Spare the Homework, Educate the Child

When the Piscatawy New Jersey school board recently voted to limit homework in the elementary grades to half an hour per night and high school homework to two hours a night, the decision became national news. The New York Times ran a front page article on the school and national television networks followed suit. A colleague and I have recently written a book on the politics of homework and we were asked for our views by several of these media. Unfortunately, most preferred soundbites to serious analysis. The debate about homework needs to be part of a larger conversation about both time pressures on adults and children and constructive alternatives to homework as an educational strategy.

Our children are under the gun as never before. Students face batteries of standardized tests. Parents and teachers feel the pressure. Unfortunately, some are demanding an old and self-defeating remedy, ratcheting up the homework.

Most parents assume that the benefits of homework have been well established in the scholarly literature. They also assume that Asian students, who do more homework, get higher test scores. Yet every element of this familiar litany is questionable. Japanese high school students do outperform their American counterparts on standardized tests, but the comparison is unfair and the differences are attributable to many factors. Their schools aren't committed to educating their whole populations and teach only an elite. Naturally they achieve higher averages on tests. In addition, their schools are in session more days a year, they make more effective use of the existing school day by, for instance, limiting the disruptions from public address announcements blairing into the classroom. Finally, their school systems devote far more resources to teacher training and development.

Our near religious confidence that increasing homework helps students is equally problematic. Systematic homework trials have yielded diametrically opposing results. One respected investigator, Harris Cooper, reports that even for trials "within different subject areas, grades or student ability levels, the reviews often directly contradict one another." Where positive correlations between homework and performance are found, it is not clear whether homework makes good, well motivated students or well motivated students do homework. Most researchers now concede that homework does not improve scores for the elementary grades.

What we know about learning theory should also contribute to our doubts on homework. During the last 25 years there has been a revolution in what we know about how students learn. Since the ground-breaking work of Piaget, we know that teachers must know why a student gets a problem wrong, not just that the student got the wrong answer. In order for that to happen, teachers must have control over the entire educational process.

But homework diminishes the interaction between teachers and students, and thus makes it more difficult for teachers to understand what each individual student needs to work on. Take, for example, a typical math classroom scenario: Kids are assigned to complete 20 long division problems at home. The next day they exchange and grade each others' papers. The only information the teacher records -- even sees -- is the tally of each student's incorrect answers. Students may as well fill out bubbles each day with number two pencils and run it though a scoring machine.

The teacher doesn't learn what part of the complex set of skills required for long division the student has trouble with. Is the student struggling with addition? Subtraction? Multiplication? Division? The students could be misreading their own handwriting on their scratch paper, and the teacher wouldn't know the difference.

In addition, when work goes home, teachers have little control over who actually does the work. Did the students do their own work? Did they exchange answers with friends over the phone? Did an uncle do the problems for them? Their parents? Teachers may eventually be able to frame reasonable hypotheses, through in class tests, about who is actually doing the homework. But invaluable time will be lost in the process and some students who are doing their homework will test poorly, simply because test taking is not their forte.

Our ethnographic research shows that homework assignments have played a major role in school dropouts. In interviews with dropouts for the Maine Department of Education, we asked students if there was a moment when they knew they were going to leave school. Every teenager cited tales of the crushing burdens of homework in the context of rural poverty. Even for middle income families, homework detracts from the shrinking amount of time parents and children can enjoy in their own freely chosen pursuits.

The call for homework reduction is not a demand to lessen standards. Schools can and must do a better job, but there are more equitable, efficient, and family friendly means to that end. The recent Rand Corporation analysis of student test scores from the past 10 years reconfirmed conclusions long more solidly established than the conventional wisdom about homework. States with the greatest gains shared the following: smaller class size, greater access to pre-K programs, and more spending on resources for teachers.

International experience also provides stronger confirmation for this approach than for homework intensification. Those nations that consistently score well in international educational comparisons stood out by virtue of their generous spending on excellent public school systems. In addtion they also far surpass the United States in child care and early-childhood enrichment programs, which make young children ready for school.

Some independent work, say two hours a day, is appropriate for high school students, but let's stop trying to buy school reform on the cheap and at the expense of families. The place for independent academic work is the setting designed for such work, the schools themselves. Adults with suitable skills should be paid to assist students in independent projects that would enhance their skills and knowledge.

With calls for greater school accountability, educators should have more control over the entire educational process. They must be able to oversee the independent work of students in order to accurately access educational needs. In addition, expanding opportunities for independent work in a school setting would reduce dependence on vastly disparate home resources.

Nonetheless, even high school students shouldn't have to labor more than forty hours a week, a standard long ago established for adults. Loading on more homework won't stop kids from watching mindless television, as many educators hope. Only a culture that values the free time parents and their children spend together will achieve that end. Time spent in shared hobbies or other cultural pursuits fosters mature, self-disciplined and creative adults.

John Buell is co-author, with Etta Kralovec, of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning (Beacon Press).

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