On the last day of school this past June, another mom warned me at pickup: "Next year is hard-core."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"The homework. It's brutal," she confided. Flushed with panic, I stared at my daughter Blair, who'd just graduated into second grade.
Maybe I should have expected it. Almost every night during first grade, Blair had to read two beginner books, complete at least one math worksheet, and practice her spelling words. It took up to 90 minutes, depending on how hard the math was and how long she cried about how hard it was. Often, she barely had any time left to play.
I complained regularly to other parents until my friend Beth Hofmann, whose kids are in a neighboring school district, shared her tale. When her son was sick for four days, his teacher sent home 24 pages of make-up homework. I remember something like that happening to me in high school. Except that her kid was in kindergarten.
We're hardly the only ones who are concerned that schoolwork is taking over our kids' lives and crowding out extracurriculars like playing sports and learning an instrument. It seems as if every single time I turn on my computer--like when I had to Google "median" so Blair could do her math homework--I come across another article, blog post, or book that bemoans the volume of homework kids are being assigned these days.
"There's been a bump up in the early grades," says Harris Cooper, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina. A study from the University of Michigan found that homework among K-2 students has more than tripled since 1981 to 29 minutes per weeknight, well above the National Education Association's (NEA) recommendation of ten to 20 minutes per night in first grade plus ten minutes for each grade level thereafter.
The upswing began in 1983 when the U.S. Department of Education published A Nation at Risk, a report calling for sweeping education reform to help us keep up with other countries, including an increase in homework. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has also had an impact; its emphasis on standardized tests as a means of evaluating teachers and schools has led many districts to add test-prep practice on top of regular assignments.
Another reason for the heavier workload might surprise you: "Many parents request more homework because they want their kids to be achievers, even in the earliest grades," says Dr. Cooper. Vinita Khanna, a mom of two in Haddonfield, New Jersey, is a perfect example. Even though her daughter Ria had daily math, spelling, and reading assignments in second grade, Khanna felt she wasn't being challenged enough. So she asked the teacher to send home extra math problems. "Now Ria's ahead of the other kids in her class," Khanna says.
Seattle mom Melissa Baldauf has a similar outlook. When she learned last spring that her kindergartner (who had been doing an hour of homework every day) would have no more assignments for the rest of the year, Baldauf sought out worksheets so that he wouldn't forget what he'd learned.
But how much does homework actually benefit kids in elementary school? Denise Pope, Ph.D., cofounder of Stanford University's Challenge Success program, which published an analysis of the most influential homework studies from the past two decades, found that it offers little academic advantage until middle school. Completing assignments independently in the early grades helps kids develop self-discipline, but there is a potentially serious downside. "An excessive workload, as well as the battles over getting it done, can cause kids to develop a dislike of learning," says Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D., author of The Homework Trap. Other experts say the same is true for "busywork"--activities such as retracing spelling words with different-color crayons--and assignments that introduce new concepts rather than reviewing what was taught in class.
When Lisa Morguess's first-grader, Lilah, broke down in tears over her homework, saying, "I'm tired, Mommy; I can't do this after being at school all day," and started complaining of stomachaches, the Fullerton, California, mom contacted the school. She discovered that the district lacked clear parameters on the amount of homework teachers should assign. Morguess spoke to the superintendent in an effort to change the policy. She then told the teacher that she wouldn't push Lilah to complete assignments. "I didn't care if she got an unsatisfactory on her report card under 'completes homework,'" says Morguess (whose daughter nonetheless received a "satisfactory" on that measure). "It's first grade. It's not going to affect her college applications."
That's certainly true, but like it or not, homework is, or will be, a big part of your child's life. Your objective is to enable her to reap the benefits while minimizing her stress level.