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.