Studies show today's students have more homework than previous generations

homework then and now

By Maira Ansari

LOUISVILLE (WAVE) -- Are kids spending too much time on the three R's and not enough time with family? Many students and their parents are frazzled by the amount of homework being piled on in the schools. WAVE 3's Maira Ansari investigates how much homework is too much.

WAVE 3's Maira Ansari has some tips to help you and your children get through the homework crunch.

Mason Allen is 12 years old, and like countless kids his age, he spends a lot of time doing homework. The day we spoke with him he was working on "social studies, language arts, math -- and I gotta study for two tests."

That's a full load of homework, and if you ask Mason, it's too much. "Math is kind of hard when you do it at home."

Homework is a tradition that is part of a big debate that can often become a sore subject between you and your child.

"When I was in school, I thought I had a heavy workload," said Joanna Smith, Mason's grandmother.

Now, as children's backpacks grow heavier and their leisure time more scarce, parents are concerned.

"It takes a lot for a parent to have time to just sit with the children if they need help" said Smith.

Many national studies say kids are doing more homework than ever before. Research at the University of Michigan shows the amount has more than doubled. In 1981, students ages 6 to 8 did about 52 minutes of homework a week. That increased to 128 minutes in 1997. The increase was smaller among 9 through 12 year olds.

That's no surprise to kids like Whitney Bowman, a sixth grader. "Gosh! How much do you really need?" she asked.

Experts say what young students need versus what they sometimes get are two different things. In fact, recent studies say they are getting more homework.

Janet Leitner is an elementary liaison in Jefferson County. She says not all parents think their kids are overloaded with homework.

"Sometimes we receive calls from parents saying 'my child doesn't get any homework, I want them to have homework,'" Leitner said. "Then, other times, parents may feel that it's too much homework.

Leitner says homework has three purposes:

  • For practice of information that is already been in the classroom.
  • Prepare for the next lesson.
  • Extend knowledge between parents and their children.

"We don't want kids to ignore their homework," Leitner said. "But by the same token, we don't want them to suffer through it either."

So if your child is burning the candle at both ends, there is a problem. There are several things you can do to help your kids manage their homework.

  • Establish a routine -- when and where your child is going to get their homework done.
  • Guide your child -- don't do their homework.
  • And if your child is working, you need to find something constructive to do as well.

"It's really disheartening for students when the parents are watching TV, talking on the phone, surfing the Internet and they have to work," Leitner said.    And if you find yourself saying "that's not the way I learned it when I was in school," remember, times are changing.

"Homework is looking differently, said Kenwood Principal Jill Handley. "We are moving away from that 'skill and drill' to balancing more with an approach of higher order thinking and hands-on problem solving at home."

So if your child's homework is leaving you scratching your head, there is help. By logging onto the Internet, technology is making it easier for parents to get a peek into the classroom without leaving their home.

Leitner suggests that parents visit "the JCPS homepage and look at 'Practice Your Skills' and 'Homework Help.' Sometimes parents are not familiar with the vocabulary and terminology that is used and this will help the student and parent."    And if that isn't enough, some teachers are also placing their lesson plans online to keep you up to date.

Teachers and staff say in the end, it's about making homework a family affair.

"A certain amount is reasonable and good," Leitner said. "It is practice, extension, it's necessary. But we don't want this turn into a battle at home and something that is a turnoff to learning."

Leitner says if your child continues to struggle, ask your child and their teacher how well they focus in class. And if you find that you're having a hard time figuring out your child's homework, the best thing you can do is send a note to the child's teacher. Tell them you tried to help your child, and let them know how far you got. More than likely, they will be understanding.

Debbie Mabry teaches at Kenwood Elementary. She says there may be more homework these days but says it's assigned for a reason. "It reinforces the concepts we are doing in class."

Mabry says homework also helps parents stay in the loop of what's going on in their child's classroom. But the actual time spent on homework varies by student, as well as how much guidance they need from parents.

However, Mabry says teachers don't expect children to spend three to four hours a night finishing homework assignments.

"If they are spending that long on homework, it's either because we have not done our job at school and we have not thoroughly explained and they go home and they really don't understand how to do it so it takes them longer or they did not listen in class and they don't know how to do it."

Don't forget another major problem -- bad study habits. That happens when students allows themselves -- or worse -- you allow your child to lose concentration. Even a few minutes of distraction by a TV, talking on the phone or listening to music can add up quickly and extend the amount of time it takes to complete assignments.

To help ease up on the work load at Kenwood, teachers have what they call the 10-minute rule -- 10 minutes for each grade level.

"Children K-2 their homework should not be longer than 10-20 minutes. 3-5 it should not last longer for 30-60 minutes," said Kenwood's Handley.

Although every school has a different policy, parents and teachers agree there are a few factors that are common to every family.

Handley says homework problems can be compounded by children being involved in more extracurricular activities and parents working longer hours.

Smith agrees. She says the homework load may seem heavier because times have changed and everyone is busy. "Those extra activities. At one time, everything was in one neighborhood so you went to church in your neighborhood, Girl Scout meetings in your neighborhood. Now we drive an hour just to get to the activities. That puts more stress on the children when they get home."

Teachers says there's another major problem -- parents and teachers are often not on the same page when it comes to what's going on in the classroom and their child's assignments.

"Parents are encouraged to keep that open communication with that teacher," Handley said. "And that's what we are after -- the partnership with school and home."

If your child is spending a lot of time after school doing homework, contact their teacher and let them know there is a problem. But there are also so many resources out there to help parents track what their kids are supposed to be getting done, and how well.

Online Reporter:  Maira Ansari

Online Producer: Charles Gazaway

homework then and now

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Now starting her forty-second year, Reveta Bowers is the Head of School at The Center for Early Education, an urban pre-school through 6th grade Los Angeles independent school with 538 students. Devoted to children and education, Ms. Bowers served and has served on a number of boards. She is currently on Board of Overseers of the UCLA Healthcare System, on the founding board of the African American Board Leadership Institute and the board of the FEDCO Charitable Foundation. She just completed serving as Chair Emeritus of the Board of Directors of the California Community Foundation. A past president and former secretary of The Educational Records Bureau Board, Reveta Bowers was also a member of the Advisory Board to the Klingenstein Center at Teacher’s College for ten years. She served as an outside director on the Board of Directors of the Walt Disney Company for ten years and is a former member of the Harvard-Westlake, Brentwood and Windward School boards. Reveta was on the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education board, and the boards of the National Association of Principals of Schools for Girls and the Country Day Headmaster’s Association. She served as a trustee and treasurer of the NAIS Board, and as past president of the California Association of Independent Schools. For the past thirteen years she has also been on the faculty of the NAIS Institute for New Heads where she serves as the Lead Faculty member. One of her proudest career moments was receiving the NAIS Diversity Leadership Award in 2009. She has had a long and rewarding career in independent schools and finds her work with organizations supporting education, students, parents, community and Board work to be continually inspiring.

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Homework Loads Haven't Changed Much in 30 Years

Homework loads for most students have remained 'remarkably stable' for 30 years, a new report finds.

Homework Loads Similar to Decades Ago

A low SAT score does not necessarily mean a high school student is unprepared for higher education.

A new report claims students' homework loads haven't changed much in the last 30 years. iStockphoto

The idea that American students spend hours on end toiling away with burdensome amounts of homework is unfounded, argues a new report from the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy. In fact, homework loads haven't changed all that much in the past three decades.

The center's annual report on American education examined student-reported homework levels in the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 1984 to 2012 and found that for some students, such as those in middle school, homework loads actually have lightened slightly. For all three age groups examined – 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds – most students reported having less than an hour of homework each night, and just a small percentage said they had more than two hours. 

[ READ : 6 Homework Help Apps Students Will Love ]

"The bottom line: regardless of how the question is posed, NAEP data do not support the view that the homework burden is growing, nor do they support the belief that the proportion of students with a lot of homework has increased in recent years," writes study author Tom Loveless, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brown Center. 

According to the NAEP data, the proportion of students in 2012 that reported having between one and two hours of homework the night before dropped for all three age groups compared to 1984. At the higher end of the spectrum, the percentage of students who reported having more than two hours of homework also decreased for all three age groups during the same time.

Overall, 57 percent of 9-year-olds in 2012 reported having less than one hour of homework the previous night, compared with 41 percent in 1984. Although younger students have more homework now than in the 1980s, much of that change comes from the fact that fewer 9-year-olds are being assigned no homework, the report says. Likewise, most 13-year-olds – 44 percent – said they had less than an hour of homework. High school students were the most varied in terms of homework loads, with about a quarter of 17-year-olds reporting they either had no homework assigned the previous night, less than an hour or between one and two hours per night. 

[ OPINION : The Myth of Out of Control Homework ]

In a separate survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, college freshmen reflected on the amount of time they spent doing homework each week during their last year of high school. Less than 40 percent in 2012 said they spent six or more hours each week doing homework or studying, the survey found. That finding is surprising, Loveless writes, because the survey questioned "the nation's best students, those attending college." 

"When these students were high school seniors, it was not an activity central to their out of school lives," Loveless writes in the report. By comparison, nearly half of UCLA survey respondents in 1986 said they spent six or more hours per week studying and doing homework. 

Parents' views on homework loads also have remained relatively stable during the last few decades, Loveless argues. MetLife surveys of parents in 1987 and 2007 showed that most rated the amount of homework their children received as either good or excellent for both years, with very little variation. The majority of parents in both years also said the quality of their children's homework was either good or excellent. 

But a shift also is occurring in the quality and type of homework students receive, according to a recent survey of teachers conducted by the University of Phoenix College of Education. While some students do receive more homework – high school teachers reported assigning 3.5 hours each week, adding up to 17.5 hours for the average high school student – they focus more on critical thinking than busywork, said Ashley Norris, assistant dean of the college. 

[ MORE : Making Parental Peace With Kids' Homework ]

"That is part of the Common Core thinking and aligned with that, these Common Core concepts of the movement towards teaching critical thinking in the classroom," Norris told U.S. News in a previous interview. "It’s not just about rote memorization … because we know that doesn't stick, but the application of what you've learned or the critical thinking piece of how to work through a problem and how to get criticism or feedback and how to work through that further."

Tony Frontier, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Leadership at Cardinal Stritch University, says regardless of the amount of time students spend on homework, it's the quality and purpose that matters. During the last 30 years, Frontier says homework has shifted in such a way that assignments have "much more intentionality." 

"If a student is doing a dozen math problems, it needs to be clear to them why are they doing those dozen math problems," says Frontier, who also serves as a faculty member of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. "If a student can’t explain what it is they’re working towards, then that student doesn’t understand where he or she should be investing his or her effort in that homework. That’s why too often kids feel the work they’re doing is busy work."

[ SEE ALSO : Students Spend More Time on Homework, But Teachers Say It's Worth It ]

But overall, the "homework horror stories" come from parents who are alienated from their child's school, Loveless writes. Those parents who don't believe homework is important (19 percent) are significantly more likely to say too much homework is assigned and that what is assigned is just busywork.

"The homework horror stories need to be read in a proper perspective. They seem to originate from the very personal discontents of a small group of parents," Loveless writes in the report. "They do not reflect the experience of the average family with a school-age child."

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Tags: education , K-12 education , Brookings Institution

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The Surprising History of Homework Reform

Really, kids, there was a time when lots of grownups thought homework was bad for you.

Boy sitting at desk with book

Homework causes a lot of fights. Between parents and kids, sure. But also, as education scholar Brian Gill and historian Steven Schlossman write, among U.S. educators. For more than a century, they’ve been debating how, and whether, kids should do schoolwork at home .

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At the dawn of the twentieth century, homework meant memorizing lists of facts which could then be recited to the teacher the next day. The rising progressive education movement despised that approach. These educators advocated classrooms free from recitation. Instead, they wanted students to learn by doing. To most, homework had no place in this sort of system.

Through the middle of the century, Gill and Schlossman write, this seemed like common sense to most progressives. And they got their way in many schools—at least at the elementary level. Many districts abolished homework for K–6 classes, and almost all of them eliminated it for students below fourth grade.

By the 1950s, many educators roundly condemned drills, like practicing spelling words and arithmetic problems. In 1963, Helen Heffernan, chief of California’s Bureau of Elementary Education, definitively stated that “No teacher aware of recent theories could advocate such meaningless homework assignments as pages of repetitive computation in arithmetic. Such an assignment not only kills time but kills the child’s creative urge to intellectual activity.”

But, the authors note, not all reformers wanted to eliminate homework entirely. Some educators reconfigured the concept, suggesting supplemental reading or having students do projects based in their own interests. One teacher proposed “homework” consisting of after-school “field trips to the woods, factories, museums, libraries, art galleries.” In 1937, Carleton Washburne, an influential educator who was the superintendent of the Winnetka, Illinois, schools, proposed a homework regimen of “cooking and sewing…meal planning…budgeting, home repairs, interior decorating, and family relationships.”

Another reformer explained that “at first homework had as its purpose one thing—to prepare the next day’s lessons. Its purpose now is to prepare the children for fuller living through a new type of creative and recreational homework.”

That idea didn’t necessarily appeal to all educators. But moderation in the use of traditional homework became the norm.

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“Virtually all commentators on homework in the postwar years would have agreed with the sentiment expressed in the NEA Journal in 1952 that ‘it would be absurd to demand homework in the first grade or to denounce it as useless in the eighth grade and in high school,’” Gill and Schlossman write.

That remained more or less true until 1983, when publication of the landmark government report A Nation at Risk helped jump-start a conservative “back to basics” agenda, including an emphasis on drill-style homework. In the decades since, continuing “reforms” like high-stakes testing, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Common Core standards have kept pressure on schools. Which is why twenty-first-century first graders get spelling words and pages of arithmetic.

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The Cult of Homework

America’s devotion to the practice stems in part from the fact that it’s what today’s parents and teachers grew up with themselves.

homework then and now

America has long had a fickle relationship with homework. A century or so ago, progressive reformers argued that it made kids unduly stressed , which later led in some cases to district-level bans on it for all grades under seventh. This anti-homework sentiment faded, though, amid mid-century fears that the U.S. was falling behind the Soviet Union (which led to more homework), only to resurface in the 1960s and ’70s, when a more open culture came to see homework as stifling play and creativity (which led to less). But this didn’t last either: In the ’80s, government researchers blamed America’s schools for its economic troubles and recommended ramping homework up once more.

The 21st century has so far been a homework-heavy era, with American teenagers now averaging about twice as much time spent on homework each day as their predecessors did in the 1990s . Even little kids are asked to bring school home with them. A 2015 study , for instance, found that kindergarteners, who researchers tend to agree shouldn’t have any take-home work, were spending about 25 minutes a night on it.

But not without pushback. As many children, not to mention their parents and teachers, are drained by their daily workload, some schools and districts are rethinking how homework should work—and some teachers are doing away with it entirely. They’re reviewing the research on homework (which, it should be noted, is contested) and concluding that it’s time to revisit the subject.

Read: My daughter’s homework is killing me

Hillsborough, California, an affluent suburb of San Francisco, is one district that has changed its ways. The district, which includes three elementary schools and a middle school, worked with teachers and convened panels of parents in order to come up with a homework policy that would allow students more unscheduled time to spend with their families or to play. In August 2017, it rolled out an updated policy, which emphasized that homework should be “meaningful” and banned due dates that fell on the day after a weekend or a break.

“The first year was a bit bumpy,” says Louann Carlomagno, the district’s superintendent. She says the adjustment was at times hard for the teachers, some of whom had been doing their job in a similar fashion for a quarter of a century. Parents’ expectations were also an issue. Carlomagno says they took some time to “realize that it was okay not to have an hour of homework for a second grader—that was new.”

Most of the way through year two, though, the policy appears to be working more smoothly. “The students do seem to be less stressed based on conversations I’ve had with parents,” Carlomagno says. It also helps that the students performed just as well on the state standardized test last year as they have in the past.

Earlier this year, the district of Somerville, Massachusetts, also rewrote its homework policy, reducing the amount of homework its elementary and middle schoolers may receive. In grades six through eight, for example, homework is capped at an hour a night and can only be assigned two to three nights a week.

Jack Schneider, an education professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell whose daughter attends school in Somerville, is generally pleased with the new policy. But, he says, it’s part of a bigger, worrisome pattern. “The origin for this was general parental dissatisfaction, which not surprisingly was coming from a particular demographic,” Schneider says. “Middle-class white parents tend to be more vocal about concerns about homework … They feel entitled enough to voice their opinions.”

Schneider is all for revisiting taken-for-granted practices like homework, but thinks districts need to take care to be inclusive in that process. “I hear approximately zero middle-class white parents talking about how homework done best in grades K through two actually strengthens the connection between home and school for young people and their families,” he says. Because many of these parents already feel connected to their school community, this benefit of homework can seem redundant. “They don’t need it,” Schneider says, “so they’re not advocating for it.”

That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that homework is more vital in low-income districts. In fact, there are different, but just as compelling, reasons it can be burdensome in these communities as well. Allison Wienhold, who teaches high-school Spanish in the small town of Dunkerton, Iowa, has phased out homework assignments over the past three years. Her thinking: Some of her students, she says, have little time for homework because they’re working 30 hours a week or responsible for looking after younger siblings.

As educators reduce or eliminate the homework they assign, it’s worth asking what amount and what kind of homework is best for students. It turns out that there’s some disagreement about this among researchers, who tend to fall in one of two camps.

In the first camp is Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Cooper conducted a review of the existing research on homework in the mid-2000s , and found that, up to a point, the amount of homework students reported doing correlates with their performance on in-class tests. This correlation, the review found, was stronger for older students than for younger ones.

This conclusion is generally accepted among educators, in part because it’s compatible with “the 10-minute rule,” a rule of thumb popular among teachers suggesting that the proper amount of homework is approximately 10 minutes per night, per grade level—that is, 10 minutes a night for first graders, 20 minutes a night for second graders, and so on, up to two hours a night for high schoolers.

In Cooper’s eyes, homework isn’t overly burdensome for the typical American kid. He points to a 2014 Brookings Institution report that found “little evidence that the homework load has increased for the average student”; onerous amounts of homework, it determined, are indeed out there, but relatively rare. Moreover, the report noted that most parents think their children get the right amount of homework, and that parents who are worried about under-assigning outnumber those who are worried about over-assigning. Cooper says that those latter worries tend to come from a small number of communities with “concerns about being competitive for the most selective colleges and universities.”

According to Alfie Kohn, squarely in camp two, most of the conclusions listed in the previous three paragraphs are questionable. Kohn, the author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing , considers homework to be a “reliable extinguisher of curiosity,” and has several complaints with the evidence that Cooper and others cite in favor of it. Kohn notes, among other things, that Cooper’s 2006 meta-analysis doesn’t establish causation, and that its central correlation is based on children’s (potentially unreliable) self-reporting of how much time they spend doing homework. (Kohn’s prolific writing on the subject alleges numerous other methodological faults.)

In fact, other correlations make a compelling case that homework doesn’t help. Some countries whose students regularly outperform American kids on standardized tests, such as Japan and Denmark, send their kids home with less schoolwork , while students from some countries with higher homework loads than the U.S., such as Thailand and Greece, fare worse on tests. (Of course, international comparisons can be fraught because so many factors, in education systems and in societies at large, might shape students’ success.)

Kohn also takes issue with the way achievement is commonly assessed. “If all you want is to cram kids’ heads with facts for tomorrow’s tests that they’re going to forget by next week, yeah, if you give them more time and make them do the cramming at night, that could raise the scores,” he says. “But if you’re interested in kids who know how to think or enjoy learning, then homework isn’t merely ineffective, but counterproductive.”

His concern is, in a way, a philosophical one. “The practice of homework assumes that only academic growth matters, to the point that having kids work on that most of the school day isn’t enough,” Kohn says. What about homework’s effect on quality time spent with family? On long-term information retention? On critical-thinking skills? On social development? On success later in life? On happiness? The research is quiet on these questions.

Another problem is that research tends to focus on homework’s quantity rather than its quality, because the former is much easier to measure than the latter. While experts generally agree that the substance of an assignment matters greatly (and that a lot of homework is uninspiring busywork), there isn’t a catchall rule for what’s best—the answer is often specific to a certain curriculum or even an individual student.

Given that homework’s benefits are so narrowly defined (and even then, contested), it’s a bit surprising that assigning so much of it is often a classroom default, and that more isn’t done to make the homework that is assigned more enriching. A number of things are preserving this state of affairs—things that have little to do with whether homework helps students learn.

Jack Schneider, the Massachusetts parent and professor, thinks it’s important to consider the generational inertia of the practice. “The vast majority of parents of public-school students themselves are graduates of the public education system,” he says. “Therefore, their views of what is legitimate have been shaped already by the system that they would ostensibly be critiquing.” In other words, many parents’ own history with homework might lead them to expect the same for their children, and anything less is often taken as an indicator that a school or a teacher isn’t rigorous enough. (This dovetails with—and complicates—the finding that most parents think their children have the right amount of homework.)

Barbara Stengel, an education professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, brought up two developments in the educational system that might be keeping homework rote and unexciting. The first is the importance placed in the past few decades on standardized testing, which looms over many public-school classroom decisions and frequently discourages teachers from trying out more creative homework assignments. “They could do it, but they’re afraid to do it, because they’re getting pressure every day about test scores,” Stengel says.

Second, she notes that the profession of teaching, with its relatively low wages and lack of autonomy, struggles to attract and support some of the people who might reimagine homework, as well as other aspects of education. “Part of why we get less interesting homework is because some of the people who would really have pushed the limits of that are no longer in teaching,” she says.

“In general, we have no imagination when it comes to homework,” Stengel says. She wishes teachers had the time and resources to remake homework into something that actually engages students. “If we had kids reading—anything, the sports page, anything that they’re able to read—that’s the best single thing. If we had kids going to the zoo, if we had kids going to parks after school, if we had them doing all of those things, their test scores would improve. But they’re not. They’re going home and doing homework that is not expanding what they think about.”

“Exploratory” is one word Mike Simpson used when describing the types of homework he’d like his students to undertake. Simpson is the head of the Stone Independent School, a tiny private high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that opened in 2017. “We were lucky to start a school a year and a half ago,” Simpson says, “so it’s been easy to say we aren’t going to assign worksheets, we aren’t going assign regurgitative problem sets.” For instance, a half-dozen students recently built a 25-foot trebuchet on campus.

Simpson says he thinks it’s a shame that the things students have to do at home are often the least fulfilling parts of schooling: “When our students can’t make the connection between the work they’re doing at 11 o’clock at night on a Tuesday to the way they want their lives to be, I think we begin to lose the plot.”

When I talked with other teachers who did homework makeovers in their classrooms, I heard few regrets. Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher in Joshua, Texas, stopped assigning take-home packets of worksheets three years ago, and instead started asking her students to do 20 minutes of pleasure reading a night. She says she’s pleased with the results, but she’s noticed something funny. “Some kids,” she says, “really do like homework.” She’s started putting out a bucket of it for students to draw from voluntarily—whether because they want an additional challenge or something to pass the time at home.

Chris Bronke, a high-school English teacher in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, told me something similar. This school year, he eliminated homework for his class of freshmen, and now mostly lets students study on their own or in small groups during class time. It’s usually up to them what they work on each day, and Bronke has been impressed by how they’ve managed their time.

In fact, some of them willingly spend time on assignments at home, whether because they’re particularly engaged, because they prefer to do some deeper thinking outside school, or because they needed to spend time in class that day preparing for, say, a biology test the following period. “They’re making meaningful decisions about their time that I don’t think education really ever gives students the experience, nor the practice, of doing,” Bronke said.

The typical prescription offered by those overwhelmed with homework is to assign less of it—to subtract. But perhaps a more useful approach, for many classrooms, would be to create homework only when teachers and students believe it’s actually needed to further the learning that takes place in class—to start with nothing, and add as necessary.

Homework load little changed in 30 years, study says

Katie Venne does homework as her mother Sylvie works on dinner in the kitchen.

Parental concerns about ever-expanding homework assignments for their children may be misguided, according to new research suggesting that students' homework burdens have barely changed in 30 years.

The share of 17-year-olds who said they had one to two hours of homework on a typical night dropped from 27% in 1984 to 23% in 2012, according to a report today in the annual Brown Center Report on American Education, sponsored by the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank based in Washington, D.C. The percentage who spent more than two hours a night on homework remained unchanged at 13%.

In a separate survey by researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles, the percentage of college freshmen nationwide who recalled having six or more hours of homework a week during their senior year in high school dropped from 50% in 1986 to 38% in 2012.

"It still doesn't look like kids are overworked," says researcher Tom Loveless, a longtime education researcher and former public school math teacher who conducted the Brookings study. "The percentage who are overworked is really small."

The findings come amid complaints by some parents that their children's homework load is out of control. In one recent survey, 46% of parents in Bernards Township, N.J., said their children spend too much time on homework. Only 4.6% said their kids don't have enough homework.

Some school districtsare considering explicit time limits on nightly homework assignments, and a few are even talking about making homework optional.

Loveless analyzed several previous surveys, including data from the federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a set of basic-skills tests given periodically to 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds. Among survey questions included in NAEP: "How much time did you spend on homework yesterday?"

More 17-year-olds reported having no homework at all. From 1984 to 2012, the percentage who said they had "none assigned" grew from 22% to 27%. Another 11% said they had homework but didn't do it, a figure unchanged over 28 years.

The only significant increase in homework, the NAEP study found, was for 9-year-olds. In 1984, 35% reported no homework the previous night. By 2012, that had shrunk to 22%. The share of students reporting less than an hour of homework rose from 41% to 57%. The percentage of 9-year-olds with an hour or more of homework shrank by two percentage points, from 19% to 17%.

Loveless says previous research has suggested that parents who complain about homework are often already "alienated from the school" for other reasons.

Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, says the homework picture looks very different for different groups of students. College-bound students pushing for admittance to elite universities "probably are doing too much homework and are stressed out about it." But the rest of the USA's student population, he says, "are not being pushed to do a lot of homework at all."

An illustration shows an open math workbook and a pencil writing numbers in it, while the previous page disintegrates and floats away.

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Nobody knows what the point of homework is

The homework wars are back.

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As the Covid-19 pandemic began and students logged into their remote classrooms, all work, in effect, became homework. But whether or not students could complete it at home varied. For some, schoolwork became public-library work or McDonald’s-parking-lot work.

Luis Torres, the principal of PS 55, a predominantly low-income community elementary school in the south Bronx, told me that his school secured Chromebooks for students early in the pandemic only to learn that some lived in shelters that blocked wifi for security reasons. Others, who lived in housing projects with poor internet reception, did their schoolwork in laundromats.

According to a 2021 Pew survey , 25 percent of lower-income parents said their children, at some point, were unable to complete their schoolwork because they couldn’t access a computer at home; that number for upper-income parents was 2 percent.

The issues with remote learning in March 2020 were new. But they highlighted a divide that had been there all along in another form: homework. And even long after schools have resumed in-person classes, the pandemic’s effects on homework have lingered.

Over the past three years, in response to concerns about equity, schools across the country, including in Sacramento, Los Angeles , San Diego , and Clark County, Nevada , made permanent changes to their homework policies that restricted how much homework could be given and how it could be graded after in-person learning resumed.

Three years into the pandemic, as districts and teachers reckon with Covid-era overhauls of teaching and learning, schools are still reconsidering the purpose and place of homework. Whether relaxing homework expectations helps level the playing field between students or harms them by decreasing rigor is a divisive issue without conclusive evidence on either side, echoing other debates in education like the elimination of standardized test scores from some colleges’ admissions processes.

I first began to wonder if the homework abolition movement made sense after speaking with teachers in some Massachusetts public schools, who argued that rather than help disadvantaged kids, stringent homework restrictions communicated an attitude of low expectations. One, an English teacher, said she felt the school had “just given up” on trying to get the students to do work; another argued that restrictions that prohibit teachers from assigning take-home work that doesn’t begin in class made it difficult to get through the foreign-language curriculum. Teachers in other districts have raised formal concerns about homework abolition’s ability to close gaps among students rather than widening them.

Many education experts share this view. Harris Cooper, a professor emeritus of psychology at Duke who has studied homework efficacy, likened homework abolition to “playing to the lowest common denominator.”

But as I learned after talking to a variety of stakeholders — from homework researchers to policymakers to parents of schoolchildren — whether to abolish homework probably isn’t the right question. More important is what kind of work students are sent home with and where they can complete it. Chances are, if schools think more deeply about giving constructive work, time spent on homework will come down regardless.

There’s no consensus on whether homework works

The rise of the no-homework movement during the Covid-19 pandemic tapped into long-running disagreements over homework’s impact on students. The purpose and effectiveness of homework have been disputed for well over a century. In 1901, for instance, California banned homework for students up to age 15, and limited it for older students, over concerns that it endangered children’s mental and physical health. The newest iteration of the anti-homework argument contends that the current practice punishes students who lack support and rewards those with more resources, reinforcing the “myth of meritocracy.”

But there is still no research consensus on homework’s effectiveness; no one can seem to agree on what the right metrics are. Much of the debate relies on anecdotes, intuition, or speculation.

Researchers disagree even on how much research exists on the value of homework. Kathleen Budge, the co-author of Turning High-Poverty Schools Into High-Performing Schools and a professor at Boise State, told me that homework “has been greatly researched.” Denise Pope, a Stanford lecturer and leader of the education nonprofit Challenge Success, said, “It’s not a highly researched area because of some of the methodological problems.”

Experts who are more sympathetic to take-home assignments generally support the “10-minute rule,” a framework that estimates the ideal amount of homework on any given night by multiplying the student’s grade by 10 minutes. (A ninth grader, for example, would have about 90 minutes of work a night.) Homework proponents argue that while it is difficult to design randomized control studies to test homework’s effectiveness, the vast majority of existing studies show a strong positive correlation between homework and high academic achievement for middle and high school students. Prominent critics of homework argue that these correlational studies are unreliable and point to studies that suggest a neutral or negative effect on student performance. Both agree there is little to no evidence for homework’s effectiveness at an elementary school level, though proponents often argue that it builds constructive habits for the future.

For anyone who remembers homework assignments from both good and bad teachers, this fundamental disagreement might not be surprising. Some homework is pointless and frustrating to complete. Every week during my senior year of high school, I had to analyze a poem for English and decorate it with images found on Google; my most distinct memory from that class is receiving a demoralizing 25-point deduction because I failed to present my analysis on a poster board. Other assignments really do help students learn: After making an adapted version of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book for a ninth grade history project, I was inspired to check out from the library and read a biography of the Chinese ruler.

For homework opponents, the first example is more likely to resonate. “We’re all familiar with the negative effects of homework: stress, exhaustion, family conflict, less time for other activities, diminished interest in learning,” Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, which challenges common justifications for homework, told me in an email. “And these effects may be most pronounced among low-income students.” Kohn believes that schools should make permanent any moratoria implemented during the pandemic, arguing that there are no positives at all to outweigh homework’s downsides. Recent studies , he argues , show the benefits may not even materialize during high school.

In the Marlborough Public Schools, a suburban district 45 minutes west of Boston, school policy committee chair Katherine Hennessy described getting kids to complete their homework during remote education as “a challenge, to say the least.” Teachers found that students who spent all day on their computers didn’t want to spend more time online when the day was over. So, for a few months, the school relaxed the usual practice and teachers slashed the quantity of nightly homework.

Online learning made the preexisting divides between students more apparent, she said. Many students, even during normal circumstances, lacked resources to keep them on track and focused on completing take-home assignments. Though Marlborough Schools is more affluent than PS 55, Hennessy said many students had parents whose work schedules left them unable to provide homework help in the evenings. The experience tracked with a common divide in the country between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

So in October 2021, months after the homework reduction began, the Marlborough committee made a change to the district’s policy. While teachers could still give homework, the assignments had to begin as classwork. And though teachers could acknowledge homework completion in a student’s participation grade, they couldn’t count homework as its own grading category. “Rigorous learning in the classroom does not mean that that classwork must be assigned every night,” the policy stated . “Extensions of class work is not to be used to teach new content or as a form of punishment.”

Canceling homework might not do anything for the achievement gap

The critiques of homework are valid as far as they go, but at a certain point, arguments against homework can defy the commonsense idea that to retain what they’re learning, students need to practice it.

“Doesn’t a kid become a better reader if he reads more? Doesn’t a kid learn his math facts better if he practices them?” said Cathy Vatterott, an education researcher and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. After decades of research, she said it’s still hard to isolate the value of homework, but that doesn’t mean it should be abandoned.

Blanket vilification of homework can also conflate the unique challenges facing disadvantaged students as compared to affluent ones, which could have different solutions. “The kids in the low-income schools are being hurt because they’re being graded, unfairly, on time they just don’t have to do this stuff,” Pope told me. “And they’re still being held accountable for turning in assignments, whether they’re meaningful or not.” On the other side, “Palo Alto kids” — students in Silicon Valley’s stereotypically pressure-cooker public schools — “are just bombarded and overloaded and trying to stay above water.”

Merely getting rid of homework doesn’t solve either problem. The United States already has the second-highest disparity among OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations between time spent on homework by students of high and low socioeconomic status — a difference of more than three hours, said Janine Bempechat, clinical professor at Boston University and author of No More Mindless Homework .

When she interviewed teachers in Boston-area schools that had cut homework before the pandemic, Bempechat told me, “What they saw immediately was parents who could afford it immediately enrolled their children in the Russian School of Mathematics,” a math-enrichment program whose tuition ranges from $140 to about $400 a month. Getting rid of homework “does nothing for equity; it increases the opportunity gap between wealthier and less wealthy families,” she said. “That solution troubles me because it’s no solution at all.”

A group of teachers at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, made the same point after the school district proposed an overhaul of its homework policies, including removing penalties for missing homework deadlines, allowing unlimited retakes, and prohibiting grading of homework.

“Given the emphasis on equity in today’s education systems,” they wrote in a letter to the school board, “we believe that some of the proposed changes will actually have a detrimental impact towards achieving this goal. Families that have means could still provide challenging and engaging academic experiences for their children and will continue to do so, especially if their children are not experiencing expected rigor in the classroom.” At a school where more than a third of students are low-income, the teachers argued, the policies would prompt students “to expect the least of themselves in terms of effort, results, and responsibility.”

Not all homework is created equal

Despite their opposing sides in the homework wars, most of the researchers I spoke to made a lot of the same points. Both Bempechat and Pope were quick to bring up how parents and schools confuse rigor with workload, treating the volume of assignments as a proxy for quality of learning. Bempechat, who is known for defending homework, has written extensively about how plenty of it lacks clear purpose, requires the purchasing of unnecessary supplies, and takes longer than it needs to. Likewise, when Pope instructs graduate-level classes on curriculum, she asks her students to think about the larger purpose they’re trying to achieve with homework: If they can get the job done in the classroom, there’s no point in sending home more work.

At its best, pandemic-era teaching facilitated that last approach. Honolulu-based teacher Christina Torres Cawdery told me that, early in the pandemic, she often had a cohort of kids in her classroom for four hours straight, as her school tried to avoid too much commingling. She couldn’t lecture for four hours, so she gave the students plenty of time to complete independent and project-based work. At the end of most school days, she didn’t feel the need to send them home with more to do.

A similar limited-homework philosophy worked at a public middle school in Chelsea, Massachusetts. A couple of teachers there turned as much class as possible into an opportunity for small-group practice, allowing kids to work on problems that traditionally would be assigned for homework, Jessica Flick, a math coach who leads department meetings at the school, told me. It was inspired by a philosophy pioneered by Simon Fraser University professor Peter Liljedahl, whose influential book Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics reframes homework as “check-your-understanding questions” rather than as compulsory work. Last year, Flick found that the two eighth grade classes whose teachers adopted this strategy performed the best on state tests, and this year, she has encouraged other teachers to implement it.

Teachers know that plenty of homework is tedious and unproductive. Jeannemarie Dawson De Quiroz, who has taught for more than 20 years in low-income Boston and Los Angeles pilot and charter schools, says that in her first years on the job she frequently assigned “drill and kill” tasks and questions that she now feels unfairly stumped students. She said designing good homework wasn’t part of her teaching programs, nor was it meaningfully discussed in professional development. With more experience, she turned as much class time as she could into practice time and limited what she sent home.

“The thing about homework that’s sticky is that not all homework is created equal,” says Jill Harrison Berg, a former teacher and the author of Uprooting Instructional Inequity . “Some homework is a genuine waste of time and requires lots of resources for no good reason. And other homework is really useful.”

Cutting homework has to be part of a larger strategy

The takeaways are clear: Schools can make cuts to homework, but those cuts should be part of a strategy to improve the quality of education for all students. If the point of homework was to provide more practice, districts should think about how students can make it up during class — or offer time during or after school for students to seek help from teachers. If it was to move the curriculum along, it’s worth considering whether strategies like Liljedahl’s can get more done in less time.

Some of the best thinking around effective assignments comes from those most critical of the current practice. Denise Pope proposes that, before assigning homework, teachers should consider whether students understand the purpose of the work and whether they can do it without help. If teachers think it’s something that can’t be done in class, they should be mindful of how much time it should take and the feedback they should provide. It’s questions like these that De Quiroz considered before reducing the volume of work she sent home.

More than a year after the new homework policy began in Marlborough, Hennessy still hears from parents who incorrectly “think homework isn’t happening” despite repeated assurances that kids still can receive work. She thinks part of the reason is that education has changed over the years. “I think what we’re trying to do is establish that homework may be an element of educating students,” she told me. “But it may not be what parents think of as what they grew up with. ... It’s going to need to adapt, per the teaching and the curriculum, and how it’s being delivered in each classroom.”

For the policy to work, faculty, parents, and students will all have to buy into a shared vision of what school ought to look like. The district is working on it — in November, it hosted and uploaded to YouTube a round-table discussion on homework between district administrators — but considering the sustained confusion, the path ahead seems difficult.

When I asked Luis Torres about whether he thought homework serves a useful part in PS 55’s curriculum, he said yes, of course it was — despite the effort and money it takes to keep the school open after hours to help them do it. “The children need the opportunity to practice,” he said. “If you don’t give them opportunities to practice what they learn, they’re going to forget.” But Torres doesn’t care if the work is done at home. The school stays open until around 6 pm on weekdays, even during breaks. Tutors through New York City’s Department of Youth and Community Development programs help kids with work after school so they don’t need to take it with them.

As schools weigh the purpose of homework in an unequal world, it’s tempting to dispose of a practice that presents real, practical problems to students across the country. But getting rid of homework is unlikely to do much good on its own. Before cutting it, it’s worth thinking about what good assignments are meant to do in the first place. It’s crucial that students from all socioeconomic backgrounds tackle complex quantitative problems and hone their reading and writing skills. It’s less important that the work comes home with them.

Jacob Sweet is a freelance writer in Somerville, Massachusetts. He is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, among other publications.

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