Homework is not only a routine aspect of schoolchildren's lives, but also the key daily interaction between school and family. As such, it often leads to tension between family and school over control of children's time and over parents' role in education–particularly after the expansion of mass schooling during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

A vocal anti-homework movement emerged in the United States in the early twentieth century, asserting parental prerogatives and children's rights. One critic argued that "the cultural or recreational life of the family is seriously restricted or handicapped … by the school's invasion of the home hours" ("Home Study?" p. 69) while another pronounced that homework was a sin against childhood. The anti-homework position reflected the growing influence internationally of scientific knowledge about children's health and development. This in turn motivated a Progressive reform movement in education that rejected rote methods of teaching and learning in favor of individualized, "childcentered" approaches. Many educators argued that homework had no place in a Progressive educational regime, particularly in the elementary grades. During the first half of the twentieth century, school policies in many communities across the United States commanded the reduction or abolition of homework.

Nevertheless, throughout the era of mass education, most parents supported homework, at least in moderate amounts. They regarded homework not only as essential to academic achievement, but also as an important means for children to develop self-discipline and responsibility. Finally, some parents viewed homework not as an intrusion into family time but as a critical means of understanding how the school is educating their child. In the words of a parent from the 1930s, "Homework is a wonderful connecting link between the parents and the child's school life" ("Do You Believe in Homework?" p. 58). Two decades later, another parent made the point more bluntly: "Homework is our only way of keeping up with what goes on" in the school (Langdon and Stout, p.370).

During the second half of the twentieth century, expert opinion increasingly came into line with parental views in support of homework. After the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, U.S. politicians, parents, and educators became concerned that the educational system required substantial improvement to match Soviet technological prowess. The resulting focus on science and mathematics reinforced challenges to PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION and sparked interest in using homework to support increasingly ambitious academic goals. By the 1980s, at least in the United States, a "back-to-basics" movement had largely replaced the earlier Progressive discourse in education. With it came a celebration of homework as vital to fostering academic attainment, moral virtue, and international economic competitiveness–and a strong endorsement of parental partnership in schooling.

Not all parents joined in the celebration of homework, however, particularly when its sheer quantity was over-whelming for their children or their family life. But in the United States the great majority of children never spent much time on homework. Despite small increases for high-school students in the post-Sputnik decade and for young children in the 1980s and 1990s, homework involved only a modest time commitment for most American students throughout the second half of the twentieth century. In the primary grades, despite the increases at the end of the century, homework occupied most children for only two hours weekly–an amount perhaps comparable to that given in other industrial nations. Meanwhile most U.S. high-school students spent around an hour daily on homework– substantially less than their counterparts in other advanced industrial nations. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, high-school students in many parts of Europe and Asia were spending substantial amounts of time on homework. In the United States, by contrast, an enormous gap was evident between a solidly pro-homework discourse and levels of homework practice that remained stubbornly low, even among college-bound students.

See also: Education, United States.


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