, a very good middle school teacher told me that he never gave homework since he figured it was his job to teach the material correctly during the day. He saw homework as a way of admitting he wasn't teaching very effectively. While I wasn’t quite as sure about the ‘never’ part, I absolutely understood and supported his position. I also figured that such motivation and drive was exactly a reason he was such a good teacher

I’ve had teachers argue they give homework so their students have something to do at home; something to do after school. While I understand and empathize, teachers already have far too many additional responsibilities and need to focus in on they what they do best; that is, the classroom and school without creating unnecessary work for themselves or their students. Find activities that engage and motivate kids; give them a reason (not a requirement) and many will not only find the time but appreciate the opportunity.

Homework should not be graded but neither should it ever be ignored. Go over it; make reference to homework when it is assigned. Grading and/or punishing children for homework not turned in only often makes them hate homework – and school – still more. Ignoring assigned homework doesn't help much here either.

Grading homework to ‘verify’ that parent(s) helped is as improper as forcing a child to have a parent ‘sign off’ on homework each night then refusing the assignment without that signature. Parents very often have other things to do, too. And for parents who may not always be around, that’s not something else for which to punish the child.

Quick story.

A bunch of years ago, I consulted on an elementary grade kiddo who was raising holy heck on the school bus about every morning. As I assessed, I discovered that while she had some learning challenges, she was a generally engaged and motivated student who tried her best in the classroom. I also discovered that her teacher had been insisting that ALL students could not even turn in completed homework without a parent signature.

In this child’s circumstance, she was parented by a single parent who was not regularly home in the evenings and the little girl often had to put herself to bed. That she had nobody even available to sign her homework most nights combined with the fact that the assigned work and its volume was often a struggle for her to complete left her embarrassed as she got on the school bus.

It turned out that by acting out on the school bus, she was immediately sent to the principal’s office and away from the embarrassment of turning in homework at the start of the school day. I also knew the principal well who was both very skilled and very nice. By revising the parental sign off expectation and the homework assignments for every student while setting up my client to receive some extra 1:1 academic time, which pleased her to no end, her school bus behavioral act outs quickly ended.

It is true that parents may demand homework with many getting quite persnickety if not given to the degree – they – believe it necessary. I’d offer it is the teacher, school and administrators’ responsibility to educate and inform parents as to what really is ‘best practice’ and how they prioritize and teach. Open house; open door classrooms, regular parent nights, notes, phone calls home (especially when their child is NOT in trouble), newsletters and such can be extremely effective tools.

Parents who see their kids happier to be in school while bringing home effective projects and strong challenging tests with good grades will be far more pleased than having to constantly stress over homework. When I’ve trained teachers, I often recommend use of student portfolios especially in elementary and middle school but high school as well.

Portfolios allow children and parents to see and track school productivity and progress to include gains made over time. It helps teachers specifically do the same while providing active and dynamic instructional assessment materials for each child on a week to week basis.

Portfolios can also be quite useful at the preschool level. Besides the reasons given above, it also means that parents don't necessarily have to take in the huge volume of 'creative projects' that overload so many refrigerators on a week to week basis!

Parents should also be encouraged to approach teachers and schools should they think homework is being overdone. For more than a few kids with whom I've worked over the years who were on IEPs, I've had parents take the teacher/team to an IEP meeting to have homework either removed or greatly modified from their child's educational program.

When homework is given, it should be reasonable and occasional while having a specific and distinct purpose other than just to 'give homework.' The degree it should be given at all is up to each individual teacher.

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