Time for a recall

The authors of "The End of Homework" argue that after-school assignments disrupt family life and exacerbate inequality in the schools.

By John Buell - Etta Kralovec
September 16, 2000 3:10AM (UTC)
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If homework were a prescription drug, the Food and Drug Administration would long ago have demanded its recall -- especially for children of elementary school age. Any parent or child can tell you the acute short-term side effects of homework overdose: tired, stressed-out kids with virtually no time to participate in any nonacademic activities -- from music lessons to athletics to just hanging out with friends and family. Not that we are unaware of the hazards related to homework. Even the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons has chimed in to report that thousands of kids have back, neck and shoulder pain caused by their heavy backpacks.

Over the years, study after study has failed to prove that the benefits of homework outweigh its costs. No researcher has been able to provide conclusive evidence that increasing a child's daily intake of homework leads to motivated, academically accomplished students.

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Meanwhile, we have virtually no information about the long-term side effects of homework. What are its effects on families, on children's lifelong interest in learning and on levels of stress experienced by our young people?

We are not doctors, but we are researchers and educators, and we have devoted more than 18 months to studying the effects of homework on American schoolchildren. Our research has led us to one unequivocal conclusion: If we want to reform our educational system, if we want to reduce our children's stress, encourage their love of learning and provide equal opportunities for children from all backgrounds, we must ban homework.

There is no case at all for homework in the elementary grades. In fact, the best argument that advocates of homework for young children can muster to defend it is that it gets our children accustomed to homework in later grades. But if imposing progressively longer hours of homework is socially and even educationally destructive, what are we preparing them for?

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Despite homework's proven hazards, the amount of it assigned has increased. Over the past decade and a half, children as young as 9 years old have seen a nearly 40 percent increase in homework, a trend that is likely to continue. According to a recent study by the University of Michigan, grade-school students now spend 134 minutes a night doing homework. While some researchers think this kind of overload teaches responsibility, discipline and delayed gratification, parents and their overworked children think otherwise.

In the past 25 years there has been a revolution in what we know about how students learn. Since the groundbreaking work of Jean Piaget, we know that teachers must know why a student gets a problem wrong, not just that the student got the wrong answer. For that to happen, teachers must have control over the entire educational process.

But homework diminishes the interaction between teachers and students, and thus makes it more difficult for teachers to understand what each individual student needs to work on.

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Take, for example, a typical math class scenario: Kids are assigned 20 long-division problems to complete at home. The next day they exchange and grade one another's papers. The only information the teacher records -- even sees -- is the tally of each student's incorrect answers. Students might as well fill out bubbles each day with No. 2 pencils and run the answers though a scoring machine.

No one learns much in this scenario (unless it's how to cheat by bribing your friend to change your answers). Most important, the teacher doesn't learn what part of the complex set of skills required for long division a student has trouble with. Is the student struggling with addition? Subtraction? Multiplication? Division? The students could be misreading their own handwriting on their scratch paper, and the teacher wouldn't know the difference.

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In addition, when work goes home, teachers have little control over who actually does the work. Did the students do their own work? Did they exchange answers with friends over the phone? Did an uncle do the problems for them? Their parents?

The teacher has no clue, and therefore has little understanding of a particular student's academic weaknesses.

We believe there is a case for high school students doing some independent work outside the classroom setting -- whether researching and writing essays in the humanities, going over vocabulary words, doing math drills or completing experiments for science courses.

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Carefully structured independent work is central to the educational process. Nonetheless, for that work to become educationally meaningful, it must be overseen and analyzed by professional educators.

But rather than working at home, students should be working on school grounds under the direct supervision of educators. All students should have access to school libraries, computer facilities and teachers or other specially trained adults who can advise and assist them in their independent projects. This is the only way to ensure that all students have a quiet place to work, with all the resources they need to complete their assignments and full access to competent, professional adults to help them in their studies.

But even for high school students, reasonable limits need to be observed. An extra two hours a day of supervised independent study added to the regular school day should be enough. No student should ever have to work more than a 40-hour week.

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Harris Cooper, professor of psychology at the University of Missouri at Columbia and author of numerous papers and books on homework, is often cited as an authority by those who believe that increasing the amount of homework assigned to students will pay off in improved academic achievement.

Cooper does believe that homework can lead to increased academic achievement among high school students. But it is not clear from his work whether homework helps create good, well-motivated students or whether gifted and well-motivated students are simply more likely to complete their homework.

In his initial book on the subject, even Cooper concedes that "there is not evidence that any amount of homework noticeably improves the academic performance of elementary students," and that increasing homework for students in middle school is effective "only up to a certain point."

Our own ethnographic research shows that excessive homework assignments have played a major role in students' decisions to drop out of school. As part of a study for the Maine Department of Education, we interviewed more than 45 students who had dropped out of Maine high schools. To our amazement, every student cited his or her inability to complete homework assignments as a major factor in the decision to leave high school.

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Most of these students came from poor rural families. Their after-school hours had become a battleground between the competing camps of family responsibilities and an excessive academic workload. Many had parents who worked the night shift. Some were expected to come home to care for siblings and elderly family members; others were expected to hold down after-school jobs.

Even middle-class families are feeling the strain of an educational culture that demands longer hours for fewer rewards. In the early '90s, Juliet Schor, an economics professor at Harvard and author of "The Overworked American," did a pathbreaking study in which she pointed out that despite enormous gains in productivity, Americans were working substantially longer hours than they had during the '60s and many more hours than their Western European counterparts.

The trends that Schor highlighted have, if anything, only intensified since she wrote her book. The Economic Policy Institute reported on Labor Day that while the income of middle-class, married couples grew only 9.2 percent from 1989 to 1998, most of this growth reflected an increase in family work hours -- up 246 hours to a total of 3,885 hours, or about six extra full-time weeks a year since 1989. African-American middle-income families logged even more hours, working an average of 4,278 hours per year -- almost 500 hours per year more than white families.

Commuting time and errand time have also increased. The typical suburban mom now spends almost three times as much time in the car as she did even just 15 years ago, mostly doing errands of one sort or another. And even when they are at home, thanks to telecommuting, parents are increasingly wired in to their jobs.

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The long hours worked by parents, coupled with the increasing burden of homework on both parents and children, mean that parents have little time or energy left to engage their children in the unstructured activities of family life -- whether it be religious instruction, hiking, cooking together or playing card games on the couch. Parents, regardless of their formal education, can make distinctive contributions to their children's lives with these activities, whether or not they can explain an algebra equation or edit a child's essay.

But what, we are often asked, will children do with all their free time if they are relieved of the burden of homework? We respond that they will play with other children, ride bikes or hang out with their families. But the most frequent criticism we hear of our work is that children will most likely spend the time they would have spent on schoolwork logging in more hours in front of the television.

The idea that most Americans, if given the choice, would choose to spend their leisure time engaged in mindless activities is an old story. During the '30s, similar arguments were launched against labor unions when they called for a 40-hour workweek. Then the argument made by business and political leaders was that workers, left to their own devices, would choose to drink and carouse in their free time. Today the fear is that giving students and workers free time will cause them to resort to the modern drug of choice, television. Yet every element of these fears is exaggerated or misplaced.

Loading on more homework won't stop kids from watching mindless television. Only a culture that learns to value the free time that parents and their children spend together can achieve that end.

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The unstructured time children have -- with their families and themselves -- plays a key role in fostering their creativity and emotional development. These factors are just as basic to long-term success as any academic accomplishments.

But for families to focus on the importance of family life, they need reasonable limits to be placed on the amount of work demanded of parents and children.

The call for the end of homework is a call for greater accountability by schools, an acknowledgment of the value of trained educational professionals overseeing the entire educational process and an opportunity for all students to have equal access to necessary educational resources.


John Buell

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Etta Kralovec

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