Are We Seeing the End of Homework?

Does homework deliver academic benefits or just create added stress? Educators have been mulling that question for decades.

Maclovia Lopez helping her daughter with her homework in Trampas, New Mexico, 1943 (Picryl)

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Generations of children have shared a dream that might be realized in our lifetime: Homework might be abolished.

At present, homework, which author Alfie Kohn, author of “The Case Against Homework,” describes as second shift work for schoolchildren, is entrenched in our education system. According to one study from 2016, 95 percent of grade school children and just over 91 percent of high school students report they have homework.

How much? Grade schools like to follow the “10-minute rule”— 10 minutes for each grade level the student has passed. High school students took home an average of 7.5 hours of assignments every week. Students generally accept homework as a necessary part of their schooling (77 percent say homework is “important” or “very important”).

However, when students were asked what they considered a primary source of stress in learning, 56 percent said “homework.” Homework was viewed as a primary stressor more than taking tests or trying to get good grades.

But educators wouldn’t assign it if it didn’t serve a good purpose. Teachers give several reasons for handing out at-home assignments, including developing students’ critical thinking, assessing their skills and knowledge, and motivating them to learn. The most popular response was “helping students practice skills or to prepare for tests.” But studies haven’t proven it’s useful for these goals. A complicating factor is that there are too many variables to prove that it’s homework, specifically, that delivers academic benefits.

In addition to teachers, parents often are strong proponents of homework. Eighty percent of parents say they think homework is important. When schools and teachers have chosen not to assign homework, moms and dads grow concerned about their children’s future and insist they bring homework back. They believe kids need the challenge of homework to be successful and prepared for college and career.

Critics of homework have their own arguments. None is more effective than the fact that homework can’t be proven to be helpful. In elementary school, according to Kohn, no correlation has been found between homework and test scores. In high school, it appears to provide only a slight benefit.

Moreover, a study of schools in 47 countries found that school systems that assigned the least amount of homework (Denmark and Czech Republic) had much higher test scores than countries with the most homework assigned (Iran and Thailand).

A study of 28,000 high school seniors found three things correlated to academic success: quality of instruction, motivation, and ability. Homework’s contribution was marginal and sometimes led to more academic problems that it solved. So, we’ve come to a point where educators are considering the idea of homework-free schooling.

Painting by W. Kolmsperger of his daughter Wetti doing her arithmetic homework, 1880 (Picryl)

Schools have tried to go homework-free in past generations. In 1901, California banned homework for students 14 years and younger. The ban remained in effect until 1917. In the 1930s, the American Child Health Association branded homework as a form of child labor, which had recently been outlawed for many industries. Over the next several decades, the amounts of homework given to students declined.

Some teachers complained about this trend toward little homework. In the pages of the February 1, 1941, issue of The Saturday Evening Post, one grumbled that if the teacher assigns a reasonable amount of good hard homework, it would be met by a “storm of protests from the parents.” They would rather have Johnny spend his free time enjoying wholesome recreation.

Doing homework on the Mutz ranch in Colfax County, New Mexico, 1943 (Library of Congress)

But then, in 1957, Russia launched the first man-made satellite into space. Americans knew the Soviets already had an atomic bomb. Now they were winning the space race. Here was proof that the country was falling behind at the height of the Cold War.

To regain the technical lead, we needed smarter Americans, which meant more rigorous curricula. Congress passed a billion-dollar package to improve teaching of science, math, and foreign languages. A return to homework was part of the plan. Homework once again increased.

An article in May 14, 1960, issue of The Saturday Evening Post objected to the increased homework trend, saying that “certain schools have answered the challenge of Sputnik with busy work — meaning more history dates to memorize, more arithmetic problems to copy at home. It is homework hysteria. Often it is unplanned and gives students impossible loads of work one night and little the next. Busywork bores the bright student—and overwhelms the average.”

A teen girl doing homework in her room, 1964 (Picryl)

But a few months later, the Post had changed its tune. An in-depth article in the December 24, 1960, issue called “U.S. Schools: Not the Best, But Not So Bad” compared American schools to the curricula from other countries; in addition to little homework, the article fretted over the effects of TV, telephones, and teachers. It concluded with a six-point plan, the first point being “lengthen our school year and increase the amount of homework required.”

Eventually, the enthusiasm for homework flagged, and in the more casual climate of the late 1960s, homework loads grew lighter. The head of California’s Bureau of Elementary Education said no teacher aware of modern methods would assign such meaningless homework as repetitive arithmetic problems. Such an assignment, she said, kills time and “kills the child’s creative urge to intellectual activity.”

There was another attempt to revive homework in the ’80s. A National Commission on Excellence in Education reported on the cold-war dangers confronting America that arose from low-quality education in “A Nation At Risk” (1983). The Commission concluded “homework is good and more is better.” Ten years after “A Nation at Risk” was published, it was reported that “more homework has been required in 27 percent of high schools, 30 percent of middle schools, and 32 percent of elementary schools. Thus, while some progress has been made, there is still a long way to go.”

Sister Mary Abdi talking over homework assignments with Rohymah Toulas and Lanya Abdul-jabbar at the Islamic School in Seattle, Washington, 1982 (Library of Congress)

But the Cold War ended, and the national drive for quality in education trailed off.

Yet current studies show a majority of schools are still handing out at-home assignments. And while there is little agreement between proponents and critics of homework, there’s general agreement that homework shows little benefit at the grade school level.

But the desire to assign homework persists. There’s a belief that homework develops a child’s self-discipline. It teaches them good work habits, responsibility, and independence. After all, parents might say, that’s how they acquired those virtues. But whether or not that is the case is unresolved. One thing we know to be true is that parents, politicians, and educators will insist on assigning it, and students will complain, procrastinate, and eventually suffer through it.

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Comments

  1. Yes, homework (pro and con) remains a riddle to this day with almost as many variables as there are students. What’s too much for one, might be fine for another. My own thoughts would ideally be the teacher having the ability to assess each student individually, and have the homework tailored to their specific needs. Basically focusing on the subject they may be weak in, spending more time to be stronger in grasping and understanding it as to not fall behind.

    Some students would have math homework on a given day, others history, geography, science, etc. If it’s the day before a history test, the teacher can go over everything that will be on the test the next day with the students taking notes, then the homework for that afternoon/evening would focus on that. Optional open book tests are good for students not wired to memorize as such.

    Engaging with the books is a positive thing. If the student isn’t sure of an answer, they can go into whichever chapter and find it. There’s that “I found the answer!” moment which is very positive. For students that want to keep the book closed, that’s their choice. Sufficient time should be given to accommodate the majority.

    So homework should be about learning and not regurgitating for taking tests. There is some crossover, of course. That’s the tricky part that still hasn’t changed much since the 19th century. Striking that elusive balance of time and learning. Are we seeing the end of homework? Possibly, but probably not.

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