At the start of the 2013-14 school year, the Fentress County School District in Tennessee announced that it would enforce a district-wide ban on graded homework assignments.
Administrators explained their decision by pointing to the large majority of students who lacked at-home resources to help them with their homework. Anywhere between 65%-75% of each school’s student body qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, so it was decided that students should not be singled out for failing to adequately complete take-home assignments.
“We don’t want kids to be unfairly penalized for their work because they don’t have the resources or support they need at home,” explained Randy Clark, Fentress County Schools’ Curriculum and Instruction Supervisor. “Our new motto for assignments is ‘review and preview.”
That means that homework in the district now constitutes an ungraded review or preview of current course work that’s the students’ responsibility to independently complete. Spelling words, vocabulary practice, and study guides for testing all fall under this purview.
The Great Homework Debate
Some educators aren’t fans of the new policy. Tammy Linder, a sixth grade teacher at Allardt Elementary School, is one of them.
“Students have not had that daily homework practice in any subject that keeps the concepts ‘alive’ and moving in their brains, so that means that much of the practice time and teaching time and testing time had to come during the class time each day,” Linder says.
Still, other districts across the country are taking second looks at the practice. The principal of Gaithersburg Elementary in Maryland decided to ask students to spend only 30 minutes in the evening reading. The decision was reached out of the realization that worksheets and other assignments had been assigned merely out of a sense of obligation to dole our homework to students.
Across the country, parents, teachers, and students are also voicing their opinions in the homework debate. On the issue of the actual educational value of homework, it may seem straightforward to many educators that reviewing lessons and practicing concepts after school would correlate to a greater retention of course material, but studies suggest that the link between assigned homework and academic achievement is drastically overinflated.
Researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education found in a 2012 study that math and science homework didn’t correlate to better student grades, but it did lead to better performances on standardized tests. And when homework is assigned, the help provided by parents often mitigated any of the positive effects of the work. Critics of this type of parental involvement say it can be counterproductive because parents may assume too great a role and/or may not fully understand the lessons being taught.
In April, Denise Pope, a researcher at Stanford University, found that too much homework can negatively affect kids by increasing stress and sleep deprivation and generally leaving less time for family, friends, and activities. According to Pope, homework should not be simply assigned as a routine practice.
“Rather, any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development.”
Video: Do Students Really Have Too Much Homework?
No Homework the New Norm?
“There are simply no compelling data to justify the practice of making kids work what amounts to a second shift when they get home from a full day of school,” says Alfie Kohn, an expert on child education, parenting, and human behavior, as well as the author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.
Should schools then assign less homework or at least reevaluate what they assign? No, says Kohn, school shouldn’t assign any homework. Teachers who do assign it need to have a very compelling reason for extending a student’s school day.
“My general suggestion is to change the default: No homework should be the norm,” Kohn says, “Six hours of academics is enough—except on those occasions when teachers can show strong reason to infringe on family time and make these particular students do more of this particular schoolwork.”
Still, homework is so ingrained in the fabric of schooling that studies revealing its minimal positive benefits have been largely shrugged off or ignored altogether. For most educators, completely cutting homework out of schools isn’t a viable alternative – at least not yet. And many, if not most, teachers are unconvinced that gutting homework from their repertoire of learning tools is the best idea anyway.
Tammy Linder says that teachers haven’t had the amount of teaching time they usually need to enforce classroom lessons and concepts. With the heavy focus on standardized testing already in schools, losing precious out-of-school homework time drastically diminishes how long teachers can devote to thoroughly covering a given subject, as well as the depth and amount of topics they can cover in a school year.
“I have calculated that I have averaged only two to three ‘teaching’ days per week, depending upon re-teaching for those hard to conquer standards and testing,” Linder says. “My students have not covered as much material as students in the past have because of these factors. Nightly practice of any concept keeps the brain engaged in the topic and helps the student focus.”
Karen Spychala, a teacher in San Jose, believes homework has value, but is concerned about its potential to consume too much time outside the school day.
“Homework has its place: to practice skills and most importantly to involve families in their child’s learning” Spychala explains. “But too much homework that takes over everyone’s lives should never happen. There should be agreed upon standard homework times per grade level.”
Are there ways to deemphasize the overreliance on standard homework assignments and allow students to learn through other conducive means?
One option is changing the paradigm of assigned homework to infuse hands-on, student-led engagement with class lessons as a way of piquing student interest in the material. And instead of simply limiting homework to the teacher/student/parent sphere, allowing students the opportunity to show off exceptional homework to a larger audience can give them a further incentive to put in their best effort.
Angela Downing, an elementary school teacher in Newton, Massachusetts, has found great success in displaying excellent student homework on the walls inside and outside of her classroom. By doing so, homework becomes disassociated from the standard teacher-student relationship and gains a whole new level of importance that draws students into the assignment.
“This practice sends the message to students that their work and their learning are important and valued,” Downing says. “Students take special care to do their best work when they know that the final piece will be displayed in the hall or on the classroom bulletin board.”
But for Bonnie Stone, an elementary school teacher in Tulsa, too much homework is too much homework. She saw the impact on her own children and vowed to curtail what she assigned her students.
“As a result of their experience, I vowed never to assign more than 30 minutes of outside reading enrichment for my students,” Stone recalls. “They work hard in class all day. After that, they need to be kids and teens. And I’ve seen no change in the achievement level of my students since I stopped assigning homework.”
10 facts about Chinese education I learned while being a teacher in China
Living in China is not easy. When there are more than 1.5 billion people like you in a country with no social guarantees, you don’t have a choice other than to fight and claw your way up. Chinese kids, though, are quite ready for such a challenge because their hard work starts with the very first year at school.
I used to work as an English teacher at four different schools in China, and it’s very interesting for me now to compare the European and Chinese approaches to education.
Children in school uniform, sports suits, at a lesson dedicated to Earth Day.
Liaocheng, April 2016.
- Many Chinese schools don’t have central heating, so both teachers and students leave their overcoats on in winter. Central heating is only present in the north of the country. Buildings in Central and Southern China were built for a warm climate, which means that in winter, when the temperature may fall below 32°F, the only means of heating are air conditioners. School uniforms are all alike: sports suits with broad pants and a jacket. Their design is similar with the exception of the colors and school emblems on the chest. All school premises are confined by large iron gates which are kept closed at all times. They are only opened to let the schoolchildren out.
- Schools in China practice warm-ups every day (and not just once a day) and do a general lineup. A typical school morning starts with a warm-up, then goes to the lineup where kids learn the main news and see the school or state flag raised. All children do eye exercises after the third lesson — they press special points on their bodies to relaxing music and an instructor’s recorded voice. In addition to the morning exercise, there’s also an afternoon one at about 2 p.m. Music starts playing, and all the kids pour out of their classrooms (if there’s not enough space inside) and begin raising their arms to the sides and up and hopping in place.
Chinese schoolchildren exercise on the roof of their school in Jinan.
3. The big break, which is also the lunch break, usually takes a whole hour. During this time, kids manage to eat at the canteen (if there isn’t one, they receive special lunchboxes), chase each other, shout, and be the little kids they are. Teachers at all schools get free lunches — and a good one, I should say. The lunch is traditional: one meat dish, two vegetable ones, some rice, and a bowl of soup. Expensive private schools also offer fruits and yogurt. The Chinese are hearty eaters, and this tradition applies to schools as well. Some elementary schools also practice a ’nap time’ of several minutes after the lunch break. By the way, my students fell asleep a couple of times right in the middle of a lesson, and I had to force myself to wake up the poor little ones.
A small, by Chinese standards, school lunch:
eggs with tomatoes, tofu, cauliflower with peppers, and rice.
4. Teachers are treated with great respect. They are always called by their last name with the ’Teacher’ prefix: for instance, ’Teacher Zhan’ or ’Teacher Xian’ or even just ’Teacher.’ At one school, students — both mine and others — gave a bow to me when we met.
5. Many schools take corporal punishments for granted. A teacher may slap a student with his or her hand or a ruler for some fault. The more distant and simple the school is, the more this kind of punishment occurs. My Chinese friend told me that they were given a certain amount of time to learn English words at school, and for every unlearned word they got beaten with a stick.
A break between lessons with traditional drums in the town of Ansai.
- There is an academic ranking poster hanging in each classroom which gives an incentive to study harder. The grades go from A to F, where A is the highest grade equaling 90-100%, and F is an unsatisfactory grade of 59%. Encouragement of good behavior is an important part of education. For example, a student receives a star of a certain color or additional points for a correct answer or model conduct, while talking during lessons and misbehavior lead to a loss of stars and points. Students’ ranking is updated daily and is visible to everyone on a special chart on the blackboard — an open competition.
- Chinese children study for more than ten hours a day. Lessons usually start at 8 a.m. and end at 3-4 p.m. Then kids go home and do their neverending home tasks until 9-10 p.m. In big cities, schoolchildren always have additional lessons with tutors, music classes, art studies, and sports clubs on weekends. The competition is so high that parents suppress their children from a very young age — if they don’t receive high grades in their school graduation exams (mandatory education in China takes 12-13 years), there’s no way they’ll be admitted to a university.
First-year students of Nanjing Confucius School take part in the ceremony of drawing the ’zhen’ (’man’) hieroglyph on September 1, which begins their studies.
- Schools are divided into public and private ones. The cost of studying at a private school may reach $1,000 per month, but the level of education there is much higher. Learning a foreign language is an especially important subject there. Two or three classes of English a day, and students of elite schools already speak the language freely in their fifth or sixth year. However, Shanghai, for instance, has a special state-funded program that allows foreign teachers to work in ordinary public schools.
- The education system is based on verbatim learning. Children just sit and learn lots of material by heart, while teachers demand automatic reproduction without really caring about whether their students actually understand what they say. However, there are more and more alternative schools arising today, based on the Montessori or Waldorf methods, that are aimed at developing the artistic abilities of kids. Of course, such schools are private, and studying there is expensive and accessible for very few people.
- Children from poor families who don’t want to study or are too naughty (as their parents think) often get kicked out of ordinary elementary schools and into kung fu schools. They live there with full board, they train hard from morning until night, and if they’re lucky enough, they receive a basic education — they have to be able to read and write, which is not easy, knowing the Chinese language system. Corporal punishments are quite common at such institutions.
Teachers beat their students with a stick sword or just slap or kick them. When the education is finished, though, parents see a disciplined young man or woman with a right to teach kung fu and a fair chance of having a career. Most well-known masters of kung fu went through this very school of life. There’s also a widely spread custom to send weak and sickly children here for a year or two to make them healthier while literally living kung fu or tai chi.
Wherever Chinese kids may study, be it a kung fu school or an ordinary one, they adopt three principal traits from early childhood: the skill of working hard, discipline, and respect to those above them in age or position.
They are taught from a young age that they should be the best at whatever they do. Maybe that’s why the Chinese become leaders in science, culture, and art. Competition with Europeans, who grow up in a much milder environment, is actually no competition for them because we are not used to studying for ten hours a day, every day, for many years.