Lately there has been an outpouring of books and articles against homework. Critics call homework a form of child abuse and say that it prevents children from engaging in wholesome activities. Government surveys say that most students spend an hour a day or less on homework. Yet the campaign against homework never seems to abate.
Just this week came a new report from the National School Board Association's Center for Public Education saying that there is no conclusive evidence that homework "increases student achievement across the board."
Narrowly parsed, this is undoubtedly a true finding. For example, the study concluded that students who don't do their homework will not see any increase in their achievement in school. Also, students in the early grades who have not yet learned how to read are less likely to benefit from homework than students in high school. And students in low-income homes are less likely to benefit from homework than those in higher-income homes because they are less likely to complete it and less likely to have an adult in the home to help them.
The study found that Asian-American students were more likely to benefit from doing homework than students from other ethnic groups. This is not because of some ethnic gene, but because Asian-American students are more likely to complete the homework that is assigned to them.
While the latest study may fuel the fires of the anti-homework crowd, bear in mind that its bottom line is that homework doesn't help students who don't do it, but very likely does help students who actually complete their assignments. Duh.
But there is something else to be said in favor of homework.
When do students have time to read a book other than when it is assigned as homework? There is no time in school to read a book. A recent news article about the case against homework cited a high school teacher who said that she would tell her students to read no more than 15 minutes a day in their assigned novel (Jane Eyre). How stupid is that? How can anyone, young or old, get engaged in a novel if he or she spends no more than 15 minutes a day reading? At that pace, it seems like this class will be reading the same novel all year, if they manage to finish it at all.
When else do students have time to write an essay or write a research report? In school, students may be able to write a few paragraphs, but it takes time to write an essay that is longer than a page. If it is not done after school, it won't be done at all.
So consider where the anti-homework crusade will take us: to a time when students read no books, write no essays, and complete no research projects other than whatever can be fit into the school day.
Because I am a historian, I can't help but mention that this battle against homework first flared up in 1900, led by the Ladies Home Journal. The Journal described homework as "A National Crime at the Feet of American Parents" and claimed that children were "permanently crippled" by the pressure of schooling and homework. It urged that children under the age of 15 should not be in school more than four hours per day and should not be assigned any home study whatever.
So the campaign against homework goes on. Its success will guarantee a steady decline in the very activities that matter most in education: Independent reading; thoughtful writing; research projects.
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As kids return to school, debate is heating up once again over how they should spend their time after they leave the classroom for the day.
The no-homework policy of a second-grade teacher in Texas went viral last week, earning praise from parents across the country who lament the heavy workload often assigned to young students. Brandy Young told parents she would not formally assign any homework this year, asking students instead to eat dinner with their families, play outside and go to bed early.
But the question of how much work children should be doing outside of school remains controversial, and plenty of parents take issue with no-homework policies, worried their kids are losing a potential academic advantage. Here’s what you need to know:
For decades, the homework standard has been a “10-minute rule,” which recommends a daily maximum of 10 minutes of homework per grade level. Second graders, for example, should do about 20 minutes of homework each night. High school seniors should complete about two hours of homework each night. The National PTA and the National Education Association both support that guideline.
But some schools have begun to give their youngest students a break. A Massachusetts elementary school has announced a no-homework pilot program for the coming school year, lengthening the school day by two hours to provide more in-class instruction. “We really want kids to go home at 4 o’clock, tired. We want their brain to be tired,” Kelly Elementary School Principal Jackie Glasheen said in an interview with a local TV station. “We want them to enjoy their families. We want them to go to soccer practice or football practice, and we want them to go to bed. And that’s it.”
A New York City public elementary school implemented a similar policy last year, eliminating traditional homework assignments in favor of family time. The change was quickly met with outrage from some parents, though it earned support from other education leaders.
New solutions and approaches to homework differ by community, and these local debates are complicated by the fact that even education experts disagree about what’s best for kids.
The most comprehensive research on homework to date comes from a 2006 meta-analysis by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, who found evidence of a positive correlation between homework and student achievement, meaning students who did homework performed better in school. The correlation was stronger for older students—in seventh through 12th grade—than for those in younger grades, for whom there was a weak relationship between homework and performance.
Cooper’s analysis focused on how homework impacts academic achievement—test scores, for example. His report noted that homework is also thought to improve study habits, attitudes toward school, self-discipline, inquisitiveness and independent problem solving skills. On the other hand, some studies he examined showed that homework can cause physical and emotional fatigue, fuel negative attitudes about learning and limit leisure time for children. At the end of his analysis, Cooper recommended further study of such potential effects of homework.
Despite the weak correlation between homework and performance for young children, Cooper argues that a small amount of homework is useful for all students. Second-graders should not be doing two hours of homework each night, he said, but they also shouldn’t be doing no homework.
Not all education experts agree entirely with Cooper’s assessment.
Cathy Vatterott, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, supports the “10-minute rule” as a maximum, but she thinks there is not sufficient proof that homework is helpful for students in elementary school.
“Correlation is not causation,” she said. “Does homework cause achievement, or do high achievers do more homework?”
Vatterott, the author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, thinks there should be more emphasis on improving the quality of homework tasks, and she supports efforts to eliminate homework for younger kids.
“I have no concerns about students not starting homework until fourth grade or fifth grade,” she said, noting that while the debate over homework will undoubtedly continue, she has noticed a trend toward limiting, if not eliminating, homework in elementary school.
The issue has been debated for decades. A TIME cover in 1999 read: “Too much homework! How it’s hurting our kids, and what parents should do about it.” The accompanying story noted that the launch of Sputnik in 1957 led to a push for better math and science education in the U.S. The ensuing pressure to be competitive on a global scale, plus the increasingly demanding college admissions process, fueled the practice of assigning homework.
“The complaints are cyclical, and we’re in the part of the cycle now where the concern is for too much,” Cooper said. “You can go back to the 1970s, when you’ll find there were concerns that there was too little, when we were concerned about our global competitiveness.”
Cooper acknowledged that some students really are bringing home too much homework, and their parents are right to be concerned.
“A good way to think about homework is the way you think about medications or dietary supplements,” he said. “If you take too little, they’ll have no effect. If you take too much, they can kill you. If you take the right amount, you’ll get better.”