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How the Cold War Space Race Led to U.S. Students Doing Tons of Homework

Middle-schoolers who trudge home each day with a 50-pound backpack and hours of homework would have had an easier time in 1901. That’s when the anti-homework movement was at its peak and the state of California actually banned all homework for grades below high school.

From the late 19th century through the Great Depression, homework was a popular punching bag of the progressive education movement, a “child-centered” approach championed by psychologist and reformer John Dewey. Not only was homework a waste of time, progressive educators believed, but it was detrimental to children’s health

By 1948, only 8 percent of American high school students reported studying for two or more hours each night. Homework might have remained in the educational doghouse if not for the arrival of the Cold War, and specifically, the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957.

Soviet technician working on Sputnik 1, circa 1957. 

To the horror of many Americans, the Space Race was being won by communist scientists from the Soviet Union.

“This elicited widespread fear that we were being undone by our schools,” says Steven Schlossman, a historian at Carnegie Mellon University. “How could it be that the Soviets had gotten there faster? They must have better schools that are training their kids to become scientists on a higher level. America now had to integrate schools into our thinking about national defense policy.”

As far as education was concerned, there was plenty of rethinking to do. Around the late 19th century, with the arrival of waves of immigrants, officials had begun shifting public education policies to best serve the rapidly changing face of America.

Until then, Schlossman says most schoolwork revolved around drill, memorization and recitation. Kids were expected to “say their lessons,” which meant memorizing long passages of history texts and poetry, drilling math problems, and reciting it all out loud in class. All of that memorization and recitation meant hours of practice at home every night. But as America and its students became more diverse, the rigidity of rote memorization seemed insufficient.

If schools were going to offer equal education opportunities for all students, they needed to do it scientifically, and the leading educational minds of the day were fascinated with the emerging fields of psychology and child development.

Board members for the National Congress of Mothers, an organization dedicated to the education and welfare of children formed at the end of the 19th century.

Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

Progressive’s Push Against Homework

Popular turn-of-the-century women’s magazines like The Ladies Home Journal published studies showing that drilling of spelling words didn’t improve children’s overall spelling ability, and its editors promoted more “natural” patterns of child learning and growth. These new ideas about what’s best for kidseducation were picked up by organizations like the National Congress of Mothers, a group formed in 1897 that would become the National Parent Teachers Association (PTA).

It didn’t take long for this increasingly vocal movement of child psychologists and concerned moms to identify public enemy number one.

“The first thing that had to be changed in schooling was this old-fashioned way of doing homework, which was antithetical to children’s natural growth qualities,” says Schlossman. “Homework took on a broader symbolic meaning for ‘out with the old and in with the new.’”

That’s why the California legislature voted in 1901 to abolish all homework for students 14 and younger, a move followed by dozens of large cities and school districts across the country.

The anti-homework argument of the progressive education movement further contended that hours of homework robbed children of outdoor play, considered essential to healthy physical and emotional development.

“For the elementary school child and the junior high school child,” concluded a 1930s study, homework was nothing less than “legalized criminality.” The American Child Health Association equated homework with child labor in 1930, claiming that both practices were “chief causes of the high death and morbidity rates from tuberculosis and heart disease among adolescents.”

By the 1940s, nightly homework levels had dropped to all-time lows.

High school students studying in the library, circa 1950. During this time, there was a growing sentiment among educators that the high-school curriculum needed an upgrade.

Stephen William Gottlieb/Corbis/Getty Images

More Americans Finish High School During Great Depression

But then came World War II and another set of demographic and societal shifts that would again demand changes in American public education. Starting with the Great Depression when jobs were scarce, more American kids started staying in school through high school, and with the post-war baby boom, unprecedented numbers of students entered the nation’s school systems with expectations of reaching high school and beyond.

“High school was now for everybody,” says Schlossman. “This is really important. The idea of a high-school education as a ladder for success really takes root in post-World War II period.”

Even before Cold War anxieties kicked in in the 1950s, there was a growing sentiment among educators that the high-school curriculum needed an upgrade. Standards needed to be raised and teaching methods rethought. If more kids planned on going to college, homework would have to be part of the equation.

But no single event rocketed homework back into the national conversation quite like the launching of Sputnik 1, humankind’s first artificial satellite to reach Earth’s orbit. The response from the U.S. federal government was swift. In 1958, just a year after Sputnik, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), a $1-billion spending package to bolster high-quality teaching and learning in science, mathematics and foreign languages.

A report from the House of Representatives supporting passage of the NDEA read: “It is no exaggeration to say that America’s progress in many fields of endeavor in the years ahead—in fact, the very survival of our free country—may depend in large part upon the education we provide for our young people now.”

Funding from the NDEA helped develop ambitious new high school curriculums, including what became known as the “new math.” Top academics, scientists and educational psychologists teamed up to create a new American public education mandate that would later be called the “academic excellence” movement. And homework was front and center.

Just as the academic excellence movement promoted a deeper and more hands-on approach to math and science in the classroom, homework at all levels had to be more than memorization and mindless drills. It needed to promote creative problem-solving and analytical thinking.

The NDEA investment had immediate effects. By 1962, 23 percent of high-school juniors reported doing two or more hours of homework a night, nearly twice as many as in 1957, the year of Sputnik.

Still, the Sputnik homework bump didn’t last long. The counterculture movement of the late 1960s encouraged students to question authority, and nothing sticks it to “the man” quite like skipping your homework. By 1972, the percentage of high-schoolers doing two or more hours of homework a day dropped back below 10 percent.

Homework Drive Revived Under Reagan

There was another attempt in the early 1980s to revive homework as part of a second-wave academic excellence movement under the Reagan administration. A report called A Nation at Risk warned in Cold-War terms of the potential fallout from a failed education system.

“…[T]he educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people,” wrote the report’s authors. 

Schlossman says that this second academic excellence push did little to move the needle significantly on homework, flattening out at around 12 percent of high-schoolers clocking two or more hours a day by the mid-1980s.

“The homework movement of the 1980s was cast as a character reform movement, almost like a moral enterprise,” says Schlossman. “It didn’t have the intellectual expectations of the 1950s and 1960s.”

In more recent times, a 2016 analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics found that U.S. high school students spent an average of 7.5 hours on homework each week—averaging about 1.5 hours per day. While that was up from an average of 6.6 hours in 2012, it remained an easier lift that what students took on during the heady days of the Cold War.