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Theodore Long
Theodore Long

Summary Of The Homework Myth

A compelling expose of homework—its negative effects, why it's so widely accepted, and what we can do about it.Death and taxes come later; what seems inevitable for children is the idea that, after spending the day at school, they must then complete more academic assignments at home. The predictable results: stress and conflict, frustration and exhaustion. Parents respond by reassuring themselves that at least the benefits outweigh the costs. But what if they don't? In The Homework Myth, nationally known educator and parenting expert Alfie Kohn systematically examines the usual defenses of homework—that it promotes higher achievement, "reinforces" learning, and teaches study skills and responsibility. None of these assumptions, he shows, actually passes the test of research, logic, or experience. So why do we continue to administer this modern cod liver oil—or even demand a larger dose? Kohn's incisive analysis reveals how a mistrust of children, a set of misconceptions about learning, and a misguided focus on competitiveness have all left our kids with less free time and our families with more conflict. Pointing to parents who have fought back—and schools that have proved educational excellence is possible without homework— Kohn shows how we can rethink what happens during and after school in order to rescue our families and our children's love of learning.

summary of the homework myth


The amount of homework for 13-year-olds appears to have lightened slightly. Students with one to two hours of homework declined from 29% to 23%. The next category down (in terms of homework load), students with less than an hour, increased from 36% to 44%. One can see, by combining the bottom two rows, that students with an hour or more of homework declined steadily from 1984 to 2008 (falling from 38% to 27%) and then ticked up to 30% in 2012. The proportion of students with the heaviest load, more than two hours, slipped from 9% in 1984 to 7% in 2012 and ranged between 7-10% for the entire period.

Another notable finding from the UCLA survey is how the statistic is trending (see Figure 2-2). In 1986, 49.5% reported spending six or more hours per week studying and doing homework. By 2002, the proportion had dropped to 33.4%. In 2012, as noted in Figure 2-1, the statistic had bounced off the historical lows to reach 38.4%. It is slowly rising but still sits sharply below where it was in 1987.

Met Life has published an annual survey of teachers since 1984. In 1987 and 2007, the survey included questions focusing on homework and expanded to sample both parents and students on the topic. Data are broken out for secondary and elementary parents and for students in grades 3-6 and grades 7-12 (the latter not being an exact match with secondary parents because of K-8 schools).

One hour of homework is the median estimate for both secondary parents and students in grade 7-12, with 55% of parents reporting an hour or less and about two-thirds (67%) of students reporting the same. As for the prevalence of the heaviest homework loads, 11% of secondary parents say their children spend more than two hours on weekday homework, and 12% is the corresponding figure for students in grades 7-12.

The Met Life surveys in 1987 and 2007 asked parents to evaluate the amount and quality of homework. Table 2-3 displays the results. There was little change over the two decades separating the two surveys. More than 60% of parents rate the amount of homework as good or excellent, and about two-thirds give such high ratings to the quality of the homework their children are receiving. The proportion giving poor ratings to either the quantity or quality of homework did not exceed 10% on either survey.

Parental dissatisfaction with homework comes in two forms: those who feel schools give too much homework and those who feel schools do not give enough. The current wave of journalism about unhappy parents is dominated by those who feel schools give too much homework. How big is this group? Not very big (see Figure 2-3). On the Met Life survey, 60% of parents felt schools were giving the right amount of homework, 25% wanted more homework, and only 15% wanted less.

[iv] Data for other years are available on the NAEP Data Explorer. For Table 1, the starting point of 1984 was chosen because it is the first year all three ages were asked the homework question. The two most recent dates (2012 and 2008) were chosen to show recent changes, and the two years in the 1990s to show developments during that decade.

For those of us who have attended a formal education setting, you might remember the frustration of getting homework from most of your teachers. Before class ends, your teacher instructs your class to answer a certain page of your book or to write an essay about the topic you had just discussed.

Nevilis was supposedly a teacher based in Venice, Italy when he invented homework. Some claim that he invented it in 1095, while others claim he invented it in 1905 before it spread to Europe and to the rest of the world. It was said to be a form of punishment for students who underperformed in class. Students who performed well in class were spared from homework.

Around 1095, the Roman Empire had long fallen and the Pope was still organizing the very first crusade and education was still informal, so it would be impossible for Nevilis to not only hold a class and give out homework, but to also spread out his idea to the rest of Europe when there was still no organized educational system.

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Two authors with Beacon Press connections wrote to the Times in response to Paul's piece. Etta Kralovec is the author of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning. Alfie Kohn is the author of Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling as well as The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (Da Capo, 2006). Kohn co-wrote his letter with Vicki Abeles, director of The Race to Nowhere. The authors have agreed to share their unedited letters here, which outline their objections to the idea that kids need better homework.

Is "The Trouble With Homework" (opinion, Sept. 11) more a matter of its quality than its quantity? Yes and no. Homework can be pointless or counterproductive even in limited amounts, but a lot of it -- or, worse, a pattern of loading kids down with homework day after day -- can be enormously damaging even if we approve of the assignments themselves.

In any event, none of this research makes a case for homework, per se, and Paul's single-minded focus on the quality of homework ignores the question we believe is more important: Must children really be made to work a second shift after they've spent a full day at school?

The available data simply do not support an affirmative answer to that question, particularly with students below high school age. Corroborating what the research tells us are the many anecdotal reports we've collected of teachers and entire schools that have eliminated homework altogether -- with encouraging results in almost all cases.

Moreover, if we look beyond academics, then the question is no longer how to tweak homework assignments to maximize the number of facts retained. Rather, we'd want to know the effect of homework on children's social, emotional, physical, artistic, intellectual, and psychological development. We worry not only about the other activities that homework displaces but the frustration, exhaustion, and family conflict that homework so often causes. And we fear that homework may be the single most effective way to destroy children's curiosity.

Even if the quality of homework did improve -- and it's not clear that assignments based on the studies Paul cites would really bring about meaningful improvement -- that wouldn't address these deeper and wider concerns about what is really best for kids.

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