Homework: How Much is too Much?

Here's our annual report cards on public and private high schools. To offer your views on homework, find out what top educators say, get tips on handling the homework load, and find homework polices locally and elsewhere, visit Diablo’s Homework Resource Guide. We want to know: How much time do your kids spend on homework? Does your child have a good balance between school, extracurricular, and quality time with family and friends? How is homework affecting your home life? Go to the comments section at the bottomof the page to offer your remarks.

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Click here for Diablo's Homework Resource Guide

It's the kind of Friday afternoon that Kerry Dickinson loves. Dickinson’s sons, Graham and Sam, race around on in-line skates in the middle of their Danville street. Sam, who is 12, flips a hockey puck to older brother Graham, 14, who slams it into the portable goal, and they both cheer as if they were San Jose Sharks winning the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The flat-topped Dickinson boys, who look as if they just stepped out of a Dick and Jane book, would like to spend every afternoon playing hockey in the street or climbing the backyard apple tree. But, like most boys and girls in high-achieving East Bay schools, their play is often curtailed by one thing—homework.

“There are a lot of quiet streets out here,” says Dickinson, watching her boys and referring to the fact that most other kids in her area are inside. It’s a warm afternoon, and she’s sitting on the stone steps beside her three-car garage, one sporty sandal–clad foot crossed over the other.

Dickinson, a stay-at-home mom with a teaching credential and master’s degree in reading, laments how homework cuts into playtime, which she thinks is vital to her sons’ emotional, creative, and physical well-being. Last fall, instead of stewing quietly, she started talking to other parents. She asked how much time their kids spent on homework each night and whether it helped them better understand what they were learning in school.

Dickinson, who is married to a neurosurgeon, also read more than 20 books and hundreds of articles, talked to local and national experts, and touched off a debate in the 34-school San Ramon Valley Unified School District. All the discussion led to the formation of a homework task force.

Made up of parents, teachers, and administrators, the group worked for months devising a policy—which has been passed at all but the high school level—that they hope represents common ground on the highly charged issue of how schools should use homework to help kids learn.

This same debate is percolating in public and private schools throughout the East Bay suburbs. The Walnut Creek School District will revise its homework policies this year in response to parental concerns. Seven Hills, a preschool through eighth grade private school in Walnut Creek, is considering lengthening the school day in part to keep most schoolwork at school and preserve time at home for family. And, this past spring, Bentley, the elite K–12 private school, hosted a lecture at its Lafayette campus by lightning rod educator Alfie Kohn, who helped to start a debate at the national level by arguing that homework is not good for kids. Bentley headmaster Rick Fitzgerald doesn’t necessarily agree with everything Kohn says, but wanted to spark community discussion about a topic that educators have pondered for a long time and parents are starting to question.

Reader Comments:
Aug 26, 2008 01:42 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

I once had a friend from Europe , a doctor's wife, say that we coddled our children here in America and that European youngsters are ready to go to college at the same age that we are still treating ours as children. I do believe she is right . I strongly believe in homework as I believe it prepares you for college and a successful life,by teaching you organization .You cannot time homework as one child may doddle while another speeds through it.It is not lack of money that is making our children fall behind the National average ---but parents that do not want to discipline their children to do the work.

Aug 26, 2008 01:42 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

I once had a friend from Europe , a doctor's wife, say that we coddled our children here in America and that European youngsters are ready to go to college at the same age that we are still treating ours as children. I do believe she is right . I strongly believe in homework as I believe it prepares you for college and a successful life,by teaching you organization .You cannot time homework as one child may doddle while another speeds through it.It is not lack of money that is making our children fall behind the National average ---but parents that do not want to discipline their children to do the work.

Aug 26, 2008 02:54 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Too much homework leads to stress in children, and long-term stress is related to chronic illness; from headaches to cancer. After a long day of class room learning, it is debatable how much more information can even be absorbed during homework. Children have little time to recharge their mental and physical batteries and at the jr. high and high-school level, many turn to drugs and alcohol to relieve the pressure( whether we want to admit this or not). Where does the pressure come from? From the school districts, from parents and from children themselves. Is it worth sacrificing one's childhood to get into the perfect university? Afterall, there are hundreds of schools out there to meet the many needs of our diverse students. For all you parents who punish your children for not getting a 4.0 or better, are you pressuring him/her for them, or is it to give yourself bragging rights?

Aug 26, 2008 05:53 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I disagree with anonymous who posted about his or her European friend. As a college student entering her senior year, I have to say, most of my classes in high school did not prepare me for college. The type of work required in high school has very little baring on the type of work required in college. I struggled to remember to complete and turn in every weekly ditto and nightly assignment in high school; however, when I arrived at college I found only large papers due every few weeks were required of me. My friends and I rejoiced. College is a relief in comparison to the high schools in Acalanes Unified School District.
As for the other anonymous poster, he or she is correct. By my senior year, my rich peers had moved beyond smoking pot during class in the bathroom, instead many were snorting coke lines during and after school, and binge drinking on the weekends. Affluent parents must be especially aware of the pressure they apply in all areas, especially academic.

Aug 28, 2008 09:14 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

I'm on the fence about whether homework is good or bad for kids. Yes, too much homework is not good. But maybe some is useful. My kids do it just fine, but they are in elementary school. Fortunately, we didn't deal with the ridiculous load expected by that kindergarten teacher described in the story. My kids also haven't hit middle school yet, with the dreaded middle school coloring assignments. Yes, I hear that these assignments go on at schools throughout the area, not just in the San Ramon district.

I'm just glad that someone is finally raising the question around here about homework, its value and whether we as a community, as a society, are overdoing it. It seems like some weird culture has grown up around it, with most everyone, parents, teachers, administrators, students, behaving like compliant drone-like characters in some dystpotian Orwellian novel, going along with The Program. Schools come up with ways to inculcate kids and parents into this Homework Program, accepting these mantras that Homework Leads to Success, Homework Leads to Good Time Management Skills, Homework Leads to Good Citizenship, Homework Leads to a Good Corporate Work Ethic. Where is the questioning among us? The critical thinking about whether homework is good or bad, or whether, if it is valuable, we in the community of schools and families could be doing it better.

But I read some of the language that teachers and administrators, and hear some of the language used by parents, to justify The Homework Program, and I can't help but feel like I'm reading and hearing mindless spouting-off of some kind of propoganda. Perhaps it's just easier to go along with the Program, believe in it, than to stop and ask questions. And this Program is supported by state and national policies and by an Educational Industrial Complex that includes SAT test companies and local "consultants" who will help your fourth-graders learn to be better time managers.

Maybe we're producing kids that ace their SATs and get into good schools, but we're also sowing fertile ground for growing an almost mindless, facist-like culture. The kind that doesn't question our leaders, locally or nationally, when they propose measures that can lead us down paths that prove destructive.

Aug 28, 2008 04:44 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Wow. That's a really well-written article. I enjoyed it. Great job Diablo!

Aug 31, 2008 08:58 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Just talked to a mother whose son is in my son's fifth grade-class. Our sons attend a high-performing school in central Contra Costa. School started this past week. This mom and I ran into each other at a neighborhood restaurant.

"So, how do you think it's going so far," she asked.

I shrugged. "So far, okay," I said. "He seems to like the teacher."

"Yeah, well wait until we get to the homework," she said.


Yes, homework. The defining issue, it seems, of the contemporary school experience.

"What do you mean," I asked. "Has that been an issue for you?"

She nodded, and went on to describe the nightly power struggles between her and her son--the yelling, the frustration. "He gets home and starts it, but then he can't finish it." She described how her son would get frustrated by some concept he didn't get-- either because he needs more time than other kids to grasp the concept; or because the teacher simply didn't do a good job in explaining it. And this mom says she would try and and explain the concept to him, but perhaps she didn't explain things very well and not in a way he could understand.

More yelling, more frustration.

Then again, she's not a teacher, trained to explain these concepts in the way a fifth grader could understand.

This struggle to get the homework done was a source of nightly arguments, and was creating tension in the relationship between her and her son.

I suggested: "Don't you think that it's the teacher's job to explain it to the kids. Not yours?"

She nodded. Then shrugged, almost with a sense of hopelessness.

And so we have it: one of the realities of our lives as parents and students in the East Bay suburbs. Because of the homework assigned by teachers and the homework load expected by our schools, and by ourselves as a society, we parents end up serving as teachers. One parent at my son's school suggested that we should be willing to serve as this role. That's part of the job of being a parent, she says, to help nurture our children's academic endeavors and at all costs.

To some extent, I can see her point. On the other hand, many of us aren't trained to teach. And because of the way homework is assigned, we end up in the role of teachers each night. I can say for myself that I'm not very good at teaching elementary school students, especially math concepts. It's just not in me. Plus, I've worked all day and come home and had to fix dinner and deal with other domestic crises... Now, I have to start a second work shift playing teacher, a job for which I'm not trained? What's up with that? Shouldn't I get the chance to sit back and relax, especially with my kids?

I think of the inept way I try to explain some concept to my son. For example, long division, back in third grade. I was taught to do it a certain way, but my way doesn't seem to coincide with how the current curriculum wants him taught. Of course, I don't know. No one has told me. All I know is he's faced with a homework sheet he needs to fill out that consists of him completing 20 long division problems, and he's not really sure how to begin, and it's MY job to show him.

Is this what I, as a taxpayer, am paying for? Geez: maybe I should quit my job and start home schooling him.

Overall, I'd say the homework situation is a big mess, for parents, for kids, for teachers, for schools, for everybody. Right now, in thinking of my past experiences, and those of my friend, I just have to throw my hands up and say, what a mess. What a stupid sad mess. For everyone involved.

Can't we do better?

Sep 8, 2008 05:16 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Homework is as much a lesson in learning to prioritize and manage time. It's important to work our teenagers especially so that they are prepared for active careers as adults.
I appreciated the opinions of the high school seniors in this article. And while at first I glanced over the grades,test scores and universities these kids were boasting and assumed they were all over achieving nerds, it doesn't appear to be that way for all them.
Brittney caught my eye when I saw she was attending West Point. That is an amazing school. Forbes even ranked it number one in public universities this year I believe. Interestingly enough she had the lowest GPA and not the highest test scores. That got me cuious as to what exactly got her into a school like West Point. Her opinions were refreshing. It was nice to hear from a student who was successful but realistic about expectations and having fun. It would be interesting to hear more from her as she seems to have an interesting philosophy that worked well for her. Maybe we should all take a lesson from this in regards to our own children... experience in life is just as important as actually doing the homework.

Jun 20, 2009 03:58 pm
 Posted by  joanmmj

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM...If the classroom teaching was done more "efectively" then perhaps homework would be less of an issue.

Writing is not an arduous task once you learn how ro write well.
Mathematics must be taught at school, not at home. If your kids know how to do the homework, it shouldn't take long.

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