Homework is no myth

“Homework Hooey” is the apt headline on Martin Davis’ New York Post column critiquing two books — Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth and The Case against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish– that argue American students are overworked, leading to depression, obesity, family tension, and, no doubt, acne. Homework doesn’t help students learn, they argue. It just eats up time that could be devoted to emotional development, family conversations and fat-burning sports. (Or to playing computer games.)

In truth, a small minority of students are working quite hard — in addition to a heavy load of extracurriculars — while most spend little time on homework.

Surely, some students are weighted down. But not most kids, or even all that many. And those who are tend to be from economically-stable families in high-intensity programs. Kohn even admits as much. He cites a 1995 study showing American students spend on average just 1.7 hours a night on homework, compared with 2.7 hours for students in other nations. “On the other hand,” he continues, “U.S. 12th graders who took advanced math and science” reported having homework more often than their international peers.

According to Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution, roughly 5 percent of American schoolchildren have more than two hours of homework per night. “Those horror stories,” he said in 2003, “they’re true . . . But the question is whether or not they are typical. And they are not.”

On surveys, high school students say part-time jobs, socializing and watching TV are more important to them than schoolwork. Almost half aren’t actually doing homework.

As Davis writes, schools that are succeeding in educating children from disadvantaged families insist that students support their classroom learning with homework.

The KIPP Academies, for example, a nation-wide network of charter schools, require not only longer days and school years (students get only two weeks off in the summer), but also give between two and three hours of homework each night.

My book on a turnaround charter high school, Our School, describes the relentless campaign to get students to do homework every night so they will build the skills and work habits they’ll need to succeed in college. No homework, no hope.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. “Do homework every night so they will build the skills and work habits they’ll need to succeed in college”

    Thank you for pushing for that. I’m a college prof and I see far too many students who coasted through high school without homework either fail out, or have a horrible first semester where they don’t know what to do and how to do it.

    Just today I had a student comment before an exam, “I didn’t know how to study for this!” (In response to another student’s question as to whether she studied).

    I saw my share of busy-work homework in school, and I’d not be opposed to reducing that, but:

    I was expected to read each week for English (as homework) and write essays, stories, poems.
    I was expected to learn verb tenses in French, and also practice my spoken French.
    I was expected to do math problems “on my own time” to learn and practice the principles of geometry, algebra, calculus.
    I was expected to read – and even write essays – in History.
    In my science classes, there were lab reports to write and also a review-type paper.

    And that’s on top of the “expected” texbook reading. And this was in high school.

    Prepared me for college, it did. Prepared me for life, for that matter: because, unless you are in the most menial of nightmare jobs (like deep-fat frying or stocking shelves), you are probably going to have to take work home with you. Or do “professional development” in your free time. And it’s not a joke. It’s not done to thwart you or be mean. It’s just how life is. And it can even be fun and fulfilling if it’s done right.

  2. It saddens me to see how much time is wasted at school if they can be there for 6+ hours each day and STILL learn next-to-nothing.

  3. If educators just got beyond the concept of education as psychosocial and emotional development, they might realize the amount of basic training (drill and kill) necessary for effective learning. Homework provides this without taking up valuable class time. I’ve seen too many teachers complain about not having enough time to cover all the material who do all the independent practice work in class.

  4. I was expected to do at least 3 hours of homework/night at Canisius HS in Buffalo NY. This was impressed on us the first day – and the teacher explained why – it trains your mind.

    This is so true today – 45 years after high school. As an Anesthesiologist I find self-study an essential part of keeping up professionally – this skil began in high school.

    In many other professions, lifelong learning is essential; there is no teacher there to prod me to study; I have to do it myself. This practice beban even before high school – with homework.

  5. Mark Roulo says:

    “Kohn even admits as much. He cites a 1995 study showing American students spend on average just 1.7 hours a night on homework”

    This seems high to me. 1.7 hours as an *average* for K-12 students? If we figure that K-3 don’t average 1.7 hours of homework per night, this means that the higher grades have to be close to 2 hours/night. And some kids just don’t do homework (are the kids who cut class doing 2/hours of homework per night? The kids who are going to drop out of school in a few years?), which maybe means that for the kids that are doing homework in 6-12 grade they are *averaging* 3 hours/night? I don’t think I believe this…

    Working from memory, I think that Laurence Steinberg in “Beyond the Classroom” claims 4 hours/week as average for high school students. With close to 50% doing no homework at all (some aren’t assigned any, and some don’t do what is assigned). I find these numbers more believable than those cited above.

  6. Fatherofyoungones says:

    Our children go to school for close to 8 hours a day. With a focused curriculum that truly targets language and math, our schools should accomplish their mission without having to rely on the children and their families.

    Look at how much energy adults use to fight any attempt to lengthen the work day or take work home. If your boss casually expected you to take work home, you would expect 1) more pay or 2) a new boss.

  7. You can’t compare work to school… even the most strict schools are relaxed compared to most workplaces.
    A focused curriculum might be able to work without homework, but by “focusing” I mean getting rid of half of the content. Plain and simple, without 30-40 minutes of math problems each night, few children will excel in math because math is as much about repetition as it is about conceptual learning.
    Children have plenty of time to play during and after school. I’d say that 1.7 hour averagee is on reasonable, considering the time for snack, drink, or other breaks that many students take as they work on their homework.

  8. While I normally agree with you Joanne, on this subject I don’t. I have four kids in elementary and middle school and the homework is ridiculous. First of all I have two 3rd graders in two different classes. One of them has close to two hour of homework a night while the other one has around 30 minutes, yet they are both learning the curriculum at the same pace. I can understand homework at the HS and middle school level because students of this age are usually capable of performing the work independently, but in elementary school, too often the homework assigned requires the parents to micromanage it. My proposed solution, besides to extend the school day, would be to limit homework to 10 minutes per grade and to use it to reinforce the basics that require repetitiveness, i.e. spelling and math.

  9. If your boss casually expected you to take work home, you would expect 1) more pay or 2) a new boss.

    So that means — in particular — teachers should expect one of those, eh? πŸ˜‰

  10. From upthread:

    … our schools should accomplish their mission without having to rely on the children …

    Some argue that children play a role in what they learn.

  11. Hube wrote:

    So that means — in particular — teachers should expect one of those, eh? πŸ˜‰

    Whaddya mean “should”? Has there ever been a time when the three “C”s – commitment, compassion, caring – hasn’t been presented as a reason for more money? Oh yeah, back when the profession garnered some well-earned respect for not being so clearly money-driven. Funny about that, hey?

    Cripes, can you imagine how much Mother Teresa must have been making?

    trotsky wrote:

    Some argue that children play a role in what they learn.

    The difference being that children are compelled to be present and the professionals who’ve been hired to do the educating are there voluntarily and expect to be paid for merely being present.

    If the kids have any responsibility in the education process maybe they ought to be on the payroll as well.

    And let’s make the pay proportional while we’re at it.

    If kids have 50% of the responsibility for being educated then we’ll just split the payroll neatly between the two parties. In the interests of fairness, of course.

  12. Oh yeah, back when the profession garnered some well-earned respect for not being so clearly money-driven. Funny about that, hey?

    It’s only “funny” to those who already “know” somehow that ALL teachers are akin to the union bigwigs. Get a grip.

    I could care less how much work I bring home, nor do I wish to be paid more for it. Or didn’t you notice you notice the little “;-)” at the end of my response. (Y’see, it was a tongue-in-cheek response to another’s comment.)

    Any teacher should feel the same about taking work home. You knew what you were getting into when you chose the profession.

  13. Allen – “If kids have 50% of the responsibility for being educated then we’ll just split the payroll neatly between the two parties. In the interests of fairness, of course.”

    And here I thought that knowledge had some value. Wait, I forgot the society we are living in today…

    Another issue has arisen – the type of homework. Previously I spoke in support of homework to reinforce lessons – math problems, short writing assignments, etc. Many of today’s homework assignments are actual lessons onto themselves (especially in the lower grades). The educational community has recently been in search of the “Holy Grails” of student-centered teaching – complex activities that depend largely on the student and only expect the teacher to be a “facilitator.” Quite frankly, especially in the lower grades (10th and down :-P), teachers need to do more than be a facilitator, they need to be actively controlling the students’ learning process because many students haven’t got a clue.

  14. Indigo Warrior says:

    Not everyone needs more homework. Talented kids, for example, do not; they need more self-directed projects. To them, 90% of school activities are just repetitive busy work with a political agenda.

  15. Indigo –
    Just remember that talented kids are the exception, not the rule. They should have differentiated instruction and assignments, but one cannot apply the same methods to the other 98% of the population. Similarly, those at the bottom end of the spectrum would also receive something different.