Homework has been a controversial issue in American education for over 100 years, and the arguments have changed little over time. Proponents of homework believe that it promotes increased learning, better study habits, and improved home-school communication. Opponents argue that it deprives children of time to spend on other worthwhile pursuits (including play), usurps parents’ rights to plan their children’s time after school, increases the achievement gap between higher and lower socioeconomic classes, harms children’s health, and fails to produce academic benefits.
Parents have generally favored moderate amounts of homework, but educators’ support for homework has been somewhat cyclical. In the nineteenth century, when pedagogy was based on drill, memorization, and recitation, homework was necessary if students were going to be able to recite memorized lessons in class. Students probably found it boring, repetitive, and exhausting, but there was little organized opposition to it.
Organized criticism of homework began in the 1890s. Physicians cited the health dangers of homework, such as curvature of the spine, stress, and eye strain, as reasons to abolish homework. Then in 1897, Dr. Joseph Mayer Rice reported that spelling practice at home did not even lead to better spelling.
Attacks on homework increased during the progressive education movement of the early twentieth century. Progressive educators favored meaningful learning through experience, so old-fashioned homework based on memorization was incompatible with their pedagogy and philosophy. Moreover, they believed that teaching should be based on scientific principles known only to trained teachers, so parents attempting to help their children with homework would only confuse them. Antihomework activists succeeded in making their position educational dogma in 1941, when the Encyclopedia of Educational Research published an article that stated that “research evidence is none too favorable to homework.”
Since the progressive era, favorable opinions toward homework have been more common during campaigns for academic excellence. Homework came back into favor during the Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s, when more rigor in education was seen as essential to national defense. After increasing in the early 1960s, homework decreased during the Vietnam era, when attention shifted to social issues. After the publication of the report A Nation at Risk in 1983, support for homework reemerged as part of the back-to-basics movement meant to preserve the economic position of the United States. Educators, parents, and policy makers all generally favored homework during the 1980s and 1990s. There is still substantial support for homework, and the amount of time students spend on homework has increased slightly in recent years.
There are still concerns about homework, however. Research shows that homework is more likely to be associated with achievement gains as students get older, but recently students in the primary grades are the ones most likely to receive extra homework. Inequities in resources at home for the completion of homework may increase the achievement gap between wealthier and poorer students. According to Etta Kralovec and John Buell, homework-induced stress even causes some students to drop out of school. The ramifications of assigning homework may be far less, or far greater, than a teacher expects.
- Cooper, H., Robinson, J., & Patall, E. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research, 76, 1–62.
- Gill, B., & Schlossman, S. (2004). Villain or savior? The American discourse on homework, 1850–2003. Theory Into Practice, 43, 174–181.
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