U.S. Students Shown to Be on Par With Others on Amount of Homework

By Bess Keller — March 02, 2007 2 min read
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Gerald K. LeTendre has a message for any policymaker who thinks new heaps of homework could push U.S. students toward Singapore’s heights in math and science: Not so fast.

The Pennsylvania State University researcher looked at homework patterns internationally, using data from the most recent Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, which compared the performance of elementary and middle-level students in more than 40 countries.

His analysis, which was done jointly with Motoko Akiba of the University of Missouri-Columbia, found that American students do neither a lot more nor a lot less homework than their peers elsewhere.

Specifically, in comparison with four high-performing Asian nations, including Singapore, which has posted the highest math scores, U.S. students “look remarkably” like the Asian students, the researchers say in a draft paper presented to the Comparative and International Education Society meeting in Baltimore.

Mr. LeTendre and Ms. Akiba, both professors of educational policy, also note “large shifts in the percentage of teachers who never assign homework” in some developed countries that participated in both the 1995 and 2003 TIMSS.

Overall, more homework was not associated with higher levels of average national achievement, they say. Instead, the relationship varied from country to country.

“The paper is a preliminary investigation with some fairly common-sense warnings not to start promoting or demoting homework” because of worries that American students are running behind in an academic-skills race with other nations, Mr. LeTendre said in an interview.

The authors speculate that homework in the United States tends to be pitched at such a level that better students can either speed through it or ignore it in favor of other activities, such as sports or music lessons, without harming their standing. And some students might learn more if the homework were less aimed at catch-up for those having the most trouble.

Other Variables Slighted?

Homework expert Harris Cooper said he was troubled by the researchers’ failure to isolate the effects of homework on achievement. As it stands, any number of variables—with or without homework—might combine to produce certain achievement levels, he said.

“While I think that the position they take on homework is ultimately a bit more negative than other data suggests, I would rather see those conclusions reached through more rigorous and evenhanded treatment of the evidence,” said Mr. Cooper, a psychologist who heads the education program at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Mr. Cooper is associated with a homework “rule of thumb” that suggests an addition of 10 minutes more of homework for each grade, so that a 5th grader would be getting about 50 minutes of homework a night.

He contended that the paper was useless in helping determine the worth of homework for individual students, a conclusion embraced by its co-author Mr. LeTendre.

“We’re in the business of talking to nations about what nations should do,” he said. “If people are interested in their school and their child, they should read other [material].”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as U.S. Students Shown to Be on Par With Others on Amount of Homework


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