The myth of homework’s value


On Board Online • January 14, 2013

By Philip S. Cicero

“Do your homework!” That is the all-too-familiar cry of both teachers and parents across New York and the nation.

It is widely assumed that doing homework is integral to the academic success of young people. However, this perception may be a myth. There is little evidence that doing homework results in high student achievement, and a trend of increasing amounts of homework is of questionable value.

Unfortunately, time spent doing homework is on the rise. A 2004 national survey conducted by the University of Michigan found that the amount of time spent on homework is up 51 percent since 1981. Much of that increase can be attributed to the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001. Both focused attention on shortcomings in K-12 education, and prescriptions included having students do more mathematics and science as well as implementing annual testing for greater teacher and student accountability. This “more is better” formula inevitably led to heavier daily homework assignments.

Homework has quietly emerged as a strategy of educational reform. It is viewed as a way to give students more “school” without the high price tag attached to extending the school day or school year.

But does doing homework actually improve the academic performance of students? Few would argue that it does. One of the best examinations of the subject was led by Harris Cooper, professor of education, and chair and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. In 2006, Harris and two colleagues published a paper in the Review of Educational Research entitled, “Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987-2003.”

The authors tried to find a correlation between time that students spent on homework with test scores and grades. Reviewing existing studies, the effects were “nearly nonexistent” for grades 3-5 and the correlation was low for grades 6-9.

Evidence is less scant, but not conclusive, regarding potential benefits of homework in high school. For instance, in one high school,  half of 94 seniors who were studying the play Macbeth were exempted from homework. (Although the study has a troubling line that says students “elected” to be assigned to either the homework or no-homework group, the report states elsewhere that each student was assigned, presumably randomly, to either group based on “the alphabetic listing of his/her last name.”) After three weeks and 12 homework assignments, students doing homework did significantly better on a post-test achievement measure.

Some school boards have policies on homework, and some don’t. The National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) currently recommends policies to be developed around the “10 minute rule.” This simply means that for each grade a student is in the amount of time given to homework should increase by 10 minutes (grade 1 = 10 minutes; grade 4 = 40 minutes, etc.).

Such guidelines are widely ignored. Parents have reported how their young children spend significantly more than the recommended time completing their assignments. This is particularly true of at-risk students, students with disabilities and English as Second Language learners.

Notably, a group of educators, parents and other community members has asked the National PTA to review its policies and support its Healthy Homework Guidelines, which are philosophical in their approach. Among other things, it says homework should support students having a balanced schedule including extra-curricular activities, family time and community needs (see www.change.org/healthyhomework).

More than 18,000 names have been collected online in support of the petition. The National PTA has agreed to move forward with a formal review of the proposed guidelines.

Like the national PTA, school boards should review their homework policies in light of research. Homework policies ought to focus on the purpose served by homework and not be based solely on the amount of time doing it.

One promising approach is the flipped classroom. This involves students using technology to receive their primary instruction outside of the classroom (e.g., video lectures) with “homework” completed the next day in class. This allows teachers the opportunity to provide focused instruction and support to those who need it the most.

Homework is deeply embedded in the educational culture, but this needs to change. Homework assignments should be challenging, relevant and specific to students’ needs, strengths and interests. Only then can homework be considered a viable strategy of education reform.

Philip S. Cicero is a retired superintendent of Lynbrook Public Schools and an adjunct professor of education at Adelphi University.




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