Alfie Kohn writes about what a new homework study really says — and what it doesn’t say. He is the author of 12 books about education and human behavior, including “The Schools Our Children Deserve,” “The Homework Myth,” and “Feel-Bad Education… And Other Contrarian Essays on Children & Schooling.” He lives (actually) in the Boston area and (virtually) at www.alfiekohn.org.
By Alfie Kohn
A brand-new study on the academic effects of homework offers not only some intriguing results but also a lesson on how to read a study — and a reminder of the importance of doing just that: reading studies (carefully) rather than relying on summaries by journalists or even by the researchers themselves.
Let’s start by reviewing what we know from earlier investigations. First, no research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school. In fact, there isn’t even a positive correlation between, on the one hand, having younger children do some homework (vs. none), or more (vs. less), and, on the other hand, any measure of achievement. If we’re making 12-year-olds, much less five-year-olds, do homework, it’s either because we’re misinformed about what the evidence says or because we think kids ought to have to do homework despite what the evidence says.
Second, even at the high school level, the research supporting homework hasn’t been particularly persuasive. There does seem to be a correlation between homework and standardized test scores, but (a) it isn’t strong, meaning that homework doesn’t explain much of the variance in scores, (b) one prominent researcher, Timothy Keith, who did find a solid correlation, returned to the topic a decade later to enter more variables into the equation simultaneously, only to discover that the improved study showed that homework had no effect after all, and (c) at best we’re only talking about a correlation — things that go together — without having proved that doing more homework causes test scores to go up. (Take 10 seconds to see if you can come up with other variables that might be driving both of these things.)
Third, when homework is related to test scores, the connection tends to be strongest — or, actually, least tenuous — with math. If homework turns out to be unnecessary for students to succeed in that subject, it’s probably unnecessary everywhere.
Along comes a new study, then, that focuses on the neighborhood where you’d be most likely to find a positive effect if one was there to be found: math and science homework in high school. Like most recent studies, this one by Adam Maltese and his colleagues doesn’t provide rich descriptive analyses of what students and teachers are doing. Rather, it offers an aerial view, the kind preferred by economists, relying on two large datasets (from the National Education Longitudinal Study [NELS] and the Education Longitudinal Study [ELS]). Thousands of students are asked one question — How much time do you spend on homework? — and statistical tests are then performed to discover if there’s a relationship between that number and how they fared in their classes and on standardized tests.
It’s easy to miss one interesting result in this study that appears in a one-sentence aside. When kids in these two similar datasets were asked how much time they spent on math homework each day, those in the NELS study said 37 minutes, whereas those in the ELS study said 60 minutes. There’s no good reason for such a striking discrepancy, nor do the authors offer any explanation. They just move right along — even though those estimates raise troubling questions about the whole project, and about all homework studies that are based on self-report. Which number is more accurate? Or are both of them way off? There’s no way of knowing. And because all the conclusions are tied to that number, all the conclusions may be completely invalid.
But let’s pretend that we really do know how much homework students do. Did doing it make any difference? The Maltese et al. study looked at the effect on test scores and on grades. They emphasized the latter, but let’s get the former out of the way first.
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.”)
But it was grades, not tests, that Maltese and his colleagues really cared about. They were proud of having looked at transcript data in order to figure out “the exact grade a student received in each class [that he or she] completed” so they could compare that to how much homework the student did. Previous research has looked only at students’ overall grade-point averages.
And the result of this fine-tuned investigation? 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. (That’s not a surprising proposition for a careful reader of reports in this field. We got a hint of that from Timothy Keith’s reanalysis and also from the fact that longer homework studies tend to find less of an effect.)
Maltese and his colleagues did their best to reframe these results to minimize the stunning implications. Like others in this field, they seem to have approached the topic already convinced that homework is necessary and potentially beneficial, so the only question we should ask is How — not whether — to assign it. But if you read the results rather than just the authors’ spin on them — which you really need to do with the work of others working in this field as well — you’ll find that there’s not much to prop up the belief that students must be made to work a second shift after they get home from school. The assumption that teachers are just assigning homework badly, that we’d start to see meaningful results if only it were improved, is harder and harder to justify with each study that’s published.
If experience is any guide, however, many people will respond to these results by repeating platitudes about the importance of practice, or by complaining that anyone who doesn’t think kids need homework is coddling them and failing to prepare them for the “real world” (read: the pointless tasks they’ll be forced to do after they leave school). Those open to evidence, however, have been presented this fall with yet another finding that fails to find any meaningful benefit even when the study is set up to give homework every benefit of the doubt.
1. It’s important to remember that some people object to homework for reasons that aren’t related to the dispute about whether research might show that homework provides academic benefits. They argue that (a) six hours a day of academics are enough, and kids should have the chance after school to explore other interests and develop in other ways — or be able simply to relax in the same way that most adults like to relax after work; and (b) the decision about what kids do during family time should be made by families, not schools. Let’s put these arguments aside for now, even though they ought to be (but rarely are) included in any discussion of the topic.
2. Valerie A. Cool and Timothy Z. Keith, “Testing a Model of School Learning: Direct and Indirect Effects on Academic Achievement,” Contemporary Educational Psychology 16 (1991): 28-44.
3. Adam V. Maltese, Robert H. Tai, and Xitao Fan, “When Is Homework Worth the Time? Evaluating the Association Between Homework and Achievement in High School Science and Math,” The High School Journal, October/November 2012: 52-72. Abstract at http://ow.ly/fxhOV.
4. Other research has found little or no correlation between how much homework students report doing and how much homework their parents say they do. When you use the parents’ estimates, the correlation between homework and achievement disappears. See Harris Cooper, Jorgianne Civey Robinson, and Erika A. Patall, “Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement?: A Synthesis of Research, 1987-2003,” Review of Educational Research 76 (2006): 1-62.
5. To put it the other way around, studies finding the biggest effect are those that capture less of what goes on in the real world by virtue of being so brief. View a small, unrepresentative slice of a child’s life and it may appear that homework makes a contribution to achievement; keep watching, and that contribution is eventually revealed to be illusory. See data provided — but not interpreted this way — by Cooper, The Battle Over Homework, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2001).
6. Even the title of their article reflects this: They ask “When Is Homework Worth the Time?” rather than “Is Homework Worth the Time?” This bias might seem a bit surprising in the case of the study’s second author, Robert H. Tai. He had contributed earlier to another study whose results similarly ended up raising questions about the value of homework. Students enrolled in college physics courses were surveyed to determine whether any features of their high schoolphysics courses were now of use to them. At first a very small relationship was found between the amount of homework that students had had in high school and how well they were currently faring. But once the researchers controlled for other variables, such as the type of classes they had taken, that relationship disappeared, just as it had for Keith (see note 2). The researchers then studied a much larger population of students in college science classes – and found the same thing: Homework simply didn’t help. See Philip M. Sadler and Robert H. Tai, “Success in Introductory College Physics: The Role of High School Preparation,” Science Education 85 : 111-36.
7. See chapter 4 (“’Studies Show…’ — Or Do They?”) of my book The Homework Myth (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2006), an adaptation of which appears as “Abusing Research: The Study of Homework and Other Examples,” Phi Delta Kappan, September 2006 [www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/research.htm].
8. On the alleged value of practice, see The Homework Myth, pp. 106-18, also available at http://bit.ly/9dXqCj.
(Illustration by Sanna Mander )
“Heeey,” my daughter’s after-school teacher said.
She had a sad smile. “I have a letter for you. There are some changes happening.”
The letter informed me a new company would be providing before- and aftercare beginning at the start of the new school year. Details would be forthcoming.
This was our first experience with an aftercare program. We’d chosen it because it was there, in our five5-year-old’s Montgomery County public school, and the price was within our budget. I hadn’t paid much attention to what was going on beyond that. By the time I picked up our daughter up, she was usually doing some kind of craft or just running around. Occasionally, she was playing on an iPad, which didn’t thrill me, but she always seemed happy. She loved her teachers, and almost never wanted to leave.
A couple of weeks later, I was sitting at a PTA meeting, hearing a presentation about the new program, run by AlphaBest Education Inc., a subsidiary of Kaplan Early Learning Education in Lewisville, N.C., which started out 48 years go as a business selling furniture for day-care centers a day-care-furniture business. AlphaBest serves 14,000 kids in 12 states. At the meeting, a representative spoke about homework time. For those who don’t have homework, AlphaBest would provide their own worksheets. He also talked about enrichment activities such as like calligraphy, cartooning, and Lego robotics. I asked if there would be any unstructured time.
“Don’t worry,” the representative told me. “Not much.”
“I want unstructured time,” I said.
“Me too,” said a mom behind me.
What is happening here? I wondered. What about all the hand-wringing over the demise of recess and the importance of play? What about playtime outside of school hours?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children have at least an hour of physical activity per day. Considering that many schools have 20 minutes of recess, if they have it at all, for kids who attend an after-school program, play there takes on added importance, child development experts say. Aftercare, which began as an extension of day care, has evolved over the past few decades into a $20 billion industry, according to the market research firm IbisWorld. Most are run by nonprofits. In addition to licensing and accreditation requirements, these programs must please many masters. School officials who see them as an extension of the school day may use them to try to raise test scores. In underserved communities, good after-school programs correlate with higher test scores and lower juvenile crime. Parents, most of whom pay an average of $114 per week, have their own demands, such as making sure homework gets done and participating in organized sports.
It’s hard to argue with those priorities for the sake of a few more minutes of jumping rope or another round of four square. Unless we’re not seeing the whole picture.
In the weeks after the PTA meeting, I went to AlphaBest officials with more questions and got answers that made me wonder if I had signed up my kid to be in a corporate training video. I was told about InZone time, which includes something called TechZone, and is more student-directed but “facilitated” by a “zone leader.” The AlphaBest website promised “game play tactics and web-based support to keep students moving.”
Swinging on the monkey bars seemed low-rent by comparison.
I admittedly grew up when “keep them safe and let them just go out and play” was a perfectly acceptable after-school plan for kids. Starting when I was my daughter’s age, I went home by myself. (This was before states began to set age minimums on children who can be at home alone. In Maryland, it’s 8 years old.) Sometimes I’d play in a nearby park with other kids. I explored a creek that housed long black crayfish. And I built a bike ramp with a kid named Kevin; we caught air until the sun dipped below the horizon. It certainly wasn’t the most “enriched” use of time, but was it the worst? In an era when people are overscheduled, often harried and overloaded with information, it can be hard to know what’s right.
Today, spending time doing nothing in particular feels indulgent, even antiquated. That thinking took on a new life in the 1980s as women entered the workforce en masse. Contemporary news accounts document the rise of the latchkey kid as a kind of cautionary tale: Juvenile crime spiked, and mental-health experts warned against the long-term effects of children left to fend for themselves for long periods. Social attitudes aside, there was a severe shortage of programs for children to attend. (There still is a huge unmet need.)
Experts emphasize that there is no one-size-fits-all model for after-school programs, but a growing body of research raises questions about the emphasis on more-structured activities.
It’s not an issue of play vs. learn, experts said. But evidence suggests kids learn best when they’re allowed to play.
Too much intervention, said Anna Beresin, a psychologist and folklorist who has been studying children and play for three decades, can convey to children that they are not trusted to decide how an activity should go. Adults need to let go of their own agendas and, within reason, let kids express themselves.
“There’s this belief that play is a nicety,” Beresin said. “But it’s critical. For young children in particular, it’s how they make sense of the world around them.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees and has outlined the importance of play for healthy brain development and physical health. But play often takes a back seat to homework help and enrichment activities, particularly at schools facing increased pressure to improve academic performance. And yet, children’s academic success is inextricably linked to play.
“Play can look like chaos to an adult,” Beresin said. “But there’s actually a lot of structure.” Kids running around on the playground are exploring their boundaries and figuring out rules. “Ultimately, this allows kids to think creatively and critically,” she said. “And that’s what we all need to deal with the problems that life tosses our way.”
Aftercare programs can vary tremendously by school, so I spoke with a couple dozen people — administrators, aftercare teachers, children and parents — across the Washington region about how their programs work.
The message to preserve play is getting out, although unstructured time can seem like an extravagance. At Wonders, an after-school program at Chevy Chase Elementary School, kids were grabbing a snack (lettuce salad and veggies on this day) and gearing up for their hour of free time. Kids headed outside to play, worked on Legos, read books or socialized.
“We focus on the social-emotional development, and we emphasize choice,” said Joanne Hurt, executive director of Wonders. “Choice” time options vary: child-directed and teacher-directed activities, including homework, reading, Legos, STEM projects, art projects and group games. This model has been fairly consistent for decades, Hurt said. They focus more on relationships with the kids and eschew technology, which means the program is not right for every school, especially not for anyone looking for “all the horns and whistles.”
Several miles away, in the up-and-coming H Street corridor of Northeast Washington, is J.O. Wilson Elementary. It is a Title I school, meaning it has a high percentage of lower-income students, which correlates with lower academic achievement. For the third- through fifth-graders, J.O. Wilson Principal Heidi Haggerty chose KidPower, a program that aims to help bolster academic achievement while teaching kids about things like citizenship and healthy eating. Because the kids who attend this program may not be getting enough food outside of school, KidPower provides a snack and supper each day as well.
In a KidPower classroom, fourth-graders are broken into three small groups and handed drinking straws and tape. “The idea is to construct a tower using just these materials that can support this tennis ball,” their teacher said, holding the ball for the kids to see.
“The idea is that they’ll learn about how things work, from a STEM perspective,” says Curtis Leitch, 26, the KidPower assistant program director. “And it also encourages the kids to work together, to problem solve and cooperate.”
A whoop goes up. The first team has constructed a tower that is supporting the ball. “We did it!” a child shouts. “Everybody start cleaning up so we can go straight outside!”
I ask about playtime.
“If the kids get done early they can go outside,” Leitch says. “Recess isn’t built into the program, but if they finish early, or if they do really well, it’s used as an incentive. For me, personally, I see if we give them recess all the time, they’ll just be thinking about that, and that gets in the way of the other things we’re trying to do in a really short period of time.”
Lately, Haggerty has gotten KidPower to incorporate more physical activity into its curriculum. She feels strongly about kids getting outside. They need a break after six or so hours of sitting. “If we want kids to be thinking and learning,” she said, “they have to be moving.”
Back in Montgomery County, I sought out school system officials to learn more about how AlphaBest came to be chosen as the aftercare provider at my daughter’s school. The jargon about modules and zones had obviously made a better impression on them than it had on me. In an email, Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Derek Turner said a faculty member at the school and a parent panel picked AlphaBest based on “rigorous selection criteria.”
At the school, AlphaBest was off to a bumpy start. There was grumbling about too much homework time and not enough activities. After parents complained, outdoor play increased. Activities were added. As for the calligraphy, cartooning and Lego robotics, those had yet to materialize. There was a lot of staff turnover.
But when I talked to other parents, they weren’t ready to give up on the company yet. Kate O’Sullivan, mother of a third-grader, said she was less concerned with the after-school enrichment curriculum as long as her child had time to run around. “It’s important that they get to play,” she said. “They’ve had a long day of sitting already.”
As I crossed the schoolyard on a recent afternoon, I saw kids darting around, screaming, playing some type of soccer game. I spotted my daughter, jumping up and down, cheering on her friends. She waved and ran over.
“How was your day?” I asked.
“Fine,” she said, taking my hand. “Can we go to the park?”
Lia Kvatum is a writer and producer in Silver Spring, Md.
E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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