It seems that homework has recently become controversial – is it good or not? In reality, the debate has been around for a very long time. In the late 19th century, and very early 20th century, homework was considered “bad” and California even went to the extent of passing a law in 1901 abolishing homework. However, the pendulum swung again, and during the 20th century (early to mid-1900s), homework was viewed favorably. However, around the 1940s, it fell out of favor, again, because it was perceived as merely “repetition of material” (1). Interestingly, the satellite launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 reversed, yet again, this thinking because the American public worried they might be falling behind in technology and that Homework might help accelerate knowledge acquisition. The late 1960s witnessed yet another reversal, where educators and parents were concerned that children’s social development was being compromised by too much homework. However, once again, in the 1980s homework became popular as a way of improving American education after a report from the National Commission on Excellence in Education (A Nation at Risk-1983) reported significant mediocrity in academics. This emphasis on homework continued until the last few years where, once again, homework is being singled out as causing too much stress on children (1).
There are many advantages and disadvantages discussed in the literature and in the healthy debate that continues today. We will summarize some points mentioned in the literature (please see reference 2 below for a detailed discussion). Briefly, some purported advantages include better environmental conditions at home to study, improved responsibility and time management skills because it is up to the student to make the appropriate time schedule and finish the homework within that time period, mastery of subject material because of repetition, improved study skills and ability for independent learning, increased opportunity for parents to get involved and assess how well their child is learning, assessment of student’s grasp of academic content in a context less stressful than a formal in-class test, and many more. Purported disadvantages include homework getting in the way of family time, students not learning efficiently as some do not learn by sitting down and doing a worksheet, no demonstrated improvement, or so it is claimed, in academic outcome, and increased stress and burnout.
Due to these different points of view, some individuals and organizations have proposed guidelines for homework. An example would be the “10- minute rule “, where daily homework is limited to 10 minutes per grade level. Thus, a 1st grader would do 10 mins each day and a 4th grader would do 40 mins. Such guidelines are at best, useless, or at worst, dangerous, because they completely ignore the variables that should be considered in every household. The focus on and discussion about homework, without any reference to the context in which that homework is assigned or done, is akin to expecting a plant to grow without taking into consideration its contextual requirements for type of soil, amount of water/rainfall, optimal temperature, amount of sunlight, and many others. All children grow up in different households with different expectations and live with different parents who have different philosophies of life and priorities. The children themselves have different interests. Thus, the critical thing to determine, based on all these variables, is what the eventual goal is for the child. Here, two extreme examples will serve to demonstrate the point. If the goal for a child is to take all the AP classes offered in his high school, score a perfect 1600/1600 on the SAT, attend Harvard, and become Chairman of the Federal Reserve, then even 4 hours of work at home might not be sufficient On the other hand, if a child loves cars, and wants to work in his parent’s car shop after graduating from high school, then even one hour of time spent working at home on Shakespeare might be irrelevant for him (unless of course he has a personal interest in Shakespeare). These are two extremes, of course, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of variations in between. Any, and all, choices within these two extremes are absolutely fine and worth pursuing – it is just a matter of what the goal is and what the child’s and parents’ priorities and interests are. There are no absolutes!
It is not wise to eliminate homework from schools as it deprives those who would benefit from it (and most do). Thus, in eliminating homework, school districts are eliminating not only a potentially important part of a child’s education but also an important choice.