Lately there has been an outpouring of books and articles against homework. Critics call homework a form of child abuse and say that it prevents children from engaging in wholesome activities. Government surveys say that most students spend an hour a day or less on homework. Yet the campaign against homework never seems to abate.
Just this week came a new report from the National School Board Association's Center for Public Education saying that there is no conclusive evidence that homework "increases student achievement across the board."
Narrowly parsed, this is undoubtedly a true finding. For example, the study concluded that students who don't do their homework will not see any increase in their achievement in school. Also, students in the early grades who have not yet learned how to read are less likely to benefit from homework than students in high school. And students in low-income homes are less likely to benefit from homework than those in higher-income homes because they are less likely to complete it and less likely to have an adult in the home to help them.
The study found that Asian-American students were more likely to benefit from doing homework than students from other ethnic groups. This is not because of some ethnic gene, but because Asian-American students are more likely to complete the homework that is assigned to them.
While the latest study may fuel the fires of the anti-homework crowd, bear in mind that its bottom line is that homework doesn't help students who don't do it, but very likely does help students who actually complete their assignments. Duh.
But there is something else to be said in favor of homework.
When do students have time to read a book other than when it is assigned as homework? There is no time in school to read a book. A recent news article about the case against homework cited a high school teacher who said that she would tell her students to read no more than 15 minutes a day in their assigned novel (Jane Eyre). How stupid is that? How can anyone, young or old, get engaged in a novel if he or she spends no more than 15 minutes a day reading? At that pace, it seems like this class will be reading the same novel all year, if they manage to finish it at all.
When else do students have time to write an essay or write a research report? In school, students may be able to write a few paragraphs, but it takes time to write an essay that is longer than a page. If it is not done after school, it won't be done at all.
So consider where the anti-homework crusade will take us: to a time when students read no books, write no essays, and complete no research projects other than whatever can be fit into the school day.
Because I am a historian, I can't help but mention that this battle against homework first flared up in 1900, led by the Ladies Home Journal. The Journal described homework as "A National Crime at the Feet of American Parents" and claimed that children were "permanently crippled" by the pressure of schooling and homework. It urged that children under the age of 15 should not be in school more than four hours per day and should not be assigned any home study whatever.
So the campaign against homework goes on. Its success will guarantee a steady decline in the very activities that matter most in education: Independent reading; thoughtful writing; research projects.
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“My mother worked as a saleslady at the well-known Five Corner bakery in Journal Square during the day. Her orders were that I do at least one page of homework for every one of my subjects before she came home. It didn’t matter what my teachers would assign, those were her rules and I didn’t dare to violate them! However, I usually allowed others to make the rules and then decide whether I would follow them. Turning on our small Bakelite radio, I would ignore my mother’s rules and listen to my favorite adventure shows.
“Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, Superman, who could leap tall buildings in a single bound, and Tom Mix were my favorite daily half-hour radio programs during the week. Tom Mix was forever solving some mystery that I could help him with, since I had a decoder badge that cost only 10 cents, along with a box top from a Ralston Purina’s “Wheat Chex” cereal box. Since it tasted like straw, wanting to get a decoder badge was the only way I would eat this blah cereal for breakfast.
The radio shows were way too exciting, and my homework always took second place. When my mother finally came home and saw that I had not done my work, she would get quite upset and make me do twice as much, seated at the kitchen table where she could keep her eye on me. Being under her direct supervision wasn’t much fun, but I would sit there until she was satisfied that I had finished my assignments. My mother showed no mercy! If my father found out about my being lax, there would be hell to pay! For whatever reason, I never seemed to learn….
Oh, woe is me, woe is me…. I was in trouble again… No, I was still in trouble!”
― Captain Hank Bracker, "Seawater One...."