Updated, Aug. 31, 11:45 a.m. | Harris Cooper offers more details about research on the link between homework and student achievement. Scroll down to read his added explanation.
For many young Americans, going back to school might seem like rest and relaxation. In the last week before Labor Day, how many students across the country were racing to finish their summer homework, from “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” to math refresher exercises?
The pile of books and other vacation assignments appears to grow every year. Is all this homework beneficial or should children be given a break? An article in The Times on Sunday described a debate over assigned reading throughout the year. Some educators argue that students should be given wide latitude in deciding what they want to read, while others defended the “Moby-Dick” model. How should this issue be treated in summer, when some schools insist that everyone finish “The Old Man and the Sea,” while other schools say that “Gossip Girl” helps satisfy the requirement?
We asked some experts for their perspective, now that the summer homework is due.
- Harris Cooper, psychologist, Duke University
- Nancy Kalish, co-author, “The Case Against Homework”
- Mark Bauerlein, author, “The Dumbest Generation”
- Denise Pope, Stanford University School of Education
- Richard Allington, education professor, University of Tennessee
- Elizabeth Birr Moje, education professor, University of Michigan
- Tyrone Howard, education professor, U.C.L.A.
Forgotten on Vacation
Harris Cooper is chairman of the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.
There is growing concern about the summer vacation’s possible negative impact on learning. Many educators argue that children learn best when instruction is continuous. The long summer vacation disrupts the rhythm of instruction, leads to forgetting, and requires time be spent reviewing old material when students return to school in fall.
Research evidence bears out these concerns. A group of colleagues and I conducted a review of 39 studies, and it confirmed that, on average, achievement test scores declined between spring and fall, and the loss was more pronounced for math than reading. The reason for this subject matter difference is simple: kid’s out-of-school environments provide more opportunities to practice reading skills than math.
Also, the research indicated that the impact can differ based on a child’s economic background. All students, regardless of economic status, lost roughly equal amounts of math skills over summer. However, substantial differences were found for reading. On some measures, middle-class children showed gains in reading achievement, particular word recognition scores, over summer. Low-wealth children showed losses.
In addition, while research evidence is scarce, educators argue that the long summer break can have a greater negative effect on the learning of children with special educational needs. The long break also can add an extra burden for children who do not speak English at home. Not only might they have to relearn academic material, they also must reacquaint themselves with the language of instruction.
With the great pressures that educators feel nowadays to help all children achieve at their optimum level, the practice of assigning “summer homework” has increased. These assignments can vary from giving kids a voluntary opportunity to get a head start reading books they will cover in next year’s English class to textbook assignments that they will be tested on when they come back to school in fall.
I know of no studies that have directly tested whether kids who get summer homework do better in school the next school year. I do know that summer school can be highly effective and summer homework might be considered a “low dose” of summer school. Of course, given that there is no teacher supervision and the hours spent on summer homework are typically much fewer than attending summer school, it is risky to leap from on conclusion to the other.
My suspicion is that summer homework can have a positive effect on kid’s achievement. But, like everything teachers do, it’ll work best if it is focused on explicit goals and is well-constructed with clearly instructions. It also shouldn’t be so overwhelming it crowds out the other activities that make summer special. Resentment is not conducive to learning.
And, parents need to be behind the effort. Some parents complain that kids must have time to be kids. Summer is the best kid-time of all. Many children go to summer camps where they learn lots of important skills not covered in school. Many adolescents take on jobs that teach responsibility and provide them with money for leisure time during the school year.
My advice? Teachers, you need to be careful about what and how much summer homework you assign. Summer homework shouldn’t be expected to overcome a student’s learning deficits; that’s what summer school is for. Parents, if the assignments are clear and reasonable, support the teachers. When your child says “I’m bored” (what parent hasn’t heard this on a rainy summer day?) suggest they work on an assignment. Kids, don’t wait until the week before school starts to think about what you need to get done.
What Homework Can’t Do
Nancy Kalish is the co-author of “The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It.”
Summer homework sounds like a good idea…until you see how miserable a child looks as he slogs through that pile of book reports, math packets, journal entries, and other typical assignments. The summer load has grown significantly since we were kids. But a little hard work never hurt anyone, right?
Well in this case, it might. Schools should rethink summer homework, and not just because it stresses out kids (and parents). The truth is, homework doesn’t accomplish what we assume it does. According to a Duke University review of more than 175 studies, there is little or no correlation between homework and standardized test scores or long-term achievement in elementary school, and only a moderate correlation in middle school.
Some studies claim that students lose skills they don’t practice over the summer. However, if a child can’t regain his grasp of fractions with a brief review, maybe those skills weren’t taught well enough in the first place. Doing a mountain of math sheets without a teacher’s help — and perhaps incorrectly — is not the answer.
But there are a few things summer homework does accomplish effectively: It steals time away from other important aspects of learning such as play, which helps kids master social skills and teamwork. In addition, writing book reports means kids spend fewer hours being physically active, which is essential for good health and weight control, not to mention proper brain development.
Perhaps worst of all, summer homework affects how kids feel about learning and school. Do we want our children to start the year refreshed and ready to learn? Or burned out and resentful? It’s something every teacher should carefully consider.
Reversing the Summer Brain Drain
Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University and the author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.”
To the general question of whether or not schools should assign summer homework, the answer is, “Yes, most assuredly.” What the assignment consists of will vary with the student population, but some extension of learning into vacation time is sorely needed.
The reason stems not only from the brain drain of summer and the fog of texting that enwraps youths during leisure hours. It relates also to an attitude young people take toward education. In a word, they regard learning as a classroom thing, that’s all. They tie knowledge to the syllabus, not to themselves. They read and study to write the paper and ace the test, not to furnish their minds. Learning is to earn a high score and good grade, not to form responsible citizens and discerning consumers.
A good measure of the attitude is how often they talk to teachers outside of class. According to the 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement, the rate of college seniors who “Never” or “Sometimes” (two or three times a semester?) discuss readings and ideas with teachers reaches 72 percent.
At the secondary level, according to the 2007 American Freshman Survey, the rate of high school seniors who went on to college (the high performers) who talked to teachers less than one hour per week came in at 53.4 percent. That’s a 10 point rise over 1987’s tally.
The free-ranging, back-and-forth conversation with teachers that signifies a student’s interest in the subject didn’t strike the majority as important. And why should it, when the system encourages them to respect only how learning shows up on a transcript or a test result?
The outcome is unsurprising. Once the assignment is finished and class ends — poof! The knowledge goes away. It’s done its work. Why retain it? This explains why on assessments of general knowledge learned in high school, college freshman often score higher than seniors. Time hasn’t yet taken so high a toll on their learning.
To halt the decay, teachers need to change the attitude. This means inserting more out-of-class engagement with teachers and materials, including summer homework, but not linking them so closely to a grade. The goal is not to pile on more tasks and instill more “achievement-thinking.” It is, instead, to make knowledge firmer, and to attach a message which says:
“Life is short, and the years of school pass in a rush. This is your only chance to encounter deep ideas and complex histories with a mentor to help you through. The works of beauty and truth are not chores to slog through. They are the raw materials of mind and character, and they should shape not only your resume, but you, too.”
Procrastination and Busywork
Denise Pope is senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success, a research and student intervention project.
The problem with summer homework is a lack of buy-in from one of the main constituencies: the students. During the school year, the students don’t necessarily enjoy doing homework, but they understand it is part of their daily routine. In the summer, students expect, and often need, a break from this routine and the daily pressures that usually accompany it.
Why should we care if the students are bought in? We know from research that motivation plays a central role in engagement with learning and, subsequently, student achievement. If students are given choice and voice in the learning process, for example, they are more likely to want to learn the material and more likely to retain it.
When students are not motivated, the teacher –- or in the case of summer, the parent — often needs to become part of the homework equation, monitoring, reminding, cajoling to make sure the work gets done. In my community, many parents complain that they don’t want to serve as “homework police” in the summer, and many admit that they are as frustrated as their kids when it comes to summer assignments.
One parent complained that her third grade son had to read five books and write five book reports over the summer. The problem was that he hated the books and kept procrastinating, and the stress on the child and on the entire family over the nine weeks became “unbearable.” Other parents admit that their kids wait until the very last minute to sit down and do the work, usually a day or two before school starts up again, and then they are cramming to get it all done.
I have seen the research that shows that students lose valuable skills when they are not in school during the summer months. And I worry especially about the kids who will spend most of the summer inside, in front of TVs or video games, and will be wasting the value of this free time. However, summer homework fails to serve its purpose if it causes undue stress on kids and families, if it is done all at once in a last minute rush, or if it is viewed as meaningless busywork.
Summer rest and exploration is especially important these days, given the increased pressure on students from high-stakes testing, the increase in homework during the school year, and the busy-ness of the extracurricular lives of many of our kids. Ideally, summer should be seen as a gift, an important time to explore new hobbies, enjoy the outdoors, read for fun, work a summer job, take on an exciting challenge, gain independence, and foster deeper connections with family and friends. The learning that happens during these experiences is as important as the skills and content learned during the school year.
If we want students to use this time wisely and appropriately, we ought to educate them about the benefits of summer time and encourage them — perhaps even give an “assignment” — to use the break to pursue interests of their choosing. Then, when they get back to school in September, they can write about, discuss, or present their “summer learning” in a way that is meaningful to them.
The Risk of Falling Behind
Richard Allington is a professor of reading education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
In some schools, it is common for students to be assigned teacher-selected books for the summer vacation months. I know of not a single study supporting this practice, but I do know of studies showing the various methods students use to convince teachers they did the reading even though they didn’t.
A basic problem with this old, and desperate, model of summer reading assignments is that only rarely do teachers (or schools) assign books that a typical kid would ever want to read.
At the same time, research has also demonstrated, including with New York City school students, that students from low-income families rarely read during the summer while middle-class kids typically do. This difference accounts for roughly 80 percent of the gap in reading achievement that exists between rich and poor kids. By grade 9 that reading achievement gap is three to four years wide.
Middle-class ninth graders, on average, read at the ninth-grade level. Low-income ninth graders, regardless of ethnicity, read at the fifth- or sixth-grade level. On average, students from low-income families learn as much during the school year as kids from wealthier families — even in New York City. But every summer the lack of reading practice produces losses in reading proficiency, while doing some reading during the summer produces small gains.
The evidence is clear that how kids spend their matters. Low-income kids lose about three months in reading proficiency every summer. That means every three years they fall a year behind middle-class kids, even when their teachers are just as effective as the teachers middle-class kids have.
Several research studies have shown that simply giving low-income children books on the final day of school can stem summer reading loss. But these books must be books they can and want to read. Our studies allowed students to select the books from 500 or so titles we had picked to match student reading levels and interests. We spent about $40 per child per summer (about the same cost as a test preparation workbook). The kids each selected 12 books, which they got to keep.
I know there are readers thinking, “Why not just have these kids go to the public library to get their book?” While public libraries are essential, and good outreach programs from public libraries can increase summer reading for all children, those efforts may not get all kids to check out a dozen books every summer.
Parents (and teachers) are right to worry about whether students read during the summer. But assigning books is about the least effective strategy to achieve that goal. It is past time for schools to provide children with easy summer access to books they want to read.
Choosing Your Assignment
Elizabeth Birr Mojeis a professor of education at the University of Michigan.
The question of how to prevent summer learning loss has plagued U.S. schools for years. There is no question that some level of skill is lost or diminished for a large number of children and youth over the summer months. In many cases, these skills are easily renewed as soon as students begin school again. But in some cases, the loss chips away at learning gains; this is particularly true for children and youth who find school learning difficult during the academic months as well.
Whether assigning vacation homework would help to diminish the effects of the summer learning loss is an open question, but an equally important set of questions revolves around what such “homework” would involve, how it would be “regulated” (i.e., would students choose or would they be forced to do homework?), and how it would be supported.
In general, we know that assignments that merely drill students on basic skills is less useful than homework that supports them in meaningful thinking and activity. Summer homework, in particular, needs to provide choice with guidance, be embedded in projects or activities that have a real purpose, connect students to networks that support making sense of the activities, and ensure that youth from all backgrounds and socioeconomic levels have equal opportunity to participate.
For example, if schools want to promote the maintenance of reading skills, then they should consider assigning reading lists that offer choices. Such lists should not only promote the reading of novels, but should include informational texts, short stories, poetry, newspaper and magazine articles and web blogs in both paper and digital forms.
Providing children and youth with guided choice reduces the likelihood that they will resent being forced to do the work over the summer months; encouraging wide reading prepares them for the reading demands of upper grades by building world and word knowledge.
Schools (or parents) should also build opportunities for students to discuss the readings, either through face-to-face or on-line discussions. Offering opportunities for discussion and even application of concepts can push students to read beyond their initial preferences as they offer texts to one another, thus diminishing the need to “force” students to read particular texts.
Without discussion, children and youth may complete assignments just to check them off the list, not really engaging with the ideas or learning new critical skills or knowledge.
Another possibility for summer homework is community service or work projects where students can learn new academic skills, and also practice those they have learned during the school year. Combining the use of these skills in meaningful social and workplace activity can be motivating for even young children. This kind of “homework” is more challenging to monitor, but the benefits to young people and communities are high.
Whatever the form of summer homework, it is only a good idea if efforts are made to make it meaningful, engaging, and accessible to all.
What Low Achievers Need
Tyrone Howard is an associate professor at the U.C.L.A. Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
The utility of homework has been a sacred cow in many education circles for years. I think homework has become a practice that has continued on because it has been normalized in educational behavior. Homework should help to reinforce content or materials that teachers have taught or covered in class. But in many cases today, homework has been reduced to busy work that posseses minimal value in developing deeper understanding.
That said, assigning summer homework is a good idea in theory. Some researchers have documented that some students lose grasp of key reading and mathematical principles when they have not used them for a two to three month period.
But the issue becomes one of accountability and reinforcement of understanding. If teachers cannot get students to turn in homework during the school year, when they see them every day, what is the likelihood that they will get them to do it, and with accuracy, when they do not see them?
I do think that there is a need to reinforce key academic concepts and skills, especially for lower achievers, who tend to be students of color, and students from poor backgrounds. A better approach than homework over the summer is the more intensive, small learning community-type summer school programs that last four to six weeks. These programs allow students to have access to teachers in a smaller learning environment for three to four hours a day. The benefits, I believe, would be far greater than more mind-numbing homework.
Homework and Achievement
Harris Cooper offers more details about the link between homework and student achievement:
Homework’s effect on achievement is best gauged by experimental studies comparing students who are purposely assigned homework with students purposely assigned no homework but who are similar in other ways. The results of such studies suggest that homework can improve students’ scores on the class tests that come at the end of a topic. In five such studies, students assigned homework in 2nd grade did better on math, 3rd and 4th graders did better on English skills and vocabulary, 5th graders on social studies, 9th through 12th graders on American history, and 12th graders on Shakespeare.
Less authoritative are 12 studies that link naturally-occurring (not manipulated) amounts of homework to achievement. On the positive side, these studies used sophisticated statistical models to control for lots of other things that might influence the homework-achievement connection. The controlled factors have included the student’s ability level and family background and the teachers’ experience. These studies have the added advantage that they are often based on national samples and use measures of achievement such as grade point averages and standardized tests. They find a similar positive link between time on homework and achievement. But most of these studies were done with high school students.
Yet other studies simply correlated homework and achievement with no attempt to control for student differences. In 35 such studies, about 77 percent found the link between homework and achievement was positive. Most interesting though, these results suggested little or no relationship between time on homework and achievement for elementary school students. These inferior studies are at odds with the more trustworthy experimental studies mentioned above. But, if we assume that the experimental studies involved relatively short assignments, they do suggest too much homework for young kids might not be a good thing. (Too much homework might also not be good for adolescents but studies show assignments can be longer before reaching the point of diminishing returns.)
Students, regardless of economic status, lost roughly equal amounts of math skills over summer.
Do we want our children to start the year refreshed and ready to learn? Or burned out and resentful?
Students regard learning as a classroom thing, and spend their leisure hours text-messaging. Here’s how we can deal with that.
Summer should be seen as a gift, an important time to explore new hobbies, work a summer job, gain independence.
Low-income kids lose about three months in reading proficiency every summer.
A better approach than homework is to have more intensive, small learning community-type summer school programs that last four to six weeks.
Jill Notte’s daughter Sara is a straight-A student, and she’s taking five advanced-placement courses this fall. It’ll be her senior year.
This ambitious undertaking may prove Sara’s undoing — at least if the 17 year old wants to enjoy her summer vacation. Somewhere in between spending a week at a Girls State program, a month at the New Jersey Governor’s School of Engineering and Technology at Rutger’s University, and visiting a few potential colleges, Sara must complete the following workload before school starts:
• Read five novels for AP English
• Read one book for AP History
• Complete a packet of assignments and problems for AP Calculus
• Complete a packet of assignments and problems for AP Chemistry
• Write several summaries of scientific principles for Honors Physics
Oh, and her English teacher recommends that she attend Shakespeare performances at the local college to supplement the many plays she’s required to read as part of AP English. “I try to put a positive spin on it,” says Sara’s mother, Jill. “I told her, ‘Summertime’s a great time to read Shakespeare!'” But, admits Jill, it’s not so easy to put the same kind of “fun” spin on the stack of mind-numbing calculus and chemistry books hefty enough to take down a Yellowstone grizzly.
Forget languidly balmy weeks unwinding from the stress of an intensive school year. Goodbye, as well, to working her usual summer job as a lifeguard, which Sara unhappily has to forgo — along with the money she hoped to save for college. As her mother puts it, “Summer homework is a full-time job.”
A working vacation
Sara’s not alone. The oxymoronically named “vacation work” is on the rise. Sara’s older sister had only a few books to read over the summer when she was in high school — and that was just eight years ago. Jill, who like her daughters was a high achiever in the top five percent of her class, remembers completely homework-free summers.
Many parents remember their own childhood summers as true respites from school, devoid the rigor and rigidity of academic life. Summer was a sprawling mass of unstructured time that ranged from idyllic laziness to stupefying boredom to invigorating camps and family vacations, not scores of math worksheets, science packets, and lists of “good-for-you” classics that hardly qualify as light beach reads.
Harris Cooper, chairman of the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and America’s leading homework scholar who co-authored the landmark meta-study on homework, says that while there exists no formal studies on the rise in summertime homework, he’s witnessed a particularly sharp increase over the past two years — probably a response “to high-stakes testing and accountability issues for schools.”
Just say no?
Some parents argue summer homework is nothing more than bland busywork that saps the joy and spontaneity from summer. So says Sara Bennett, founder of StopHomework.com. “Even if there is a summer slide, I don’t think homework is the solution,” Bennett says. “Kids don’t have enough downtime during the school year. I think they need that freshness during summer.”
Here’s a revolutionary approach for vacation purists who say kids deserve a good, old-fashioned summer free from intense brain-strain: Just say no. That’s what Bennett suggests a parent do in the fall if a child is averse to doing the packet. “I’d send it back and say, ‘I’m sorry, my child didn’t have a chance to do it.’ ” (A parental dispensation only possible for kids who haven’t entered the high-school pressure cooker where — as with Sara Notte — summer homework is graded and can directly affect a student’s chances to enter a top-tier university.)
Protecting young minds from melting
On the other side of the summer homework debate are the moms and dads who, when the school doors slam shut, ramp up the supplemental brain work, even if the teachers didn’t provide it themselves. Most parents, though, fall somewhere in the for-better-or-worse-summer-homework-is-here-to-stay camp.
So if the kids have to do it, can we at least be reassured that it’s a magic bullet to protect young minds from melting? “We can’t say that with any objective data,” Cooper says. “But we would make the assumption if students are continuing to flex their mental muscles over the summer, this would have a positive effect on how much material they retain when they return.”
Certainly, studies support that painful truth that students — no matter their economic status — lose about two months of math abilities over the summer months. (When it comes to reading, low-income students also fall behind by two months.) If a teacher doesn’t supply one, says Cooper, “[Math] might be one area when you want to introduce the dreaded worksheets.”
No buy-in from the kids
“There definitely is a lag — I’m not denying that,” says Denise Pope, senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success, a research and student-intervention project. “I absolutely agree that three months is a long time to not do anything. That said, I’m not sure this idea of giving workbooks and pages and pages of handouts works.”
The reason it doesn’t work? “There’s not a buy-in from the [kids],” Pope argues. “In order for any learning to be retained, there has to be engagement on the part of the students.” Pope explains that students need the “ABCs of engagement,” which means they’re engaged affectively, behaviorally, and cognitively. “If they’re intrinsically motivated, then they’ll want to do it.”
“I know kids who get these huge 40-page math packets,” Pope says. “It’s because [teachers] want [kids], over time, to have systematic practice. The problem is that this requires an adult to monitor this kind of disciplined work. It’s not like a kid can do that on his own. So it puts a burden more on the parents.”
Year-round homework blues
So, alas, those nightly angst-ridden homework dramas that run from September through June now get year-round billing. The other problem, Pope says, is that summer homework packets (frequently put off until the last unhappy week before school begins), often seem to fall into an academic black hole once they’re turned in — with no feedback from teachers and no effect on kids’ grades.
As for the work that Pope’s three kids — ages 10, 12, and 15 — get handed at school’s end, she tells them, “‘I won’t bug you about this at all. I won’t be the police.’ We look at the assignments they get for the summer and I say, ‘How long do you think this will take? Do you want me to remind you to do it?’ ” But if they leave it until the tail end of the summer, Pope says, well, that’s their choice. It’s their vacation, after all.
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