6 Reasons the Homework Debate is a Mess

If you’re a teacher, chances are, you’ve experienced parents upset over both too much and too little assigned homework.  Have you ever wondered why opinions on the issue tend to be emphatic, polarized, and emotional?  So did we. We decided to do some serious digging, and we were shocked at what we found…

# 1: Today’s major homework scholars are are at odds

  • Harris Cooper’s name arises in most articles and news stories on homework.  He has published two books on major analyses of homework, and is credited with the 10 minute rule (wherein 10 minutes of homework multiplied by grade level is recommended).  Furthermore, he claims that children as young as second grade benefit from homework, stating, “Across five studies, the average student who did homework had a higher unit test score than the students not doing homework” (Cooper).
  • Robert Marzano is another proponent of homework.  He focuses on the percentile gains between student homework and performance on standardized tests, particularly for older students.  However, he cautions that “ill-structured homework might even have a negative effect on student achievement,” and has outlined Research-Based Homework Guidelines (Marzano).
  • Alfie Kohn is a prominent, progressive educational researcher who finds the work of Cooper and other homework supporters inconclusive, and in some cases, downright misleading.  In his article, Abusing Research, he carefully evaluates what appear to be discrepancies in pro-homework research.  For example, he delved into each of the “five studies” cited above, and found serious credibility issues, from extremely small sample sizes, to younger children not even being included in the research.  Furthermore, he emphasizes the fact that all the pro-homework research hinges on standardized tests performance, and points out, “Homework studies confuse grades and test scores with learning.” (“Abusing Research”).

# 2: The research is limited

  • Credit: Robert Plaskota via Flickr
    Credit: Robert Plaskota via Flickr

    Defining Effective Homework: All the above researchers agree that homework that is meaningful and productive may be beneficial–however, the research is seriously lacking on what “meaningful” or “productive” mean.

  • Demographics:
    • In Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement?, Cooper expresses confidence in his “bottom line” that “all kids should be doing homework,” even despite his later statement that little research has been conducted “to assess whether a student’s race, socioeconomic status or ability level affects the importance of homework in his or her achievement” (Cooper).
    • Kohn examines this crucial point stating, “In fact, there are almost always other explanations for why successful students might be in classrooms where more homework is assigned – let alone why these students might take more time with their homework than their peers do.  Being born into a more affluent and highly educated family, for example, might be associated with higher achievement and with doing more homework (or attending the kind of school where more homework is assigned)” (“Abusing Research”).
  • NO research supports non-academic benefits: This is another discrepancy Kohn examines in “Abusing Research;” that despite claims that homework teaches responsibility, work ethic, etc., the research simply has not been performed to substantiate such assertions.

# 3: General pro-homework public opinion perpetuates blanket acceptance of claims

One example of this is found in PTA.org’s Helping Your Child Get the Most out of Homework.  This first sentence says, “Teaching and learning research indicates that children who spend more time on regularly assigned, meaningful homework, on average, do better in school.” The article proceeds to give tips on how to make sure a child completes their homework every day, but not a single one advises parents on how to identify whether homework is, in fact, “meaningful.”  The lack of citations also suggests that their statement is an absolute fact for all students, despite all the disagreement and limitations on the research.

# 4: Parents are (sometimes bitterly) divided

  • Personal experience:
    • A couple years ago, our grade level introduced homework projects to replace math worksheets for homework.  We sent a survey after a few months, and while most parents loved the real-life application and student choice, a few became so distressed about abandoning daily math worksheets, that our administration asked us to reestablish worksheets as a homework option every week.
  • 77% of voters reading this article on a homework-free school said they’d like their school to abolish homework, too.
  • When we looked at reviews of elementary schools who have banned homework, we consistently found both parents who appreciated the policy, and parents who found it ridiculous, such as for Christa Mcauliffe Elementary School in the Cupertino Union School District in California:

C.A. School Neg. ReviewC.A. School Postive Review # 5: Negative anecdotal experiences for teachers, parents, and students are racking up

# 6: More effective options are available that make prior justification for homework less compelling

  • Hakan Forss LEGO recreations of hand drawn originals with unknown authors
    Hakan Forss LEGO recreations of hand drawn originals with unknown authors

    Traditional Justification: Students need to practice

    • Modern Solution: Flipped learning compacts lectures into video format, allowing for more student practice in class.  Added bonus: the teacher role evolves from delivering content to passive listeners to coaching efforts with engaged participants.
  • Traditional Justification: Homework lets parents know what’s going on in class
    • Modern Solution: Teachers can keep a class account for Facebook, Twitter, blogging, &/or Remind.com to update parents–and with emailed notifications, hashtags, RSS feeds, and texts, this can be much more efficient at actually reaching parents than a crumpled paper at the bottom of a backpack.
  • Traditional Justification: Homework encourages work-ethic, independence, and learning
    • Modern Solution: As mentioned above, current research doesn’t actually back up that traditional homework encourages any of these things.  However, there is evidence that allowing students to choose assignments that make schoolwork more personally meaningful (such as homework projects) helps students “naturally seek out more knowledge.” (The Homework Myth 181)

TIPS to Bring Clarity to Your Homework Practices:

  1. Spread the word that homework research is lacking to encourage more specific studies
  2. If homework is a requirement at your school, make it as student-led as possible: 
    • Homework projects
    • Flipped learning homework
    • Read Edutopia’s 5 Questions Every Teacher Should Ask [about the homework they assign], and really put those questions to the test in your personal practices.


  • Cooper, Harris, “Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement?: If So, How much Is Best?” SEDL.org. Web. 30 Jan. 2015.
  • Greenfeld, Karl Taro. “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me” The Atlantic. Web. 30 Jan 2015.
  • Kohn, Alfie. “Abusing Research: The Study of Homework and Other Examples.”AlfieKohn.org/. Phi Delta Kappan. Web. 30 Jan. 2015.
  • Kohn, Alfie. The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Life Long, 2006. Print.
  • Marzano, Robert J. “The Case For and Against Homework.” ASCD: Responding to Changing Demographics 64.6 (March 2007): 74-79. Web. 30 Jan 2015.
  • Matthews, Jay. “Parents Saying No to Too Much Homework” The Washington Post. Web. 30 Jan 2015.
  • Robelen, Erik. “Is Homework for the Benefit of Students or Teachers?” Education Week. Web. 30 Jan 2015.

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