Debunking the Homework Controversy

Just when it seemed impossible for that ultimate bastion of babble known as the American public education system to conceive of anything more vacuous, asinine and mindless, they’ve outdone themselves yet again.

Somewhere out there—perhaps in the education department of the University of La-La Land—this latest piece of inspiration was divined: Homework is bad.

In a top contender for the title of most muddleheaded gobbledygook ever committed to paper, someone named Alfie Kohn has written something called “The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.”

In a recent Education Week article promoting this bilge (with the laughably ironic title of “The Truth About Homework”), Kohn makes assertions simply breathtaking in the scope and depth of their folly.

Using erudite-sounding words like “research,” “evidence,” and “studies,” that mask the utter destitution of his arguments, Kohn puts the dreadful dereliction of the American education system on full display.

He also graphically depicts the major cause of the problem—so-called “educators” who think they know what they’re talking about when they haven’t a clue.

This is remarkably similar to liberals who proclaim that even though they don’t want to fight, monitor, or even particularly inconvenience terrorists, they’ll somehow make America “safer.”

Education zealots want us to believe that even though they’re against teaching (they prefer ‘facilitating’), testing, and even homework, they’ll magically improve American education if only we’ll heed them.

No wonder the War on Ignorance—to the tune of multi-trillions of dollars—has been as miserable a failure as the War on Poverty was.

Kohn opens his fantasy by marveling that “there’s something peculiarly fascinating about education policies that are clearly at odds with the available data.”

Though this could rightly be taken as an indictment of the countless education fads that have for years desecrated our public schools, Kohn actually has in mind sensible and time-honored policies such as assigning homework, or requiring failing students to repeat a grade instead of simply passing them on.

Kohn writes that the latter policy is followed “even though research shows this is the worst course of action for them.”  Never mind that the foolish idea of ‘social promotion’ has led to colleges having to engage in costly and time-consuming remedial instruction before students can even think of beginning higher-level work.

This unmitigated balderdash is all packed into the article’s opening paragraph.   That must be some kind of record.

But astonishingly, it becomes even more unhinged.

Kohn casually dismisses the obvious non-academic benefits of homework such as developing good work habits, self-discipline, and positive character traits as merely an “urban myth”—even though fellow homework basher professor Harris Cooper of Duke University (grudgingly) acknowledged those benefits.

Next, Kohn predictably recites the litany of homework’s alleged ‘drawbacks’: stress, frustration, and loss of time for other—presumably more important—activities.

Like watching TV, no doubt.

He writes that “there is no reason to think that most students would be at any sort of disadvantage if homework were sharply reduced, or even eliminated.”

Kohn’s so-called supporting arguments are transparently disingenuous and demonstrably false.

In fact, it’s truly difficult to determine which of his claims is the most outlandish.

He cites one Richard C. Anderson in reaffirming the half-baked (and badly discredited) “whole language” theory of reading instruction.  Kohn quotes Anderson as pontificating that “when children are taught to read by focusing on the meaning of the text (rather than primarily on phonetic skills), their learning does not depend on the amount of study time.”

Though that is itself debatable, the real point is that the evidence Kohn is so fond of referencing has irrefutably proven that “whole language’ is a disaster that has produced an alarming number of functional illiterates.

For example, after California widely adopted this “focus on the meaning” approach to reading, proficiency scores fell so drastically that within a decade the state returned to phonics.

One wonders why Kohn didn’t see fit to include this bit of evidence in his daunting ‘research’.

Apparently, he either deliberately ignored obvious contrary data, or else has been so immured in his ivory tower that he actually believes that the evidence irrefutably supports the silliness he touts.

Next, he claims that math instruction should be similarly decimated, averring that research has managed to “discover” that “time on task is only directly correlated to achievement” if the studying is “focused on rote recall as opposed to problem-solving.”

Here is another preferred target that has been traditionally attacked by educrats seemingly obsessed with the idea of destroying any remaining vestige of learning in American schools.

Of course, the idea that mathematics can be learned apart from dastardly memorization is nothing but a hallucination.

Anyone at all familiar with mathematics realizes that performing operations from simple multiplication, to quadratic equations, to calculating trigonometric ratios, etc. requires memorizing tables or formulas.

The boiler-plate liberal response is that there’s no need to memorize because one can always consult a calculator.  That’s fine—if we want to produce people who are incapable of figuring out anything on their own.

(This is just like the ‘bilingual education’ crowd that insists students somehow “learn English better” if they’re taught in their native tongues. Of course, anyone who has ever learned a language knows that immersion is the real way to mastery—especially for children who learn much faster than adults.)

Still not finished, Kohn absurdly claims that there is no correlation between homework and the performance of countries in international standardized testing.  To establish this ridiculous fallacy, he cites—what else?—another friendly “study.”  This time, he asserts that two august researchers were “scarcely able to conceal their surprise” when they somehow found a negative correlation between homework and performance!

(So, be sure to stop your kids from doing their homework tonight, or their grades might suffer!)

Actually, the two scholarly dupes needn’t have been so shocked.  All they would have had to do is check prominent existing data showing that their original instincts were correct after all.

National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores have long shown that more homework given and completed translates into higher test scores across the board.

Not only that, but students from countries in Asia and Europe that have regularly embarrassed us in comparative proficiency scores have traditionally done much more homework than Americans.

Finally, Kohn apparently recognized the biggest weakness in his position, because he tried a pre-emptive strike. He suggests that intellectual pursuits are somehow different from other skills where practice is undeniably helpful.

Surprisingly, he acknowledges that “expertise in tennis requires a lot of practice.”  But he calls extrapolating from this that academic practice is also valuable “begging the question,” because “it assumes precisely what has to be proved, that intellectual pursuits are like tennis.”

But, of course, it’s not just tennis.  Literally any activity (be it music, painting, writing, knitting, cooking, or anything else under the sun) requires practice to master.

To suppose that academics are somehow the solitary exception to this rule is nothing short of unbalanced.

The stark truth is that we cannot continue entrusting our children’s futures to such weird and ineffective ideas about learning—and further delay means the loss of yet another generation.