Is Homework Useless?

In "Words of discomfort", Harold Jarche questions the value of homework, noting that research supporting the effectiveness of homework for academic performance is lacking. He cites Alfie Kohn as saying,

For starters, there are no data whatsoever to show that elementary school students benefit from doing homework. None. And even in high school there’s only a modest correlation between time spent on homework and achievement - with little reason to think that the achievement was caused by doing more homework. Then there’s other evidence, including a brand-new study of TIMSS data from 50 countries, and it shows no positive effects from homework, even for older students. I wasn’t able to find any reason to believe that students would be at any sort of intellectual disadvantage if they had no homework at all.

I have to say, I think elementary school children should focus on having fun after school instead of more school work. And I'm not quite sure at what grade homework should really enter the picture. But simply to say that homework doesn't benefit older students, well, I need more than a simple correlation. I commented on his post, mentioning the research on expertise (see The Expert Mind" and learning (see Learning with Examples. It's pretty clear in just about any endeavor that the more "effective" time on task that is spent, the more one learns. As I responded concerning a lack of correlation,

The only thing that comes to my mind is that homework is busy work, is perhaps not related to learning that counts, or is not “effective time on task.” Another possibility is that the homework, being spread over a variety of subjects, means that the amount of extra time on a particular subject is not significant enough to aid achievement in that subject or overall. With just these few possibilities, it seems that we need to know more to understand the effect, or non-effect, of homework on school achievement.

Harold pointed me to Emily Bazon's review of three books on the topic, which came strongly down of the side that homework does not benefit. Much of it made sense until I came to this point:

When homework boosts achievement, it mostly boosts the achievement of affluent students. They're the ones whose parents are most likely to make them do the assignments, and who have the education to explain and help.

In other words, there is little or no correlation between homework and academic performance because the majority of students (I assume that most are not affluent) are not doing their homework or do not have enough help in doing it. So, it's not that homework does not benefit; rather, it's that not doing or understanding homework does not benefit. Would we really expect any other result?

To sum up, because there is no definitive research on this issue, more than a correlation is needed to assume a lack of cause, especially in light of the research on expertise and learning. Even so, I'm still not in favor of young children having homework and I'm not sure when homework should begin in school. After all, the burden of proof should be on those who want homework in the schools. And as Harold commented,

There is more to life than school and there is more to learning than doing homework. Six hours a day, ten months per year, over 12 years, is enough time for teaching and instruction.

I wish I had known that before I went to graduate school!