Parents, are there enough hours in the day for THAT much homework?

Homework is a topic that elicits emotional responses from parents and students of every background. Rarely do children and families approach homework with unbridled joy and enthusiasm, and at times, it can cause significant stress. There are only so many hours in the day and our students seem to be increasingly overscheduled and under-rested.

Most children spend at least 6.5 hours within a school building each weekday (some longer). Some say that is not nearly enough. It can certainly be argued that children need more time in school. But, what about the time outside of school, away from the academic environment, resources, and supports provided there? How is that time being spent?

It’s worth reflecting on a high school student’s schedule that includes in-school time, travel to and from school, after-school activities/sports, reading time, family dinner, and recommended sleep.

Let’s start with travel. Travel time to and from school can vary significantly. For some, it’s a five-minute walk. For others, particularly those escaping failing neighborhood schools or living in rural areas, travel time can be intense. For example, I worked with a Chicago high school student who woke at 4 a.m. to take public transportation to a public charter school. She often didn’t get home until 7:30 p.m. In rural areas, According to the Rural School and Community Trust, “it is not uncommon … to spend three to five hours a day on a school bus.”

After-school programs, sports, and activities can be enriching, healthy, and valuable on college transcripts. They also take time. For some sports, like football and basketball, practices can run well over two hours.

Reading—aloud to younger children and for pleasure for older students—is undeniably important. The recommended minimum amount of reading time outside of school, per day, is twenty minutes.

There are only 24 hours in a day and at least 9 of those for teens and 10 to11 for younger children should be spent getting necessary sleep. Yet, the National Sleep Association reports that less than half of students are getting that needed allotment, which can negatively affect concentration, mood, and academic achievement. Some 28 percent of children said they had trouble getting a restful sleep due to homework “at least once in the past week” on the same poll.

The average time spent doing homework for an American high school student? It’s complicated.

The averages reported vary. A 2014 poll of teachers says 3.5 hours for a high school student who takes five classes. A 2007 Metlife study reports that half of students say they spend an hour a night (only 6 percent reported spending more than 3 hours), while the National Center for Educational Statistics reports an average of 6.8 hours of homework per week.

If homework times are closer to the teacher poll of 3.5 hours, that doesn’t leave much time for family, de-compressing, essential sleep, bathing, or much else.

Let’s do the math for our hypothetical student: 30 min to get ready and have breakfast+ 6.5 hours in class + 1 hour travel (30 min there/ 30 min back) + 2.5 hours for football practice + 1 hour for dinner (albeit the average family meal is much shorter at 20 minutes) + 20 min of reading + 3.5 hours of homework + 9 hours of sleep = negative 20 minutes.

There literally are not enough hours in the day in this scenario.

In a society that already overworks its adults to the detriment of their well being, I seriously wonder if our children should be spending more hours doing school work (6.5 hours in class + 3.5 hours of homework = 10 hours) than the standard American work day. That said, the homework reality is probably less extreme for most students.

Is Homework a Luxury Item?

Though homework is a stressor that knows no boundaries, a recent Huffington Post article by Megan McGovern asks a significant question worth considering, “Is Homework for Rich Kids?” The piece makes strong points about why homework is a greater burden for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who may have parents who work night shifts and are unavailable to help (though research shows maybe they shouldn’t), no quiet space or supplies to complete their work, necessary after-school jobs, and/or more responsibility for caring for siblings and self care.

Anecdotally, my husband taught on the West Side of Chicago. I worked with students on the South Side. Between us, we knew students that were without electricity (it’s difficult to complete homework in the dark), homeless, or had to pick up younger siblings from school and provide meals. This does not factor the other emotional stressors that affected many of their lives, including violence and addiction.

This is not to say that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds can’t achieve at the highest levels. They can and they do. I am all about high expectations for every child. This is not a question of whether poverty trumps education, it’s about realities that must be factored when educators assign homework outside of the controlled school space. If 3.5 hours, 2 hours, or even an hour, of homework a night is too much for any child, than we owe it to our poorer students—shouldering more than they should—to know that and adjust.

How Much Homework is Recommended?

The actual research on homework is mixed. Some researchers claim homework increases academic outputs and develops critical life skills, while others report there is little evidence of significant value. Still others fall somewhere in the middle. A research review from the Center for Public Education asserts that “homework may benefit some students under certain conditions.”

Based on the leading evidence, some school districts and parents are embracing the recommendations of the NEA and the National Parent-Teacher Association: increasing ten-minute increments of homework starting in first grade that culminates in a maximum of 120 minutes a night for seniors in high school. It’s recommended that kindergartners receive no homework at all.

In reality, the time spent doing homework is oftentimes greater than the recommendations. According to an article in the New York Times, first graders and kindergartners are spending an average of 25 to 30 minutes a night on homework. As mentioned earlier, high school students are spending anywhere from under 1 hour to 3.5 hours a night on homework.

Even if we could assume that all homework assignments are carefully constructed and assigned to truly push student achievement, the amount of time these assignments take still matters.

It matters to family time, healthful and enriching activities, stress levels for young people juggling significant responsibilities, restful sleep, and frankly, family harmony. It matters to all kids and families, regardless of background.

Therefore, every district—with the input of educators, parents and students—wealthy and not, should be exploring all three questions: What kind? What for? And, how much?


Photo courtesy of KidSpot

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Katelyn Silva

Katelyn Silva

Katelyn Silva is mom to a preschooler, wife to a teacher, and a social justice seeker in Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the Chief Communications Officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the Communications Director at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

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