Monday, October 27, 2014

Data-Driven Schools: Homework

In my school's student handbook we state,
Homework is an expectation . . . Achieving students do homework at least 5 out of every 7 days . . . Do homework Sunday through Thursday, take Friday and Saturday off! . . . Average nearly two hours of homework each night.
Since we're increasingly encouraged to be "data-driven", I have a few questions.

Let's start with the "two hours of homework Sunday through Thursday." This has been an expectation since I started at Arapahoe . . . in 1991. I wonder what kind of "data" we based the two hours on. Why not 1.5 hours? Or 2.5 hours? Or for that matter, why not 111 minutes instead of 120? (We have an overly fond appreciation for numbers that end in 5 or 0.)

What kind of research did we do to determine that 120 minutes was the appropriate and most effective amount of homework each night? I'm one of only about 4 or 5 staff members who've been here since 1991, we've never done any research on this since then that I know of, and I don't know of any research that was done before then, so I suspect there is none. So if we just made up this number, how is that "data-driven"? Perhaps we need to sit down and rethink this and decide if that's truly the best number.

Of course if we did that, then we'd probably also want to look at the research on the effectiveness of homework in general. Alfie Kohn has been a longtime skeptic on the value of homework, so much so that he wrote a book called The Homework Myth. In that book he argues that the research shows no support for homework at all at the elementary level, and at the high school level there is only a weak correlation between homework and increased test scores (and, of course, that then leads into the debate about whether those test scores are meaningful or worthwhile). It's fair to say that he advocates for no homework at all, other than reading or self-assigned homework.

He recently wrote an article in the Washington Post about a new study that looked at homework and its effect on test scores and grades. In terms of test scores,
Was there a correlation between the amount of homework that high school students reported doing and their scores on standardized math and science tests? Yes, and it was statistically significant but “very modest”: Even assuming the existence of a causal relationship, which is by no means clear, one or two hours’ worth of homework every day buys you two or three points on a test. Is that really worth the frustration, exhaustion, family conflict, loss of time for other activities, and potential diminution of interest in learning? And how meaningful a measure were those tests in the first place, since, as the authors concede, they’re timed measures of mostly mechanical skills? (Thus, a headline that reads “Study finds homework boosts achievement” can be translated as “A relentless regimen of after-school drill-and-skill can raise scores a wee bit on tests of rote learning.”)
And the effect on grades?
There was no relationship whatsoever between time spent on homework and course grade, and “no substantive difference in grades between students who complete homework and those who do not.” This result clearly caught the researchers off-guard. Frankly, it surprised me, too. When you measure “achievement” in terms of grades, you expect to see a positive result — not because homework is academically beneficial but because the same teacher who gives the assignments evaluates the students who complete them, and the final grade is often based at least partly on whether, and to what extent, students did the homework. Even if homework were a complete waste of time, how could it not be positively related to course grades?

And yet it wasn’t. Again. Even in high school. Even in math. The study zeroed in on specific course grades, which represents a methodological improvement, and the moral may be: The better the research, the less likely one is to find any benefits from homework. 
It's important to note that not everyone agrees with Kohn's interpretation of the data, but even most of what I've read in support of homework tends to show it having a relatively small effect on student "achievement" (I prefer the word learning, myself), and often ignores the question of whether this work should be done at home or could be done at school.

I find it interesting, however, that we haven't looked at any of the research, or any of the dialogue between folks like Kohn and Willingham, we've just decided it's good, and that two hours five days a week is the optimal amount. So why do we assign homework?

In general, I think there are three main reasons that I've heard teachers use (and have used myself).
  1. Students need the practice.
  2. I can't cover the curriculum unless I give homework.
  3. It teaches responsibility.
The research provides little or no support for number one. What little support it does give could be accomplished by giving them time in class to practice. At what point did we decide that school was so important that we decided to assign students a "second shift" of work at home after school was purportedly over?

Which leads to number two: there's not enough time to cover the curriculum. I agree with the diagnosis 100%, but not the treatment. Instead of assigning homework (and assigning students a "second shift") in order to cover the curriculum, we should change the curriculum.

I struggle with the increasing emphasis on covering more, and more advanced topics, earlier and earlier, and the emphasis on curriculum over learning. For example, we are now teaching topics in Algebra I (typically a freshman course) that we used to teach in Algebra II (typically a junior course). Why? And does it matter if you learn Algebra by age 15, or would it be okay if you mastered it at 16? (Or 25 for that matter?) We say we want to create lifelong learners, yet our policy is that they must learn things at certain ages that we determine (and standardize for all students). It's as if we think there's an expiration date on learning.

As far as the third reason, I have yet to see any research that shows that assigning homework teaches responsibility. In fact, anecdotally, I would say that it does not. How many high school teachers have you heard complain about students not doing homework? Yet we've been assigning them homework for years, shouldn't that have taught them responsibility by now? But, even if it did, would that be the best way to teach them responsibility? I would suggest that giving them meaningful and important things to do might teach them responsibility better than assigning homework of dubious value.

So, where does that leave us? If we truly believe that "data-driven" is the way to go, then the data is telling us that we need to step back and reexamine both our assumptions and our practices. I've previously suggested with textbooks that the default should be to not get a textbook, and then we have to justify why we need one. I would propose something similar for homework, the default should be no homework, any homework we assign should be justified. And that justification has to be well thought out and can't rely on any of the three reasons above, and has to also take into consideration the social and emotional health of our students.

And what about "average two hours of homework each night Sunday through Thursday"? Show me the data.


  1. Karl,
    I agree with you. I'd add a couple more reasons that teachers, at least at the elem.level, assign homework:
    4) Parents expect it, and if a teacher doesn't assign it, it's like they're not getting their money's worth or something
    5) Pressure on teachers from their peers - and administrators. How could any teacher say they were not assigning homework, while everybody else does (for the reasons you listed)? Even if a teacher strongly agreed with you, it would be very damaging to collegiality, undermine collaboration, they could lose their job, etc...

    I retired two years ago. If I were still teaching I would absolutely not be assigning homework. I bet I would be all alone at my school.

    I'm sure you know Vicki Abeles' film, The Race to Nowhere - powerful on many things, including homework. Best - Mark

  2. From my limited reading, Harris Cooper (Duke University) is a leading researcher on homework. (I haven't read Kohn in a few years, so I don't recall who Alfie cites).

    A few of Cooper's take-aways:
    1) Older students benefit more from homework than younger students.
    2) Too much HW can be detrimental.
    3) "Ten minute rule" applies, so 120 minutes for a high school student would not be unreasonable.

    Feel free to dig up the original research articles in your favorite database ( I left out links from copyrighted materials Google turned up for obvious reasons...or check out this summary: Here are a few summaries: & &

    1. Among others, Kohn cites . . . Harris Cooper. According to Alfie, Cooper's actual research doesn't support Cooper's conclusions (The Homework Myth goes into great detail). Cooper's research actually supports not giving homework at all at elementary level, and only minimal support at the high school level (much like the research talked about in this most recent article). And Cooper (and most others) don't address whether it's *right* to give homework. The ten minute rule is pretty much completely made up.

  3. so... enquiring minds want to know... are you going to raise this question at your school?

  4. I teach 6th grade. A thought I'd like to throw on the fire about homework is sometimes it is really a time management tool. Kids vary so widely regarding how long they take to complete assignments. If I waited for the last kids to finish (even if I reduced the amount), I'd still be wasting class time for others. We have precious little time. Sometimes assigning homework is a way to have students practice something at their own pace. I want my class time to prioritize the instruction part and the discussion part, while we are all together. Then we can practice for a little while, but finish that practice at home.
    I also do not think it is a bad idea for the families to get a sense of what their students are learning about via the homework (more likely certainly at the lower grades). Why do we want to set up a wide partition between what happens in school versus what happens everywhere else? Might discerning parents reinforce a student's curriculum if he knew what it was? Let's face it -- it's how the student achieves in the classroom, not what he/she does on the athletic fields, that will likely have the biggest impact on his/her future. For families to want to be uninvolved in their student's academic lives implies that it is not important. Rather, it gets conveyed to the student that when Mom and Dad are cheering on the soccer sidelines, well that's important! I'm not trying to diss sports participation, but I don't want us to de-value the idea that working hard in school prepares our students for life/vocation success. Families have a huge role in communicating that message.

    1. But if the research says that that practice isn't useful for students, why do it?

      I agree about the partition between what happens at school and what happens everywhere else, I just think the problem is with the "what happens at school" part.

  5. I believe more classroom time learning critical core subjects with the teacher would benefit kids and that could be achieved by assigning music, art, and sports as homework. Take that out of the schools so while kids are there they are focusing on math, reading, writing, science, history, etc., and let parents be responsible for that aspect of their kids education. Use the summer and school breaks to enroll your kids in art class, music camp, take them to the opera, the symphony, the art museum yourself. Leave teaching algebra to the teacher.

    1. Hmm, that might work, . . . except only about 10% of our students would show up. Now if you flipped that, with music, art and sports at school and everything else outside of school . . .

  6. I think this is a great idea. I'm just a junior in college so I still remember the incredible amount of homework I got in high school. It luckily slacked off quite a bit once I got to college. But back to elementary and high school: kids go to school eight hours a day. EIGHT. Then they are expected to go home and do two or more hours of extra work and it's due the very next day usually? It's ridiculous. I think it's a big reason kids are getting outdoors less and less. They sit around and watch TV or get on their phone because, after ten hours of staring at books, problems, numbers, words, etc., they can finally just let their brain be mush for a while. Obviously, getting this idea into schools will be difficult, but if enough people try, perhaps by the time I'm a teacher, kids will have at least less homework.