How Homework Overload Affects Students Reading

I had never given the concept of homework much thought until Noah started first grade last September. But along with falling leaves came fill-in-the-blank "ditto" sheets, each reeking of that fresh copier smell. Every night he had language arts and math assignments, not to mention book reports, social studies, and special projects. Some of these were weekend assignments.

No sooner had Noah gotten these under his belt than he was assigned 10 spelling words a week. Soon, he was engaged in good old-fashioned word copying, and my favorite: writing 10 complete sentences.

At first he wanted to write complex, playful sentences, but eventually he learned it took less time to write short, boring ones. Then his teacher added practice time for addition and subtraction tests to the nightly load. The piece de rsistance came later: booklets in which he was supposed to practice for the Stanford 9 Achievement Tests over spring break.

So it came to be that Noah and I spent an hour or two every evening at the dining room table, trying to complete this dizzying array of assignments while eking out a measure of meaning. In between school and work, we squeezed precious time from friendships, play time, outdoor time, dinner time, bath time, reading together, and whatever little we might have had for plain old down time.

Noah could handle the work, but after a long day at school with one short recess, he was restless. "Mommy," he'd say with a whine creeping into his voice, "I want to play. I haven't had a chance to play all day. I need to play."

He was right. From where I stand, he does need to play. Scientific study has confirmed common sense: We now know that play is a crucial component of learning. Although some of his homework was interesting and could be made into "play," Noah had no time for self-guided exploration - the highest form of play.

Concerned, I read up on "homework." Educators who tout homework, like those running the Washington, D.C., public school system that oversees my son's school, explain that it helps reinforce information and skills children learn at school - in essence extending classroom learning time. Homework, they say, helps prepare children for the tough challenges ahead in high school, college, and life.

I didn't have as much homework in first grade, nor did my parents. But low elementary school test scores in the 1970s and 1980s drove the trend toward more homework. Homework improves test scores, advocates say. Schools are judged by test scores.

All this is well and good. However, who says we can judge learning or future achievement by test scores? Studies have concluded that homework for elementary school children has little or no impact on their long-term achievement. A number of psychologists advise that homework places undue pressure on young children, and intrudes on play time and life learning.

Many of the best private schools in and around Washington - some attended by the children of the governing elite - agree. For these very reasons, they don't breathe a word about homework until at least the third grade.

What does the heavy homework load say about our culture? For starters, it says that some school systems are in a rush to shove information into our children's minds so they will pass tests. Consequently, parents who choose to or must send their children to public school, often buy into an emphasis on achievement, not learning. This means their children don't learn to value self-guided exploration. They learn early on that they are supposed to be as nonstop busy as their parents.

Homework overload also propagates the advantage of educated, two-parent families with a parent at home full time. The days are long gone when most moms were at home and could supervise homework. One friend, a single mom with two children, arrives home at 6:30 p.m., cooks dinner, then devotes an hour and a half to working with her fourth-grader, who has some learning disabilities and can't do his homework without guidance. As a result, she has no time for her first-grader.

I know other parents who don't speak, read or write English: Their children are doomed to be left behind, even with the help of well-meaning tutors who can only provide limited support.

Yes, we are sending some very nutty messages to our children. Noah, for one, is alternately frightened he won't get his homework done and resentful about his lack of play time.

"Can I go to a school where they give less homework?" he begs when the going gets rough.

Noah's not the only child I know who is overly focused on homework. Chatting with a bright seven-year-old the other day, I discovered that she knew every teacher's "homework reputation." In fact, homework was her main criterion for deciding which teacher she wants.

Now that we are nearing the end of the year and the spring achievement tests are over, the load has lightened. Ditto sheets and book reports still arrive home. But mostly, we're supposed to read together. That's more like it!

We've read "The Borrowers" and explored the idea of alternative realities. We're reading "The Chronicles of Narnia" and discussing the concepts of good and evil. Noah has time to ask questions, and we have time to research the answers discovering, for example, which US presidents wore wigs and fluffy collars. We can play catch; observe flickers and cardinals at the bird house; plant pumpkins.

There is time for thoughts and ideas to settle in, then work their way back into the world. But I know it's just a reprieve. Second grade is just around the corner.

*Nadine Epstein is a freelance writer, artist, and mother in Washington, D.C.

When your children arrive home from school this evening, what will be your first point of conflict? How’s this for an educated guess? Homework.

Do they have any? How much? When are they going to do it? Can they get it done before practice/rehearsal/dinner? After? When is it due? When did they start it? Even parents who are wholly hands off about the homework itself still need information about how much, when and how long if there are any family plans in the offing — because, especially for high school students in high-performing schools, homework has become the single dominating force in their nonschool lives.

Researchers asked 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California communities to describe the impact of homework on their lives, and the results offer a bleak picture that many of us can see reflected around our dining room tables. The students reported averaging 3.1 hours of homework nightly, and they added comments like: “There’s never a break. Never.”

It “takes me away from everything I used to do,” says one.

Lack of sleep and lack of time were a theme, said the researcher Denise Clark Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-author of the study, which will be published in The Journal of Experimental Education. While the students didn’t report grieving for the children they were just a few months or years ago, they should have. There is something about that phrase — “everything I used to do” — that makes a parent take notice.

It’s not just the hours, Ms. Pope said. Students describe stress and sleep deprivation. “They feel out of control,” she said. “They often have no idea when a teacher will assign what. They can’t plan around Grandma’s birthday dinner, and it’s really not their fault.”

My students aren’t even in high school yet (my oldest is a seventh grader), and I’m not looking forward to the change. I don’t want them to give up “everything they used to do.” Already, homework struggles dominate many of our evenings. For some children at some ages (it has varied with mine), just getting them to sit down takes more time than the worksheets in their backpacks. For others, homework becomes an excellent place to enact a nightly dramatic rendition of “I Can’t Do It” (whether they can or not). The stress homework places on families starts early.

There are parenting strategies available to deal with those struggles, certainly — but when, and why, did our evenings at home become so dedicated to that particular interaction? I’m perpetually dismayed by how much of our evenings is consumed by schoolwork, and at the end of a particularly fraught night — for example, one when my two second graders each have a report on a South American animal due, and are fighting not just over the homework, but also over their share of my coveted attention and my unique ability to download and print images — I find myself wondering how our family life would be different without the flash point that homework so often becomes.

For the older students who participated in the research, homework was a family flash point of a different kind. Ms. Pope and her colleagues intentionally designed their research and wrote their paper to focus on the voices of the students and on their perspective about homework, arguing that it is the students’ experience that “influences how they do their homework, and consequently, how homework affects them.”

Much of the pressure they described feeling came from their parents, Ms. Pope said, and a sense that if they didn’t do the homework, they wouldn’t get the grades and they wouldn’t succeed. For those students (no matter what their parents might say about the same interactions), homework is affecting their relationship with their parents and how they feel about their family and their place in it.

To take my relationship with my children out from under homework’s shadow, I have pulled back (way back) on any involvement, and we have made an active choice as parents to let the work and any consequences for not doing it fall to their schools, not to us. That doesn’t work for all families. It also doesn’t help when the sheer number of hours a child is expected to spend at his books is destructive to family relationships because there is little or no time left to spend together, particularly once a sport or other activity enters the mix.

Ms. Pope suggests asking teachers and schools to provide homework packets that a student can spread out over a week, rather than springing large assignments due tomorrow that can derail family plans. Schools and teachers can also help by building in time for students to get started on homework and ask any questions they might have.

Looking at the larger picture, she said, things are changing. “These students are already averaging an hour more than what’s thought to be useful,” she said, and teachers, schools and parents are beginning to think harder about what kinds of homework, and how much of it, enhance learning and motivation without becoming all-consuming.

It might be easier than you think to start the conversation at your student’s school. “Load doesn’t equal rigor,” Ms. Pope said. “There are other developmental things students need to be doing after school, and other things they need to be learning.”

And if you are at the point where some of the pressure over homework might just be coming from you? “Don’t fall into the trap of parent peer pressure,” said Ms. Pope, a mother of three. “Nothing is permanent, and it’s up to you to remind your children that. We live in a country where you can drop out of high school and later community college and still ultimately get a Ph.D. from Stanford. At a certain point, it’s O.K. to get some sleep instead of studying for that test.”

And it’s really O.K. to go out to dinner for Grandma’s birthday. When do they assign the homework that teaches students that while work matters, family matters more?

Follow KJ Dell’Antonia on Twitter at @KJDellAntonia or find her on Facebook and Google+.

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