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Did Kids Always Have Too Much Homework?

If you think your child is overwhelmed with homework, you are not alone. In fact, even from the times of “one room schoolhouses” it seems that parents have always felt that their kids have been given too much homework by their teachers.

More than a century ago, in January 1900, Edward Bok wrote a scathing editorial in Ladies’ Home Journal about homework in America, with the headline — A National Crime at the Feet of American Parents. In the piece, Bok wrote, “The child is made to study far, far beyond his physical strength, and consequently his mental good.”

The elementary and junior high school student, Bok wrote, shouldn’t even need to tote books home from school, because he should be outside with his friends between dismissal and dinner—and after that, he should be asleep. “To rob a child of the playtime which belongs to him is a rank injustice,” Bok argued. “No child under fifteen years of age should be given any home study whatever by his teachers.”

Several months later, In October of 1900, Bok followed up on his editorial, writing that since it had been published, the magazine had received “hundreds of letters from teachers and parents” that “conclusively showed that the facts were even much worse than had been stated,” along with letters from “physicians, almost without number” who “urged the elimination of this evil and injury from the lives of our children.”

So, as you can see, parents complaining about too much homework having a detrimental impact on their kids’ lives, is kind of a long-standing tradition in American education.

But what is the modern consensus? Is a large amount of homework good or bad for your kids?

As present-day researchers on the topic have found, the answer to the question, “Does homework help children learn?” is, “It depends”—on the amount assigned, the age of the students, and the content of the homework.

The “it depends” position has some precedent in the past. Education researcher Brian Gill and the historian Steven Schlossman has written a series of articles, chronicling the “on-again, off-again” relationship educators have had with homework since the time of Bok’s treatise.

Gill and Schlossman identified a group of progressive educators who, from the 1920s through the 1950s, advocated homework reform rather than abolition. The idea was to connect home with school by crafting assignments that applied things learned in class to the rest of the world. The superintendent of New York City’s schools, William J. O’Shea, wrote in 1929 that homework could consist of reading, drawing, or visiting museums; others thought field trips to “woods, factories, museums, libraries, art galleries” could be “assigned” as homework. Other teachers thought students might write thank-you notes for their English homework or look at the family budget for their math homework. (Would I rather help my child with a multiplication worksheet or expose her to the horror that is our family budget? Tough call).

Why can’t we seem to find a happy middle ground on homework? Brian Gill and Steven Schlossman observe that “homework has been one of the most emotionally charged topics in American education. … One side has idealized homework — the more the better. The other side has demonized homework.

I think if you look at the history of protests about homework, it indicates how the debate over homework has really always been about a much bigger societal question – and that is, “What is the purpose of childhood?” Is it to prepare kids for the rigors of adult life, by heaping as much work and pressure on them as possible, or is it just the opposite – a time to enjoy the fun and innocence of childhood, before having to face those trials and tribulations?

That debate has gone on long before public education was a thing – so it’s no wonder we can’t agree on homework.

How much time do your kids spend on homework each night? Do you think they have too much homework? What do you think is the right amount of homework? Reply in the comments below.

About Cynthia Lechan-Goodman

3 comments

  1. Our students already score internationally 30th or worse in most subject areas. If anything, we need more homework, not less. There are many changes that need to be done to improve our educational system. Unfortunately, I don’t foresee those changes being implemented. Fyi, I’m a former teacher

  2. Homework should be to practice what they have already learned in school, not a substitution for learning from the teacher. This is why: If a child doesn’t understand the lesson at school, and then he is supposed to go home and do 25 math equations that he has no idea how to work out, he is defeated. This happens over and over and the child gives up. I’ve worked in the school alongside teachers (I am not a teacher, but an observer) and I see over and over again children getting very upset because they just don’t get it. Many times, the teacher does not have the time (or even the desire, unfortunately ) to make sure that child is helped. Homework does not help at all in this instance. It’s sad what the school system does to many of the kids. And the kids that are A and B students? They get heaps of homework because “They can do it”. They get overworked and anxious. And there is so much wasted time during school when the teachers could be teaching…..I see repeatedly where the teachers put on a movie instead of teaching because it’s Friday, and the kids are restless, or a 3 day holiday is coming up, or it raining…etc. It’s upsetting to see what really goes on in the schools.

  3. Some homework is fine. Hours and hours of homework is wrong. The schools no longer do recess in many cases. and gym class is one or two days a week. This means outside exercise is vital after school. Actually it is vital during the school day and children would settle and learn more and be less restless. More class days and a shorter summer break would benefit more than too much homework.

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