Is the deluge of after-school tasks a necessary character builder or a waste of kids’ time?
As we look back over our school days, most of us can remember a particularly torturous homework assignment – an English essay, a science project, maybe a history presentation – that kept us up past midnight or ruined a weekend. Or a perfect storm when a lack of communication between teachers meant two projects were due on the same day as that big math test. But how many of us remember torrents of homework being the norm rather than the exception?
Many students today would say that a homework deluge is routine. Their parents tend to agree, since Mom and Dad are often the ones who feel compelled to crack the whip or endlessly check in to make sure assignments are completed.
This fall, Suzanne Weerts will send her daughter Madeline off to UC San Diego, where she will study psychology and Spanish and where – her mother sincerely hopes – the young woman will have more fun than she did in high school. By all accounts, the high-achieving Madeline had a successful four years at Burbank’s John Burroughs High School, taking Advanced Placement classes and graduating with distinction.
But the success came with a price, most notably an intense amount of homework on a nightly basis.
Needed to Succeed?
“There wasn’t time for fun. There was always homework on the weekends,” says Weerts, whose son Jack just completed his freshman year in high school. “Because both my kids are high achievers, they didn’t want to turn in anything that wasn’t done, so they would stay up way past the time it should take them to do it. Their sleep patterns were definitely affected. These kids put in eight hours a day at school and then they come home and have four hours of homework.”
“You could just see the stress,” Weerts continues. “[Madeline] told me many times that high school wasn’t any fun.”
Homework is the bane of every student who would rather spend his or her non-school hours doing anything other than more school work. Some experts consider homework the educational system’s equivalent to death and taxes, a series of inescapable, character-building routines designed to gradually prepare students for life in college and beyond. But in the wrong hands, say anxious parents, homework becomes teacher-imposed busywork that does nothing but cause an intense amount of family unrest.
Their experiences spurred Weerts and fellow Burroughs parents to partner with homework researcher and advocate Tina McDermott to survey families, collect data and ultimately draft the resolution “Homework: Quality over Quantity.” Concluding that excessive amounts of homework caused undue stress in many households, the women drafted the resolution, which called for PTA leaders to “work with national organizations to develop homework guidelines and policies that take into account the whole child, family life, equity issues and stress levels.”
The resolution passed at the 2014 California PTA Convention and, this summer, at the National PTA Convention & Expo in Orlando.
Even with her son Graham now a college student, McDermott says her interest in homework advocacy is as strong as ever. “When we have given workshops at the PTA, people are in the audience crying,” she says. “It’s very painful. It’s their children. Sometimes they’re high achieving, sometimes they’re struggling, sometimes they’re in between. This is something that affects them on a daily basis, and affects the emotional life of their child.”
No Easy Answers
And we’re not just talking about the work that ambitious high schoolers are slogging through in the hopes of getting into a top-level college. Some parents find that struggles over homework begin as early as kindergarten. Many of the parents interviewed for this article asked that their names or the names of their children not be used because they did not want to be perceived as unfairly criticizing a teacher, a school or a district. Parents say they understand that finding a homework balance is difficult, and that teachers take a lot of criticism over homework.
“One of the interesting things is that parents feel very differently,” says David Baca, Ph.D., administrator of instruction for Local District-East in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “It’s always too much or too little. You never hear, ‘You’re giving just the right amount.’”
LAUSD’s homework policy is six pages long. Last updated in 2012, the policy states that a kindergarten student should have no more than 10 minutes of homework per day. That number goes up to 20 minutes for first and second grade and increases by 10 minutes for each subsequent grade level up to fifth grade. Once a student is in middle school, a child should expect no more than an average of 15 minutes per night per academic class, which increases to 20 minutes per class per night for seventh and eighth grade, 25 for high school freshmen and sophomores and 30 minutes for juniors and seniors.
Of course, where homework is concerned, a formula is never that straightforward. Reading practice in the lower grades is an expected part of homework and can add to the allotted time. Advanced Placement and honors courses can also throw the formula out of whack.
The difficulty of the work is another variable. “We would use the words ‘reasonable’ or ‘appropriate’ to gauge that we don’t want it to be too easy,” Bacca says. “Typically, we say homework should be something students can do on their own, something that they have already been taught. Getting to that right difficulty zone is something that teachers think about quite a bit.”
Because she teaches first grade in a gifted magnet, Lisa – who asked that her last name not be given – says that homework can take certain students little more than five minutes to complete, while others will still be struggling after two hours. Her target is 20-30 minutes per night. After their child has spent that amount of time, parents are instructed to write a note saying, “We worked diligently and here’s what we were able to complete.”
“I honestly think, at the end of six hours, that the kids are tired. They want to go home and play. They want to be kids and have a childhood,” Lisa says. “They’re 6 years old. I’m always most likely to just say, if [the homework] is too much, don’t do it.”
Lisa gained a new perspective when her son started school. The weekly homework packets he brought home were part of what made her decide to remove her son from the bilingual charter school he attended and enroll him in a regular LAUSD school.
The problem, she says, wasn’t that her son was being overworked, but that he was barely being engaged. “It was the same homework every single night,” says Lisa. “It was a sort of book report where the kids didn’t really have to do much. It would even start a sentence for them, and it had these little bubbles on it and it would say, ‘This book is mostly about…’ and the kid had to write two words. He wasn’t even writing in complete sentences. I felt it was truly a waste of my kid’s time. I really felt he got nothing out of it.”
Three years ago, The Country School, a Valley Village private school serving students in kindergarten through eighth grade, implemented a no-homework policy for kindergarten through grade four. By the second half of fifth grade, students get light “streamlined” homework which, administrators say, prepares them for middle school.
The “no homework” move was not without its controversy. Head of School Holly Novick had attended a leadership conference and listened to a presentation from Denise Pope, a senior lecturer in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education who touts the benefits of a homework-free education. When Pope asked which school representatives would be on board to go homework-free, the room fell silent. But Novick returned to her school and persuaded her teachers that this was the way to go.
“I said, ‘If there’s a school in L.A. that’s going to be the trailblazer, we have to be the school and we have to do it right,” Novick says. “We got everything together and we implemented it and, lo and behold, the majority of our parents were really on board with it.”
Educational Records Bureau (a nonprofit achievement assessment organization) test scores increased across the board the first year after the no-homework policy went into effect. More importantly, Novick says, the kids now come to school rested and happy. “When I launched this, I told the parents, ‘We’re giving you your kids back,’ and kids, ‘We’re giving you your lives back,’” Novick says.
McDermott was earning her bachelor’s degree in communication when her son was beginning his educational career. By the time he graduated, she was teaching communications studies at Antelope Valley College where, she reports, her students could still relate to battles over homework they faced as high schoolers.
She recalls a study that talked about the frequency with which parents brought up homework in conversation with their school-age children. So much of parent conversation from pick-up to bedtime revolved around that topic.
“It’s about, ‘What is your homework? How much did you get done? We have to get this done.’ You start that constant policing until they go to bed,” McDermott says. “This is not right. When I come home after a long day at work, this is not how I want to spend my time every night of the week and weekends.”
Many of today’s young students no doubt share McDermott’s view.
Evan Henerson is a freelance lifestyle and arts writer based in Los Angeles. He has written extensively for the “Jewish Journal,” “International Bowling Industry” and the “Los Angeles Daily News,” where he was a staff writer for nine years.