The Myth of Out of Control Homework

A new study says kids have been getting about the same amount of homework since 1984.

Make sure you understand your test answers, both right and wrong, in order to identify weaknesses and improve your overall score.

Homework is essential to a child's learning process.

By + More

For ages, it was kids who complained about homework and parents who wagged their fingers at them, telling them their schoolwork had to be done before heading outside to play. More recently, it has been the parents who have complained mightily about homework – some even insisting it should be done away with completely – and saying it is interfering with their family lives and putting an undue burden on the students.

There are surely many legitimate complaints here, because demands vary widely from district to district and for that matter, from family to family. But much of it is based on untruths, according to a recent study by Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy. Despite a spate of articles and books and campaigns against homework as out of control, students, on average, are not being given more homework than they used to be given, according to the report.

In fact, the homework load has been rather stable since 1984, according to the study. Thirteen-year-olds actually saw an average drop in their homework loads, and 27 percent of 17-year-olds reported having no homework at all, compared to 22 percent in 1984. Further, 11 percent of 17-year-olds reported simply refusing to do their work at all (a disclosure that will come as no surprise to high school teachers). Nine-year-olds indeed reported higher average homework loads, but that's "primarily because many students who once did not have any now have some."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Is the problem really too much homework? Or is it too much parental distress over homework?

It may depend on how involved the parents are in their kids’ educations. We have parents who actually do their kids’ homework – perhaps the worst possible lesson a child could ever learn, that he or she doesn’t have to do assigned work and can represent someone else’s work as their own. There is a sense among some parents that homework is not, as it should be at least, a way for kids to practice skills learned in class and show that they understand the concepts, but rather another way to rank kids as parents try to get them into the best colleges. We have other parents who have little or no interest in their kids’ educations (or are so stressed just trying to put food on the table that they don’t have the time to pay attention) and so don’t help their kids or even discipline them to do their own work. And we have parents who understandably can’t help their kids with their homework, since the curricula is far more advanced than it was when the parents were themselves in school.

But homework isn’t just about make-work for students. Nor is it just another testing system (on top of standardized tests) for kids. It’s a way to make sure students are, indeed, learning. And it’s a way to help them learn how to do things on their own. School is not simply about job training; it’s about teaching young people how to think for themselves and make sensible decisions. That can’t happen if a child does nothing more than sit passively in a classroom. But even the job-preparation element of school suffers if kids aren’t given homework. What employer wants a worker who is incapable of completing tasks independently and figuring out answers to problems on his or her own?

Like any statistical averages, the numbers in the Brown study could mask some problems. There may indeed be students who are given no homework at all, and some who are loaded with absurd amounts of work. But it’s no worse than it used to be.