Homework: the good, the bad and the stand out

Dig into the Ministry of Education’s report School Leadership and Student Outcomes: What Works and Why and you’ll discover research that measures the effects on student learning of different kinds…


Dig into the Ministry of Education’s report School Leadership and Student Outcomes: What Works and Why and you’ll discover research that measures the effects on student learning of different kinds of homework.

Researchers found that the average impact for homework on student outcomes was an effect size of 0.22 (small impact).

However, according to Dr Adrienne Alton-Lee, the ministry’s chief advisor on the BES programme, there was a huge variation, and at the upper end of the scale, teacher-designed interactive homework with parents had a 1.38 impact (high effect on student learning). “Compare that with the average gain from a year’s teaching on asTT le assessments, which is 0.35 across schooling in reading, writing and maths and you see how substantial it is.”

At the other end of the scale, parent˜help’ with homework actually had a small, ongoing negative effect (-.24), with a whole raft of homework interventions that fall between (see table). “The absolute standout is when schools develop the capacity to help parents support their children’s learning in ways that are feasible for both parents and teachers,” explains Dr Alton-Lee. “The highest impact is when the interventions are informed by R&D programmes.” An example in the report is based on experience at St Joseph’s in Otahuhu, which reaffirms the effectiveness of the Reading Together programme.

School leaders found the programme had a significant impact on reading achievement in their decile one, 90 percent Pasifika primary school. Developed by New Zealander Jeanne Biddulph, the Reading Together programme is a series of four workshops that focus on schools teaching parents specific ways to support reading.

“Parents find it very helpful in that it gives them simple but effective strategies for helping their children with their reading and they get a chance to actually practice these strategies with their children at one of the workshops,” explains Principal Liz Horgan. “The groups are quite small and interactive.

One of the important learnings for many parents is that reading with their children should be enjoyable. This is something we emphasise.” Using effective approaches matters, says Dr Alton-Lee. “Evidence suggests that schools can waste a lot of time, money and effort trying to harness parental engagement in ways that have minimal impact on children’s learning. “For example, when schools develop lending libraries of mathematical games that match student learning needs, these have a more positive effect on student mathematics achievement than any other school-home intervention,” explains Dr Alton-Lee. “In some cases schools involved parents in developing the games libraries.” She says the report’s researchers found that the quality of implementation rather than frequency of use was more strongly associated with greater student achievement.

This is supported by Dr Fiona Ell’s masters thesis, which found that when children and parents played maths games, it was more beneficial when the parents played the games˜like teachers’ and introduced more maths concepts and questioned kids more frequently, compared with those who played the games as games, where the parents played as equal partners and didn’t exploit the mathematics.

“This really applies to anything you send home, and links to Stuart McNaughton’s work in literacy: the greater the degree of˜match’ between home and school ways of using the materials, the greater the benefit for the child,” says Dr Ell, now a Senior Tutor, Teacher Education Practice at the University of Auckland.


The report found that the least effective kind of homework is parent˜help’ with homework, where the parents often think they are helping but in fact are having a negative effect that can have long-term consequences.

This includes˜help’ which conflicts with classroom practices, imposes controls, or is critical. Studies in New Zealand reveal this encompasses everything from pressuring children to read texts that are too difficult, smacking, name calling and mocking, to unintentional psychological pressure—a result of well-intentioned parents trying to help.

By contrast, parents’ support for their children when doing homework has positive effects, says Dr Alton-Lee. “Parents who have participated in the Reading Together workshops report they have a closer relationship with their children as a result, as illustrated by this typical comment:˜It helped me to know how to calm down when my child made a mistake. It brings that mother/daughter bond. Reading is fun time not shouting time, and what I really like now is that my daughter likes to read’.”

[g1_quote author_name=”Harris Cooper” author_description=”Author of The battle over homework: Common ground for administrators, teachers and parents” author_url=”http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1412937132/sociapsychn0f-20″ author_description_format=”%link%” align=”right” size=”m” style=”solid” template=”01″]

Homework is the cause of more friction between school and home than any other aspect of education¦ End the battle and turn homework into a cooperative effort to promote student learning.


These changes in parental approach really matter, says Dr Alton-Lee, with recent neuroscience research showing that when children experience fear as they learn, it can do long-term damage.

Homework on the ultranet

There is little doubt that schools find the whole area of homework fraught. Wellington’s Karori Normal hit the headlines earlier this year when Principal Diane Leggett announced it was banning traditional homework as it causes too much stress for parents and children and often doesn’t help kids learn.

Instead she wants parents to get involved and be creative when it comes to reading and learning facts, suggesting pupils should read comics and the backs of cereal packets to improve reading skills, and improve spelling by doing crosswords and playing board games. Wanganui Intermediate Principal

Charles Oliver says students at his school are expected to spend 20-40 minutes on homework each night, however he is not sure it has much impact on their learning or relevance. “We do it for two reasons. Firstly so the children become self-managing learners, and secondly because parents like it.

Parents judge a school partly on whether it gives homework, and if it does they think it must be good.” To improve both the relevance and impact of homework, Charles is about to introduce homework via an ultranet, whereby the students will be able to log on, bring up their own file and continue a piece of work they started in class, or complete a series of challenges tailored for their ability level, around maths, reading or science.

Nelson Central School Principal Dr Paul Potaka has found from experience it is no use arguing with families about what they do with their time. “The way I put it to people is they can do as much or little homework as the family desires. What I say to the children is that they are investing in their future, and that homework is their capital.” The school does give homework, and it is up to the teachers to try to link homework to whatever they are doing in the classroom.

Families are also directed to educational websites. “We also encourage the children and their parents to make decisions about what they do with their leisure times—that’s also homework. Some do ballet, sports, music and so on and we consider that a valuable part of a child’s education.”

The challenge

Dr Alton-Lee says the challenge for New Zealand schools is that despite homework being the most important interface between teaching and home and a critical issue for public confidence in education, there is no R&D programme on homework in New Zealand, and insufficient support coming into the teaching profession from universities to help them understand and implement effective homework policies. “From my point of view, when you have an area of practice in education that is inadvertently doing harm, I believe it should be a priority to get much stronger support for R&D to support wha-nau, parents and teachers.” Even without new research and support, Dr Alton-Lee says there are things that schools can be doing around homework that will bring fast, positive impacts. These include teachers giving feedback on homework; strong clear rules for parents; stating the time to be spent on homework, and a facility for parents to give feedback.

“We need to take more professional leadership and assist parents to understand how they can support their children. We have to counter vexatious effects of homework and set things up to make it work because the educational benefits of homework can be so significant.”

Key Points

  • Schools can waste time and money trying to involve parents in ways that don’t work
  • New research identifies homework that does lift student achievement
  • Parents can support student