Homework: The Battle Continues

Exercise the brain like a muscle or give kids time to work on the family farm? Educators have been debating the effectiveness of homework as a tool for learning for over a century. Support for and against homework has ebbed and flowed, and the economy, global politics, and societal influences have all impacted attitudes about it. For the past two decades, the prevailing attitude has been one of less or no homework. As with most things, our attitudes often stem from our fears and beliefs, not facts, and parents, teachers, and policy makers all have deeply-held, and often emotionally-charged beliefs that form the basis for their attitude either for or against homework.

Now, two books about homework, “Rethinking Homework, Best Practices that Support Diverse Needs – 2nd Edition,” by Cathy Vatterott, and “Homework: The Evidence,” by Susan Hallam and Lynne Rogers, have been recently updated and expanded. I spent a portion of winter break reading and reviewing these books.

Over the decades, researchers have tried to establish the effectiveness of homework. In 1989, Duke University professor Harris Cooper, considered the leading expert on homework, published an exhaustive synthesis of the research. He found that there was little to no correlation between homework and academic achievement in the elementary grades. The correlation increased in middle school and high school. Since that research, later studies have continued to draw the same conclusions. In fact, there is zero correlation in the elementary years between homework and achievement. (In math, there is a small, but not statistically relevant, correlation.)

Author Alfie Kohn, in his work on homework in 2006, argued that correlation is not causation. He argued that just because high-achieving students do more homework, it does not mean that doing homework causes higher achievement.  The research on homework has been unable to tease out the effect of homework from prior learning. As Cathy Vatterott points out, “We don’t know if the same child would have scored just as well on the test without doing the homework, or how much better the child scored because of doing the homework.”

In 2009, John Haitte first published “Visible Learning,” which is the most exhaustive compilation of educational research on teaching strategies. He has since updated his research in which he synthesizes 800 meta-analyses relating to student achievement and what works in schools. He ranked 138 influences on learning. Homework ranked 88th, while teacher feedback ranked 10th!