Homework horror stories are as timeworn as school bullies and cafeteria mystery meat. But as high-stakes testing pressures have mounted over the past decade—and global rankings for America’s schools have declined—homework has come under new scrutiny.
Diane Lowrie says she fled an Ocean County, New Jersey, school district three years ago when she realized her first grader’s homework load was nearly crushing him. Reading logs, repetitive math worksheets, and regular social studies reports turned their living room into an anguished battleground. “Tears were shed, every night,” says Lowrie, 47, an environmental educator, who tried to convince school district administrators that the work was not only numbing, but harmful. “Iain started to hate school, to hate learning, and he was only 6 years old,” she told me in a recent interview.
A 2003 Brookings Institution study suggests that Iain’s experience may be typical of a few children in pressure-cooker schools, but it’s not a widespread problem. Still, a 2004 University of Michigan survey of 2,900 six- to seventeen-year-old children found that time spent each week on homework had increased from 2 hours 38 minutes to 3 hours 58 minutes since 1981. And in his 2001 and 2006 reviews of academic studies of homework outcomes, Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, found little correlation between the amount of homework and academic achievement in elementary school (though higher in middle school and high school). Cooper supports the influential ten-minute homework rule, which recommends adding ten daily minutes of homework per grade beginning in first grade, up to a maximum of two hours. Some districts have added no homework on weekends to the formula.
The question of how much homework is enough is widely debated and was a focus of the 2009 documentary Race to Nowhere, a galvanizing cri de coeur about the struggles of kids in high-performing schools. “I can’t remember the last time I had the chance to go in the backyard and just run around,” a teenage girl laments in the film. “I’ve gone through bouts of depression” from too much homework, another confesses. A bewildered-looking third girl says: “I would spend six hours a night on my homework.”
The results of international tests give the homework skeptics ammunition. David Baker and Gerald LeTendre, professors of education at Penn State, found that in countries with the most successful school systems, like Japan, teachers give small amounts homework, while teachers in those with the lowest scores, such as Greece and Iran, give a lot. (Of course the quality of the assignment and the teacher’s use of it also matter.) The United States falls somewhere in the middle—average amounts of homework and average test results. Finnish teachers tend to give minimal amounts of homework throughout all the grades; the New York Times reported Finnish high-school kids averaged only one-half hour a night.
Sara Bennett, a Brooklyn criminal attorney and mother of two, began a second career as an anti-homework activist when her first-grade son brought home homework only a parent could complete. The 2006 book she co-wrote, The Case Against Homework, is credited with propelling a nationwide parent movement calling for time limits on homework.
Last year, the affluent village of Ridgewood, New Jersey, was shaken by two young suicides, causing school officials to look for ways they could ease kids’ anxieties. Anthony Orsini, principal of Ridgewood’s Benjamin Franklin Middle School, eliminated homework for elective courses and set up an online system that lets families know how long many homework assignments should take. “We have a high-powered district,” says Orsini. “The pressures are palpable on these students to succeed. My community is not ready to eliminate homework altogether.”
The trend, instead, is to lessen the quantity while improving the quality of homework by using it to complement classroom work, says Cathy Vatterott, a professor of education at University of Missouri at St. Louis and author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs (2009). Cynthia Schneider, principal of World Journalism Preparatory school in Queens for 570 sixth through twelfth graders, plans to encourage all students to read for pleasure every night, then write a thoughtful response. There are also initiatives to “decriminalize” not finishing homework assignments.
As for Diane Lowrie, who left Ocean County because of too much homework, she says Iain, now 10 and heading for fifth grade in Roosevelt, New Jersey, is less stressed out. He recently spent 40 hours working on a book report and diorama about the Battle of Yorktown. “But,” says his mother, “it was his idea and he enjoyed it.”