Homework has been a part of student’s lives since the beginning of formal schooling in the United States. The practice, however, has sometimes been accepted and other times rejected by both educators and parents. These views have surfaced because homework can have both positive and negative effects on a child’s learning, along with their attitude toward school (Boers, 1995). At different points throughout history, radically different viewpoints have prevailed. Many different passions have arisen and extreme positions have always been customary.
In the early 1800s, much of the United States was an agricultural society, so the school year was short and homework was of little significance (Checkley, 1997). Working for the family took priority so there was little time for homework because children had numerous chores to complete. Most students left school after the sixth grade. High school homework was demanding but uncontroversial. Homework was generally discouraged by parents, because they were concerned with the work getting done. After the Industrial Revolution, families started moving to large cities and becoming more urbanized. This was a period in time when education was growing and developing and many new schools were built. It was during the late nineteenth century that Americans first started to debate the pros and cons of homework (1997). Two court cases relating to homework complaints took place in Texas and Mississippi in 1887 and 1895 respectively (Gill, 2001).
Over the course of the twentieth century, sparks flew regularly whenever professionals, politicians, and parents addressed the topic of homework in schools. In the early 1900’s, Edward Bok addressed concerns of the value of homework, suggesting that no homework be assigned to anyone under the age of 15, while also proposing that children 15 and older should have one hour per night (Kralovec & Buell, 2000). “Ladies Home Journal” led a crusade against homework, enlisting doctors and parents that said it was damaging to children’s health. Various school districts passed anti-homework regulations. In 1901, California legislature passed a law abolishing homework in grades kindergarten through eighth grade and limiting it in high school (2000).
In the 1920s, the progressive education movement began to ask more questions about the structure of teaching. Supporters of this movement viewed learning as an active process of problem solving. Anti-homework attitudes were commonly central components of this movement (Boers, 1995). This was far different from the philosophy that claimed children were passive, blank slates that needed to be imprinted with information.
During the 1930s, there were plenty of debates and discussions on the topic of homework. Several different publications on the topic of homework abounded in education journals and popular periodicals. In addition, the Society of the Abolition of Homework was established (Checkley, 1997). One of their main arguments was the health concerns that were a result of doing homework. They argued that homework damaged the physical, emotional, and mental health of children (1997). Their reasoning was that homework reduced the amount of time they had to play outside and get fresh air, caused eye strain, and triggered a lack of sleep. This attitude came to the forefront throughout the 1930s, when labor unions were lobbying for workplace reforms as well. During times like these, when economic, political, or cultural crises take place, issues in education took center stage. Homework was branded as unhealthy for children (1997). Many schools started to require that any extra work was to be done at school under teacher supervision.
In 1941, psychologist Henry Otto said, “The benefits of assigned homework are too small to counterbalance the disadvantages” (Cooper, 1996). During this time, homework was one of the most contested school practices. It provided parents with a regular outlet to criticize or praise teachers, and to express strong views about what went on at school. In 1948, a national survey showed the median amount of time spent on homework by high school students was between three and four hours per week (Gill, 2001). The educational debate then started to shift from abolishing homework to making it more creative and individualized.
In response to Russia’s launching of the space satellite Sputnik in 1957, the pendulum started to swing again. Concerns arose that American students were not keeping up with those in Russia. The progressive education movement came under attack, charged with being irrational and insufficiently rigorous (Checkley, 1997). A fifty year trend toward less homework came to an abrupt halt. Due to the increasing pressure to stay ahead in the Cold War, a cry came out for more and better education in math and science, and as a result, both educators and parents called for more homework. The National Defense Education Act supported this effort and continued to place a high value on homework (1997).
For the first half of the century, most educational scholars were sharply critical of teachers’ reliance on heavy, repetitive, memory-driven homework assignments. Cooper (1997) stated that up until the 1950s, homework was widely viewed as a sin against childhood. Parents were far more supportive of homework than academic experts during this time. In all regions of the United States, parents encouraged substantial homework for their children, not only to improve their academic performance, but also to build character, train work habits, fill otherwise idle time, and provide a concrete starting point for parent-teacher communication.
By the 1960s, homework was seen as one contributing factor to academic achievement. However, in 1966, the National Education Association did suggest some limits in the amounts of homework given (Gill, 2000). Educators and parents worried that homework was swarming out social experiences, outdoor exercise, and creative extracurricular activities. They recommended no homework for early elementary grades, no more than one hour per day, four days per week for the upper elementary grades, and one and a half hours per night for high school students (2000).
During the 1970s, a ‘Back to Basics’ theme prevailed. Teachers were expected to focus on the core subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic. A Gallup poll in 1978 showed that 72% of Americans thought that schools could be improved by assigning more homework (Kralovec & Buell, 2000).
In the 1980s, “A Nation at Risk” was published, which disapproved of a ‘rising tide of mediocrity’ in American schools. This report claimed that American students were not studying the right subjects, were not working hard enough, and were not learning enough. Their schools suffered from slack and uneven standards. Many of their teachers were ill-prepared (Gill, 2001). It declared that much of what troubled the country’s economy could be attributed to the inadequacies of the schools. They stressed that the need for more homework and a longer school day would be critical to improving these issues. As a result, schools began to vie with one another to require more and more homework at an earlier age. In 1986, the United States Department of Education published a pamphlet called “What Works,” and it concluded that homework did, in fact, work. This was also the time period when the “academic excellence” movement began. Even though researcher Harris Cooper reported in 1989 that his extensive studies suggested that the amount of homework done in the elementary grades had little or no effect on later academic achievement, policymakers maintained the significance of homework, and encouraged educators to increase the amounts given (Cooper, 1994). During these years, comparisons to educational approaches, school hours, and the amount of homework assigned by other countries also became prevalent.
During the 80s and 90s, homework was hailed as inherently good by educators, politicians, and the general public from all points on the ideological spectrum. Beginning in the 1990s, it started to become commonplace for school districts to adopt policies requiring homework, even in the earlier grades (Checkley, 1997). In 1998, a national survey showed that the amount of homework given to elementary school students had dramatically increased from the amount given in 1978 (Gill, 2001).
In recent years, homework has been given in greater quantities than in the past, partly due to rising academic standards, difficulty in getting into top colleges, and the challenging job market that faces graduates today (Cooper & Lindsay, 1998). The resources that are available to students who need support with their homework are growing. There are homework hotlines, and special homework tutors and programs that are offered in learning centers. In addition, there are numerous internet websites that offer support, and many schools’ after school programs have set a time aside for the kids to work on homework with supervision.
Homework, defined as “tasks assigned to students by school teachers that are meant to be performed during non-school hours,” is a traditional teaching strategy (Cholden, 1998). Homework assignments generally have different purposes. The most common purpose is to have students practice material already learned in class. Practice homework is meant to reinforce learning and help the student master specific skills. Preparation homework introduces material that will be presented in a future lesson. These assignments aim to help students learn new material so they will be better prepared when it is covered in class. Extension homework asks students to apply skills they already have to new situations, while integration homework requires the student to apply many different skills to a single task, such as reports, projects, and other creative assignments (1998).
From an educator’s point of view, assigning homework can serve many different educational needs. It can be used to establish sound study habits, further intellectual discipline, ease time constraints for the amount of subject material that needs to be covered in class, as well as supplement and reinforce work that is done in school. Many parents and educators agree that homework can additionally benefit children in more general ways as well. Carol Huntsinger, a professor of education and psychology at the College of Lake County, conducted a four-year study of 80 families relating to homework given in the preschool and primary grades reaping long-term benefits. It showed that children who did considerable homework were more academically competent than and as psychologically well adjusted as children who did little or no homework in the early grades (McCarthy, 2006). It appeared from Huntsinger’s study that children did, in fact, benefit from more practice on basic skills outside of school. She also found that when she asked 585 kids in grades 4 through 12 if they felt they had too much homework, 67% of them said no, that they had just enough (2006).
Homework can promote positive student traits, such as independence, initiative, and responsibility, while also helping with time management skills and perseverance. Furthermore, completing schoolwork at home can teach students that learning can take place anywhere, not solely in the classroom. Homework has also been known to bring home and school closer together. Parent involvement can be helpful in speeding up a child’s learning, while also enhancing the parents’ appreciation of education. Homework can be the outlet for parents to express positive attitudes about the value of success in school. Overall, homework can be an effective way for students to improve their learning, and for parents to be made aware of what their student is learning and how well their child is doing in school. Yet because so many factors influence the impact of homework achievement, expectations for homework’s outcomes, especially in the earlier grades, must be realistic.
If not properly assigned and monitored, homework can also have negative effects on children and families. Homework can lead to boredom with schoolwork, since all activities can only remain interesting for so long. It can prevent children from taking part in leisure-time and community activities which also teach important life skills. There are even studies out that suggest the increasing amounts of homework are leading to childhood obesity (Bennett & Kalish, 2006). These reviews say that the reason children are not getting outside to play and exercise as often is because of the burden of too much homework. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons made an announcement in 1998 that high school students are suffering an epidemic of back, neck, and shoulder injuries due to all of the books they have to lug around in their backpacks (2006). Homework also has the possibility of leading to undesirable character traits such as cheating, either through the copying of assignments or receiving help that goes beyond tutoring. Moreover, giving assignments to complete at home can cause poor attitudes in children toward school and learning.
Parents can become too involved in the homework process as well, thus interfering with their child’s learning. Parents may confuse their children if the teaching techniques they use differ from those used in the classroom. Their involvement may also hinder student learning if they complete tasks that the child is capable of completing alone. At times, increased homework loads can also aggravate tensions within the family. A parent’s attitude can have a direct effect on their children’s attitude toward school and homework (Cooper, 1994). Others argue that homework can accentuate the disparity between students from low-income homes and students from middle or high-class homes (Kohn, 2006).
Gerald LeTendre, professor of education at Penn State, is convinced that teachers are misusing homework as a means for improving test scores (Kohn, 2006). He believes that they should be concentrating more on their instructional strategies and methods, rather than giving extra homework to boost academic test scores. LeTendre stated, “Undue focus on homework as a national quick-fix, rather than a focus on issues of instructional quality and equity of access to opportunity to learn, may lead our country into wasted expenditures of time and energy” (2006).
Teachers may feel pressured to give more homework in order to prepare students for standardized testing, which often carries a heavy weight with administrators. Teachers also feel the frustrations that come with homework, as many students repeatedly neglect to turn in their assignments. Constant reminding, reprimanding, taking away privileges, and making phone calls home are superfluous responsibilities for the teacher when assigning the work. The teacher may end up becoming even more upset and disheartened as the cycle continues, knowing that the students’ grades may drop as a result of their irresponsibility.
The issue for educators and parents alike is not which list of effects, the positive or negative, is correct. To a degree, both are. It is the responsibility of parents and teachers to maximize the benefits that are possible, while minimizing the costs. Determining the value of homework depends on the application of knowledge an individual has about the subject. There is very little research on how homework specifically relates to student achievement. Although there are many mixed feelings about homework’s effectiveness, a large majority of parents, students, and teachers agree that homework develops students’ character in a positive way (Kohn, 2006). Harris Cooper (1996), a University of Missouri psychology professor who has studied homework’s effects on test scores, has found that “there is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary school students.”
When looking at the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2000, fourth graders who did no homework scored the same as those who studied for 30 minutes each night (Cooper & Lindsay, 1998). Eighth grade students’ scores were slightly higher for the kids who did between 15 and 45 minutes of homework per night opposed to those that did less. High school students’ scores were similar throughout the group; regardless of how much homework they reported doing. Cooper admits that he has seen a relationship between the time students spend on homework and their achievement, but not a considerable amount. He found that in high school, the correlation between homework and academic success is much higher than in the lower grades (1998). Cooper stated, “Homework has benefits that go well beyond what is going on in school, and for that reason, I believe it will continue to be an integral part of our educational system for quite some time” (1998).
In today’s modern world, an old-fashioned approach to homework will not work. Homework has to be relevant to the lives of children and a little creativity and careful planning on the teacher’s part will go a long way. An appropriate purpose for homework would be to practice skills, reinforce academic concepts, extend learning, promote healthy study skills, apply new concepts, involve students, and develop positive attitudes toward school and learning. Homework should be seen as any activity where learning is extended outside of school. Assignments that are interactive, and require students to discuss the subject matter with someone else can be beneficial. This would include activities that children can do with their parents, older siblings, or fellow classmates.
Teachers should try to give assignments that are self-explanatory and make sure the directions are clear before leaving the classroom. Effective homework also appeals to many different learning styles, so that students do not get bored with the monotony of the same types of assignments. In order for homework to be the most valuable, it must be meaningfully planned, sufficiently evaluated, and the assignments must incorporate some student choice, variety, and encourage creativity. The recommended time for returning graded schoolwork in order for it to be meaningful is no longer than 3 days. However, the sooner a student receives feedback, the more significant it becomes. (Boers, 1995).
Overall, researchers have been far from unanimous in their assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of homework as an instructional technique. Nonetheless, experts agree that homework is a good way to review, reinforce, and practice what has been taught. Although homework cannot be linked to improving test scores or advancing academic achievement, it is generally considered useful in building valuable character traits in students by educators and parents alike.
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