Marcia Coodley says her son's fifth-grade homework turned into a family nightmare. For two hours every night, she says, he would struggle through worksheets and labor at memorizing information.
A physician from Portland, Oregon, Coodley was one of dozens of parents who raised concerns about the workload at the school. She is critical of the content as well as the volume of the assignments. It was mostly “busy work,” she says.
“We were ruled by those math and science worksheets “all of it just rote learning. I didn't think there was any benefit other than making our family crazy, and making us enforce policies we didn't agree with.”
“The weekend before a big project was due would be torturous. We'd have crying. We fought. I had to tell him he couldn't see his friends. The whole experience was very punitive.”
An isolated incident? Or an increasingly common example of how teachers, under pressure to meet standards and boost test scores, are piling on excessive amounts of homework?
Guidelines from the National Education Association and the Parent Teacher Association suggest students should study four nights a week, for 10 to 20 minutes in first grade and increasing by 10 minutes a year to two hours in high school. But if a 1997 University of Michigan study is accurate, students are spending almost twice as much time on homework as their counterparts did in 1981. And many first- through third-graders are doing three times the recommended amount.
With new questions raised by concerned parents and curious researchers, the subject of homework is getting a fresh look. Researchers are exploring whether homework can help boost achievement “or whether it may be a factor in widening the achievement gap. In an increasing number of schools, including many in the Northwest, teachers and principals are developing alternatives to having kids hit the books at home.
Moderation the rule
Harris Cooper, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and author of the 1989 classic Homework, counsels moderation.
“There is a law of diminishing returns, so that for a second-grader the last 15 minutes clearly don't have the same impact as the first 15,” he says.
A specialist in research synthesis, Cooper began studying the literature on homework 20 years ago, and has just received a grant from the federal Office of Educational Research and Improvement to undertake a new review of the subject. Well-designed homework programs can boost academic achievement, he says. They involve parents in their children's schoolwork and encourage students to learn to study independently. For these reasons, teachers should assign homework to all students.
As evidence, he points to studies that compared students who were assigned homework with students who received no homework. Researchers found no difference between the two groups of elementary students, but in middle school and high school the homework group significantly outperformed the no-homework group on academic measures.
Other studies correlated achievement with the amount of time students said they spent on homework. Again the results showed that from as early as fifth grade, students who spent more time on homework scored higher in achievement tests than those who spent less. Even studies that compared homework with in-class study suggested that older students gained more from homework.
“We can tell that homework has substantial positive effects on achievement,” Cooper says. “What we can't prove is that homework is causing the higher achievement. What's really needed are more experimental studies where students are randomly assigned to different homework conditions and then tracked to see what happens.”
At the elementary stage, Cooper believes that homework develops valuable study skills that later translate to academic success.
“Homework can foster independent learning and responsible character traits,” he says. “Homework can give parents an opportunity to see what's going on in school and express positive attitudes toward achievement. It can help children recognize that learning can occur at home as well as at school.”
As an example of a well-designed approach, he cites a program called TIPS (Teachers Including Parents in Schoolwork), developed by Joyce Epstein, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University. Welcomed by many parents, the program asks students to explain and demonstrate something they are learning in class to someone at home.
Cooper's conclusions mirror the accepted wisdom about education, but in recent years dissenting voices have begun to demand a rethink of the entire research framework. These provocative critics argue that homework is archaic, unscientific, and may even inhibit children's learning.
“It's not at all self-evident that it's the homework that makes students perform better and not the other way around,” says Etta Kralovec, coauthor of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children and Limits Learning. “Those students may also brush their teeth more often than other kids, but we wouldn't say that improved their academic performance.”
“We all assume that it's one of those God-given things,” she says. “But when you start to take it apart and really look at it, homework loses its power as a way to improve academic achievement or to link parents to schools. It has a very questionable effect on all those things it claims to advance.”
Currently vice president for learning at Training and Development Corporation in Maine, Kralovec taught school for 12 years before earning a doctorate in education at Columbia University. For 11 years she was professor of education and director of teacher education at the College of the Atlantic.
As a teacher she routinely handed out homework, but later began to question its value while studying high school dropouts in Maine. When asked about the moment they realized they wouldn't be able to make it through high school, student after student mentioned the inability to complete homework as a key factor in dropping out of school.
The trouble with the existing homework research is that it focuses too narrowly on academic achievement, Kralovec says, ignoring the context of students' home lives and family relationships. Precious family time must be balanced with parents' work demands, which have increased as more mothers have entered the workforce. Clamoring for attention are cell phones, faxes, and students' extracurricular pursuits. Some kids spend their out-of-school time in structured activities, such as music lessons or sports teams, while others relish the time to “dawdle and dream,” as one researcher puts it. Although some homes are as wired as any high-tech office, others lack even a quiet place for a student to read a book. And some youngsters are expected to care for siblings at home, or work to contribute to the family income. Moreover, any parent who has ever battled the homework wars can offer plenty of anecdotal evidence that homework increases family conflict.
“We know that when homework goes home, the teacher loses control of learning,” Kralovec says. “Did a parent or grandparent do the work, or did a student download a paper from the Internet?” A survey for Who's Who Among American High School Students found that 80 percent of these high-achieving students admitting to cheating. Copying, downloading material from the Internet, and having parents do the work are all central to the problems with homework, Kralovec points out. “If we're going to hold schools and kids to higher academic standards, then why would we take a piece of that and throw it into the family's lap?”
Money allocated to programs to support students' homework time could be better spent, Kralovec maintains. She points to a RAND study that concluded the three factors that make the most impact on student achievement are smaller class sizes, making more resources available to teachers, and giving teachers time for professional development.
As for the theory that homework develops study skills and independent learning, she remains unconvinced. “There's no research about the development of self-discipline,” she says. “We don't know how it's developed. I actually think homework limits independent learning. Kids can't do independent learning because they're too busy doing work assigned by someone else.”
Cooper agrees that homework has its pitfalls. Children will turn off if they are asked to spend too much time on the same subject. They may lose opportunities to take part in valuable activities like team sports or scouting. They may become confused if a parent's instructional technique differs from the teacher's.
Closing the homework gap
Perhaps the most serious criticism of homework is that it widens the achievement gap. Students with the fewest resources at home tend to gain less from home study than students from more privileged backgrounds. Parents who are not fluent in English or whose educational backgrounds are limited may not be able provide their students with much help when it comes to homework . When teachers rely on homework to consolidate important blocks of learning, children facing challenges at home stand to fall farther behind their more privileged peers.
Well-intentioned initiatives, such Internet homework centers, telephone hot lines and, in West Virginia, a public television show that answers student questions on air, are also more likely to reach relatively advantaged students.
To address the problem, some schools serving a high percentage of less-advantaged students have decided that “homework” may be most valuable when it's done in a classroom setting.
This year, Woodlawn Elementary in Portland has opened a homework club for students whose first language is not English. An education assistant specializing in English as a Second Language helps three teacher volunteers run the club one afternoon a week. With space for 45 students, the club has rapidly filled up.
Woodlawn Principal Marion Young says many more students could benefit “especially those who don't have reference books or computers at home. The biggest hurdle to expansion is finding staff, she says.
“We felt that if English is not spoken at home, it would be very difficult for English language learners to receive assistance with homework at home. In a perfect world, I'd want to staff an extended-day program for every child who needs assistance.”
Also in Portland, the Oregon Parent Center has organized a Saturday school staffed by volunteer tutors, many of them from the city's African American community. Targeting students in elementary and middle schools with large numbers of underperforming students, the program initially will enroll 125 students.
"Part of what we want to do is to help parents help their children by informing and empowering families,” explains Avel Gordly, a state senator and the program's coordinator. “Historically, we've done this before in this community. During the 1980s, we ran a volunteer school for several years.”
At Roosevelt High School in Seattle, a volunteer-run homework center was so successful in helping struggling students that teachers unanimously decided to use school funds to staff it.
“Originally we were concerned about the large percentage of kids who had no access to technology,” explains Roosevelt's head of special education, Hal Johnson, who founded the center 10 years ago. “And we wanted to foster a culture where kids are OK with asking for help when they have problems.” The center includes a quiet, comfortable place to study, the use of a library, and a computer center. Sessions run for an hour after school four days a week and attract between 25 and 50 students daily, although that number has been as high as 70. Attendance is completely voluntary.
“If you don't have a home life that supports getting help from parents, then it's a great place to get help,” says math and theater teacher Beth Madsen, one of the two coordinators.
“We have teachers, instructional assistants, and volunteer tutors from the University of Washington and the community, so students can really get that one-to-one help.”
What teachers need to know