Will France Say Au Revoir to Homework?

Despite criticism, the president of France is moving forward with his plan to ban homework. Many U.S. schools are also ditching the practice.

The president of France is not a fan of homework. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Sacre bleu! No homework in France?

This might actually be the case if French President François Hollande gets his way. Hollande has a theory that homework penalizes children who may live in poverty or have a difficult home life.

His theory is part of an effort to reform France’s education system, which has declined in international standing over the last few years. With less homework, France’s school week would become longer, but students would enjoy a shorter school day.

More: Attention Parents: Your Guide to Making Peace in the Homework Wars

In the United States, students, and even parents, have bemoaned homework for decades. Homework gained steam in the 1950s, when America was trying to beat Russia at the space game. In the free-spirit 1960s and socially-conscious 1970s, homework fell a bit out of favor, only to regain it in the 1980s.

But now school systems are questioning the benefits of homework. Some schools have already eliminated the practice, optioning instead for a longer school day where students finish homework before going home. Other schools are investigating whether homework actually pays off in terms of better grades and test scores.

Dr. Mitchell Rabinowitz, a professor at Fordham's Graduate School of Education, is currently studying how to design homework so that people use effective cognitive processes that enhance memory and learning while they are working on assignments.

He says that while homework essentially is practice in a specific subject, it should be a meaningful exercise.

“Homework provides the opportunity to practice, but only if it is designed to engage the students and allow them to process information in a meaningful way,” Rabinowitz said in an interview. “There is substantial research on how to design effective instruction, but until recently little research on how to design effective homework. Our research shows significant benefits from completing well-designed homework. If you give poorly designed homework, it won't help much and will be a waste of time.”

Rabinowitz and his research partner, Dr. William B. Whitten, call their homework “guided cognition.” Students participate in normal classroom instruction in English literature and middle school mathematics and then are given either traditional homework or guided cognition homework that involves more imagining, drawing diagrams, and word association. 

“They are then given a surprise review activity some days later,” Rabinowitz said. “Students who completed the guided cognition homework tend to get a grade better or around 10 percent points higher on the review activity than those who completed the traditional homework.”

Still, some parents think children are overloaded with homework, especially at a young age. Christy Ward said her son, Cobus, was spending an hour a day doing homework in the first grade—a lot of it was simply busy work.

“Sure, doing times tables over and over in fourth grade might be helpful, and spelling words are too, but busy work for home is not,” Ward says. “They are in school six to seven hours a day. That's enough work for a seven-year-old.”

A recent study, “When Is Homework Worth The Time?,” showed that time spent on math and science homework doesn’t translate to better grades but does aid in better standardized test scores. The trio of researchers concluded that homework, if given, should have purpose.

At eStem, a public charter school in Little Rock, Ark., homework has already been eliminated. Instead, students have a longer school day, and homework is completed before they go home. Many parents say they like this method because teachers help with homework instead of parents. Another elementary school in Menlo Park, Calif., said goodbye to homework a few years ago.

One by one, other schools are following this trend—and maybe for good reason.

“Districts are increasingly looking at homework policies, too,” Jerusha Conner, assistant professor of education at Villanova University, said in an interview. “Lower Merion School District (outside Philadelphia) revised its homework policy last year, after a push from parents who were concerned about their children's lack of sleep due to lengthy homework assignments combined with demanding and time-consuming extracurricular activities.”

Connor, along with two colleagues, Mollie Galloway and Denise Pope, recently completed a study about homework. They studied a sample of 4,317 students from ten high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class communities with more than three hours of homework per night. They discovered that students putting in more hours on homework reported greater behavioral engagement in school. But there were many downsides too. These students had more academic stress, more physical health problems, and less balance in their lives.

Perhaps the French president is on to something regardless of the critics in his country.

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