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Why Assign Homework?

Tingley-021 color-1Kenneth Goldberg, a clinical psychologist, has some good advice for parents of “homework-trapped children” in Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet in The Washington Post.  He notes that some kids may procrastinate when it comes to doing homework or they may try to avoid it completely.  Goldberg says that kids aren’t lazy or unmotivated; instead, they may have “under the radar” learning problems.

Goldberg suggests three ways that may improve the recalcitrant student’s homework habits.  First, he says, limit homework to a certain amount of time rather than making the student work until it’s done, no matter how long it takes.  Second, reduce the penalties for not doing homework.  And third, both teachers and parents should respect the authority of each.  In other words, teachers shouldn’t tell parents how to get their child to do homework and parents shouldn’t tell teachers how much homework to give.

I’m not so sure that every kid who avoids homework has learning problems.  Some just have better things to do and others may not see the point of it.  The idea of setting a time limit on homework, though, is one I tried myself with my own children.  It wasn’t a question of their having learning problems; it was that they felt the Homeworkwork had to be perfect.  Setting a time limit taught them to cut corners and do only what was necessary.  Yeah, I know what you’re thinking – but I maintain that those skills are pretty useful in life when you’re forced to do something that has no real value.

Goldberg’s suggestions are useful if you’ve already accepted the premise that homework is useful.  But sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.  Assigning 10 problems for practice may be helpful for students who need it.  Assigning reading or writing outside of class is often necessary; there is simply not enough time to read everything in class and some students like to work and think on their own.  The problem is that some teachers assign homework without much thought; it’s simply a habit.  And everyone gets the same assignment:  The odd problems on page 67 whether you need it or not.

The other problem with homework is that teachers often think they need to count it as part of a student’s grade, ignoring the fact that grades are supposed to indicate the student’s progress towards mastery of the subject, not the student’s behavior.  Including homework in a student’s academic grade is the hammer.  Essentially, the teacher is saying,  “Even if you pass every test with a B, you may end up with a C if you don’t hand in your homework.”  This, of course, is patently ridiculous, yet it’s an attitude that continues to flourish in many schools.

So, as I said, Goldberg’s ideas are helpful if parents and administrators already accept the idea that homework is a good thing and that work habits should be part of a student’s grade.  Me, I’m not so sure.



Thank you for quoting my article. I hope it contributes to the educational discussion. I agree that there is a question about whether homework is needed at all and, if so, what type should be given. I’ll leave that to educators, as the rightful professionals, to make those decisions. I would like to clarify one point, however. You mention that I say “In other words, teachers shouldn’t tell parents how to get their child to do homework and parents shouldn’t tell teachers how much homework to give,” and that may not completely characterize my position. It’s not just a matter of teachers not telling parents how to get their children to do the homework, but even whether or not the homework gets done at all. Teachers can certainly assign homework. Most parents will support the teachers if they can. But in the end, the parent needs the authority to limit or waive the assignment if in that parent’s judgment, it is harming the child to keep plodding on. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D. www.thehomeworktrap.com.

Thank you for the clarification, Dr. Goldberg. As a parent as well as an educator, I have to agree that while parents need to support the teacher, in the end parents are responsible for what's best for their child. I do think if teachers were more judicious in assigning it, homework could be far less stressful for some kids.

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