December 18, 2011

Exposing bad homework research

A heartfelt email from a new teacher prompted yet another post on the deleterious effects of homework.

Robert Marzano
Tony says that his school district is big into the teachings of Robert Marzano, specifically his book, Classroom Instruction that Works

"In the book," Tony writes, "they end up saying the research shows deliberate moderate amounts of practice homework are recommended (with caveats of grading and informative feedback), so is this research wrong?  Or are there exceptions to the homework idea?"

Unravelling Marzano
With all due respect, Marzano's evaluation of the research is inaccurate. In an article in Educational Leadership, Special Topic / The Case For and Against Homework (2007), Marzano and Debra Pickering cling mainly to the work of Harris Cooper, whose homework research spans decades. Marzano and Pickering carefully extract quotes from the mountains of research Cooper produced from the 1980s to the mid 2000s. Of course, they take what supports their argument and ignore some of Cooper's own admissions about the ineffectiveness of homework.

Marzano and Pickering rail against Alfie Kohn, who offers a much clearer interpretation of Cooper and dozens of others in his 2006 book, The Homework Myth. What Marzano and Pickering fail to mention, that Kohn so eloquently reveals, is that Cooper's research incessantly relates the effectiveness of homework to grades -- which are subjective measures of a student's achievement. (If I assign homework, my student doesn't do it, and I give her an F, this will easily bear out the supposition that not doing homework hurts achievement. The same scenario will obviously work in reverse.)

In a very telling study in 1998, which Marzano and Pickering conveniently omit, Cooper states that he found no significant relationship between homework and grades or between homework and scores on standardized test results for younger students. The study found only a moderate increase in grades for older students doing homework (Kohn, p. 33) and, as previously stated, connecting homework to grades is a pointless endeavor.

Marzano and Pickering also dwell on the statistics of several meta-analyses on homework by Cooper, John Hattie and others. Again, the problem with all of these, which Kohn dutifully explains, is that the proponents of homework measure it against grades and test scores. This, alone, is enough to discredit all of these researchers, because grades and tests are poor ways to evaluate learning. Continuing to evaluate the merits of homework against these useless measures only acknowledges that grades and tests are okay, in the first place.

What Marzano and Pickering offer that is useful for teachers working at schools which mandate homework is the section of the EL article that supplies guidelines for homework. For example, they suggest that it should be purposeful and involve parents in appropriate ways. If you are assigning homework, which you shouldn't, this is certainly good advice.

So, back to Tony. "Is the research wrong?" I'd say, as far as Marzano evaluates it, definitely. "Are there exceptions to the homework idea?" This depends on how you look at the word.

I'm fine with students working outside of class, as long as they choose when and how to do so. Reading, as evidenced here, is really the best thing students can do outside of school. This too, though, should be their choice, and it should never be connected to any grade or test. I wouldn't call these activities homework.


Kohn, A. (2006). The homework myth: Why our kids get too much of a bad thing.
     Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press
Marzano, R. Pickering, D. (2007). Special topic/The case for and against homework. Educational Leadership. 64, 6. pp. 74-79.