My last column was about too much homework and what to do about it. I advised adolescents to form committees of students and parents to examine homework practices at their schools. I suggested they consult several recent books that argue that excessive homework does little good and a great deal of harm. I supported the position taken by many educators that homework should total no more than 10 minutes a night multiplied by grade level (90 minutes in ninth grade, for example). And I recommended that the newly formed committees meet with administrators and teachers to make their case.
Of course, I received dozens of e-mails. Most were from parents like Ginny DeLong, who said that when her daughter was in 10th grade, her English teacher would assign two hours of homework a night just for her class (one of six). When she complained, it turned out the school did have a homework policy – but no one was aware of it.
Jim O’Brien wrote that his adolescent daughter is “buried under homework; every night, every weekend and most holidays.” I also heard from a friend whose child is in kindergarten; he is already hearing about excessive homework requirements in first and second grade!
Educators responded as well. A middle school math teacher from Gloucester County said she knew about the academic research and had cut way back on her homework assignments this year. The result? More students are completing homework and their overall understanding of the subject matter has increased, she wrote, “because the students feel the work is more manageable.”
I heard from students like the high school senior who feels like he spends more time at school than at home, where he says he sleeps about six hours a night. He was not optimistic, and believes there is great resistance to change in education. Perhaps voices such as his have not been heard. Sara Bennett, coauthor of the recently released The Case Against Homework, e-mailed me to underscore the importance of including students in the dialogue about homework.
Not everybody agreed. David Scolnick, a father of three, thought I was all wrong. He suggested that much of the problem is children’s attitudes and approaches to homework, and that efficient children spend less time. Even three to four hours of homework a night, he said, would leave a “couple of hours for instant messaging.”
David did find common ground with many parents and teachers who feel the culprit is overscheduling. Certainly that is the bigger problem. But a letter from a young woman in a Philadelphia private school suggests we should be looking in another direction.
She began by saying she averages four to five hours of homework a night, and went on:
“I am continually enduring stress and sleepless nights, but I know it is for the good of my future. High schools are concerned about one thing: college. And they feel it is their duty to help their students be #1. This leads to many of the sleepless nights I have experienced, and I see no end in sight. But I still believe that in the future this lifestyle may help me.”
The pressure to achieve is often about getting into the best college. Once there, the pressure continues. After graduation, it often gets even more intense. Why? It’s all in the pursuit of security – and happiness!
The young lady in private school believes that enduring stress today will help her achieve security tomorrow. Yet we know that continued exposure to stress will not boost resilience, and can actually create depression and compromise the immune system. We also know that, above the poverty level, there is no relationship between money and happiness.
Sure, life’s challenges are much bigger than stress caused by too much homework. But if adolescents can be empowered to solve this one problem, maybe that newfound strength will help them better care for themselves and the larger world in the future. After all, isn’t that what we really want to get out of an education?