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Overworked and underplayed?

Ulrich Boser 0

If you read a lot of newspapers and magazines or happen to be acquainted with a particularly precocious child, you might assume that most American high schoolers spend their nights swilling coffee and propping open their eyelids to finish crushing amounts of homework. But Matt Hogan, a senior at Evanston Township High School in Illinois, does only 45 minutes of homework a night and still maintains a B average in honors-level classes. “Some of the classes really don’t give out homework,” he says. “The teachers are too lenient.”

Maybe, but it turns out that Hogan’s workload is just about average. According to a study released last week, most kids in this country spend less than an hour each day studying; almost 40 percent of high schoolers surveyed had done no homework the night before; and most college freshmen report that they spent just an hour a day–an all-time low–on homework during their last year of high school. “It’s expected that kids are going to do some complaining about homework, but many need to do more,” says Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and author of the report. “For high school students, watching TV and partying are right up there with homework.”

So why do so many people think kids are collapsing under backbreaking amounts of work? Partly, because they may not remember working at all as kids, but Loveless says a major culprit is a key piece of data from a 2000 study that was misinterpreted. It was widely reported that homework more than doubled from 1981 to 1997 for children ages 6 to 8. But in fact, says Loveless, the increase included some students who went from having zero homework to having a little bit, inflating the overall average. While it might have been easy to find individual cases of students up to their red-rimmed eyeballs in schoolwork, those kids tend to be high achievers or students in ambitious school districts, says Loveless. “That’s not the average student.”

Recess. Take Khristyne Miller. A self-described perfectionist, the eighth grader slogged through three hours of homework each night until her mother pulled her out of an honors program at Housel Middle School in Prosser, Wash. “Kids need to be allowed to be kids,” says Roberta Miller. “I didn’t want her to be burned out before she hits high school.” Khristyne now maintains her 4.0 GPA on two hours a day.

Overwhelmed by complaining parents, a number of suburban school boards in New Jersey and Northern Virginia have placed homework limits on teachers. (Typically, they allow no more than an hour for elementary school children and up to three hours for high schoolers.) And it’s not just a case of too much work being too hard: “Homework is school reform on the cheap,” argues John Buell, a journalist whose book Closing the Book on Homework is forthcoming from Temple University Press in January, pointing out that smaller class sizes and preschool attendance are more likely to improve performance than are two hours of work sheets.

Yet common sense seems to dictate that more work leads to better grades. Students from Russia, for instance, spend twice as much time on their homework and score significantly higher than American children on international math tests. But the research doesn’t show conclusively that homework increases achievement, only that the two are linked. And in elementary schools, homework isn’t even correlated with high grades. Why? Because the kids with poor reading and math skills (and thus lower grades) are often the ones assigned the most homework to get them caught up with their classmates.

Still, high schoolers accustomed to copious free time face a rude awakening when their college professors expect them to study three hours or more a day. At many state universities, most freshmen end up in remedial courses; nearly half don’t manage to land a college degree. “The question we should be asking,” says Loveless, “is, `Are these kids being adequately prepared for college?’ ”



This story appears in the October 13, 2003 print edition of US News and World Report.

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