Homework hooha

Ben Wildavsky reviews the two new anti-homework books, reminding readers of a 2003 Brookings study which found the typical American high school student “spends less than one hour studying per day.” Students 9 to 12 years old average less than four hours per week on homework, compared to more than 13 hours a week watching television. The rise in homework hours is driven by the decreasing number of students who do no homework at all, Wildavsky writes.

As this Washington Post story points out, researchers conclude that homework has little benefit for elementary students, though it does provide some reading and basic skills practice and build work habits. Middle-schoolers who spend about 1 1/2 hours a night and high school students who study for two hours a night do better in school; more homework doesn’t correlate with higher grades or scores.

A Time story cites a study estimating students 6 to 8 years old average 128 minutes of homework a week. If they do nothing on weekends, that’s about 25 minutes a day.

Of course, some poorly conceived homework assignments demand way too much poster board and waste the time of children and their parents. And some ambitious students overload themselves with AP courses that demand hours of homework every night. So let’s focus on useful homework assignments not on telling kids they shouldn’t study. Four hours of homework. Thirteen hours of TV. What’s the problem here?

About Joanne


  1. There is a wide varity in the amount of homework assigned even within schools. I have two 3rd graders. One averages about 1 1/2 hours of homework a night. The other one averages around 40 minutes of homework. They are both progressing through the curriculum at the same pace.

    Ironically, my 6th grader has less homework than either of them. She only has around 30 minutes a night.

    I would agree that the main problem with homework is not the amount of time (though that needs to be addressed), but the quality of homework. IMHO, homework for any student of any grade should be able to be completed by them independently. Too often my 3rd graders homework assignments are of a complexity or difficulty that requires me to serve as a defacto teacher.

  2. Too many teachers assign projects or new topics as homework… when, as Joanne paraphrased, it is studying and repetition of learned skills that make the difference. From K-12, every single math assignment I had was a problem set that covered material already taught in class. I like to think of it as “guided studying” – practicing the skills that would be tested. Now, I have heard of students doing biographical projects using reports, posters, and other mediums to tell about a mathematician… or writing fictional stories about their favorite shapes. How do these assignments help them compute sales tax or figure out compounding interest?

  3. How many hours of reading books they’ve chosen, that they’re not going to be tested on?

    How many hours of going out and poking mud with sticks or trying to catch frogs or looking for weird bugs?

    I don’t like the “busywork” homework – or the homework requiring Special Supplies that only one store in town sold, and that got sold out fast – but I do remember doing lots of math homework, where the problems focused on practicing the concepts we were learning. And I remember writing stories or essays or even just sentences using vocabulary words for Language Arts. And I remember making graphs from data for Science.

    I’m actually curious as to where the 13 hours of tv fit in. Most of my friends who have kids are so busy and so involved with after-school activities – some nights until 7 or 8 pm – that I never get to see them outside of the occasional “hi-bye” encounter at the grocery store.

  4. When I got to college I realized that I was horribly prepared for the workload and the coursework. Part of this was curriculum issues — I hadn’t read enough classic literature because it was mandated by my school district in Illinois (it is now), so I didn’t know how to discuss it. My art studio classes were not up to the competitive level of a design and art education.

    But some of this was also because of not having had enough project management skills related to reading and writing, which is weird to me, as it’s those projects and reports that I remember best from my pre-college education and liked the most.

    I think there were too many worksheets and not enough critical thinking. And project-based work — research, independent reading, etc.

    I was also in college with a lot of kids from elite private academies that were used a much higher level of education and expectations. Either that or suburban school districts of East Coast cities competing with those schools. In Illinois, only those that couldn’t handle public schools went to private schools.

    I don’t regret going to public schools — but I definitely wasn’t prepared for colleges outside of my region.

  5. I don’t think it is useful to talk about homework in the aggregate, in other words, not distinguishing between what is required in k-5 grades from what is required in 9-12 grade.

    The justification for homework in k-5 is that the kids “need to get used to doing work outside of school.” Hogwash. A short orientation to outside-of-school work in late 5th grade is sufficient.

    One school in the Redwood City School District assigns 60-90 minutes per night…in 3rd grade. And it goes up from there. Why is this good for the students?

    Another school (different elementary district, same high school district) has a “no homework” policy.

    The API scores are comparable.

    Pushing hours of homework down into the elementary grades is an example of age compression.

    Where’s the time to daydream, to putter, to work on your model airplane collection?

  6. There is only one subject besides spelling words that REALLY needs homework – math. Math is a skill that is only learned through practice. Parents will let their kids spend an hour at soccer practice, an hour at ballet practice, 2 hours at football practice, and don’t have any time for math practice. Is it any wonder that our kids do so poorly in math?

  7. Indigo Warrior says:

    Maybe it’s because an hour of math practice each day won’t increase the kid’s social dominance in peer groups.

  8. As a math teacher I agree that there is a lot of benefit with math practice for homework. At the same time, it has to be practice. In Fred Jones 3 part teaching style, he has the “I do it”, where the teacher models the process to the class, “We do it” where there is guided practice, and independent work with teacher support. The final phase, “You do it” is independent seatwork and homework. It is practice, not learning new material that should be done at home. The same for reading.

    Students need to spend a lot more time practicing reading. I believe that good readers are better spellers. They know what the word should ‘look like’. I hear “I don’t want to read, it is too hard” way too often in study hall. It is hard because it is not practiced. It is a slow go for those kids (most of them) who did not get turned on to reading as a youngster. We are too happy to get the kids TVs in their rooms, and video game systems with $40 games, but we forget that books are both entertaining and highly portable. These are the areas that need homework. Having students choose a book to read for themselves, maybe with the help of a class trip to the school library and help/coaching from the librarian, will make the task more interesting.

    Parents and educators can encourage reading. I gave extra credit for any student that brought a personal reading book in to math class just in case they got done before the end of the period. I wanted to get them thinking of reading as a way to fill time.

    My homework policy is that I only assign the material that is a review, and if the students can not do the work, they need to coontact me (on-line) where I will monitor during set hours. If I can not help them understand the work, then they will still recieve full credit the next day. They must contact me though. Just saying they didn’t understand won’t get them a pass. They are learning about responsibility as well. If they do not do their homework, for math anyway, when I am online, then they miss out on the option. They need to do homework early in the evening (6-8) so they get enough rest. We do teach a lot more than our courses, we teach life skills. One of those is time management.