The Problem with Homework & Letter Grades — And Some Ideas for Overhauling the Public School System

As a Montessori educator (and a recovering perfectionist), I’ve noticed some major problems with the way public elementary schools in the United States operate… and when I shared them once in my Instagram stories, I was asked to elaborate.  So here we are!

I will preface my opinions with these facts:  I have a daughter who is an advanced student in a public elementary school and who always does her homework without complaining.  She does well on tests and has high grades.  We do not require these things of her – she has high standards for herself.  I have a similar history from when I was a student, and the difference is that now I am an adult with a wider view of the world and an understanding of what really matters.  And grades? Homework? Test scores? That’s not it.

I don’t think any elementary child should have homework.  There’s absolutely no reason that a child between the ages of 5 and 10 needs to be doing that much academic work in one day.  If it can’t fit into the 6+ hour school day, it can wait until tomorrow.

I know the argument in favor of homework:  that some kids need more practice, and so teachers send worksheets home so they get that repetition in. But there are so many problems with that.  The kids who DON’T need the extra practice are the ones who do the homework because they don’t want to get in trouble.  The kids who DO need the extra practice either don’t do the homework because they can’t, or do the homework, but they do it with the help of a parent who doesn’t understand the work (or a parent who does the work for them).

If my elementary-aged child resisted homework everyday – like it was a real struggle to get them to complete it – I would tell the teacher that we opt-out of homework.

Now let’s move on to tests and letter grades, the major stressor of my entire life and now my daughter’s.  Something that I don’t think we emphasize enough is that letter grades mean very little.  In the grand scheme of things, they don’t matter.  The most important things in life are not on a 3rd grade math test.  Long term, it’s meaningless.  Short term, the most generous interpretation would be that it shows teachers how much information kids can regurgitate.

Tests, letter grades, and homework show teachers who is good at taking pen and paper tests and who has adults at home with the time/energy to support making sure homework gets done.  And if you’re the kid who doesn’t test well but can make a model with her hands to demonstrate the principles, or the kid whose mom works two jobs and can barely make sure the kids get on the bus in the morning, or the kid whose parents don’t speak English and can’t understand communications from the school – the tests, letter grades, and homework show that you’re a failure.

Tests, letter grades, and homework are an indication of privilege more than an indication of knowledge.  And to impose letter grades and standardized test scores as a measure of a person in their formative years has lasting repercussions – almost none of them good.

So if we want to overhaul the public school system, how do we get started?  I certainly don’t have all the answers.  I have a few ideas, but none of them are set in stone, and I’m not even sure how we would go about starting to make some of these changes.  But if we all advocate for a more equitable, child-focused public school system, I’m sure that together we can make some major changes.

Here are some ideas of possible things to work toward instead of focusing on homework and letter grades in the elementary years:

  • More hands-on, project-based learning instead of lectures, worksheets, and tests – when you’re studying the life cycle of a tree, go outside and actually observe it in nature!  Teach children how to complete research projects, write reports, make a poster, create a model to share the information they’ve learned.
  • Have portfolio-based evaluations rather than test-based assessments – let the students choose their best work to put together for assessment each marking period.
  • Eliminate homework – spread an understanding that home time is for play, not for extra schoolwork.
  • Switch to block scheduling instead of trying to fit every subject area into every single school day – this could provide enough time for group instruction, individual instruction, extra practice, hands-on work, enrichment opportunities, etc.
  • Eliminate standardized testing – allow teachers to teach to the children they have in their classrooms, not to the test they’ll have to take at the end of the year.
  • Overhaul public school funding – base funding on actual need, not on test scores.  If we invest in the schools that need it most, they will invest in our children, which will invest in the future of our planet.
  • Provide better support for teachers – more prep time, less busywork, more freedom to teach in ways that can reach more children. We are losing our teachers because of how we treat them, and if we want the best of the best, we need to treat them like that’s what they are. Tuition reimbursement and higher salaries with more support would go a long way.

What would you add to this list?