How Sputnik Created Homework and Hurt American Kids

October 4th, 1957—the Russians launch into space. Americans get anxious about falling behind the Soviet Union, and hundreds of initiatives to “make America great again” get rolling. Among these initiatives is one that changes education for decades afterward: homework.

Yes, homework was a Cold War fad. Before then, Americans had always thought of homework as a bad idea because it distracted kids from families and chores. Many schools banned it altogether. But during the Cold War, Americans were desperate to get ahead, and a “we’ll try anything” mentality led to a new idea: Maybe homework does distract kids from good things, but if it makes them smarter—smart enough to beat the Russians—then we’re all for it!

So homework was a kind of experiment. But the experiment seems to have failed. According to a meta-analysis of almost 200 educational studies led by Harris Cooper of Duke University, there is little to no correlation between homework and academic success among pre-high school students. In his own words, “there is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.” Etta Kravolec, professor of education at the University of Arizona, agrees: “there’s no benefit at the elementary school level.” Rather than in-home work, it’s in-class work that helps.

This is not to say homework has no impact on students. It certainly does—but a negative one. With the enormous amount of homework assigned to kids these days they more easily associate “school” with “homework” than they do with “learning.” And since homework is all about the grades, they learn to work for rewards rather than for the sake of learning itself. It is this very switch from learning for its own sake to working for a grade that kills creativity, rewards cheating, and discourages challenges. In other words, rather than throwing us forward, homework-based education sends kids backward.

So why do we still have homework? Why hasn’t anyone pulled the brakes on this thing? Maybe it’s because thinking up alternatives to homework requires imagination, and creativity is one of the virtues that homework has already damaged. If so, we’ll need to bring it back to reverse the damage. So here’s a call to action: let’s get creative, and save our kids from homework.

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8 responses to “How Sputnik Created Homework and Hurt American Kids

  1. This is not to say homework has no impact on students. It certainly does—but a negative one.

    That’s not quite what the Cooper studies say. They report no correlation between homework and achievement for elementary kids, but they report strong correlations between high schoolers who do homework for 1+ hours/night and achievement.

  2. Bosh! I was in grade school when sputnik went up. I didn’t have any measurable homework before it. I didn’t have any more afterward. Zero effect on grade school.

    In high school it did have an impact. My science teachers had a little federal money to buy lap equipment. Beyond that, nothing. Football mattered a lot. School work didn’t.

    Readers should regard with great suspicion any articles about the Cold War, particularly in the 1950s and under Eisenhower. He was so obviously competent, having commanded one of the largest multi-national forces in history, there was no duck and cover hysteria. That’s a media myth. I know. I lived then.

    JFK, with his vote-chasing chatter about a ‘missile gap’ was different. The failed captain of a tiny PT boat, he was in way over his head as president. The result was an genuinely aggressive USSR that did raise the threat level, with the Cuban Missile Crisis being the most obvious example.

    In short, don’t project the legitimate hysteria of the JFK years back on Ike.

  3. This sounds like another great idea from the US Dept. of Education, the good folks at the NEA, and a handful of education-related Ph.D. dissertations. No more homework by students would mean no more grading of homework by teachers. Keep dumbing the kids down so that as adults they will rely more on the government, vote as Democrats, and be as “happy” as the happy robots in Denmark and Sweden. Achieving a socialist/communist utopia will time and patience, but the rewards for those in power will be orgasmic.

  4. Gosh, Sound Bite, how many stereotypes and punctuation errors can you fit into one paragraph? Are you a Commie?

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