Homework: Applying Research to Policy

  • Grades: 3–5

The results are in on homework at the elementary level, and the findings call for a change. Researchers like Alfie Kohn, Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish are advocating wide-spread changes to our homework policies. What changes need to be made and how? What works? What doesn't? I'd like to share some of my methods that help support the research. First, let's look at these alarming statistics1:

  • Research reports that exactly half of parents admit to having a serious argument with their child over homework in the past year that involved yelling or crying.
  • Cross-cultural data disproves the claim that countries whose students do more homework tend to be those with the best test scores.
  • Top performing countries like Japan and Finland assign less homework than U.S. students.
  • Studies have found no significant relationships on grades and test scores based on the amount of homework given or completed.

Applying the Research

As a result of my findings, I have made two significant changes to my homework policy regarding type of homework assigned and parent collaboration and support.

Type of Homework: One Assignment Can Fit All!

In our classroom the bulk of our homework is devoted to reading books of interest. I support this because:

  • I can provide and receive feedback with each of my students during our individual reading conferences vs. placing a check mark on a worksheet I skimmed over briefly.
  • Reading creates differentiation for each child in a natural way by allowing choice vs. a worksheet that may meet the needs of a few.
  • Reading homework gets discussed with their classmates through our daily book talks.
  • Reading for long periods of time supports good study habits, learning stamina, responsibility, as well as developing a life-long love for reading. How often does your child get lost in their homework?
  • Reading can be completed by listening to a book on CD, read with a family member, or completed independently, allowing a mixture of approaches.
  • As shown below, reading increases vocabulary and test scores. There is also evidence that it leads to an increase of understanding for all content areas.

Achievement Percentile    Minutes of Reading/Day   Words per Year

90th                                          40.4                                          2,357,000

50th                                          12.9                                          601,000

10th                                          1.6                                            51,000

Source: Adapted from Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988 (Allington, Richard)

Assigning homework for the sake of assigning homework is strongly avoided now, with an emphasis on extensions that will help at home.  So if we are learning about fractions, I try to apply our higher-order teaching skills by requesting that parents let their child help out with cooking for the night and report about it through writing and talk in class.  If we are learning how to read timelines, students may interview family members at home with a timeline presentation at school.  This type of homework assignment works well as a school-home extension and supports the type of learning strategies we know works best for our students. At the very minimum, if a skill sheet is sent home then I try to send answers home as well to ensure the process is focused on, rather than just a correct answer. Homework is not graded as it is considered practice, so why not provide the answers for help?  

Parent Collaboration Guidelines

In the past I assigned 30 minutes of reading for each child.  This year, I have changed that policy to just reading without a specified time frame.  I do this because I don't want students reading to the clock, and because I trust that I have educated parents to guide their child toward an appropriate amount of time through specified strategies.  It is imperative that parents collaborate with me and understand the role homework plays in life outside of school. I take three steps in creating these guidelines for collaboration:  

1) Educate

The first step I take is educating parents on our homework policy for the year.  I provide separate guidelines for parents so they know it's okay to call it quits when Johnny is struggling with a concept or if the project is taking much longer than expected. I also let parents know that it's okay for their child to have a life outside of school.  Considering I have my students for seven hours each day, I think time to play soccer, play a board game, and help mom cook is time not wasted.

It also helps to put it in perspective with numbers.  Let's say, for example, a child reads for 30 minutes every night for homework. Not taking the weekends into account, that's 5,400 minutes or 90 hours of reading at home. That's a lot of help!

Click here (PDF) for my parent and student guideline letter.
Click here (PDF) for my nightly homework guidelines.

2) Three-Way Feedback

I also believe that it is important to provide and receive homework/class work feedback from students and parents.  One of the ways I do this is by providing a reflection log each week. The reflection log is sent home Thursday evening and turned in the following morning. This log encourages parents and students to report their concerns and celebrations from the week, as well as set goals together for the next week. This allows me to deal with any concerns at school, rather than having parents feel frustrated or helpless at home. I also enjoy the constructive feedback from students and parents alike.  Recently, a student posted a concern that I sometimes speak too quickly. This comment really stuck with me and helped me slow down with my classroom instruction. It also gives parents a place to voice their observations at home, and my instruction benefits in the process.

Click here (PDF) for my reflection log.

3) Let me help

When parents understand that I am willing to receive and act on weekly feedback, they are more likely to solicit help when needed.  For example, if a parent wants to know how they can help with reading comprehension at home, I become a resource rather than a mandate. "I have found this to be helpful," is better received than, "Do this for X amount of minutes."

In the case that a parent believes their child should have more homework, I make sure to come up with an individualized plan that involves the child.  What is it that they need more help and motivation with? What will help at home?  Perhaps a unit of study would be the best approach to learning more about a given topic, rather than a collection of worksheets that will provide little to no motivation. 

Homework, like teaching, should have the option of being individualized. I have individualized my approach, but I have made sure to apply the research I've read to our policy. I also believe that as educators we need to be aware of the most up-to-date research available. Here are a few recommended readings/sites:

  • Allington, Richard. What Really Matters for Struggling Readers (Allyn and Bacon, 2005).
  • Bennett, Sara & Kalish, Nancy. The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It (New York: Crown, 2006).
  • 1Kohn, Alfie. The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006).
  • Alfie Kohn's Scholastic article: Is Homework Really Good for Kids?
  • Visit the Homework Hub through Scholastic.

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