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Is homework really necessary?

Some say it isn’t, while others insist that kids need the extra work.

By Amy BentleyPublished: August, 2008

If there’s ever been one word known to fill a conversation with more moans, groans, sighs and complaints than any other, “homework” is that word.

Just ask Connor Christiansen of Riverside. The 13-year-old finished 8th grade at Amelia Earhart Middle School in Riverside last spring with an average of three hours of homework per day. Sometimes the load was so crushing, and Connor worried so much about getting it all done, he became physically ill.

“It made me have a lot of pains in my back and my muscles,” recalls Connor.

His mom, Diana Christiansen, objects to such a huge workload for a middle-school student. The homework included several group projects, including PowerPoint presentations,  for multiple classes in which she said Connor ended up doing more than his fair share to cover for the students who did less.

“He did it because he cares about his grades,” says Christiansen. “Connor was having health problems, like headaches and stomachaches. He was really stressed. Kids need time off to decompress like everyone else.”

Enough, already?
Like Diana, other parents – and educators – think kids are being assigned too much homework. There’s homework on weekends, over vacations and every weekday, turning parents into enforcers and stealing precious time from families.

Which begs the question: Is homework REALLY necessary?
It depends on who you ask. Logic would dictate that teachers would be all for homework, students against it and most parents on the fence about it, right?

Yet, according to a 2007 MetLife survey conducted by Harris Interactive, 83 percent of teachers, 81 percent of parents and 77 percent of students surveyed believe that homework is important. The survey found that more students value homework now than in the past.

VERY surprising!

Still, significant numbers of parents and students did identify big problems with homework. Although six in 10 parents believe that their child’s teachers assign the right amount of homework, the survey reported, fully one-third of parents rate the quality of homework assignments as fair or poor.

The case against homework
Not all educators are on the pro-homework bandwagon. Former teacher Sharon Marshall Lockett of Laguna Niguel leans toward those studies showing that excessive homework does not improve grades and leads to burnout.

“We need to develop student skills. But I do believe there’s way too much homework today. Piling tons of homework on children keeps them from living a balanced life,” says Lockett, author of “Home Sweet Homework: A Parent’s Guide to Stress-Free Homework and Studying Strategies That Work.”

Lockett has 30 years of experience in public education, mostly in Orange County. She knows private- and public-school children in Orange County who are given five hours of homework per night.

    “They’re exhausted and lose some of the spark out of thei personality,” says Locke. “They’re doing it to get into college. These kids are perfectionists and very disciplined, and their parents want them to go to Ivy League schools. They don’t have time to practice music, play sports, get involved in activities or even nurture themselves.”

Sick of homework – literally

A Stanford University study of 2,700 high school students found that two-thirds of them were “often or always” stressed by homework. More than 50 percent of these teens complained of headaches, problems sleeping or exhaustion; 25 percent said they used stimulants like Red Bull or No-Doz. And some students often skipped lunch to take yet another class.

Much of the blame for our overburdened children lies with parents and teachers, says homework expert Dr. Cathy Vatterott, an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of “Homework Myths” and “There’s Something Wrong With Homework.”

“Teachers think they are giving a half hour of homework, and one kid takes an hour and a half to do it, while another takes 20 minutes. Homework should be time-based, not task-based, but a lot of teachers aren’t comfortable doing that.”

Parents are also a big part of the problem, says Vatterott. “There is a cultural concept that ‘the way to heaven’ is to get into Harvard. Kids feel like they don’t have any choice.” She adds, “We’ve created a culture for youths in which we’ve said they are successful if they get into a top-notch college. But the acceptance rate to these colleges is very low, and we’ve created a demand that can’t be met.”

Vatterott says more homework is not necessarily better. “We’re turning a corner where people are starting to say, ‘This isn’t worth it!’”

The campaign to stop homework

Much of that shift can be attributed to Sara Bennett, a New York lawyer and mother of two teens. Two years ago, Bennett and co-author Nancy Kalish published “The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It.” The book, and Bennett’s subsequent website, stophomework.com, prompted some school districts around the United States and Canada to re-evaluate their homework policies and make changes. A new backlash against excessive homework was born and continues today.

Does Bennett think homework is necessary?

“In general, no,” she says. “There’s more to life than school. There are many different ways of acquiring knowledge and learning. Kids learn when they play with friends, build a MySpace page, cook with parents, download music, play an instrument or write poetry. You learn through pursuing your passion, whatever that may be. Most homework doesn’t get to that.”

Positive changes have come from Bennett’s efforts. Some schools have adopted homework-free weekends, limited the number of Advanced Placement classes students take and make high schoolers take a lunch break.

Schools that have adopted a “No Homework” policy

The ultra-high-achieving San Ramon Valley Unified School District in Danville, near Berkeley, appointed an 18-member committee earlier this year to re-evaluate homework. The board approved a revised policy for grades K-8.

“It’s a smarter, more pertinent approach that really provides quality instruction over quantity instruction,” says administrator Kirby Hoy. The new policy advocates no homework – other than reading – over weekends, vacations and long school breaks for K-8 students.

Neither Bennett nor Hoy are aware of any school districts in California that have scrapped homework entirely – or are likely to. But Bennett knows that change is slow, and she remains encouraged by the changes in Danville.

The race toward college

Nicholas Reem, 14, who will attend Foothill High School in Tustin, is already looking toward college. He feels the pressure. Nicholas had between an hour and three hours of daily homework in 8th grade, including an hour on weekends, and he expects more in high school.

Getting admitted to a good college leads older students to take honors and Advanced Placement classes, which Nicholas is sure he’ll take, perhaps in his sophomore year.

But AP and honors classes weren’t designed to be about more work, but about more challenging work and in-depth thinking, something teachers forget, says Dr. Vatterott.

How much is appropriate?

There’s no national or state standard, and school districts have their own policies.

The National Parent Teacher Association and the National Education Association endorse the “10-minute rule,” which says that the maximum amount of homework in all subjects combined should not exceed 10 minutes per day, per grade level.

So a first-grader should have no more than 10 minutes of homework per day; a senior no more than two hours per day.

Research supports the 10-minute rule.

Excessive homework was not shown to lead to higher grades and causes burnout, says Dr. Harris Cooper, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

“In several states, middle schoolers who were doing 60 to 90 minutes per night were doing as well as those who did more each night.”

Dr. Cooper reviewed more than 60 research studies on homework between 1987 and 2003. He concluded that homework DOES have a positive effect on student achievement. However, younger students lack developed study skills and have shorter attention spans and, therefore, don’t benefit much from homework.

“Homework for young students,” says Cooper, “should be short, lead to success without much struggle, occasionally involve parents and involve out-of-school activities that kids enjoy.” n

Amy Bentley is a contributing writer.

Study time
Make the most of it

> Work examples together if kids don’t understand the homework.

> Look at their homework after the teacher returns it to see where they’re having trouble.

> Don’t do their work!

> If you’re at work, look at their homework when you get home.

> Give them praise.

> Ask the school for help in developing good study habits.

> If your child doesn’t understand his homework, send it back incomplete and ask that he not be penalized. Tell the teacher in a note that he didn’t understand the assignment; ask her to explain it again and to let your child try again. n

Source: National PTA and the National Education Assoc.

Readers Feedback:

I do think that there is too much homework assigned to children today, but I wish that this article showed some, any statistics on the children that in general are unable to keep up, and therefore "give up", instead of all on the children that stress to illness. We should not forget the children that stress themselves into giving up.
Comment at 7/31/2008
I agree that there is simply too much homework these days. When are children supposed to be children? What are teachers actually doing during class? Rather than actually taking time to teach/lecture in the classroom, it seems that many teachers simply expect kids to attend class in order give them an "assignment to be completed at home" on their own. The assignment is returned to the student with a grade and little or no feedback or explanation. By the time the student has had time to review and understand his graded work the teacher is already on to the next subject and is “assigning more work to be completed at home.” I believe that most teaching (and therefore learning) should take place in the classroom, not at the kitchen table. Teachers really need to step it up, make school interesting and fun again, and stop sending kids home with hours of homework…ultimately forcing parents to teach their children about things they should be learning “at school.”
Comment at 8/1/2008


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