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December 21, 2011

Is homework harming our kids? Our readers say yes.

By Carol Lloyd

Executive Editor

Usually GreatSchools’ office traffics in the tamer side of trauma: there was the scandal when the Halloween hand soap disappeared from the women’s bathroom.  Who would steal hand soap?! Then there was the Happy Hour theme competition and the take-no-prisoners corporate picnic bake-off –you get the picture.

But in the last month we’ve been reminded that, for many kids,  education sometimes has a darker side.  On two occasions the police have visited our office in response to alarming comments on our articles.  In both cases we were desperately trying to track down the commenter. Both notes were from teenagers – both submitted in response to the same article about homework. One was a suicide note from a 16-year-old boy who claimed his 6 hours of homework a night made him want to “[adverbial expletive] kill himself. “ He even detailed how he would do it.  The other was a cry for help from a 13-year-old boy who claimed that his father had just been beaten him to the point of bruising and bleeding and locked him out of his home on a cold winter night after seeing a “D” on the boy’s report card.

In the first case, we heard back that the police had tracked down the boy across the country, visited his home and spoken to his parents.  The boy claimed he wasn’t “really” suicidal. The other case we don’t know if the police were able to find the child.  We couldn’t publish these boys’ comments but they aren’t anomalies. This year our articles about homework – especially the one simply titled “Too much homework” -- have garnered such persistently despairing commentary from teenagers, we wanted to spread the word.  (This article hasn’t been highlighted on our site of late so we assume desperate kids are finding the article in a routine Google search.)

Here are a few recent excerpts from the hundreds of comments we’ve received.  Again and again they hit the same notes of desperation, frustration and the prevailing conclusion that adults have no idea what kids are dealing with these days. The most aggravating citation comes from the 2003 study, “A Nation at Rest: The American Way of Homework,” by the Rand Corporation which looked at homework practices over five decades and discovered that homework loads have not substantially increased and that teenagers only do an average of 4 hours per week. 

12/19/2011:

"I started reading this article then I saw the words "median of 4 hours a week" if that was true I would be in heaven. … I get on average 4 hours a night!!! I have 7 classes a day that's 7 hours of school plus 2-3 hours of sport practice. I come home I just want to eat but I cant, let alone sleep... I get so much homework it has become a normal thing for me to come home start homework and somewhere in between start crying because of the stress... Now someone who thinks we get the right amount or need more, come and say that to my face! "

12/15/2011:

"For the past month ive been staying up past 2 AM and waking up at 6 AM to go to school. Im a mess!!! How am I supposed to learn in school when im assigned all this busywork that I go home and work through like a zombie!? Teachers need to know these three important words... Quality Over Quantity.....

12/14/2011:

"…. I have several times before, stayed up until around 4 AM doing homework, then I had to get up at 6 AM to get ready for school. It was killing me, I even ended up in the hospital from passing out because of exhaustion. It's just not right. "

12/12/2011:

"I'm about to just stop doing homework altogether. I just had so much homework last night that I wasn't in bed until 1 AM. I think 10 hours for homework is too much. Soon enough the world will be a bunch of antisocial freaks because all we do in life is homework. "

12/8/2011:

"haha! 4 hours? maybe for a 1st grader! I'm in eight grade and takeing 2 high school courses already so i MIGHT be able to graduate early. I wake up at 6am and do my homework for an hour until 7 when i get ready for school.(somedays i sleep right through my alarm cuz im so damn tired) then go to school from 9.15 to 3.15 ride the bus home and get home like 4.10 then i do the dishes and take a shower then do my homework at like 5.oo do my hw for almost 6 hours a night then eat dinner at 11.00 and go to bed to do it all over again the next day so 4 hours a week is such a lie "

12/8/2011:

"This is ridiculous. Four hours a week my butt. ….The outlines I receive in AP amount to about an extra 3+ hours of work…. Teachers should be aware of the amount of homework they give us and not overload us. We get less sleep trying to finish the work and don't learn anything in class the next day. "

12/7/2011:

"4 hours a week???? I don't care how credible that guy appears to be, if he really believes that's all kids get he has to be on drugs. I'm a jr. in high school and my Precalc alone can take up to 2 hours per night. And adults also have to remember that students, especially high schoolers, are doing all this homework on top of extracurriculars, sports, and work. Some of these things are for fun, but it's also in part preparing to pay for college. Scholarships are competetive these days, you really need to do a LOT to stand apart on them. I work every day except Tuesday and Sunday, and am also in Art Club, 4-H, Speech, Book Club, Teen Advisory Group, Teen Court, and Culture Club. I enjoy all these things and truly want to keep doing them! Obviously each of these aren't every night, but if you add up them + homework + work, it gets EXTREMELY stressful. I'm not saying schools should abolish homework completely - to a certain extent, it is necessary - but teachers definitely ne! ed to coordinate with each other and plan out homework assignments accordingly. Sorry I got long-winded, but I really feel it's important that adults understand students' situations! :) "

How do we explain the distance between these kids reality and scientific findings which suggest students aren’t in fact doing more homework? The fallacy of averages may be a good place to start.  Given the deep educational equity gap in our country wouldn’t it make sense that these complaints on our site come from kids who are in training mode for the “Race to nowhere” working their fingers to the bone for those limited spots in college?  The kids who aren’t doing nearly so much homework may be those stuck in proverbial drop out factories, forever waiting for Superman.  So it may be possible America’s kids are both being over worked and underworked – it’s just not the same kids.

So as the New Year gets under way, if you suspect you’ve got a homework stricken student under your roof, talk with her about her workload and her anxiety.  Of course, we don’t want to coddle kids so they can’t handle a little heat, but if the kids commenting on our site are any example, then many kids out there are feeling overwhelmed to the point of collapse – and worse.  This is a lesson most parents don't want their children to be learning in school.

At the very least, as parents, we can make an effort to help our kids before they begin sending out SOSs into the internet wilderness.

Comments

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"I work every day except Tuesday and Sunday, and am also in Art Club, 4-H, Speech, Book Club, Teen Advisory Group, Teen Court, and Culture Club. I enjoy all these things and truly want to keep doing them!"

I am a young teacher with an extremely good memory about my own high school experiences which were, after all, less than ten years ago. While talking about teens' homework load is necessary and salient, focusing on them as the source of the problem is not. We fail our students, not by overloading them, but by not teaching them to prioritize.

Teenagers don't have a good sense of proportion--about almost anything. (I'm not blaming them. The relevant areas of their brains just aren't developed yet. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/work/adolescent.html) It's no wonder that the poor teen who commented on your blog thinks a job, SEVEN extracurricular activities, and school are an appropriate workload. Few rational adults would ever try to juggle so much. Yet I distinctly remember as a teenager taking pride in being in almost every club the school offered, as well as straight honors/AP classes.

To make matters worse, or even more unfair, parents of current teenagers have missed the memo that Millenials and their Baby Boomer parents have learned the hard way over the past four years. (See the Occupy Movement and their largest areas of concern.) Working yourself to the bone in high school so you can get into a "good" college isn't a free path to the easy life. On the contrary, recent college graduates struggle to differentiate themselves from a crowded field of other overachievers who also made themselves miserable in high school and college.

Consider this: my younger sisters had poorer grades in high school than me and went to a significantly less competitive undergraduate institution than I did. They both got jobs right out of college. They're just as happy in life as I am. Even though I have an undergraduate degree from one of the top fifty universities in the US and a graduate degree from one of the top five universities in the world, one of my sisters makes more money teaching than I do.

So instead of focusing on homework, I propose we, as educators and parents, help teens bring some balance back to their lives. Teenagers can't do everything. They don't (gasp) have to complete every homework assignment or make an A on every test. Their success in life doesn't depend on being "perfect" in high school. Teens would be much better off setting their priorities and taking time to find out what they enjoy. They just need a little help from us to learn a sense of balance.

The world is shrinking. The world population grows by 200,000 more people every DAY - yet, the resources to house, feed, clothe and nourish this growing population is divided into smaller and smaller lots...so no wonder the competition is greater.

There will be more suicides. There will be more competition for fewer jobs, and a college education will be required for the best jobs more than ever. The employment rate will not get better. It's the astute student - the person who looks three moves ahead in the chess game of life - who will survive and thrive.

Can we change this harsh reality? Of course. The survivor of the "fittest" today balances their homework needs with rest, nourishment, positive outlook, and a balance amount of socializing. Until we level off our population growth, look for the competition to get tougher and for the successful players to get smarter, and wiser. Those who don't see this are doomed to become extinct. Evolution works.

With all due respect to the teacher's comment above, picking out the one quote of an over-committed student does not make a point. None of the other comments in the article cite extra commitments, just lots of homework.

The average student at Lowell High school in San Francisco takes at least 5 classes a day that assign homework. If the time necessary to complete the daily assignments for those classes is an (only) hour, that's (at least) FIVE hours of homework a DAY!

Since Lowell is a high performing school with lot's of students enrolled in AP classes, the amount of daily homework doubles per AP class!

Granted, Lowell is a special case but I don't think it is wrong to assume that the data from Rand does not reflect the reality of students that are on the college tract.

i think they really should give less homework to elementary students, especially 5th grade. My cousin comes home from school at 3:oopm and finishes it at 10:00pm. She starts it when she gets home and no stop, keeps doing it. It's okay to give them homework but not that much at least like... 2 a week???

I am currently a non-traditional adult college student with a child in elementary school. He is assigned weekly homework that requires at least three or four (sometimes more) hours a week, but he is in third grade!

In response to the young teacher in the comments above: I know many people in my classes that would not be able to attend college without having juggled so many activities and work while prioritizing grades. You need to work like crazy to get any kind of meaningful scholarship money.

While undergraduate education is getting more and more expensive (even at mediocre Midwestern cow-colleges like mine), student grants are shrinking and student loans are looking more and more like gambling with your future. In many cases, scholarship money is the best chance that these students have.

It seems like a hard thing that so many young adults are competing so frantically for scholarships, but if you want to look competitive you really CAN'T let one A slip down to a B. You have to have activities that make you stand out from the group. I do think that a strong commitment to 2 or 3 groups is better on an application than a nominal presence in seven. That said, she claims to attend these groups because she enjoys them, and she should be allowed to "prioritize" some enjoyment. After all, she is a teenager!

There is no easy answer, but I think that high schools should embrace the idea of quality over quantity for some classes and have homework help labs (like I have seen at colleges) available to students for other classes (online help labs would probably be useful).

My daughter is a senior in high school, she gets up at 6am to catch the bus at 7:15. She has AP Calculas, Ap Enviormental Science, Advanced Woodshop, Comp and CWA this trimester. When she gets home from school on a typical day at 3:30 she starts practice for her sport for 1 hour mim. then she starts in on homework usually stopping at 11pm unless there is a test the next day then it is later. One night a week she goes to a town that is 1 hour away driving time so she can be coached in her sport. That night she hopes she doesn't have homework because she doesn't get home till 10pm, if she does then does homework till 2am sometimes. Matches are on Saturdays or Sundays. The teacher above says kids don't prioritize.......I beg to differ. Giving up her Olympic sport is not going to happen.....this is her "key" for college. She freaks out depending on the class if she gets less than an A or even a B. She knows a good GPA 3.0 goes much farther than a 2.9. Outside activites including girl friends and a boyfriend also have to be prioritized to fit. I personally thinks she does a fantastic job...The amount of homework diffenately needs to decrease ....a lot, and soon. My question is why do grade schoolers do middle school loads,middle schoolers do high school loads and high schoolers do college loads for homework? After all we are not China, our kids have lives. We have public schools not government run ones.

My kids go to wonderful schools and the teachers, for the most part, are phenomenal. While homework in grade school seems to have tamed down a bit since by now eighth grade daughter was there, her middle school years have been way too demanding with homework. My daughter is an advanced student so her classes maybe should be harder. Still, she is very attentive, independent, and dependable. She's organized and aims to please. She also prioritizes well. She does take piano when we can fit it in, I home school our churches faith formation for more flexibility to help, she's joined their school's NJHS, and she made dance team this year. She gets an average of four hours of homework a night and in the case of advanced math, I would say she comes home half the time not understanding the assignment she's supposed to be doing. She skypes her 24 year old engineer cousin who can help sometimes, goes in early to talk to the teacher, and calls friends. Typically, my husband and I, both intelligent parents, cannot help. Anyway, she rarely gets to bed any earlier than 11:00 and sometimes stays up as late as 12:30 am, getting up at 5:45 each morning to catch the bus at 7:10. She never gets enough sleep and is in such a habit of late nights, even when the rare occasion to sleep earlier comes, she can't get to sleep. It's way over the top and way too much!!! I'm a certified elementary teacher. I understand kids very well, and I pity the child who isn't the "ideal" student my child is. I have a son in fifth grade with ADD who is determined and hard working, but he needs even more sleep than she and will surely have more frustration than she already has. He's a good student, but not sure if he'll be advanced yet. I wholeheartedly believe they aren't doing these kids any favors with the amount of homework given in our district. Sure, the kids score better on tests, make the district look better, and succeed in taking and passing more AP classes, but with a lot of pain and sactifice for the kids and families.

I have a child who has an A- average on her tests in math and science. Between her activities and her ADHD memory and organization issues, it is impossible to complete much of the homework. But, her test average shows a mastery of the material. Unfortunately, what the colleges she applies to will see is her Cs in the classes, brought down by her homework grades. I thought homework was a way to help students learn, not an opportunity to punish them for not jumping through unnecessary hoops.

Grace, I think you seriously misread my comment. I didn't say students just need to prioritize. I said they need to develop a better sense of balance. If your daughter needs a 3.0 to reasonably get into a good school with her Olympic sport, why is she "freaking out" about a B? As educators and parents, we ought to make kids feel like being a B student is okay and that being a great athlete is something valuable. No one can be an "A-student" at everything. Let's help our kids stop defining their self-worth through making straight As, especially as straight As aren't as necessary as kids seem to think they are.

There are times that kids do get too much homework: especially for elementary students. I found myself doing my kids homework for them because either it's too much or they don't understand it. Projects are the worse of all, because most of the time my children don't understand the project and the reason they are doing the project. They seem clueless. Many times we stay up hours trying to complete the project. Kids these days don't even know the basics of their school/homework. I've found myself asking for instructions on how to do the homework, and many times was told get it off the site. Well, what about those who don't have internet? I do, but there are many who don't. Seem like school are trying to put educational responsibilies on parents these days. Many parents are even blamed, schools not realizing if they are introducing new materials parents haven't heard of, we are just as lost as our children. More emphasis is put on testing: why test if they memorise for testing instead of learning it for life like we did when we were in school? A lot needs to be done to school lesson plans to help students become more confident and comfortable in doing and understanding how to do their assigned school/homework. When a child is acting out and the school want the parent to do it their way, which the majority of times is not working, we get blamed for not doing it right when we should be included as an equal partner in our children's educational plans. I feel like I've went back to school and is in class all over again. It's outragous how our children don't know how to do basic reading, math, english, etc. My 9 year old brought home what seems to be more than algebr in math, and his sister's friend, who is older, didn't even know how to do it. We are loosing our children to my knowledge they are not with-it students. I wish schools will stop trying to put kids's learning in a one-fit-all academic learning. There are many materials that says one fit-all: but just because it says that, doesn't mean all can fit it even if they are of normal sizes. I do agree that homework is too over-loaded for students these days. If you have a 5th grader staying up pass 9 doing homework and not completing it until after midnight, I wonder how long would it take them to do homework in higher grades because each grades is more complicated and comes with more educational materials to learn. Parents, we must speak out. Many thinks they'll be alright: but not so.

Alison F. Solove.....My daughter wants to go into premed not basket weaving. In order to get into an acredited college you have to have at least a 3.0. To get into college and in order to receive scholarship money for acedemics you need at least a 3.5. In college next year my daughter will be expected to maintain a 3.5 GPA as told by the athletic coach who gave her a large scholarship to compete and to receive excellant grades. A 3.5 GPA consists of A's or possible 4 VERY solid A's and a VERY high B that is almost an A-. In college a C is considered failing in many cases and a B is only ok. A's are more important than anyone seems to give them credit for. You need to be able to excell at what you want to do in order to get and keep a good job. Not one that says "you want fries with that?"

I do not find this article of any help whatsoever. D-

My daughter is in 4th grade and has always been an A and B student..until this year she has received two C'S. She has been soo overloaded with homework to the point that she is in tears. I am so afraid that children are given too much HW and by the time college comes around they will be so burnt out that they will care less about college. It breaks my heart to see her go thur this.

your right give kids a chance also tell them if they have too much homework then at school and on the bus too so when they get back home they won,t have as much homework so try doing that also don,t yell at kids that they got a bad grade or failed it just means that the school is pushing them too hard or it means that kids need your help to practice what they are having a hard time with.

This year I was in 8th grade and I had way too much homework forget 4 hours a week that's about how much I get a night if not more plus I have other activities i like to do I realize that school is supposed to be number one on my priorities but there is no way that I am going to get sick because I'm losing too much sleep to do homework besides colleges don't just look at your grades they look to see what other activities you do so if you don't do anything other than school you will have a less likely chance of getting in and this year I remember going into school so many times without my homework done because I stayed up really late and probably around 2ish I fell asleep on my homework and I'm the kind of person who gets up at 7 and takes 5 mins to get ready and then I leave so when I got up there was no time to finish and I told my teacher that i fell asleep doing it and he just told me it was ok and that he would rather see me healthy and in school without it done than falling asleep in his class or getting sick from lack of sleep just because I had to finish my homework but one of my other teachers wasn't so happy with my story and didn't except it because she didn't realize how much effort I actually put into it.

This is funny but alarming. Instead of giving them homeworks like bringing something to school, why not we focus more on the other areas wherein we can secure that the kids are studying? Oh well, teacher is a big factor here.

My son in 4th grade is being pushed to do so much homework he is starting to zone out. The teachers are so overloaded they are not teaching, just handing out assignments. The work is above his maturity level which just makes it harder and takes longer. He struggles with the overall concepts. This just doesn't make sense. The kid should enjoy learning but he's being taught to dread it.

My daughter is in first grade. She's an excellent reader and student. But, she is overloaded with homework. We stay up to about 10 pm. In addition, I have work and lessons of my own to complete. It's ridiculous. Her grades are suffering, but she's smart and works hard each night studying and completing homework. She's basically doing algebra in the first grade. What happened to counting money and learning to read time? They're skipping that. She hasn't mastered addition and subtraction (with numbers bigger than 10), yet. I find myself getting frustrated with her and yelling when she doesn't complete her homework fast enough. I'm not a teacher; that's the reason she wakes up early every day to go to school where a teacher gets paid to ensure she learns. I didn't study education and methods of engaging students. Basically, I'm learning how to teach in the process; so why do I even need someone getting paid for it. I'm relieved to hear it's a wide spread concern.

In the first grade, homework should take, at the most, 2 hours to complete. Try keeping a six year old's attention at 9 pm. As soon as we get home, she starts her homework. Then, she gets four tests on Thursday and four on Friday; most of it is easy enough for her, but just too much (except the algebra stuff). I want to pull her out of her current school really bad. Also, if we're not perfect, the staff starts t reating us badly. All my children use the bathroom often, which I need to check into that with their doctor. America just seems like it's slipping away. There are so many corelations between our current state and when the Great Empire of Rome was falling. It's such a me me me society. We need time to reflect and expand our base. With no time for that, our perspective becomes narrow and subjective. We forget that there is more to life than meets the eye; more than the temporary things consuming and blowing up our ego.

Oooops, I was getting heated and started to ramble. I didn't further explain the bathroom situation. However, that's not important. I just need to find a school that fits our situation and goals.

OMG, I totally agree with this! Currently, I go to a ultra-competitive high school in a major city, and we get four hours of homework every night- on top of all our extracurricular activities, which is a common occurrence at my high school. I'm in several honors classes and I'm heavily involved in musical theatre, so that's three hours of rehearsal every day and then come home and eat and do homework until 11 am. If my GPA wasn't weighted, my GPA would be suffering horribly (right now I have a 3.8) and my mom would probably be making me work harder than I am already. I also went to an elite neighborhood elementary school, where we received eight (!- I'm not kidding) hours of homework everyday, and in sixth grade with my undiagnosed ADHD and dyscalculia on top of that crazy homework load, I basically broke down. I was depressed, stressed out, and exhausted. I gave up on school that year, which explains why I have very few memories of that year, other than feeling stressed out and angry at my situation- but mostly numb. I stopped caring about my grades because I was failing everything and could never keep up, so why matter? As you can see, I eventually bounced back and got better in school, but that has to do with my medical diagnoses and accommodations resulting from that- and also how at an early age I realized that I really wanted to enjoy high school. Yes, I'm still competitive, yes, I still try to get all my homework done, but I've realized that the only time to worry is when my grades are C's and my rehearsal schedule is making me fall behind in schoolwork which HAS happened- but otherwise to set time aside at least once a week so I can see my friends and relax for a while without having to worry about homework. I still still stress about getting all my homework done unfortunately- a sad byproduct of my elementary school days, especially since with all that they give us these days, it's impossible to keep up and get good grades for effort at the same time. You have to be a slacker sometimes. And by the way, my parents have helped me with homework, but they've never done them for me. They believe in the importance of hard work and effort- which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but kids have their limits, and becoming a workaholic at a young age isn't a good thing for our country- where's the creativity, the inventiveness? They've decided to lose out on these things by creating robots out of kids who ultimately will lose out on finding true happiness because they think this is what happiness looks like- getting a good grade on report cards. I was lucky to have supportive parents who knew when it was too much, but many parents don't, as you can see by looking at my friends. They're exhausted, afraid for a more bleak future if they don't do it all, and depressed. To be sure, we still have fun, but when we talk about school all we talk about is homework. True story.

I have between 8-14 hours of homework nightly as a senior in high school, it makes me honestly question my sanity, and on nights where i simply do not sleep i might hallucinate the next day from sleep deprivation. It is not a good life to live. I take multiple AP's which are necessary for college attention, having about 3-4 hours per class. It's 11:30 PM now and i still have about 5 hours left, like i said this is no way for a child to live.

I am in middle school and somedays I feel overwhelmed and cranky because of stress from homework. I admit a few times I have forgotten to do a paper or two in the mist of it all, and my grade dropped from it. I had all a's but middle school came like a slap in the face. I sometimes have no time for dinner and right when I finish it is time for bed.

I am a high schooler in Texas. I have to wake up at 6:00 and take the bus to school, which starts at 7:40. After having class all day with a 30 minute lunch and no class time or a study hall for homework, I get home at 4:30.

I am in all of the AP classes I can be in: English II, Chemistry, Spanish III, World History, and Music History. I also have Algebra II, a class in which I accompany for a choir, and two piano classes.

If we assume an hour of homework for each AP class, thirty minutes for each academic-level class, and two hours for piano, this comes out to about seven hours of work per day.

If I began my homework at exactly the moment I walked through the door at 4:30, I would not be done until 11:30 at night. If we factor in one hour for dinner and showering, it comes to 12:30. This does not take into account extra-curricular activities like piano lessons, rehearsals, and performances.

Students need a certain amount of sleep to be successful. Sleeping from 1:00 to 6:00 is not a sufficient amount of time for anyone, much less someone with an invisible disability like me, as I am already weak, in pain, and fatigued with a normal amount of sleep and after staying at home all day.

I'm also in the top quarter of the top 1% in the country for intelligence, so don't tell me I'm just reading slowly or don't understand things. School is quite easy for me and it STILL takes me that long to complete assignments.

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