America, We Do Not Have a ‘Too Much Homework’ Problem
If this op-ed from The New York Times is to be believed, American education suffers from placing overambitious expectations onto children, subjecting them to grueling schedules of AP classes combined with hours and hours of homework and extracurriculars.
Vicki Abeles, a filmmaker who helmed the documentary “Road to Nowhere,” writes that such punishing environments are driving children to anxiety and depression because they are buckling under the weight of all the pressure to succeed, to win acceptance into the right college, to land good jobs.
Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at UCLA, wrote a review in The New York Times praising Abeles’ book on the crippling stress students face, writing, “She points out that homework has been around for centuries, but since when did it become normal for children as young as 6 and 7 to be burdened with hours of it each night?”
Except available data doesn’t bear out this assertion—and it is just that, an assertion, with no evidence supporting Noguera’s claim—of children buried under piles of assignments, crippled by the weighty expectations thrust upon them by their schools.
What ails American education isn’t a surfeit of demands, but a lack of them.
It’s worth asking what sorts of schools create these intense environments for students. The school Abeles cites in her op-ed, Irvington High School, in Fremont, California, is a highly rated magnet school that does not receive Title I funding since only 18 percent of its student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. We are not exactly talking about the typical American school here.
The phenomenon Abeles and Noguera depict couldn’t be farther from the truth of what goes on at most schools, especially those serving students of color and the poor. These kids aren’t getting crushed with homework and AP/IB classes to get them ready for Stanford; they’re probably being told they’re lucky to snag a low-paying retail job after graduation. The expectations set for them are so low, these children are discouraged from even thinking college, let alone Stanford, is a viable option.
Jay Mathews, a longtime education reporter for The Washington Post, took on the homework myth, a fiction that persists thanks to the attention-grabbing headlines periodically popping up in newspapers and magazines when they deign to cover education in any meaningful way. (Note that Silicon Valley schools such as Irvington, paragons of affluence with kids by the dozen vying for spots at the Ivies or Stanford, tend to be part of these stories.)
According to Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, the national conversation about homework has been hijacked by a small group of people—about 15 percent—determined to reduce after-school assignments even though most of us think the homework load is fine or should be heavier.
During the past three decades, the homework load “has remained remarkably stable,” Loveless said, except for 9-year-olds “primarily because many students who once did not have any now have some.” He said, “NAEP data do not support the idea that a large and growing number of students have an onerous amount of homework.”
The Brookings report further elaborates on the misleading, and rather unpopular, narratives perpetuated by the anti-homework contingent:
Homework typically takes an hour per night. The homework burden of students rarely exceeds two hours a night. The upper limit of students with two or more hours per night is about 15 percent nationally—and that is for juniors or seniors in high school. For younger children, the upper boundary is about 10 percent who have such a heavy load. Polls show that parents who want less homework range from 10-20 percent, and that they are outnumbered—in every national poll on the homework question—by parents who want more homework, not less. The majority of parents describe their children’s homework burden as about right.
Another study, from the American Journal of Family Therapy, says that while younger children are assigned too much homework (30 minutes is onerous?), most high school students get less than an hour a night. Do we really believe this is anything close to adequate preparation for college?
We suffer from a belief gap in this country. Our own poll actually found that half of all parents believe that all children have access to the same quality of education in our public school system regardless of background, race or income—which means we have a lot of work to do around persuading parents from all backgrounds that school inequity is a problem nationwide.
Our schools reinforce the belief gap. For example, a 2012 report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that “many schools are not challenging students and large percentages of students report that their school work is ‘too easy.’” Also, “many students are not engaged in rigorous learning activities.”
The learning environments described by CAP’s report seem less like the pressure cookers asserted by Abeles in her op-ed and more akin to slow—verrrrry slow—cookers.
Thirty-nine percent of 12th-grade students, for example, say that they hardly ever or only once or twice a month write about what they read in class. Nearly one-third said they write long answers on reading tests two times a year or less. Moreover, almost one-third of 12th-grade reading students say they rarely identify main themes of a passage when reading, and almost 20 percent said they never or hardly ever summarize a passage.
These sobering numbers are piled on top of what has also long been true—minority students still lag well behind their peers in taking AP classes. These kids are steered away from coursework that could challenge them.
Far from enforcing a culture of unhealthy ambition and workloads, the vast majority of American schools do the opposite: They tell children to barely try.
Too much homework seems like a luxury problem of the sliver of the population whose schools actually expect a lot from their students. If more schools actually pushed kids, we’d see the progress we’ve all been clamoring for.
Let’s not manufacture crises. Let’s deal with the underreported one we have.
This was written by Vicki Abeles, director of the documentary “Race to Nowhere,”and Abigail A. Baird, associate professor of psychology at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. Baird’s primary area of research focuses on the neurophysiology of adolescence.
By Vicki Abeles and Abigail Baird, Ph. D
This coming week most of us will lose an hour of sleep as we set our clocks ahead for Daylight Saving Time. But imagine if you lost an hour of sleep — or even more — every night of your life. That’s what it’s like for our nation’s teens, who are facing an epidemic of sleep deprivation.
How bad is it? “Every single high school student I have ever measured in terms of their alertness is a walking zombie,” says Cornell sleep expert James Maas. It’s a description that will sound familiar to the parents of pretty much any teenager.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, American teenagers require about 9-1/4 hours of sleep a night, yet only 8 percent of them are getting it. A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that as much as two-thirds of high school students get less than seven hours of sleep nightly.
If it was just a matter of early-morning fogginess this wouldn’t be a big deal, but sleep deprivation in teens has been linked to lower levels of Human Growth Hormone, which is integral to a teenager’s physical growth, brain development, and maturation of their immune system, as well as higher rates of anxiety disorders and depression. A 2010 study in the journal Sleep found that teenagers who go to bed after midnight are 24 percent more likely to suffer from depression and 20 percent more likely to consider harming themselves than those who go to bed before 10:00 p.m.
As parents we may applaud a high-schooler who has the dedication to stay up until 1:00 a.m. doing homework, but research shows that teens who don’t get enough sleep perform less well during the school day. The student who revises her essay long into the night to get an A+ in English will grasp less of what’s being taught the next day in Algebra.
In a study of fourth and sixth graders conducted by sleep researcher Dr. Avi Sadeh at Tel Aviv University, a mere one-hour nightly loss of sleep was “equivalent to the loss of two years of cognitive maturation and development.” In other words, when deprived of just one hour of sleep each night, a sleep-deprived sixth-grader performed like a fourth grader. That’s not progress.
Not only is too little sleep affecting teens, but so is their means of staying awake. Many rely on coffee, caffeinated soda, and energy drinks. Some take Adderall or amphetamines. In Massachusetts and New York they can now stay up with the help of a lipstick-sized canister of inhalable caffeine. The Journal of Pediatrics recently concluded that energy drinks are “never appropriate for children or adolescents,” citing the harmful “neurologic and cardiovascular” impact of caffeine on teenagers.
So how can we help stop our kids from racing on empty and losing years of essential sleep? The first step is to realize how much we contribute to perpetuating a work ethic that celebrates pushing ourselves and our children to the limits. We need to treat sleep as essential to our teenagers’ well-being and success by teaching them that sleep is as important as nutrition, exercise, studying, and free time. Over the past several years we’ve created national guidelines for eating and exercise, shouldn’t we do the same for sleep?
We can also make changes in our schools, like advocating for later high school start times. An adolescent’s brain works on a different circadian rhythm than that of adults — theirs thrives with later wake-up times. After the start time at a high school in Edina, Minnesota, was changed from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., verbal SAT scores for the top 10 percent of students increased by several hundred points. The increase could not be attributed to any variable other than later start times.
Schools should also adopt block schedules and bring back study halls, both of which reduce the number of classes students must prepare for each day and give them more in-school time to complete academic assignments rather than requiring them to put in a grueling “second shift” after school.
So as Daylight Savings Time kicks in and we lose our annual hour of sleep, let’s make a pledge to help our children get the sleep they need to be happy, healthy, and successful in school and in their lives.
Follow The Answer Sheet every day by bookmarking http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet.