About 3.5 hours of homework a day for high schoolers? That's too much.

About 3.5 hours of homework a day for high schoolers? That's too much.
A dad helps his daughter with her eight-grade homework. (Los Angeles Times)

A poll of public school teachers finds that on average, high school students are assigned 3.5 hours of homework per weeknight, or more than 17 hours a week. Or that's the teachers' perspective, anyway.

If that's how it actually plays out, it strikes me as too much by far.


I'm no homework-denier. When you look at the research, it's clear that homework, at least at the high school level, contributes to higher achievement. But I'm also in the camp that says kids, including teenagers, need well-balanced lives that include extracurricular activities, outside pursuits, physical activity, fun with friends and family, and just hanging around accomplishing nothing. Not that close to four hours of homework a night doesn't leave room for other things. There must be at least a spare 20 minutes a day somewhere in there to fit in all those non-academic activities, if the kids don't dawdle over dinner.

I have my doubts that the average teen actually spends that much time on homework. Perhaps the teachers were overreporting for the University of Phoenix School of Education poll, or perhaps they aren't aware of the extent to which high school students are able to work the system and minimize the time investment. But it's also clear that a lot of kids are doing a lot of outside schoolwork — and in some cases, far too much.

Elementary school teachers, obviously, set their sights a lot lower, assigning what they thought of as about half an hour of work per day, according to the poll. But parents report widely that elementary teachers also have some unrealistic ideas of how long the homework takes — in the opposite direction. They don't take into account the fatigue and frustration that slow young children. Little hands are much slower at printing and writing. Teachers too often seem to think half an hour of homework means what they can accomplish in 30 minutes, not what a 9-year-old is capable of doing.

Schools like to talk about reducing the homework load but seldom appear to do much about it. Especially as the state embarks on the new curriculum tied to Common Core standards, which are supposed to be more about thinking, explaining and writing than rote or mechanistic schoolwork, principals should be required to do a thorough examination of the homework their teachers are assigning.

Here are a few common-sense guidelines:

  • Is each piece of homework really worthwhile, or is some of it being assigned out of habit or a feeling that this is what the teacher is supposed to do? It’s one thing for students to practice a new math skill or puzzle out some problems, another to be assigned busywork that doesn’t add to skills or knowledge. A lot of it is busywork, and it should be banned. In addition, do students really need to do 40 practice problems to show they’ve mastered the work, or would 15 do just about as well?
  • A related concern: Is the homework a relevant way to show mastery that represents a worthwhile investment of time? A middle school biology teacher I know assigns students to make a large model of the human body, using mostly trash from around the house. But it’s not just an art project. Their use of materials, and their presentation, must show that they understand the function of that part of the body. The student who uses an old CD, cut in half, to represent ears, or an old hand pump to represent the heart is showing that understanding. In contrast, 40 hours of work spent gluing sugar cubes together to represent a California mission, a longstanding assignment for many fourth-graders studying California history, is a bad use of student time; it shows relatively little about youngsters’ understanding of the missions, and that little could be proved just as well by spending an hour drawing a mission floor plan.
  • The mission example leads to the third rule, one that should be so firmly entrenched that it is couched in biblical language: “Thou shalt not assign homework that requires major parental involvement.” Some of those sugar-cube missions couldn’t have been built by anyone short of an architect. The assignment should be well within the grasp of the little hands and developing brains of the children who are asked to do it. To get personal here: I already did my share of homework, many years ago.

Have any suggestions to add to the list?

One interesting note from the poll: Very experienced teachers tend to assign significantly less homework than those who have put in less time in the classroom. Could be they have a lesson or two about homework to share with their less veteran colleagues.