Homework remains a contentious issue in American education with many parents complaining their children have too much of it at too young of age and applauding districts that ban homework altogether.
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

Study: Improve quality of homework assigned to students

In a new study, the Center for American Progress delves into the quality of American homework assignments and finds a lot of them don’t demand much from students besides basic skills.

The study released today by the liberal Washington-based think tank examined whether homework assignments align with Common Core State Standards and the intent of the standards to promote deeper learning. 

Although a framework and not a curriculum, Common Core has become highly politicized. However, its elevation of deeper learning and getting students to show not only what they know, but what they can do with that knowledge is now generally embraced by most states. 

While the study found assignments largely align to the standards, it also noted homework is often “rote and focuses on basic skills such as procedural knowledge in math or memorization and recall in language arts. It generally does not require students to demonstrate deeper knowledge skills, such as the ability to analyze, conceptualize, or generate—as required by Common Core.”

Homework remains a contentious issue in American education with many parents complaining their children have too much of it at too young of age and applauding districts that ban homework altogether. However, many nations that outperform the United States in math and reading impose far more homework.

A 2014 Brookings study found only 5 percent of 9-year-olds spent more than two hours a night on homework; 22 percent had no homework. Only 13 percent of 17-year-olds --- typically juniors or seniors in high school --- spent more than two hours a night on homework. A surprising 27 percent of 17-year-olds reported no homework.

Studies vary on the value of homework. A 2006 Duke study found homework improved academic performance of older students. A 2012 study out of the University of Virginia concluded time spent on math and science homework had no impact on course grades, but modestly improved standardized test scores.

It’s hard to generalize on homework because students themselves bring many variables. Younger students who report excessive homework may have a learning problem that causes them to take longer to finish their work. Teens logging hours of homework are often enrolled in Advanced Placement classes. A Stanford study sampled students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California communities and found students averaged about 3.1 hours of homework each night. 

Opponents of homework argue children’s time would be better spent reading the great books. The problem is many kids aren’t forgoing homework to read “War and Peace” but to play “Warcraft.” 

Over the last 20 years, I’ve written a lot about homework and often turned to leading scholar Harris Cooper of Duke. After a flareup of the homework wars a few years ago, that time around homework in early grades, Cooper told me something that I think ought to guide parents: "You are never going to show an enormous effect on achievement from homework with a second-grader. But homework can have possible effects on learning and study habits, time management and on the parents' ability to see what their child's strengths and weaknesses are. It is helpful to think about homework the same way you think about prescribed medication or a dietary supplement. Take too little of it and it won't have any effect at all. Take too much and it can kill you.”

In its conclusions, the Center for American Progress says the conversation should not be whether kids have any homework but whether that homework is engaging and extends student understanding and learning.

Here are some of the center’s recommendations:

Developing strategic homework policies that prioritize engaging, rigorous homework that follows the 10-minute rule—that is to say, no more than 10 minutes of homework multiplied by the student’s grade level

Conducting periodic audits to ensure that assignments are challenging and aligned to the Common Core standards

Providing access to technology and various supports to ensure that students can complete rigorous assignments at home

Making homework a focus of curriculum reform and instructional redesign efforts

“States, districts, and schools should develop policies that encourage teachers to assign engaging homework assignments that push students to think critically and apply concepts to real-world situations. Exemplary homework assignments in the sample demonstrate that increasing the rigor of homework doesn’t require students to devote hours to homework every night,” said Meg Benner, senior consultant at the Center and co-author of the report.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.