Carnegie Mellon University
August 24, 2016

No-Homework Policy? CMU’s Steven Schlossman Responds

No-Homework Policy? CMU’s Steven Schlossman RespondsMedia: Contact Shilo Rea to interview Professor Schlossman.

A second grade Texas teacher’s new no-homework policy has gone viral. Carnegie Mellon University’s Steven Schlossman has extensively researched the history of homework as a divisive problem in American schooling between the 1820s and the present.

Schlossman, a professor of history in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, responds to the new policy below.

First, not requiring second grade students to do homework would not be an historical anomaly. It’s only since the Excellence Movement of the 1980s that educators have tried systematically to integrate out-of-school homework in the elementary grades into normal teaching practice (indeed, starting at kindergarten in many school districts). In the late 19th century, after public schooling had solidly taken root in urban and rural school districts across the nation, homework was a rarity before third or fourth grade.

Second, the social science evidence does not clearly identify notable short- or long-term academic advantages to assigning homework in the early elementary grades. It doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t clearly help in launching higher academic performance.

That said, doing homework may well help in establishing solid study habits of long-term value. And second grade, in my judgment, is a good place to start. I agree with Harris Cooper (endorsed by the NEA and National PTA) that ten minutes of homework per grade level is a good idea. Twenty minutes of homework is not going to radically disrupt any young child’s or parent’s after-school routines. Get real!

Third, I simply don’t understand the advantages of an all-or-nothing approach with regard to homework. Why trap yourself in advance with a formal policy that might hamstring you in teaching some parts of the curriculum, and responding to shifting student needs, as the semester evolves?

Fourth, to turn homework into an all-or-nothing choice inevitably polarizes discussion and moves it more into the realm of the ideological than the pedagogical. There are many ways to teach effectively; keep the discussion there instead of choosing sides in a much heat/little light debate that oversimplifies what good teaching is all about.

Fifth and finally, as Brian Gill and I wrote over twenty years ago in an op-ed essay for the Los Angeles Times (“Homework is a Parent’s Eyes and Ears,” January 24, 1995):

“Even if homework has no academic benefit at the elementary level, it serves a vital purpose: Homework is the primary, often the sole communication link that informs parents about the school's academic mission. Homework opens an otherwise closed window to the school's intellectual agenda. This is true even (perhaps especially) in the elementary grades. Homework compels teachers to let parents see what they are doing in the classroom and how well they are doing their job.

Homework may or may not significantly enhance academic achievement, character development or family cohesion, but without it, parents remain largely in the dark about what goes on in school.”

-Steven Schlossman, Carnegie Mellon University