Homework: No Proven Benefits
The fact that no study has ever proved any academic benefit to giving homework before students reach the age of majority in high school may surprise you, as it did me, but it is true. In reality, even in high school, the relationship between homework and achievement is minimal — and the statistics do not support the notion that homework is a factor in improved performance. (Correlation may not indicate causality in all situations.)
Finally, there isn’t a scrap of evidence to support the conventional idea that homework has nonacademic benefits at any age — for example, that it helps children develop character, increase self-discipline, or learn excellent work habits… We’re all familiar with the negative aspects of homework: the frustration and tiredness it causes, the family strife it causes, the time it takes away from other activities, and the potential for a decrease in children’s motivation in learning. But it is faith rather than proof that keeps people holding on to their persistent belief that everything must be worth it and that the benefits must exceed the costs of doing so.
So, what is it about homework that keeps it being assigned and accepted? The lack of respect for research, the lack of respect for children (implicit in a determination to keep them busy after school), the lack of understanding about the nature of learning (implicit in the emphasis on practicing skills and the assertion that homework “reinforces” school lessons), or the top-down pressures to teach more stuff faster to pump up test scores so that we can chant “We’re number one!” are all possible explanations for this phenomenon.
All of these theories are possible, but I believe there is something else at work here that is driving our continued use of cod liver oil in the diet of children in the modern era. For the same reason that we don’t ask hard questions about homework, we don’t ask challenging questions about most other topics as well. Too many of us sound like Robert Frost’s next-door neighbor, the man who “won’t go behind his father’s saying,” as Frost put it. In response to being asked about a habit or belief we’ve developed, too many of us are likely to say, “That’s just the way I was raised,” as if it were impossible to critically analyze the values we were taught as children. Too many of us, especially those who work in the field of education, appear to have lost our ability to be offended by the absurd; when we are given dumb and harmful demands, we reply by asking for help on how to carry them out in the most effective manner.
Passivity is a habit that is learned early in life. Beginning with our very first days of school, we are carefully trained in what has been referred to as the “secret curriculum”: how to follow instructions and avoid getting into trouble. Those who conduct well are rewarded in many ways, both material and symbolic, while those who do not are subjected to sanctions. As students, we’re taught to remain still, pay attention to what the teacher says, and run our highlighters across the pages of the book that contains the words that we’ll be forced to memorize. Within a short period, we become less likely to question (or simply wonder) whether what we’re being taught makes any sense. We simply want to know whether or not it will be included in the test.
As a general rule, when we find ourselves dissatisfied with a practice or policy, we are encouraged to concentrate on incidental aspects of what is going on, to ask questions about the details of implementation — such as how something will be done, by whom, or on what schedule — rather than whether the practice or policy should be implemented in the first place. In addition, the more attention we devote to subsidiary concerns, the more the major issues — the overarching structures and underlying principles — are reinforced. We’re being steered away from the controversial issues — and I use the word “controversial” in its original sense: The term “radical” is derived from the Latin word for “root.” Because we spend so much of our time worrying about the tendrils, the weed continues to spread. Noam Chomsky expressed himself in the following way: “The most effective method of keeping people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion while allowing very lively debate within that spectrum — even encouraging the more critical and dissident viewpoints to flourish. Individuals are given the impression that there is free-thinking taking place, while the systemic assumptions are being reinforced by placing restrictions on the variety of debate topics to which they can be exposed.”
Parents, for example, have already been conditioned to accept the majority of what is done to their children at school, and so their critical efforts are confined to the periphery of the situation. My entertainment comes in the form of wondering about how deeply established this pattern is. If a school official announced that, beginning next week, children will be required to stand outdoors in the rain and memorize the phone book, I believe we parents would immediately speak up… to inquire whether the Yellow Pages would be included. Alternatively, we would be interested in knowing how much of their grade will be affected by this action. One of the more outspoken mothers might even inquire as to whether or not her child will be permitted to wear a raincoat on the school grounds.
Meanwhile, our educational system is preoccupied with avoiding vital themes in and of itself. Other, more important questions are never asked in this field for everyone that is asked in this sector. When evaluating different “behavior management” strategies, educators rarely consider the necessity of focusing on behavior — that is, visible acts — rather than on causes and needs, and the children who have them, as a means of improving student performance. Teachers think about what classroom rules they should implement, but they are unlikely to question why they are doing so unilaterally or why students aren’t engaging in such decisions while making such decisions. Probably not by chance, most colleges of education require potential teachers to take a course called Methods, but there is no course named Goals in most schools of education.
Hence, we come full circle to the issue of homework. Parents interrogate teachers about their policies on this subject with trepidation, but they are more interested in the specifics of the assignments their children will be required to do. Assuming that homework is a given, it is reasonable that one would want to ensure that it is completed “properly,” as the saying goes. However, this raises the question of whether or not it should be taken as a given, and if so, why. Another argument for why behavior can survive even though it does more harm than good is the willingness not to ask any questions at all.
Teachers, on the other hand, regularly witness how many students are made miserable by homework and how many youngsters refuse to complete it. Some people express sympathy and respect for the situation. Alternatively, some instructors resort to bribes and threats to get students to submit their tasks; in fact, they may argue that such inducements are necessary: “If the kids weren’t being evaluated, they’d never do it!” Even if this is true, it is less of an argument in favor of grades and other coercive measures than it is an invitation to reevaluate the importance of the assignments themselves. Or at least that’s what one would believe. Teachers, on the other hand, had to complete homework assignments when they were students, and they have likely been obliged to do so at every school where they have worked. The notion that homework must be provided is the premise, not the conclusion — and it’s a principle that is rarely questioned by educational researchers and practitioners.
Scholars, in contrast to parents and teachers, are a step away from the classroom and so have the freedom to investigate subjects that may be uncomfortable for them. However, just a handful do. The question “How much time should students spend on homework?” or the question “Which tactics will be successful in raising homework completion rates?” are more likely to be asked instead, and it is presumed that this is a good thing.
Policy organizations, like other organizations, are more inclined to act as cheerleaders than they are to act as reasoned critiques. For example, the key publication on the subject, which was published jointly by the National PTA and the National Education Association, acknowledges that children frequently complain about homework, but never addresses the idea that their complaints might be valid. Parents are urged to “show your children that you believe homework is essential” — regardless of whether or not this is true, or even whether or not one truly believes this to be true — and to reward their children for completing their assignments.
Health professionals, on the other hand, have begun to express alarm about the weight of children’s backpacks, and then to propose… activities to help them develop their back muscles! According to People magazine, this was also their strategy: Several “measures to alleviate the strain on youthful backs” were provided in the sidebar of an article about families trying to cope with excessive homework, including “picking a [back]pack with padded shoulder straps,” among other suggestions.
In the People magazine piece, we are reminded that the popular press does, from time to time — cyclically — take notice of how much homework youngsters have to complete, as well as how diverse and severe are the consequences. The truth is, such investigations are rarely thorough and their conclusions are nearly never controversial. In 2003, Time magazine ran a cover essay titled “The Homework Ate My Family,” which was based on a true story. It began with heartbreaking and sometimes scary accounts of the dangers of schoolwork. In the end, it made the finger-wagging statement that “both parents and students must be willing to embrace the ‘work’ component of homework — and to realize the quiet gratification that comes from repetition and drill.” An essay on the Family Education Network’s Web site says the same thing “Yes, homework can be tedious, or it can be too easy, or it can be too demanding. That does not rule out the possibility of it being treated seriously.” One wonders what would have to be true for us to feel justified in not taking something seriously.
These queries are also not considered suitable by the majority of medical and mental health specialists, according to the evidence. The teacher’s role when a youngster refuses to do homework or comply with other expectations is to help the child get back on track. Very rarely is there any consideration given to the importance of the assignment or the reasonableness of the demands made on the students?
Parents are occasionally invited to speak with teachers about their children’s homework, provided that their concerns are “acceptable.” The same can be said for official chances to provide feedback on a project. In one Colorado school system, the central office distributed a list of sample survey questions to the principals. This is standard practice. “My child understands how to do his/her homework,” “Teachers at this school provide me with useful suggestions about how to help my child with schoolwork,” “Homework assignments allow me to see what my student is being taught and how he/she is learning,” and “The amount of homework my child receives is (choose one): too much, just right, or too little,” among other statements.
When looking at a list like this, the most remarkable characteristic is what isn’t on it. It appears that a questionnaire of this nature was created to exemplify Chomsky’s thesis about the importance of promoting robust conversation within a narrow spectrum of permissible opinions to reinforce the system’s central presumptions. The opinions of parents are solicited sincerely — but only on these specific subjects. In the same way, popular publications that condemn schoolwork, as well as parents who speak out, should be treated with caution: The majority of the time, the emphasis is on how much is being assigned. I see the issue, but I’m more struck by how it ignores so much of what is important in the process. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that not everything harmful when done in excess is harmless when done in moderation. Instead of focusing on how much work is being done, it is sometimes more important to consider what is being done, or at least how it is being done, rather than how much work is being done.
The more we are encouraged to think in terms of Goldilocks (too much, too little, or just right? ), the less likely we are to take a step back and ask the important questions: What evidence is there to support the notion that any quantity of the type of homework our children are assigned is truly worthwhile? In your opinion, what evidence exists to support the notion that regular homework, regardless of its kind, is required for students to develop into better thinkers? Why were the students denied the opportunity to participate in the decision about which of their assignments should be brought home?