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Opinion: Two Easy Ways to Improve Schools

K-12 schools have long relied on homework, and in some cases competition between students, to prompt the hard work of learning and processing information. But it’s possible these tactics do more harm than good.

Two young students working together on a worksheet.
As an experienced educator, I’ve thought a great deal about the field of education. From early education to higher ed, from career technical to career schools, I’ve had a chance to explore much of it and have come to a few conclusions that I think might be of use, or at least thought-provoking, as we look at improving our schools.

As we emerge from the effects of COVID-19 on students and educators at all levels, it is time to move from “reopen to reinvent” — the title of Michael Horn’s excellent book, which is a must-read. Here are two easy suggestions.


One bad effect of students competing against each other is cheating. When the goal is to get ahead at any cost, cheating and other forms of academic dishonesty become the tool to succeed. Berkeley City College writes:

“Academic dishonesty or academic misconduct is any type of cheating that occurs in relation to a formal academic exercise. It can include

  • Plagiarism: The adoption or reproduction of ideas or words or statements of another person without due acknowledgment.
  • Fabrication: The falsification of data, information, or citations in any formal academic exercise.
  • Deception: Providing false information to an instructor concerning a formal academic exercise—e.g., giving a false excuse for missing a deadline or falsely claiming to have submitted work.
  • Cheating: Any attempt to give or obtain assistance in a formal academic exercise (like an examination) without due acknowledgment.
  • Sabotage: Acting to prevent others from completing their work. This includes cutting pages out of library books or willfully disrupting the experiments of others.”

While the first four items above cheat other students out of a better class standing, sabotage prevents education from occurring (such as destroying resources), or creates miseducation (mislabeling laboratory slides or samples), which can have far-reaching consequences. Another effect of academic competition is the disincentive to help fellow students. In classes that grade on a curve, there are only a few top grades available, which can create a reluctance to help students who are competing for those few top grades. (Note: I’m opposed to any use of letter grades.)

Further, when only a few top grades are available, it can act as a disincentive. Many students have expressed to me that competition creates reasons for them not to even try. And I’m not the only one who noticed this. The education website Learning Liftoff argued the same in 2019.

“One of the biggest arguments against the letter grading system is that a low grade doesn’t necessarily reflect students’ comprehension of the subject matter. Because end-of-term grades are based on the average score of multiple assignments, an incomplete project or a missed exam can dramatically impact the final grade. Students who have fully mastered the material can still get a failing grade with a single zero,” the website wrote. “If the incident occurs early enough in the course, students quickly realize no amount of effort will solve the problem, and they may fully disengage from the class.”

For those who think competition is healthy, let’s put it where it belongs. We have team sports, student body elections, play tryouts, and the list goes on and on. If I am right that competition is bad in the field of education, think about the result of a medical student in a competitive environment who got a C in your disease! Shouldn’t the system be designed so all students get it all?

In competitive sports, team members don’t compete against each other. In fact, they are encouraged to work on and improve their weak areas with the help of teammates. Team members benefit from making each teammate improve their weak areas, because everyone bats or serves or … you get the idea.


Let’s design schools where everyone can succeed. One way is the elimination of mandatory homework in all forms. Much has been written on this subject, and soon “no homework” will be the norm.

It destroys classroom equality because outside of school days and the classroom, there is no equality. A student who walks to school and who cares for their siblings for their working single parent can’t compete with an affluent student with a new car, no chores and access to paid tutors as needed. Even Harvard’s Making Caring Common started with a similar observation many years ago. Using grades based on homework and extracurriculars to admit students to college is wrong. It excludes students with grit and ability and responsibility, but for whom family life and circumstances make it hard to showcase the student’s true talents.

I join the voices of others who see the destructive and negative effect of mandatory homework. Researching the topic shows the debate, as well as the new voices and the new advocates; you will find that many schools are doing away with homework for many reasons. Just because it has been used in the past is no justification for bad practices to continue. Homework makes home life unpleasant when a student can’t participate in family activities or help with chores. Sometimes students have to study past normal bedtimes or get up early to finish assignments and their health suffers. With reports of increased homework, it is even harder for students to engage in activities they enjoy or to just have downtime — time to be alone, think about things and smell the roses. And students are forced to make decisions about which courses to take based on the amount of required homework, rather than interest or usefulness of the subject.

Another question to ask is who is doing the homework? I recently wrote about AI tools that can do a student’s homework for them. Sometimes parents have to force a student to do homework, disrupting family harmony and increasing stress. Worse, there are many reports of parents going beyond helping with homework and instead doing their children’s homework for them. Not only are children not learning the subject matter, but they are also getting life lessons in cheating and dishonesty with the ends justifying the means. This destroys a student’s love of learning and the desire to learn a new or difficult subject.

In short, homework can destroy any interest in a subject when students are under pressure to complete assignment after assignment instead of having time for other interests or responsibilities.

Note: In proficiency/mastery/competency-based programs, students proceed at their own pace, which can include study outside the classroom. It is not mandatory nor does it fit the classic definition of group assignments due at a certain time in order for the class to move on a common timetable syllabus.

In the near future I will share more ways we can improve our schools, but these two items alone can improve school culture and increase positive education outcomes. If adopted, they would improve our current system and allow more students to get a better and broader education — and one that they might even enjoy.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.