Viewing Homework as an Educational Liability

The value of homework has been questioned before. In fact there have been periods of time during the past 100 years when homework played a minimal role in schooling. Interestingly, homework, which is believed to improve learning and self-discipline, received two of its strongest promotions from a political concern, “Sputnik”, and an economic one, Japan’s business success. Each of these events brought an outcry that we were doing poorly as a nation because our educational systems were failing to produce competent adults. The answer, in part, was to intensify demands upon our students, which meant significant increases in homework. So our students now do about 50% more homework than they did just 20 years ago, while the USSR disintegrated and Japan has proven to be a paper tiger. In the meantime, decades of research on over a half-million students has failed to demonstrate that homework achieves any of its stated goals. Thirty-five years of working with children and schools has led me to conclude that homework impedes learning and is bad for the mental health of children and their families! It’s time for parents and educators to ask some hard questions. 

A new book, “The End of Homework” by Etta Kralovec and John Buell addresses these questions about the value of homework. In essence, they claim that it only serves to further the gap between students because of the severe inequalities of what families can offer as surrogate educational settings. Over 20% of our children are raised in homes below the poverty level. The gap between the haves and have-nots is increasing in our country. Poverty, along with the mother’s’ educational level, seem to be the strongest predictors of educational achievement. Making homework an important part of the educational process means many students are doomed from the start. In general, home is not a good setting for FORMAL learning. Today’s families are dominated by either two working parents or a single working parent. There is little time or energy to devote to the role of teacher. Conflict over homework is one of the prime sources of parent-child tension. This is a very serious concern when children are already experiencing marked reductions in family time. 

We also face a society with a high divorce rate. Many children enter homes where there is chronic parental conflict and frequent transitions between two homes. What happens to homework on the night that the children are having their weekday dinner with father? At the same time parents are more anxious than ever about their children’s academic achievements. They are driven by another unsupported belief, that children with higher grades who end up going to better colleges will have more successful lives. Parents put pressure on teachers to give significant amounts of homework, believing that it’s good education. 

Even where parents are able to commit the time required to monitor and assist with their children’s homework, there are additional major obstacles. First, the parent is usually dependent upon the child to acknowledge and explain the homework. It creates a different relationship, going from parent-child to teacher- student. Conflicts commonly ensue. In addition, most parents are not trained in teaching methods. Their way of doing an assignment may not match what is being taught in the classroom. By middle school, many parents are already challenged to understand the work.  By high school, forget it! It is also a fuzzy line between helping a child and doing too much of the work. What a child brings to class may reflect significant parental effort or even help from a friend. This is one of the core problems with homework – the teacher has less control over and influence upon work done outside the school. The best setting for most schoolwork is in a school. 

Does homework improve learning and build character? A recent article in Forbes magazine compared math scores in Japan, Canada, Germany, and the U.S. Scores on national tests indicated that beyond 1-2 hours of total homework, scores actually decreased in every country except Japan, where the scores were flat. More than 3 hours and the decrease was marked. Yet 24% of EIGHTH GRADERS in the U.S. already do more than three hours of homework a night! Forbes conclusion: The heavier the homework, the poorer the performance. A key reason for this may be the research indicating that our children, especially teens, are significantly sleep-deprived. Physicians are concerned about this as well as the increase in back problems from these students carrying overweight backpacks. 

Most homework is either practicing something learned that day or pre-learning something for the next day. Many students get it right away and don’t need the practice. Many students don’t get it right away and need an educator to explain it to them, not a parent. Research has made it very clear that if students do assignments incorrectly and it’s not unlearned quickly, the wrong way becomes harder to change. It’s like the golfer who is taking lessons infrequently. The more times he plays and develops bad habits, the harder it is to correct. 

This time-learning relationship touches on another major issue with homework. It  is brutal to the lives of teachers, especially at middle and high school levels. Depending upon the subject matter, a teacher can face correcting hundreds of papers a night. No wonder many students do not get papers back the next day, especially exams or essays. This time gap is known to be harmful to the learning process but can we really fault teachers on this? 

The notion that students who do their homework get better grades demonstrates the confusion between cause and correlation. Students who do their homework are generally more organized, stronger in language skills, eager to please, and/or very anxious to be successful. Most of this fits what I refer to as the “student personality.” They do their homework and get better grades, especially in high school where homework typically becomes a more significant part of grading, because it is natural for them to do so.

 On the other hand, many students learn better by doing than listening, only do well in things that really interest them, prefer to challenge than to simply accept, and/or do better in more creative modes. These students have personalities that may be very successful in the real world but are not good fits for the traditional educational model. Some of these students blossom when transferred to a private school that is a better fit for them. Others blossom when they become adults and can chose work that fits who they are. Unfortunately many others have long since given up on themselves, believing they are stupid because they don’t fit the mold. Most high school dropouts point to falling behind in homework as the key factor in their failure and discouragement.

 As for building character, many argue that the self-discipline and responsibility of doing homework prepares children for the real world. One of the problems here is the view that children are miniature adults and that there is a linear relationship between what children do and what they are like as adults. But this is not supported by research. Children have very different needs than adults. They learn by playing and socializing and experience a world that is constantly changing for them from the inside as well as the outside. They go through spurts of change, good and bad (from an adult’s perspective). Children develop their character in many ways in multiple settings. Not only is doing homework unproven as a means of building character, it robs children of time that could be spent doing other things that might have more influence on character, i.e., developing relationships with other children and adults. People fear that children will only spend more time watching TV or playing video games if given more free time. Another possibility is that children turn to these activities to crash because they are overloaded with isolating, draining mental tasks and have lost connections to their friends and the community around them. 

I believe schoolwork should be done in school where there are the human and material resources to ensure that quality learning takes place. Children then need time to be with friends, family, and involved in the community where they have much else of value to learn. This of course requires that all schools have equal resources and a different structure to the school day. Next month I will describe such a model.