When homework is busywork

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Rachel Bennett, 12, loves playing soccer, spending time with her grandparents and making jewelry with beads. But since she entered a magnet middle school in the fall -- and began receiving two to four hours of homework a night -- those activities have fallen by the wayside.

“She’s only a kid for so long,” said her father, Alex Bennett, of Silverado Canyon. “There’s been tears and frustration and family arguments. Everyone gets burned out and tired.”

Bennett is part of a vocal movement of parents and educators who contend that homework overload is robbing children of needed sleep and playtime, chipping into family dinners and vacations and overly stressing young minds. The objections have been raised for years but increasingly, school districts are listening. They are banning busywork, setting time limits on homework and barring it on weekends and over vacations.


“Groups of parents are going to schools and saying, ‘Get real. We want our kids to have a life,’ ” said Cathy Vatterott, an associate education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who has studied the issue.

Trustees in Danville, Calif., eliminated homework on weekends and vacations last year. Palo Alto officials banned it over winter break. Officials in Orange, where Rachel Bennett attends school, are reminding teachers about limits on homework and urging them not to assign it on weekends. A private school in Hollywood has done away with book reports.

“As adults, if every book we ever read, we had to write a report on -- would that encourage our reading or discourage it?” asked Eileen Horowitz, head of school at Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School. “We realized we needed to rethink that.”

Nancy Ortenberg is happy about the change.

“Homework is much more meaningful now,” said Ortenberg, whose daughter Isabelle, 9, was in school before the policy took effect in 2007. Before the change, it was a chore for her daughter, but “now she reads for the pure joy of reading.”

Homework was once hugely controversial. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, social commentators and physicians crusaded against it, convinced it was causing children to become wan, weak and nervous.

In a 1900 article titled “A National Crime at the Feet of American Parents” in the Ladies’ Home Journal, editor Edward Bok wrote, “When are parents going to open their eyes to this fearful evil? Are they as blind as bats, that they do not see what is being wrought by this crowning folly of night study?”


California was at the vanguard of the anti-homework movement. In 1901, the California Legislature banned it for students under 15 and ordered high schools to limit it for older students to 20 recitations a week. The law was taken off the books in 1917.

Homework has fallen in and out of favor ever since, often viewed as a force for good when the nation feels threatened -- after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, for example, and during competition with Japan in the 1980s.

The homework wars have reignited in recent years, with parents around the nation arguing that children are being given too much.

Much of the debate is driven by the belief that today’s students are doing more work at home than their predecessors. But student surveys do not bear that out, said Brian Gill, a senior social scientist with Mathematica Policy Research.

Instead, in today’s increasingly competitive race for college admission, student schedules are increasingly packed with clubs, sports and other activities in addition to homework, Gill said. Students -- and parents -- may just have less time, he said.

Not all object, however.

“Obviously we want to think it’s busywork, but most of the time it’s really helpful,” said Allison Hall, 16, a junior at Villa Park High in the Orange district. Allison, who is taking five Advanced Placement classes, has up to three hours of homework a night; she also is on the cross country, track and mock trial teams and does volunteer work.


But others say there is just too much, especially for younger children. Karen Adnams of Villa Park has four children. She said that heavier course loads make sense for older children but that she doesn’t understand the amount of work given in lower grades.

“I think teachers have lost touch with what a third-grader or a fifth-grader can really do,” she said.

Vatterott, a former principal, said she became interested in the subject a decade ago as a frustrated parent. Her son, who has a learning disability, was upset by assignments he didn’t understand and couldn’t complete in a reasonable time.

She decided to study the effectiveness of homework. That research showed that more time spent on such work was not necessarily better.

Vatterott questioned the quantity and the quality of assignments. If 10 math problems could demonstrate a child’s grasp of a concept, why assign 50, she asked? The solution, she said, was not to do away with homework but to clarify the reasons for assigning it.

Some schools, among them Grant Elementary in Glenrock, Wyo., have gone further. Principal Christine Hendricks had grown concerned that students were spending too much time on busywork and that homework was causing conflicts between parents and children and between teachers and students. So she got rid of it last year except for reading and studying for tests.


“My philosophy, even when I was a teacher, is if you work hard during the day, I don’t like to work at night. Kids are kind of the same way,” she said.

Other districts, including San Ramon Valley Unified in Danville, Calif., have taken a more nuanced approach.

Since San Ramon revised its homework policy last year, the youngest students are given no more than 30 minutes a night; high school students have up to three hours of work. District trustees also decided that aside from reading, no homework should be given to elementary and middle school students on weekends or vacations.

In the Orange Unified School District, trustee John Ortega grew concerned about the workload carried by his middle school daughter. “We would have a swim meet all weekend, and she would be worried about coming home and having to finish homework,” he said. “She was stressed about it.”

After speaking with other parents, Ortega raised the subject publicly in the fall, prompting a series of discussions in the district. It turned out that although the board had set limits on homework, they were not always followed, said Marsha Brown, assistant superintendent of educational services. She said teachers have now been informed about the policy and principals are working to clarify the purpose of homework.

Brown said children’s social growth must be nurtured alongside their academic development. “We don’t want just academic children. We want them involved in sports and music and art and family time and downtime,” she said. “We want well-rounded citizens. I think we will always be struggling with that balance.”