October 6, 2007

BUSY WORK (via The Mother Judd):

Spreading Homework Out So Even Parents Have Some (TINA KELLEY, 10/04/07, NY Times)

The parents of Damion Frye’s ninth-grade students are spending their evenings this fall doing something they thought they had left behind long ago: homework.

So far, Mr. Frye, an English teacher at Montclair High School, has asked the parents to read and comment on a Franz Kafka story, Section 1 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and a speech given by Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Their newest assignment is a poem by Saul Williams, a poet, musician and rapper who lives in Los Angeles. The ninth graders complete their assignments during class; the parents are supposed to write their responses on a blog Mr. Frye started online.

If the parents do not comply, Mr. Frye tells them, their child’s grade may suffer — a threat on which he has made good only once in the three years he has been making such assignments.

The point, he said, is to keep parents involved in their children’s ’ education well into high school. Studies have shown that parental involvement improves the quality of the education a student receives, but teenagers seldom invite that involvement. So, Mr. Frye said, he decided to help out.

“Parents complain about never getting to see their kids’ work,” he said. “Now they have to.”

Only parents ought to be given homework since it does nothing for the students and would get the adults to stop demanding it.

Forget Homework: It's a waste of time for elementary-school students. (Emily Bazelon, Sept. 14, 2006, Slate)

Over the last decade, Japanese schools have been scrapping homework while American elementary schools have been assigning more of it. What gives—aren't they supposed to be the model achievers while we're the slackers? No doubt our eagerness to shed the slacker mantle has helped feed the American homework maw. But it may be the Japanese, once again, who know what they're doing.

Such is my conclusion after reading three new books on the subject: The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish; The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn; and the third edition of The Battle Over Homework by Duke psychology professor Harris Cooper. If you already despise homework, Bennett and Kalish provide advice on how to plead with teachers and schools for mercy. If you're agnostic, as I was, Kohn is the meatier read. Kohn is the author of several rebellious books about education, and he exposes the lack of evidence for many of the standard arguments in favor of homework: that it boosts achievement, that it inculcates good study habits, that it teaches kids to take the initiative, that it's better than video games or whatever else kids do in their free time.

Cooper is one of Kohn's main foils and a leading scholar on the subject, so I picked up his book expecting to find a convincing counterargument defending homework. I didn't. Cooper's research shows that, much of the time, take-home assignments in elementary school are an act of faith. No one really knows whether all those math sheets and spelling drills add up to anything. If there's little or no evidence that younger students benefit from homework, why assign it at all? Or, to adopt Kohn's less extreme position in The Homework Myth, why make homework the rule rather than the rare and thought-through exception?

In The Battle Over Homework, Cooper has crunched the numbers on dozens of studies of homework for students of all ages. Looking across all the studies is supposed to offer a fairly accurate picture even though the science behind some of them is sketchy. For elementary-school students, Cooper found that "the average correlation between time spent on homework and achievement … hovered around zero." In Kohn's book, he highlights a 1998 study that Cooper and his colleagues did with second- through 12th-graders. For younger students, the amount of homework completed had no effect on test scores and bore a negative relationship to grades.

As Homework Grows, So Do Arguments Against It (Valerie Strauss, September 12, 2006, Washington Post)
The nation's best-known researcher on homework has taken a new look at the subject, and here is what Duke University professor Harris Cooper has to say:

Elementary school students get no academic benefit from homework -- except reading and some basic skills practice -- and yet schools require more than ever.

High school students studying until dawn probably are wasting their time because there is no academic benefit after two hours a night; for middle-schoolers, 1 1/2 hours.

And what's perhaps more important, he said, is that most teachers get little or no training on how to create homework assignments that advance learning.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 6, 2007 8:51 AM

So right. And, it starts long before ninth grade. My fourthgrader is mired in homework misery now. When I asked why so much was assigned, the teacher told me the primary complaint she gets is that there is not enough homework. Apparently my wife and I are in the minority on this issue.

Posted by: Kurt Brouwer at October 6, 2007 11:06 AM

Apparently parents aren't sufficiently steeped in leftwing writings, so they need brush up work.

Posted by: erp [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 6, 2007 12:07 PM

And I'm sure every commenter here has successfully taught in the classroom.

Oh, you haven't? But you're sure you know what works and what doesn't?

Yes, that's what I thought.

Posted by: molon labe at October 6, 2007 1:16 PM

Nice rephrasing of the chickenhawk slur, Molon! Take two little red books out of petty cash.

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at October 6, 2007 1:24 PM

Well, not quite. I do in fact teach.

Posted by: molon labe at October 6, 2007 1:29 PM

for a living, that is. After having retired from a successful business career. I've both been a 'consumer' of the products from our school systems and am now a 'producer' at the university level (and hence a consumer of high school grads).

Been there. Seen the lack of focus, discipline and resilience needed to link concepts with action to solve problems and embed skills.

Homework can be deadening, if given incorrectly.

It can also be a critical link in both educating and training young people for life as adults.

Posted by: molon labe at October 6, 2007 1:32 PM


Based upon Naep scores and the vast amount of money for mediocre outcomes, there are clearly many teachers that "haven't successfully taught in a class room."

The fact is a modicum of common sense will take your kids much further than the drivel taught in ed-school.

Come to my site (www.extremewisdom.com) (better yet, be a guest on my show) and engage me in a debate where you attempt to defend your comment above (and, by extention, our awful education system).



The home work issue is merely another example of the uselessness of today's ed system.

Science and common sense indicate that homework is best used as 'reinforcement' to cement content acquisition, which, in a rational world, would take place in a classroom. It should be short, it should show demonstration of the content presented in class that past day or conversely prepare the kid for the content to be presented the next day.

However, with classrooms full of a hodge-podge of ideology and hopping backwards and forwards (math curriculum is the US is notoriously moronic in this regard), over loaded piles of homework are the only manner by which the child gets educated. They aren't learning much in class. (But they've all seen "An Inconvenient Truth.")

This is another reason why "suburban schools" supposedly perform better. It isn't the obscene spending on salaries, worthless administration and pensions. It's the fact that suburban parents are far more likely to force kids to do homework.(buy Sylvan, Huntington, Kumon, etc etc etc.)

Never let some dingy 20-something or oily Superintendent tell you that you should leave education to the arrogant and protected class of incompetents called the Education Establishment.

They are proven liars and proven failures.

Posted by: Bruno at October 6, 2007 1:50 PM

Molon rube: I see you don't teach elementary students, so your "teacherhawk" point means nothing. We'll not talking about university students, so any experience you might have means zip.

Too much homework, too many projects and starting too young is what teachers do. It doesn't make it right.

By the way, bragging about how "successful" one is a silly way to make a point. On the internet, without any way to verify, one who brags about his business succcess often means he says "do you want fries with that" every time.

Posted by: Bob at October 6, 2007 1:54 PM

I see Molon successfully struck a nerve.

Posted by: Brandon at October 6, 2007 2:23 PM

Any idiot can teach grade school successfully, that's why we let them. Homework is not important to that education. It's ideological balm.

Posted by: oj at October 6, 2007 2:40 PM

Molon labe rings a bell. It's been a while since I was forced to speak a baltic tongue, but if I'm not mistaken it means "thanks much" in Latvian?

Posted by: lebeau at October 6, 2007 3:16 PM

Yes, it does appear I've struck a nerve. ;-)

No, I don't teach elementary school or even high school. And agreed that our public school system sucks (did you notice my comments about being in business - i.e. hiring people - and finding that graduates were badly prepared?

That said, I'll stick to my main assertion. Successful education is more than either an undifferentiated stream of facts or a cloud of concepts conveyed in the classroom. It's being able to link those concepts together in individual thinking (essays, for instance). And it's being able to apply those concepts to specific practical problems (math exercises, for instance).

Dull rote doesn't cut it, even if the rote is extended with loads of meaningless homework.

"Creative play" doesn't cut it either, however. As children mature, they can and should be slowly and incrementally challenged to take on more responsibility for doing the work that's required to build the cognitive skills and world knowledge needed for succeeding in this century. To become, in other words, life long learners and doers.

I teach in the science and engineering domains. I'm appalled at how few of the incoming freshmen entering our very highly ranked, well known institution have acquired the habit of self-initiated analysis of new material or of focused, repeated practice of new skills. A lot more of my time is spent on those habits (and the attitudes needed to acquire them) than I would like. And frankly, the only reason they gain those skills in my classroom is that the freshman course I often teach is a core requirement for all majors.

Posted by: molon labe at October 6, 2007 3:18 PM

So, to make my assertion that well-chosen homework is a key element in good education, I'll fill in the blanks.

There are ample, well structured studies the demonstrate the importance of cognitive variation during a classroom session. The brain and the mind it supports is not, even in adults, well suited to 45 or 55 minutes of acquiring new concepts or information. After about 10-15 minutes there is a physiological need to shift gears, touch on lighter material, review old material, have integrative discussions. Depending on the newnesss and the nature of the material being taught, it will take anywhere from 2 to 24 hours for new neural connections to spread and solidify in the brain.

At that point, the most effective way to ensure the material is both retained and linked to other knowledge is to reinforce it from several directions: re-articulating the concepts and linking them to other concepts, and applying the concepts in practical problems.

Well structured homework, given in the right way and at the right time, is simply the best way to do that for learners older than about 9 or 10 years of age.

This is true for all subjects. It's not a matter of math or history or biology --it's how the brain works. In many cases, the cascades of neurotransmitters involved can be traced in double-blind studies. Reinforcement of learned material through individual work away from the original learning setting (i.e. homework outside of class) is one of the best ways to leverage the basic learning processes of our brains.

Which is not to say that dull, ill trained, unintelligent, unionized teachers can't screw it up beyond redemption in their particular classes. I'm a conservative with a healthy appreciation for the ways in which humans can screw up nearly anything. But I'm also a Christian with a deep appreciation for the richness of creation - including the rich complexit of Man created in God's image. Perhaps in the Garden homework was unnecessary. Ever since then, it has a useful place in learning.

Posted by: molon labe at October 6, 2007 3:32 PM

That said, I'll stick to my main assertion.

You didn't make that assertion in your first comment.

Successful education is more than either an undifferentiated stream of facts or a cloud of concepts conveyed in the classroom. It's being able to link those concepts together in individual thinking (essays, for instance). And it's being able to apply those concepts to specific practical problems (math exercises, for instance).

Fair enough. Not much to disagree with there, though your other comment on "rote" deserves some skepticism. While "rote" may not cut it in University or even highschool, it is unquestionably necessary to attain automaticity in reading and math before all that important "linking" you speak of can take place.

See E.D. Hirsch Books & Project Follow Through


Posted by: Bruno at October 6, 2007 3:44 PM

What do structured lab conditions have to do with reality, where study after study shows homework to be useless?

Posted by: oj at October 6, 2007 7:28 PM

Citations, oj?

Because it's not useless in my classes. Quite the contrary.

Posted by: molon labe at October 6, 2007 8:07 PM

So the no-homework proponents think class time should be used for reading books and writing book reports? Because that was a lot of my homework in grade school. I'll agree that lots of homework is silly, but then lots of classwork is just as silly.

And I find it odd that OJ is so eager to wave these studies, probably done by folks who teach in education colleges, which are always well-known for scholarly excellence . . . right? Of course, hundreds of times as many studies done by real scientists show that Darwin was onto something, but all those you're quite eager to dismiss out of hand.

Posted by: PapayaSF at October 6, 2007 11:59 PM

They're particularly valuable tests since they undermine the ideology of those doing them, just like the Darwinists' tests. Anytime the facts are so overwhelming that they overcome the Heisenberg Effect they're dispositive.

Yes, parents should have their kids read books instead of doing homework.

Posted by: oj at October 7, 2007 7:20 AM


Cite yourself: try not giving kids homework for a year and see if their test scores change. They won't.

Of course, if the system's primary concern was educating the kids the school day would start later in accord with their biological clocks. It doesn't because of their parents as well.

Posted by: oj at October 7, 2007 7:24 AM

I'm an engineer. My kids get quite a bit of math homework every day. As much as I dislike the social studies emphasis on global warming and the like, the schools here are doing an excellent job teaching math. My kids are at least a year ahead of where I was at that age, and I'm good at math.

Posted by: Tom Hanson at October 7, 2007 7:31 AM

Which is why they are.

Posted by: oj at October 7, 2007 7:58 AM

Cite yourself: try not giving kids homework for a year and see if their test scores change. They won't.

I'm not teaching for standardized test scores.

I'm teaching for real understanding and mastery of important foundational concepts and for the skills to apply them to complex real-world problems. I don't need a year's study to know the results of lack of integrative work and/or of individual application work. I see it regularly in the lack of learning and mastery demonstrated by those in my classes who don't bother to do the work assigned.

And, by the way, a willingness to dig into the hard stuff is at least as good a predictor of success with the material I teach as is native intelligence and basic aptitude. For the advanced work, that is of course a requirement. But for undergrad work that carries students a lot less far than their public school experience promised them it would.

Posted by: molon labe at October 7, 2007 8:24 AM

Having an excited, exciting, intelligent, enthusiastic teacher is better than rote learning. The other 99% of elementary classrooms would be much better off learning a bunch of facts without any integration.

Of course, the only thing that anyone ever learns in elementary school that's of any use in life is how to show up on time and not disrupt the group.

Posted by: Ibid at October 7, 2007 9:12 AM

So your kids don't score well? You should be afraid of testing your theory.

Posted by: oj at October 7, 2007 12:12 PM

As the first commenter in this thread, I'll try to summarize the results. The consensus seems to be against high levels of homework, particularly for elementary school students such as my kids (2nd and 4th grade). There is an argument that homework is useful in college, but no strong arguments for homework before college. As usual, Orrin dispenses with the details and argues that parental influence is far more important than what the teacher does. Hard to argue with that.

Posted by: Kurt Brouwer at October 7, 2007 12:12 PM

College kids aren't doing homework, they're teaching themselves outside the classroom because they aren't there 40 hours a week.

Elementary school kids might benefit from a similar system, but the schools are there as babysitters more than educational institutions.

Posted by: oj at October 7, 2007 12:20 PM

So your kids don't score well? You should be afraid of testing your theory.

Read a bit more carefully. I said I didn't teach toward a standardized exam. It doesn't mean my students don't end up taking one.

Given that I'm teaching at the undergrad level, there aren't any No Child Left Behind tests to apply in early courses. Pretty much the only standardized test they could aim for would be the FE (Fundamentals of Engineering exam, the undergrad equivalent to the Professional Engineer licensing exam). And since our undergrads tend to do very well on the FE in their senior year, I guess they do "score well".

Read a bit more carefully before you snark, oj.

Posted by: molon labe at October 7, 2007 12:54 PM

Ah, so it's just that these personal anecdotes you rely on having nothing to do with the topic at hand? It's just the molon labe hour?

Posted by: oj at October 7, 2007 2:30 PM

College students are assigned homework in your highly selective school?

Posted by: erp [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 7, 2007 3:28 PM

I think a limited amount of homework is good so students develop good study habits, and confirm that they've learned what was taught. But there should only be about 1-2 hours a night, and that should include reading assignments. 15-30 minutes is probably what's needed for 1st graders.

For high school students in honors classes, it'll be more on some days - but the longer study days can be combined with study groups which also allow for socializing. If you are taking advanced math and science, there is no way you can master it without homework. But there needs to be flexibility at that age too to accomodate school activities and sometimes work. High schoolers need to be able to pick what days during the week they'll work on assignments.

Homework serves different purposes for different subjects and at different ages. However, if the only reason it is being assigned is to cover the teacher from complaints of not enough homework, I suspect the value of the homework would be neglible because it is not designed around learning, but office politics reasons.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at October 8, 2007 11:34 AM

Everything after "I think" is a statement of faith that is disproved by the science, and typical of why why still assign the junk to kids anyway.

Posted by: oj at October 8, 2007 3:33 PM