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Takes a Hit




Homework, an entrenched tradition in education, takes a hit from the authors of a controversial book that proposes ending the practice. John Buell, co-author of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning, writes that there is no solid evidence to support the current intensification of homework as a way of improving academic achievement. Included: Buell makes a case for ending homework as we know it.



During the early part of the 20th century, society banned homework. Too much homework was considered unhealthful; it deprived kids of outdoor play and sunshine.

Then, during the early 1960s, the emphasis on homework intensified as the United States raced to put a man on the moon ahead of the Russians.

The trend continued and today, policy makers emphasize homework as a way of helping students achieve academic success. That trend should end, according to John Buell and Etta Kralovec, co-authors of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning.

Kids have too much homework, the authors say. Homework reflects the trend in the American workplace toward 12-hour workdays. Buell and Kralovec suggest in their book that the current emphasis on homework is unfair to poor children because they don't have the same opportunities at home to complete their assignments. The authors also say piling on homework is a way to prepare children for 12-hour workdays, which pleases business leaders. The real question: Does homework enhance a child's lifelong desire to learn?

In their book, Buell and Kralovec ask policy makers, educators, business leaders, and parents to examine the homework question with open minds. The tendency to pile on the homework is actually a twist on the American work ethic gone terribly astray, they say. Children's homework dominates nearly all aspects of American home life.

People need to achieve balance between work and play, the authors say. Adults need to cut back on the number of hours they spend on work -- so do kids. The authors contend that excessive amounts of homework leave kids little time for recreation, civic service, and family relationships.

Kralovec and Buell offer suggestions for putting homework in its rightful place. High school students, they say, should do additional schoolwork at school. That way, teachers can give kids the help they need to complete their work. The student school week should never extend beyond 40 hours, which was deemed appropriate for an adult workweek back in 1938, the authors point out. They maintain there is no real evidence that homework contributes to academic success. Kralovec and Buell propose research to look into several questions that they raise about the homework issue. They also point out that there is no valid reason for young children to do homework.

Buell answered Education World questions about some of the issues raised in the book.

Education World: You've appeared on national television programs, made the front pages of major newspapers, and given countless interviews. Does the attention and reaction to your book surprise you?

John Buell: I am pleasantly surprised, but I do think the attention to this book is partially a result of three intersecting and destructive trends in American life: increasing demands on schools, growing time pressures on adults, and the demands homework places on both children and adults. Something has to give in this equation.

EW: People have equated homework with educational success for decades. You say that teachers transfer their responsibilities to parents by sending kids home with lots of homework. How much flak are you getting from educators because of your book?

Buell: I am not suggesting that teachers are looking for ways to dodge their responsibilities. I believe that teachers themselves are under increased pressure today for two reasons. Political and business leaders look to education as the solution for all that ails us, whether it is working class economic stagnation or the problems with teenage pregnancy or AIDS. Because teachers are asked to cover more than they can be reasonably expected to accomplish in the classroom, they often have to send assignments home with the intent of introducing material slighted during the day. I think this is unfair to teachers.

We have received a range of reactions from teachers. Some have argued that their homework assignment practices have been essential to their teaching. Others have been very pleased by the book and have commented that the book should inaugurate a long overdue debate on the topic.

EW: Why did you write this book? What factors compelled you to devote your time to this issue?

Buell: About a decade ago, my co-author and I undertook a study of high school dropouts for the Maine Department of Education. The study involved intensive interviews with teenagers who had recently dropped out of school. We asked these students if there was a moment when it became clear to them that they could no longer continue in school. We found, much to our surprise, that every one of the students interviewed cited problems with homework. Homework was a major reason why they gave up on school. Their reactions couldn't simply be attributed to laziness. They cited stories of younger siblings for whom they were primary care givers and of lack of availability of resources, including even safe, secure, and quiet spaces in which to complete their assignments. In many instances, principals and teachers confirmed the stories they provided.

We certainly don't claim that this was the only factor that led to those students' dropping out, but it was clear that homework played a very negative role in the educational development of those students. We were especially surprised because homework was not a topic that we asked about explicitly nor was it a factor that we had anticipated as we began our research.

It became apparent to us that homework demands represented a disproportionate burden for children of the poor and became a real factor in their decision to leave school.

At that point, we began to reflect further on the topic, including talking with many working- and middle-class parents. We found that even for children from working- and middle-class families -- for whom dropout rates are much lower -- homework still constituted an immense problem. It became clear to us that homework is a contested issue not merely because its pedagogical rationale is questionable nor even because it constitutes a disproportionate burden for poor and working-class families but also because of very widespread time pressures on a large majority of our population.

EW: Suggesting an end to homework flies in the face of the American Dream, which is based on a strong work ethic. Working hard usually does result in reward. Why isn't that true in the case of homework?


Buell: We are not suggesting that students shouldn't work hard or that there shouldn't be rewards for hard work, but even work has its limits. Hard work is most effective when it is done in the context of appropriate support and assistance for that work. Furthermore, I would at least partially challenge what I take to be the thrust of your question. The quality of American life improved substantially in the post World War II period for many Americans not only because of hard work but also because unions and other progressive forces placed limits on the working day. Without those limits, even work itself would not have been adequately or fairly compensated.

EW: You write that corporate America talks about family-friendly policies, and policy makers promote family values, but in reality, corporate America expects its workers to work long hours of overtime and policy makers expect students to do lots of homework. You offer specific suggestions for making changes. Can you highlight some steps corporations, parents, and schools might take?

Buell: That is a very good question. Even if one believes in homework, the tasks are not likely to be well monitored nor will adequate assistance be provided if parents have little or no time to spend with their kids. From our perspective, the other kinds of support that children need from parents will also be inadequate. There is a progressive minority of businesses that recognize and have designed workplaces that both make the best use of their workers' talents and give workers a voice in such decisions as job-ladder construction and hours of labor.

Those businesses are family friendly businesses. In general, however, workers have had to fight for those rights. I believe the recent Verizon strike is significant in this regard. Ending forced overtime was a major demand of the union. The quality of family life and the future of our children will be far more enhanced by such struggles than by spending long hours at the kitchen table doing homework.

EW: Some teachers say that kids will waste their spare time watching TV and playing video games if teachers don't assign homework. What are your comments about that opinion?

Buell: This is one of the most frequent questions we get. Just because we assign more homework, there is no guarantee that students will do it or turn their television sets off when they do homework. One problem with just piling on homework is that we assume someone is at home to monitor and assist. I think in practice that students would watch less television if they and their parents had more time for other sorts of activities and interests.

I also find it curious that we worry so much about television watching and so little about the ways that the television all of us watch has become so completely commercialized. Nor do we pay as much attention as we should to the ways commercial television has entered many American classrooms. Some European nations have non-commercial television that does contribute significantly to the educational and cultural development of citizens of all ages.

EW: You write that homework is the great social class discriminator and that it hurts poor, disadvantaged kids and widens the achievement gap between the poor and the privileged. Please explain.

Buell: I believe we need to place the homework debate in a larger context than it usually receives. Homework is by definition work a young student does at home. Nearly one-fifth of American children grow up in poverty. That is discussed in the business or front-page section of our papers -- if it is discussed at all -- but is too seldom mentioned in connection with homework.

One minimal prerequisite for doing homework is having a quiet and secure space where the worker can concentrate. Poverty in practice means that most poor children lack even that rudimentary asset.

Our ethnographic studies showed that many children from poor backgrounds want to do their homework but simply cannot. Then they go to school and are often condemned for failure to complete assignments that other children in the class completed. That, in turn, often affects how school personnel treat them.

I hasten to add this is not an argument about reducing standards for poor children. We believe there are more effective and equitable strategies to enhance the performance of all children. I'll touch on some of these in my answer to the next question.

EW: I wrote an article about the KIPP School in Houston, a public charter middle school. Most of the students come from economically disadvantaged families. The students post significant academic achievement, however. Students there attend school from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., five days a week, five hours on Saturday mornings, and most of the summer -- longer than the 40-hour workweek you recommend for high school students. Parents are required to help their children with homework two hours every night. Teachers give out their pager and home phone numbers to help students with homework, and there is a homework hotline. Do you think that this school is hurting these students in the long run?

Buell: I would need to know much more about this school to give you a thoughtful answer, but I have some preliminary observations. Let's accept at face value the claim that scores and achievement are going up. From a research perspective, one does not know how much of the gain is to be attributed to homework per se and how much to the availability of teachers to provide assistance with that homework. Remember that the students and/or students and family alone do most homework in this society.

My larger reservation about this situation from what I know of it is that we are making extraordinary demands of children and parents to jump-start achievement levels for students who probably have long lived in educationally disadvantaged communities. Even if their scores are going up now, I would be inclined to argue all these intense remedial programs wouldn't have been necessary in the first place if public education were adequate and equitable.

Research does show us the unequivocal benefits of well-thought-out professional development programs for teachers, especially for teachers who teach in schools with students from traditions that are culturally and linguistically different from their own. Those conclusions were established once again in the recent Rand Corporation analysis of student test scores from the past ten years. They concluded that those states that had the greatest student achievement gains shared the following school reform policies: smaller class size, greater access to pre-K programs, and more spending on resources for teachers. Professional development programs are especially valuable for teachers in schools with students from cultural and linguistic traditions different from their own.

I would also like to point out that despite homework's long-entrenched role in our culture and the extensive research attention devoted to it, as far as I know, no one has attempted to assess the effects of homework on a lifelong interest in learning. In that context, I would like at least to pose a thought experiment: Let us suppose we could prove that an intensive educational experience in school plus homework outside of school (say ten hours a day and perhaps five on weekends) would yield students who could do calculus by the time they were 12 or 13. Would or should we pursue that strategy and what might we give up for that?

EW: You talk about after-school programs. Is that the answer not only to promoting more mastery of curriculum but also to supervising children after school before parents get home from work?

Buell: Children need good after-school programs, and for kids in high school, such programs may provide homework assistance. I am concerned that in practice, many after-school programs are not staffed by individuals who are qualified to assist with homework. I would still argue that homework, even for high school students, needs reasonable limits. I also believe in the long run that our children will achieve their full potential only when parents have more time to spend with them. This is not an argument for returning women to the household. I believe both parents need to assume parenting responsibilities, and business needs to make this possible.

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
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Originally published 10/17/2000; updated 06/03/2005