The Low Down on Homework: Is There Too Much Today?

Too Much Homework: is homework wrecking family life?

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. Here’s one on the phenomenon of too much homework–are we asking too much of parents today? See what you think!

I’ve been conducting an informal poll with all the thirtysomethings I run into lately, asking, “when you were in elementary school, did your parents help you with homework?”. I have yet to hear anyone answer in the affirmative. I don’t remember even having homework before high school, except for special projects. We were expected to get our work done in class.

And yet, every person I talk to today says that homework takes up a ton of everyone’s time. Now, I’m not the best one to weigh in on this because we homeschool. But I do know what my friends and family tell me. My sister-in-law’s biggest complaint is that the kids aren’t taught the material before it arrives home. Recently her second grade daughter was given a project on buoyancy, but the teacher hadn’t spent time going over what makes things float, nor had she given the kids any clue how they were supposed to do this experiment. That was for the parents to figure out. In other words, the expectation is that children will not do their homework alone. That’s a far cry from what happened when I was eight.

Another friend had a horrible time last year when her daughter was in grade 6 and struggling through her math homework. My friend sat down with her, and taught her the best she could how to do it, and the child did eventually arrive at the right answers. The next time my friend visited the school, though, the teacher took her aside and reprimanded her. “You’re teaching her wrong,” she was told. “You have to let me teach her.” My friend let fly a few well-chosen words about how if the teacher had been teaching her in the first place such a thing wouldn’t have happened, but I don’t think her experience is unique. Many kids simply aren’t learning in school.

Part of this certainly must be because family life has become more chaotic so that kids aren’t as well behaved. It’s very hard to teach even a small class of 21 if you have two or three behavior problem kids in it. Another reason is that they’re cramming stuff in the school day that was never there when I was a kid. We weren’t taught conflict resolution or health and safety or touchy-feely things. We were just taught math and spelling. And we learned it, too. Maybe today there’s just not enough time.

Or is it computers? When we were in high school we handed in everything hand-written. Now that computers are commonplace, there’s pressure on even third and fourth-graders to hand in reports typed, with a pretty cover page. That means Mom does the typing, and so the homework falls on her.

Yet what effect does this homework push have on children? Studies seem to show that homework doesn’t have an appreciable effect on their grades in the elementary years, and excessive homework may even poison the school experience for many kids. But other studies show that kids have less homework today than they did a decade ago. So I truly can’t figure out what’s going on, except to look at the families around me and realize that for them, this surely is getting out of control.

I truly don’t understand all the factors, but I am curious, because the whole thing seems to me like a big waste of time. Why should kids have to go to school for seven hours a day, and then do homework for an hour a night while they’re still so young? When are you supposed to have family time? When do kids just play? And what good is it doing Canadian society if all over the country tonight, hundreds of thousands of fourth grade parents are honing up on ancient Egyptian funeral rites, or learning that a Kleenex box will float but a ball of silly putty won’t? Don’t we have better things to do, like playing Monopoly together or taking a spring hike? After all, if our kids aren’t learning in school, then what is school for?

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  1. Here in South Africa we are seeing the same crazy trend, and it was one of the main reasons we too decided to homeschool.

  2. I have a daughter in kindergarten and a son in 2nd grade. When we were trying to decide if we should homeschool, one of my biggest fears about sending the kids to public school was homework. I didn’t want to spend our whole evening just doing that, and I sure wasn’t going to be doing it for them. 3 years later I have to say I am pleasantly susprised. The only homework that I have felt was busywork and not really needed has been the kindergarten homework. Each day the kids have to find two pictures that start with their letter of the day and glue them on a paper and write the name of what it is. I would have much preferred some sort of handwriting practice, more than just one or two words. Beyond that I think the kids homework has been very appropriate and my son has needed minimal help. And this year the school finally gave Everyday Math the boot, and his math homework is so much better! He spends only about 10 min a day on homework, and I almost never have to help him, or teach him how to do something, and if I do, it is just a reminder because he forgot and as soon as I show him he goes, “oh yea!” And is off and running with it again.

  3. I have a daughter in 1st grade and a son in 2nd grade. They are 6 and 7….It is amazing to me the amount of homework they bring home every week! Yes…even my 1st grader…and as a matter of fact, she seems to have more homework than the 2nd grader! This has been a big issue especially this year because I pick them up from after-school-care about 5:15 we are home around 5:30/5:45 and our night then begins…they do homework while I am cooking dinner…..then usually they eat and have to go back to homework….then come showers and bedtime at 7:30….so I basically get no real time with them…except for when I tuck them in and lay down with them for a few minutes to give them 1 on 1 time and get the details of their day….It’s extremely frustrating….My daughter had so much homework the other night that she just cried…because she was tired….hadn’t she been doing this stuff all day??? and yet they make her go home (where she is supposed to recover and relax) only to do more work! I had went upstairs to do something and when I came back down there she was just tears rolling. I asked her what was wrong and she said ‘I’m just tired mom!’ and started bawling…. so I put her on my lap and let her cry for a while and held her….But how pitiful! There truly is so much pressure on these kids at such a young age….they are pushing more information on them and expecting them to just handle it…..No wonder kids hate school………But I don’t even know how families handle it while putting their kids in all these sports and activities….how do families have family time anymore? My time with my family is super important to me….and I feel we have little already….I have even started pushing bedtime back to 8:00 just to get an extra 30 minutes….Maybe this is why we are seeing a breakdown in families in our country…..because everything else is put ahead of family time……school, sports, jobs, etc….Anyway, sorry for the rant

    • Do they have the ability to do the homework in after school care? When I worked in the after school care program we were required to make sure the kids worked on their homework if the parents requested it. I am sorry it is so difficult for your kids.

      • Good question….our after-school-care teachers aren’t required to do that unfortunately(it is not at the school but at a church near the school)….but we have told our kids to do as much as they can while they are there, and for the most part they do…The other factor we have is that not all homework is sent from school….some of it is from a book that we have to keep at home…and the teacher will tell the kids which pages to do…so in that instance…they don’t have the opportunity to do it at after-school-care because they don’t have it with them. Other work comes in the form of reading and timed reading passages, which have to be signed by the parent when the child completes it….so those are also other instances in which our kids have to wait to get home to do it….

  4. livinginblurredlines says:

    A friend of mine told me her kindergarten son has up 1.5 hours of homework a night! I told her for kindergarten, i xan adequately cover all basic materials in homeschooling in 1.5 hours! What do these kids DO for 7 hours a day at school! And she told me all his lessons were 45 minute long blocks with minimal breaks for recess. Kindergarten!!

  5. My Down Syndrome brother attended an all-special ed school and always had a couple hours of homework each night – homework he hadn’t been taught how to do. The class sizes were very small to allow for 1-on-1 instruction and yet the teacher simply assigned everyone the same work even though they all had different strengths and weaknesses and levels of ability. I also teach, and am committed to helping each student with exactly what they need. Let’s not be lazy, teachers!

  6. This is what we found the year our older girls were in public school. Hey we’re away from me all day, spending their time with so many others except me, then when thy got home and I was trying to make dinner, I would spend a couple of hours at times trying to help them with homework. What I found was that for the time I spent helping them with homework after missing them all day, I could basically homeschool them in the morning (they were young then and it took only a couple of hours) and we could hav the rest of he day to ourselves and they could actually play with their other siblings.
    I feel for teachers who are faced wih such big challenges of meeting the needs of so many different kids and the dynamics of all kinds of families. But my compassion for teachers and understanding that schools face an almost insurmountable task does not mean my kids have to participate. We simply opt out. Our family is SO close and I don’t feel like I am missing most of my kids’ life like I did before.

  7. Abby Jensen says:

    I’m currently a teacher… I can see things from both sides.

    When I worked at an after school program, it was normal for students to have a math worksheet and a reading worksheet every day.

    Realistically, these worksheets should take no more than 10 minutes each. But the time that it took students to transition, begin working, stay on task, get help if they had problems, etc. took this 20 minutes of homework and made it 45 minutes of work.

    Take the need for transition time, focus time, behavior correction, etc. with 1 child, and multiply it by 30 in one class, and it makes sense why things take so much time. What would be a 10 minute lesson with 10 mintues of application time ends up taking an hour in the classroom.

  8. I am a teacher and wish I didn’t have to send homework home, but it is mandated by our school board. I usually send home math games, a writing assignment and some reading, to be done by the end of the week. I never send anything home unless it has been covered extensively in class, and I always have students do projects in class. Why? Because anything that has been sent home is useless to me when marking for report cards, or when trying to figure out whether the kids have learned what we have covered. This is because I have no idea how much the child has actually done on their own, and how much the parents have done for them. No offense to parents, but I don’t have time to mark your work! I also know how hard it is for parents to get everything done in the run of a day, so that’s why I ask for it to be done weekly. I have also had parents tell me they won’t be having their child do homework, and there really isn’t much I can do about it other than make a comment on their report card.

    That all being said, there are situations where homework is absolutely appropriate. For example, a child who is having trouble with a concept and who needs some extra practice gets a package sent home along with a phone call to the parent explaining what they need help with and how they can help their child. Again, I can’t make them do it, but I can only do so much in the run of a day and after school, so in that situation I might ask for the parents to help. There are also kids who are maybe having difficulty with a reading concept, so I might ask the parents to listen to them read and encourage them to use certain strategies etc.

    I would suggest that if you are having trouble getting homework done, your first course of action should be to contact your child’s teacher to discuss it, rather than bad mouth him/her to your friends. That won’t accomplish anything, and will just cause the relationship to get worse. Chances are your child’s teacher hates homework just as much, because we have to plan it, get it ready, assign it, enforce that it gets done and mark it.

  9. I have observed that it is yet another intrusion of the almighty state into the lives of ordinary citizens. A lot of the school day is busy work and being shuffled from one activity to another. The amount of actual learning that goes on is certainly questionable, but that is by design.

    • How have you observed this? Have you volunteered in a school? I can tell you there is plenty of learning going on within the schools I have worked, and if we were ever caught assigning “busy work” we would be reprimanded….I don’t have time to waste on busy work. I certainly won’t say the system is perfect however we are doing the best we can. If you have suggestions, there are many ways they can be brought forward rather than just trashing the whole system as it is.

      • I am an employer of office staff and my business is seen as moderately high status, especially for those kids who come through the public sector schools.

        I do not have to recruit because I get so many speculative letters. However, the standard of English is appalling. I have developed a “numerical aptitude test” and kids do not want to know when I tell them that they cannot use calculators or computers to come up with the answers. They do not seem to realise that the most basic equation when using any aid to computation or calculation is “Garbage In => Garbage Out”. I do not expect them to out-calculate a computer, but I want to know that they will recognise when there is a major error in a calculation eg out by a factor 10. I have had kids in tears because I have told them that their schools have failed them because they do not have the basic skills I need as building blocks to teach them the professional skills to work in my business. “But the teachers said I was good at mathematics!” They (the teachers) do not realise that if their pupils cannot subtract a larger number from a smaller number and come up with a negative number they are no good to me.

        And now the teachers must sign up to putting across that homosexuality is an equally valid alternative lifestyle to normality or the teachers will be sacked. Is it any wonder that I think the entire public sector education system is designed to bring about the destruction of civilisation as we know it.
        UK Fred recently posted…Jimmy Savile and the BBCMy Profile

  10. I realize this is an archived post, but WOW! Where does the teacher get off telling the parent to let her do her job? It is the parent’s right and privilege to teach their child. The teacher is suppose to teach at school and the parents teach the same stuff at home. If the teacher at school is not teaching and not willing to help the child learn, get a new teacher or a new school. Even in the US, you have that right!
    Yes, my Special child has homework in 6th grade. When she chooses not to do her work, it can take an hour. If she chooses to do her work, she is done in no time.

  11. rachel h. says:

    As a former teacher, I detest homework. It is just busy work, and if it more than busy work, it’s parent work. My kids go to our neighborhood school and their homework is very manageable. However, my friends that have opted to go to a charter school have 5 times as much homework. This. Is. Not. Okay. My daughter’s love doing homework, but if they didn’t I would certainly look into opting out.

  12. As a kid in the 80’s, graduating high school in 1993, I don’t recall any homework until 4th grade. Then it was heavy. I only found out afterward it was because I was willing to do it & it set me on a course for academic excellence, instead of most of the other average kids. The only activity outside of school I ever did was gymnastics.

    Homework was a staple in my middle school years, and my dad drilled me in my math facts. But the homework I did was *my* work. Rarely did I even ask my parents for help; it wasn’t that I was learning something new in the homework, it was repetition to reinforce what was taught that day. And that was done in no more than 2 hours.

    High school just brought more of the same, only more intensity of academics, harder gymnastics (and the associated doctor visits), and jobs. Even through chemistry, physics, AP Enlgish, trigonometry, etc., with which my parents could easily have helped me (my father was a contractor in construction & now takes calculus courses “just to keep sharp in his old age,” and my mother has a double-degree in chemistry & zoology) *they NEVER helped me with my homework.* I wish they were more involved in the college transition process & visiting schools, but as a blue & white collar family it wasn’t as if they could just get up and drive 100-300 miles across the state (we lived in BIG, beautiful Colorado) to check out a college.

    Like you, Sheila, we homeschool our children. It’s so totally different from anything I remember growing up (except we do administer tests.) But I teach my children, they do their work. If they don’t retain it, we go back ’til they do. It’s about learning, not busywork. If they learn a concept in 5 minutes, they finish the reinforcement exercises and are done with that subject. Unless they don’t do the work assigned (which happens), there is no homework. Then, they’re off investigating their interests or playing outside. Recently, they created Noah’s ark in our attic after we studied in depth about it in our ancient history curriculum. They get to be kids because they have time. Yes, we have a few activities (emphasis on “few”), but our family has time – time to breathe, time to eat most every meal together at the kitchen table (or the floor if there’s a home school project on the table ;-), time to talk.

    With 3 kids, I just don’t see how I’d be able to get through each one’s homework every night if they were in a traditional setting. The way I see it, for the time that would take, I might as well home school them – it would take just as long! Obviously, there’s a lot more to home schooling that just the time involved, but not having homework to face after school is one more bonus.

    (To be fair, I understand that not everyone can home school, and I don’t believe everyone should. It’s just nice to be able to have your kids learn in 4 hours a day what takes the schools 7 or 8, and be done for the day – no parent-teacher conferences, no bullying, no godless propaganda, no homework.)

  13. I don’t remember ever having homework until middle school, which was minimal – because I finished most of it at school. High school… lots of homework. But I never asked my parents to help me! That just wasn’t what you did ;D

    You said, Why should kids have to go to school for seven hours a day, and then do homework for an hour a night while they’re still so young?

    That was one of the reasons we began homeschooling. Our oldest two were in public school until 4th and 2nd grade and they came home with big packets of homework each week. I think the district expected teachers to do that, since it seemed to happen with every teacher. In addition, we were supposed to document a certain number of minutes every day of the child reading or being read to.

    We read a LOT, so achieving the time they wanted wasn’t a problem, but the packet as a whole was just ridiculous.

    My policy was to look through the packet and have my boys work on anything I thought they needed the extra time at home to master, and not to waste time with the rest. I communicated with their teachers my opinion that our lives were far more enriching than the homework and we simply wouldn’t be doing all of it.

    And that was that.

    Julie G
    Julie recently posted…Scatterday Brain DumpMy Profile

  14. Can you put a link to the older article so that we can read the comments?

    • It wasn’t put up on the blog; it was before I started writing it! But we had tons of emails and letters to the editor.

  15. I have 3 perspectives:

    I am 31, and I do remember having some homework in elementary school. To my memory, it was most often things like projects now and then, or my parents would help me if I was struggling with something, like a math concept or some difficult spelling words. It certainly wasn’t hours every day, like we’re seeing now.

    When I was a teacher a few years ago, I worked with low income students who were often, even in second and fourth grade, responsible for child care or meal prep when they went home. I very rarely assigned homework. They had more important responsibilities at home.

    Now, as a parent, my son goes to a University Model school, so the model is sort of like half homeschool and half college prep school. He spends fifteen hours a week less in school than he would at a traditional school, so the expectation is that parents will help with concepts and practice. But the flip side is that he gets out of school much earlier, so I have found that there’s plenty of time to get the work done and still have lots of fun adventures.

  16. As a supply teacher at grade 7 to 12 level, I would like to point out that sometimes, excess homework is a product of poor choices made by students. I meet many students who choose to spend class work time socializing instead of doing their work. When asked why, they are up front about wanting to spend time with their friends while they can and they say they’d rather do their work for homework. How is a student supposed to ask questions and get help once they are at home? If they don’t understand the work once at home, they get frustrated and complain to their parents, making the teacher look bad. It is the responsibility of the student to use their time at school wisely, otherwise they may need to complete their work at home.

  17. My kids have less than 20 minutes of homework at the grade school level, and do it on their own. It seems very appropriate to me. I’ve never had to teach my child any major concept before they could start homework, though I have been asked for help, and then clarified directions. I do live in one of the best school districts in the country, though.

  18. I too have heard this from my public school friends. Thanks for sharing!

  19. Interesting discussuion. I have two school aged children in grades 1 and 5. Maybe I’m the first one to say this here, but I honestly wish my kids were given a bit more home work! Let me explain, when I was growing up I attended several different schools where home work was inconsistent, until I came to high school. What a shock! I had always done fairly well in school (usually honors) but had never really developed good homework/study habits. That’s where I think home work can be beneficial, developing the habit of working on your own learning. So, do I think hours of homework a day woukd be beneficial? Absolutely not! However, I would be happy to see a little bit of work sent home to reinforce what was taught in the classroom.

  20. I have 4 kids. 3 in elementary school, and I disagree. My 5th grader has homework maybe 3 nights a week, and hardly needs help. I check it over but that’s it. He’s generally done in a half hour or less. Never has he brought home work that wasn’t previously covered in class. My 3rd grader is the same way, but her work is less than 10 min. Never has she brought home things not covered in class. My kindergartener has homework once a week, he’s given the sheet on Tuesday and it’s due by Thursday. Sometimes I think parents who homeschool have dramatic ideas of what goes on In The public school setting. It’s not that bad! We limit after school activities which I think is a much bigger problem than homework, and we eat dinner as a family 7 nights a week. I pick my kids up from school to eliminate the bus ride which is about an hour, I would say 99.9% of the time by the time we hear the bus drive by we are playing and long done with homework.

    • I can see what you’re saying but I don’t think homeschoolers have that dramatic idea about homework, at least the ones I know. I have personally worked in the public school district and have seen both sides of it. I have seen where kids get just the perfect amount and I have seen where kids do get to much. I respect the job of teachers. I teach 4 and have seen personally how a class size of 25 or more is hard and again having the different learning needs and personalities of kids does not make it easier.

      I also believe sometimes kids having TOO much homework is because of the childs lack of paying attention in class and not doing what they should be doing. Meaning for them, more homework which of course is not the teachers fault.

      All in all there are so many factors that play into why some kids have too much homework and although I have heard parents complain about the amount their kids have I can see that there may be many reasons for it. And yes one of them can be because the teacher sends home too much. That’s the reality.

  21. As parents we are responsible for the teaching of our children period. Whether you use private, public , or home school, it is your responsibility to see that your child is educated. We could not afford a private school and home schooling was not an option. We did a lot of praying and God blessed us with many great teachers (whom just happened to be christians). We did not expect the teacher do it all and we were involved as much as possible. We worked with the teachers and our daughter to find her strengths. Our daughter learned early on the rewards of discipline , dedication and responsibility and is now an AP scholar getting ready for college . I know it is a tough balance but ,for most of us home work is a fact of life. Home work is like playing a musical instrument, you have to rehearse on your own in order to get better.

  22. my husband and are the same age, and he never had homework but i did. even in advanced placement classes, calculus etc. he was able to focus and do it at school but i had a really hard time. of course we had projects and reports that are an exception.

    when i was in college (elementary education) and student teaching i observed that in affluent neighborhoods- schools- parents requested additional homework from the teachers because the parents associate homework with responsibility and good education.

    i’m also worried about this issue when it comes to placing my son in public school next year.

  23. The amount and quality of homework our fourth grader was bringing home was the final push for us to pull the kids from ps and homeschool them. Instead of her being at school til 3:30 and then having 2 hours (or more) of worthless homework, we did school from 9 to noon and were DONE with academics for the day. The afternoon was spent reading, playing, visiting grandparents or friends, going to the library, etc…,, and evenings were spent enjoying family time. That was a decade ago, and we’ve never looked back.

    • I remember when my elder daughter was in her last year at primary school in the UK, equivalent to Grade 6 in the US. She was always keen on music and the stage, and when a performance of Cats was taking place, I took her out of school on the second last day. I still remember the head very officiously telling me that her education was so very important. She seemed quite shocked when I asked her what lessons were planned for that day, and when shew could not tell me, I left her speechless, gobsmacked as we would say over here, by telling her that it was clear that she would learn more from seeing a professional performance of Cats than she would at school when they did not even have lessons planned. My daughter agreed.
      UK Fred recently posted…Jimmy Savile and the BBCMy Profile

  24. I am a former teacher turned SAHM and WAHM. I’ve never understood why kids have the amount of homework they do now a days. I do know that many parents are asking for it!! Not me!
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