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Do homework grades reflect learning, or privilege?

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
April 14, 2022

by Katie Novak and Tom Thibodeau

Districts nationwide are reviewing their homework expectations in light of research studies that suggest that current homework practices are inequitable and fail to yield meaningful gains in student achievement. It’s time to look deeply at our practices and eliminate the homework gap.

Given significant barriers that students face after school – full-time jobs, after-school activities, childcare for younger siblings, inequitable access to technology, and the need for balance – we advocate strongly for more equitable homework practices (Latham, 2022; Schwartz, 2019; Wong, 2018). 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework to proactively design learning so all students have equitable opportunities to learn. Assigning homework for a grade is simply not an equitable practice. The ability to do homework assumes that a student will have the necessary time and means to do the homework outside of school.  That means that there will be a safe, comfortable place that has heat, light, a stable work surface and often, technology. It also means that there won’t be any distractions, competing obligations, and there will be time to do the work. 

So here is the question: Do homework grades reflect learning, or privilege?

We think the answer is clear. 

We understand that there is a debate that without rigorous homework, our students will not succeed. That is simply not evidence-based. Many educators in favor of homework cite a meta-analysis of research on the subject, published in 2006 by researcher Harris Cooper and colleagues  (Cooper, Robinson & Patall, 2006). It found that homework in elementary school does not contribute to academic achievement but has a modest effect on older students in terms of improving academic performance. Even those “modest” effects however, have been challenged by more recent studies. 

When Maltese and colleagues (2012) examined studies that measured the direct correlation between the time spent on homework and grades in a specific course, and accounted for differences in demographics, academic engagement, and prior academic achievement, there was no consistent relationship between homework and grades. The authors noted, “We entered this analysis believing that the completion of homework likely reinforced material covered during class time and that extra learning time with material would lead to higher grades and test scores for students completing it. However, our results indicate that, after controlling for relevant factors, completing any amount of homework is associated with no significant improvement to student grades” (p.66).

Many educators are familiar with the 10-minute/per grade, per night rule when assigning homework, but even these practices make assumptions about home environments and the supports available to learners. Too often, the 10-minute rule creates a routine where educators feel pressured to assign homework every night.  Kohn (2007) charges that most homework in most schools is assigned because, “We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week).  Later on we’ll figure out what to make them do.” 

If the practices profoundly support privilege and the benefits are negligible, why do we do it?  The answer is - we shouldn’t. Consider the following practices and how they can create more equitable learning environments for your learners.

  • If you assign homework as a matter of routine, take some time to examine the impact on students and their families. Consider surveying students and families about the value of homework, potential barriers they may face, and their openness to homework that is encouraged, but not required. 
  • The practice of homework is exclusionary, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot encourage students to learn in meaningful ways outside of school when they are able. Certainly, you can encourage students to read, to explore topics of interest, and to practice new skills. Encourage students to learn, but do not allow homework to impact student grades.

We leave you with this. We are in the business of learning and it is critical that our practices encourage authentic learning, recognize barriers, and allow all students to have grades that reflect their learning, and not their privilege.

Want to read more on grading practices? Check out this article on Standards-Based Grading or sign up for a 10-hr microcourse on standards-based grading

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  • 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.
  • Kohn, A. (2007). Rethinking homework. Principal, 86, p35-38.
  • Latham, J. (2022). Education Inequity: Homework and its Negative Impact on Students. Retrieved from https://onlinedegrees.sandiego.edu/education-inequity-and-homework/
  • Maltese A, Tai R, Fan X. (2012). When Is homework worth the time?: Evaluating the association between homework and achievement in high school science and math. High School Journal, 96(1):52-72. 
  • Schwartz, K. (2019). How Teachers Are Changing Grading Practices With an Eye on Equity. Mindshift. Retrieved from https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/52813/how-teachers-are-changing-grading-practices-with-an-eye-on-equity
  • Wong, A. (2018). Why Millions of Teens Can't Finish Their Homework. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/10/lacking-internet-millions-teens-ca

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