As another school year begins, our schools and children are under the gun as never before. Increasing numbers of students are facing batteries of new standardized tests, and both parents and teachers feel the pressure.
Many educators are now turning to an old remedy, ratcheting up the homework required of our children. Over the last 15 years, children as young as 9 to 11 have seen a nearly 40 percent increase in homework, a trend that is likely to continue. Unfortunately, this remedy may be doing our children more harm than good.
We like to think all of this makes sense: It is well-tested and, besides, it is what everyone is doing worldwide. No wonder we lose our markets to Japanese, Chinese and Korean kids. Their schools are more strict and they study harder. Yet every element of this familiar equation is questionable. Many foreign school systems aren't obligated to educate the whole population and are teaching only an elite. Furthermore, Japanese schools spend up to 25 percent more per teacher than the United States. Research does show us the unequivocal benefits of well-thought-out professional development programs for teachers, especially for teachers who teach in schools with students from traditions that are culturally and linguistically different from their own.
Furthermore, even in countries as workaholic as Japan, the number of hours kids are forced to study is becoming an issue of concern. If there is a lesson from Japan, perhaps it should be that the nose-to-the-grindstone mentality has its limits and that harsh regimens can and ought to be challenged.
But the biggest fallacy of all lies in our near religious confidence that more homework makes better students. If homework were a prescription drug, the FDA would long ago have demanded its recall. Over the years, homework has been subjected to a series of controlled trials. These trials vary considerably in their attempts to control for such confounding variables as the education and financial well-being of the parents. Bringing together all such trials into the kind of meta-analysis often attempted with respect to drugs is a difficult task, but it so happens that one respected investigator has done so.
Harris Cooper, a close student of the subject, reports that "the conclusions of past reviewers of homework research show extraordinary variability. ... Even in regard to specific areas of application such as within different subject areas, grades or student ability levels, the reviews often directly contradict one another." Even where a positive correlation is established, it is not clear whether homework makes good, well-motivated students, or whether privileged and well-motivated students do homework. Cooper's work is unequivocal in its conclusion that no significant gains for homework are established for the elementary school years.
Just as tellingly, virtually no one so far has attempted to ascertain the side effects of homework. What are its effects on families, on children's lifelong interests in learning?
Our own ethnographic research shows that extensive homework assignments have played a major role in school dropouts. In interviews with high school dropouts as part of a study for the Maine Department of Education, we asked students if there was a moment when they knew they were going to drop out of school. Their tales told the story of incomplete homework, of parent-child conflict exacerbated by homework demands that seem to grow as fast as the time parents have available shrinks.
Schools can and must do a better job, but punishing regimes for the children are not the way to go. A modest amount of independent work, say two hours a day, may well be appropriate for high school students, but let's stop trying to buy school reform on the cheap and at the expense of children and their families. The place for our children to be doing independent work is the setting designed for such work, the schools themselves. Teachers or other adults with appropriate skills and experience should be paid to assist our children in independent projects that would advance their learning.
But even high school students shouldn't be forced to labor more than 40 hours a week, a standard long ago established for adults. Free time plays a key role in fostering both creativity and emotional development, factors just as basic to long-term success as academic gains. In an era that reputedly values testing but that has done so little to test some of its most basic practices, we believe our approach is worth a serious trial.
John Buell lives in Maine and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He invites comments at JBUELL@ACADIA.NET.