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Students do not have very much homework

One of my favorite nonsensical posters.
One of my favorite nonsensical posters.

favicon Homework is likely the most popular and most controversial educational topic out there.

Maybe that’s because parents feel they have to force their kids to complete homework when they would rather play their XBox 360 or PlayStation. (The antecedent “they” is purposely ambiguous.)

I’ve written about homework a lot, too, including this post about what the French think about it. When the French get involved, things get serious.

The latest brouhaha in the homework debate emerged the other day, when the Brookings Institution published “Homework in America,” part of the Brown Center Report on American Education.

Its conclusion? Homework hasn’t changed much since 1987. This means: A few students probably have too much. But there aren’t very many of those students. Far more prevalent: Most students have very manageable amounts of homework.

Here’s a (playful) video that you should watch:

What I found interesting is that 27 percent of 17-year-olds in 2012 reported having no homework. High school seniors said they spent more time socializing with friends, playing sports, and working at their job than doing homework.

In my experience, that seems right.

Here’s where I’m coming from: The students I taught, and the students I’m working with now, do very little homework. My estimate is that the average is less than an hour a night. Sometimes that goes up when a major project is due. But for the most part, homework is not the norm.

According to my colleagues, the primary reason that there’s not much homework is that “students don’t do it.” Depending on the school and the grade level, the homework completion rate ranges from 30 to 90 percent.

Now comes the interesting part. Because few students do the homework, the common result is that teachers assign less. Here are a smattering of reasons I’ve heard:

  • What’s the point of assigning it if the students aren’t going to do it?
  • If I assign it and they don’t do it, then the achievement gap gets even worse.
  • My homework requires technology, and not all students have computers at home.
  • Many of my students have challenging home lives, so I can’t count on homework getting done.

I totally understand the natural reflex of teachers to decrease the amount of homework. It’s normal. Unfortunately, it lowers expectations. It tells the students that we expect less of them.

There are educators (like Alfie Kohn, for instance) who would rather get rid of homework altogether. They claim that homework is an outgrowth of the factory model of education and is oppressive to children’s creativity.

Most of my colleagues are not in this camp. Very few of them would say that homework should be abolished.

While I do not equate homework with rigor, as some people do, I do see a problem when my students, who aspire to do good things, are doing less than an hour a night (and thinking that’s normal) while my eighth grade niece, who lives in the suburbs, does 2-3 hours and is attending an elite high school in the Fall, on track to attend a UC school or better.

I believe that we have to tell our students the truth, over and over again.

It’s not that our students have to be just like me, who probably spent too much time doing homework as a kid. (My average: Probably 3 hours.) But if they’re truly serious about attending college, then we as educators need to figure out a way to insist and require that students do significant academic work outside the regular school day.

Certainly this might mean changing things up — for example, changing the bell schedule so that students can begin homework at school. Some schools extend the day and hire tutors to help students do their work.

However we do it: Instead of retreating from homework and dismissing it as a dirty word, let’s embrace it, call it our friend, make it happen. favicon


  1. Rebecca Hipps

    I found your thoughts on the homework issue really interesting. We have to consider the TYPES of homework that is being assigned. Too often, the homework that gets assigned is busy work. If we are assigning just to assign, I think it’s a waste of time. However, when the homework is used to build student’s interest in a subject (such as a robust independent reading program where kids are reading both in school and at home) or creating opportunities to prepare for the next day’s class conversations, it is more useful. Anything that inspires self initiated learning at home is going to payout in achievement/long term habits, much further than an assignment. What I question from an equity standpoint is when teachers are sending home assessments/longer writing assignments. (Especially in the younger grades.) You can quickly sort the results into a few categories: Those that are independent and have mastered the skills, those that obviously received excess help from parents, those that really struggle and lack the independent skills to complete the assignments, and those that didn’t complete it. Basically, it reinforces what we already knew in the first place about study habits and parental support, and doesn’t show us anything about what they can actually do. What is even more unfortunate is that these categories often reflect race. I am constantly thinking about the homework I assign. I have found that creating an engaging class goal (we are doing an independent reading challenge for the rest of the year) involving independent reading, motivates the kids to CHOOSE to read at home. That is what I am going for.

    • Mark Isero (@iserotope)

      Hi Rebecca, thank you for your comments. I agree with you that homework cannot be busywork. Independent reading is my favorite kind of homework, but my colleagues and I have sometimes had trouble encouraging reading outside of school — with or without the “dreaded reading log.” I would love to hear your ideas!

Please share your brilliant insights!