The Homework Crisis
Gisela Voss always thought that all the griping about homework overload was way overblown. Her son Luke never got more than a half hour's worth at Mason-Rice Elementary in Newton, Massachusetts. But once he enrolled at Brown Middle School in 2004, Gisela had a rude awakening. Suddenly Luke was grappling with 30 minutes of assignments for each of his six classes, lugging home a backpack bursting at the seams -- and sagging under the strain. "He was at school from 8 to 3, and with soccer practice he wouldn't be done until 5. If we all ate dinner together -- and it's important to me that we do -- he wouldn't even start cracking the books until 7," says Gisela, 42, a toy designer who's also mom to daughter Sydney, 10, and son Rio, 2. "He missed out on sleep, and his anxiety stressed everybody else out. We'd rush through the meal knowing that he had hours of work ahead of him, and he'd start begging for help even before he left the table." Luke, now 15 and a sophomore in high school, has grown more accustomed to his heavy load. But Gisela and her husband, Dan Kernan, a 48-year-old software engineer, are already worrying about Sydney, who starts at Brown Middle School next fall, and how she'll cope with the nightly grind. "This is an insane way for families to live," says Gisela.
She's joined the chorus of complaints about kids drowning in homework. It's not just the marathon study sessions every night, these parents say, but heavy-duty assignments during vacations and summers as well. The massive pileup is causing some serious burnout. With no downtime, kids can't absorb and retain their lessons, and they dread the work so much they have to be nagged and forced to do it. With moms and dads -- and tutors -- routinely stepping in to help, there's growing resentment that they're the ones being held responsible for their children's education instead of teachers and schools. "It's not that homework is inherently evil, but that it has gotten so out of balance," says Nancy Kalish, coauthor with Sara Bennett of The Case Against Homework (Crown). "The first question parents ask when their kids walk in the front door is, 'How much homework do you have?' For many families, everything revolves around that, and it's causing a lot of tension, tears, and fights." And that's just the small picture, Kalish adds. "Night after night, year after year, homework is swallowing up the things that are part of a good, healthy childhood -- like playing, exercising, hanging out with friends, quality time with parents, even getting bored and maybe getting creative."
The dissent is likely to grow in the wake of a recent report by the country's top homework scholar, Harris Cooper, PhD, director of the education program at Duke University, who concludes that more isn't always better. In a comprehensive review of some 60 studies from between 1987 and 2003, he found virtually no link between homework and test scores in elementary school. Once kids hit middle school, there is a point of diminishing returns. Performance improves only among sixth- to ninth-graders who limit homework to 90 minutes a night and high schoolers who stop after two hours; for those who toil longer, test scores actually drop. "The bottom line is that all kids should be doing homework, but the amount and type should vary according to grade," says Cooper. "And no matter what, it's only good in moderation."
3 Things Parents Can Do to Help Kids Manage Homework
How Much Is Too Much?
So what's a parent to do when homework gets out of control? Many are pushing back, and succeeding in getting teachers and schools to lighten the burden. But you don't have to go that far to help your kids. Learn what experts say is the appropriate amount, the difference between thoughtful assignments and mere busywork, and smart strategies that will help your children get the most out of their studies -- in short, how to help them achieve excellence without all the excess.
For every mom complaining about too much homework, there's another frustrated parent saying her child is getting too little. The research is equally mixed. According to a 2003 study by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., only 5 percent of children nationwide are doing two or more hours a day. But other surveys show that students across the board are putting in longer shifts. A 2004 University of Michigan study of 2,900 children found that the amount of time spent on homework is up 51 percent since 1981. "For argument's sake, let's say only 10 percent of students across the country are overloaded," says Kalish. "Isn't that still worth addressing? After all, we're talking about 5 million kids who are losing their love of learning."
The upward trend started in the 1980s, after the government's "Nation at Risk" report found that students were not reading at expected levels. "Educators came under pressure to teach more, and in some instances began using homework to cover new material rather than review the day's lessons," says Cooper. With 2002's No Child Left Behind policy, curriculum was ratcheted up further. In the meantime, no one was keeping an eye on how much homework was being doled out. Remarkably, only a third of school districts across the country have homework policies, and even in those that do, teachers can assign what they want. For middle and high school students juggling six to eight classes, the workload can easily get out of hand.
Cooper suggests that parents ask teachers to follow his rule of 10 minutes of homework per night per grade -- 10 minutes in first grade, 60 minutes in sixth grade and so on -- which research shows is optimum for learning. "There's room for variation, especially in high grades, where students can opt for advanced placement courses," he says. "The best policy is to permit teachers to modify the length of assignments to meet the needs of their students."
If Your Child's at the Breaking Point
Be alert for the signs of homework burnout: constant frustration, loss of motivation, and a diminished interest in learning. And be prepared to speak up. "Parents are scared they'll be labeled a troublemaker and their kids a problem," says Kalish. "But if the load is heavy at the beginning of the year, it's not going to get better later on. You have to do something before your child starts to hate school." Below, her suggestions on the steps parents should take.
- Do the research. Check your school's Web site to see if it has a homework policy and whether your child's assignments are excessive. Keep a record of homework assignments and how long it took to finish them.
- Consult with other parents. If you think a particular assignment is too hard, send out an e-mail asking if they agree, and if so, suggest that each of them let the teacher know. There's strength in numbers, and the teacher may ease up. If not...
- Talk to the teacher privately. Approach him or her in a nonconfrontational, cooperative way. If you get an unsympathetic response or are told that the assignments are within policy guidelines, try saying, 'But it's just not working for my child,' suggests Kalish. "Teachers often have no idea how stressful homework can be, and most will want to work something out."
- Go to the school board. Before taking this step, attend a parents association meeting and ask everyone to fill out a homework survey, which will preempt the "no one else is complaining" defense. (For sample surveys, see below.) Contact your board, submit the surveys, and get the issue on the agenda. Enlist supporters who will speak up, present research and statistics, and share stories of how their kids are struggling. "Remember, you elect school board members," says Kalish. "So you have power."
Surveys excerpted from The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do (Crown).
Good vs. Bad Homework
Most experts agree that the point of take-home assignments is to review and reinforce the lessons covered in class that day. Ideally, homework should also instill a sense of curiosity and teach kids to study effectively -- including how to apportion their time between hard and easy tasks, and test themselves for retention -- so that they can become lifelong learners. But the vast majority of teachers have had no training on what kinds of assignments benefit students most. According to Harris Cooper, research suggests the most effective homework should do the following:
Mix it up. Assignments should have simple questions here and there rather than group all the tough ones together. Kids will feel the work is easier and enjoy it more.
Address specific needs. Yes, tasks should be age appropriate -- for example, shorter assignments in lower grades to accommodate limited attention spans. But the amount and difficulty can be adjusted upward if students are high achievers.
Be spread out over time. Kids retain more knowledge when they review material in brief, repeated bursts over several weeks rather than reviewing it right after learning it that day.
Apply to things kids enjoy OUTSIDE CLASS. The best assignments not only develop key skills like reading, writing, analysis, and critical thinking, but they also get students to tackle subjects they really care about. The goal is to keep them engaged.
How to Help, Not Hover
Your children need smart guidance, not someone breathing down their necks. Take our expert advice on the right ways to lend them a hand.
- Do provide a quiet, well-lit space to do homework, and establish rules on when they should get it done -- ideally, late afternoon or early evening.
- Don't watch TV while your child is toiling away. If he's reading, pick up the paper or a book. Showing respect and being positive about homework will instill a good attitude.
- Don't give answers or do the work yourself. Instead, make like Socrates and ask questions that will help lead your child to the right conclusions. So the next time your 13-year-old bungles that word problem in algebra, have him reread the question and make sure he understands it before tackling it again.
- Don't punish. Let your kids face the consequences of not getting assignments done, even if you'll feel embarrassed. Remember, it's about them, not you.
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.
Many students and their parents are frazzled by the amount of homework being piled on in the schools. Yet researchers say that American students have just the right amount of homework.
“Kids today are overwhelmed!” a parent recently wrote in an email to GreatSchools.org “My first-grade son was required to research a significant person from history and write a paper of at least two pages about the person, with a bibliography. How can he be expected to do that by himself? He just started to learn to read and write a couple of months ago. Schools are pushing too hard and expecting too much from kids.”
Diane Garfield, a fifth-grade teacher in San Francisco, concurs. “I believe that we’re stressing children out,” she says.
But hold on, it’s not just the kids who are stressed out. “Teachers nowadays assign these almost college-level projects with requirements that make my mouth fall open with disbelief,” says another frustrated parent. “It’s not just the kids who suffer!”
“How many people take home an average of two hours or more of work that must be completed for the next day?” asks Tonya Noonan Herring, a New Mexico mother of three, an attorney and a former high school English teacher. “Most of us, even attorneys, do not do this. Bottom line: students have too much homework and most of it is not productive or necessary.”
How do educational researchers weigh in on the issue? According to Brian Gill, a senior social scientist at the Rand Corporation, there is no evidence that kids are doing more homework than they did before.
“If you look at high school kids in the late ’90s, they’re not doing substantially more homework than kids did in the ’80s, ’70s, ’60s or the ’40s,” he says. “In fact, the trends through most of this time period are pretty flat. And most high school students in this country don’t do a lot of homework. The median appears to be about four hours a week.”
Education researchers like Gill base their conclusions, in part, on data gathered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.
“It doesn’t suggest that most kids are doing a tremendous amount,” says Gill. “That’s not to say there aren’t any kids with too much homework. There surely are some. There’s enormous variation across communities. But it’s not a crisis in that it’s a very small proportion of kids who are spending an enormous amount of time on homework.”
Etta Kralovec, author of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning, disagrees, saying NAEP data is not a reliable source of information. “Students take the NAEP test and one of the questions they have to fill out is, ‘How much homework did you do last night’ Anybody who knows schools knows that teachers by and large do not give homework the night before a national assessment. It just doesn’t happen. Teachers are very clear with kids that they need to get a good night’s sleep and they need to eat well to prepare for a test.
“So asking a kid how much homework they did the night before a national test and claiming that that data tells us anything about the general run of the mill experience of kids and homework over the school year is, I think, really dishonest.”
Further muddying the waters is a AP/AOL poll that suggests that most Americans feel that their children are getting the right amount of homework. It found that 57% of parents felt that their child was assigned about the right amount of homework, 23% thought there was too little and 19% thought there was too much.
One indisputable fact
One homework fact that educators do agree upon is that the young child today is doing more homework than ever before.
“Parents are correct in saying that they didn’t get homework in the early grades and that their kids do,” says Harris Cooper, professor of psychology and director of the education program at Duke University.
Gill quantifies the change this way: “There has been some increase in homework for the kids in kindergarten, first grade and second grade. But it’s been an increase from zero to 20 minutes a day. So that is something that’s fairly new in the last quarter century.”
The history of homework
In his research, Gill found that homework has always been controversial. “Around the turn of the 20th century, the Ladies’ Home Journal carried on a crusade against homework. They thought that kids were better off spending their time outside playing and looking at clouds. The most spectacular success this movement had was in the state of California, where in 1901 the legislature passed a law abolishing homework in grades K-8. That lasted about 15 years and then was quietly repealed. Then there was a lot of activism against homework again in the 1930s.”
The proponents of homework have remained consistent in their reasons for why homework is a beneficial practice, says Gill. “One, it extends the work in the classroom with additional time on task. Second, it develops habits of independent study. Third, it’s a form of communication between the school and the parents. It gives parents an idea of what their kids are doing in school.”
The anti-homework crowd has also been consistent in their reasons for wanting to abolish or reduce homework.
“The first one is children’s health,” says Gill. “A hundred years ago, you had medical doctors testifying that heavy loads of books were causing children’s spines to be bent.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems. There were also concerns about excessive amounts of stress.
“Although they didn’t use the term ‘stress,'” says Gill. “They worried about ‘nervous breakdowns.'”
“In the 1930s, there were lots of graduate students in education schools around the country who were doing experiments that claimed to show that homework had no academic value – that kids who got homework didn’t learn any more than kids who didn’t,” Gill continues. Also, a lot of the opposition to homework, in the first half of the 20th century, was motivated by a notion that it was a leftover from a 19th-century model of schooling, which was based on recitation, memorization and drill. Progressive educators were trying to replace that with something more creative, something more interesting to kids.”
The more-is-better movement
Garfield, the San Francisco fifth-grade teacher, says that when she started teaching 30 years ago, she didn’t give any homework. “Then parents started asking for it,” she says. “I got In junior high and high school there’s so much homework, they need to get prepared.” So I bought that one. I said, ‘OK, they need to be prepared.’ But they don’t need two hours.”
Cooper sees the trend toward more homework as symptomatic of high-achieving parents who want the best for their children. “Part of it, I think, is pressure from the parents with regard to their desire to have their kids be competitive for the best universities in the country. The communities in which homework is being piled on are generally affluent communities.”
What’s a parent to do, you ask? Fortunately, there are some sanity-saving homework guidelines.
Cooper points to “The 10-Minute Rule” formulated by the National PTA and the National Education Association, which suggests that kids should be doing about 10 minutes of homework per night per grade level. In other words, 10 minutes for first-graders, 20 for second-graders and so on.
Too much homework vs. the optimal amount
Cooper has found that the correlation between homework and achievement is generally supportive of these guidelines. “We found that for kids in elementary school there was hardly any relationship between how much homework young children did and how well they were doing in school, but in middle school the relationship is positive and increases until the kids were doing between an hour to two hours a night, which is right where the 10-minute rule says it’s going to be optimal.
“After that it didn’t go up anymore. Kids that reported doing more than two hours of homework a night in middle school weren’t doing any better in school than kids who were doing between an hour to two hours.”
Garfield has a very clear homework policy that she distributes to her parents at the beginning of each school year. “I give one subject a night. It’s what we were studying in class or preparation for the next day. It should be done within half an hour at most. I believe that children have many outside activities now and they also need to live fully as children. To have them work for six hours a day at school and then go home and work for hours at night does not seem right. It doesn’t allow them to have a childhood.”
How do American kids fare when compared to students in other countries? Professors Gerald LeTendre and David Baker of Pennsylvania State University conclude in their 2005 book, National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling, that American middle-schoolers do more homework than their peers in Japan, Korea or Taiwan, but less than their peers in Singapore and Hong Kong.
One of the surprising findings of their research was that more homework does not correlate with higher test scores. LeTendre notes: “That really flummoxes people because they say, ‘Doesn’t doing more homework mean getting better scores?’ The answer quite simply is no.”
Homework is a complicated thing
To be effective, homework must be used in a certain way, he says. “Let me give you an example. Most homework in the fourth grade in the U.S. is worksheets. Fill them out, turn them in, maybe the teacher will check them, maybe not. That is a very ineffective use of homework. An effective use of homework would be the teacher sitting down and thinking ‘Elizabeth has trouble with number placement, so I’m going to give her seven problems on number placement.’ Then the next day the teacher sits down with Elizabeth and she says, ‘Was this hard for you? Where did you have difficulty?’ Then she gives Elizabeth either more or less material. As you can imagine, that kind of homework rarely happens.”
“What typically happens is people give what we call ‘shotgun homework’: blanket drills, questions and problems from the book. On a national level that’s associated with less well-functioning school systems,” he says. “In a sense, you could sort of think of it as a sign of weaker teachers or less well-prepared teachers. Over time, we see that in elementary and middle schools more and more homework is being given, and that countries around the world are doing this in an attempt to increase their test scores, and that is basically a failing strategy.”
The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning by Etta Kralovec and John Buell, Beacon Press, 2001.
The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents by Harris M. Cooper, Corwin Press, 2001.
Seven Steps to Homework Success: A Family Guide to Solving Common Homework Problems by Sydney Zentall and Sam Goldstein, Specialty Press, 1998.
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