How much homework is enough? Since my oldest child won’t get her first homework assignment until January, I haven’t thought a lot about this question. My first instinct is to say the more the better. I went to a middle school where there was no homework and I learned very little in seventh and eighth grade. I went to a high school where there was a lot of homework and I learned a lot. But correlation doesn’t mean causation.
In a piece in the current issue of the Atlantic, Karl Taro Greenfeld makes the case that his middle school daughter’s homework burden is absurd. And he knows firsthand because for a week he tried to do all of her assignments. He estimates that she gets between three and five hours per night.
He asks readers:
Well, imagine if after putting in a full day at the office—and school is pretty much what our children do for a job—you had to come home and do another four or so hours of office work. Monday through Friday. Plus Esmee gets homework every weekend. If your job required that kind of work after work, how long would you last?
I won’t make any cracks here about being a working mother and the fact that this blog post is only getting written after my kids go to bed. Instead, I will say that this analogy is not completely apt. Assuming that Greenfeld’s daughter is attending a school something like my high school, we had a school day from 8 to 3. We usually had at least one free period in that time. We had a decent amount of time for lunch. After school, we played sports or rehearsed for plays.
It was all structured time but it wasn’t all classroom time. And I would say the best of my classmates did a good job of mastering time management during high school. Some work was completed during free periods. Some work was completed while other people were practicing their scenes. Some got done on the bus to soccer games. Some was done over the weekend. By the time we got through with dinner, the students who worked wisely and did not leave things for the last minute did not have four hours of homework.
Now I acknowledge that things may have gotten worse since I was in school. Greenfeld says when he was in high school he hung out at friends’ houses after school and smoked weed. I’m not sure that’s the best basis for comparison.
It could be, as he says, that much of this homework is busywork. And there is a whole movement afoot to have homework dropped entirely. But there is something important about having a kid do the work independently that makes it more likely they will succeed in college and afterward. I have spent a lot of time in the past few months interviewing kids who came from poor backgrounds and who attended private schools on scholarship. One of the reasons, they say, that they were college-ready, is that their high schools required them to do a lot of homework, to study independently, and to manage their time wisely.
Colleges offer students a lot of freedom these days—some might say too much freedom. But the kids who succeed, as David Brooks documented in his piece “The Organization Kid,” are the ones who are self-driven and who know how to keep up with all of their obligations. Even if it means they don’t get as much sleep as they should.