Homework or Not? That is the (Research) Question.
District Administration, March 2013
Woe unto the administrator who ventures forth into the homework wars. Scale it back, and parents will be at your door complaining about a lack of academic rigor. Dial it up, and you’ll get an earful from other parents about interference with after-school activities and family time. If you’re looking to bolster your particular position with research results, you’re in luck, because there are studies that back the more-is-better approach and others that support the less-is-better tack. “Homework has been a hot topic for a number of years now because it affects so many people,” says Robert H. Tai, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education who has researched the topic and conducted a 2012 study, “When Is Homework Worth the Time?” After studying transcripts and data for more than 18,000 sophomore students nationwide, he found no significant relationship between time spent on homework and grades, but did find a positive relationship between homework and performance on standardized tests. “Homework should act as a place where students practice the skills they’ve learned in class,” Tai says. “It shouldn’t be a situation where students spend many hours every night poring over something [new].”
In Favor of Homework
A 2004 national survey conducted by the University of Michigan found that the amount of time spent on homework had risen 51 percent since 1981. Most of this increase was found among younger students, with daily homework for 6- to 8-year-olds increasing, on average, from about 8 minutes in 1981 to 22 minutes in 2003. There is a positive relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes, according to a 2006 study by Harris Cooper, director of Duke University’s Program in Education, which analyzed and combined the results of dozens of homework studies. The studies found that students who had homework performed better on class tests compared to those who did not. Twelve studies linking the amount of homework to achievement and controlling for other factors, such as socioeconomic status, also found a positive link. Of 35 studies that simply correlated homework and achievement, with no attempt to control for student differences, about 77 percent also found a positive link between time on homework and achievement. However, says Cooper, there was one group in the study for which homework was not correlated with achievement: elementary school students. For these children, the report states that “the average correlation between time spent on homework and achievement … hovered around zero,” or no relationship. This may be because younger students have less-developed study habits and are less able to tune out distractions at home, Cooper says.
The Case for Less
Other research has yielded other interpretations about the usefulness of homework. The authors of “Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policies” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) evaluated homework research and concluded that it does not significantly impact achievement— and can even be detrimental. One study from Penn State that analyzed data from the late 1990s found that, in countries with high homework demands, student performance on the international test of achievement known as Trends in Mathematics and Science Study was poorer than those with less rigorous after-school assignments. The authors, both professors at Australian universities, do not call for a homework ban, but they do recommend less homework, as well as homework assignments of a higher quality, rather than large amounts of drill and practice work. Further, Tai and colleagues’ study, “When Is Homework Worth the Time?” also found that sophomores who spent more time on after-school assignments did not fare any better or worse with grades, but did perform better on standardized tests. “Based on our research, it appears that...
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