Last year a second-grade teacher from Texas sent a note home to parents declaring that she was not assigning homework. Parents posted it on Facebook, a viral response followed, and, within days, the "no homework" movement was official. Parents, teachers, and students have been debating the pros and cons of homework since the 19th century, but this single event seemed to galvanize an unprecedented commitment to the cause of ending homework once and for all.
The reasons offered for banning homework are varied: Homework can cause undue stress and anxiety; it can be educationally counterproductive; it eats up free time that kids might otherwise use more creatively; and it creates "homework potatoes" — inactive kids — a problem given rising rates of childhood obesity. These arguments seem to hold more true for elementary and middle school students than for high schoolers. According to Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, "there is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school."
Needless to say, not everyone is on this bandwagon. Those who prefer a more traditional approach to education see another side to homework. Advocates argue that homework deadlines foster habits that help us through adulthood; that homework can lead to exceptional educational accomplishments; and that the right kind of assignments promote what one "mom blogger" calls stronger family time. She writes, "time spent doing homework together can recreate the benefits of those lost family dinners." Finally, there's the belief that "America will fall behind" the global brain game if our kids don't keep their noses to the grindstone.
As the parent of two kids — a 10th and an eight grader — I've seen anecdotal evidence supporting both sides of this debate. I'm sure I'm not alone. As for the scholarly research, it cuts every which way, and definitely not toward consensus. Cathy Vatterott, a professor of education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, said in a recent interview that the scholarship on homework is so varied in quality and conclusions that you can go in and pretty much find whatever you need to support any opinion — which, in a way, diminishes its collective significance when it comes to developing an informed opinion on the issue.
If the scholarship doesn't lead to a clear answer, two tools seem necessary for making sense of the homework question. The first is common sense. If schools' intention is to foster a lifelong love of learning then it seems strange to suggest that what happens in school should not carry over into the home. In this respect, banning homework is little more than an admission that what's happening inside school is of little practical worth. Second, because the real question at issue in the homework debate is not whether to ban or assign it, but rather what kind of homework to assign, it is incumbent on those who work in education to determine what the right kind of homework looks like.
How can we fix homework?
Cory Bennett is doing his part to answer that question. Bennett, now an assistant professor of education of Idaho State, was, for many years, an eighth-grade math teacher in Hawaii. His school was unusually diverse, both ethnically and socioeconomically. Bennett's initial approach to homework was traditional — to teach math concepts in class and assign relevant homework to drill them in. Basically, a lot of rote work. Students weren't onboard. They rejected the homework; soon, most of the class was failing. Rather than blame the students, Bennett re-examined his approach and realized, as he told me, "I didn't know what they knew." Likewise, he had no idea what their lives were like outside of class.
So one day he quashed the planned homework assignment and asked his students to write a 100-word essay about what it was like to be their age. What Bennett received from his kids changed the way he taught. Having a "lens into their mind" helped explain why the traditional homework regime failed. The kids did not have a place to study at home; they had to care for siblings after school; they were overly preoccupied with being accepted among peers to focus on homework; they were dealing with parental problems at home. Normal stuff — but it all mattered. Together, these accounts, according to Bennett, not only explained the broken homework model, but "transformed my instructional practices."
By better understanding "the lives of my students," Bennett says he was able to appreciate how they needed to be empowered while at school. Everything they wrote about, all their insecurities and ambitions, spoke to a neglected desire for some level of autonomy over classroom learning. To pursue this goal Bennett did something simple but powerful: he let the students know he wanted them to succeed. Then he asked them to provide ideas about how to master the mathematical material in the confines of the classroom. Essentially, he said, "Here is what we have to learn; do you have ideas about how to do it?"
The students did — and they demanded projects. "Tell me what you can create that will help me understand what you know," Bennett told his classes, "and I will start incorporating that into what I do." The results were extremely optimistic. "They engaged in mathematics," Bennett says, "in a way that was similar to the way a mathematician would." One group demonstrated an understanding of the Pythagorean theorem by creating a sophisticated board game. The project became so engrossing that the students involved in it were happy to complete it at home — homework — thereby confirming Bennett's belief that "it's not a yes/no homework thing. It's how do we know that what we are doing is right for our kids."
That's an example of good, worthwhile homework.
Cathy Vatterott, the University of Missouri education professor, has spent the last 20 years studying the homework conundrum. Like Bennett, she is not opposed to homework per se. But she believes that most of it is a waste of time, if not counterproductive, and that we need to radically change how we design and assign it. Central to her homework philosophy is something that Bennett, in his own teaching transformation — intuitively understood: Students themselves must have a clear idea of why they are doing the work they are doing outside of class. According to Vatterott, they "should have no trouble connecting the purpose of homework to classroom learning." Students do not have an issue doing homework when it's their work; when the work feels like the teachers' work, however, problems arise.
Beyond the goal of trusting students to devise their own ways of learning — and thus connecting homework to classwork in personally meaningful ways — Vatterott says that homework has to be individualized as much as possible. It's an axiom worth repeating: Every student learns differently. Both classwork and homework should reflect those differences as much as possible. To do this, she says, "Teachers have to give up some control and trust kids to do some of their own learning." She also regrets how "most teachers have never been taught what is effective homework."
If Vatterott's ambitions for personalized homework sound overly abstract, it's worth noting how one school is implementing them. Vital Elementary School in Norwell, Massachusetts, has made a conscious institutional decision to reduce homework while improving the quality of the tasks students undertake at home. The school's principal, Patrick Lenz, studied Vatterott's work as a Boston University graduate student and, when hired to lead Vinal Elementary in 2015, decided to apply theory to reality. Five teachers agreed to reframe their approach to homework.
Teachers admit that it takes more work to individualize homework. One teacher, who supports Vinal's program, concedes how "It's definitely more of a challenge to monitor the various assignments when homework is personalized." But she also says that, due to efforts to personalize homework with student input, her students, "are motivated and interested to complete what is assigned. It is meaningful to them, so they do it — it's as simple as that."
Of course, nothing about educational reform is simple. Vatterott suggests that the reason the homework wars are so common is that it's the one area in an entire educational network that students, parents, and teachers all feel they have some power to address. If so, that is fine. But it's important to remember that the reforms being promoted by the likes of Bennett and Vatterott will only work if a bundle of institutional assumptions — about testing, grading, and tracking — change with them. If homework provides a thread that unravels our nation's worn educational fabric, it can also become the starting point for weaving together an educational system that, above all else, fosters the love of learning for every student.
This story originally appeared as Making homework matter: don't ban it, fix it on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.