New school year, same homework battles

Miami Herald

With the start of school on Monday, this photo illustration captures the soon-to-be future for many Miami-Dade students, whose heads are about to be again buried in homework.
With the start of school on Monday, this photo illustration captures the soon-to-be future for many Miami-Dade students, whose heads are about to be again buried in homework.

It’s 6 p.m. and the kids are just getting home from after-school care. Dinner needs to be cooked. Showers must be taken, uniforms laid out and lunches made.

But first, there are homework battles to be fought.

“The homework is crazy. It’s crazy. It’s really difficult and long,” said Mary Padilla, who has a daughter in public school entering third grade. “Sometimes it’s so overwhelming that she just can’t handle the homework, even with a tutor helping her.”

The beginning of the school year on Monday marks the return to homework. Late into the evenings, on weekends and even during vacations, Miami-Dade parents say slogging through the demands of homework sparks friction in households and cuts into time for family, friends and extracurriculars.

I feel like they don’t play enough, like they don’t have time to be kids. It’s always, ‘C’mon. Work, work, work.’

Roxane van de Put, who has two children attending Miami-Dade public schools

But the fights, the tears, the nagging — it’s all worth it, right? Doesn’t homework help kids learn?

Maybe not. Harris Cooper of Duke University, considered one of the country’s leading researchers on the topic, has concluded that “there is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.”

For older students, surveys and studies have shown that assigning homework requires Goldilocks-like balance to be academically useful. Too easy, and kids can become disengaged. Too hard, and test scores may actually decrease. Too time-consuming, and a student’s health can suffer.

Still, the assignments keep coming.

Survey says: Too much homework

More than 100 parents responded to a Miami Herald inquiry about homework in late fall, and 84 percent said their child has too much.

In an unscientific survey by the Herald, about 35 parents logged their child’s homework load for a week. Most respondents — 39 percent — said their kids were spending between one and two hours a day completing assignments at home. The vast majority of parents said their children were in public elementary schools, with many from Sunset Elementary, a high-performing magnet in the wealthy Coral Gables area.

Some parents said their kindergartners — 5- and 6-year-olds — had an hour or more of homework.

Ruth Ewing described nights when her kindergartner would fall asleep at the computer while doing homework into the evening.

“They are so exhausted they don’t have the ability to concentrate any more and you’re forcing them to,” said Ewing, a vet pathologist in Miami. “You have the push back of, ‘I want to play with my dolls. I want to unwind.’ 

Parents reported taking textbooks along on ski trips, skipping baseball practices and missing family get-togethers — all because of homework. Roxane van de Put worries about the impact it has on her two children attending Miami-Dade public schools.

“I think in the long term it’s not good for them in the sense that they’re very tired,” she said. “I feel like they don’t play enough, like they don’t have time to be kids. It’s always, ‘C’mon. Work, work, work.’ 

The Miami-Dade school district has a homework policy that calls for “meaningful” assignments. It includes recommendations for the number of minutes students should spend completing homework every day. The policy calls for:

▪ 30 minutes of homework in kindergarten and first grade;

▪ 45 minutes in second and third grade;

▪ 60 minutes in fourth and fifth grade;

▪ 75 minutes in middle school; and

▪ 120 minutes in high school.

The policy was updated last year, taking parent feedback into account. Marie Izquierdo, the district’s chief academic officer, knows that won’t make the homework debate go away.

“Sometimes you’ll have parents who think the rigor of a school is weighed by homework,” she said. “And then you have parents who think their kids have too much homework.”

Many school districts across the country have similar policies. The national PTA and National Education Association recommend the “10-minute rule,” which prescribes 10 minutes of homework per grade level. So kindergartners would get none, and fifth-graders would be assigned up to 50 minutes while seniors in high school would complete 120 minutes.

Miami-Dade parents said homework loads consistently surpass those recommendations — and the district’s. That’s especially so in the spring when standardized tests loom. Stakes are high: Schools and teachers can earn money, or face consequences, based on how well students perform on the Florida Standards Assessments.

Sometimes you’ll have parents who think the rigor of a school is weighed by homework. And then you have parents who think their kids have too much homework.

Marie Izquierdo, Miami-Dade chief academic officer

Others say the shift to new, tougher learning standards has led to increased homework demands. Last school year was the first time the Florida Standards were fully implemented, forcing teachers to shift lessons and cover different material than they’re used to.

Add to that the fact that teachers tend to underestimate how much homework they assign, according to surveys.

“I think that the teachers are very assessment-focused and they have to get certain things done in a certain period of time to get ready for whatever the Florida Standards test is going to be,” said Lee Weirich, who has two children in Miami-Dade public schools. “I think they just sort of feel this is another way for them to get the material taught.”

But, like most parents interviewed by the Miami Herald, Weirich was reluctant to blame teachers. Instead, they point to education policies that hold teachers accountable for test scores and dictate what should go on in the classroom.

“I’m a big believer in having high standards and challenging kids, but I don’t know that homework is the way to do it. I think the real reason is metrics,” said David H. Pollack, whose daughter attends Sunset Elementary. Why are teachers being held slaves to metrics?”

Izquierdo acknowledged the pressure teachers are under. Though course curricula are designed to cover the full 180 days of the school year, students are faced with cumulative tests weeks before the school year ends — putting everyone in a crunch.

“It’s this constant tension to steal time,” she said.

A time eater

Nationally, research has produced mixed results on the question of whether today’s kids are really spending more time on homework than previous generations.

One commonly cited study from the University of Michigan found that the youngest students — ages 6, 7 and 8 — have double the amount of homework than their peers of the 1980s did. For older students, however, some studies have shown that the load has remained about the same as that of their parents.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that elementary and middle school kids spend almost five hours a week on homework. In high school, it’s closer to seven hours a week.

But affluent students at high-achieving high schools may have it worse. They spend more than three hours a night on homework, according to a study co-authored by Denise Pope, co-founder of the Challenge Success Center at Stanford University. All that homework may be counterproductive.

“If you look at the past research that shows if homework is useful and helpful for academic achievement, you get really mixed reviews when it gets to over two hours at the high school level,” she said.

Pope and co-authors Mollie Galloway and Jerusha Conner surveyed more than 4,000 high school students in communities where household income exceeds $90,000. In response to open-ended questions, teens identified homework as the number one stressor in their lives.

The impact plays out physically, mentally and emotionally. Teens reported sleep deprivation, headaches and a lack of time for family and friends.

Parents should step back

In the younger grades, much of the stress around homework comes from the friction it causes between parents and kids. That’s why, experts say, the best thing for parents to do is step back.

“I say to parents over and over again: It’s not your homework,” said Dr. Jeffrey Brosco, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Parents should make sure kids have a suitable place to do their work and help with time management when it comes to deadlines. But don’t hover, Brosco says.

“If the true value of homework is that the child is able to learn independence, then the parents undermine it by making sure it gets done,” he said. “If the child does it, that’s fine. But if they don’t, that’s the teacher’s responsibility.”

Pope, who also co-authored a recently released book called Overloaded and Underprepared, said parents should steer away from getting involved in the academic content.

Correcting wrong math problems or editing book reports can mislead teachers into believing a child has mastered the content. Or, it can confuse children who may have been taught one way at home but another way in school.

“We use a soccer analogy. You would never cross over on the soccer field and start moving your child’s legs to kick that ball,” she said. “You’re a cheerleader on the sidelines. The same thing goes for homework.”

Izquierdo, the Miami-Dade academic officer, encouraged parents to talk to teachers if homework demands become overwhelming. But first, she said to look at what’s going on at home: Does your kid have a quiet place to work? Is she checking social media or watching TV while trying to finish assignments? That could all contribute to more (unproductive) time spent on homework.

“We all have a responsibility,” she said. “It’s not just the teacher. It’s not just the kid.”

Related stories from Miami Herald