Those "Homework is Useless" Articles Are Lying to You

by Mark Oliver September 12, 2016

There’s something strange happening right now. There’s a movement afoot, and it’s getting stronger and louder every second.

Take, for example, this letter from a teacher that recently made its way around the internet. “Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance,” it reads, and promises, “There will be no formally assigned homework this year.”

It’s hardly the only one like it. Articles like it have been filling the internet lately, claiming that “homework offers no academic advantage” or calling on schools to “ban homework.” Even the people at Scholastic have written up an article called “Down With Homework!”

It’s catching on with parents, too. Some parents are writing articles saying that they won’t make their kids do homework in elementary school, others saying they won’t make them do any for as long as they live. And even Time Magazine is chiming in and telling parents that they “should not make kids do homework.

This is an incredible, passionate revolution of parents, seemingly more motivated to change their children’s lives than I’ve ever seen before.

It’s also completely insane.

It’s great that parents are fired up over something, but we all need to take a second and calm down and think about what we’re saying.

Homework obviously offers an academic advantage. Your kids should be doing their homework. And you should be encouraging your children to do their homework.

If we don’t take a moment and re-evaluate, we’re going to ruin an entire generation. Because here’s the thing about all of these articles:

They’re lying to you.

The study that shows homework is useless doesn’t exist.

This “homework is useless” trend all seems to come from one person: Dr. Harris Cooper. Almost every article telling us homework needs to be banned quotes his work. Those that don’t quote Cooper directly, quote books by Alfie Kohn or Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish – books that are almost entirely based on Cooper’s studies. In fact, the blurb of Kohn’s website mentions Cooper 37 separate times.

I tracked down Cooper’s work and read every word I could find, all while gritting my teeth, ready to argue with the man who was apparently telling the world that homework is useless. Once I read it, though, I couldn’t actually be mad at him – because Cooper doesn’t say that.

Not even once.

If you don’t believe me, you can read Cooper’s study for yourself. You’ll find that Cooper actually says there's, “generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement.”

Dr. Cooper’s study is a review of every study on homework he could find. He was looking for patterns of evidence to show what effect homework really has in an effort to help temper the debate between parents and teachers about how much homework kids should do.

He definitely found some issues in the way we do homework. But overall, Cooper concluded that almost every study showed homework helps student performance.

The reason we keep hearing that homework is useless mostly due to the twisted game of telephone playing out in the media. Cooper’s study was quoted in Kohn’s book, Kohn was quoted in articles, and then other articles pulled the most sensational parts, turning them into clickbait pieces that drive traffic. Slowly, the actual results of the study were blurred, and the only piece left in the headlines doesn't even resemble the truth.

Homework is practice, and practice makes perfect.

Even if there is a study determining that homework was useless, it still shouldn’t change your opinion. The fact that homework helps academic performance is just common sense.

We were eager to eat up this idea that homework was pointless because it made parenting easier. We didn’t stop for a second, though, to think about how ridiculous it might be to ban homework altogether.

Imagine if you heard this about something else. Imagine if somebody told you that practicing piano between lessons doesn't improve piano-playing ability, or that playing baseball doesn't improve a child’s ability to play baseball. Would you believe them?

Homework is practice, and it's a way to help kids develop good habits. It’s a chance for your kids to take lessons they’ve learned in class and make sure that they can do them on their own. It’s also a chance for teachers to check how well their students understand what they’ve taught them, and give feedback that helps them improve or get back on track.

We can make homework better.

Cooper’s study wasn’t just gushing about how great homework is. He identifies a few problems with the way it’s delivered. And it’s these problems that continue to be quoted in articles. But his recommendations weren’t nearly as drastic as what you read online.

Cooper found that students learn more from in-class work than they do from homework. Sure, you can make that sound shocking as the headline of an article, but it’s really just common sense. In class, teachers check on a student’s progress and give feedback, and there’s a network of classmates who can help each other out. It’s most likely all that extra help that makes in-class work more useful.

He also found that young children often get too much homework – but he didn’t call for an end to it. Cooper suggests deciding how much homework a child gets by multiplying their grade by ten. So, first graders should do ten minutes of homework a day, third graders should do thirty minutes, and freshmen in high school should be getting half an hour of daily homework per class.

So, yes, homework could be better. There are changes schools could make that would help kids learn more. But we’ve let the actual solutions get so distorted that today, even the people teaching our kids have the wrong idea about what those solutions are.

Parents need to help their children.

Teachers aren’t perfect. Nobody does a perfect job every day they go to work, and no business is full of perfect employees. Teachers are the same as everyone else, there are good ones and bad ones, and they have good days and bad days. There will be days your kid's teacher gives homework that helps, and days they give homework that hurts.

What we can control is our parenting. As parents, we can do our best to make our children’s homework as valuable as it possibly can be – but we won’t do that by telling them not to do it at all.

If children are better able to complete work with a teacher present, parents need to be that teacher. When your children do their homework, check in on them. See if they’re having a hard time with something. And if they are, don’t just give them the answer, help them problem-solve.

Homework can be a beneficial tool to support our kids' learning. But it's only successful if parents step in to help their children with this work.

Mark Oliver


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