Homework Doesn't Help

Article excerpt

Every night, millions of parents and kids shed brood, sweat and tears over the kitchen table. Now some researchers say these dreaded lessons are generally pointless until middle school.

There are as many the theories about why so many of America's children need remedial tutoring as there are failing students. But more and more education researchers are drawing lessons from kids like Adam, whose long, sad battle with homework began in the first grade. His school, outside Chicago, assigned just a little in the beginning--maybe 15 minutes a night, plus reading. Now, in fourth grade, his load has rocketed to three hours a night, and Adam, identified as a gifted student, "is completely frustrated," says his mother. "Last night he was up until 10:15 finishing a project, and he is crying more and more. He asks me, `I work hard six hours a day in school--how much do I have to do?' He is having trouble focusing in school, and I suspect it's because he is exhausted."

There was blood, sweat and a puddle of tears on kitchen tables across America this morning, the detritus of a long afternoon, stretching into evening, of yesterday's homework. Sure, some students probably whipped out their perfectly organized assignment pad, did each task cheerfully and finished with time to spare for reading, television or play. We just don't know any. Something that infuriates parents, sabotages family time and crowds out so much else in a child's life might be tolerable if it also helped kids learn and if it imbued them with good study habits and a lifelong love of learning. Unfortunately, "for elementary-school students the effect of homework on achievement is trivial, if it exists at all," concludes psychologist Harris Cooper of the University of Missouri, whose analysis of more than 100 studies has stood up for 10 years.

The drive to discover why homework is not more useful in the early years, and to explain how to make it so, has generated more scientific interest in the subject "than ever before," says Cooper. Next month, at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Diego, a symposium will examine the value of homework and ask what constitutes good assignments. For the new study he will present there, Cooper collected data on 709 students in grades two through four and six through 12. In lower grades, "there was a significant negative relationship between the amount of homework assigned and student attitudes," Cooper says, reflecting the not-surprising fact that kids resent the stuff. But in grades six and up, the more homework students completed, the higher their achievement. It is not clear, however, what is cause and what is effect: are already good students finishing more assignments because they are motivated and good at academics, or is completing assignments causing students to do better? "You can't identify anything as causal," says Cooper. "But we do think that how much homework helps is a function of grade level. There is a tipping point where homework has negative consequences."

That suggests that the trend among schools to pile on more homework, starting in kindergarten, could backfire. In the lower grades, since homework does not improve student performance, it should fulfill different goals: fostering a love of learning, honing study skills. Instead, there is ample anecdotal evidence that it breeds poor attitudes, as Cooper finds, and resentment. Too many teachers are still assigning useless, even counterproductive, homework--work that duplicates without reinforcing material covered in class. Homework that frustrates or angers a child or otherwise makes learning unpleasant "is a quick route to academic dread," says Lyn Corno of Columbia University's Teachers College, convincing a child early on that school stinks and he's a rotten student. …