My Daughter’s Homework Is Killing Me

What happens when a father, alarmed by his 13-year-old daughter's nightly workload, tries to do her homework for a week

My daughter has the misfortune of living through a period of peak homework.

It turns out that there is no correlation between homework and achievement. According to a 2005 study by the Penn State professors Gerald K. LeTendre and David P. Baker, some of the countries that score higher than the U.S. on testing in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study—Japan and Denmark, for example—give less homework, while some of those scoring lower, including Thailand and Greece, assign more. Why pile on the homework if it doesn’t make even a testable difference, and in fact may be harmful?

“It’s a response to this whole globalized, competitive process,” says Richard Walker, a co-author of the book Reforming Homework. “You get parents demanding their children get more homework because their children are competing against the whole world.”

The irony is that some countries where the school systems are held up as models for our schools have been going in the opposite direction of the U.S., giving less homework and implementing narrower curricula built to encourage deeper understanding rather than broader coverage.

In the U.S., or at least in the schools my daughters have attended, there has been no sign of teachers’ letting up on homework. According to a University of Michigan study, the average time spent weekly on homework increased from two hours and 38 minutes in 1981 to three hours and 58 minutes in 2004. Data from a 2007 National Center for Education Statistics survey showed American students between grades nine and 12 doing an average of 6.8 hours of homework a week—which sounds pretty reasonable compared with what my daughter is assigned—and 42 percent of students saying they have homework five or more days a week. Esmee has hours of homework every night. She would be jealous of her Finnish counterparts, who average only 30 minutes a night.

I’m not interested in No Child Left Behind. What I am interested in is what my daughter is doing between 8 o’clock and midnight, when she finally gets to bed.

Attitudes toward homework swing in cycles of roughly 30 years, according to Harris Cooper, a professor of education at Duke University and the author of The Battle Over Homework. We went from piling on the homework because of fears of a science gap brought on by Sputnik in the late 1950s, to backing off in the Woodstock generation of the ’70s amid worries about overstressing kids, to the ’90s fears of falling behind East Asian students. The current backlash against homework has been under way so long—expressed in books like 2006’s The Case Against Homework, by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, and in the 2009 documentary film Race to Nowhere—that we may now be living through a backlash against the backlash, at least in elite schools. “We’re in a heavy-homework part of the cycle,” Cooper says. “The increasing competition for elite high schools and colleges has parents demanding more homework.”

Back in California, when I raised the issue of too much homework on that e‑mail chain, about half the parents were pleased that someone had brought this up, and many had already spoken to the math teacher about it. Others were eager to approach school officials. But at least one parent didn’t agree, and forwarded the whole exchange to the teacher in question.

As the person who instigated the conversation, I was called in to the vice principal’s office and accused of cyberbullying. I suggested that parents’ meeting to discuss their children’s education was generally a positive thing; we merely chose to have our meeting in cyberspace instead of the school cafeteria.

He disagreed, saying the teacher felt threatened. And he added that students weren’t allowed to cyberbully, so parents should be held to the same standard.

I explained that we never intended for the teacher to read those notes. This was a forum where we were airing our concerns.

What was frustrating me was that the underlying issue of ridiculous amounts of busywork was getting buried beneath the supposed method we had used to discuss the issue.

Even when I showed the vice principal examples of the homework assignments, he didn’t see them as outside the usual in terms of content or time commitment.

I left believing I hadn’t solved the problem.

Yet something did change. Over the next few months, the math teacher assigned a more manageable workload. My daughter now went to bed before 10 o’clock most nights.

Thursday

Parent-teacher conferences at the Lab School are similar to what I imagine speed dating to be like. Each conference is three minutes, and parents can attend an afternoon or evening session. My wife and I choose the afternoon. The conferences are strictly first come, first served. At noon, my wife and I sit in chairs outside each classroom waiting our turn, sometimes for as long as 45 minutes. A student is supposed to be timing each conference, but the students often wander off, and the teachers ignore the parents’ knocking after three minutes.

In each conference, I urge the teachers to give less homework. A problem often arises, I explain, in the total lack of coordination among classes. A Humanities assignment requiring the kids to render in words, pictures, or both a scene from Angela’s Ashes, say, can take an hour or two, yet most teachers don’t seem to consider anything creative to be homework. The creative stuff, like drawing or writing a short story or preparing a scene from a play, is all extra, to be completed in addition to the hours of humanities, math, science, and Spanish.

The teachers usually respond in one of two ways. They nod sympathetically and agree that the kids do have a lot of work, as if they have nothing to do with the assigning of it. Or they say that time management is one of the skills that a successful high-school student will need, and if my daughter wants to perform in an elite high school, she had better learn that in middle school. Both answers amount to essentially the same argument: the vast amounts of homework are somehow handed down from on high, and mere teachers can do nothing to tamper with the ordained quantities.

Because I happen to be in the middle of my week of homework when this year’s parent-teacher conferences take place, I am uniquely equipped to discuss the work Esmee is doing. And over the years, I have noticed that the amount of homework does let up, slightly, after the conferences—if enough parents complain. However, there is always a clique of parents who are happy with the amount of homework. In fact, they would prefer more. I tend not to get along with that type of parent.

At a meeting with Esmee’s Earth Science teacher, I find out that my daughter has in fact not been giving me all the work. There is a worksheet, for example, requiring a reinterpretation and annotation of the rock cycle that Esmee never handed over. The teacher finds an extra copy for me. So I have another date with Tarbuck and Lutgens.

When I get home, Esmee tells me she got a C on her math homework from the night before because she hadn’t made an answer column. Her correct answers were there, at the end of each neatly written-out equation, yet they weren’t segregated into a separate column on the right side of each page. I’m amazed that the pettiness of this doesn’t seem to bother her. School is training her well for the inanities of adult life.

Our math homework this evening is practicing multiplying a polynomial by a monomial, and we breeze through it in about half an hour.

Then we have to translate some song lyrics from Spanish to English. Esmee’s Spanish teacher already told my wife and me in our conference this afternoon that she can tell when the kids use Google Translate—which is all the time. It’s a wonder: simply type in the lyrics, copy down the translation, and then, in an attempt to throw off the teacher, add a few mistakes. So Si te quedas a mi lado, si te subes en el tren, which Google renders as “If you stay by my side, if you get on the train,” becomes “If you stay by my side, if you go up on the train.”

Done.

And, at last, more Angela’s Ashes.

Total time: 1.5 hours

The more immersed I become in Esmee’s homework, the more reassured I am that the teachers, principals, and school-board members who are coming up with this curriculum are earnest about their work. They are making difficult decisions about what to teach or not teach in the limited class time they have. The overall education being imparted is secular, humanistic, multicultural, and intensely quantitative. The math Esmee is doing at 13, for example, is beyond what I was doing at that age. Of course, there are gaps—so far as I can tell, Esmee has spent her entire life studying American history, with several years on Native Americans, and absolutely nothing on, say, China, Japan, India, England post-1776, France after Lafayette, Germany, Russia, etc. Like many parents, I wish there was more emphasis on creative work, on writing assignments that didn’t require Esmee to use eight “transition words” and seven metaphors. This school has clearly made choices—these kids are going to get very good at algebra and maybe a little less good at creative writing. I can’t say I fault them in this, though I know what I would prefer to spend my days doing.

If Esmee masters the material covered in her classes, she will emerge as a well-rounded, socially aware citizen, a serious reader with good reasoning capabilities and a decent knowledge of the universe she lives in. What more can I ask of her school?

But are these many hours of homework the only way to achieve this metamorphosis of child into virtuous citizen? According to my daughter’s teachers, principals, and administrators, the answer is an emphatic yes. Certainly, they have told me, all the homework does no harm. As I watch my daughter struggle through school days on too little sleep and feel almost guilty if she wants to watch an hour of television instead of advancing a few yards in the trench warfare of her weekly homework routine, I have my doubts. When would she ever have time to, say, read a book for pleasure? Or write a story or paint a picture or play the guitar?

I can’t imagine there will be a magical reduction in homework assignments anytime soon. But what I will continue to do at every opportunity is remind teachers that if each is assigning an hour of homework a night, and the average kid is taking four or five academic classes, then that is simply an unrealistic cumulative workload. Give the kids a break. Once in a while. I don’t expect teachers to drastically curtail their assignments, just to occasionally lighten the load. Of course, I may just be balancing the scales against those parents asking for extra assignments for their child.

Has this worked? Well, it did in Brentwood, even if it took parental pressure. And though I can’t draw a causal line between my day of speed dating—I mean, going to parent-teacher conferences—at the Lab School and a reduction in homework assignments, it did seem to me that in the months afterward, Esmee was able to get more sleep. At least a couple of minutes’ worth.

Esmee just started high school. She has told me she feels that the many hours of homework in middle school have prepared her well. “There is no way they can give me more homework,” she reasons.

I have my doubts.

As for Lola: When it came time to select a middle school, she took the admissions test for Lab and listed it as her first choice, despite my telling her that in my view, the school is too rigidly focused on academics and assigns too much homework. Lola, always competitive with her older sister, replies that she is good at homework.

She’s going to need to be. She was accepted at Lab.

Friday

Lola is sleeping over at a friend’s house. Esmee hasn’t started her weekend homework yet. Instead, she’s watching episodes of Portlandia on her computer. The weekend homework includes another 15 algebra equations, studying for a Spanish test on Monday, and, of course, more Angela’s Ashes. She also has an algebra midterm on Tuesday. I tell Esmee that this seems strange—didn’t she just have an algebra midterm? She says that in her class, they have more than one midterm every term.

My wife and I decide to go out to dinner, and on our way up Hudson Street, we run into another couple we are close friends with. This couple’s oldest daughter also goes to Lab. She’s at home doing homework.

We stand on the sidewalk for a few minutes, chatting. The husband is smoking a joint, and he hands it over. I haven’t smoked in a few months, but it’s Friday night and I’ve been doing homework all week. I take a few tokes. We part ways, and my wife and I go to a Japanese restaurant, where, as soon as I am seated, I regret smoking. It’s going to be hell trying to do algebra tonight with the head I have on right now.

Nonetheless, when I’m home, I sit at the dining table and attempt to work my way through the polynomial worksheet. I am immediately lost in all the 2x(–3y5+ 3x2)6s. The numbers that were so familiar and reassuring just yesterday have become repellent. I realize, sitting there, failing to solve my algebra homework, that I have inadvertently yet perfectly re-created my own eighth-grade homework conditions: getting stoned, attempting math, and failing at it.

I consider my daughter, who to my knowledge has never smoked marijuana. That’s a good thing, I think in my hazy state. I wouldn’t wish this condition—attempting algebra when high—on anyone.

One of the reasons I believe my daughter hasn’t yet tried marijuana is because she simply doesn’t have the time.

I decide to give up on algebra for the night. It’s only Friday, and I have until Monday to finish my homework.

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