Friday, October 10, 2003

The myth of boundless, unbearable homework assignments seems to be boundless in itself. Fueled by anecdotes and spread by journalistic sensationalism, the homework monster has become entrenched throughout the educational culture. There’s just one minor problem: It has virtually nothing to do with reality.

Yes, a third-grade teacher who has been assigning three hours of homework per night apparently exists. And, yes, a “science project” or two have morphed into family obsessions, claiming the post-dinner waking hours of both parents for weeks. However, anecdotal observations in no way make the case.

Certainly, some private schools and a few public schools maintain high homework standards. But, as a recent comprehensive review of the data by the Brookings Institution reveals, the horror stories about students “buried in homework” are essentially fictional. Moreover, because homework has been shown to make significant contributions to learning, the fact that students continue to spend little time doing homework probably goes a long way explaining why there has been little improvement in test scores over the past 20 years, particularly in reading. The same fact explains why U.S. students perform so poorly compared to their foreign peers.

For all the incendiary media attention — Time magazine’s 1999 article was titled “The Homework Ate My Family: KIDS ARE DAZED, PARENTS ARE STRESSED — Why Piling It On Is Hurting Students” — it’s worth asking: Just how much homework are kids doing today?

Researchers at the University of Michigan, whose studies seem to be the source of the stories about nightmarish homework assignments, examined the 1981 and 1997 homework habits and other activities of children ages 3 to 12. Reviewing these studies and others, Brookings found:

• For children ages 3 to 12, Michigan researchers reported that average weekly homework time increased from 1 hour 53 minutes in 1981 to 2 hours 16 minutes in 1997. That’s an increase of 23 minutes — per week (or less than 4 minutes per day).

• Among children ages 6 to 8, who experienced the largest increase in after-school assignments, weekly homework time increased from 52 minutes in 1981 to 2 hours 8 minutes in 1997. Daily homework, in other words, increased from less than 8 minutes to a bit more than 18. These ostensibly scholastically overworked youngsters still had time to watch television for 12.5 hours per week, play for 11 hours, participate in sports for another 5 hours, shop for 2.5 hours and spend 8 hours attending to personal care.

• Among children ages 9 to 12, the percentage of students who actually did any homework at all actually declined from 82 percent in 1981 to 62 percent in 1997.

• The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which asked students how much homework they did the previous day, revealed that in 1999, 83 percent of 9-year-olds, 66 percent of 13-year-olds and 65 percent of 17-year-olds reported doing less than one hour of homework.

c UCLA researchers reported that the percentage of college-bound high school seniors who spend more than five hours per week studying or doing homework has declined each year since 1987, reaching a record low of 34 percent in 2002. Meanwhile, 46 percent of college freshman reported graduating in 2002 with an A average.

Homework, or the lack of it, undoubtedly represents a major reason why U.S. students perform so poorly compared to students in other countries. The 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Survey asked students in their final year of secondary school how much time they spent studying and doing homework each day. Among the 20 nations, U.S. students ranked near the bottom, tied for the next-to-last position, Brookings reported, with students in France, Italy, Russia and South Africa “spending at least twice as much time on homework as American students.” Not surprisingly, the performance of U.S. high school seniors ranked 16th in general science, 19th in math and dead last in physics.

Following a precedent established by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988, every presidential candidate tells the electorate that he wants to be “the education president.” In 1996, this page lowered the bar, begging for a candidate to step forward promising to be “the homework president.” We repeat that exhortation today:

Truth be told, America doesn’t need an “education president.” But it could use a “homework president.” Who will promise to use the bully pulpit as long and as often as it takes to eliminate the homework gap?

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