Is Homework in American Schools Getting Harder and Longer?

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Karl Greenfield has a lengthy piece titled “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me” on attempting to do his 13-year-old daughter’s homework for one week. Comparing to his past, he is overwhelmed by how much homework is assigned to her daughter on a nightly basis.

I don’t remember how much homework was assigned to me in eighth grade. I do know that I didn’t do very much of it and that what little I did, I did badly. My study habits were atrocious. After school I often went to friends’ houses, where I sometimes smoked marijuana, and then I returned home for dinner; after lying to my parents about not having homework that night, I might have caught an hour or two of television. In Southern California in the late ’70s, it was totally plausible that an eighth grader would have no homework at all.

If my daughter came home and said she had no homework, I would know she was lying. It is inconceivable that her teachers wouldn’t assign any.

What has changed? It seems that while there has been widespread panic about American students’ falling behind their peers in Singapore, Shanghai, Helsinki, and everywhere else in science and mathematics, the length of the school day is about the same. The school year hasn’t been extended. Student-teacher ratios don’t seem to have changed much. No, our children are going to catch up with those East Asian kids on their own damn time.

Every parent I know in New York City comments on how much homework their children have. These lamentations are a ritual whenever we are gathered around kitchen islands talking about our kids’ schools.

Is it too much?

Well, imagine if after putting in a full day at the office—and school is pretty much what our children do for a job—you had to come home and do another four or so hours of office work. Monday through Friday. Plus Esmee gets homework every weekend. If your job required that kind of work after work, how long would you last?

This exchange caught my attention (I hadn’t heard of this cross-disciplinary work being popular in schools):

One assignment had her calculating the area and perimeter of a series of shapes so complex that my wife, who trained as an architect in the Netherlands, spent half an hour on it before coming up with the right answers. The problem was not the complexity of the work, it was the amount of calculating required. The measurements included numbers like 78 13/64, and all this multiplying and dividing was to be done without a calculator. Another exercise required Esmee to find the distance from Sacramento—we were living in California—to every other state capital in America, in miles and kilometers. This last one caused me to question the value of the homework.

What possible purpose could this serve?, I asked her teacher in a meeting.

She explained that this sort of cross-disciplinary learning—state capitals in a math class—was now popular. She added that by now, Esmee should know all her state capitals. She went on to say that in class, when the students had been asked to name the capital of Texas, Esmee answered Texas City.

But this is a math class, I said. I don’t even know the state capitals.

The teacher was unmoved, saying that she felt the homework load was reasonable. If Esmee was struggling with the work, then perhaps she should be moved to a remedial class.

Worth the read, especially if you’re a parent with kids in K-12.

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