down with homework? a look at a new front in education “reform”

When I was a student (be it grade school, middle school, high school, college, or grad school), I mostly hated homework (I say mostly because some assignments and projects were legitimately interesting); I don’t miss the sleepless nights and laborious assignments handed to me during my high school, college, and grad school years. As such, you’d think that hearing news that school districts in various states are reducing and even eliminating homework in the classroom would make me happy – but it didn’t. Why, you might ask? As I will show through various media pieces, you’ll see that there are familiar motives at play here.

Let us take a look at the media pieces in question.

Exhibit A: Gaithersburg, Maryland

Gaithersburg Elementary School has abolished homework. Instead, students are being asked to read a book for about 30 minutes a night. When Stephanie Brant came aboard as principal two years ago, she and her staff conducted a review of homework assignments.

“We really started evaluating the work that we sent students home with,” explained Principal Brant. “We started looking, and really, it was a lot of worksheets. And the worksheets didn’t match what we were doing instructionally in the classroom. It was just: we were giving students something because we felt we had to give them something.”

(Emphasis mine.)

So instead of enacting reforms that tailor the homework to “match what they were doing instructionally,” they abolish it entirely! That said, the former policy does look to me like another case of administrative incompetence (which is unfortunately commonplace). Let’s read on:

Principal Brant believes the generalized order to read something every night is sparking maturation and motivation among many students.

Parent Angela Atherton, who has a third grade daughter at Gaithersburg, said, last year, “She actually came home with a calendar. And so every night she would check off that she had done her reading homework.”

(Emphasis mine.)

So a “generalized order” (heh, G.O.) to read daily sparks “maturation and motivation,” but not any other kind of HW? The problem, highlighted earlier in the article, was homework that was at best tangentially related to the course material. Of course, piling on such assignments may also reduce motivation. However, an important link is missing; once one mentions motivation, one must also mention IQ since there’s a relationship between the two. Specifically, the link references this study showing that IQ tests also measure motivation, thus overpredicting academic and life outcomes; however, the researchers note:

It is important not to overstate our conclusions. For all measured outcomes in Study 2, the predictive validity of intelligence remained statistically significant when controlling for the nonintellective traits underlying test motivation. Moreover, the predictive validity of intelligence was significantly stronger than was the predictive validity of test motivation for academic achievement. In addition, both Studies 1 and 2 indicate that test motivation is higher and less variable among participants who are above-average in measured IQ. These findings imply that earning a high IQ score requires high intelligence in addition to high motivation. Lower IQ scores, however, might result from either lower intelligence or lack of motivation. Thus, given closer-to-maximal performance, test motivation poses a less serious threat to the internal validity of studies using higher-IQ samples, such as college undergraduates, a popular convenience sample for social science research. Test motivation as a third-variable confound is also less likely when experimenters provide substantial performance-contingent incentives or when test results directly affect test takers (e.g., intelligence tests used for employment or admissions decisions).

(Emphasis mine.)

Note the last line. If test motivation has a smaller effect on IQ’s predictive power vis-à-vis high-stakes exams, methinks it’s fairly reasonable to state that IQ retains said power vis-à-vis nationwide achievement gaps in standardized test scores; this also means one cannot cite low motivation as the main cause of poor performance on said tests (whether by members of “disadvantaged” groups or otherwise; this doesn’t mean motivation isn’t a cause at all, however).

(If that doesn’t convince you, here’s another paper showing the relationship between IQ, self-control, and achievement (as measured by both standardized test scores and GPA); note that homework completion mediated the self-control – GPA link in one of their studies.)

Moreover, once one mentions IQ (especially in the context of education reform), one must mention IQ differences and hence demographics since they’re related. And speaking of demographics:

Principal Brant knows this “reading only” homework policy runs a risk, but so far, the standardized test scores remain solid. In the most recent round of Maryland proficiency exams (2010-2011), fifth graders at Gaithersburg Elementary School scored about 72 percent proficiency in math and about 81 percent proficiency in reading.

What makes those scores particularly impressive is the student body at Gaithersburg Elementary is largely poor and comes from homes where English is not the primary language. About 70 percent of the students come from non-English speaking homes. And 82 percent of the students come from homes where family income is so low that the students are eligible for a free or subsidized lunch.

(Emphasis mine.)

Here’s some more from a Washington Examiner article on the issue (which mentions other schools adopting similar policies):

Educators at both schools said they were concerned that lower-income students with working parents didn’t have the same advantages as other students when it came to take-home assignments.

…”We did have a few teachers feel strongly and take issue with it,” said Susan Brownsword, a teacher at South Lakes [High School]. “I don’t think it will go 100 percent smoothly [this] year, but we are all for the fairness of our students and we are going forward with this.”

At Gaithersburg Elementary, Brant says she wasn’t bothered when, after abolishing homework and pushing reading, the percentage of third-graders passing the Maryland School Assessment reading test dropped from 76 percent to 64 percent this spring. The fourth-grade pass rate stayed the same, while the fifth-grade rate increased from 81 to 84 percent.

(Emphasis mine; BTW, here’s a link with info on Gaithersburg Elementary, including demographics.)

From whence, this concern about low-income students? Are they missing HW or perhaps scoring lower on same relative to others? Are the teachers and staff assuming a priori that they’ll have a hard time? How many times must we lower the damn standards because this one and that one struggle? How much longer will we discount merit and denude achievement?

Clearly these cats haven’t grasped the saw “equality of opportunity doesn’t guarantee equality of outcome.” Worse still, they’re trying to equalize outcomes by constraining opportunities for students to showcase their potential!

Let’s move on to Exhibit B: Nashville, Tennessee

Extra credit and grading homework are now things of the past and the goal is to improve Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) scores.

One example is if you take your driver’s license test and fail, you can study more, learn what you need and come back and take it again.

That’s the same concept that is being used in middle schools to make sure students are actually learning the standards.

(Emphasis mine.)

Would you look at this – the teaching to the test/lowered standards tag team manifests itself yet again! I remember a time when students who didn’t “learn the standards” (e.g. failed HW, exams, or the course itself) made up said material (if the teacher allowed it) or repeated the grade. But then we’d be “leaving children behind” and we absolutely cannot have that! :-/

Anything to “equalize” outcomes, it seems. But wait – it gets better:

“We want students to have opportunities to show mastery, which means they might have multiple opportunities to show mastery on a particular standard,” said Amy Downey of Metro Schools.

So what does that look like?

First of all, there’s no more extra credit, but grades also won’t be docked for behavioral issues.

Homework is designed to be practice and not something for a grade. If a student doesn’t do well on a test, they’ll have an opportunity to take it again.

(Emphasis mine.)

That’s right, y’all – you can act a fool in school without penalty! But work extra hard and you’ll get no reward – and they say homework is killing motivation?! As a dude once at the receiving end of bullying in middle school, I resent this change. But who gives a sh*t about bullying and other bad behavior – equality of outcome is of far greater import! :-/

Exhibit C: Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles Unified, is rolling out a new policy where homework can only count for 10 percent of a student’s grade. Students will no doubt be thrilled by the new policy, but teachers are worried it will encourage students to slack off on doing their assignments — and even could penalize hardworking students who receive higher marks for effortit’s being done to try to create a level academic playing field. The policy claims that “varying degrees of access to academic support, for whatever reason, should not penalize a student so severely that it prevents the student from passing a class, nor should it inflate the grade,” and is a refection [sic] of the many issues that face LA’s students.

(Emphasis mine.)

Here we go again with the “level academic playing field” rhetoric. Let’s be real – limiting or eliminating HW does not level the playing field; are students who are heterogeneous outside of school suddenly homogeneous in school? Methinks not. Also, what about in-school academic support like tutoring? Is the home the only place where students can receive “academic support?” (I could go even further – is the home the only place HW gets done? Anecdotally – and perhaps generally – the answer is no.) Let’s continue.

Excerpts from the LA Times:

Some educators also object to a one-size-fits-all mandate they said could hamstring teaching or homogenize it. They say, too, that students who do their homework perform significantly better than those who don’t — a view supported by research.


The L.A. approach is intended to account for the myriad urban problems facing the district’s mostly low-income, minority population. It’s also aimed at supporting L.A. Unified’s increasing focus on boosting measureable academic achievement.


The homework change accompanies another policy being tested: More than three dozen campuses are experimenting with boosting a student’s grade for improved performance on state standardized tests.

Both policies were quietly developed this year under the auspices of Chief Academic Officer Judy Elliott. Both emphasize measurable results in a school system in which teachers, principals and even the superintendent will be evaluated on student performance.

(Emphasis mine.)

Same sh*t, different day. All hail the almighty Standardized Test, lest it pass judgment over your soul. :-/

Guess these cats haven’t learned from the NCLB-related cheating scandals and from the fact that test-based curricula do little to nothing to improve academic achievement or close achievement gaps. Newsflash – people are different; you could lower the bar ’till it hits the floor and it still won’t change this.

Exhibit D: New Jersey. This case, though well over a year old, interests me because the article presents two divergent opinions. First up, Harris Cooper:

The effects of homework on elementary students appear to be small, almost trivial; expectations for homework’s effects, especially short-term and in the early grades, should be modest…For high school students, however, homework can have significant effects on achievement.”

(Emphasis mine.)

Cooper et al. conducted a meta-analysis of homework studies performed between 1987 and 2003; their findings show, in general, that homework was positively related to academic achievement and that this relation was stronger for older (i.e. high school) students. The paper also gives insight into how much homework (in terms of time) is ideal:

Cooper’s (1989) meta-analysis found that for high school students the positive relation between time on homework and achievement did not appear until at least 1 hour of homework per week was reported. Then the linear relation continued to climb unabated to the highest measured interval (more than 2 hours per night). For junior high students the positive relation appeared for even small amounts of time on homework (less than 1 hour per night) but disappeared entirely after students reported doing between 1 and 2 hours each night. Only one study was available for Grades 1–6 but the lack of a simple linear relationship at these grade levels suggested the line would be flat.

(Emphasis mine.)

So we see that too much homework is bad, but so is getting rid of it all (with the possible exception of the earliest grades, but even in these cases I think HW has its uses – e.g. in “gifted and talented” programs).

Speaking of “getting rid of HW,” here’s a note in the same article from Alfie Kohn, author of the book The Homework Myth:

“It’s one thing to say we are wasting kids’ time and straining parent-kid relationships..but what’s unforgivable is if homework is damaging our kids’ interest in learning, undermining their curiosity.”


The standards and accountability craze that has our students in its grip argues for getting tougher with children, making them do more mindless worksheets at earlier ages so that we can score higher in international assessmentsIt’s not about learning, it’s about winning.”

(Emphasis mine.)

What’s ironic about his sentiment here (especially the part I emphasized) is that some districts are axing HW because of the “standards” – look at the Tennessee case! Heck, look at education across the U.S. – “Race to the Top,” anyone? “It’s about winning,” indeed! 😦

Except that students, as was the case with the NCLB reforms, lose.

In closing, I’ll say this: too much homework is bad – reform that meaningfully addresses this is good, but axing it completely is not the way to go! Moreover, because the move to ax HW has little to do with “academic achievement” and more to do with equalizing outcomes (lol) and closing achievement gaps (i.e. lowered standards and continued ignorance of innate differences in ability), methinks these moves will end with the same results as those produced by NCLB…

…namely, a regression to mediocrity.

Discuss (Be respectful. No trolling or threats allowed; violators subject to moderation or ban. Thanks!)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s