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Professional Opinion

Why principals should be wary of homework

Changing the homework structure for greater student success
Kenneth Goldberg is author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers.
Kenneth Goldberg is author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers.

Few topics generate as much debate in education as homework. Experts disagree on its educational value, and research offers little clarification. Teachers and parents vary in how much homework they think children should do. So where do principals fit into the homework system?

The principal oversees the school heirarchy, injecting him or herself as needed, in a school building, during school hours. But with homework, the structure changes.

Instead of one building, there are many different spaces where students do homework. Instead of one teacher—working for the principal—to oversee the work, there are parents and guardians. Instead of fixed hours, assignments are done at times that may conflict with family priorities of which the principal is unaware.

The principal can control what takes place in the school, but in the home, the principal has no such control.

Conflicting messages

In school, children are expected to work and learn for a fixed amount of time. At home, they are expected to work on their assignments until they get them done. In school, teachers can observe children as they work. For homework, teachers only see what the children produce.

When people face situations they cannot control, they typically respond by upping the penalties. The consequences for not doing homework are considerably more severe than consequences for schoolwork difficulties. Sixty percent is a failing grade. Undone homework garners a zero, which is two-and-a-half times more consequential than an ordinary F. Homework may count as much as 25 percent of the grade, even though it is not supposed to consume that much time relative to the school day.

Penalties do not motivate children who consistently skip homework to do their work, but they do mobilize parents, often creating a situation that only increases tensions within the home. At the root of this is a misunderstanding of why some children don’t do their work.

If the child has trouble in class, we observe the child at work before presuming what type of problem he or she has. But at home, parents assume the child only needs to try harder. This is not only a false perspective, but also a self-fulfilling prophecy that causes children to become unnecessarily distressed.

These children come to school not refreshed and refueled for the day. They may be angry over penalties given them at home, and they may expect to feel embarrassed when homework gets checked. They act as if they don’t care, and often act out in other ways as well. Many behavioral problems displayed at school are actually rooted in penalties for work not done at home.

The solution

Misconceptions about homework noncompliance create behavioral problems that unnecessarily distract principals from other work. There is a solution, but it calls for changes in how we formulate homework policy.

Homework noncompliance is most often an issue of pace rather than motivation. Students who complete their homework usually do so in a reasonable amount of time. Children who work slowly spend large amounts of time, for, at best, mediocre grades.

As homework expectations increase each year, some children will inevitably rebel and fail to do their work. We think we’re teaching time management and good work habits when, in fact, we are teaching them to dislike school. The answer is simple:

  • Time-bound assignments
  • Penalty reductions
  • Respecting parental authority

Principals should tell their teachers to fully accept that parents are the rightful heads of their homes and have the final say about all that goes on there. Principals, teachers and parents should agree to support the goal of homework completion within reasonable, fixed periods of time. Wherever this has happened, homework-noncompliant children actually get more work done.

Principals can stay focused on their true zone of control, without the intrusion of behavioral problems spilling over from home.

Kenneth Goldberg is author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers.