TCS Daily

All Play, No Work

By Joanne Jacobs - October 13, 2003 12:00 AM

Stressed by endless hours of homework, American children have no time for fun or family.


Don't believe it.


Many students are overburdened, but not because they're studying too much. They're spending time on soccer, karate, flute lessons, Scouts, ballet and blowing away video-game villains. Teen-agers are working after school to pay for cars, clothes and recreational substances.


TV is must-see. Homework is must-do only for a small minority of hyper-motivated students.


American teen-agers average no more than five hours a week on homework, according to a new report, which summarizes four earlier studies, by the Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. A RAND report, "A Nation at Rest: The American Way of Homework," agrees: Middle and high school students aren't working any harder now than in the past.


In 1987, nearly half of college freshmen told UCLA researchers they'd spent more than five hours a week on homework as 12th graders. By 2002, only a third said they did that much work in high school. But nearly half said they graduated with an A average. Why sweat if it's not necessary?


U.S. high school seniors rank with the slackers on the 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which compared 20 countries. French, Italian, Russian and South African students put in twice the homework hours.


The National Assessment of Educational Progress asks 17-year-olds how much homework they did the previous night. Only one third report one hour or more; 39 percent said they had no homework or didn't do it if they had, while 26 percent said they did less than an hour. Probably during commercials.


Only 10 percent of students do more than two hours of homework a night, estimates the RAND study. Homework spiked in the decade after Sputnik -- when I was in school -- but otherwise hasn't changed in 50 years.


More elementary students are doing homework, says a University of Michigan study. But it doesn't amount to much: Homework for first to third graders increased from seven minutes a day (including weekends) in 1981 to 18 minutes a day in 1997. For older elementary students, assignments increased from 24 minutes a day to 30 minutes a day. It's a small fraction of their TV-watching time.


There are teachers who pile on hours of busy work. But these are the exceptions. Most parents who find themselves running to the all-night store for poster board at 10 pm on Sunday night have a kid who blew off the assignment for a week.


Yet, across the country, parents are complaining that homework is cutting into family time. They're demanding "homework holidays."


My daughter's old high school, Palo Alto High, is promoting a policy called "Ready, Set, Relax," which calls for teachers to assign no homework at the end of the semester.   


At Lynbrook High in San Jose, teachers aren't supposed to assign homework over weekends or holidays.


Both Paly and Lynbrook educate high-achievers who take multiple Advanced Placement classes, and stress out if they get an A- instead of an A. But, usually, it's not the academics that overwhelms them. Based on my daughter and her friends, three hours a night is typical for top students. What wears them out is the imperative to be well-rounded. It's doing the homework and editing the newspaper, competing on the Mock Trial team, singing in the choir, running track and volunteering for a cause that will impress a college admissions official.


The extracurricular grind starts early. Middle-class parents cram their children's schedules with improving activities from the time they can crawl through a plastic Gymboree tunnel. Compared to the past, children spend much more time in scheduled, supervised, after-school sports, lessons and other activities. Few middle-class kids are allowed to do what we used to do after school. Nothing. With no adults hovering over us.


Adults are more stressed too. Working parents have to make sure their kids get from soccer to Scouts; SUV-driving moms spend their afternoons driving back and forth to recreational sites. By the time they get home to microwave dinner, they're in no mood to help their kids build a molecule out of styrofoam or fake a Pilgrim's journal about The First Thanksgiving.


So. Is soccer really more important than studying? Should teachers eliminate math homework so kids can spend more time practicing karate kicks?


Intelligently assigned homework of reasonable difficulty is worth the effort. In elementary school, a little homework develops good work habits, though it doesn't boost achievement. Middle and high school students learn more, especially in math, when they study more. They also prepare to learn independently -- if Mom and Dad back off and let them do their own work.


Limit after-school activities. Turn off the TV. There's plenty of time for homework -- if it's the top priority.


Joanne Jacobs blogs on education at She is writing a book on a start-up charter school.

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