Egalite, fraternite, no homework

France’s president, Francois Hollande, wants to ban homework because some children get more help from their parents than others. Is this  The End of Homework? asks Louis Menand in The New Yorker.

It’s not true that homework is just “busywork, with no effect on academic achievement,” writes Menand.

According to the leading authority in the field, Harris Cooper, of Duke University, homework correlates positively—although the effect is not large—with success in school. Professor Cooper says that this is more true in middle school and high school than in primary school, since younger children get distracted more easily. He also thinks that there is such a thing as homework overload—he recommends no more than ten minutes per grade a night. But his conclusion that homework matters is based on a synthesis of forty years’ worth of research.

U.S. students aren’t doing more homework than they were in the 1940’s, according to researchers.  A majority of students, including high-school seniors, spend less than an hour a day on homework during the school week.

Finland has the most successful educational system in the world, according to The Economist, writes Gill.  “Students there are assigned virtually no homework; they don’t start school until age seven; and the school day is short.”

The No. 2 country is South Korea, “whose schools are notorious for their backbreaking rigidity.” South Korean kids don’t just do homework: 90 percent study with private tutors or go to cram schools.

Yet both systems are successful, and the reason is that Finnish schools are doing what Finns want them to do, which is to bring everyone up to the same level and instill a commitment to equality, and South Korean schools are doing what South Koreans want, which is to enable hard workers to get ahead.

Americans “want everyone to have an equal chance to become better-off than everyone else,” writes Menand.

Supporters of homework say that it’s a way of getting parents involved in their children’s education by bringing school into the home, and that has to be a good thing. But it’s also likely (contrary to President Hollande’s assumption) that the people most hostile to homework are affluent parents who want their children to spend their after-school time taking violin lessons and going to Tae Kwon Do classes—activities that are more enriching and (often) more fun than conjugating irregular verbs. Less affluent parents are likely to prefer more homework as a way of keeping their kids off the streets. If we provided after-school music lessons, museum trips, and cool sports programs to poor children, we could abolish homework in a French minute. No one would miss it.

Homework isn’t the root of all evil, but it’s often counter-productive, writes Peter DeWitt, an elementary school principal,  in Ed Week.

If we really want students to be engaged with learning, we should allow them the autonomy to self-explore at home one their own and not give them death by ditto because it makes us feel better about the assignments we provide.

DeWitt quotes teacher Mark Barnes, who thinks homework “fails our students.”  Assigning homework “is undermining effective 21st-century teaching and learning,” writes Barnes. “Most teachers link homework to grades so the students who don’t do homework don’t learn the material — mainly because not enough teaching is being done in class — and many would-be learners grow to hate school because they wind up with poor grades and, ultimately, feel like failures.”

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  1. As a parent of a mainstreamed 8th grade special ed student (non-verbal learing disorder) homework (especially that requiring inferential reading and subsequent writing) is an absolute nightmare! top it off with the 80 / 20 grading system (80% of grade is based on tests – 20% on homework and other stuff) my child seems on the edge of nervous breakdown at times. Our only saving grace is my Wife is a special ed teacher and can help him struggle through the homework grind. When I look at his assignments, based on the new “common core” it looks “Greek” to me. Without the Wife we’d be a family adrift in the “homework sea!”

  2. A large part of the problem is that not enough is being TAUGHT and PRACTICED in school and the curricula are often weak to seriously flawed. Far too many hours of school are wasted on arty projects, groupwork and discovery learning (the later two aka pooled ignorance). As I’ve said elsewhere, the term “afterschooling” is a new one, generated by the failure of the schools to do their job. Kids who don’t have parents who realize the problem, and/or are unable to correct matters, just keep sliding backward.

  3. Interesting article and review of the homework debate. The piece that gets missing, consistently, is that kids and families are different, not just across socio-economic strata, but through all sorts of variables. I think the primary problem with homework gets missed in most debates, and that is that it undermines the authority in the home. This is why, in any school district, parents will take different positions. If your child is doing well, you have no problem. If your child is doing poorly in the system, you feel frustrated and helpless. As a psychologist, who has spoken with many parents, and as a parent of three children, I know this to be a fact. In fact, of my own children, two did well while one was homework-trapped. I was astounded to learn that, with my homework-trapped child, that I was rendered helpless by the school to make my own best decisions.

    • Dr. Goldberg,

      What happens when the student exits high school and is expected to study stuff on their own as part of a job training program or as a condition of employment? As a long time worker in Information Technology, I have to constantly keep abreast of new developments in the areas of information security and software issues.

      A employer gives a stack of manuals to a employee to read after work (which is the same as homework), and the employee has three choices in this matter:

      1) – Read the information
      2) – Quit
      3) – Be fired.

      I don’t know what adults are expecting of students once they graduate from high school, but as an adult, I’ve had to do a LOT of stuff I didn’t want to do, if I wanted to get paid for completing the work.