Julie S. was always happy to see her sons after school, but up until a few months ago she used to also feel some dread. That’s when the homework battles began. Her oldest—a freshman at a public high school in a suburb west of Austin—would immediately shut himself up in his room.
He was having trouble keeping up with the homework load, which could sometimes run three hours a night. To get him out of his room and into his studies, Julie had to cajole, beg and yell. It left her—and the whole family—exhausted.
“I didn’t want to shout at him at the end of the day. It set the tone for the rest of the evening,” she says. She began to worry that her son was depressed. “He didn’t have any down time,” she says.
But this past January, Julie found relief at a small private school, AESA Prep Academy in southwest Austin, which is designed to assign less homework and give students time for other afterschool pursuits. She says the transformation in her son and her entire household has been dramatic. “He’s not rushing to his room any more. He joins in with the family,” she says.
How Much Is Too Much?
Studies have come to varying conclusions about the value of homework, but many Austin educators, acknowledging that more homework does not necessarily mean that students are getting a better education, are trying to manage the assigned
The National PTA recommends keeping homework to 10 minutes per grade level per night (which would translate to 120 minutes, or 2 hours, for 12th graders). Austin ISD does not use a formula for determining appropriate amounts of homework; instead, it’s up to campus principals in collaboration with teachers to determine amounts of homework that “reflect what that campus values,” says Pauline Dow, AISD chief academic officer.
Dow does say, however, that in early elementary grades, students are often asked to read with parents for 15 to 20 minutes and maybe do a simple math assignment. “Daily homework at an early age gets them into the routine of reviewing what they’ve learned,” says Dow.
But as students get into middle and high school, loads can grow to three, four, even five hours a night, according to Austin parents. One mother says her high school senior has pulled an all-nighter at least once to meet all the demands. Many parents say they don’t have family dinners together on weekdays, or hardly see their kids Monday through Thursday evenings.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Education found that all this homework was having negative impacts on students’ health—sleep deprivation, headaches, exhaustion, weight loss and stomach problems. “Our findings…suggest that researchers, practitioners, students and parents unpack why the default practice of assigning heavy homework loads exists, in the face of evidence of its negative effects,” say the co-authors.
“Can you imagine in our own lives if we worked an eight hour day and then we had to come home and work three to four more?” says a mother whose three daughters are in 7th to 10th grades in Eanes School District. “We’d go crazy. This cannot be good for kids.”
Barbara Garza came to the same conclusion when her twin sons were in 6th grade at one of Austin’s elite private schools, where she served as a high school dean. They were playing high-level tennis and their lives were out of balance, she says, with little time to be together as a family. She started AESA Prep Academy in 2009 (AESA stands loosely for Academic Excellence for Scholars, Athletes and Artists) with the theory that a school can be academically rigorous without grueling homework loads.
The trick, she says, is to stay small; class size at AESA ranges from three to eight students. “Our teachers have time to have many meaningful exchanges with every student to make sure they are all mastering the material,” says Garza, who instructs teachers to keep homework assignments to no more than four hours a week for juniors and seniors. No homework is assigned for grades two through seven, except for studying for a test or working on a special project, such as science fair.
Other Austin institutions are trying new approaches to homework, as well. St. Andrew’s School, a private institution for grades 1 through 12, used to tell parents how much time they could expect their kids to be doing homework, but Kama Bruce, head of the lower school, says administrators have stopped giving out such guidelines because they found teachers felt they had to fill that time.
Now, teachers are asked to make sure what they’re assigning will enhance what students have learned in class. “To do more work is a big ask after eight hours at school,” says Bruce.
St. Andrew’s also tries to assign homework that isn’t due the very next day, but more in the medium future—either four to seven days out. This means students can choose times to get the work done that fit into their schedule, which helps develop time management skills, Bruce says.
At St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, another private institution for grades 6 through 12, parents are told that their high school students can expect a maximum of 45 minutes of homework per class per night—which is the length of an average class period. However, Kim Garey, academic dean, emphasizes that teachers do not give the maximum assignment every night. She also notes that students have free time during the day to accomplish much of their studies.
“Teachers have constant conversations about why we’re giving assignments, how it will help the students,” says Garey. “The goal is not to overwhelm them.” Indeed, Garey reports that the homework load at St. Stephen’s is actually less than it was 20 years ago.
One frequent complaint about homework is that projects often come due at the same time. “Some nights we get nailed with a mountain of it; other nights it can be light,” says a mother of three children in grades 6 through 12. “It’s hard to plan.”
St. Stephen’s has addressed this issue by making a master Google calendar with upcoming assignments available online. The rule is that if a teacher is adding a third project or test for that grade level, students can reschedule the due date.
Kill and Drill
Parents also grumble about homework that doesn’t seem relevant or is mindless (known as “kill and drill” work in educating circles) or feels like a substitute for learning in class. Most educators believe homework should reinforce or deepen lessons learned or prepare students for topics to be discussed in upcoming classes—especially in the case of reading literature for English class.
The big concern shared by parents and educators is that instead of fostering a love of learning, excessive homework can turn students off. “You cannot fabricate motivation and creativity but you can nurture it, and if you’re not careful you can destroy it,” says Bruce of St. Andrew’s.
Finding that line between helping and hurting is the challenge all schools face today.
Jeannie Ralston lives in Austin and is a mother of two. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including National Geographic, Real Simple and Texas Monthly.
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