This column was written by Conor Clarke.
Ah, the start of a new school year. No better time for an all-out assault on that perennial threat to 11- and 12-year-olds everywhere: homework. In a recent series of books and articles — including Alfie Kohn's "The Homework Myth," Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish's "The Case Against Homework," and sympathetic pieces in Slate, Newsweek, Time, and The Washington Post — a wide-ranging group of writers has channeled a sometimes startling amount of anger into discrediting the work that children do after the 3 p.m. bell.
Not unlike the buffet at Red Lobster, these criticisms have something for everyone: Homework destroys creativity. Homework creates stress. Homework puts stress on The Family. And, most importantly, homework just doesn't work. All of the anti-homework crusaders point out that the connection between homework and achievement is tenuous at best and nonexistent at worst.
This isn't just pre-adolescent wish fulfillment. While the stuff about stress and broken families is likely overstated — there is evidence that most parents are quite happy with the amount of homework being assigned — studies consistently show that homework yields few, if any, educational benefits. For elementary school students, there is no connection between homework and academic achievement. Indeed, in-class study is shown to be more effective — a state of affairs that barely improves by middle school. Research does show some connection between homework and achievement at and above the 10th grade, but there is ample reason to believe that's more a matter of correlation than causation. (Students who make it to the 10th grade are generally of a certain socioeconomic profile, and the biggest studies in this vein examine homework completed rather than merely assigned.) Sociology seems to have caught on to what many a sixth-grader has long suspected: Homework is mostly a sham.
But it would be a mistake to view this as a surprise, or even an isolated failure. After all, it's not easy to find a connection between academic success and most educational policies. Consider July's blockbuster report by the Education Department on the relative successes of public and private schools, which found that, when you adjust for socioeconomic and demographic factors, there are almost no differences in student achievement between the groups. (Or, as the study rather circuitously puts it, the differences are "not significantly different from zero.") Champions of public education were surely right to seize on the report as a blow to the so-called "school-choice" movement. After all, why should we invest public resources in private education when there's no appreciable difference in results? But there was also a bleaker interpretation: that schools — public and private — just might not make all that much of a difference in students' lives. What if academic success is so overwhelmingly predetermined by outside factors that schools can do little to change the situation?
The recent spate of homework hatred raises this same question, and it should produce the same answer: Educational debates should focus less on education policy as such, and more on socioeconomic inequality.
The connections between inequality and academic success are well-documented. As a recent report in The American Journal of Sociology found, early social context is so important that children are "launched into achievement trajectories when they start formal schooling or even before" that are "highly stable over childhood and adolescence." These trajectories, in turn, create achievement gaps that are evident in early grades and grow with age, so that "even a slight edge in test scores during the early years can predict long-term advantage." And this isn't just because wealthier students go to ritzier schools: The trajectories are almost as predictable even when well-heeled students end up in economically disadvantaged institutions.
It's easy to see why this happens. Privileged students with well-educated parents have dinner-table conversations, in-house resources, and access to experiences — like travel and tutoring — that underprivileged students do not. And a good portion of the problem — tragically and surprisingly — has to do with the beloved summer break. While affluent students are treated to stimulating camps and Shakespeare in the Park, impoverished minority students spend a good portion of those three long months losing everything they've acquired over the previous nine.
When it succeeds, homework is, in those rare instances, the poster-child example of an educational policy that overwhelmingly advantages rich students with well-educated parents. This shouldn't come as a shock, since homework, as its name implies, is usually done in the home. That is where differences in class, education, and family structure are starkest. As Richard Rothstein details in "Class and Schools," those differences are not slight: Disadvantaged parents are less likely to help their children and, when they do, their help is likely to be less valuable. Affluent children are likely to have rooms or workspaces of their own, while many underprivileged students must carve out a nook in more crowded housing. And when they do so, they aren't apt to have computers or reference books on hand to help.
The point here is not that debates about educational policy are always a bad thing. Abolishing or reforming homework might be a worthwhile project, and it will doubtlessly increase the aggregate happiness of a certain demographic. But such reforms are always doomed to have a limited effect; the developmental impact of wealth and family is simply too great to ignore. So go ahead and scrap homework. (And, while you're at it, build me a time machine back to high school.) Just make sure you get rid of economic, social, and racial inequality, too.
On second thought, that might be harder.
Conor Clarke is a Prospect intern.
By Conor Clarke
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved