The Atlantic Monthly | November 2004
SUPPOSE I told you that I knew of an education reform guaranteed to raise the achievement levels of American students; that this reform would cost next to nothing and would require no political body's approval; and that it could be implemented overnight by anybody of a mind to undertake it. You would jump at it, right? But Americans haven't jumped at it. They rarely even talk about it.
In 1983 I began my reporting career covering education for a North Carolina newspaper. Then—as now—everyone talked about reforming schools, but I became convinced that one of the key ingredients of successful schooling was being mostly overlooked. Learning depends on what educators call "time on task," which is what the rest of us call attending class and studying.
American schools are remarkably parsimonious with time. The school year is fixed at or below 180 days in all but a handful of states—down from more than 190 in the late nineteenth century, when Saturday-morning sessions were common. The instructional day is only about six hours, of which much is taken up with nonacademic matters. In 1994 a national commission calculated that in four years of high school a typical American student puts in less than half as much time on academic subjects as do students in Japan, France, and Germany.
Extending the school day or the school year can get expensive and complicated, and reducing nonacademic electives and gym brings hollers from parents and kids. But there is one quite cheap and uncomplicated way to increase study time: add more homework.
You may not be shocked to learn that homework raises student achievement, at least in the higher grades. For young children homework appears not to be particularly helpful. Even among older students it is hard to be sure of the extent to which more homework causes higher achievement, because higher achievement also leads to more homework (brighter or harder-working kids will take more-demanding courses). Still, no one doubts that, as all kinds of studies have found, older kids learn more if they study more. Surveying the evidence in 2001, Harris Cooper, an educational psychologist, wrote, "For high school students the effect of homework can be impressive. Indeed, relative to other instructional techniques and the costs involved in doing it, homework can produce a substantial, positive effect on adolescents' performance in school."
You may also not be shocked to learn that, for the most part, American students don't do much homework. Nowadays homework loads among the Ivy-bound superelite can be downright inhumane, but they are the exception. In 1999, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, two thirds of seventeen-year-olds did less than an hour of homework on a typical night (in other words, only about ten minutes per subject). Forty percent did no homework at all—up from 34 percent in 1984. In 1995 the Third International Mathematics and Science Survey asked high school seniors (or their equivalents) in twenty countries about study time. "Of twenty nations," says a recent report by the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, "the U.S. ranked near the bottom, tied for the next-to-last position."
I asked Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center, what might happen to achievement if students did more homework. "Let's say we took the forty percent who do no homework and they suddenly did an hour a night," he replied. "I think it would go up a lot. That's a hundred and eighty more hours of schoolwork"—assuming these kids studied only on school nights. For a reality check I called Raymond J. Pasi, the principal of Yorktown High School, in Arlington, Virginia, not far from where I live. He and his guidance counselors estimate that 25 to 30 percent of their students do no homework. "I believe if the average student spent twenty more minutes on homework—and by homework I would even include reviewing the day's notes—you'd see an increase in achievement of that student," Pasi told me.
It seems peculiar that in a country that chatters obsessively about its educational shortcomings, the word "homework" goes all but unspoken. In vain have I waited for governors and Presidents to give speeches about homework, for states to audit and emphasize homework, for programs to identify and assist and prod students who don't study.
Why the silence? Perhaps because no one stands to earn billions of dollars on homework; perhaps because people resent politicians' and schools' intrusions into home life. I suspect that the biggest reason, however, is reluctance to use or even hint at the L-word in reference to American kids.
The country's schools certainly need plenty of fixing. But it is also the case that many American students are lazy (there, I said it!). Just ask them. In 2001, 71 percent of high school and middle school students agreed with the proposition that most students in their school "[did] the bare minimum to get by." A minority described themselves as "trying [their] best to do well in school," and 56 percent said they "could try a little harder."
Americans like to view their children as passive recipients of education—as products of the schools. If the product is defective, fix the factory. You will know that Americans are finally serious about education reform when they begin to talk not just about how the schools are failing our children but also about how our children are failing their schools.