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The Homework Conundrum

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Is homework just another way to heighten the gaps in achievement among groups of kids?

A teacher recently wrote to me asking that question. She works in a college-town elementary school that is grappling with deep and profound gaps in achievement between the mostly white children of college professors and the mostly non-white children of the town's service workers.

She wrote, "I work at an elementary school and some of the teachers give out homework packets. It's fine for our white [students] who have parents who help them, but for our [students] of color (49 percent) this is not the case."

To many parents, homework seems as much a part of schooling as lunchroom cafeterias. But does it really make a difference?

A lot of research has been done on this topic. One of the researchers who has been at this for a long time, Harris Cooper, says the evidence is convincing that homework in high school helps kids learn more. It doesn't seem to help kids' achievement in elementary school but, he says, it helps kids develop study skills and habits. He recommends 10 minutes a grade per night -- so, for example, third graders should do about 30 minutes of homework a night.

I won't say that's a consensus view, but that's as close as you get -- after that, there's a lot of disagreement about what kind of homework should be assigned to kids and how much involvement parents should have in enforcing and even doing the homework.

What I have noticed in the "unexpected" schools I have visited is that the teachers give this question of homework a lot of thought, and I thought I would share a story today from Ware Elementary School.

Ware sits on Fort Riley in Kansas and serves the children of infantry troops. In 2001 it was named as one of the first schools in the state to be "on improvement" because of its low achievement. By the time I got there, in 2007, it had been one of the top-performing schools in the state for a couple of years, a status it retains.

During that time, many of the parents deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and families lived under the kind of stress that is almost unimaginable to civilians. Divorce rates among infantry troops had skyrocketed and so had remarriages, so 30 percent of students lived in families with five or more kids; many of them lived in blended families, with at least one parent -- and sometimes two -- fighting overseas.

With parents and kids under tremendous stress, the school staff had decided that they would not add to it by sending home the kind of craft projects and repetition and practice work that dominates a lot of elementary school homework. Instead, they had a school wide expectation that every student either read to or be read to by an adult every night, with duration varying with the age of the kids. The idea was that kids need practice reading in order to be proficient, and this would provide them with some. But even that minimal homework expectation had proven a strain for some families.

At Ware, teachers were understanding and didn't penalize kids if they didn't get an adult to sign off on their reading. But they looked at the data. At the teacher meeting I attended, teachers found that those students who regularly read at home with an adult were much more likely to make progress in reading than those who didn't.

The conversation ground to a halt as the teachers pondered the conundrum that their students needed additional reading practice in order to make progress, but couldn't count on that occurring at home.

The principal, Deb Gustafson, then asked a profound question of the teachers: "If we really believe in this correlation, what is our obligation to have reading and responding time after school?"

Her question broke the logjam as teachers pondered which adults in the building, including support staff, student teachers, and volunteers, might be able and willing to spend 20 minutes reading with a child either before school, after school, or during lunch. They began making plans and schedules for how that would work -- and began by signing themselves up for extra reading duty.

It is this kind of thought and planning that had made Ware such a successful school -- educators didn't simply adopt a homework policy and continue with it because they thought it was the right thing to do. Nor did they waste time bemoaning the families their students had. They examined whether the homework they assigned actually led to more learning. Once they had the data to inform their opinion, they realized they needed to think about how to ensure that all students had the same opportunities for success.

I'm convinced that if all schools were to follow the evidence the way they do at Ware, all schools would be well on their way to raising achievement for all kids and closing the kinds of achievement gaps that plague my letter-writer's school.