extracurricular activities.” And homework is yet one more
commitment on top of all the others.
“Homework has perennially acted as a source of stress
for students, so that piece of it is not new,” Galloway says.
“But especially in upper-middle-class communities, where the
focus is on getting ahead, I think the pressure on students has
been ratcheted up.”
Yet homework can be a problem at the other end of the
socioeconomic spectrum as well. Kids from wealthier homes
are more likely to have resources such as computers, Internet
connections, dedicated areas to do schoolwork and parents
who tend to be more educated and more available to help them
with tricky assignments. Kids from disadvantaged homes are
more likely to work at afterschool jobs, or to be home without
supervision in the evenings while their parents work multiple
jobs, says Lea Theodore, PhD, a professor of school psychology
at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
They are less likely to have computers or a quiet place to do
homework in peace.
“Homework can highlight those inequities,” she says.
Quantity vs. quality
One point researchers agree on is that for all students,
homework quality matters. But too many kids are feeling a lack
of engagement with their take-home assignments, many experts
say. In Pope and Galloway’s research, only 20 percent to 30
percent of students said they felt their homework was useful or
“Students are assigned a lot of busywork. They’re naming
it as a primary stressor, but they don’t feel it’s supporting their
learning,” Galloway says.
“Homework that’s busywork is not good for anyone,”
Cooper agrees. Still, he says, different subjects call for different
kinds of assignments. “Things like vocabulary and spelling are
learned through practice. Other kinds of courses require more
integration of material and drawing on different skills.”
But critics say those skills can be developed with many fewer
hours of homework each week. Why assign 50 math problems,
Pope asks, when 10 would be just as constructive? One
Advanced Placement biology teacher she worked with through
Challenge Success experimented with cutting his homework
assignments by a third, and then by half. “Test scores didn’t go
down,” she says. “You can have a rigorous course and not have a
crazy homework load.”
Still, changing the culture of homework won’t be easy.
Teachers-to-be get little instruction in homework during their
training, Pope says. And despite some vocal parents arguing that
kids bring home too much homework, many others get nervous
if they think their child doesn’t have enough. “Teachers feel
pressured to give homework because parents expect it to come
home,” says Galloway. “When it doesn’t, there’s this idea that the
school might not be doing its job.”
Galloway argues teachers and school administrators need
to set clear goals when it comes to homework — and parents
and students should be in on the discussion, too. “It should be a
broader conversation within the community, asking what’s the
purpose of homework? Why are we giving it? Who is it serving?
Who is it not serving?”
Until schools and communities agree to take a hard look at
those questions, those backpacks full of take-home assignments
will probably keep stirring up more feelings than facts. n
• Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C., & Patall, E. A. (2006).
Does homework improve academic achievement? A
synthesis of research, 1987-2003. Review of Educational
Research, 76( 1), 1–62. doi: 10.3102/00346543076001001
• Galloway, M., Connor, J., & Pope, D. (2013). Nonacademic effects of homework in privileged, high-perform-ing high schools. The Journal of Experimental Education,
81( 4), 490–510. doi: 10.1080/00220973.2012.745469
• Pope, D., Brown, M., & Miles, S. (2015). Overloaded
and underprepared: Strategies for stronger schools and
healthy, successful kids. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.