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Through Trial and Error: Debating the Importance of Homework
“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”
- A Chinese Proverb
Several months ago, my mother’s friend Kelly came to visit my family for the first time since we’d moved out of the city. Kelly has been my mother’s friend for many years. In fact, they’ve known each other since my little brother, William, was five years old. He is now thirteen. Before I moved to the suburbs, my siblings, and I spent countless days at a playground close to our apartment in the city, with Kelly’s kids, endlessly running through the red and green structures, our tiny hands gripping monkey bars, swinging from one place to the next. One of my favorite pastimes was the swings. The wind would blow through our hair as we clutched the cool, rust smelling metal of the swing, pumping so high we could see the river all the way at the edge of the park. It so happens that my mother first met Kelly at this park. My brother, William, played with her son, Ronan, when they were in first grade and kindergarten, respectively. After a few years of not running into each other, my mother met Kelly again when my youngest brother, James, and Ronan ended up in the same class. Ronan had just transferred to a public school in the city that my siblings and I were attending at the time. From then on, my mother and Kelly have been close friends.
Kelly and her two children, who happen to be the same age as two of my siblings, came to visit us at the end of last summer. We spent most of the day lounging at the pool and eventually came home to eat dinner and relax. As my three siblings had friends their own age to play with, I found myself sitting alone in the kitchen, trying to keep my new puppy in line. My mother and Kelly were standing in the kitchen trying to think of something all of the kids would eat. I don’t usually listen to my parents’ conversations, but all of a sudden Kelly caught my attention. She began to talk about my old elementary school. I began to drift off into thoughts about my years there: the big red building that had separate doors for boys and girls; the haunted bathroom in the cafeteria where “Bloody Mary” lived; and my favorite teacher, Eve, who told stories of being a cook, a writer, and a radio operator.
As I wandered off into my memories, something Kelly said brought me back to reality again. “Did you know,” she was saying, “that the school has changed its homework policy?” “No,” my mother was replying.
“Now all homework is optional.”
“Optional? Optional?” I interjected.
A feeling of jealousy and confusion filled my mind. The last place I’d expected to give optional homework was my elementary school. For years my mother sat down with me in the evenings at the long, black table next to the door of our apartment flipping over orange and blue flashcards or reading my school books in the dim orange light. Like many public schools in Manhattan, my elementary school has always given homework to its students. Its homework policy was very simple: the amount of homework was determined by the teacher and the difficulty and time consumption gradually increased as you moved up a grade. Even though I don’t remember ever feeling completely overwhelmed by homework during my years there, it was expected that I would spend at least an hour of my free time doing it. In second and third grade, we were given weekly homework packets while in fourth and fifth grade the assignments were nightly. There wasn’t much controversy about the amount of homework we were assigned. I think most students and parents accepted the amount of homework or at least didn’t voice any objections.
Recently, however, growing complaints from parents have led my elementary school to rethink its homework policy completely. Although homework has been a fundamental part of the school for decades, there has been a lot of debate lately about whether homework is a valuable tool for learning. In fact, there has been so much discussion in the news and in communities about how schools should deal with homework that this controversy has come to be known as “The Great Homework Debate.” On one side, there are the parents and teachers who argue that homework reinforces ideas taught in school and helps students do better academically. On the other side are the parents who claim that homework is too time consuming and actually causes problems for students. Since homework has become so controversial, it has been very hard for schools to create homework policies that satisfy everyone.
Last year, my elementary school established a new and very different approach to homework. For the first time in its history, my school made practically all homework optional. In the new program called Home Learning, designed to create “differential homework,” the only activity students were required to do was to read on a daily basis. For math and English, parents were given a list of “suggested” activities. Completing these assignments was not mandatory. Many of the activities recommended did not resemble homework students had received for these subjects in the past. According to my mother’s friend, Kelly, whose eight-year-old daughter, Kiera, goes to my elementary school, one suggested activity for the purpose of learning fractions was to cook with a parent and use measuring cups (e.g., ¼ cup). To encourage parents to create assignments, the suggested activities were very unstructured.
This sounded like a reasonable way to go about pleasing parents. Parents who wanted their kids to do homework chose to do the suggested activities while those who did not want their kids to do homework didn’t. For many parents, this optional homework policy made completing homework a lot easier. Parents who came home late at night didn’t have to worry about spending another hour trying to help their kids with homework. Parents who enjoyed teaching their kids had the freedom to do as many of the suggested activities as they liked. According to Kelly, Home Learning even helped her daughter, Kiera, get her homework done quicker. Kiera didn’t mind doing creative activities like cooking with her mom and didn’t complain when it was time to do homework. Kelly, who has an older son who also went to my elementary school, also found this homework policy better than the last one. As she says, some of the math assignments in the past were just “busy work,” and some of the English assignments were so vague and uncreative that her son didn’t know where to start. For some parents, having more freedom in the Home Learning program made homework less of a burden.
However, many parents at my elementary school soon became frustrated by this system. They began to have trouble thinking of creative assignments and began to worry that their kids weren’t learning enough at home. As Kelly says, “They didn’t know what to do with their kids and were frustrated by the homework policy.” Clearly, the design of Home Learning did not accomplish its mission: to satisfy all parents while at least maintaining the level of student performance achieved by my school in the past. This is most likely because many parents didn’t want the job of making up homework assignments. For people like Kelly and her daughter Kiera who enjoy creative activities, Home Learning was the perfect fit. However, for what turned out to be the majority of parents, creating activities was difficult and made homework harder.
This brings me to the key question raised by the homework dilemma: how can schools create a homework policy that satisfies parents and boosts academic achievement at the same time? Clearly, homework policies that require very little homework or none at all lead to discord among parents and, from many parents’ perspectives, hurt academic achievement. At the same time, homework policies that assign a lot of homework also frustrate parents and may not actually help kids improve as students.
Homework has been assigned in schools for centuries. If you were to ask your parents whether they had homework, the answer would almost definitely be yes. If you were to ask your grandparents whether they had homework, the answer would also most likely be yes. Homework has been around for so long that the oldest people you know had homework in school. Although there is no sure information about the initial creation of homework, an Italian man named Roberto Nevilis is credited by many sources for inventing homework in 1095, around the same time that the formal school system was established in Europe. If this is true, homework has existed ever since schools have been a part of society. This may explain why so many people do not like the idea of getting rid of homework entirely. Since homework has been a part of education for almost everyone who has had proper schooling, it seems strange and wrong for schools to go on without it.
However, a new wave of parents and students are questioning homework despite its strong historical foundation. This is not the first generation to question homework’s worth. Disputes about homework have gone on for the past century. In her article, “A Brief History of Homework,” Etta Kralovec, an associate professor of teacher education at the University of South Arizona, says “the debates about homework in this country may be seen as a continuation of the debates that have existed throughout the 20th century.” One of the first acts of rebellion against homework occurred all the way back in 1887. In DeWitt, Texas, a student refused to do his homework for two nights and was whipped by his teacher (whipping was the punishment in DeWitt for not doing your homework). The student then went on to stab his teacher in the shoulder and the leg. As Kralovec notes in her essay, the editor of the Ladies Home Journal, Edward Bok, even published articles in 1900 against homework: “In his anti-homework article in 1900, ‘A National Crime at the Feet of American Parents,’ Bok went all out in his attack of homework, a practice that he characterized as ‘the most barbarous part of the whole [schooling] system.’” Some places even put limits on homework at the beginning of the 20th century. For example, California’s civil code in 1901 included the line “no pupil under the age of fifteen years in any grammar or primary school shall be required to do any home study.” Even though controversies about homework have only recently become widespread, homework has been argued about for many years.
In his essay, “Questioning Homework’s Worth,” editor Gary Stager interviews Etta Kralovec about the book she co-authored with former teacher John Buell: The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning. In this interview, Kralovec explains the core arguments made against homework. One of the problems she highlights is the dilemma homework presents to families. Many parents work long hours and the last thing they want to do when they come home is to help their children with homework. As Kralovec explains, “white, middle-class families have seen an increase to their workweek of nearly 250 hours per year in the last decade and for African-American, middle-income families, that number is closer to a 500-hour increase.” As the workload for mothers and fathers has increased, parents have had less and less time to devote to helping their children with homework.
Moreover, as Kralovec points out, many parents would rather devote their free time with their children to other things: passing on their cultural heritage, religious beliefs, and/or important life skills; doing community service; modeling how to run a home; or just spending quality time together. When I was in elementary school, I was often given homework that required my parents to participate. The assignments were supposed to be fun: we were given little games to play and assignments like drawing the stores on my block. Obviously, teachers designed these assignments to create quality time with my parents. Still, for many parents who come home late and tired or have other responsibilities, this can be a burden. Take my mom, for example. When I was in third grade, she took care of my three younger siblings who were all less than six years old. When I was asked to draw the stores on my block, my mom had to take all three of them with us. My mother would push my youngest sibling, Addie, in the seat as my two younger brothers clutched each side of the stroller. As you might imagine, it was very frustrating for my mother to watch all four of us at the same time. All of a sudden, just walking around the block became incredibly difficult. As a former teacher, my mother knows that a lot of homework assignments, especially for younger kids, are made with the best intentions; on the other hand, as a parent, she also knows that sometimes it is not relaxing to do homework with your kids. Ultimately, for many parents, doing homework with their children is only one more task to add to their already busy schedule.
Another important point Kralovec makes is that not all students have good resources at home, which puts them at a disadvantage. First of all, a parent’s level of education plays a huge role in how much a parent can help their children with homework. Most parents can help their children in elementary school where homework consists of basic math, reading and writing, but when their children advance to middle and high school where the concepts become increasingly harder, many parents who received lower levels of education are no longer able to help their children. Additionally, some parents can afford to pay for tutoring outside of school while others cannot. When a parent cannot help their child at home and he or she cannot pay for extra help, the child is at big disadvantage.
There is also a language barrier in many students’ homes. For parents who do not speak English as their first language, or may be illiterate, helping their children with homework can be a nightmare. Sometimes parents in this situation cannot help at all. For example, many of my friends in the city who belong to immigrant families have to do their homework by themselves. This can be very difficult when a student doesn’t understand a concept. The language barrier can make it impossible for a student to complete parent involved activities like the ones I mentioned earlier. If no one at home can help the student, then that student may not do as well on exams and, consequently, receive lower grades. In this situation, homework actually hurts academic achievement.
Similarly, not all students have the same access to technology. With the increasing use of technology in schools, many students are assigned homework electronically or have assignments that require the use of the Internet. The argument can be made, of course, that almost everyone can access a computer somewhere. However, as Kralovec notes, “there are still vast differences between having to go to the library to complete online homework and doing it in your own home, on your own computer.” For many students, access to a laptop or computer requires going to the library or staying late at school, which can be prohibitive.
In the final analysis, since a student’s home environment greatly influences how well a student can complete their homework, students with disadvantages at home also have a disadvantage when it comes to homework. As Kralovec sums it up, “some students go home to well-educated parents, access to tutors and computers with vast databases. Others have family responsibilities, parents who work at night or have limited educational resources in their homes.” For students lacking resources at home, homework can be very challenging and an obstacle to academic success.
Equally important, certain studies show that homework has a negative effect on academic achievement. As illustrated in the article, “What research says about the value of homework: Research review,” which was published by the Center for Public Education, in 2006, Mikk “examined the association between homework and math achievement in forty-six countries” and found that “student achievement was lower in countries where homework counted towards grades, where it was the basis of classroom discussion, and where students corrected homework in class.” Other studies have concluded that homework has no effect on student achievement making it an unnecessary part of the learning process. In 1999, “Swank examined the differences in test scores among fourth graders who either did or did not do homework. Her findings indicated no differences in math achievement scores between students in the two homework groups.” Since many studies have found that homework either hurts a student’s grades or has no effect on them at all, people are beginning to question whether homework really helps improve academic achievement.
However, even though homework may not be effective for all families and some research questions homework’s values, many educators believe that homework builds crucial skills that students need later in life. In her essay, “Increasing the Effectiveness of Homework for All Learners in the Inclusive Classroom,” Nicole Schrat Carr, a social science teacher at Academy at the Lakes, a K-12 school in Florida, and an adjunct professor of education at the University of Tampa, examines the importance of homework for students. Her essay confirms that homework can be an important tool for academic achievement. Carr argues that homework builds self-regulation skills that lead to academic success. As Carr mentions, “a study by Schmitz and Perels found that eighth grade students receiving daily self-regulation support during math homework performed better on post-tests than their peers who did not receive self-regulation support.” The self-regulation skills built through homework include finding a place to work, managing one’s time, remaining focused, keeping oneself motivated, and keeping negative emotion at bay. Put another way, homework sets up the mental structure for academic achievement because it teaches us where and how we learn best.
Let’s think about the “where” for a moment. Most students have one spot where they do most of their homework: the library at school, their room, the kitchen counter, etc. My homework spot, most of the time, is the dining room table. I like to spread out my laptop, textbooks, and notebooks. I am easily distracted if all of my things are on top of each other, which is what happens when I work at the small desk in my own room. Most of the time, though, the dining room table turns out to be a bad idea because in order to do my homework, I also need complete silence. This is “how” I do my homework. In order to really focus on an assignment, I must be alone. This is why, about 30 minutes after my siblings come home, I end up lugging all of my stuff downstairs to my room. Since I have been doing homework almost every day since I started high school, I have established a routine that allows me to work best. I know where and how I become most motivated and focused. Therefore, when I have a quiz or test, which directly affects my grades, I know what to do. I immediately go down to my room where I will not be distracted by other people’s voices. As Carr says, knowing how to regulate myself, which comes from my homework routine, allows me to maximize my academic achievement. However, we must acknowledge that not all students are able to do this. As Kralovec would point out, not all students have their own room or a special place to do homework, making it harder for them to develop an efficient homework routine. Again, students lacking resources often cannot reap the benefits of homework, which, in this case, means learning how to study.
In addition to teaching us how to study, some researchers have found that homework helps students understand material better, which, of course, boosts test scores. The article “What research says about the value of homework: Research review” also describes a couple of studies that showed a positive relationship between homework and academic achievement. For example, it noted that in 1995, Townsend conducted a study that “indicated that students who were assigned homework scored higher on vocabulary tests than those who were not.” Another study with similar findings was conducted by Van Voorhis in 2003 when she studied the connection between homework and science achievement with middle school students. She found that, taking into account a student’s background, teacher, and family involvement, students that completed more science homework received higher science grades on their report cards. Contradicting the studies cited earlier in the same article, this research shows that homework can, in fact, increase academic achievement.
Meanwhile, homework research has also found that homework builds self regulation skills and improves test scores only in older students. The article “What research says about the value of homework: Research review” concludes that homework may have a positive effect on middle and high school students, but it has a negative effect on elementary school students. To that end, one study conducted in 1989 by Leone and Richards looked at the connection between time spent on homework and grades students received. Their study suggested that there is “a positive association between the amount of homework and students’ grades for children in grades six through ten and a negative association for children in grades two through four.” Younger students may not benefit from homework because they are not old enough to understand how to regulate themselves. In 2001, Hoover-Dempsey and colleagues found that “younger children have less-effective study habits because of their inability to focus and avoid distraction.” Since homework mostly helps students in the middle and high school levels, elementary schools should reconsider giving very large amounts of homework especially in earlier grades.
Like many parents and teachers, Carr believes that getting rid of homework is not the best way to solve the homework problem. Instead, she thinks schools should take steps to improve the quality of homework. In dealing with the current homework debate, Carr emphasizes that there are a few important factors that determine whether homework is beneficial. She suggests that teachers consider all of these factors when they create a homework assignment. As Carr explains, there are “five fundamental characteristics of good homework: purpose, efficiency, ownership, competence, and aesthetic appeal.” Each of these characteristics affects how the student will respond to homework and determines how much homework increases academic achievement.
I’ll start by explaining one of the most important factors: purpose. If teachers assign homework just as a matter of routine and the assignments are not meaningful, students will leave the classroom unmotivated and will not see homework as being valuable. The main purpose of homework is to reinforce concepts taught in class, which is why homework should never be given on topics students have not learned. Once in awhile I am assigned textbook homework that is loosely related to what we’ve been doing in class but is mostly new material. Every time this happens, I spend at least half an hour reading the textbook explanation and trying to figure out the problems. I become very annoyed at my inability to understand the new material and finally resolve to find my teacher the next day. Homework on new material is not very beneficial for me because I need a teacher to explain new information.
Efficiency as defined by Carr, how much time homework assignments should take and how much effort it should require, also plays an important role in the effectiveness of homework. As Carr describes, homework should not take a huge amount of time and should be moderately difficult. Homework that is too easy can lead to boredom. Homework that takes too long and that is too difficult leaves students frustrated. My friend Maggie, who goes to a prestigious high school in the city, is a good example of a student who faces the problem of having too much homework. On an average school night, Maggie receives about 5 hours of homework. Even if she were to get off the bus that takes her home at 4pm, dash through the revolving door of her apartment building, catch the elevator and ride it up to her floor, fling open the door to her apartment, and immediately sit down at the table with all of her notebooks, she would still be working until 9pm (assuming she doesn’t get up to eat dinner or do anything else). The problem Maggie has, though, is that she doesn’t go straight home. In order to pursue her dance career, she commutes all the way from her school in the Bronx to Midtown Manhattan and dances at the Alvin Ailey dance school for a couple of hours. Maggie ends up getting home at 8:30 and finishes her homework well past midnight. This means that every day, Maggie gets less than 6 hours of sleep. This is 2-4 hours less than the amount of sleep recommended for teenagers by the National Sleep Foundation. The Foundation points out that some of the dangers of undersleeping include overeating and the risk of type 2 diabetes. According to WebMD, chronic under sleeping can lead to accidents, forgetfulness, depression, impaired judgement, and serious health problems such as heart attacks, high blood pressure, and strokes. As Maggie says, “I don’t compromise any of my extracurriculars. I compromise sleep.” It is no surprise, then, that Maggie is exhausted at school, which presents a significant challenge when it comes to paying attention in class or focusing on a test. Maggie’s excessive homework only makes it harder for for her to do well in school and even creates a risk for her health.
Carr also discusses the importance of the feelings of ownership, competence, and aesthetic attraction. Ownership, or students’ interest in an assignment, can also determine a student’s motivation. When students feel connected to the assignment, they are proud when they do well. Why else would kids show their parents their grades when they get a high score? Even as a sophomore, I feel good when my teacher tells me I’ve done something well, especially if I worked very hard on an assignment. Students should also feel competent and capable when they complete a homework assignment. As I said earlier, a homework assignment that is too difficult only leaves the student feeling frustrated. Lastly, aesthetic appeal, although considered trivial by many, has an important role in the student’s first impression of an assignment. Homework assignments that are cluttered with instructions and requirements can overwhelm and discourage the student. Often, less information on the page and a few graphic images would make homework look more inviting. Since the design of homework has such a big effect on a student’s motivation, improving the structure can lead to improved academic achievement.
Going back to Maggie’s homework dilemma, in addition to having too much homework, Maggie often has homework that is very challenging. One of Maggie’s worst and most frustrating subjects this year is computer science. Every day for computer science, Maggie is given a task to program. Programming assignments ask the user to use java or another language to instruct the computer to do something. This may be something like prompting the user to answer questions or generating random numbers. Having taken computer programming myself, I know how exasperating programming assignments can be. What makes them so difficult is that they require a lot of trial and error. Coding is like putting pieces of a puzzle together. Every piece (like the symbols in code) must be in the right place before the puzzle (or the program) is complete. Just like a missing piece of a puzzle, a single mistake in programming can throw the whole thing off. Maggie often finds herself spending hours on a single computer science assignment because she cannot write the appropriate code or find the error in her program. Since computer science homework is so hard, she is unmotivated in her computer science class; when it comes up in conversation, she rolls her eyes and sighs. All of her interest in the class has been lost because of the difficulty of the homework. When asked her least favorite subject, she was very quick in responding computer science. Furthermore, instead of feeling proud when she successfully completes an assignment, which she would feel if the assignment was designed to create “ownership,” and feeling motivated, which she would feel if she felt capable of doing the assignment, she merely feels “relieved” it’s done.
Applying Carr’s five characteristics, Maggie’s computer science homework suffers from multiple aspects of its design, but especially its lack of aesthetic appeal. Since Maggie’s assignments usually come with a short prompt that only states the problem, when students get stuck, they find little help in the directions. On the other hand, Carr explains how too many instructions take away from homework’s value. In Maggie’s scenario, a lack of instructions makes homework less beneficial. This just shows how difficult but important aesthetic appeal can be. If Carr were to advise Maggie’s computer science teacher on how to improve his or her homework assignments, I think she would point out these major flaws in design -- the lack of ownership felt by the students, the high level of difficulty, the weak aesthetic appeal -- and suggest that this teacher take into consideration the many ways homework can go astray. One way the computer science teacher could fix this problem is by adding helpful hints in the directions. This way the assignments would be a little bit easier, students would be more encouraged to complete the homework, and the directions wouldn’t appear so short and unhelpful. With a little guidance, Maggie’s computer science homework would become much more beneficial.
In dealing with the “Great Homework Debate,” we must accept that homework will never be perfect for every single student in a class. Although some students do not have the necessary resources at home or just have a harder time learning new material, as Kralovec says, homework builds crucial self regulation skills that teach students how to succeed. This is why getting rid of homework is not an effective way of dealing with the homework problem. For the students who do not have resources at home, establishing an after school homework help program that provides computers and teachers who can assist students would be beneficial. One of the best things about my town’s school system is that teachers stay until 3:15 every day, half an hour after school is dismissed, to help their students do homework and to help them prepare for tests. The school library, which provides computers and laptops, stays open into the evening. Every day the school library is filled with students doing homework or being tutored. The recreation department in my town also provides homework help on a daily basis. Once a week I go the “rec” center and help middle and elementary students after school. The same students keep coming back because this extra help program really does help them get their homework done. Even though their parents may not have the time to help or are not capable of helping, these students always have someone to aid them. In order to make all students capable of doing homework, schools must establish ways to provide extra help for the students who need it.
Even though homework is a necessary tool for learning, just having homework is not enough to help students improve academically. As Carr points out, the design of homework must be improved in order to achieve the benefits, including learning how to study and how to manage one’s time. To create these self regulation skills, we should listen to Carr and redesign homework so that it motivates students and reinforces what is learned in school. As we saw with Maggie, a little change in structure and purpose would make her difficult homework assignments easier to complete and more beneficial. We must also consider that homework is best at helping older students. Multiple studies have shown that elementary schools should require minimal homework while middle and high schools should have moderate amounts of homework. Homework is most effective at these levels because older kids have the mindset and capability to apply the skills gained from doing homework to other important parts of school like doing projects and taking exams.
About half way through this school year, my old elementary school was forced to revise its homework policy. Now, instead of making all homework optional, my school’s homework policy requires students to complete three activities per week from a list provided by the teacher. This idea has been well-received by parents, at least from what Kelly has told me. A little structure has gone a long way. As my school has learned, facing the homework problem is very difficult and requires a lot of thought. In order to please parents, homework must increase academic achievement and this is hard to achieve. Through trial and error, my school has set a better balance between efficiency and purpose. With their Home Learning program, my school ended up with homework that took too little time and was too effortless for many students. The purpose of “differential” homework assignments was unclear, leaving parents confused and frustrated as to what they should be doing with their children. My school’s new homework policy incorporates a better combination of Carr’s essential homework characteristics. Now homework is not too time consuming and doesn’t require as much effort on the parents’ part while requiring a little more effort from the students. The aesthetic appeal of homework has also greatly improved. Parents are relieved to find clear instructions for an activity the teacher has designed. The only effort parents have to put forth in the design of homework is choosing which assignment their child will complete.
Instead of eliminating homework altogether, schools can reduce the stress and burden of homework on parents and students alike by revising and improving their homework policies. By considering the basic principles that make homework effective, teachers can create homework assignments that actually help students excel. As Maggie once said, “Although my homework is stressful and it’s a burden and it gives me no motivation whatsoever, I feel like we still should have homework. It does help to strengthen the foundation we build in class.” If even an overwhelmed student like Maggie can recognize the value of homework, teachers can make the effort to improve it.
1. Carr, N. S. (2013). Increasing the effectiveness of homework for all learners in the inclusive classroom. School Community Journal, 23(1), 169-182.
2. Stager, Gary (2001). Questioning Homework’s Worth. Curriculum Administrator, p. 62. Retrieved from Academic OneFile
3. Kralovec, Etta (2007). A Brief History of Homework. Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, 20(4), 3-7. Retrieved
4. Edvantia for the Center for Public Education (2007). What research says about the value of homework: Research review. The Center for Public Education, p.1-7. Retrieved from the Center for Public Education