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The steady flood of homework can cause chronic weariness. Holly Manges, a high-achieving fifth-grader at the public Eastern elementary school in Lexington, Ohio, approached her mother earlier this school year close to tears. "Is it O.K. if I don't get all A's?" she asked. "I don't care anymore. I'm just too tired." Over time, that homework fatigue can pull at the fabric of families. As early as third grade, Rachel Heckelman, now 11, came home every day from her elementary school in Houston with three hours' worth of homework. The assignments were often so dizzyingly complex--one asked her to design an entire magazine--that Rachel looked for any way to procrastinate. Her mother Lissa tried banning TV for the night. When that didn't work, Lissa pleaded with increasing impatience. "I would get red in the face, and she would get defensive," Lissa says. Rachel's father typically removed himself from the fracas by repairing to the bedroom and shutting the door.
The frustrations that homework visits upon kids can irk their parents to the point of revolt. David Kooyman, of Covina, Calif., was so incensed about his three grade-schoolers' homework load that he exacted a pledge from their teachers not to lower his kids' grades if they didn't do assignments. When the kids found themselves lost in class discussions, Kooyman reluctantly allowed them to do the homework, but he is planning to sue the school district for violating his civil rights. "They have us hostage to homework," he grumbles. "I'm 47, and I have 25-year-old teachers telling me what to do with my home life."
Other parents are ambivalent. Many resent teachers for piling on projects that cut into unstructured family time. And yet the drive of middle- and upper-middle-class Americans to keep their children at the head of the class has never been more intense. The teachers who assign mountains of homework often believe they are bowing to the wishes of demanding parents. Says Jeana Considine, a fifth-grade teacher at Elm Elementary School in Hinsdale, Ill.: "The same parents who are complaining that they don't have enough family time would be really upset if their child didn't score well." Pepperdine University president David Davenport, father of a fourth-grader who clocks two hours of homework a night, sees a chain reaction: "The pressure to get into highly selective colleges and universities backs up into high school advanced-placement courses, which backs up to elementary schools." Anxious parents can rail about what teachers do in the classroom, but homework is still one area where parents can directly improve their child's chances.
So even those determined to remain passive observers while their kids labor over essays and science-fair projects can find themselves getting sucked in. "It's something I never wanted to do. I hated doing homework when I was a kid," says Lizanne Merrill, a New York City artist whose daughter Gracie is in second grade. But Gracie often trudges home with elaborate assignments that all but demand Merrill's involvement. A research paper assigned to be done over Christmas vacation required Gracie, 8, to do some fieldwork on sea turtles at the American Museum of Natural History. Mom went along: "I just tell myself, if I don't help out on her homework, what kind of deadbeat mother would I be?"