The Homework Crunch: Do Schools Ask Too Much of Families?

Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column was more local in nature, so I thought I’d rerun this one from 2006.

Homework CrunchFor seven years, this was the reigning column—the one that received the most comments and feedback, only to be surpassed by Brat Is Not a Learning Disability. I didn’t think this column was anything special when I wrote it, but I obviously hit a nerve.

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 behaviour 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 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. Melanie Jones says:

    You said it just right. My kids have so much home work its impossible!

  2. As a teacher, I see the value in homework. When I send homework home, it’s to reinforce what we learned in class, not to bog them down all night. On the flip side, I have friends whose children never have homework, not even a project or writing assignment, and I see the struggle those children have with retention.

  3. With the rising levels of poverty and English language learners in my area, the norm is to have little to zero homework. I worry that this trains children to think that school does not extend beyond the school day. Hmm…. hard to find a balance!

  4. Yes! Children have too much homework. I didn’t even study for the SAT!!! Now they take months of classes for it. Children should be able to come home and play outside and get exercise. I agree with you 100%!
    Lori Alexander recently posted…Jim Bob Is FrugalMy Profile

  5. The school where I teach has a policy that there is little or no homework below Grade 3 except to practicing reading alone or with a parent. But above that it can vary with the teacher. I agree that excessive homework turns kids off learning especially when it is an exercise in frustration for both parent and student.
    Harriette recently posted…Thanksgiving Side Dish: Squash Apple BakeMy Profile

  6. I remember my parents helping us occasionally with homework in elementary school, but it was mostly the big projects where we had to build a visual aid, like a volcano or a model of Jamestown. I don’t have kids yet, but I do hear a lot of my friends on Facebook/my flute students complain about how much homework they get now. I know the public schools in my state are pretty crappy overall, so I can’t help but think that, around here at least, they’re making up for not actually teaching in the classroom–my husband and I are already strongly discussing homeschooling, and we’re not even trying to get pregnant yet!

  7. I think there is value to homework, but my son is assigned a only a math worksheet and reading as a daily assignment, with a response to his reading as a weekly letter to his teacher in a Google doc. For fifth grade I think this is good. Occasionally he studies for a test, and we rarely need to help him.

  8. Sheila,
    I think you have to take it on a case by case basis. If you research world wide education, it appears European and Asian countries are reaching higher levels of instruction at earlier ages than North American countries. Why is that? Is more expected from the students from other countries? I totally agree that every student needs down time. Time to play outside and refresh. Unfortunately, many students don’t go outside at all. They are too busy playing video games, watching television, or social networking. It is important that parents are involved in the education of their children and help monitor what they are spending their time doing. Students themselves need to use their time wisely while they are at school. Many students sit and do minimal work at school then have to do more homework than necessary at school. I truly believe we cannot make a blanket statement saying teachers and schools require to much homework. There are many factors that play into it. The school, the teacher, the parents and most importantly the students themselves. Respectfully, Steve Williams Twitter @sdwill206

  9. I had homework from at least grade 3 (I don’t remember about the earlier grades).(I was educated overseas.) My parents only helped in French or in the big projects, otherwise we were expected to do it ourselves. And we still had time for play in the evenings. I seem to recall that in the lower grades it wasn’t so much of learning the material but anything that we dawdled about in class we had to do at home.

  10. My husband was born in ’50 and I in ’53. It depends on where you went to school. My husband, like you, Sheila, remembers no homework till about high school. I, on the other hand, went to Catholic school and we had tons of homework because Catholic school is a private school with a rigorous curriculum. The nuns taught, but the classrooms were so overcrowded (this was the baby-boom) with up to 60 children in a class (yes!), so there was not a lot of individual attention. Most of the children were working- and middle-class, from decent homes where they were well taken care of and where education was important to the families, and most of the kids were pretty bright. If you were not bright enough to catch on to a certain subject, though, you slipped through the cracks. My father used to help me with my homework and he’d get very frustrated because he didn’t understand the new math. I went to public high school where we had a normal amount of homework.
    Fast forward many years: My children went to public school in the 90’s up to 2007. Even in the lower elementary years they were BURIED under homework. We’d have them do it the minute they got home, to get it out of the way, and help them with it, as they had not been taught much of it in school.
    My husband and I attended a couple of “parent-in” sessions in our sons’ public school, where they allowed parents to sit in on the children’s classes and we could then see why we had to do so much teaching ourselves at home. Much of the teachers’ days were spent teaching 1) safety; 2) being nice; 3) recycling. Little time was left for teaching subjects. Add to this all the dressing in coats and boots to go outdoors in our cold climate, plus lining up, plus bathroom breaks and really, there wasn’t much time left. The teacher went over the subjects rapidly, once, and then the children brought their books home and the parents helped them to learn it. Children with one parent who had to work, or with two working parents, or children from homes where the parents were drunkards/druggies (public schools are not necessarily filled with children from 2-parent sober families) got no help at all, came to school without breakfast or a good night’s sleep, maybe ill to boot, not ready to learn anyway. Some of the teachers are so worn out with the bureaucracy and troubled children/families to care any more.
    Public schools certainly have their work cut out for them. I’m amazed our children survived.
    Ellie Rae recently posted…IS TODAY’S WOMAN TOO PICKY IN FINDING A SPOUSE?My Profile

  11. I don’t remember my parents helping me a whole lot with my homework. I went to a babysitter after school where I was able to play until my mom picked me up. After getting home I had chores to complete. Then I did my homework until dinner was ready. Between playing at the babysitter’s and chores I had plenty of non-school related time before starting on my homework.
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  12. We home school as well. My eldest daughter (7) is done all her school work before supper on a bad day. On a good day, she’s done by noon. Basically, she does up to 3 hours of work a day, with many breaks.

    By contrast, her friend (same age, same grade), in a good private school, comes home after 5 hours of intensive schooling, and has 2 hours of homework a night.

    I’ve seen no loss of knowledge or any sense of falling behind in my daughter, actually, I find my daughter now has the time to learn things other kids don’t get to. We get to chase interesting things. For example, today we read Curious George, he went up in a shuttle. So we decided to take a few minutes and watch some shuttle launches (which were cool).

    So what gives? What is all this extra “schooling” accomplishing? Personally, I can’t figure out how all the extra time is being spent.
    Jay Dee – recently posted…Reasons Not To Have Sex Survey ResultsMy Profile

    • Jay Dee, my experience is the same as yours. Our primary schooling was over by noon most days–or it took the whole school day, but that’s only because we had gymnastics or skating or swimming or music during the day, too. And then our nights were always to ourselves! Our kids didn’t suffer, either–they both started university courses the second they hit 16. That’s what I’ve never been able to figure out–how can you have 2 hours of homework a night if it only takes me, at most, 4 hours a day to teach math and writing and penmanship and grammar and history and social studies when they’re in elementary school? The only explanation that makes sense to me is that a lot of time at school is spent in busy work or something.

  13. As a mom of a 7th grade daughter who already struggles with school work and comes home with tons of homework that she almost everyday is working on from the time she gets home until sometimes 11 at night, I completely agree with you. It is frustrating. She’s even fallen asleep as she’s working on her homework. And then has no extra time for play. But is required to keep her grades up to be able to participate in athletics. And last week had a substitute teacher in her math class that handed out their assignment and told them they had to figure it out on their own because she didn’t know how to do it. I have been seriously considering homeschooling my kids. My only concern is that they can’t be involved in the athletics that they love…

  14. We homeschool now, but our kids began in public school and the homework was a major pain in the heinie! I have three thoughts on homework for the younger kids:

    1. If my child isn’t completing his work in class, then he can bring it home to finish. Or if he isn’t catching on, he can practice more at home. That’s the legitimate (in my view) use of homework in the early years.

    2. Fretting about what other countries/states/districts are doing sooner than we are is pointless. For instance, you can spend the entire year of grade three teaching little 8 and 9 year olds to do long division or you can wait a couple of years and teach them the same concept in ten minutes. Whoop-dee-do.

    3. Parents – and I want to say this with an encouraging tone of voice! – need to remember who is in charge. When my boys brought home a bunch of busywork, I quietly informed the teacher that our lives were richer than that and we wouldn’t be doing it. And that was that.

    Julie recently posted…Houston, We Have A Problem…My Profile

    • Awesome! How did the teachers respond to that – to being put in their place? Did they take it out on your kids’ grades?

      • No – I had really good rapport with their teachers. Possibly they were under pressure from administration or general “school culture” to assign homework. Clearly some kids weren’t getting much educational support at home and maybe the homework was helpful… or maybe it’s just a bunch of busy work.

        And, again, had my kids not been finishing things at school, or if they had needed more help to master something, then extra work would be appropriate.

        But I’d much rather have them playing in the yard, or helping in the kitchen, or playing a game, or reading a book than filling in blanks in a worksheet. *sigh*
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  15. Maybe some of this pressure is coming from the parents themselves. I always tell myself that teachers give assignments in order to find out where the students are at. Therefore, if I “help” I am actually interfering with an important method of assessment. I never help my kids do their homework right or well. I help them focus, sometimes, but their work is their work.

    If my child can type, they may type, but I certainly won’t! The teacher needs to see my child’s skill level, not mine… even if that means that my child’s skill level is, “I can’t do this.” or “When I try to do this, I do it quite poorly.”

    Honestly, it’s not my homework. It shouldn’t reflect my skill levels. I’m brilliant. I could ACE third grade with one hand tied behind my back. Don’t I want my kid to do well and get good grades? No. I don’t. I want her to get accurate grades that reflect her current skill levels. That includes failing homework that is too hard for her to accomplish alone.

  16. As a teacher I would appreciate us not all being painted with the same brush. I assign homework weekly, no more than 1/2 hour each night, and they have the week to complete it. That way they can let it go on nights when they are busier. I don’t assign homework on weekends. I try to find fun games online, or fun projects they can do (interviews etc) that are engaging for them.

    Also did anyone who is complaining about homework actually talk to their child’s teacher about their concerns? Or is your first course of action to complain to others? Complaining won’t solve the problem, in fact it will create more of a negative relationship between you and your child’s teacher. Most teachers that I know will listen and make adjustments as needed. We are (for the most part) reasonable people, we aren’t out to intentionally make your evenings miserable. Also the implication that most students are doing busy work every day is infuriating and very discouraging.

  17. Steve Williams says:

    Communication with teachers and administration is important. If she is struggling don’t wait call her teacher first, then principal. Education should be a team effort between parents and educators

  18. @Krista and Steve
    I have been to the school counselor and teacher multiple times about the amount of work my daughter is bringing home and how long it takes her to get this work done. My daughter has also gone to the counselor. I’ve asked them to lower the amount of problems she has to complete and I’ve only seen this done 2 times. She’s back to doing every single problem. My daughter is ADD and is in the 504 program which allows certain things to be done to help her and make things a little easier on her but as of this year it doesn’t seem that those allowances are taking place. My worry is that it will eventually become too much for my daughter and she will give up. She works her butt off to barely pass her math classes.
    Also, the counselor and teacher said there is a huge disconnect with almost all of their students in their math classes this year. The majority of the students aren’t where they should be in their math skills to move onto 7th grade math. So that shows something about our schools too.

  19. Steve Williams says:

    I’m wondering if it is a curriculum problem. I would keep the communication open. Most of all tell your daughter to not give up, do her best, that’s all anyone can expect. I will be praying for your daughter and you! :-)

  20. The problem in my kids’ public school is the amount of testing that the teachers are required to do. In the younger grades, the testing has to be done one-on-one, so teachers spend have to spend a portion of each day on fulfilling the state requirements for standardized tests. This leaves less time for practicing what the kids have learned in the classroom, therefore, practice is relegated to the home. Thankfully, the teachers at our school do a good job of imparting the information before sending home the work, but it’s still a drag that my 7-year-old has to spend nearly an hour every school night at his desk…after spending 6 hours doing so at school.

  21. @Steve
    Thank you. I appreciate the prayers very much. :•)
    A lot of the problem is how they want the kids to do the math. The process of the math problems is different from how we did them in school. A lot of the time I can’t even figure out how they want her to do them.

    • Regarding that, Stacy, I’d really recommend watching this video about the problem with the way that schools often teach kids to do math now. It’s very informative:

      • Having students memorize a set of steps to get an answer doesn’t mean they understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. Also again, please don’t paint us all with the same brush. In our district we teach some of the methods mentioned in this video (although much less complicated) as well as the standard algorithms (once they have mastered the other methods). I have never heard of the texts mentioned in this video, and my students do not use calculators. They leave with an understanding of the steps they are following when they are doing long division and the “old” multiplication. Once they have learned the different methods, they are free to choose which one works best, and makes the most sense to them. For some that means the standard algorithms, and others prefer the “new math”. I have seen it work wonders for certain students. To imply that it never works and that we should go back to teaching it the old way every time to everyone is ridiculous.

  22. Anonymous says:

    When our sons were both in Kindergarten, my friend told me how long it took her to help him with his homework every night. I told her that’s how long it takes me to homeschool my child what he needs for Kindergarten!

    My dad used to write excuses for us if we didn’t finish our homework due to chores or family time. He always said, “school work belongs in school. I send you kids there for 7 hours. If they can’t get your education in in that amount of time, they’re doing something wrong!”

  23. Thank you Sheila. Watching the way the math is done in that video was confusing for me. I can only imagine how much more for my kids.

  24. It’s a great question. I’m a teacher and my Christian school has wrestled with this question over the years. Our administration was always trying to encourage us to give less homework. What we found was that a lot of what we were assigning wasn’t really necessary. I personally as a math teacher believe that kids do need to practice, but assigning 6-7 problems and expecting them to do them well is much more reasonable and manageable than sending them home with a double-sided worksheet each night.
    And I think you’re right about schools trying to teach so much – all these extracurricular subjects, while enjoyable, take time away from the basics.
    Linda Kardamis recently posted…Guiding Teens to Choose Good MusicMy Profile

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