Homework is, or at least used to be, universal. Those who enjoy learning often remember it as an important part of their own mental development. It helps to build responsibility, valuable habits, and the ability to grapple with a problem on your own.
Like all students, I did my share of homework. As a parent, I struggled to figure out how to help my daughter complete difficult work without helping so much that I was, in effect, doing the work for her. As a teacher for thirty-four years, I assigned it, graded it, and secretly disparaged my students for their laziness when it was incomplete or poorly done.
Elementary teachers generally use it to help students practice a skill taught that day, like doing fifteen multiplication problems similar to those done in class. Secondary teachers also use it this way but are more likely to assign work that is time-consuming and does not require the teacher’s assistance, like reading pages 150-175 of whatever book is being taught in literature class or writing a composition.
Why Is There a Debate over Homework?
Given its general use, many might be surprised to learn that assigning homework is controversial. A failing education system is constantly trying to find the key to a level of success that has eluded them. Is homework part of the problem or part of the cure?
One reason why homework is under fire is that modern education is now much more focused on finding ways to build “higher order thinking skills.” This entails de-emphasizing factual knowledge in favor of constructing original ideas. Examples include instructing students to make inferences from a set of facts or combine and draw conclusions from two separate sets of facts. Such lessons are the new cornerstone of classroom instruction. To be observed teaching just facts can lead to disciplinary action, perhaps even dismissal.
Many states use tests that reinforce this practice. They do not focus on factual knowledge but evaluate the students’ ability to manipulate information. This might be reasonable for high school students, but the system wants to find these skills in fourth graders.
Thus, the teacher is forced to teach skills to nine-year-olds that are beyond their level. This has little to do with intelligence; it is everything to do with maturity.
For young children, homework and critical thinking do not go well together. Attempting to accomplish an impossible task, elementary teachers make assignments that leave students confused, and parents enraged.
No school system wants to deal with enraged parents. So, some school districts are forbidding their teachers to assign homework at all. Others forbid it over the weekend or during Christmas or Easter vacations. In Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, teachers are told to assign it, but not grade it. There is a trend away from homework. No less an oracle than the Wall Street Journal has written about it.
The arguments favoring homework are compelling. It extends the ability of the teacher to teach and the student to learn. The school day is limited. Teachers must cover much material. Exercises or reading at home saves valuable time.
Homework also helps students remember. Think of it as a “booster shot” between daily classes. After twenty-four hours, students forget material. If students study in the evenings, less will be lost. This is especially important over weekends when three days pass without reinforcement.
Until recently, such arguments carried the day. Homework was as much a part of school as chalk, books, and recess. Teachers, administrators, and parents simply accepted its value. Students complained, but a more confident society simply ignored the common complaints of children.
Like much else in society, the confidence of schools was badly shaken in the late sixties. In the modern school system, no practice escaped scrutiny. About 1970, the education profession began to question the value of homework.
Arguments Against Homework
A common argument against homework reflected the deterioration of the family. Those in broken or chaotic families are less likely to be motivated by grades. They suffer the distraction of finding quiet places to work or assume the responsibility of caring for younger children. Expecting these children to complete homework is seen as punishing the child for being poor.
Another argument was expressed by an elementary school principal that I knew years ago, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.” She argued that much traditional homework defeats its purpose if the child fails to grasp an idea. It can lead to repeating mistakes rather than creating habits. Expecting children to do something repeatedly that which they do not know how to do, can cause such students to hate the subject, the teacher, or – far worse – come to see themselves as stupid. It can lead to boredom or indifference.
Homework is susceptible to cheating. No teacher can assume students do their homework. Bus stops, study halls, or homerooms often become makeshift “homework factories” where students copy the work of one diligent scholar.
Another reason reflects the frenzied pace of life in which we live. The Wall Street Journal reports one Texas superintendent saying “We just heard a lot of parents complaining about how the homework was eating into their family life.” Working parents often over-schedule the lives of their children with so many extra activities that they have little time left for family or to do their homework before bedtime. Suggest to that parent that the children are perhaps doing too much, and the response can be explosive. The quest for a soccer scholarship to pay for college becomes a concern for a child in the fifth grade. The hope of raising a superstar athlete or a prima ballerina can easily override the reality of helping a child comprehend grammar.
Sifting the Arguments
The argument over homework reflects what is wrong with American society. Problems that escape other solutions are handed off to the schools. Always eager to claim larger shares of taxpayers’ money, education departments accept those problems before handing them off to already overworked teachers. Many parents demand perfection from teachers while expecting little from their children. The resulting confusion and frustration engulf seemingly simple practices like homework.
There is also a misguided egalitarianism behind many educational decisions that are a natural outgrowth of a socialist system. Indeed, no part of modern American society is more socialist than public education. The desire to make all things equal targets homework. Some students excel, and others fail at homework. Some fail through their own fault; others are victims of circumstance. Eliminating it helps education’s bureaucrats pretend that the income gap, the gender gap, and all the other “gaps” are narrowing.
The education system is obsessed with novelty. No other profession has less respect for its traditions. Homework is a practice that goes back at least a century. Therefore many want to end it.
The final point is that homework is work. Work is difficult. Work can be tedious. Work is not fun. People complain about work. Many rate their own success by their ability to avoid work. No society can long survive if its people are unwilling to work. Homework teaches us to work. We would be foolish to abandon it.