Can anyone prove that homework helps young students learn?

I posted an article/commentary on Walnut Creek Patch yesterday about a proposed new homework policy in the Walnut Creek School District. The school district provided me with a draft of the policy which I include with the article. Check it out and see what you think.

One thing I didn’t come out and say yesterday–because I was still mulling the policy over–is that I have something of a pet peeve surrounding the issue of elementary school age kids doing regular homework–and sometimes a lot of it.
I’m just amazed at how much some parents and educators will insist, with the voice of authority, that homework is a really good thing, that it is a vital component to a young children’s education. But how do these people know it’s important? What proof do they have that doing homework makes kids learn better?
Just so you know, I am not anti-homework. I accept that it could very well be a good thing for my son to do on school nights-even though it is often a frustrating experience for him, as a sixth grader, as it is for other kids his age and younger. I accept that these assignments, even coloring in maps of ancient Greece–could be helping him and other kids learn. The really could.
But can anyone say so definitively? Beyond their own anecdotal experiences as students, parents, and teachers?
As I said in my Walnut Creek Patch story, this topic of homework intrigues me, because the debate over it touches on much larger societal issues about education, learning, parenting, and the definition of academic and personal success.
I became intrigued enough that a couple years ago I read the works and opinions of some of the top experts in the field. One of those experts is Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor who is considered one of America’s foremost homework experts. He conducted a landmark metareview of some 60 studies in 2006. This metareview found “some correlation between homework and achievement in the upper grades, but little effect on students from elementary school to seventh grade.
His assertion about the upper grades makes sense. I remember regularly doing homework in high school, and, yes, I remember that studying helped me do better on math and science tests and that writing papers for English or history deepened my understanding of the concepts being taught.
But according to Cooper, regular homework doesn’t have the same benefit for kids in lower middle school and elementary school grades.
So, if what Cooper says it correct, we as a society are creating a public policy that affects the daily lives of millions of young students and their teachers and families–but we don’t have a lot of evidence that this policy will do any good.
It sounds like we like our kids doing homework because it sounds good; it seems like the more hours they put into studying and doing those columns of math problems the more they will know. Could be.
I accept that there are many different individual experiences out there–that you might have kids that have thrived on doing regular homework since they were in kindergarten. As a teacher, you might have seen students improve do better on quizzes when they took some work home and studied.
Then there is the other side of the issue: the kids who get turned off of school and learning because they resent the free time they have to give up on assignments that may be more busy-work than anything else. Homework for the sake of homework. And, I’ve seen my fair share of that kind of homework come home in my son’s backpack.
I just find it interesting how we as a society make public policy on an assumption, on a faith, really, that it is the right thing to do without really having the evidence.
Then again, making public policy on an idea, rather than evidence, that it’s the right thing to do–well there is nothing new in that is that. Actually, that’s almost the American Way.

8 thoughts on “Can anyone prove that homework helps young students learn?

  1. All I know is, that homework use to be stuff you took home that you didn't finish in class, in the elementary level anyway. I think homework should be reserved for the High School aged kid period. Only home work in elementary school should be reading.
    I remember these cheesy parents asking for more homework during back to school night, and I just wanted to clock them!!


  2. With my first grader, homework seemed more like a tool by which I could work with my son to see what he was learning an how. It was much more an excercise for keeping me in the loop. In some cases, it actually helped me help him, which was great. Mind you, we're talking about 5-10 minutes of homework here.


  3. Here's some heresy:

    Homework is not necessarily for learning although that may actually and accidentally happen.

    Its prime benefit is to instill in young minds the mental discipline needed to advance in the world. Video games, the Web, and TV do not offer any mental discipline that has any sort of value.

    Homework is sitting down on a regular basis, centering one's thoughts, and going through mental processes to complete an assigned task.

    I guess I just don't see anything wrong with forming such habits in our youngsters. And they might actually learn something!


  4. Beau,

    You have no idea what we are really talking about. If homework was what you are saying, I would agree. But homework at WCI is not like that. It is hours each and every day. All 7 teachers may feel they can give homework daily. Some elective teachers may think, well it's only 20 min., but it may well be 45. But even if it is only 20 min, it adds up. Even the PE classes give academic homework/and academic final exams that take considerable time to study for, and they are given the same day as Algebra and Science finals. Math, English, science and social studies may give what they think is 30 min. of work but will actually take an hour for most kids. We are now up to 4 hours and this is not counting the breaks, and fidgeting time. We are talking about 4 hours of sustained effort over a 6 or 8 hour period. And this is after they have been in school for 6 or 7 hours. Now, to be fair, this is not happening in all classes. There are some teachers who are giving reasonable amounts of homework, but we have not been lucky enough to get one of these. The stress that many of our children are under is inappropriate. No 11, 12 or 13 year old child should have to carry this burden. Hopefully someone is finally doing something about it. I am not anti-homwork. I am pro-common sense.


  5. You're also an enabler and an excuse maker. The kids will know better when they are in college doing all-nighters for their classes. Kids who are used to doing homework and disciplined will thank their earlier teachers for what they taught them.


  6. Really? 11 and 12 year olds? Is harder really better? Do you come home from your job and do 3, 4, and 5 more hours of work, and thank your boss for making you a better worker? Is formal education that much more important than common sense? If I have compassion for these children, and that makes me an “excuse maker”, so be it.
    By the way, I think they need love, too. What an enabler I am!


  7. My kids don't do homework. They have adequate repetition during the school day. I haven't had a problem with them understanding new concepts and retaining the material.

    Their homework is focused higher-order thinking skills.

    I don't want my kids' school to produce robots that can perform any math calculation but isn't capable of higher-level reasoning.


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