The reality behind homework hysteria

The popular press has been abuzz recently with horror stories about the unreasonable homework burden children are experiencing.  While the idea of a third-grader having to spend 4+ hours on homework each night or an eighth-grader staying up until 1:00 am to finish all of her work certainly grabs the public’s attention, the reality of homework for the average student in the United States is quite different from the angst-ridden, overworked children we see in the press.

Last week The Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institution released the 2014 Brown Center Report on American Education, which included a study of homework. The study addresses how much homework American students truly have; a question that The Brown Center first investigated 11 years ago during another period of heightened homework hysteria.  The original 2003 study found that most of the dramatic claims about homework were unfounded and that the amount of homework students were expected to complete each day had not changed in any significant way.

The results of the 2014 study support this conclusion as well. While these overworked kids and outraged parents we keep hearing about in the press certainly exist, they are much rarer than we are led to believe and are not representative of the typical American family’s experience with homework. According to 2012 NAEP data, only 5% of nine-year-olds, 7% of 13-year-olds, and 13% of 17-year-olds had more than two hours of homework the day before filling out the NAEP student questionnaire.  Compare this to the numbers from the 1984 NAEP, when 6% of nine-year-olds, 9% of 13-year-olds, and 13% of 17-year-olds said they had more than two hours of homework the day before. The NAEP data shows that between 1984 and 2012, homework load has remained quite stagnant. The largest movement has been for nine-year-olds, and that is primarily because students who previously had no homework at all are now receiving some, not because the homework burden has grown substantially during this time period.

The Brown Center’s report also analyzes parent surveys from 1987 and 2007 to determine if parental attitudes toward homework have changed dramatically in that time period. Parents rated both the amount and quality of homework their children received very similarly in 1987 and 2007;  60% of parents polled in 2007 thought schools were giving their children the right amount of homework. This is not exactly the enormous movement of unhappy parents fed up with too much homework that we’ve been reading about in the press.

Figure 23

We know that some students are assigned an overwhelming amount of homework and despite the inconclusive research on homework, some schools continue to assign large amounts of homework to students at all grade levels. However, the reality for most students is that they have a completely manageable amount of homework to complete each day – if any at all.

For more on homework, check out CPE’s Homework Q&A.

-Patricia Campbell

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