Alfie Kohn is widely regarded as a critic of educations fixation on homework and grades. Yesterday, a Washington Post blog carried his most recent critique of homework. The Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), Joshua Starr, tweeted that the piece was “… interesting on many levels.”
Mr. Kohn asserts that the recent study he critiques is a reminder of the need for “reading studies (carefully) rather than relying on summaries by journalists or even by the researchers themselves.” Certainly, his blog on homework illustrates that fact. It also highlights the fact that educators easily embrace the pontification of writers who claim to have found the answer to life, the universe, and everything.
Before assessing Mr. Kohn’s opinion, it behooves the intrepid reader to become familiar with some background on homework.
Generally, in MCPS, homework is assigned to students and graded only for completion. In other words, homework submitted by a student, usually, does not get corrected and the student receives no feedback on the submitted material. A student could work a problem incorrectly, and never discover the error. Consequently, homework does not serve to improve a student’s performance. One could reasonably guess that consequent to the homework grading philosophy, the relationship between homework and the ultimate classroom achievement in the related subject would be tenuous at best.
Students in MCPS schools submit summer math and reading assignment packets and never receive constructive feedback.
In other words, homework, to be of value must result in robust constructive feedback. It must be a learning experience. Absent the crucial learning component, homework is of little value. In fact, homework can be a valuable tool for a good teacher—serving to identify weaknesses in a student’s understanding and identifying areas for re-teaching. To elaborate, if a large number of students submit homework assignments that seem to get a particular problem or concept wrong, it is worthy of being re-taught. Unless the teacher grades every homework assignment, such an exercise is impossible.
Any research on the efficacy of homework must, as a prerequisite, establish the connection between homework and learning. Absent that essential prerequisite the research will be unpersuasive or prove that homework has no effect on achievement.
The recent study by Adam Maltese and his colleagues does not delve into the intricacies of what the students and teachers are doing, instead, it relies on students responding to the general question on how much time they spend on homework. Not surprisingly, they found no relationship between homework and the course grade.
The fact is that there are no useful studies into the value of homework and yes, the real “answer to life, the universe, and everything” is forty-two.