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U.S. Students Are Not Overburdened by Homework, Study Says

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Anxiety that American students are being crushed by excessive amounts of homework is nothing new—in 1901, anti-homework crusaders succeeded in banning schoolwork at home for students under age 15 in California. (Their claim: school assignments threatened children's physical and mental health and usurped parents' authority.) But are students really overburdened with homework?

Actually, they're not, according to the latest annual Brown Center Report on American Education from the Brookings Institution. Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brown Center, analyzed data from several sources—the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the annual college freshman survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, MetLife's annual survey of teachers, and a handful of parent surveys. His finding: The data "do not support the idea that a large and growing number of students have an onerous amount of homework."

Loveless came to a similar conclusion in a 2003 study of homework load he conducted for the Brown Center. At that time, he found that an overwhelming majority of students had just an hour or less of homework each night.

Against a backdrop of high-stakes testing and increased competition to get into elite universities, worry about overworked students is bubbling up again—see articles like "My Daughter's Homework is Killing Me" in the Atlantic and the 2010 documentary "Race to Nowhere." A recent study in the Journal of Experimental Education found that students who spent more time on homework were more stressed and had more health problems.

So Loveless decided to take another look at the topic.

"It's a topic to revisit because there are good data out there," he told me. "We don't have to rely on these isolated horror stories to get an idea of what is typical."

His findings in more detail:

  • The homework burden is not onerous. According to NAEP, only 5 percent percent of 9-year-olds, 7 percent of 13-year-olds, and 13 percent of 17-year-olds reported spending more than two hours on homework at night—"from which legitimate complaints of being overworked might arise," Loveless writes—in 2012. Just a little more than a third of college freshmen—the nation's best students—said they had spent six hours or more a week on homework when they were high school seniors. (Regular readers of this blog will notice that this contrasts with the 3.5 hours of homework a recent University of Phoenix poll estimated high schools assign daily; one reason may be that students do not always do all homework that is assigned.)
  • The homework load is not growing. For most students, it hasn't varied much since 1984. The one exception is 9-year-olds, who reported zero homework in 2003. Now they have a little, but less than an hour.
  • Parents are actually pretty happy with the amount and the quality of homework. Parents who want less homework are a relatively small group; the MetLife survey found that 25 percent of parents want their kids to have more homework, while only 15 percent of parents want them to have less.

So, if students are not facing a growing and unreasonable amount of homework, what's behind all the hand-wringing?

"Generally, the parents who are unhappy with homework are philosophically opposed to homework, and they're unhappy about a lot of things with schools," Loveless said. "It doesn't mean the horror stories are fiction," he added. "But they're outliers."

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