The Tougher Standards Fad Hits Home

Invoking “accountability” and “competitiveness” to justify homework

By Alfie Kohn

Illustrator: Randall Enos

Illustration: Randall Enos

In the 1830s, Dr. [Pierre-Charles Alexandre] Louis studied the effect of bloodletting, or bleeding — the standard treatment of the time — on pneumonia.
The data showed that bleeding didn’t work
…but Dr. Louis rejected this as terrifying and absurd.
So he made a recommendation:
Bleed earlier and bleed harder.
— Statistician and historian
David Freedman, paraphrased in the 
New York Times

The colorful brochure called “Homework Tips for Parents” that was produced by George W. Bush’s Department of Education offers a combination of familiar advice (“Make sure your child has a quiet, well-lit place to do homework”), unsubstantiated assertions presented as fact (“Homework . . . can foster positive character traits such as independence and responsibility”), and a request for parents to “be positive about homework” rather than thinking critically about its value.

But the context for this material is perhaps more telling than the content. The brochure opens with a two-

paragraph history of the subject that explains how, in the 1980s, “homework again came back into favor as it came to be viewed as one way to stem a rising tide of mediocrity in American education. The push for more homework continued into the 1990s, fueled by rising academic standards.” Then, on the final page, parents are presented with a ringing defense of the No Child Left Behind act, which emphasizes mandatory annual testing and punitive consequences for struggling schools. In fact, the words “No Child Left Behind,” along with the program’s logo, appear on the pamphlet’s cover.

For some time now, the most enthusiastic proponents of homework have been policy makers who are committed to the “tougher standards” movement that has had American education in its grip for more than two decades. The matter-of-fact reference to “a rising tide of mediocrity” in the new federal brochure, for example, is an allusion to a 1983 report released by the Reagan administration, which is widely credited with (or blamed for) jump-starting that movement. After offering dire warnings about our failing schools, that report, entitled A Nation at Risk, presented a series of conservative policy prescriptions. Among them was a recommendation that more homework be assigned.

The same basic line has been repeated ever since: Our public schools are lousy and our kids are lazy, so we need to demand higher standards, and one obvious way to do that is to assign greater quantities of homework. Thus, the same 1995 article in the Economist that announces homework is “as close as anything could be to a one-word solution to America’s educational problems” anchors its enthusiasm in the conviction that our schools are “notoriously mediocre.” Whenever you come across a particularly savage attack on the state of public education, it’s a safe bet that a call for more homework (among other get-tough messages) will be sounded as well. And vice versa.

While it may come as a surprise to those who depend solely on the popular press for information about such issues, the claim that school quality has plummeted since the good old days has been repeatedly and decisively debunked by researchers, including David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, Gerald Bracey, and Richard Rothstein. That’s not to say there aren’t serious problems with American education. There are. But those problems aren’t new and they have more to do with deeply bred inequities (reflecting those of society more generally) and a failure to engage students as active learners and meaning makers. The kinds of solutions favored by people who shrilly denounce our “failing schools” and “falling standards” not only don’t address these issues but almost seem designed to make things worse. The more we find ourselves in thrall to a cult of rigor, the more sterile and shallow our children’s classrooms become, and the wider the chasm grows between schooling for the rich and schooling for the poor.

It’s not a coincidence that so many of the people who demand tougher standards are also actively trying to privatize our school — along with other democratic public institutions. The demand for more “accountability” and a defense of market-oriented solutions (such as vouchers) often issue from the same politicians and corporate executives, the same conservative think tanks and editorial pages. As education historian David Labaree observed, “We find public schools under attack not just because they are deemed ineffective, but because they are public.” Thus, the fact that policies advertised as attempts to improve public schooling often have exactly the opposite effect isn’t really all that puzzling once you consider that the objective all along may have been to undermine its capacities and its reputation.

Beyond the premise that public education is terrible, the tougher standards movement has been constructed on a number of other assumptions. One is that the best way to reform schools is by having top-down, one-size-fits-all mandates imposed by officials far away from local communities. This version of reform consists of doing things to educators and students rather than working with them, issuing demands rather than offering help. Another assumption is that the best way to force people to comply with those mandates, and more generally to evaluate the quality of education, is by making students fill in ovals with their number-two pencils in wave after wave of standardized tests. Still another premise: Harder is tantamount to better. What’s mostly wrong with our schools, in this view, is that they’ve been “dumbed down;” salvation therefore lies in “raising the bar” and demanding “higher expectations” and more “rigor.” Almost by definition, the best lessons (or exams or classes) are believed to be those that are really difficult for children. Part of the problem with this last assumption, of course, is that a class or school may end up being too hard; maximum difficulty isn’t the same thing as optimal difficulty. But more important — and less widely noticed — is the fact that focusing primarily on the difficulty level distracts us from other, more important criteria by which education should be evaluated.

The Role of Homework

The tougher standards movement that has brought us standardized testing has also been responsible for more homework. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to find that the effects of the latter are as profoundly inequitable as those of the former. In the mid-1980s, an educator named Bill Barber commented that “to include ‘more homework’ on an agenda for educational reform is embarrassing; it implies that we are nothing but amateurs if the best we can muster up for students who are dropping out at alarming rates, students who can’t read or write, is a recommendation that they ought to get more of the same thing.” Now, however, there has been a subtle change in this equation: It isn’t merely that more homework has been proposed as a (foolish) way of dealing with a rising dropout rate and other problems; rather, homework is rooted in the very movement that has helped to cause those problems. And homework itself makes a substantial contribution.

The evidence is mixed on which students get, or do, more homework. But what matters is the impact of those assignments. Here, proponents face a serious dilemma. If, on the one hand, homework in general hasn’t been shown to be beneficial, then there wouldn’t be much reason to assign it to anyone. Indeed, no research has shown that homework is necessary to help students learn. In elementary school, there isn’t even a correlation between homework and achievement; in high school, a weak correlation exists, but no data show that higher achievement is due to getting homework. Nor is there a shred of evidence to back up the folk wisdom that homework builds character, promotes self-discipline, or teaches good work habits. (Substantiation for all of these contentions can be found in my book The Homework Myth.)

But if we accept, even provisionally, that homework does help — or that certain kinds of homework might help — then those benefits are likely to accrue disproportionately to the students who are already positioned for success in school. The “rich get richer” as they plow through their assignments, while their classmates fall farther behind. That expression may be true literally as well as figuratively: If homework helps anyone, it’s the affluent. In fact, Deborah Meier dryly observes, “If we sat around and deliberately tried to come up with a way to further enlarge the achievement gap, we might just invent homework.”

The reason isn’t hard to figure out. As Linda Darling-Hammond and Olivia Ifill-Lynch explained not long ago, “Students whose parents understand the homework and can help them with it at home have a major advantage over students whose parents are unable or unavailable to help.” Richard Rothstein, a leading expert on education and equity, takes this a step further:

Homework would increase the achievement gap even if all parents were able to assist. Parents from different social classes supervise homework differently. Consistent with overall patterns of language use, middle-class parents — especially those whose own occupational habits require problem solving — are more likely to assist by posing questions that break large problems down into smaller ones and that help children figure out correct answers. Lower-class parents are more likely to guide children with direct instructions. Children from both classes may go to school with completed homework, but middle-class children are more likely to gain in intellectual power from the exercise than lower-class children.

In short, there are pronounced disparities in the extent to which parents are available to help, how able they are to help, and what type of help they’re likely to offer. Let’s not forget, too, that there are similar disparities in the books, computers, and other resources accessible to children in different neighborhoods. The net effect, in the words of Pennsylvania State University researchers David P. Baker and Gerald K. Letendre, is that assigning “more homework is likely to increase family background effects, thereby generating more inequality” — assuming, again, that homework has any effect at all.

The same is true of more difficult homework, which brings us back to the current infatuation with rigor. The “harder is better” premise is by no means limited to what happens while students are sitting in the classroom. But even if homework didn’t emerge from the same sensibility that drives the tougher standards movement, it is clearly a byproduct of that movement. The push to have children take home additional assignments is often justified by concerns that there isn’t enough time to teach everything during school hours. If those concerns are legitimate, it’s at least in part because of mandates to teach specific curriculum content and make sure that the material is increasingly rigorous (that is, difficult for students to master). As a suburban New York middle school principal put it, “The higher standards require more information, and we can’t cover everything. What we’re having to do is ask kids to do more at home.”

“At this point in American history,” comments Michael Winerip of the New York Times, nothing matters more than “performance on standardized tests. And as long as that is true, those backpacks are likely to be full each night starting in grade 1 and maybe earlier.” The only good news here is the possibility that children’s loads may be lightened once criteria more reasonable than test scores are used to assess the quality of teaching and learning. In the meantime, schools with low test scores reason that their only hope for turning things around is to give kids more homework, while schools with high test scores are afraid to let up on the pressure since all that homework seems to be working.

Actually, it’s far from clear that the latter is true — even if we accepted the premise that better test results meant better learning. If higher scores were associated with a heavier homework load, it would probably be because both of these things are correlated with higher socioeconomic status, not because assigning more homework caused the test scores to rise. In fact, when wealth is held constant, the two may not even be related. For example, when Piscataway, N.J., schools attracted national attention in 2000 for what were actually very modest limits on homework assignments, those limits were partly a response to the fact that “homework in the district had steadily risen over the past seven years [while] standardized test scores [had] steadily declined,” according to a report in American School Board Journal.

But even if the evidence doesn’t support the idea that homework leads to more effective learning, or even to higher test scores, that often doesn’t seem to matter. No independent evidence of success is required because homework has symbolicvalue. The fact that kids are made to work harder is, in itself, taken to be a sign of “higher standards” — which may help to explain why many parents find it reassuring (and its absence disquieting). Moreover, it’s a particularly popular way to demonstrate a commitment to that objective because it’s cheap and asks almost nothing of officials and relatively little of educators — at least compared to other, more meaningful changes that could be made.

The Chain of Assumptions

The demand to raise standards — and further cement traditional teaching methods in place — is renewed with fresh fervor every few decades. It’s not always clear why this happens on the schedule it does, but one hypothesis can be ruled out immediately. It isn’t explained by any objective decline in student achievement, because there is no evidence that such a decline precedes each new call to raise the bar. Nor does the demand for more homework follow the release of new studies on the subject. “Current thinking at any given point in time seems more influenced by cultural and political philosophy than by new information,” one researcher commented.

Policy makers tend to take an aerial view, looking at education as an abstraction rather than weighing whether homework helps this child — or even this group of children — to become better thinkers. What’s more, the focus is on the state of our economic system, and specifically how we’re in danger of falling behind [insert name of current rival(s)]. If we’re going to triumph over other countries, we’re going to have to send our children home with packets of worksheets.

Thus does a New Jersey principal defend ever-greater quantities of homework, even for very young children, by shrugging, “This is what’s demanded to stay competitive in a global market.” Thus, in the 1990s, did we find that California Board of Education president Yvonne Larsen, appointed by a Republican governor, and the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Delaine Eastin, a Democrat, who often crossed swords, were finally able to make common cause by issuing a joint statement that proclaimed: “Our children are competing in a global economy. The extra hours spent after school on homework in Europe and Asia are giving those children an extra boost into the 21st century.” Thus do we find newspapers around the country issuing interchangeable editorials featuring statements like this one: “Homework . . . is more important than ever. Americans are competing in a world market. While kids here are shirking their math and science homework, kids in China and India aren’t. When all of them grow up, guess where the best jobs will go?”

A little historical context is useful to put such talk in perspective. In economics and education, in technology and the military, we are constantly being told — often in a near-hysterical tone — that some other country is either ahead of us or gaining on us, and we must mobilize to beat them. The United States is not one country among others; we’re one country against others, and we must always be ahead of them. The fact that the Soviet Union launched a rocket in 1957 meant that our approach to science education was a humiliating failure and had to be revamped. In the 1980s, it was Japan’s manufacturing prowess that ignited the same combustible combination of (nationalistic) fervor and fear (of coming in second). Today we hear about a whole world of potential rivals who may show us up — and that can’t be permitted. We must be king of the mountain again, and therefore we must assign more homework to our children.

Let’s spell out each of the links in this chain of reasoning:

1. Our primary concern ought not to be with the intellectual proficiency of individual children but with aggregate measures of achievement. And that achievement can be measured with standardized tests.

2. International comparisons of the results of those tests reveal that the achievement of U.S. students is shockingly low.

3. Assigning more homework will make children learn better and therefore raise those scores.

4. Our educational system and our economic system are — and should be — linked. Descriptively, the quality of our schools determines the performance of our economy. Prescriptively, the primary purpose of education is to train future employees and pump up the economy.

5. What matters most with respect to economic as well as educational matters is “competitiveness”; our chief goal should be to do better than other countries.

If even one of these assumptions doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, then the whole economic rationale for assigning plenty of homework falls apart. As it happens, I believe there is good reason to doubt all of these assumptions — and for a variety of reasons.

First, we have to question the idea of acting on students to improve their achievement. Children are not vending machines such that we can put in more homework and get out more learning.

Second, as I (and others) have argued elsewhere, standardized tests tend to measure what matters least about intellectual prowess.

Third, the idea that U.S. students consistently come up short, even as measured by those tests, is a drastic oversimplification of a complex set of results. Even at a first pass, results from the Trends in International Mathemat-ics and Science Study (TIMSS) suggest that the United States does poorly in relative terms only at the high school level, not with respect to the performance of younger students. But TIMSS results really don’t support the proposition that our seniors are inferior. That’s true, first, because, at least on the science test, the scores among most of the countries are actually pretty similar in absolute terms, and second, because the participating countries “had such different patterns of participation and exclusion rates, school and student characteristics, and societal contexts that test score rankings are meaningless as an indicator of the quality of education,” in the words of analyst Iris C. Rotberg. Specifically, the students taking the test in many of the countries were older, richer, and drawn from a more selective pool than those in the United States. Third, when researchers Erling Boe and Sujie Shin reviewed half a dozen different international achievement surveys conducted from 1991 to 2001, they found that “U.S. students have generally performed above average in comparisons with students in other industrialized nations.”

Fourth, not only is there good reason in general to doubt the proposition that homework is academically beneficial, but cross-cultural data have decisively refuted the claim that countries whose students do more homework tend to be those with the best test scores. Baker and Letendre, the Pennsylvania State researchers, looked at TIMSS data from both 1994 and 1999 in order to be able to compare practices in 50 countries. When they published their findings in 2005, they could scarcely conceal their surprise:

Not only did we fail to find any positive relationships, [but] the overall correlations between national average student achievement and national averages in the frequency, total amount, and percentage of teachers who used homework in grading are all negative! If these data can be extrapolated to other subjects — a research topic that warrants immediate study, in our opinion — then countries that try to improve their standing in the world rankings of student achievement by raising the amount of homework might actually be undermining their own success. . . . More homework may actually undermine national achievement.

Fifth, we need to question the value judgment that education ought to be seen chiefly in economic terms. This is so widely accepted by politicians, columnists, and others that it’s rarely even acknowledged to be controversial. Education could be viewed as a way to do what’s best for each child, promoting his or her development, or as a way to create a just and democratic society. But these objectives are inevitably relegated to the margins if the main purpose of schools is to prepare children to be productive workers who will do their part to increase the profitability of their future employers. Every time education is described as an “investment,” or schools are mentioned in terms of the “global economy,” a loud alarm ought to go off, reminding us of the moral and practical implications of giving an answer in dollars to a question about schools. Such a response reveals something about how we look not only at learning but at children.

The empirical half of assumption number four, meanwhile, is that the state of our economy is in fact a function of how good a job our schools are doing — at preparing tomorrow’s workers, that is. This, too, is usually taken on faith. But various strands of evidence have converged to dispute it. First, at the level of the individual, “test scores have only a small relation to workplace productivity when earnings or supervisory ratings are used as criteria,” as Hank Levin has demonstrated. (Since homework isn’t reliably associated with test scores, and test scores aren’t reliably associated with students’ eventual job performance, the connection between homework and later productivity is doubly dubious.) Furthermore, the connection between education and the economy also fails to pan out at the level of entire countries. Education analyst Gerald Bracey found 38 nations whose economies had been rated on the “current competitiveness index” calculated by the World Economic Forum and whose students’ test scores had been assessed for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. There was virtually no correlation between countries’ scores on the two lists. (At first pass, the test results account for only 5 percent of the variance in economic competitiveness scores. But when seven countries that were near the bottom on both measures are removed, “the correlation between test scores and competitiveness actually becomes negative.”)

Corporate executives regularly complain, of course, about the ignorance and incompetence of U.S. students and, by extension, about the schools from which these students have emerged. Again, however, a little historical perspective is helpful. “School critics have always claimed, without apparent foundation, that graduates were not adequately skilled for the occupational demands of the future,” writes Richard Rothstein. “Businessmen and policy makers have been making this charge with regularity since the early 1900s.”

Bad schools make a tempting scapegoat when a corporation’s financial results are disappointing, or when the economy as a whole isn’t doing well. (Notice that public schools almost never get any credit during those periods when economic indicators are looking up.) The fact is, though, that an employee’s educational background is only one of many factors that determine his or her productivity. Worker productivity, in turn, is only one of many factors that determine corporate profitability. And corporate profitability is only one of many factors that determine the state of the economy — particularly the employment picture.

Does anyone seriously believe, for example, that the primary reason U.S. companies are shipping jobs by the millions to Mexico and Asia is because they believe those countries’ schools are better — let alone because children there do more homework?

Or consider the reverse situation: When foreign companies (say, Japanese auto manufacturers) decide to build a plant in the United States, do they choose a location on the basis of educational considerations — or do they tend to pick southern states with a low cost of living and an antiunion climate despite the fact that these states are not exactly known for the quality of their schools? (Furthermore, notice the significance of the fact that these site decisions have worked out reasonably well for their bottom line notwithstanding the alleged inferiority of schools in the area.)

Carol Axtell Ray and Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, for example, have pointed out that the availability of meaningful work is far more likely to influence the study habits of students than the other way around. Students could spend their every waking hour filling out worksheets or studying for tests, and it still won’t result in the creation of more (or better, or higher-paying) jobs wherever they happen to live, nor will it appreciably affect interest rates, the demand for professionals versus service workers, the degree to which market power is concentrated in the hands of a few giant conglomerates, or almost any other economic variable.

Winning Versus Learning

When public officials and editorial writers across the political spectrum discuss the effect of education on the economy, their assumption seems to be that our goal should be framed in terms of beating others rather than doing well. Just as quality is confused with rigor, so is excellence confused with “competitiveness.” And so we come to assumption number five.

When the topic is our economic system, or the phenomenon known as globalization, it’s widely assumed that competition is unavoidable: For one enterprise (or country) to succeed, another must fail. Even if this were true — and, as economists David Gordon and Paul Krugman have pointed out in separate essays, it’s not at all certain that it is — why would the same zero-sum mentality persist when we’re talking about education? Consider the sport of ranking the United States against other nations on standardized tests. Once we’ve debunked the myth that test scores drive economic success, what reason would we have to fret about our country’s standing as measured by those scores? What sense does it make to focus on relativeperformance? After all, to say that our students are first or 10th on a list doesn’t tell us whether they’re doing well or poorly; it gives us no useful information about how much they know or how good our schools are.

If all the countries did reasonably well in absolute terms, there would be no shame in (and, perhaps, no statistical significance to) being at the bottom. If all the countries did poorly, there would be no glory in being at the top. Exclamatory headlines about how “our” schools are doing compared to “theirs” suggest that we are less concerned with the quality of education than with whether we can chant, “We’re Number One!”

Consider an essay published in Education Week earlier this year that reported U.S. students are now doing better in mathematics than earlier generations did. Was the author moved by this fact to express relief, or even delight? Not at all. In fact, he pronounced the current state of affairs “disturbing” because it turns out that children in other countries are also doing well — and that, by definition, is considered bad news. Much the same thing happened in the late 1990s, when a front-page New York Times article warned that “American high school graduation rates, for generations the highest in the world, have slipped below those of most industrialized countries.” Actually, there was no slippage in absolute terms; on most measures, the United States was doing better than ever in terms of the proportion of our adults who finish school. But again it was taken for granted that we should be worried because other countries, too, had made progress and now we were no longer ahead of everybody else.

When people seem panicked at the prospect that the United States will lose its edge over the rest of the world on some academic measure, experts are permitted to disagree about how best to solve that problem. There may even be room to dispute the urgency of the situation. But it is beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse to ask why the question of competence in math or literacy is framed in competitive terms, the goal being for American kids to triumph over those who live elsewhere. Because this worldview is so pervasive in our culture — and because it starts so early — we are unlikely to recognize that it is more rivalrous than rational.

It’s not all that difficult to imagine a different way of looking at things. At a minimum, we could ignore the status of students in other countries and just focus on how those who live here are learning. This perspective isn’t especially neighborly but at least we wouldn’t be viewing the gains of children in other lands as a troubling development. Better yet, rather than defending whatever educational policies will ostensibly help our graduates to “compete,” we could make decisions on the basis of what will help them develop the skills and disposition to collaborate effectively. Educators, too, might think in terms of working with — and learning from — their counterparts in other countries so that children everywhere will become more proficient and enthusiastic learners. Even beyond the moral justification for doing so, Janet Swenson at Michigan State University points out that “we’ll all benefit from the best education we can provide to every child on the face of this planet. Do you care if it’s a child in Africa who finds a cure for cancer rather than a child in your country?” she asks.

When the goal is excellence rather than victory, it seems kind of silly to spend time figuring out who’s doing better than whom. In fact, we may not only be inclined to stop comparing standardized test scores but to rethink the whole rationale for giving such tests in the first place. The only reason for assessment to be standardized is to facilitate ranking — not just of countries, but of states, towns, and schools. If we simply wanted to know how well a student was learning, or how well a teacher was teaching, there are many rich, authentic, classroom-based forms of assessment that could give us a meaningful answer. Only if your primary concern was to know who’s beating whom would you need to give exactly the same mass-produced tests under the same conditions. In the absence of that imperative to rank, it would not only be possible to get rid of such tests; it would also be desirable, seeing as how they help to foster a competitive orientation, one in which we are led to fear other children’s success and celebrate their failure.

And it might just be possible to rethink the assumption that, after spending six or seven hours a day in school, children must work a second shift when they get home.

© Copyright 2006 by Alfie Kohn. Alfie Kohn is the author of 11 books on education and human behavior, including The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (Da Capo Press, 2006), from which this article is adapted (and in which the references for it can be found). He lives (actually) in the Boston area and (virtually) at