The Worsening Homework Problem

My son does an average of five or six hours of homework every night. Is this normal?

A drawing of a person crushed by a stack of giant books
Elena Xausa
a squiggly pencil

Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at homeroom@theatlantic.com.


Dear Abby and Brian,

My son, who is in ninth grade, is a really good student, but I’m worried he’s working far too much. He does an average of five or six hours of homework every weeknight, and that’s on top of spending most of the weekend writing essays or studying for tests. His school says that each of his five main classes (English, history, math, language, and science) can assign no more than 30 minutes a night and that electives can assign no more than one hour a week. That should look like something around three hours a night, which is a lot but at least more manageable.

On some nights, a math problem set can take him more than two hours, and then, after 8 p.m. and sometimes after 9, he turns to his English reading, science textbook, Spanish paragraph, or history outline. He’s working until after midnight and then up at 6 a.m. to get ready for school, beyond exhausted. Is this normal?

How much homework should students be assigned?

Margaret
Denver


Dear Margaret,

Homework—when assigned in appropriate amounts and with the right goals in mind—is an indispensable tool for educators. But students should never be put in the position of having to choose between their academic success and their overall well-being.

To understand what constitutes the right amount of homework, we should be clear on what it’s meant to accomplish. We believe it should perform four basic functions. First, homework should be assigned in order to make the most of class time. In an English class, for example, teachers need to ask students to read at home in order to do the important work of leading in-class discussions. Second, at-home assignments help students learn the material taught in class. Students require independent practice to internalize new concepts. Third, these assignments can provide valuable data for teachers about how well students understand the curriculum. Finally, homework helps students acquire the skills needed to plan, organize, and complete their work.

Unfortunately, many schools assign homework for its own sake, in amounts that are out of proportion to these basic functions—a problem that seems to have gotten worse over the past 20 years. This isn’t necessarily intentional. Some of your son’s teachers probably underestimate the time it takes their students to complete assignments. But your description makes clear that homework has taken over your son’s life. That’s why he should make sure to tell his teachers that he’s been working past the nightly limits prescribed by the school.

Additionally, he should use those limits for his own well-being: If he can’t get through a math worksheet in half an hour, he should stop, draw a line after the final problem he was able to complete, and talk with his teacher the following day. That way he will be able to spread his time more evenly among classes, and his teachers will get a better sense of how long their homework is taking. Sometimes teachers aren’t aware of how much other work our students have on their plate, not to mention their extracurricular responsibilities. Fill us in! Most teachers would prefer to recalibrate our students’ workload than find ourselves responsible for keeping them up so late.

But the goodwill of individual teachers may not be enough to solve the issue. Schools have any number of incentives to assign a lot of work, one of which is the pernicious assumption that “good” schools provide as much of it as their students can pack into a day. If your son’s workload doesn’t get lighter after he talks with his teachers, contact the administration and explain the situation. Hopefully this will prompt a larger conversation within the school about the reasons to assign homework in the first place—and the reasons not to.


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