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Ideas

Ideas

Why have homework?

Beneath a pillar of our education system lies a troubling uncertainty

Jacob Thomas for the Boston Globe

It has already begun. Backpacks are bulging with textbooks. Mothers and fathers are already nagging, and children are wishing it away. Like the school bus or afternoon recess, homework is part and parcel of American education. As much as children dread homework, most parents embrace it: Nearly 90 percent believe it helps their children learn more, according to one recent survey.

But does homework actually accomplish what we think it does? New research being published in the October issue of Economics of Education Review is raising questions about an educational staple that teachers and parents have taken for granted for generations. To figure out whether more homework improves kids’ performance, a pair of researchers analyzed a group of roughly 25,000 eighth-grade students, and found that kids who study an extra 75 minutes a week in math can expect to boost achievement test scores by 3 percent, on average. But eighth-graders who did more homework in other subjects — namely English, science, and history — experienced, on average, no improvement whatsoever.

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“That was surprising,” said Ozkan Eren, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who coauthored the research with Daniel J. Henderson, an associate professor of economics at the State University of New York at Binghamton. “It doesn’t make any difference whether you assign more homework in English, science, or history. Students will still do the same.”

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That noise you heard just now was the sound of schoolchildren shrieking with excitement, celebrating the death of homework — their nemesis, nightly torturer, and final obstacle to endless, 24/7 Facebook-ing. But the authors of the research, Eren and Henderson, caution that it’s a complicated finding. To appreciate just how complicated, one need look no further than what Eren and Henderson themselves have done with this information: One now assigns less homework, and one assigns more.

The new study points to a vexing truth about homework: After at least 150 years of assigning after-school tasks to American children, it remains maddeningly unclear what homework actually does for kids.

Educators, like parents, have long believed in the value of homework, ticking off the ways that outside-the-classroom tasks can help students learn. They argue that homework teaches kids important life skills, such as time management and organization. They believe that homework assignments, when well designed, can help kids master what they have covered in school, pushing them to practice long division independently or to think more deeply about the causes of, say, the American Revolution.

But whether it actually does those things has been a source of debate for more than a century, with research providing fodder to people on both sides of the argument. Studies have found that homework does little to improve test scores among elementary school students — a sobering thought for parents and kids slaving over spelling assignments and dioramas. But other research has found that homework is indeed associated with higher student achievement — at least for some students, sometimes, in some classes.

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“You can’t just say — blanket  — homework helps or homework doesn’t help,” explained Barbara Kapinus, a senior policy analyst at the National Education Association who logged more than 16 years teaching in classrooms. “It’s really a matter of the nature of the homework.”

In other words, the answer to the great, eternal homework question is not multiple choice. It’s not some oval that can be filled in on a standardized test, but something far more subjective and hard to define — a lot like educational policy itself.

“It’s not a black-and-white case, because it’s one of the most complicated teaching strategies that teachers use,” said Harris M. Cooper, professor of education at Duke University and author of “The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents.” “In fact, I think this is the most complex pedagogical strategy we use in education.”

The debate over homework and its place in our children’s lives dates back to at least the late 19th century and an oft-cited 1897 study that explored the importance of spelling assignments. As Brian P. Gill and Steven L. Schlossman later pointed out in their comprehensive history of homework — a paper titled “Villain or Savior? The American Discourse on Homework, 1850-2003” — the spelling homework study was important not just because it was the first of its kind, but because of its stunning conclusions.

Spelling homework, it was determined, failed to create better spellers while at the same time alienating students, beaten down by too much spelling homework. And thus, Gill and Schlossman declared, “The emergence of homework as a widely debated, hot-button issue in educational discourse was about to begin.”

Since then, like a seesaw tipping with the times, views on homework have changed with the world around us. In the 1930s, for example, homework was considered not just cruel, but a threat to children’s health — “legalized criminality,” one researcher called it. In the late 1950s, with many blaming America’s Cold War failures on a lack of educational rigor, parents began demanding more homework in school. In the late 1960s and ’70s, such calls had faded away. But by 1983, with Americans concerned about competing yet again, officials assailed “a rising tide of mediocrity” in US schools and called for more homework — “far more homework,” according to Gill and Schlossman.

Thirty years later, at least among high school seniors and college students, there is little evidence that students are doing more homework than they were in the 1960s. In fact, if anything, research shows that the opposite is happening: Many students are studying less now than they were two decades ago. But among young children, parents and researchers have noted a different trend. One study found that homework, per week, doubled between 1981 and 1997 for children ages 6 to 8. And many parents argue that this trend continues today.

“We’ve sort of lost sight of what it means to be a child,” said Sara Bennett, a mother who coauthored the book “The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It.” “The school days are longer. Kids come home very tired. Parents are stressed. Homework is a real stressor in the family — and that’s why it bothers me.”

It’s perhaps not surprising then that those disillusioned with homework have seized upon Eren and Henderson’s findings, which have been circulating in a working paper among researchers and educators. “This study adds to, and confirms, a hundred years of research that has done more to call the value of homework into question than to support continuing to assign it,” said Alfie Kohn, author of “The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.”

But the authors themselves are more cautious about their conclusions. For one thing, they point out, the data they relied on, though comprehensive, come from surveys taken in 1988 — a representative sample, but a dated sample nonetheless. Any changes in homework philosophy since then wouldn’t be measured. Secondly, while Eren and Henderson’s study reports how much homework students were getting — on average, about two hours a week per class — the data include nothing about the quality of the assignments.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Eren and Henderson are quick to point out that they aren’t proving that homework is a waste of time. What they are showing, Henderson explained, is that at a certain point more homework does not appear to help students in English, science, and history — that there is, in effect, a point of diminishing returns. “Just blindly throwing more at them,” Henderson said, “may not be the answer.”

There is much that research cannot assess about the value of homework. Most studies, including Eren and Henderson’s, measure homework’s effect on achievement test scores — an easily quantifiable figure, yet one that doesn’t always translate into life skills. That extra hour of civics homework might not be leading to a better MCAS score, but it might be paying other dividends: building a more informed citizen, for example, or sowing the seeds of a future career. And for students, the discipline of finishing assignments without a teacher standing over them is a life skill in itself.

But Eren and Henderson’s findings questioning the value of homework don’t exist in a vacuum. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, fourth-graders who received 15 minutes of math homework per night in 2009 scored on average higher on achievement tests than fourth-graders who received no math homework per night. But studying for 30 minutes, 45 minutes, one hour, or more per night, according to the data for fourth-graders, is associated with lower test scores, not higher ones, a curve that generally holds true across different age groups and subject areas.

And other studies in recent years have made similar conclusions. Cooper, the Duke University professor, has concluded that a certain amount of homework every night — one hour to 90 minutes for middle school students and two hours for high school students — can be associated with greater academic achievement. But it’s also important, Cooper believes, to set limits. “A second-grader,” he said, “shouldn’t be coming home with two hours of homework a night. In most instances, that’s not going to work.”

Homework, many parents worry, exacts a cost in other opportunities, limiting the amount of time children can spend practicing the violin, shooting hoops in the driveway with a parent, or —  gasp! — even playing outside with friends.

So where does that leave educators, charged with teaching kids, or parents, worried that their children are learning what they need to know? Cooper suggested, as a guideline, that parents be mindful of the 10-minute rule: the theory that a student should receive about 10 minutes of homework per night, per grade. Teachers should not be assigning homework simply to occupy kids’ time, educators say, sending them home with untargeted, poorly planned busywork. And it’s worthwhile, they add, for teachers to think critically about the work they are assigning to make sure that it’s actually teaching kids something.

Eren and Henderson, the authors of the new study, have done just that since completing their homework research. Both professors say they have reviewed the homework they assign to be sure it complements, not repeats, what they’re covering in class. Eren, being an economics professor, has opted to assign more homework to his UNLV students, he said, given the study’s findings in regards to math achievement.

But Henderson, at Binghamton, has gone in a different direction. If anything, he said, he has reduced the amount of homework he gives to his students, believing that shorter, better targeted, higher quality assignments will do more for students, even if it means they spend less time on it. And as a father of two children under the age of 5, he hopes his kids’ future teachers will do the same — or at least consider it. “I would be very happy,” Henderson said, “if my kids could go out and play.”

Freelance writer Keith O’Brien, winner of the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, is a former staff writer for the Globe. E-mail him at keith@keithob.com.

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