How Much is Too Much Homework?
By Jacqueline V. Scott
One afternoon last July, a 7-year-old Catonsville girl stood in her living room
crying so loudly that a neighbor across the street could hear her through the
When asked by her mother why she was so tearful, the little girl, who was
entering second grade in the fall, cried even louder.
“I don’t want to go to second grade!” she exclaimed. “I am afraid there’s going
to be too much homework! And it’s going to be too hard!”
Unsure of how to respond, the girl’s mom just hugged her daughter and told her
it was too early to worry about such things and that she should enjoy the rest
of her summer.
While the timing of this little girl’s meltdown may seem unusual, her anxiety
about homework is not. Every school year, parents and students become stressed
by the demands of homework.
Books such as The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Children
and What Parents Can Do About It by Sara
Bennett and Nancy Kalish (Three Rivers Press, 2007) and The Homework
Myth by Alfie Kohn (Da Capo Lifelong Books,
2006) spend hundreds of pages discussing how excessive or irrelevant homework
has caused unnecessary stress in the home, taken away from family time, contributed
to the national obesity epidemic, and, for the most part, has not had a
significant impact on the academic achievement of our children.
In fact, according to studies cited in both books, at least half of the parents
surveyed have admitted to having at least one argument with their children
In graduate school, prospective teachers are taught that homework should be an
extension of the lessons taught that day—to reinforce and extend the
child’s learning experience. Most parents and students agree that when used in
this context, homework can be beneficial.
However, when kids get bogged down with hours and hours of homework, other
areas of their lives suffer.
Kathy Valentine, a Catonsville mother of three, says her family had to give up a
Wednesday night church activity due to the amount of homework her fourth grader
was bringing home.
“Though [my daughter] works quickly, the rush in getting dinner and out the
door on time caused the family such anxiety that we had to abandon the church activity
altogether,” notes Valentine.
Valentine, who is certified to teach elementary and middle school, stresses
that she is not against homework assignments.
“It is helpful in giving parents an idea of what their children are learning in
school,” she says. “It also gives parents an opportunity to detect a child’s
strengths and weaknesses in subject matter and then partner with the teacher in
addressing those areas.”
Valentine’s daughter, Natalie, now in sixth grade, says she has experienced
frustration when it comes to homework assignments.
Sometimes, she says, teachers have assigned homework without fully explaining
it. Other times, she has gone through periods where it seemed like she was
getting the same homework sheets every night.
“They would vary a little bit, but we already felt like we knew [the skill],”
describes Natalie. “It just didn’t make that much sense to me.”
She adds, however, that there have been times when homework has allowed her to
reflect on what she learned that day, which she finds rewarding.
Parents of public school children who are curious about homework
requirements for specific grades can call their local board of education or
look up the homework policy on the county’s website.
According to the Baltimore County Public Schools website, students in grades 1
to 3 should expect to be assigned homework at least three times a week (none on
weekends or holidays) for an average of 30 minutes a day. Grades 4 and 5 should
receive an average of 60 minutes a day, for four to five days a week, in
addition to some long-term assignments.
Students in grades 6 to 8 can expect an average of 20 to 30 minutes per subject
combined (but no longer than 90 minutes per day) five times per week. High
school students should expect an average of 30 minutes per subject, but no
longer than three hours per day, five times per week. In addition, middle
schoolers and high schoolers should also expect long-term projects.
Keep in mind, however, that even “30 minutes of homework” can easily turn into
hours, especially if that child is resistant to doing homework after a long day
or has trouble understanding it.
John McCaul, a former principal at St. Agnes School in Catonsville and current
assistant principal at Loyola Blakefield in Towson, says that, while there is a
definite place for homework in the development of a student, educators and
parents must realize that a well-rounded child means allowing that child to
participate in a variety of activities.
“Sometimes parents and teachers confuse a heavy homework load with academic
rigor,” says McCaul, who spent five years as the principal at St. Agnes.
Under his leadership, McCaul says the goal at St. Agnes was to assign first
graders about 10 minutes of homework each night. As grades advanced, students
would receive longer assignments. However, he says, parents were told that
homework time should not be a time of stress.
“One of the things we told parents was that, if you spent a ton of time on
homework and it was time for bed, then [the child should] go to bed, and the
parents should write a note to the teacher.”
McCaul says kids who are spending too much time on homework can easily miss out
on activities that are just as valuable.
“I think there is a real value in being outdoors, and there is a value in being
in the band and playing sports. It’s about finding balance—their lives
should not revolve around just sports or
Still, he says, homework is not unnecessary.
“My sense is that I would disagree with Alfie Kohn and [his book] The
Case Against Homework, because there is
real value in good homework. Just like good schools and good teachers bring out
the best in children and bad schools can really damage children. Homework can
do the same thing.”
At Garrison Forest School, a private school from preschool through grade 12 in
Owings Mills, students don’t receive homework assignments until first grade,
when they are asked to complete about 20 minutes per evening.
Elizabeth “Zibby” Andrews, head of the lower division, says homework can be
beneficial, especially when students are practicing the skills they learned in
school. Writing, learning math facts, and reading are all skills that can be
taught at school but need to be practiced at home, she says.
She adds that homework is also helpful in letting parents know what their
children are learning in school.
Still, Andrews says, there have been times in the lower school when students
seem overwhelmed by assignments and do not complete them or simply forget.
Those cases, she says, are not met with punishment. Rather, the school sends an
“alert” home to be signed by the parent.
“After two to three homework alerts, I will sit down with the student and the
parents and figure out what is going on,” Andrews says. “There is always a
reason, and usually it is not because the child is being defiant.”
This is not always the case in other schools. In some public schools, students
are held inside for recess because they did not complete a homework assignment
or they forgot to get a paper signed. This can create even more stress on a
child who is frustrated about completing homework assignments.
Getting It Done
Parents can help their children tackle assignments by providing the
time, space, and few distractions while their kids complete their homework. If
kids are too stressed or too tired to complete an assignment, parents should
not hesitate to contact the teacher to let him or her know what is going on.
Sometimes direct communication with a teacher can avoid tension later on.
However, because most students don’t come home until late afternoon (sometimes
as late as 4 p.m.), they are simply too taxed to think about doing more work.
Dorothy Noble, a Baltimore County mother of three boys, offers this: “Children
need to be well-rounded, and giving them the free time after school to take
music lessons, participate in Scouts or sports is critical to their overall
development. Schools should focus more on the holistic development of the
child, and offer more clubs and other activities as opposed to assigning homework
that is graded—but rarely reviewed—by the teacher in class.” BC
©Baltimore’s Child Inc. Nov 2007