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The Homework Delusion

From the Education Gadfly: What do American students need? More homework!

11:00 PM, Feb 29, 2004 • By DAVID SKINNER
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AMERICAN STUDENTS are being overworked, says an alarmed chorus of newspapers, magazines, and books. As described by the popular media and even some academics, the crisis is reminiscent of "Sister Carrie" and Industrial era child-labor scandals. "Overbooked: Four Hours of Homework for a Third Grader" blared a recent cover of People magazine. Beyond the headlines and behind the expert quotes, however, one discovers a story of political agendas, manipulated data, and a credulous public that wants to believe children are working oh-so-hard, even when they're barely breaking a sweat.

What gave this story credibility were its academic sponsors, Etta Kralovec and John Buell, authors of "The End of Homework." What robs their oft-cited work of its credibility, however, are their half-cocked research and political fervor. They reference a newspaper article linking a spate of suicides in Hong Kong to excessive homework, except that the article is from a newspaper in Zimbabwe. Homework, they argue, is anti-democratic and "pits students who can against students who can't." Kralovec and Buell sound like fever-swamp socialists, especially when they complain that homework "fits the ideological requirement of those who maintain the status quo in our politics and society."

Yes, there's a kernel of truth to the anti-homework argument. The evidence that homework provides children with an important educational advantage is inconsistent. University of Missouri professor Harris Cooper, a widely recognized expert on the effects of homework, describes only a modest advantage for students who are given homework as compared to students who aren't assigned any. "Teachers of Grades 4, 5, and 6 might expect the average student doing homework to outscore about 52 percent of equivalent no-homework students."

Homework's benefits, however, increase with age and grade level, becoming especially significant in high school. While "homework's effect on the achievement of elementary school students could be described as 'very small,'" says Cooper, "on high school students its effect would be 'large'." Despite homework's uneven effectiveness, Cooper himself favors the practice, though he's skeptical about the benefits of creative homework that's supposed to teach critical skills. Positive effects increased, he has found, "for subjects for which homework assignments are more likely to involve rote learning, practice, or rehearsal." This is particularly interesting since a stock element of the homework-horror stories in the popular press is the complicated interdisciplinary "project" that takes many hours, days even, to finish and reduces many children, and their parents, to tears. But as it turns out, American elementary, middle, and high school students aren't spending hours on their homework. Minutes is more like it.

The standard reference for debates over how children spend their time is the University of Michigan's 1997 Child Development supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and 1981 Study of Time-Use in Social and Economic Accounts. Recently one of its coauthors, Sandra L. Hofferth, publicly dismissed the whole notion that children are being given so much homework that they have no time for anything else. "I don't believe in the 'hurried child' for a minute. . . .There is a lot of time that can be used for other things." Hofferth and co-author John F. Sandberg have found an increase in homework since 1981 among 3- to 12-year-olds, but the increase is concentrated among the youngest age sets, 3- to 5 and 6- to 8-year-olds. This they credit to an up-tick in the number of students who are doing some homework now but weren't doing any before.

So instead of a dangerously increasing rate of homework among all age groups, Hofferth and Sandburg found increases only among those young enough to have never been assigned homework in the past. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute recently emphasized this same point as he proceeded to drive a stake into the heart of the homework-as-epidemic news articles: "Almost everything in this story [of overworked students] is wrong."

Even the increase among the youngest students is being blown out of proportion, Loveless explains. The amount of time that 3- to 5-year-olds spend on homework per week has risen by 11 minutes since 1981, raising the total homework burden to 7 minutes per night. The per-night increase for 6- to 8-year-olds stands at 15 minutes. Bringing the total number of minutes surrendered to homework to a hardly-shocking 25 per night.