A comprehensive review of academic performance around the world gives bad marks to excessive homework.
Teachers in Japan, the Czech Republic and Denmark assign relatively little homework, yet students there score well, researchers said this week.
"At the other end of the spectrum, countries with very low average scores -- Thailand, Greece, Iran -- have teachers who assign a great deal of homework," says Penn State researcher David Baker.
"American students appear to do as much homework as their peers overseas -- if not more -- but still only score around the international average," said co-researcher Gerald LeTendre.
Baker and LeTendre examined the Third International Study of Mathematics and Sciences (TIMSS), which in 1994 collected data from schools in 41 nations on performance in grades 4, 8 and 12. Additional similar data from 1999 was factored in.
The homework burden is especially problematic in poorer households, where parents may not have the time or inclination to provide an environment conducive to good study habits, the researchers conclude. In particular, drills designed to improve memorization may not be suited to many homes.
"An unintended consequence may be that those children who need extra work and drill the most are the ones least likely to get it," Baker said. "Increasing homework loads is likely to aggravate tensions within the family, thereby generating more inequality and eroding the quality of overall education."
The findings are detailed in a new book, "National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling" (Stanford University Press).
In the early 1980s, U.S. teachers began assigning more homework, the researchers say. The shift was in response to mediocre performance in comparison to Japanese students. At the same time, the trend was going the other way in Japanese schools. The new study found U.S. math teachers assigned more than two hours of homework a week in 1994-95, while in Japan the figure was about one hour per week.
"Undue focus on homework as a national quick-fix, rather than a focus on issues of instructional quality and equity of access to opportunity to learn, may lead a country into wasted expenditures of time and energy," LeTendre says.
The homework burden might also affect performance among children of higher-income parents.
"Parents are extremely busy with work and household chores, not to mention chauffeuring young people to various extracurricular activities, athletic and otherwise," LeTendre said. "Parents might sometimes see exercises in drill and memorization as intrusions into family time."
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Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.