Why most people, including me, like homework

Jay Mathews
Columnist March 23

Everyone seems angry about homework. The pitches I receive from experts on the subject are almost always about students getting too much of it. My recent column about Fairfax County teenager Maddy King’s critique of homework drew many sympathetic comments. The school stress documentary “Race to Nowhere” has drawn much support. Readers hailed a father’s lament in the September 2013 Atlantic: “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me.”

Yet American children continue to get not much homework at all — no more than an hour a day for the vast majority, even those on a path to college. Why is that?

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

According to Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, the national conversation about homework has been hijacked by a small group of people — about 15 percent — determined to reduce after-school assignments even though most of us think the homework load is fine or should be heavier.

I agree with Loveless. It has long bothered me, and the teachers who have influenced me, how little American high schools demand of their students, and yet how many commentators say children are getting too much, rather than not enough, of a challenge. Outspoken critics of homework often have children in our most affluent and academically competitive high schools. That means many of them are in the Washington area because we have a heavier concentration of such schools than any other region.

Loveless’s latest annual Brown Center Report on American Education takes a deep look at what Americans think about homework, citing surveys by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, MetLife, Public Agenda and other institutions.

During the past three decades, the homework load “has remained remarkably stable,” Loveless said, except for 9-year-olds “primarily because many students who once did not have any now have some.” He said “NAEP data do not support the idea that a large and growing number of students have an onerous amount of homework.”

Only a small group of students report having two hours or more of homework nightly — between 1984 and 2012, that portion was 5 to 6 percent for age 9, 6 to 10 percent for age 13 and 10 to 13 percent for age 17.

Even when the only students surveyed were those who reached college, as was done in the UCLA polls, more than 60 percent said they spent less than six hours a week on senior year high school homework. The MetLife survey showed no significant change in the views of parents from 1987 to 2007. More than 60 percent thought the amount of homework their children were getting was good or excellent, and two-thirds said the same about the quality.

Fifteen percent of parents in the 2007 MetLife survey said there was too much homework. Eleven percent in a 2006 Public Agenda poll had that same view. They were outnumbered by the 25 percent who said there was too little homework in the former survey and 20 percent n the latter.

Maddy King in Fairfax County made excellent suggestions for reducing mindless homework. But such subtle changes can be accomplished only by teachers and administrators, not by school boards accommodating a minority of angry parents. The anti-homework people have some good ideas and mean well, but they are often out of sync with what happens in classrooms. Effective teachers need the power to demand work that makes sense to them. Those of us who support them remember how doing our homework helped us and see how it is motivating our children.

The homework issue in this area is more difficult. The number of our children doing two hours or more appears to be way above average, as it is in other affluent areas like Westchester County, Long Island, Chicago’s North Shore and the hilly fringes of the Los Angeles basin. Those assignments create stress. I will take up the good and bad of that in a separate column.

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