Carnegie Mellon Press Release: November 12, 2003
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Press Release

Jonathan Potts

For immediate release:
November 12, 2003

American Students Are Underwhelmed By Homework Assignments, says Carnegie Mellon Study

PITTSBURGH—American kids aren't doing very much homework, and what little homework they are doing may not be helping them learn, according to a study co-authored by Carnegie Mellon University History Professor Steven Schlossman.

In a study to be published in the fall issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Schlossman and RAND Corp. social scientist Brian Gill found that the vast majority of American children at all grade levels spend less than one hour each night on homework-an amount that has remained consistent for most of the last 50 years. High school students in the late 1940s and early 1950s studied no more than their counterparts in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

These findings not only contradict media accounts that today's students are overburdened with homework, but they also dispel the myth that there was a golden age in American schooling when children studied furiously every night.

"We've never figured out a way to get more than a small minority of kids to do a significant amount of homework," Schlossman said. "Now is the norm and has always been the norm."

Homework has long been one of the most contentious issues in American education, according to Schlossman and Gill. From the 1890s through the 1940s, child health advocates and progressive educators crusaded against homework; the former believed it threatened children's physical and mental well-being, while the latter argued that it served no legitimate academic purpose and even undermined children's education. Critics also painted homework as an intrusion into family life, subverting parents' authority over their children. Nonetheless, most parents have always favored homework, Schlossman said, partly because it"s a window into what their children are learning in school and a way for them to stay involved in their children's education.

During the academic excellence movements spurred by the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik and the 1983 government report "A Nation at Risk," reformers advocated increasing homework as a means of improving academic achievement. Although homework increased in the decade after Sputnik, it peaked with less than one high-school student in four studying more than two hours nightly, and then declined by the early 1970s to previous levels. And since the 1980s, homework levels have been essentially unchanged for middle- and high-school students, while the only sustained increase has come at the elementary school level, where researchers believe it matters least for academic performance, Schlossman and Gill said. And what's more, homework's quality is judged solely by its quantity, the study says.

"Over the past century, it is remarkable how narrowly focused on issues of time the controversies of homework have been and continue to be today," the authors wrote in their study. "Debate centers on how much to require of a given product, rarely on re-thinking homework itself to obtain stronger student and parental buy-in or to make it more effective pedagogically."

Schlossman and Gill, a Carnegie Mellon graduate, have spent the past seven years studying homework and its role in the American education system. Schlossman became interested in the phenomenon as a result of his own experiences as a parent whose son faced two extremes: first at a suburban Pittsburgh elementary school that had a no-homework policy and later a private high school which gave out upwards of 35 hours of homework each week.

While reformers regard the amount of time spent on homework as a key indicator of academic success, they have been unable to convince educators to make homework a more meaningful part of curriculum and instruction, Schlossman said.

"Homework to me is this mountain that needs to be moved," he said.


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