Homework: The Rules that Matter

While reading another carefully worded propaganda blast on the value of  homework, I thought of Pirates of the Caribbean, a splendid film that I’d remembered recently for my ELL class.

Research on homework, and debates about research on homework can’t really be taken seriously. It’s all more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. But the fundamentals of homework are very much a cascading series of Jack Sparrow’s “two rules that matter“. For high school, anyway–and if it’s not high school or beyond, it doesn’t matter.

So as long as we’re just hanging here, pay attention. The only rules that really matter are these:



“Homework” is practice, work that is assigned with the intent to improve fluency and understanding. Math homework is the most common sort, but there are also science lab notes, reading textbook notes, those idiotic shoebox assignments, collages, or any other sort of out-of-school activity that isn’t formal written expression or assessment.

“Corrupted” is a strong word for grading that is very much standard procedure in most high schools nationwide, but appropriately dramatic given the degree to which grades are used as a proxy for ability. Many teachers would be upset at this description of their usual practice; in this conversation of mostly college-level instructors, most of the participants acknowledge that many students do well on tests, but flunk or get a much lower grade because they don’t do the homework.  Others point out how absurd this is. At the high school level, far fewer are found in the second group.

Teachers have a wide, legally enforced latitude in grading, but districts and schools can institute policies that reduce options. Overwhelmingly, these policies take place in low income schools, where the students shrug off the Fs and the failure rates affect the graduation rates. District and school efforts to protect students from low grades due to homework take the shape of  forced incompletes,  banning zeros and sometimes banning graded homework altogether.  And the public always scoffs. Lazy kids these days.

District or school-imposed restrictions are not to be confused with parent-initiated drama fests about homework overload.

The research on homework almost all focuses on two questions: does homework improves academic performance? How much homework are students doing? (The latter issue, in particular, has been annoying American parents for decades.)

I’m not…terribly interested in either of those questions. The first, which most consider quite important, is specifically in conflict with a teacher’s responsibility to grade accurately. No one would ever assume that homework improvement is anything other than relative to student ability.

But grades aren’t relative. Teachers can’t grade homework without impacting students’ performance grade. They can’t.

And so  they shouldn’t.


I don’t do homework, and this isn’t the first time I’ve written about the primary damage done by homework’s corrupting impact on grades.

Grades, really, are the main issue. Grades in America are simply junk. I can’t stress this enough.  Research–never mention a moment’s reflection–reveals that in  Title I schools like mine, an A denotes a much lower performance than at a high-income high school.

No one’s interested in adequately assessing student merit across classrooms, much less school districts, much less cities, states, or countries, so laugh at anyone who declares passionately that Harvard and other private universities are discriminating against more worthy claimants, Asian or otherwise.  No one knows who the worthy claimants are, and no one’s interested in finding out.

But that’s a topic for another day.




About educationrealist

8 responses to “Homework: The Rules that Matter

  • Michael F Gordon

    In the urban Title 1 school where I teach, I usually will have about one third of the students regularly complete homework assignments. And while it is graded, the grade is lumped together with classwork so that missing homework won’t greatly impact a student’s grade. If I were not to assign homework at all my administrators would not be happy. Of the students who do hand in homework, I find that much of it is copied, and smart phones make copying very easy.

    Smartphones and the ease of finding the answers to homework assignment questions on the internet which can he immediately distributed to the entire class have convinced me that for most of today’s students, homework is a pointless exercise. The handful of students that would take the assignment seriously would be better served by coming in after school for fifteen minutes of tutoring.

    • educationrealist

      I was just talking to a former student who wants to be a math teacher. He said he worries that not assigning homework would prevent him from getting tenure. I told him that something like you’re doing–which is similar to what I did in the early years–is fine. Provided you’re only slightly bumping kids who do homework, and not downgrading kids who don’t, it’s ok. Most kids realize that copying homework in that instance is a waste of time.

  • Curtis

    Any suggestion on how parents should deal with corrupting homework? My son is very smart but bad at doing homework especially when it is busywork. In his AP history class, he is required to write chapter notes. He will spend hours not doing the busy work which makes him angry at himself. And then he never gets to writing the papers that are important.

    • educationrealist

      By AP, it’s kind of late. I had the problem with my son, and we treated it as hoops that had to be jumped through, so by the time he was a junior he’d jump. With annoyance, but jumping was the operative issue.

      • Curtis

        I was actually asking about how to deal with a teacher but in retrospect me asking for personal advice is a little much.

        Thanks for for column, I really enjoy it.

    • Anonymous

      I think the chapter notes would be good for him. Do you try to get him out of practice in sports as well? He will benefit from summarizing what he reads. This will be something he does more and more of as an adult in any information worker job. Anf in history class, it will help understanding and memory (versus passive reading/listening).

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