First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Homework, Part I
The Worst Job in the World
What if you had a really lousy job? You're only employed for seven hours a day, but you have to ride the bus for half an hour each way.
While you're there, they only let you go to the bathroom at certain times. You only have ten minutes to get from one work station to another, and somehow you also have to use the toilet and get your new work materials from a central depository during those breaks, without being late.
If you do anything wrong, you aren't allowed to talk to anybody during lunch.
Even when you go home, it's not over. A job supervisor also lives in your house, and makes you do two or three more hours of the same work you did on the job. The at-home supervisor is even harsher than the one at work and has more power to inflict annoying punishments if you fail to comply.
If you're sick and miss a day or two, then when you get better, you have to do all the work that you missed -- both the on-the-job and the at-home tasks.
Not only that, but you can't quit this lousy job. It's the law -- the government requires you to stick with it for at least ten years.
What if, on top of all this misery, the work you had to do at home wasn't even real? What if you just went through the motions of all the tasks you did on the job, but you didn't actually accomplish anything? You just spent meaningless hours, repeating the physical movements, while the at-home supervisor says things like, "That's how you do it?" and "Are you sure you're doing it right?"
That's a fair description of the lives of far too many of our school-age children.
Child Labor Laws
We made laws abolishing child labor, because we thought it was criminal to deprive children of their childhood. Yet we tolerate burdening our children, not only with six or seven hours of schoolwork during the day, but also with a steadily increasing amount of homework at night, on weekends, and during holidays and vacations.
What it amounts to is this: Too many of our homework-burdened children don't have vacations. They don't have holidays. They don't have weekends. They don't even have homes. Because the schools feel free to assign them work to do during all those supposed times of rest and recuperation.
It would be like the army sending soldiers home on leave from a war zone, but arranging that the enemy will still be shooting at them while they're home. Isn't there any break?
(Let me say right here that in this school year, so far, our only remaining school age child has not been overburdened with homework. This essay is not about my particular schoolchild's current situation. It's about homework in general, across America.)
What Is Homework Worth?
There is actually some science on this subject. People have conducted studies. Most of the studies, admittedly, use the extremely unreliable method of "self-reporting," in which the amount of homework is estimated either by the teachers, the parents, or the students.
Not surprisingly, nobody agrees on just how much homework the kids have.
The teachers think the kids have far less than either students or the parents think they have.
The real question, though, is whether homework actually improves academic performance.
Of course, the question even deeper than that is whether we have any way to measure how much actual learning takes place. It's quite possible for students to get very good grades and score very well on standardized tests, while coming to hate the whole process of education and spending the rest of their lives avoiding anything that resembles reading or mathematics or study. Surely we would call that outcome a failure.
But for the moment let's just use the normal measures of academic achievement -- grades and standardized tests.
A Fair Study?
The first problem here is that if homework is graded, then obviously failing to do your homework is going to lower your grade in the course. It's a circular process: homework "helps" your grade because if you don't do it, your grade will be lowered. It still doesn't tell us anything about whether homework helped you learn more.
So in a meaningful study of whether homework accomplishes anything, we would need to have students who were otherwise getting identical instruction, half of whom did two hours of homework a night, and half of whom were assigned none. Homework would not count in the grade. Then we compare how they do on the same regularly scheduled tests and see if homework helped.
The trouble is, in the real world the students assigned homework would rebel. Bloodshed might ensue. Nor can you let parents decide which kids get homework, because the gung-ho parents who choose to have their kids do homework are also likely to be the motivated parents whose kids are going to be pressured to study more whether there's homework assigned or not.
There's no way to do a fair study based on grades where everything, except homework, is identical.
Even using standardized tests doesn't help much, when the amount of homework different groups are doing is self-reported by teachers, students, or parents. Furthermore, a group of students might be getting a superb education, with or without homework, without having it all show up on the standardized tests, which don't measure the quality of your education.
The standardized tests measure only one thing: how well you do on standardized tests. Some people take tests superbly. I'm one of them. I got in the 99.3rd percentile on the math portion of the ACT (an SAT alternate) having never taken algebra II, trigonometry, or calculus, and having earned a D in the last math class I took (geometry). Why? Because I'm really good at tests.
Whereas some very bright kids freeze up on standardized tests, performing far below their actual academic level.
But let's pretend that grades and standardized tests actually measure something meaningful, and better results on those would mean that homework accomplishes something. That's what a researcher named Harris Cooper did, according to Alfie Kohn, in his book The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.
Cooper looked at a number of different studies of homework and sifted and combined the results to see if some kind of definitive answer emerged. It did -- but Cooper apparently didn't see it himself.
When Kohn looked at Cooper's published results, the answer was obvious. In Cooper's own words from 1989: "There is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students."
That means that there is zero scientific evidence that kids before middle school get any performance boost whatsoever from any amount of homework, no matter how large or small.
And yet when Cooper reached his own conclusions at the end of his published report, he came up with the oft-quoted formula that the ideal amount of homework is ten minutes per grade level per night. That would mean almost an hour a night for fifth graders -- even though Cooper's own meta-study found that there was no evidence that any homework for elementary students had any benefit.
Apparently, we have a problem when "science" is done by true believers. Even when Cooper's study found no defense for elementary-school homework, he still found a way to recommend in favor of requiring some anyway.
Kohn takes apart all the existing pro-homework studies to demonstrate how fundamentally worthless they are, in methodology, in interpretation, and in how they're reported. He doesn't prove them false; he shows that they don't prove anything at all.
Don't misunderstand -- Kohn has his own axe to grind. He's far more committed to the touchy-feely school of education than I am, and much of his book is slanted in that direction. But his critique of bad science is sound -- I've had years of experience with just how bad what passes for science in the field of education can be, and Cooper's study, for instance, is actually from the reliable end of the spectrum.
When the most-quoted "proof" that homework is "good" states that it can't be shown to have any benefit for elementary school kids, why do we still have teachers sending kids home with work to do from those grades?
What about High School?
Here's what the studies find about homework in high school. It might make about a four percent difference. At most.
OK, that might take you from a B+ to an A-. Or move you up just a tiny bit on the SAT or ACT. Depending on how you measure academic performance.
Think about that for a moment. If your kid in twelfth grade spends two hours a night doing homework (Cooper's recommended ten minutes per grade per night), that means twelve hours a week -- which is the equivalent, when you subtract class changes and lunch, of two extra school days a week. And those two extra days -- a 28 percent increase in academic time -- make only 4 percent difference in outcome?
That's like driving a thumbtack with a sledgehammer.
Is that additional 28 percent worth the nearly trivial 4 percent? Let's factor in the costs of homework.
What Are the Costs of Homework?
Homework wrecks families. That's not a joke, that's just a fact. For an alarming number of kids of all ages, their entire relationship with their parents has been turned into a war over homework.
An Endless Cycle. The first thing the parents say to their kids after school is, "Do you have any homework?" That's not a parent-child relationship, that's a foreman-millworker relationship. What's your task? Let's stay on task!
So the kids aren't actually coming home, are they? School isn't over. It's just going to go on and on, in their own homes. They can never, never, never get away. Not on weekends. Not on holidays. Not over Christmas. Not over summer vacation. There's always some assignment from school.
What do you think that does to kids? To have not even a day when they can say, Whew, I'm done with that, I can have a break!
Would you put up with a job that was like that? Sure, some people with Type A personalities do live like that -- but most of us don't even consider that a life. We want to have days we can count on not belonging to our bosses. Shouldn't kids have that too?
Childhood Obesity. In all the concern about the hours our children spend playing videogames and watching television, has anybody noticed that time spent doing homework is also not physically active? Maybe if our children didn't have to spend even ten minutes a day, let alone hours a day, on homework, they might get enough exercise to shed a few pounds.
Parents As Drill Sergeants. Parents are told to make sure kids have a regular, well-lighted, quiet place to do homework. The funny thing is that there is no study indicating that this actually helps homework get done.
What parents really do is set up rewards and punishments. Do your homework first, and then you can play. No television till homework is done. Get it out of the way first!
This is such a horrible mistake. No wonder so many kids end up in tears over homework. Why can't they have a couple of hours, right after school, to be themselves?
Think about it. They've spent all day at school where people tell them when to stand, when to sit, when to talk. Hold still. No, you can't go to the toilet. No, you're wrong. Pay attention! You can't eat that in here. Don't cross that line. Stay where I told you! Hurry up! Stop that!
And their parents don't let them have those precious late afternoon hours to run around and be free. Why? So they can get into a better college? What good will it do them to get into a better college if they hated their entire childhood?
So they go to UNC-G instead of Duke because of that four percent difference -- but they have a childhood. An adolescence. What do you think will make more of a difference in their lives? What will make them happier human beings? That's the goal, isn't it? Not the job that makes the most money, but the life that has the most happiness -- right?
Of course, a lot of parents don't make their kids do homework during that late afternoon period, because both parents are working and don't even get home till after five o'clock.
You know what that means. When young kids have rational bedtimes -- eight o'clock, for instance, which gives them the minimal 10 to 11 hours of sleep that children need -- the parents have only three hours between getting off work and the kids going to bed. Somewhere in there will be dinner, bathing, whatever chores the kids might be expected to do (you know, the part of child-rearing that parents do) -- and ... homework?
When did we parents decide to give the schools the power to take even a moment of those precious hours away from us and force us to be proctors supervising our children in their schoolwork?
The high school kids go to bed later -- but they also want a social life. They have friends. They want to talk on the phone, go hang out together. And what about the things they actually love to do -- the plays? The sports? The dance lessons, the music lessons?
Is there any time left for parents to be anything but chauffeurs and homework sergeants?
Homework Kills Students. I knew a girl who, when she was a rising junior in high school, was assigned to keep a "reading log" over the summer. This was a girl who had always been a voracious reader, consuming books well above grade level since she was five. But the moment the teacher intruded in her reading, requiring that she answer questions, make comments, and analyze, every time she set the book down, she stopped reading entirely.
Because her joy of reading had been stolen from her. It had been turned into an assignment. It was now work, forced on her by someone else. That summer she read exactly one book -- a girl who ordinarily would have read at least twenty. And from that moment on, she was hostile to the entire enterprise of school. She hated it all. That summer assignment had turned her into an enemy of the educational system -- she who had been the favorite student of many an English teacher.
Not everyone's reaction to such assignments is so dramatic. But there are many bright, eager learners who are turned off from school because homework that was not tailored to their needs intruded into every waking moment and turned their whole lives into a nightmare of never-ending work, under someone else's control.
Another recent book, The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It, by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, is an activist's handbook. It makes a powerful case for the damage homework is doing to our families, and then it gives practical suggestions about what you can do to make your own family's situation better, and perhaps change the way homework is assigned to all the kids in a class, a grade, a school, or a district.
What both books report is one astonishing fact: There are plenty of teachers who hate homework, too.
Why Teachers Hate Homework
When a teacher assigns each of five classes of 25 students to do 50 math problems overnight, then the teacher has to look at 6,250 math problems. That's in addition to the time the teacher spends grading their in-class work -- like quizzes.
And you know the teacher regards those homework results as nearly worthless, because the teacher doesn't know who really did the work. Was it the student, or the parents? No way to be sure. Maybe the student with a dozen mistakes is actually doing better than the student with perfect homework because the student with mistakes is actually doing the work himself.
So the teacher only takes seriously the work the students do in class. So any time spent grading homework is actually wasted time. Mostly teachers look at it just to make sure it was done, not to take it seriously as an evaluation tool.
Remarkably, there are even teachers who actually demand that parents proofread their children's homework. If the student turns in homework with spelling and punctuation errors, the parents actually get a snippy little note telling them that they're supposed to proofread their child's work! (Though I'm sure that never happens in Guilford County.)
Here's another reason some teachers hate homework -- and stop assigning it: Their own kids reach school age and start having to spend hours a night doing meaningless assignments. Both books record this phenomenon. Teachers who are also parents become quite skeptical of the value of homework when they see how it steals time from and ruins their relationships with their children.
Even admitting that there is some conceivable value to homework in the upper grades, let's keep in mind that not all homework is equal. Some kinds of homework are utterly worthless even for seniors in high school.
Art Projects for Academic Classes. I remember when my oldest son entered chemistry class at Page High School. During the open house, the teacher proudly told us that the highlight of the year was her requirement that the kids all create a three-dimensional model of the periodic table of elements. It could be a poster or a t-shirt or a sculpture or ... oh, whatever their creativity suggested.
I raised my hand and pointedly asked how much of the grade would be for art and how much for science? She didn't understand my objection. It was so fun
for the kids.
Nonsense. It was time-consuming and expensive and a complete waste of time. Were they going to treasure these models for their whole lives? No. Did it help them actually know more about the periodic table? Not a chance.
This is one of the few cases where rote memorization would have been more worthwhile. They might actually have remembered some of the more common elements' names, abbreviations, atomic numbers, or weights. They might have memorized all the gases, especially the inert ones; all the elements that combine easily; all the radioactive elements; all the elements that only occur in the laboratory.
Instead, they made t-shirts.
Or rather, their parents scrambled to figure out how to do it.
There's an astonishing number of absolutely useless "projects" that are assigned which are really done by the parents anyway, and even if the kids do them, teach them absolutely nothing about the subject matter.
Exactly what does a child learn about astronomy or physics or aerodynamics by building a scale model of the space shuttle?
Once upon a time, science fairs consisted of displays of voluntary projects done by kids who were really gung-ho about science. The kids who couldn't care less didn't have to bother. But somebody thought that science fairs were so wonderful that all children should be required to do them.
Did this make the kids who never cared about science suddenly become more interested? No. It was just one more tedious assignment that they postponed until Mom and Dad finally helped them put some stupid thing together at the last minute.
Every now and then, one of our kids actually had a project they cared about and learned something from. Oddly enough, they were precisely the kind of thing they probably would have done on their own, without anybody requiring them to do it at all -- provided, of course, that they had had any free time.
In other words, the real projects, the ones that kids love, are replaced by the fake ones assigned as homework.
Meaningless Repetition. Some claim that kids need to do repetitive homework to "nail down" the things they learned in class. But how many repetitions are needed to "nail it down"?
If a child has mastered the process, then surely five examples, done in class, will demonstrate the child's proficiency. And if the child has not got it right, then what really happens at home when twenty or fifty problems are assigned? Either the student does them all wrong, thus "nailing down" the wrong process, or the parent has to try to teach the child what the teacher failed to teach in class. Is that how homework is supposed to function? In that case, it's really just home schooling -- with less time to do it in and only exhausted children to work with.
Fun and Games. Here's a good idea. Let's take from the internet a word-search puzzle with terms from the constitution hidden in a 39x39-letter grid, and make our seventh-grade students play the "game" of finding the important words.
Never mind that a 39x39 word-search grid is monstrously large, that you can get a headache from searching it. Never mind that the puzzle isn't even clever -- no two terms from the list actually intersect. None of them shares a letter. So the puzzlemaker didn't bother to take the time to make a tight, interlocking puzzle.
Nor are the terms themselves useful. Some are, but some of them are simply not used by grownups in discussions of anything.
And when you've finally gotten your headache by finding every one of these 29 terms in a huge grid, how much more do you know about the Constitution than you knew before you started?
Maybe, just maybe, those terms will be marginally more familiar to you. If you had been assigned to memorize them as spelling words, you could have done it in less time.
When did we actually have any fun? And when was any of this actually educational?
Why is homework like this still being assigned, even though there's no scientific basis for it? And what can we do about it? I'll talk about that in next week's essay: Homework, Part II.
Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish. The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting our Children and What We Can Do About It. New York: Crown, 2006, 290 pp.
Alfie Kohn. The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Books, Perseus Books Group, 2006, 250 pp.
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