Homework is the perennial bogeyman of K–12 education. Any given year, you’ll find people arguing that students, especially those in elementary school, should have far less homework—or none at all. I have the opposite opinion. The longer I run schools—and it has now been more than sixteen years—the more convinced I am that homework is not only necessary, but a linchpin to effective K–12 education.
It is important to remember that kids only spend a fraction of their time in school. The learning that does or does not take place in the many hours outside of school has a monumental effect on children’s academic success and is a root cause of educational inequity.
The pandemic gave us a stark demonstration of this reality. Achievement gaps widened between affluent and low-income children not only because low-income students received less in-person or high-quality online instruction during the years of disrupted school, but also because children of college-educated and affluent parents were already less dependent on schools for learning. Affluent children are far more likely to have the privilege of tutors or other types of supplementary instruction, as well as a family culture of reading, and opportunities to travel, visit museums, and more. Homework is a powerful tool to help narrow these inequities, giving children from all backgrounds the opportunity to keep learning when they are not in school.
At Success Academy, the charter school network I founded and lead, we seek to develop students as lifelong learners who have the confidence and curiosity to pursue and build knowledge in all facets of their lives. Homework cultivates these mindsets and habits. Indeed, when teachers don’t assign homework, it reflects an unconscious conviction that kids can’t learn without adults. Kids internalize this message and come to believe they need their teacher to gain knowledge. In reality, they are more than capable of learning all sorts of things on their own. Discovering this fact can be both incredibly exciting and deeply empowering for them.
We also know that none of these benefits accrue when homework is mere busywork. Low-quality homework is likely what drives the mixed research evidence on the impact of homework on student achievement. It also sends the message to kids that doing it is simply an exercise in compliance and not worth their time. Homework must be challenging and purposeful for kids to recognize its value.
For this reason, at Success, we take great care with the design of our homework assignments, ensuring they are engaging and relevant to what takes place in class the next day. When done well, homework can be a form of the “flipped classroom”—a model developed by ed tech innovators to make large college lecture classes more engaging. In flipped classrooms, students learn everything they can on their own at home (in the original conception, via recorded lectures); class time builds on what they learned to address confusion and elevate their thinking to a more sophisticated level. It’s an approach that both respects kids’ capacity to learn independently, and assumes that out-of-class learning will drive the content and pace of the in-person lesson.
Students always need a “why” for the things we ask them to do, and designing homework this way is motivating for them because it gives them that clear why. Class is engaging and interesting when they are prepared; when they aren’t, they won’t have the satisfaction of participating.
At this point, some teachers may be saying, “I can’t get my kids to hand in a worksheet, let alone rely on them to learn on their own.” And of course, effective use of homework in class relies on creating a strong system of accountability for getting kids to do it. This can be hard for teachers. It’s uncomfortable to lean into students’ lives outside of school, and many educators feel they don’t have that right. But getting over that discomfort is best for kids.
Educators should embrace setting an exacting norm for completing homework. This should include a schoolwide grading policy—at Success schools, missing and incomplete homework assignments receive a zero; students can get partial credit for work handed in late; and middle and high schoolers can revise their homework for a better grade—as well as consistently and explicitly noticing when kids are or are not prepared and offering praise and consequences. Enlisting parents’ help in this area is also highly effective. I guarantee they will be grateful to be kept informed of how well their children are meeting their responsibilities!
Ultimately, minimizing homework or getting rid of it entirely denies children autonomy and prevents them from discovering what they are capable of. As we work to repair the academic damage from the last two-plus years, I encourage educators to focus not on the quantity of homework, but instead on its quality—and on using it effectively in class. By doing so, they will accelerate kids’ engagement with school, and propel them as assured, autonomous learners and thinkers who can thrive in college and beyond.