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Why Homework?

The Atlantic, which does a better job of reporting on American education than most of the major news organizations, recently published an interesting article reviewing The Cult of Homework.

The writer says that the debate over homework falls into two “camps”.

In the first camp is Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Cooper conducted a review of the existing research on homework in the mid-2000s, and found that, up to a point, the amount of homework students reported doing correlates with their performance on in-class tests. This correlation, the review found, was stronger for older students than for younger ones.

In Cooper’s eyes, homework isn’t overly burdensome for the typical American kid. He points to a 2014 Brookings Institution report that found “little evidence that the homework load has increased for the average student”; onerous amounts of homework, it determined, are indeed out there, but relatively rare. Moreover, the report noted that most parents think their children get the right amount of homework, and that parents who are worried about under-assigning outnumber those who are worried about over-assigning. Cooper says that those latter worries tend to come from a small number of communities with “concerns about being competitive for the most selective colleges and universities.”

All of which says a lot about how Cooper and others view the purpose of both homework and school in general. It’s all about the tests, getting into college, and the “right amount”.

On the other side are people like Alfie Kohn, who literally wrote the book on the subject: The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.1

Kohn calls homework a “reliable extinguisher of curiosity” and has much more to say about the research cited by Cooper and others.

Kohn notes, among other things, that Cooper’s 2006 meta-analysis doesn’t establish causation, and that its central correlation is based on children’s (potentially unreliable) self-reporting of how much time they spend doing homework. (Kohn’s prolific writing on the subject alleges numerous other methodological faults.)

Kohn also takes issue with the way achievement is commonly assessed. “If all you want is to cram kids’ heads with facts for tomorrow’s tests that they’re going to forget by next week, yeah, if you give them more time and make them do the cramming at night, that could raise the scores,” he says. “But if you’re interested in kids who know how to think or enjoy learning, then homework isn’t merely ineffective, but counterproductive.”

That issue of the “right amount” and parental expectations is probably one big reason why homework is still such a fundamental part of K12 school for most students. One “parent and professor” quoted in the article calls this “generational inertia”, the fact that most parents views on the matter are largely shaped by their experience in school. I got lots of homework so my kids should as well.

But more important than the quantity of homework is the quality of the work students are asked to do. Far too often it is repetitious and meaningless.

“In general, we have no imagination when it comes to homework,” Stengel [Barbara Stengel, an education professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College] says. She wishes teachers had the time and resources to remake homework into something that actually engages students. “If we had kids reading—anything, the sports page, anything that they’re able to read—that’s the best single thing. If we had kids going to the zoo, if we had kids going to parks after school, if we had them doing all of those things, their test scores would improve. But they’re not. They’re going home and doing homework that is not expanding what they think about.”

Although I am now firmly in the second group that would like to see homework cut way back or eliminated (especially in elementary school), I evolved to that view over the many years that I taught middle and high school students to understand mathematics.2

When I started teaching, I assigned lots of problem sets and worksheets. Very much the same format as I dutifully completed as a student, and which my advisors and the teacher’s guide recommended. As I gained more experience, it became clear that students were gaining little, if anything, from the work. And I was learning very little about their understanding.

Those observations led me to experiment with different amounts and approaches to that out-of-class work. By the time I left the classroom, I was assigning almost no written homework. And saw almost no difference in how well students did on both the assessments I gave and the end-of-course test administered by the district.3

Of course, my experience is just one person, teaching in a couple of high schools, in one affluent suburban district, many years ago. I’m not suggesting that every teacher should eliminate homework from their practice.

Only that every teacher should take a long, hard look at what they are asking students to do at home and why. Does the work really benefit the kids? Are those assignments valuable to their learning?

And please don’t talk to me about “flipping” your classroom. Watching those videos is still homework and not by default a good use of student time.


The photo comes from the National Archives by way of the Wikipedia Commons. It shows a high school freshman from Harlan County, Kentucky in 1946 doing his homework. The description says that the boy and his father are “determined that he will finish high school and not work in the coal mines”. So, what has changed with homework in 70 years?

1. I highly recommend every teacher read that book. It’s one of the few paper editions that I keep on my shelf and re-read every few years.

2. Or attempted to do so. It was never clear how much “understanding” I was able to impart.

3. I did get pushback from some parents who were concerned about the possibly diminished chances of their kids getting into an Ivy League school. Fortunately, I had a very supportive administrative staff who backed me completely.

Unnecessary Evil

Alfie Kohn, one of the smartest voices in the education reform discussion, has an interesting article about new research into the value of homework, one that includes a reminder of the important of reading studies carefully “rather than relying on summaries by journalists or even by the researchers themselves”.

Kohn, who literally wrote the book on the subject, the wonderful The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, starts by noting the significant lack of support for the instructional value of homework found in previous studies.

First, no research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school.

Second, even at the high school level, the research supporting homework hasn’t been particularly persuasive.

Third, when homework is related to test scores, the connection tends to be strongest — or, actually, least tenuous — with math.

This latest study focuses on math and science homework in high school, an area that Kohn says is one “where you’d be most likely to find a positive effect if one was there to be found”.

And the result of this fine-tuned investigation? There was no relationship whatsoever between time spent on homework and course grade, and “no substantive difference in grades between students who complete homework and those who do not.”

This result clearly caught the researchers off-guard. Frankly, it surprised me, too. When you measure “achievement” in terms of grades, you expect to see a positive result — not because homework is academically beneficial but because the same teacher who gives the assignments evaluates the students who complete them, and the final grade is often based at least partly on whether, and to what extent, students did the homework. Even if homework were a complete waste of time, how could it not be positively related to course grades?

Beyond the value of homework, or the lack thereof, Kohn’s discussion of the research process itself, and especially how the researchers “reframe these results to minimize the stunning implications”, is well worth your time to read the whole article, footnotes and all.

Re-Thinking Homework

It doesn’t happen often, but this morning I find myself in agreement with Jay Mathews.

In the quarterly Education edition of the Post Magazine (a great place to sell ads for private schools and colleges), Mathews says we should eliminate almost all homework in elementary school.

Except for reading.

So, let’s get rid of elementary school homework. Toss those 50 addition problems in the trash. Stop cutting up your magazines. Forget about flashcards.

Instead, let’s have children that age sit in a nice comfortable chair, with the television off, and read something they choose for 30 to 60 minutes a day. It can be a classic novel, such as Charlotte’s Web. It can be a comic book. It can even be — forgive me for sounding so desperate — this newspaper.

If they need help with their reading, a parent can sit with them. But we ought to make reading a fun habit, like feeding the ducks or playing Monopoly or having pancakes on Sunday morning.

Great idea. But why stop at elementary school?

The idea of dropping all the trivia that makes up most homework assignments and emphasizing non-academic reading is a good one for kids at the secondary level as well.

However, we should also add a writing requirement.

High school kids especially should also be writing about what they’re reading. And that writing should be for an audience outside of the closed classroom and go beyond the formal, structured assignments traditionally imposed in class.

Whether this is on a blog available to the whole world, a closed discussion board, or somewhere else isn’t as important as students having the experience of reflective writing in a format that can be read, and commented on, by other than the teacher.

Mathews is right that we need to drastically restructure the concept of homework. He just doesn’t take it far enough.

Doing a Poor Job on Homework

In his online column last week, Jay Mathews rises to defend the concept of homework against two recent books which argue against the time-honored assignments.

While I’ve only read one of the two books, The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn, it’s clear that Mathews is up to his old tricks in trying to make his case.

For one thing, he cherry picks a couple of minor points in the two books as evidence that the authors’ premises are flawed.

I can’t speak to the other authors’ claim of the amount of homework in elementary grades “skyrocketing”, but his complaints about the statistics in Kohn’s book are groundless.

Kohn does offers numbers showing that the amount of homework given in elementary grades has doubled on average.

However, his larger point is that the assignments are increasing without any valid research showing that the work improves student understanding of the material in the first place.

As is his style, Mathews then goes on to present some anecdotes from his personal experience as proof positive his position is the only possible conclusion anyone can come to.

Their biggest problem, which neither book addresses, is the common sense reaction of parents like me to their anti-homework interpretation of the experimental data. The formal research interests me, but it does not influence my thinking as much as my own personal experiments, conducted frequently over the 15 years or so of my own schooling. I remember what class was like on days when I had not done my homework. I remember what it was like on days when I had. The latter was a much more engaging and useful educational experience than the former. Neither book explains why that practical and personal research should be ignored.

I love how education “experts” take their memories of school from a different period (I’m guessing Mathews graduated from high school at least 30 years ago) and extrapolate those experiences to apply to all kids today.

Actually, Kohn doesn’t ignore “practical and personal research”. He simply presents his own versions which are equally as compelling as Mathews.

He presents teachers, parents and education “experts” who anecdotally show that most homework assigned is a waste of time, or worse.

What Kohn also does, however, is analyzes a large amount of research data, most of which is inconclusive at best, that studies whether homework has any educational value.

He’s also correct in saying that we shouldn’t be asking “How much time should students be spending on homework?”. We need to ask “Is the homework they’re doing worth the time and effort?”.

While I’m not ready to buy everything Kohn has to say, his arguments are something every educator should read (parents and kids too). (A summary of his ideas were published a few months ago in Education Week.)

It’s possible the nightly homework assignment is one of those “traditions” of American education that should be dumped along with the agrarian-based school calendar.

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