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The homework gap is huge

Homeworkfavicon Last night, I attended a birthday party, and I got to talking with someone who is extremely concerned about homework.

“There’s just too much,” she said.

She talked about the fight she’s having with her school to lower the amount of homework for her teenage daughter. “Have you read the studies that the typical high school student gets more than three hours of homework a night?”

Yes, I replied. Yes, I have.

But then I told her that there are actually two homework problems: (1) Students in suburban schools are probably doing too much, while (2) Students in urban schools are probably doing too little.

Many of my colleagues, especially those at the San Francisco school where I work, have given up on assigning homework. “It’s just not going to get done,” one said. “Students refuse to do it,” said another.

The problem, of course, is that these students (and their families) want to go to college, just like their suburban counterparts. And even though it can be argued that some assignments aren’t worthwhile, this homework gap contributes to academic unpreparedness.

Many urban charter schools, like KIPP and Uncommon Schools, have turned to extending their days to help students with their homework. After-school mentoring programs, like First Graduate, do the same. This approach makes sense: If the students aren’t going to do homework at home, have them do it before they leave school.

But not all schools have the resources to pull this off, even if they wanted to. That doesn’t mean, though, that teachers have to give up on homework entirely.

My favorite approach is “Your Homework is Due Tonight,” which capitalizes on technology (smartphones, usually) to encourage students to take care of homework before they go to sleep. Another idea I like is promoting a common “Homework Half Hour” (say, from 7:30 to 8:00) when everyone (including the teacher!) is doing homework, available for help, and working as a team to complete the assignment.

No matter where we stand on the homework debate, it’s pretty clear that it’s not going away anytime soon, and despite its sometime ills, homework does matter for students’ chances at college.

For urban kids of color who will be first-generation college students, homework is a must.

So while homework is here, it’s important that teachers try out creative ways to increase homework completion so that students feel like they’re part of the academic conversation. favicon


  1. Laura Hawkins

    Lots of great points, Mark. When I went from teaching at a great public school to teaching at a great private school, the change that had the biggest impact on me was that students basically all just did their homework (for lots and lots of reasons that yes, have to do with the learning culture built at each school, and just as importantly with poverty, systematic racism, and various other social systems). An unexpected outcome of this, for me, was that I no longer “had” to grade homework to “make” students do it (a possibly flawed conclusion that I came to at my previous school). Both groups of students are equally capable of checking answers and debating concepts with each other when everyone has done the work, but if only one kid per group had done the homework, they couldn’t get the feedback they needed without my grading it personally. So now that I don’t have to do that every day, instead I can focus my prep time on lessons and learning. It’s huge for me as a person and as a teacher, because it’s a better use of my time for my students.

    • Mark Isero

      Thank you for your thoughts, Laura! The past two years (at my new great public schools), I’ve noticed that teachers spend less time emphasizing homework, grading, and talking about grading. As a result, there is more time and energy planning lessons and determining which students need small-group instruction. Which is good.

      But I also notice that there’s not as much of an emphasis on rigor. No matter how we define that term, homework (and grading homework) does send the message of rigor. And that’s all very well and good if students are doing it. But if students aren’t doing it, well, that’s a whole different story.

Please share your brilliant insights!