Too much homework?

Doing his middle-school daughter’s homework for a week was exhausting, Karl Taro Greenfeld writes in The Atlantic. Most nights it took thee hours. His daughter, who attends a “lab” school for gifted students, is becoming “a sleep-deprived teen zombie,” he complains.

Well-educated parents lead the complaints about too much homework, responds Robert Pondiscio. Their kids probably would do just fine with “a humane 30 to 60 minutes a night”  of homework. Poor Students Need Homework, however, if they are to have any chance to succeed in school.

For the low-income kids of color that I have worked with, thoughtful, well-crafted homework, especially in reading, remains an essential gap-closing tool.

The homework debate should focus on what kind of homework is assigned for what purpose, Pondiscio writes. Quantity is less important than quality.

Using homework merely to cover material there was no time for in class is less helpful, for example, than “distributed practice”: reinforcing and reviewing essential skills and knowledge teachers want students to perfect or keep in long-term memory.  Independent reading is also important.  There are many more rare and unique words even in relatively simple texts than in the conversation of college graduates.  Reading widely and with stamina is an important way to build verbal proficiency and background knowledge, important keys to mature reading comprehension.  And all of this is far more important for disadvantaged kids than for Greenfeld’s children, already big winners in the Cognitive Dream House Sweepstakes.

How much homework do kids actually do?  Six percent of students say they spend more than three hours a night on homework, according to a 2007 Metlife study. Fifty-five percent spent less than one hour a night.[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]

Metlife Survey of the American Teacher

Blacks say they spend 6.3 hours a week on homework, Latinos report 6.4 and whites 6.8 hours. Asians average 10.3 hours.

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  1. Crimson Wife says:

    I read the “Atlantic” article and it seemed to me that a big part of the problem is his daughter is a slow reader. The number of pages he said took his daughter a full hour to read my own 6th grader could do in 20 minutes. So the issue may not be an overload of homework but rather that the girl being placed into a class which is too hard for her abilities.

    • I read the Atlantic article too, and I found no mention of the number of pages the daughter could read in an hour — only the number of pages her FATHER could read in an hour — 32. He said that he reads slower in middle age than as a young person, but 32 pages of a typical novel is 11,200 words. This is a rate of 187 WPM, which is exactly on point for an eighth grader, if in fact his daughter reads at that rate. The actual assignment, 79 pages, comes to approximately 27, 650 words, which should take an 8th grader reading at a fast average speed of 200 WPM a total of 2 hours, 18 minutes. And the student is not supposed to be merely reading but also extracting three significant and powerful quotes and writing an analysis of each. This is creeping up towards three hours for that ONE assignment.

      Nothing in the article suggests the student is placed above her abilities. Heck, she might even be able to read much faster and with better comprehension if she got anything close to the required sleep for a 13-year-old.

      Some years back Catherine at KTM kept us all informed on the horrors of NY’s eighth grade “Earth Science” course. So that takes a big chunk of time every night. As the dad says, math is the least of the problems.

      Now it’s a fact that few schools require this much homework and few students complete this much. But the competition at the top tiers is in fact extremely stiff. In addtion to doing 5 hours of homework a night, these kids are supposed to be Olympic class athletes in several sports, paragons of community service and volunteer work, have interesting and engaging hobbies, and be saving the world through patents and inventions by age 15.

      I’m only exaggerating slightly.

      One does wonder how well the time is used in class. 13-year-olds should not need to do 4-5 hours of homework on a regular basis. 90 minutes is more like it.

      Thankfully, my district doesn’t allow this much homework in the elementary grades. Also, homework is not supposed to be graded for report cards (after all, in many cases, it’s obvious the parent has done the work and not the child).

      Most of this work should be done in school, and afterschool study halls or homework clubs are a great help in low-SES neighborhoods where children don’t have a place to study at home.

      • My child had similar hw as an accelerated eighth grader. It doesn’t take 3 hrs a night if the child is actually qualified academically to be in the class. And Earth Science…if its a competent teacher, the student has good math skills, and the student is learning in class & lab, then it does not take hours each night. I know, I moved my kid from an incompetent to a competent. That dropped study time down to appropriate (review notes and problem sets, about ten minutes nightly) and resulted in a 97 on the Regen’ts Exam. I think the gal would do better to pay attention and learn in class and lab than memorize the text and problem set bank, but that doesn’t seem to be her family’s philosophy. Either way, being a great memorizer will get her a starring role in the school musical…

  2. The Angela’s Ashes assignments seem to not be only reading: “A Humanities assignment requiring the kids to render in words, pictures, or both a scene from Angela’s Ashes, say, can take an hour or two, yet most teachers don’t seem to consider anything creative to be homework.”

    It seems the assignments are graded? So it’s not just, “read the pages listed,” it’s read, analyze, and create something to be graded.

    The homework might not have taken such a long time, had it been started that afternoon, or early evening, rather than at 8:00 pm. Three hours of homework, with dinner, starting at 5, gets the kid in bed by 9:00. If you know it’s three hours, why are you starting it at 8:00?

  3. Maybe she can show her understanding – with interpretive dance! 😛

    Really, though, the K-12 teachers need to get together for regular meetings to check and see how much HW they’re giving their students. Seperately, they often don’t realize what the full load is when taken all together. In college, such meetings happen regularly.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Seriously? I was once in a conversation with a professor who said that he expected students to spend 20-30 hours a week working on his class. This was at a school where most students took 4 classes a quarter.

      In my experience, college professors don’t consult with others about how much work they’re assigning. They just assign it, and expect you to do what you need to to stay afloat.

    • “In college, such meetings happen regularly.”

      You *have* to be kidding.

      At medium-large to large state universities, the chemistry department does not coordinate homework loads with the philosophy department. And this holds true for pretty much any pair of departments you wish.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        In my experience, they don;t coordinate WITHIN the department, either.

        Heck, in one psychotic class we had a professor say “I understand some of you feel that the homework in this class is too hard…. but I’m having fun, so we’re going to pick up the pace a bit!” On the other hand…. that class didn’t kill me and DID transform me from a mediocre student in the subject to a great one. In fact, the most intense classes were also the most rewarding, long-term.

        The problem with a lot of k-12 homework is that it’s not CHALLENGING, it’s just time consuming. It’s designed to select for compliance, not subject knowledge.

  4. Ann in L.A. says:

    The quality of homework matters a lot. I have one kid who is struggling to write answers to history questions in his Everyday *Math* curriculum, and another kid (2 years older) who is working through a page of real algebra problems. The two kids spend about the same amount of time on their work, but the first is being tortured and learning no math and the second is learning useful skills.

  5. The companion to the Met Life study (there really is not that much homework going on) is Harris Cooper’s research. He concludes that based on the studies we do have, we can definitely say homework has little impact on academic outcomes. Alas no one wants to be bother by the facts when there’s an exciting debate to be offered.

    • “He concludes that based on the studies we do have, we can definitely say homework has little impact on academic outcomes.”




      Some relevant bits from the link:

      The homework question is best answered by comparing students assigned homework with students assigned no homework who are similar in other ways. The results of such studies suggest that homework can improve students’ scores on the class tests that come at the end of a topic. Students assigned homework in second grade did better on the math tests; third and fourth graders did better on English skills and vocabulary tests; fifth graders on social studies tests; ninth through 12th graders on American history tests; and 12th graders on Shakespeare tests. Across five studies, the average student who did homework had a higher unit test score than the students not doing homework.


      However, 35 less rigorous (correlational) studies suggest little or no relationship between homework and achievement for elementary school students. The average correlation between time spent on homework and achievement was substantial for secondary school students…




      Practice assignments do improve scores on class tests at all grade levels. A little amount of homework may help elementary school students build study habits. Homework for junior high students appears to reach the point of diminishing returns after about 90 minutes a night. For high school students, the positive line continues to climb until between 90 minutes and 2.5 hours of homework a night, after which returns diminish…

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I have very vivid memories not only of being a child, but of how I thought when I was a child.

    I put absolutely NO credence whatsoever in any study of homework that depends on a students’ self-reporting.


    Not only is there a strong internal incentive to lie, but kids are notoriously awful at judging time.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Such homework as i recall from a long time ago was in two parts; reinforcement and preparation. The latter was, say, memorizing vocab for language class, quantum numbers for science, etc. Neither should be done on class time.

    • And the incredibly time consuming projects (build a Spanish Mission with sugar cubes …). Don’t forget those!

      • Oh God, I remember that one. Only in my case it was a pyramid. Best moment was presenting it in class as “the pyramid of Cheops — or an unreasonable facsimile thereof.” Teacher chuckled at that. Otherwise, a waste of time.

        I have *never* assigned projects like that to students, although when a very few approached me wanting to do such a project, I encouraged them. One built a working trebuchet and hurled erasers down the school corridor. Tied in with science study of fulcrum, lever etc. Most of these “projects” end up being done by parents, so doubly a waste of time.

      • Crimson Wife says:

        Those were the worst! I *LOATHED* dioramas because I was not especially artistic and I’d waste all this time on them trying to get them to look half-decent but still wind up with a “B”.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        I used to beg teachers to PLEASE just let me write a research paper instead! My fine motor skills are… lacking, so any ‘artsy fun!” project was pure torture.