1 Kigahn

Washington Post Too Much Homework Facts


This won’t come as any surprise to many teenagers but here goes: A new study finds that a heavy homework load negatively impacts the lives of high school students in upper middle-class communities, resulting in excess stress, physical problems and little or no time for leisure.

What’s too much homework? According to the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Education, 4,317 students in  10 high-performing California high schools — six private and four public — had an average of 3.1 hours of homework a night. (I know high school kids who do close to twice that amount.)

Homework is one of those perennial topics about which there are many “expert” opinions on its benefits and drawbacks but no conclusive body of research proving either side. What research there is casts big doubt on the notion that a lot of homework is a good thing — and indicates that any homework other than reading in elementary school has benefit. Harris Cooper, a well-known homework researcher, who is a professor of education and psychology at Duke University, says that no more than two hours of homework a night should be assigned to students in high school. Author Alfie Kohn argues that there is no research to show that homework in elementary and middle school has any benefit and that the correlation between homework and academic achievement in high school is at best weak. So this is the context in which this latest study was conducted.

The researchers  set out to look at the relationship between homework load and student well-being in the upper middle class advantaged communities (where median household income is more than $90,000, and 93 percent of students go to college) because it is there that homework is largely accepted as having value. The study notes that there are limitations to the sample of students used in the study — with all of them attending privileged, high-performing schools — but they said they felt it was worthwhile to investigate the stresses of homework on this population of students.

The co-authors of the study are Mollie Galloway of Lewis and Clark College, an assistant professor who is the director of research and assessment for the graduate school of education; Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education;  and Jerusha Conner, an assistant professor of education at Villanova University. Their report says:

“Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is “inherently good” (Gill & Schlossman, 2001, p. 27), and instead suggest that researchers, practitioners, students, and parents unpack why the default practice of assigning heavy homework loads  exists, in the face of evidence of its negative effects.”

To conduct the study they used data from surveys as well as the answers to open-ended questions to explore student well-being, attitudes about homework and engagement in school.  The mean age of the participants was 15.7 years, with ninth graders representing the largest sample, 28.1 percent. Tenth graders were 22.8 percent; eleventh graders, 23.6 percent; and seniors 19.4 percent; while 6.2 percent did not report their grade level. About 85 percent self-reported their ethnicity: 48 percent were European American; 38 percent Asian or Asian American; 4 percent Hispanic; 2 percent African American, and 0.5 percent Native American. Ten and a half percent of students checked multiple categories or “other,” and 4 percent did not mark anything in this category.

Also, no relationship was found between the time spent on homework and how much the student enjoyed it. The research quoted students as saying they often do homework they see as “pointless” or “mindless” in order to keep their grades up.

Their study found that most students said their homework is only “somewhat useful” in helping them learn the material and prepare for tests. But it leads to a host of problems, the study says:

* Stress.
–Less than 1 percent said homework was not a stressor, and 56 percent indicated homework is a primary cause of stress.
–Forty three percent listed tests as a primary stressor
–About 33 percent listed grades and/or getting good grades as a primary stressor.
–More than 15 percent reported parental expectations and the college application process as stresses.

* Health Issues Consequences
–Many students wrote that homework causes them to sleep less than they should and leads to “headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss and stomach problems” as well as a lack of balance in their lives.

Most experienced distress and/or lacked time to engage in important life tasks outside of school. The majority (72%) reported being often or always stressed over schoolwork …and many reported that they experienced physical symptoms due to stress (82% reported experiencing at least one physical symptom in the past month, with 44% of the sample experiencing three or more symptoms). Overall, students reported getting less sleep than the National Sleep Foundation’s (2000) recommended 8.5 to 9.25 hours per night for healthy adolescent development. On average, students in our sample reported 6.80 hours of sleep on school nights … and 68% stated that schoolwork often or always kept them from getting enough sleep each night. Many (63%) reported that the amount of work they received often or always made it challenging to spend time with family and friends, and a similar percent (61%) indicated that they had been forced to drop an activity they enjoyed because of their school workload.

* Engagement
— Time spent on homework
— There was no relationship between “homework hours and students’ enjoyment of schoolwork, and open-ended responses revealed students will often do work they see as ‘pointless,’ ‘useless’ and ‘mindless’ because their grades will be affected if they do not.”

Students who spent more hours on homework tended to be more behaviorally engaged in school, but were simultaneously more stressed about their school work and tended to report more physical symptoms due to stress, fewer hours of sleep on school nights, less ability to get enough sleep, and less ability to make time for friends and family.

From the report:

Part of the study says:

No time for anything but school. The voices of these students reflect a primary challenge faced by many in our study:  if students have several hours of homework per night, how can they find time for other endeavors in their lives (including extracurricular activities, leisure, and social time)?  Some expressed that they “never seem to have enough time.”  One adolescent stated:

Now I understand the expression “not enough hours in a day.”  In a day, I want to be able to do homework/study, have time with friends and family, and do activities that are important to me.  I don’t always feel I have enough time for this, and I feel pressured.

Because of homework load, tests, and quizzes, students reported, for example:

  • I have no life other than school; that is my life.
  • Homework…is all I have time for; there’s never a time where you’re not thinking about [it].
  • There is hardly any time for me to enjoy being a kid when I have to go to school all day and then go home and do homework all night.

Students recognized that spending so much time on homework meant that they were not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills.  One questioned, “Most people have no social life because of all the homework they do; how is that helping them in the real world?”  Another explained, “I’m struggling between trying to maintain [my grades, but] more to maintain my identity, soul, and sanity!  Teachers don’t seem to teach students that there’s more to life than…hours of homework a night.”

The inability to balance or juggle the overload of homework, along with the number of other out-of-school activities or interests was the single most-often provided response by students when describing homework as a stressor (30% mentioned this lack of balance due to homework).  One student described her homework load as “plenty manageable… If I never try to do anything else!”

(Illustration by Sanna Mander )

“Heeey,” my daughter’s after-school teacher said.

She had a sad smile. “I have a letter for you. There are some changes happening.”

The letter informed me a new company would be providing before- and aftercare beginning at the start of the new school year. Details would be forthcoming.

This was our first experience with an aftercare program. We’d chosen it because it was there, in our five5-year-old’s Montgomery County public school, and the price was within our budget. I hadn’t paid much attention to what was going on beyond that. By the time I picked up our daughter up, she was usually doing some kind of craft or just running around. Occasionally, she was playing on an iPad, which didn’t thrill me, but she always seemed happy. She loved her teachers, and almost never wanted to leave.

A couple of weeks later, I was sitting at a PTA meeting, hearing a presentation about the new program, run by AlphaBest Education Inc., a subsidiary of Kaplan Early Learning Education in Lewisville, N.C., which started out 48 years go as a business selling furniture for day-care centers a day-care-furniture business. AlphaBest serves 14,000 kids in 12 states. At the meeting, a representative spoke about homework time. For those who don’t have homework, AlphaBest would provide their own worksheets. He also talked about enrichment activities such as like calligraphy, cartooning, and Lego robotics. I asked if there would be any unstructured time.

“Don’t worry,” the representative told me. “Not much.”

“I want unstructured time,” I said.

“Me too,” said a mom behind me.

What is happening here? I wondered. What about all the hand-wringing over the demise of recess and the importance of play? What about playtime outside of school hours?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children have at least an hour of physical activity per day. Considering that many schools have 20 minutes of recess, if they have it at all, for kids who attend an after-school program, play there takes on added importance, child development experts say. Aftercare, which began as an extension of day care, has evolved over the past few decades into a $20 billion industry, according to the market research firm IbisWorld. Most are run by nonprofits. In addition to licensing and accreditation requirements, these programs must please many masters. School officials who see them as an extension of the school day may use them to try to raise test scores. In underserved communities, good after-school programs correlate with higher test scores and lower juvenile crime. Parents, most of whom pay an average of $114 per week, have their own demands, such as making sure homework gets done and participating in organized sports.

It’s hard to argue with those priorities for the sake of a few more minutes of jumping rope or another round of four square. Unless we’re not seeing the whole picture.

(Illustration by Sanna Mander)

In the weeks after the PTA meeting, I went to AlphaBest officials with more questions and got answers that made me wonder if I had signed up my kid to be in a corporate training video. I was told about InZone time, which includes something called TechZone, and is more student-directed but “facilitated” by a “zone leader.” The AlphaBest website promised “game play tactics and web-based support to keep students moving.”

Swinging on the monkey bars seemed low-rent by comparison.

I admittedly grew up when “keep them safe and let them just go out and play” was a perfectly acceptable after-school plan for kids. Starting when I was my daughter’s age, I went home by myself. (This was before states began to set age minimums on children who can be at home alone. In Maryland, it’s 8 years old.) Sometimes I’d play in a nearby park with other kids. I explored a creek that housed long black crayfish. And I built a bike ramp with a kid named Kevin; we caught air until the sun dipped below the horizon. It certainly wasn’t the most “enriched” use of time, but was it the worst? In an era when people are overscheduled, often harried and overloaded with information, it can be hard to know what’s right.

Today, spending time doing nothing in particular feels indulgent, even antiquated. That thinking took on a new life in the 1980s as women entered the workforce en masse. Contemporary news accounts document the rise of the latchkey kid as a kind of cautionary tale: Juvenile crime spiked, and mental-health experts warned against the long-term effects of children left to fend for themselves for long periods. Social attitudes aside, there was a severe shortage of programs for children to attend. (There still is a huge unmet need.)

Experts emphasize that there is no one-size-fits-all model for after-school programs, but a growing body of research raises questions about the emphasis on more-structured activities.

It’s not an issue of play vs. learn, experts said. But evidence suggests kids learn best when they’re allowed to play.

Too much intervention, said Anna Beresin, a psychologist and folklorist who has been studying children and play for three decades, can convey to children that they are not trusted to decide how an activity should go. Adults need to let go of their own agendas and, within reason, let kids express themselves.

“There’s this belief that play is a nicety,” Beresin said. “But it’s critical. For young children in particular, it’s how they make sense of the world around them.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees and has outlined the importance of play for healthy brain development and physical health. But play often takes a back seat to homework help and enrichment activities, particularly at schools facing increased pressure to improve academic performance. And yet, children’s academic success is inextricably linked to play.

“Play can look like chaos to an adult,” Beresin said. “But there’s actually a lot of structure.” Kids running around on the playground are exploring their boundaries and figuring out rules. “Ultimately, this allows kids to think creatively and critically,” she said. “And that’s what we all need to deal with the problems that life tosses our way.”

(Illustration by Sanna Mander)

Aftercare programs can vary tremendously by school, so I spoke with a couple dozen people — administrators, aftercare teachers, children and parents — across the Washington region about how their programs work.

The message to preserve play is getting out, although unstructured time can seem like an extravagance. At Wonders, an after-school program at Chevy Chase Elementary School, kids were grabbing a snack (lettuce salad and veggies on this day) and gearing up for their hour of free time. Kids headed outside to play, worked on Legos, read books or socialized.

“We focus on the social-emotional development, and we emphasize choice,” said Joanne Hurt, executive director of Wonders. “Choice” time options vary: child-directed and teacher-directed activities, including homework, reading, Legos, STEM projects, art projects and group games. This model has been fairly consistent for decades, Hurt said. They focus more on relationships with the kids and eschew technology, which means the program is not right for every school, especially not for anyone looking for “all the horns and whistles.”

Several miles away, in the up-and-coming H Street corridor of Northeast Washington, is J.O. Wilson Elementary. It is a Title I school, meaning it has a high percentage of lower-income students, which correlates with lower academic achievement. For the third- through fifth-graders, J.O. Wilson Principal Heidi Haggerty chose KidPower, a program that aims to help bolster academic achievement while teaching kids about things like citizenship and healthy eating. Because the kids who attend this program may not be getting enough food outside of school, KidPower provides a snack and supper each day as well.

In a KidPower classroom, fourth-graders are broken into three small groups and handed drinking straws and tape. “The idea is to construct a tower using just these materials that can support this tennis ball,” their teacher said, holding the ball for the kids to see.

“The idea is that they’ll learn about how things work, from a STEM perspective,” says Curtis Leitch, 26, the KidPower assistant program director. “And it also encourages the kids to work together, to problem solve and cooperate.”

A whoop goes up. The first team has constructed a tower that is supporting the ball. “We did it!” a child shouts. “Everybody start cleaning up so we can go straight outside!”

I ask about playtime.

“If the kids get done early they can go outside,” Leitch says. “Recess isn’t built into the program, but if they finish early, or if they do really well, it’s used as an incentive. For me, personally, I see if we give them recess all the time, they’ll just be thinking about that, and that gets in the way of the other things we’re trying to do in a really short period of time.”

Lately, Haggerty has gotten KidPower to incorporate more physical activity into its curriculum. She feels strongly about kids getting outside. They need a break after six or so hours of sitting. “If we want kids to be thinking and learning,” she said, “they have to be moving.”

Back in Montgomery County, I sought out school system officials to learn more about how AlphaBest came to be chosen as the aftercare provider at my daughter’s school. The jargon about modules and zones had obviously made a better impression on them than it had on me. In an email, Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Derek Turner said a faculty member at the school and a parent panel picked AlphaBest based on “rigorous selection criteria.”

At the school, AlphaBest was off to a bumpy start. There was grumbling about too much homework time and not enough activities. After parents complained, outdoor play increased. Activities were added. As for the calligraphy, cartooning and Lego robotics, those had yet to materialize. There was a lot of staff turnover.

But when I talked to other parents, they weren’t ready to give up on the company yet. Kate O’Sullivan, mother of a third-grader, said she was less concerned with the after-school enrichment curriculum as long as her child had time to run around. “It’s important that they get to play,” she said. “They’ve had a long day of sitting already.”

As I crossed the schoolyard on a recent afternoon, I saw kids darting around, screaming, playing some type of soccer game. I spotted my daughter, jumping up and down, cheering on her friends. She waved and ran over.

“How was your day?” I asked.

“Fine,” she said, taking my hand. “Can we go to the park?”

Lia Kvatum is a writer and producer in Silver Spring, Md.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.

Follow the Magazine on Twitter.

Like us on Facebook.

Leave a Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *