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No More Homework

Most students have tried to dodge homework at some (or several) points in their academic life. But thanks to a new policy in the second-largest school system in the country, students in the Los Angeles Unified School District will have homework count for a maximum of 10% of their grade in a given class. From Monday’s LA Times:

The LA approach is intended to account for the myriad urban problems facing the district’s mostly low-income, minority population. It’s also aimed at supporting LA Unified’s increasing focus on boosting measureable academic achievement.

According to the new policy, “Varying degrees of access to academic support at home, for whatever reason, should not penalize a student so severely that it prevents the student from passing a class, nor should it inflate the grade.” It was distributed to schools last month. [...]

The new policy is commendable but should be combined with helping teachers improve their use of homework, said Etta Kralovec, co-author of “The End of Homework” and a University of Arizona associate professor.

Wheelock College associate professor Janine Bempechat said the district should focus on providing students the support they need to complete their homework, which remains crucial. “To make homework worthy of only 10% of a student’s grade sends a message that it is not important,” Bempechat said.

From my perspective, the policy actually provokes two separate debates. First, what value does homework have? Few would argue that a hard-and-fast homework requirement, which in turn leads teachers to assign busywork, is not that beneficial. But would it make more sense to help teachers craft better assignments, rather than just lessen their importance? Is the problem homework, or is the problem “bad” homework?

Second, while the article does not press the point, Professor Bempecha (quoted above) points out that “the district should focus on providing students the support they need to complete their homework.” In other words, the problem is not the volume or even the quality of the homework, but the unequal abilities of students to complete work at home. And in his estimation, fixing those inequalities falls to the school system.

But does it? The obstacles to completing take-home assignments can range from lack of access to a computer and library to the lack of a stable home environment (and quiet room). When it comes to developing study skills and enabling students to practice them, countless obstacles beyond the simple volume of the homework itself come into play. Can the school system alone, realistically and effectively, help students overcome those obstacles — or is that where education non-profits enter the equation? In particular, non-profits whose purpose is to help out at a specific point in a student’s day? … And by eliminating the worth of homework, are schools tackling the problem or just the symptom?