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Homework horror stories: Most kids are not spending hours hitting the books at night

Too much homework?

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As a longtime reporter, I've seen certain trend stories reappear every few years. Among them is the storyline that American students are being buried alive by too much homework and suffering burnout as a result.

Yet, the evidence shows that U.S. students are not drowning in increased homework demands and that most kids have about an hour a night.

As to the allegation of too much stress, the media tend to focus on a narrow band of high achievers – the kids who yearn to attend Yale, Duke or Georgia Tech – when making that argument. And those students are often taking four Advanced Placement classes, captaining the Mock Trial team and running cross country.

But there are a whole lot of students who aren’t doing anything extraordinary. They're not overbooked or overscheduled. They're spending hours playing video games, hanging out at the square and posting photos to Instagram. They're content with B’s and the occasional C, and, while they may belong to a club or two, aren’t angling to be class president, valedictorian or state high-jump champ.

These average students explain the findings of the annual Brown Center Report on American Education from the Brookings Institution.

Looking at long-time data sources that chronicle American student behaviors over time, the Brown Center report attempted to answer several questions about homework in America: How much homework do American students have today?  Has the homework burden increased, gone down, or remained about the same? What do parents think about the homework load?    

The reporter concluded: Homework typically takes an hour per night.  The homework burden of students rarely exceeds two hours a night.  The upper limit of students with two or more hours per night is about 15% nationally — and that is for juniors or seniors in high school. For younger children, the upper boundary is about 10% who have such a heavy load.  Polls show that parents who want less homework range from 10%-20%, and that they are outnumbered —in every national poll on the homework question — by parents who want more homework, not less.  The majority of parents describe their children’s homework burden as about right.

And the report cautions: The homework horror stories need to be read in a proper perspective.  They seem to originate from the very personal discontents of a small group of parents.  They do not reflect the experience of the average family with a school-age child.  That does not diminish these stories’ power to command the attention of school officials or even the public at large. But it also suggests a limited role for policy making in settling such disputes.  Policy is a blunt instrument.  Educators, parents, and kids are in the best position to resolve complaints about homework on a case by case basis.

Using Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the report found:

With one exception, the homework load has remained remarkably stable since 1984.

The exception is 9-year-olds.  They have experienced an increase in homework, primarily because many students who once did not have any now have some.  The percentage of nine-year-olds with no homework fell by 13 percentage points, and the percentage with less than an hour grew by 16 percentage points. 

Of the three age groups, 17-year-olds have the most bifurcated distribution of the homework burden. They have the largest percentage of kids with no homework (especially when the homework shirkers are added in) and the largest percentage with more than two hours.

NAEP data do not support the idea that a large and growing number of students have an onerous amount of homework.  For all three age groups, only a small percentage of students report more than two hours of homework. For 1984-2012, the size of the two hours or more groups ranged from 5-6% for age 9, 6-10% for age 13, and 10-13% for age 17.

Then, using student responses from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, an annual survey of college freshmen begun in 1966, Brown Center researchers note most college freshmen weren’t overwhelmed by homework in their final year of high school:

Only 38.4% of students said they spent at least six hours per week studying or doing homework. When these students were high school seniors, it was not an activity central to their out of school lives.  That is quite surprising.  Think about it.  The survey is confined to the nation’s best students, those attending college.  Gone are high school dropouts.  Also not included are students who go into the military or attain full time employment immediately after high school.  And yet only a little more than one-third of the sampled students, devoted more than six hours per week to homework and studying when they were on the verge of attending college.

Another notable finding from the UCLA survey is how the statistic is trending. In 1986, 49.5% reported spending six or more hours per week studying and doing homework.  By 2002, the proportion had dropped to 33.4%.  In 2012, the statistic had bounced off the historical lows to reach 38.4%.  It is slowly rising but still sits sharply below where it was in 1987.

Finally, the Brown Report looked at the Met Life annual survey of teachers, begun in 1984.  In 1987 and 2007, the Met Life survey also asked parents and students questions on homework. The Brown Center researchers point out:

Respondents were asked to estimate the amount of homework on a typical school day (Monday-Friday).  Slightly more than half (52%) estimate 30 minutes or less; 48% estimate 45 minutes or more.  Students in grades 3-6 give a median estimate that is a bit higher than their parents’ (45 minutes), with almost two-thirds (63%) saying 45 minutes or less is the typical weekday homework load.

One hour of homework is the median estimate for both secondary parents and students in grade 7-12, with 55% of parents reporting an hour or less and about two-thirds (67%) of students reporting the same.  As for the prevalence of the heaviest homework loads, 11% of secondary parents say their children spend more than two hours on weekday homework, and 12% is the corresponding figure for students in grades 7-12.





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