In Defense Of Homework

Over the past several decades, although there have been sporadic attempts to revive it as a classroom practice, homework has largely disappeared from K-12 instruction.  The memories many grandparents might have of laboring to finish all homework assignments before bedtime are totally at odds with current pedagogical theory that deems homework the enemy of the innate intellectual curiosity within each child.  Therefore, aside from the most piddling homework that is occasionally still part of elementary school educational practice—often assigned for the sole purpose of encouraging parental involvement in a child’s education—most students can presume their day is done when the final bell rings.

Homework has few fans these days.  Students hate to do it because it interferes with their texting and video time, parents hate it because it requires their time and attention, and teachers hate it because designing it and grading it is very time consuming.  Moreover, the progressive professors who have long been entrenched in our nation’s graduate schools of education—and who make certain yet more of their ilk receive tenure each and every day—have deemed homework the bane of “authentic” learning, which apparently springs only from those activities that conscientiously avoid memorizing facts, practicing skills, or intensive study.  The consequence of this focus on avoiding the sheer grunt work involved with learning has been generations of high school graduates whose most notable characteristic has been a stupendous ignorance of even the most basic knowledge of the world around them.  Anyone who has taught at the college level has quickly learned through harsh experience that presuming even the most cursory topic background knowledge when starting a class is a grave mistake—and will guarantee a lot of blank stares unless you fill in the blank minds in advance.

Homework has also collided headlong with intense pressures now put on many K-12 educators to pass every student.  The equation is a simple one: No student will bother to do their homework unless a grade in involved + reducing a student’s grade for not completing their homework will create problems with school principals and parents = no homework will be assigned.  Wasn’t that easy?  Nobody has to do any work, and everyone passes their classes.  Happy students, happy parents, happy administrators, and happy school board members can proudly point to the “success” that results from crushingly low expectations regarding teaching and learning.  Are you concerned about those terrible scores on the ACT and SAT tests that your students routinely bomb?  Don’t be!  Some students are lousy test takers, the test is only a snapshot of student progress, and everyone knows those awful standardized tests are inherently discriminatory.  Got that?  Besides, colleges and universities are now so starved for students that many are now ditching the standardized test requirements in favor of admission criteria that purport to evaluate the whole wonderfulness of applicants—so we’re all cool.

Of course, the only problem with this system is that most colleges and universities are only too happy to take a student’s money—regardless whether their academic preparation is sufficient.  The nationwide bloom of “Developmental” courses in higher education, which translates into colleges tuition but no college credits, has led to a continual churn of students who accumulate academic debt but never earn an academic degree.  There is a reason that the 6 year graduate rate at 2 year colleges hovers around 39%.

Better models of college remediation have resulted in improvements for those students whose reading, writing, and math skills require only nominal improvement, but the reality for the most academically challenged first-year college students, who often have graduated from the most deficient school systems, has remained the same because a single semester typically cannot teach all that was not mastered during 13 years of being pencil whipped through public school.  We can readily help students who need more practice with using source materials to support a line of reasoning in an essay; unfortunately, those students who did not learn to even write their own names until eighth grade (true story!) have likely already had their academic futures destroyed by K-12 systems that were intent on graduating them—no matter what.  Isn’t it great they don’t have to waste their time doing any of that pointless homework?

However, perhaps the most devastating consequence of the argument against homework is one that is discussed very little—if at all—and it concerns the fundamental difference between the nature of K-12 learning and that of higher education.  

Because K-12 essentially functions as state-sponsored daycare, the school day is long, and there is ample opportunity to complete assignments during daily classes, which generally feature a substantial amount of non-instructional downtime.  A college class might, in contrast, have only 40 total hours of professor-student (or graduate assistant-student) contact time, and this might occur in a large lecture class with a couple of hundred students.  As a result, most class assignments and study must be completed outside of class, which means that 2 hours or more of independent work time must be completed for every hour in a classroom.  What will happen to that eager new college student if they have no experience with working outside of class time because their K-12 instruction featured no homework?

The end result for students who are utterly unprepared for the self-study and self-monitoring required in higher education is often a first semester flame out.  Not understanding until it is too late that a full course load translates into a full-time job, many freshman overcommit to outside work and extra-curricular activities, which results in an anguished trip to academic advising and multiple course withdrawals that immediately put their financial aid eligibility into jeopardy.  

To combat this problem many colleges are pushing Developmental course models that require extra classroom time in order to, in essence, create supervised study hall periods where students can complete their class work, or students are forced to check into a monitored campus study center each week as part of the course they are taking.  Academic coaches also remind students of the need to study and work outside of class, which can be helpful for some but still requires students to acquire the independent work habits that K-12 failed to impart—on the fly and under intense pressure.  The pain of the “no homework” philosophy that rules our nation’s public schools is borne entirely by those who graduate unprepared for the opportunity to succeed or fail based on their own study skills—or lack thereof.

I suspect that those who criticize young adults for a lack of work ethic or personal responsibility may sometimes be unaware of how terrifying it is for many to be independent with no practice at working or studying independently.  Want to help more young adults succeed in higher education—and life?  Try a little homework in K-12 to help more young people develop the study skills, personal accountability, and self-efficacy that will later help immeasurably.  It may cause a few students—and parents—to whine and complain, but it might be the greatest possible kindness in the long run.