By: Natalie Wolchover
Published: 03/30/2012 09:42 AM EDT on Lifes Little Mysteries
Piling on the homework doesn't help kids do better in school. In fact, it can lower their test scores.
That's the conclusion of a group of Australian researchers, who have taken the aggregate results of several recent studies investigating the relationship between time spent on homework and students' academic performance.
According to Richard Walker, an educational psychologist at Sydney University, data shows that in countries where more time is spent on homework, students score lower on a standardized test called the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. The same correlation is also seen when comparing homework time and test performance at schools within countries. Past studies have also demonstrated this basic trend.
Inundating children with hours of homework each night is detrimental, the research suggests, while an hour or two per week usually doesn't impact test scores one way or the other. However, homework only bolsters students' academic performance during their last three years of grade school. "There is little benefit for most students until senior high school (grades 10-12)," Walker told Life's Little Mysteries.
The research is detailed in his new book, "Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policies" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
The same basic finding holds true across the globe, including in the U.S., according to Gerald LeTendre of Pennsylvania State University. He and his colleagues have found that teachers typically give take-home assignments that are unhelpful busy work. Assigning homework "appeared to be a remedial strategy (a consequence of not covering topics in class, exercises for students struggling, a way to supplement poor quality educational settings), and not an advancement strategy (work designed to accelerate, improve or get students to excel)," LeTendre wrote in an email. [Kids Believe Literally Everything They Read Online, Even Tree Octopuses]
This type of remedial homework tends to produce marginally lower test scores compared with children who are not given the work. Even the helpful, advancing kind of assignments ought to be limited; Harris Cooper, a professor of education at Duke University, has recommended that students be given no more than 10 to 15 minutes of homework per night in second grade, with an increase of no more than 10 to 15 minutes in each successive year.
Most homework's neutral or negative impact on students' academic performance implies there are better ways for them to spend their after school hours than completing worksheets. So, what should they be doing? According to LeTendre, learning to play a musical instrument or participating in clubs and sports all seem beneficial, but there's no one answer that applies to everyone.
"These after-school activities have much more diffuse goals than single subject test scores," he wrote. "When I talk to parents … they want their kids to be well-rounded, creative, happy individuals — not just kids who ace the tests."
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The homework wars have started up again.
Last month, the superintendent of the Marion County Public Schools in Florida announced a “no homework” policy for the fall, and parents around the country are cheering. “Can we get a standing ovation for this?” wrote Wendy Wisner on the Web site Babble. “I know I’m not the only parent out there who actually dreads those busywork math and reading sheets (maybe even more than my kids).”
The district joins others in Massachusetts and Vermont that have also banned homework. But before others follow suit, they should understand that not all homework is created equal. Indeed, homework tends to be an extension of school work — good schools give useful homework; bad ones, not so much.
The combination of data and common sense show the way. A 2006 meta-analysis by a Duke University researcher found that students who did homework had better academic performance (though it was not clear which was the cause and which was the effect). But he also found that excessive homework can make kids tired and fuel negative attitudes about school.
Surely, though, it matters how much time we spend learning something. As Chester Finn, former assistant secretary of education, notes, “homework doesn’t mean any one thing. Academic work done at home can be very beneficial, much like additional academic work done in school. But it can also be a near-waste of time.”
Finn compares it to “home cooking.” You can make French fries and doughnuts in your home kitchen or you can roast a chicken and steam some broccoli. The fact that it’s home-cooked doesn’t mean you won’t make the same nutritional mistakes as at a restaurant.
But frankly, the kids who are getting the nutritional kinds of homework also tend to be those who are getting the nutritional kind of work in classrooms.
They have teachers who are challenging them at the right levels, who are encouraging them to look at some concepts on their own at home and then come to class prepared to ask questions and get clarification about certain topics.
Good schools — elite private schools or public schools in wealthy suburban districts — are most likely to be giving good homework.
But this is where the complaints most often originate. Parents say that their children have too many hours and have no time for anything else. As Wisner laments, “Don’t we all wish our kids had just a little more time for creativity and fun at home? I know I do.”
A 2002 University of Michigan study found that students aged 6 to 8 spend 29 minutes doing homework per night while 15- to 17-year-old students spend 50 minutes doing homework. There are a lot of things killing our children’s chance for fun and creativity — too many extracurricular activities, too much screen time. Homework is hardly the deciding factor.
But the same parents who claim that a few days of standardized testing a year are destroying their fragile children’s emotional state and undermining their entire educations have also come to see homework as the destroyer of childhood.
It’s true that for the children of these privileged families, homework is adding the least marginal benefit. Last summer, a teacher’s notice about abandoning homework went viral.
She wrote: “Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance. Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside and get your child to bed early.”
If kids live in homes where all this is possible, then she’s right. Homework isn’t going to make much of a difference one way or another. Heck, third grade might not, either. But for many kids this isn’t the case. They’re not eating dinner with family. No one is enforcing a bedtime or reading with them at night.
As Finn tells me, “Total learning time does matter for students, and that’s why the most effective charter schools for poor kids have longer days, weeks, years and give kids the cellphone numbers of their teachers so they can, in effect, be in touch 24/7, including when they’re doing homework.”
For these kids, with the most effective schooling models, homework can ensure that they are learning well morning, noon and night.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.