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Do They Have Science Fairs in Tibet?

How homework can harm English Language Learners

By Mary Ellen Flannery

When it comes to predicting a student’s grades, which factors are important? Whether they know the material should be at the top of the list, right? Or, for English Language Learners, maybe their fluency in the classroom lingo?

Whether they’re poor? Mother went to high school?

No, no, no, and no. According to a recent study, published in the journal Educational Research, the best predictor of an immigrant student’s grades is completion of homework.

And that’s a problem.

Many immigrant students face significant hurdles to completing homework. They may be poor and lack a quiet study environment to do homework. They might be responsible for taking care of their younger siblings or household chores, or working a part-time job after school. Unlike their English-fluent peers, they probably don’t have parents who can help to decipher Shakespeare – or who have time to help at all, as they might be working two jobs. Their parents also might not understand that, in America, it’s expected that they too will help build that dry-ice volcano.

“You know those science fair projects where the parent does half the work? Immigrant kids don’t have that help,” says New York University professor Carola Suárez-Orozco.

And the difference has real consequences.

Should You Assign Homework at All?

Three years ago, in his book “The Homework Myth: Why our kids are getting too much of a bad thing,” author Alfie Kohn calls homework, a “modern-day cod-liver treatment.” Not a single study shows that homework leads to higher student achievement, he argued. In fact, the only thing it’s been proven to cause is bad attitudes.
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“Each homework assignment that is out of reach for immigrant students arguably places them at a position of cumulative disadvantage – for failed opportunities to learn, negative teacher perceptions, and academic disengagement,” writes researcher and author Hee Jin Bang.

In Bang’s first study on homework – her second is due to be published this year – she found teacher perceptions to be the likely connection between grades and homework. It's as if teachers use homework to gauge whether a student works hard and tries his or her best, and then rewards that effort with better grades.

That’s not doing them any favors, Bang suggests. All students should be held to high expectations, and the right kind of homework could actually help these kids practice English or new skills learned in the classroom. It just has to be homework that students can handle independently.

“If I send anything home for homework, it has to be an assignment that can be handled by the students by themselves,” says Ricardo Rincon, a Las Cruces, New Mexico, teacher whose students are primarily first-generation Latino. “These parents make sure to pay the bills, bring home the food, and keep a roof over their heads, but they may have to take a job that doesn’t have them at home when their kids are at home.”

He encourages educators to think about the kind of homework they assign. Not only should it be simple enough for a student to do independently, it also has to be meaningful, urges Michelle Preusser, a National Board Certified third-grade teacher in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. That doesn’t mean 25 more math problems, she says. “We don’t want to turn our kids off to learning."

Her students take home a reading log and they’re asked to read at least four days out of seven, and record what they’ve read.  “In third grade, the more they read, the more everything falls into place.” At the same time, their math homework, called “Math Links,” and sent home in English and Spanish, will extend the day’s lesson to home. For example, after learning about perimeter in the classroom, they might have to look at shapes on the paper, estimate which has the largest perimeter, and then maybe measure the perimeter of their room.

A favorite assignment: Build your own musical instrument. To go with science lessons on sound, Preusser asks her students to build an instrument using everyday objects in their homes. They bring them to school and demonstrate for classmates, then do self and peer evaluations.

And it’s not just the quality of your assignment – it’s the quantity. “I’m not sure more homework necessarily means more learning,” Preusser says. For its part, NEA supports “the 10-minute rule,” developed by a Duke University professor. That rule calls for 10 minutes of homework per grade, so a third-grader would have 30 minutes, a ninth-grader no more than 90 minutes.



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