Homework: Is there any point?

Homework: When a dad tried doing his daughter's homework for a week to understand why she was up all night, he learns there may be no point. Has homework reached a tipping point?

Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor
A student works on homework assignments during study hall at the International Community School in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

“Memorization, not rationalization.”

That's the credo at the core of Karl Taro Greenfeld's story in this month's Atlantic about doing his 13-year-old daughter's homework for a week. The motto is her guide for surviving the hours upon hours of work required of her after hours upon hours of school, and it reflects the truth at the core of the exercises she plows through: an emphasis on the sheer volume of rote labor.

He dramatizes the problem in one succinct, powerful paragraph:

One evening when Esmee was in sixth grade, I walked into her room at 1:30 a.m. to find her red-eyed, exhausted, and starting on her third hour of math. This was partially her fault, as she had let a couple of days’ worth of worksheets pile up, but it was also the nature of the work itself. One assignment had her calculating the area and perimeter of a series of shapes so complex that my wife, who trained as an architect in the Netherlands, spent half an hour on it before coming up with the right answers.

The Atlantic also features a sort of companion story by a teacher called "Should I Stop Assigning Homework?" It lays out the pluses of homework (allowing the completion of more ambitious projects such as reading whole novels, keeping up appearances vis-a-vis other teachers) and the downsides (no measurable improvement in learning, the act of taking away time from students that could otherwise be used to play or relax or otherwise enjoy their lives.)

Both of these stories are primarily anecdotal and opinion-driven, but they don't exist in a vacuum – there is a mountain of doubt about the effectiveness of cramming kids full of testable knowledge and turning school into a round-the-clock job (see also: the Chinese education system groping for a way to throttle back on the cram-school mentality in order to encourage independent thought and creativity.)

It's easy to read stories like this in a leading journal of liberal egg-headedness like the Atlantic and dismiss them out of hand – surely, more work must lead to smarter, more disciplined students and better scores in the long run. But scientific studies of homework don't back that up – for example, this 2011 study in the Economics of Education Review demonstrates that while math homework helped students learn, homework in science, English and history was shown to have "little to no impact" on test scores.

A 2005 study cited by Taro Greenfeld notes that "some of the countries that score higher than the U.S. on testing in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study – Japan and Denmark, for example – give less homework, while some of those scoring lower, including Thailand and Greece, assign more."

A "Finnish Miracle" of education - laid-back hours and attitudes, well-compensated teachers, a de-emphasis on competition, high degrees of independence for teachers and internationally enviable education outcomes - may be difficult to replicate in the United States, a far more polyglot nation with severe (and increasing) income gaps between the poor and rich. That said, there may be a way to strike the right balance between creativity and necessary drills, between rigorous education and social and home lives that encourage creativity and – dare it be written – joy.

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