How false reports of homework overload in America have spread so far

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Recently I saw in the Phi Delta Kappan magazine an attack on homework by a California high school junior, Colin McGrath. Writing the piece as a letter to his younger brother, he said:

“In a 2020 Washington Post article, Denise Pope described what she learned from a survey of more than 50,000 high school students: On average, they complete 2.7 hours of homework a night. That means you won’t be able to play on the trampoline anymore, ride your bike, or explore any other facet of life.”

My reaction: Huh??!! I’ve spent two decades trying to dispel the myth that our kids all get too much homework. The truth, according to several scholarly sources, is that US high school homework averages about an hour a night.

What most teenagers do with the rest of their free time has little connection to trampolines, bicycles or other healthy pursuits. Scholars say their favorite leisure activities are watching TV, playing video games or maybe both at the same time.

So I looked for that Sept. 1, 2020, article in my newspaper that McGrath mentioned. McGrath quoted Pope correctly. I missed that piece when it came out. Maybe most people did. I looked for Wikipedia’s official answer to this frequently asked question: How much time does the average teenager spend on homework?

I was horrified by what I saw, delivered to millions of Wikipedia users: “High schoolers reported doing an average of 2.7 hours of homework per weeknight, according to a study by The Washington Post from 2018 to 2020 of over 50,000 individuals.”

That’s wrong, but I am used to widespread falsehoods about homework overload. Otherwise responsible writers and filmmakers seem unable to resist adding to the hysteria. The popular 2009 film documentary “Race to Nowhere,” screened in 47 states and 20 countries, left the impression that young Americans everywhere were buckling under homework’s weight, yet the film never told viewers that the average amount is an just an hour a night.

Why ‘Race to Nowhere’ documentary is wrong

When Sara Bennett, an attorney and activist parent, and Nancy Kalish, a journalist specializing in parenting issues, went on the “Today” show in 2006 to publicize their book “The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It,” they said the average homework load had “skyrocketed.” They used that same word in their book.

They were sensationalizing the fact that the average time 6- to 8-year olds spent on homework went from eight minutes a day in 1981 to 22 minutes a day in 2003. That supposedly awful demand on their time was the equivalent of watching two episodes of “SpongeBob Square Pants.”

The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research reported in 2003 an average of 50 minutes of homework each weekday for 15- to 17-year olds, based on a nationally representative sample of 2,907 children and adolescents. A 2019 report by the Pew Research Center, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data, said 15- to 17-year olds spent on average an hour a day on homework during the school year. The 2019 UCLA Higher Education Research Institute survey of 95,505 college freshmen reported 57 percent of those students, all good enough to get into college, recalled spending five hours or less a week on homework their senior year of high school. Research shows homework has little value in elementary school, but does correlate with higher achievement in high school.

The false notion of teenagers averaging 2.7 hours a night was incorrectly derived from a study by Challenge Success, a nonprofit organization that works on identifying problems and implementing best practices in schools. Pope, the author of the piece in my newspaper, is a co-founder of College Success and a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.

Pope is a wonderful writer and scholar whom I have quoted in the past. She can’t be blamed for Wikipedia saying wrongly the Challenge Success study was done by The Post. She also tried to tell readers that her study did NOT use a representative sample of US teens.

She said the students in the study were all from “high-performing schools.” I only wish she had revealed that in the same sentence that she reported the 2.7-hours-per-night homework average. Her note that the study was confined to the best schools appeared in a different paragraph. That may explain why McGrath, Wikipedia and careless people like me failed, at least on first reading, to see the sample was skewed.

The Weak Case Against Homework

Too much homework can be a problem in high-achieving schools that cater to middle and upper class children. But they represent only about half the country. People on my side of the argument would say that three hours of homework a night is fine if the courses raise achievement and college readiness. I don’t think our kids’ favorite pastimes, video games and TV, are as good for them as going deep into those courses. And even three hours of homework leaves another three hours or so each night (plus the weekend) for nonacademic pursuits.

My concern is the less advantaged students who bring the national average down to just one hour a night by doing little or no homework at all. Since 1996 I have been studying hundreds of unusually dedicated public high schools in low-income communities that have raised achievement for their students and made it far more likely they will succeed in college or whatever they do after high school.

Those schools consider homework vital. One of them was led by Deborah Meier, a hero to many progressive educators. She created New York City’s Central Park East High School, where the mostly low-income students heard much about the importance of using time wisely.

“We told our kids … that the school’s explicit work probably required a 40 hour week — maybe more, maybe less,” she said to me. The official school week was about 30 hours. So she kept the school open an extra 10 hours a week — maybe an hour before school, an hour after school, and Saturday mornings.

She didn’t call the extra time homework, but made clear it was essential. “Everyone had more to read than could be done while at school — mostly five plus hours a week,” she said, “and probably another five for exploring and preparing and revising work done during school hours.”

Pope thinks in similar ways. She sees her Challenge Success research “as a way to a much larger conversation about how to create more meaningful and engaging learning, … how to add time for advisory/tutorial and more student to teacher interaction, how to make all the kids in the school feel like they belong and are cared for.”

That will require more than our puny national homework average of an hour a night, after an inadequate average of five hours of class a day. More learning takes time. One step in the right direction would be accepting the need for regular homework, particularly in high school, and dispensing with falsehoods about giving kids too much to learn.

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