Two new reports debunk the notion that U.S. schoolchildren suffer from a growing homework load, with little time to play and just be kids.
The great majority of students at all grade levels now spend less than one hour studying on a typical day—an amount that has not changed substantially in at least twenty years, according to data analyzed by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and the RAND Corporation.
The research contradicts dramatic anecdotes of children overwhelmed with homework. The Brookings and RAND researchers collected and reviewed the best social science available on children’s homework, including data from surveys conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), the Population Studies Center at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, and the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.
Even at the high school level, where more homework might be expected to prepare students for the demands of college or the workplace, only about a third of seventeen-year-olds spend an hour or more a day on homework.
The Brown Center on Education Policy conducted the study after a wave of dramatic news stories over the past few years described a backlash against homework. Since 2001, feature stories about onerous homework loads and parents fighting back have appeared in Time, Newsweek, and People magazines; the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Raleigh News and Observer, and the Tampa Tribune; and the CBS Evening News and other media outlets.
“The stories are misleading,” writes author Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center. “They do not reflect the experiences of a majority—or even a significant minority—of American schoolchildren.”
“Excessive homework is not a common problem,” writes Loveless in the report. “The critics of homework need to produce some very powerful evidence before policymakers start mandating reductions in homework or even banning it altogether. To date, the evidence put forth by homework critics has been weak.”
Across three different age groups, the percentage of students with less than an hour of daily homework has actually risen since 1984, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which for two decades has been asking a nationally representative sample of students questions about homework.
In 1999, 83 percent of nine-year-olds, 66 percent of thirteen-year-olds, and 65 percent of seventeen-year-olds reported having less than an hour of homework per night (see figure 1). In 1984, 81 percent of nine-year-olds, 63 percent of thirteen-year-olds, and 59 percent of seventeen-year-olds had reported spending that amount of time studying.
Another survey, the Third International Math and Science Study, finds that American high school students have one of the lightest homework loads in the world. Of twenty countries, the United States ranked near the bottom, tied for the next-to-last position. Students in France, Italy, Russia, and South Africa reported spending at least twice as much time on homework as American students.
The University of Michigan research does show an increase in the amount of homework given to children ages six to eight. But the increase of ten to eleven minutes a day is largely due to the fact that the baseline was low to begin with—only a third of children ages six to eight spent any time at all on studying in 1981.
“Why is it important to get the homework study right?” asks Loveless. “Mainly because it is positively associated with student learning.” Research shows that the relationship of homework with student achievement is positive for both middle and high school students and neutral for elementary school students.
Moreover, homework is a “barometer of the success—or the limits—of movements to raise academic standards,” write Brian Gill of RAND and Steven Schlossman of Carnegie Mellon University in the fall 2003 issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.
“To succeed, academic excellence movements ultimately require students to invest effort in their studies; time spent on homework is a ground-level indicator of this effort,” say Gill and Schlossman.
Gill and Schlossman trace homework time trends of the past fifty years, finding that the only substantial increases in homework for high-school students occurred in the decade after Sputnik, when the nation launched an academic excellence movement motivated by competition with the Soviet Union. Homework time subsequently declined to pre-Sputnik levels, and the excellence movement of the 1980s and 1990s that followed the publication of “A Nation at Risk” caused surprisingly small increases in homework (see figure 8).
Ironically, the only increase in homework in the last two decades has happened precisely in the lower grade levels, where researchers believe it matters least for academic achievement, according to Gill and Schlossman.
Most parents feel the homework load is about right, and, of those who would like to change it, more parents would rather see more homework than less, according to a 2000 poll conducted by the Public Agenda Foundation. Only one out of ten parents believes there is too much homework.
When a homework problem exists, which can happen because children vary in their study habits, solutions should come from parents and teachers, not policymakers, Loveless says.
About the Brown Center on Education Policy and the Brookings Institution
Established in 1992, the Brown Center on Education Policy conducts research on topics in American education, with a special focus on efforts to improve academic achievement in elementary and secondary schools. The Brown Center is part of the Brookings Institution, a private, nonprofit organization devoted to research, education, and publication on important issues of domestic and foreign policy. The Institution maintains a position of neutrality on issues of public policy. Interpretations or conclusions in Brookings publications should be understood to be solely those of the authors.
For a full copy of the report as well as information about other Brown Center events and publications, please visit the Brown Center’s website, or call Tucker Warren at 202/457-8100.
About RAND Education
RAND Education conducts independent research and analysis on education policy, including school reform and educational assessment and accountability. RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.