New research indicates that homework may not really be that important. This is not exactly groundbreaking—no one’s ever really been able to show that time spent doing homework mattered much for standardized test scores—but this study may perhaps be more rigorous because it looked at grades.

One might expect to find a correlation between time on homework and grades, even if more time on homework doesn’t actually cause higher grades, because one might think that harder working kids would spend more time doing homework and get better grades but no, still it.

According to an article in the Washington Post by education writer Alfie Kohn:

[Researcher Adam] Maltese and his colleagues… were proud of having looked at transcript data in order to figure out “the exact grade a student received in each class [that he or she] completed” so they could compare that to how much homework the student did. Previous research has looked only at students’ overall grade-point averages.

And the result of this fine-tuned investigation? There was no relationship whatsoever between time spent on homework and course grade, and “no substantive difference in grades between students who complete homework and those who do not.”

The average time American children between six and seventeen spent on homework increased by an hour, to 3 hours 58 minutes, between 1981 and 2004. This despite vast increases in technology that would seem to make some homework tasks much more efficient.

Researchers have been trying pretty hard for the last few decades to show that homework matters, but it somehow never does.

A common way education professionals look at this, according to Kohn, is to try to talk about the issue in terms of homework “quality.” Teachers are just assigning homework the wrong way. If they did a better job, assigned the right homework, we’d see something meaningful. This sounds reasonable, but it’s getting is “harder and harder to justify with each study that’s published.” Homework doesn’t matter.

Even in high school. Even in math. The study zeroed in on specific course grades, which represents a methodological improvement, and the moral may be: The better the research, the less likely one is to find any benefits from homework.

One thing rather poorly addressed in the piece, however, and something I think is kind of important, is that the point of assigning homework is not necessarily because kids learn better, or even well, when they do schoolwork at home. No, the major reason for homework, particularly for young kids, is to instill a sense of discipline in them, so that they are prepared to spend time studying alone when other people are relaxing.

Kohn does acknowledge it, but he’s very dismissive. “… Many people will respond to these results by repeating platitudes about the importance of practice, or by complaining that anyone who doesn’t think kids need homework is… failing to prepare them for the ‘real world.’”

But this isn’t bullshit; practice at studying really does matter, if only because we often have to study things after high school.

I’m not sure it was really necessary for me to spend 2 hours a night on long division when I was 4th grade in order to learn how to do long division, but that sure made me a lot more willing to spend 6 hours in the library doing logic proofs when I was in college.

Read the Maltese paper here.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer