The Homework Ate My Family

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PHOTOGRAPHS FOR TIME BY ANNE HAMERSKY

NAME: Molly Benedict
SUBJECT: Homework

TIME followed a San Francisco sixth-grader for one busy week

It's a typical Tuesday afternoon in early January for 11-year-old Molly Benedict, a sixth-grader at Presidio Middle School in San Francisco. When she gets home from school at 3:30, she heads straight for the basement of her family's two-story house, flips on her computer and bangs out a one-page book report on J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. After half an hour of work, Molly takes the paper upstairs and gives it to her mother Libby for proofreading. As Molly nibbles a snack of a bagel and orange-spice tea, Mom jots some corrections. "Why don't you say, 'This is the best book I ever read,'" Libby suggests. "Teachers really like strong opinions like that."

Time to kick back, call a few friends and get ready for Felicity, right? Not even close. Next Molly pulls out her math assignment: more than 100 fraction and long-division problems. Once she slogs through those, Molly labels all the countries and bodies of water on a map of the Middle East. And she's not through yet: she then reviews a semester's worth of science, including the ins and outs of the circulatory system.

By 5:30, after doing two hours of homework, Molly sits down at the piano and practices for an hour. She'll barely have enough time to eat dinner and touch up that book report before crashing. "With less work I think we could learn what we're learning now," Molly says. "But I don't think it's too overwhelming." The strain of homework weighs more heavily on her mother. "I didn't feel [stressed] until I was in my 30s," says Libby, 43. "It hurts my feelings that my daughter feels that way at 11."

Most of us remember homework, if we remember it at all, as one of the minor annoyances of growing up. Sure, we dreaded the multiplication tables and those ridiculous shoe-box dioramas. But let's admit it: we finished most of our assignments on the bus ride to school--and who even bothered with the stuff until after the requisite hours had been spent alphabetizing baseball cards, gabbing on the phone or watching reruns of Gilligan's Island?

Kids today have scant time for such indulgences. Saddled with an out-of-school curriculum chock-full of Taekwondo lessons, ceramics workshops and bassoon practice, America's youngsters barely have time to check their e-mail before hunkering down with homework. On the whole, U.S. students come home with more schoolwork than ever before--and at a younger age. According to researchers at the University of Michigan, 6-to-9-year-olds in 1981 spent 44 min. a week on homework; in 1997 they did more than two hours' worth. The amount of time that 9-to-11-year-olds devoted to homework each week increased from 2 hr. 49 min. to more than 3 1/2 hr.

After some historical ups and downs, homework in this country is at a high-water mark. In the early decades of the century progressive educators in many school districts banned homework in primary school in an effort to discourage rote learning. The cold war--specifically, the launch of Sputnik in 1957--put an end to that, as lawmakers scrambled to bolster math and science education in the U.S. to counter the threat of Soviet whiz kids. Students frolicked in the late 1960s and '70s, as homework declined to near World War II levels. But fears about U.S. economic competitiveness and the publication of A Nation at Risk, the 1983 government report that focused attention on the failings of American schools, ratcheted up the pressure to get tough again. Other forces have kept the trend heading upward: increasing competition to get into the best colleges and the batteries of statewide standardized tests--starting in grade school in a growing number of states--for which teachers must prepare their pupils.

The homework crunch is heard loudest in the country's better middle-class school districts, where parents push their kids hard and demand that teachers deliver enough academic rigor to get students into top secondary schools and colleges. Now there's a blowback: the sheer quantity of nightly homework and the difficulty of the assignments can turn ordinary weeknights into four-hour library-research excursions, leave kids in tears and parents with migraines, and generally transform the placid refuge of home life into a tense war zone. "The atmosphere in the house gets very frustrated," says Lynne O'Callaghan, a mom in Portland, Ore., whose daughter Maeve, 8, does two hours of homework a night. "Some days it's just a struggle. Who wants it that way?" Laura Mandel, a mother of three in Warren, N.J., feels similarly embattled. "It's ironic that politicians talk so much about family values," says Mandel, "when you can't have any family time anymore because the kids are so busy keeping their nose to the grindstone."

While kids grow more frazzled, parents are increasingly torn. Just how involved should they be? Should they help a son or daughter finish that geography assignment, or stay aloof and risk having a frustrated, sleep-deprived child? Should they complain to teachers about the heavy workload or be thankful that their kids are being pushed toward higher achievement? Battles over homework have become so intense that some school districts have decided to formally prescribe the amount of homework kids at each grade level should receive. All of which leaves open the questions of just how much and what kind of homework is best. Though there's evidence that homework does improve academic performance, at least in the junior high and high school years, its true value may be more subtle. It encourages good study habits and acclimates students to self-directed work--but only when it's not so oppressive that it turns them off school altogether.

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