How Important Is Homework?
March 4, 2008—In May of 2005, two education researchers from Pennsylvania State University—David P. Baker and Gerald K. LeTendre—coauthored an investigative report titled National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling. Analyzing data collected from schools across more than 41 nations, the researchers came to a conclusion that might surprise many parents and educators: More homework does not necessarily translate to higher academic achievement.
But wait. Isn’t Japan’s technological success due to the slavish study habits of its school children? Isn’t there a strong proven connection between increased homework and good grades? And aren’t we obligated to ensure children’s school success for the greater national good? After all, how can academically lagging nations expect to maintain economic strength in a world that is increasingly dependent on technology?
LeTendre and Baker point out that it is these stereotypes, hyped by American media, that are actually responsible for prompting many U.S. schools to increase homework assignments during the 1980s. “At the same time,” say the researchers, “ironically, Japanese educators were attempting to reduce the amount of homework given to their students and allow them more leisure from the rigors of schooling. Neither the American nor the Japanese educational reform of the 1980s seems to have affected general achievement levels in either country."
"The United States is among the most homework-intensive countries in the world for seventh- and eighth-grade math classes,” commented LeTendre. “U.S. math teachers on average assigned more than two hours of mathematics homework per week in 1994–95. Contrary to our expectations, one of the lowest levels was recorded in Japan—about one hour a week. These figures challenge previous stereotypes about the lackadaisical American teenager and his diligent peer in Japan."
Japan, the Czech Republic, and Denmark were noted to have the highest academically scoring students while typically giving little or no homework. On the other hand, Baker noted that countries with very low scores in academic achievement: Thailand, Greece and Iran, typically were being assigned heavy homework loads.
Clearly, homework is not a reliable predictor of academic success then. So what is? Apparently, it’s . . . complicated. Unfortunately, that’s not what most of us like to hear. We want a quick fix—that one, magic silver bullet.
Unfortunately, there is no “silver bullet,” but there are hints at several interwoven factors. Sure, there are genetic influences on academic success, and it’s also true that many Western schools are not set up to effectively facilitate learning. But consider an interesting study by social psychologist Jean Twenge, who observed in 2000 that anxiety levels in American children had increased dramatically since the first effective scale for measuring childhood anxiety was published in 1956.
The increases in anxiety among students were so large and linear, Twenge explained, that by the 1980s normal children scored higher on the anxiety scale than did children in the 1950s who were psychiatric patients.
And American students have not been the only ones feeling the strain. According to a March 2008 article in the online Independent, British teachers at the time had called for an independent Royal Commission to discover the reasons behind the widespread anxiety and unhappiness among that nation’s children.
The concern expressed by Britain’s Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) stemmed from the fact that the United Nations Children's Fund actually ranked British schoolchildren the unhappiest in the West, focusing on Britain's lack of social cohesion as the culprit. But British teachers offered their own speculations about the factors at fault. Among the stressors suggested by the ATL were not only social dysfunction and family breakdown, but also peer pressure and heavy academic pressure. Could this argument have some merit? Could all of these factors underlying childhood anxiety on both sides of the Atlantic be intertwined? Is it possible that Western society places too much emphasis on academic success and too little on the importance of nurturing family relationships?
According to Twenge, disconnected relationships and looming environmental threats were the underlying factors on the American side. In particular she notes that “changes in the divorce rate, the birth rate, and the crime rate are all highly correlated with children’s anxiety.” In contrast, she discovered that “surprisingly, economic indices had very little independent effect on anxiety. Apparently, children are less concerned with whether their family has enough money than whether it is threatened by violence or dissolution.”
Britain’s ATL hinted that, in their opinion, this was also the case on the other side of the pond. Citing stringent government homework standards as the last straw on the backs of children, some teachers said that their own pressure to teach to standardized tests while increasing homework had resulted in reduced family and play time for children rather than improved academic scores. While it is unlikely that increased academic pressure presented the only problem—or even the main problem behind increased childhood anxiety—the ATL may have been on target in juxtaposing academic priorities to family ones.
In her 2005 study of the effects of divorce on mental health, the University of Alberta’s Lisa Strohschein found that children of divorced parents showed high levels of anxiety throughout every stage of the family upheaval. Further she says, “The loss of a parent from the household is accompanied by an additional increase in child anxiety/depression that operates independently of pre-existing differences between children of divorce and children in intact households.” As might be expected, she found similar levels of child anxiety when the divorce occurred in a dysfunctional family.
This is not to say that with the right support network, children can't weather significant family storms. But unfortunately, the necessary support is not always available. Considering the prevalence of family dysfunction, then, perhaps it’s no wonder teachers and researchers are identifying increased anxiety, behavioral problems and poor academic performance among children in the classroom.
So what is the answer? Raising testing standards and increasing homework doesn’t seem to be fixing the problem. Could it be that the most important "home" work has to do with learning how to cultivate a nurturing and supportive atmosphere within the family? It could, at least, be a step in the right direction.
An Interview with Louis Cozolino