Stories of too much homework don't hold up, think tank says

Wednesday, October 1, 2003

WASHINGTON -- It's a troubling story: Public school students get so loaded with homework that they stress out and lose out on chances to be playful kids.

But that story is largely wrong, two new studies contend.

Most students actually have less than an hour of homework a night, said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Compelling anecdotes of overwhelmed kids and exasperated parents don't reflect what most families face, according to a Brookings analysis of a broad range of homework research.

"People are unduly alarmed over the amount of homework," Loveless said. "They should realize kids are not overworked -- and indeed, there is room for even more work."

The Brookings report is based on widely cited data from the Education Department, international surveys and research by the University of Michigan and UCLA, among other sources.

For example, when asked how much homework they were assigned the day before, most students age 9, 13 and 17 all reported less than an hour, according to a federal long-term survey in 1999. The share of students assigned more than an hour of homework has dropped for all three age groups since 1984.

One in 10 students

Only about one in 10 high school students does a substantial amount of homework -- more than two hours a night -- according to a separate study co-authored by Brian Gill of the RAND Corporation, another nonprofit research group. The figure has held fairly stable for the last 50 years.

"It's important to acknowledge that this is not true for everybody," Gill said. "All those stories about overloaded kids -- we're not suggesting that kids and parents are lying. It's just that it's pretty clear that those stories are the exception rather than the norm."

Given homework's link to achievement as students get older, parents and educators must have an accurate picture of what most students face, Loveless said. Cases of excessive homework should be addressed by parents and teachers for individual students, not by district or state policymakers, he said. The research by Loveless counters media accounts that he says have overstated homework loads.

High school students have a light homework load when compared with international peers, according to the Brookings study, citing a 1995-96 math and science survey. Among students in their final year of public schooling, those in France, Italy, Russia and South Africa reported spending at least twice as much time on homework as American students.

Some teachers are concerned that graduation exams and other high-stakes tests have placed too many demands on classes, leading to more homework pressures, said Stephanie Fanjul, director of student achievement for the National Education Association. But teachers won't be surprised to learn the nation's homework load isn't excessive, she said -- they're the ones who assign it.

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