Enough or too much?

The media tends to portray homework as a Goldilocks tale: There’s either too much or too little. It’s never just right.

Yet, national surveys show most parents feel their children’s daily homework demands are, in fact, about right. And there’s no evidence that the amount of homework has changed much in three decades. So, why is the media fixated on homework horrors?

The press often highlights a narrow band of high achievers – the students who yearn to attend Yale, Duke or Georgia Tech and are taking four Advanced Placement classes, captaining the Mock Trial team and running cross country.

But there are many students who aren’t doing anything extraordinary. These students aren’t overbooked. They’re spending evenings playing video games, socializing with pals and posting photos to Instagram. They’re content with B’s and C’s and, while they may belong to a club or two, aren’t angling to be valedictorian, class president or an Ivy League graduate.

These more typical students may get overlooked in press accounts of homework wars, but they’re visible in the annual Brown Center Report on American Education from the Brookings Institution.

Looking at data sources that chronicle American education over time, the Brookings study attempted to answer several questions about homework: 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?

Despite headlines about third graders devoting three hours a night on homework, the Brookings report found only 5 percent of 9-year-olds — one out of 20 — spent more than two hours a night on homework; 22 percent had no homework. Only 13 percent of 17-year-olds — typically juniors or seniors in high school — spent more than two hours a night on homework. A surprising 27 percent of 17-year-olds had no homework.

While there’s been a rise in parents protesting homework overload, the Brookings reports notes that when surveyed about the amount of homework their children have, more than 60 percent of parents rate the amount of homework as good or excellent, and about two-thirds also give high ratings to the quality of the homework.

Respondents who complain their kids have too much homework never exceed more than 20 percent in surveys, said Brookings researcher Tom Loveless on a web discussion of his report, adding, “The parents who are unhappy with homework and want to see less homework tend to have a philosophical problem with homework. They don’t think it’s meaningful. They think it’s intrusive into family life.”

Homework rates have remained constant over 30 years, with one exception. “We do see more 9-year-olds who have any homework at all,” said Loveless. “So the percentage of 9-year-olds who had no homework has gone down and percentage with some — meaning a half-hour or less or homework — has gone up.”

The report didn’t address a big question about homework: Does it matter? A 2006 Duke study found homework improved academic performance of older students. A 2012 study out of the University of Virginia found time spent on math and science homework had no impact on course grades, but modestly improved standardized test scores.

It’s difficult to correlate time on homework with academic achievement because of the variables in why students may do more homework, said Loveless. For example, younger students who report lots of of homework may have a learning problem that causes them to take longer to finish their work; a reading disability may escalate a simple 10-minute assignment into a 50-minute slog. High school presents the opposite scenario. Because high school students choose most of their classes, the teens reporting hours of homework often are high achievers enrolled in Advanced Placement classes.

And there is evidence that high achievers do more homework. A recent Stanford study sampled 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California communities and found students there average about 3.1 hours of homework each night. The students reported stress, sleep deprivation and less time for friends, families and extracurricular activities as a result of their homework burden.

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