Homework assigners must find balance

Unexpectedly, our family became the host family to two exchange students this fall, one from Spain and the other from Switzerland.

In getting to know them, I asked about the biggest difference they saw between their high schools and ours. Instead of listing the size of our building, the variety of classes or even the number of extracurricular activities we offer, the first difference they both mentioned was the amount of homework our teachers assign.

Curious to learn more, I asked what they did in their countries. What they described sounded very similar to how American colleges assess their students. In both of their countries, the teachers lecture and assign practice work, which the students can choose to do or not do. Their grades are based on tests given every few weeks that carry so much weight, the students begin studying for them as soon as the previous test is over.

I’ve been mulling over this significant cultural difference the last few weeks, wondering how American schools came to view homework so differently from our European counterparts.

This led me to research the pros and cons of assigning homework. Like most issues, you will find research both supporting the abolition of homework and assigning it daily.

Those in favor of homework cite studies showing an appropriate amount of homework each night develops good study habits, extends the learning day, encourages parental involvement and helps students understand their learning can take place outside of school, too.

Researchers on the other side of the coin concluded that too much homework harms disadvantaged students because they rarely complete the work and are penalized for their home situations at school. They also found evidence that it erodes family time and can cause health issues for some students. Those opposed even suggested schools should extend their school days instead of assigning homework to mimic countries like Japan, Germany and France, whose students routinely score higher on exams when compared to American students.

The answer to the homework dilemma, I believe, lies in the middle, as answers often do. Instead of banning homework entirely, schools need to find the right balance of the type of work teachers assign, the time it takes a student to complete it and how it is used to assess student progress. There is obviously something wrong with our system when just one class’s work can take two to three hours to complete and students routinely fail classes because they don’t complete homework although they can pass assessments.

Fixing the homework problem begins with teachers thoughtfully planning what they hope students learn from the work they assign. If the answer is anything but assessing student progress and determining in which direction to go, then they need to re-evaluate the assignment.

Homework is practice, and many of the researchers from both sides agree any type of grade given should be for completion only. As a result, a lack of completion should never keep a student from passing the class. I know many educators struggle with this concept, however, because they believe they need to help students prepare for the “real world” — college and beyond.

For those of us who attended college, however, let’s not forget our professors rarely graded our daily work. Instead it was used as a starting point for class discussion or became study materials for tests.

While I agree that some educational concepts need practice, I also believe the homework pendulum has swung too far and we’ve lost its purpose in trying to find the answer to higher ISTEP+ scores and better school grades. Together, can we start a discussion for bringing the homework balance back to center for the sake of our students and families?

Kim Kile is the director of school counseling at Greenfield-Central High School. She can be reached at kimskile@gmail.com.