Magazine Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2006 …
Myth About Homework
hours of slogging are helping your child make the
grade? Think again
was the last straw. Or was it Kiva? My 12-year-old
daughter and I had been drilling social-studies key
words for more than an hour. It was 11 p.m. Our entire
evening had, as usual, consisted of homework and conversations
(a.k.a. nagging) about homework. She was tired and
fed up. I was tired and fed up. The words wouldn't
stick. They meant nothing to her. They didn't mean
much to me either. After all, when have I ever used
sachem in a sentence--until just now?
the summer winds down, I'm dreading scenes like that
one from seventh grade. Already the carefree August
nights have given way to meaningful conversations
(a.k.a. nagging) about the summer reading that didn't
get done. So what could be more welcome than two new
books assailing this bane of modern family life: The
Homework Myth (Da Capo Press; 243 pages), by Alfie
Kohn, the prolific, perpetual critic of today's test-driven
schools, and The Case Against Homework (Crown; 290
pages), a cri de coeur by two moms, lawyer Sara Bennett
and journalist Nancy Kalish.
books cite studies, surveys, statistics, along with
some hair-raising anecdotes, on how a rising tide
of dull, useless assignments is oppressing families
and making kids hate learning. A few highlights from
the books and my own investigation:
to a 2004 national survey of 2,900 American children
conducted by the University of Michigan , the amount
of time spent on homework is up 51% since 1981.
of that increase reflects bigger loads for little
kids. An academic study found that whereas students
ages 6 to 8 did an average of 52 min. of homework
a week in 1981, they were toiling 128 min. weekly
by 1997. And that's before No Child Left Behind kicked
in. An admittedly less scientific poll of parents
conducted this year for AOL and the Associated Press
found that elementary school students were averaging
78 min. a night.
onslaught comes despite the fact that an exhaustive
review by the nation's top homework scholar, Duke
University 's Harris Cooper, concluded that homework
does not measurably improve academic achievement for
kids in grade school. That's right: all the sweat
and tears do not make Johnny a better reader or mathematician.
much homework brings diminishing returns. Cooper's
analysis of dozens of studies found that kids who
do some homework in middle and high school score somewhat
better on standardized tests, but doing more than
60 to 90 min. a night in middle school and more than
2 hr. in high school is associated with, gulp, lower
in many of the nations that outperform the U.S. on
student achievement tests--such as Japan , Denmark
and the Czech Republic --tend to assign less homework
than American teachers, but instructors in low-scoring
countries like Greece , Thailand and Iran tend to
pile it on.
on standardized tests is, of course, only one measure
of learning--and only one purported goal of homework.
Educators, including Cooper, tend to defend homework
by saying it builds study habits, self-discipline
and time-management skills. But there's also evidence
that homework sours kids' attitudes toward school.
"It's one thing to say we are wasting kids' time
and straining parent-kid relationships," Kohn
told me, "but what's unforgivable is if homework
is damaging our kids' interest in learning, undermining
solution is radical: he wants a no-homework policy
to become the default, with exceptions for tasks like
interviewing parents on family history, kitchen chemistry
and family reading.
in a nation in which 71% of mothers of kids under
18 are in the workforce, how about extending the school
day or year beyond its agrarian-era calendar? Let
students do more work at school and save evenings
for family and serendipity.
and Kalish have a more modest proposal. Parents should
demand a sensible homework policy, perhaps one based
on Cooper's rule of thumb: 10 min. a night per grade
level. They offer lessons from their own battle to
rein in the workload at their kids' private middle
school in Brooklyn , N.Y. Among their victories: a
nightly time limit, a policy of no homework over vacations,
no more than two major tests a week, fewer weekend
assignments and no Monday tests.
don't more parents in homework-heavy districts take
such actions? Do too many of us think it's just our
child who is struggling, so who are we to lead a revolt?
Yup, when it comes to the battle of homework mountain,
we've got too many Indians and not enough sachems.