Setting The Record Straight

Why Schools Should Give Kids Homework From The Guy Who Wrote The Study On It

At the beginning of this school year, a story about a Texas elementary school teacher banning homework went viral. A whole wave of schools followed suit. Soon, teachers from Portland, Oregon to Farmington, Minnesota started sending kids home without nightly assignments. Hell, even an entire Massachusetts school district planning to do away with homework completely. It’s like they read that Shel Silverstein poem and took it literally.

What they did read were scores of articles and books claiming that homework has no academic benefit. But there’s really only one expert behind the articles: Dr. Harris Cooper. In the mid-80s, Cooper, a Professor Of Psychology at Duke University, reviewed nearly every study on homework to see if its academic benefit could be proven. He released the results in 1989 and updated them in 2006. So every time you see an article about homework use the phrase “research shows,” it’s almost certainly referring to those 2 studies. Yet Cooper says his research has been grossly misrepresented and he’s #teamhomework all the way. Here, Cooper explains how it all came to this and why, despite your kids’ objections, homework should always be a part of school.

How Cooper’s Message Got Muddied

First and foremost, Cooper’s study very clearly says that after looking at all the data, there’s “generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement.” In fact, that’s the fourth sentence in the study. But, with the Internet being the Internet, misinformation spread quickly. Cooper says that someone initially looked at his research and, without ever consulting him, homed in on one section of the study.

Even though he found homework helps students succeed overall, Cooper didn’t find much of a correlation at the grade-school level. “In elementary school,” his study states, “homework had no association with achievement gains.” Some advocates used that phrase to write whole books damning homework. In fact, Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth, says that sentence should be “e-mailed to every parent, teacher, and administrator in the country.”

That sentence was merely a small part of a much larger, and more positive, analysis. But that didn’t stop that narrative from spinning out of control. “The homework-banners use research the way a drunk uses a lamp post: More for support than illumination,” quips Cooper.

The Research Really Does Prove Homework Works

During Cooper’s research, many of the studies he looked at focused on correlation, not causation. In other words, they found that kids who spend a lot of time doing homework don’t necessarily get better grades, but have no real explanation as to why. Yes, the results could very well mean that homework doesn’t help — but they also might mean that high-achieving kids finish their homework quickly (so their weekends are just free to party). It’s open to interpretation.

In addition to those studies, there were waves of experiments that were launched prove their results. “And that’s the illumination that’s disappeared,” he says. Cooper says those experiments are almost “entirely favorable” toward homework. They show that it helps children’s comprehension, creativity, and overall education improve. And these changes start “as early as the second grade.” Or, looking at it another way, that’s good news for kindergarteners.

Homework Yields Positive Habits

A kid who’s sitting at the kitchen table doing homework is a kid who’s fostering good life habits (and, probably doodling a whole lot). And that’s one of the main reasons Cooper will always be on Team Homework. The act of bringing home assignments  — especially during elementary school — arms kids with good habits and life-skills. “It shows kids that learning takes place everywhere,” says Cooper. “It gives parents an opportunity to express their, hopefully positive, attitudes to homework. And it gives parents the chance to actually see how a child is doing.” Because this is the age where gold stars are literal gold stars.

It Also Helps You Learn Things About Your Kids

The link between you and your kid’s school life is a big deal, and homework is that link. Cooper says he heard it from a parent who found out their kid had a learning disability. They were defensive at first and refused to believe the teacher’s assessment. But as their child went into the first grade and brought homework home and they saw it for themselves.

How You Can Help Make Homework Worthwhile

Oh, nobody said homework was fun. Kids understand this. You understand this. Aliens in nearby galaxies probably have an inkling. But as a parent, it’s your job to help make it worthwhile. “You’ve got to be ready to give guidance,” Cooper says. “Not to do it — but to give guidance.” Also, you forgot basic math skills a loooong time ago.

Here are a few of his suggestions:

  • Be a stage manager. Make sure your child has a quiet, well-lit place to do homework and that the needed materials (paper, pencils, dictionary) are available. Library: good. EDM festival: bad.
  • Be a motivator. Homework provides a great opportunity for you to tell your child how important school is. Be positive about it. The attitude you express about homework will be the attitude your kid acquires.
  • Be a role model. When your kid does homework, don’t sit and watch TV (not even the Discovery Channel). If they’re reading, you read too. If they’re doing math, balance your checkbook. It helps them see that the skills they are practicing are related to things you do as an adult. Including shitty ones like balancing checkbooks.
  • Be a monitor. Watch your kid for signs of failure and frustration. If they ask for help, provide guidance, not answers (and “Go ask Alexa” isn’t guidance). If frustration sets in, suggest a short break.
  • Be a mentor. Be there when it’s a group effort, and leave them alone when it’s not. Homework is a great way for kids to develop independent learning skills. Besides, their teacher knows your handwriting.

So apparently your kids should throw their books out the window at the end of the day like an Alice Cooper video. There’s a net positive to doing homework, and even more of one when you get involved “It shows kids that the things they learn in school have applications,” Cooper says. “It teaches us to be lifelong learners.” See, you just learned something.

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