On the first day of school, teacher Maya Kruger announced to her sixth-graders at St. Anthony Middle School that her policy is to give them time to work on their assignments in class. Anything that students don't complete in school, they'll need to take home to finish.
But beyond that, there will be no homework, she explained. Most of the kids were shocked.
Kruger arrived at her no-homework approach after more than a decade of trial and error, starting her teaching career sending home thick study guide packets, then only assigning work that she didn't have time to cover in class. She eased up on homework entirely after reading research articles suggesting it was virtually pointless.
"It's when a lot of those education blogs caught on and drew huge conclusions with clickbait-y headlines about homework, like, 'It's bad!' 'It's damaging!' or 'Here's one thing you can do,' " she recalled. "Young me was like, 'All right!' "
Kruger was dipping her toe into a homework abolition movement that has gained popularity in schools, particularly among lower grades. Several books have been written decrying the "myth" of homework, saying it often amounts to busywork, robs kids of sacred family time, overburdens overscheduled kids, and widens inequities already in the home.
Oh, yeah, and there's basically no evidence that homework in elementary school boosts academic achievement.
A vastly different childhood
My fifth-grader typically brings home no work at all. For years, his main assignment has been to spend 20 to 30 minutes a day reading a book of his choice. While we occasionally have studied state capitals or spelling words for an upcoming test, he usually finishes all of his worksheets at school, so his nights are free from any ounce of academic pressure. He is advancing through his elementary school years without having the consistent drumbeat of homework that I remember from my childhood.
As a parent, I am not complaining. Daily homework would be a nightly battle between my kids and me, and it would be ugly. My home-schooling attempts during the pandemic proved I am not capable of coaxing, commanding or inspiring headstrong souls to finish the simplest of written assignments. But I do wonder what is lost in a world without homework.
When will my child learn to buckle down and learn to study? Will a lack of independent problem-solving come back to bite him as he gets older? And isn't it irrefutable that repeated practice can lead to mastery of a new skill?
Michael Rodriguez excelled in school and now serves as the dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, so I expected him to be on Team Homework. But even he advocates for a middle ground. Too much homework, especially if it's rote and meaningless, can be harmful, he said.
"When we continually ask kids to do busywork, we're continually demonstrating to them that perhaps school isn't for them," he told me. "We're diminishing their own internal joy of learning. That's my biggest fear."
My earliest recollection of homework goes all the way back to second grade. Foreshadowing what would become an extreme life flaw, I had put off a coloring assignment until the last minute. It was well beyond my bedtime, and I had enlisted my mother to join me at our kitchen table with a set of crayons to help me color a stack of photocopied worksheets. (She didn't appreciate it when I, already a procrastinating perfectionist at 7, critiqued her for scribbling outside the lines.)
We can probably agree that coloring was a frivolous exercise. Now imagine a teacher sending home busywork to a kid whose parents work multiple jobs, can't speak English or aren't able to teach their kid the concept at hand.
Homework should be relevant to students' lives and extend their learning opportunities, Rodriguez added. The amount should be low in early grades, and "a bit more" in higher grades. (He also thinks homework should be forbidden on Fridays, which I'm sure would delight high school students everywhere.)
When Rodriguez studied the impact of homework years ago, he found that students who performed the weakest on a standardized math test were receiving more homework — typically from workbooks. Those students whose teachers assigned them creative math activities that were embedded in real-world problems earned much higher test scores.
"Ideally, we would want to give the meaningful, enriching kinds of activities to all students, not just the highest-performing," he said. "Instead, we give the very rote, meaningless worksheets to the students that really need the additional supports. And one thing we know is that if something's not working in the classroom, it's not going to work after school."
We all want our kids to catch up after learning losses during the pandemic. The latest test scores show that Minnesota students are way behind in literacy and math proficiency, performing lower than even before COVID-19. Perhaps the right kind of homework, at least in the higher grades, can help narrow these gaps. Rodriguez said students can grow when there are opportunities for them to do their homework after school, with the help of tutors, peers or teachers.
"A zero-homework policy is not the right answer and not the right message," Rodriguez said.
Some kids want homework
I was surprised by one development Kruger shared with me: Though she stopped assigning homework, some kids invariably ask for the extra work to take home. She's happy to help them explore options. For others, she said it's important to meet students where they're at and help them develop their interests. "Not every kid wants to be a CEO," she said.
As she's matured as a teacher, she said she's confident she's giving her students enough opportunities to learn and practice a new skill — in her classroom, with her support and surrounded by their peers. If they goof off at their desks, they will still need to complete the assignment at home. So it ends up being an exercise in time management.
Like me, Kruger grew up with homework, but she's not sold on the belief that it helped her learn. Will she ever go back to assigning it?
"I'm always open to new information," she said. "If somehow it comes out that this is the ticket to student success and happiness, I'm all in."