How long is your child’s workweek? Thirty hours? Forty? Would it surprise you to learn that some elementary school kids have workweeks comparable to adults’ schedules? For most children, mandatory homework assignments push their workweek far beyond the school day and deep into what any other laborers would consider overtime. Even without sports or music or other school-sponsored extracurriculars, the daily homework slog keeps many students on the clock as long as lawyers, teachers, medical residents, truck drivers and other overworked adults. Is it any wonder that,deprived of the labor protections that we provide adults, our kids are suffering an epidemic of disengagement, anxiety and depression?
With my youngest child just months away from finishing high school, I’m remembering all the needless misery and missed opportunities all three of my kids suffered because of their endless assignments. When my daughters were in middle school, I would urge them into bed before midnight and then find them clandestinely studying under the covers with a flashlight. We cut back on their activities but still found ourselves stuck in a system on overdrive, returning home from hectic days at 6 p.m. only to face hours more of homework. Now, even as a senior with a moderate course load, my son, Zak, has spent many weekends studying, finding little time for the exercise and fresh air essential to his well-being. Week after week, and without any extracurriculars, Zak logs a lot more than the 40 hours adults traditionally work each week — and with no recognition from his “bosses” that it’s too much. I can’t count the number of shared evenings, weekend outings and dinners that our family has missed and will never get back.
How much after-school time should our schools really own?
In the midst of the madness last fall, Zak said to me, “I feel like I’m working towards my death. The constant demands on my time since 5th grade are just going to continue through graduation, into college, and then into my job. It’s like I’m on an endless treadmill with no time for living.”
My spirit crumbled along with his.
Like Zak, many people are now questioning the point of putting so much demand on children and teens that they become thinly stretched and overworked. Studies have long shown that there is no academic benefit to high school homework that consumes more than a modest number of hours each week. In a study of high schoolers conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), researchers concluded that “after around four hours of homework per week, the additional time invested in homework has a negligible impact on performance.”
In elementary school, where we often assign overtime even to the youngest children, studies have shown there’s no academic benefit to any amount of homework at all.
Our unquestioned acceptance of homework also flies in the face of all we know about human health, brain function and learning. Brain scientists know that rest and exercise are essential to good health and real learning. Even top adult professionals in specialized fields take care to limit their work to concentrated periods of focus. A landmark study of how humans develop expertise found that elite musicians, scientists and athletes do their most productive work only about four hours per day.
Yet we continue to overwork our children, depriving them of the chance to cultivate health and learn deeply, burdening them with an imbalance of sedentary, academic tasks. American high school students, in fact, do more homework each week than their peers in the average country in the OECD, a 2014 report found.
It’s time for an uprising.
Already, small rebellions are starting. High schools in Ridgewood, N.J., and Fairfax County, Va., among others, have banned homework over school breaks. The entire second grade at Taylor Elementary School in Arlington, Va., abolished homework this academic year. Burton Valley Elementary School in Lafayette, Calif., has eliminated homework in grades K through 4. Henry West Laboratory School, a public K-8 school in Coral Gables, Fla., eliminated mandatory, graded homework for optional assignments. One Lexington, Mass., elementary school is piloting a homework-free year, replacing it with reading for pleasure.
Across the Atlantic, students in Spain launched a national strike against excessive assignments in November. And a second-grade teacher in Texas, made headlines this fall when she quit sending home extra work, instead urging families to “spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside and get your child to bed early.”
It is time that we call loudly for a clear and simple change: a workweek limit for children, counting time on the clock before and after the final bell. Why should schools extend their authority far beyond the boundaries of campus, dictating activities in our homes in the hours that belong to families? An all-out ban on after-school assignments would be optimal. Short of that, we can at least sensibly agree on a cap limiting kids to a 40-hour workweek — and fewer hours for younger children.
Resistance even to this reasonable limit will be rife. Mike Miller, an English teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., found this out firsthand when he spearheaded a homework committee to rethink the usual approach. He had read the education research and found a forgotten policy on the county books limiting homework to two hours a night, total, including all classes. “I thought it would be a slam dunk” to put the two-hour cap firmly in place, Miller said.
But immediately, people started balking. “There was a lot of fear in the community,” Miller said. “It’s like jumping off a high dive with your kids’ future. If we reduce homework to two hours or less, is my kid really going to be okay?” In the end, the committee only agreed to a homework ban over school breaks.
Miller’s response is a great model for us all. He decided to limit assignments in his own class to 20 minutes a night (the most allowed for a student with six classes to hit the two-hour max). His students didn’t suddenly fail. Their test scores remained stable. And they started using their more breathable schedule to do more creative, thoughtful work.
That’s the way we will get to a sane work schedule for kids: by simultaneously pursuing changes big and small. Even as we collaboratively press for policy changes at the district or individual school level, all teachers can act now, as individuals, to ease the strain on overworked kids.
As parents and students, we can also organize to make homework the exception rather than the rule. We can insist that every family, teacher and student be allowed to opt out of assignments without penalty to make room for important activities, and we can seek changes that shift practice exercises and assignments into the actual school day.
We’ll know our work is done only when Zak and every other child can clock out, eat dinner, sleep well and stay healthy — the very things needed to engage and learn deeply. That’s the basic standard the law applies to working adults. Let’s do the same for our kids.
Vicki Abeles is the author of the bestseller Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation, and director and producer of the documentaries “Race to Nowhere” and “Beyond Measure.”
Transcript for Homework ban sparks debate among educators, parents
Back now with our big board. First up, the debate over homework bans. Some schools starting to do away with homework. Rosalind Wiseman here to talk about it. I want to start by reading a mom's Facebook post that's gone viral. She says her daughter is done with homework. I've noticed her getting more and more stressed when it comes to school. By stressed I mean chest pains. Should she become some kind of junior workaholic at ten years old. How much is too much? Starting in first great we think that ten minutes a night per grade and then adding it ten minutes after that is really what we want to do, but this is a really important debate because on one side we have parents who hate homework. It's busy work, it's a waste of time, it's irrelevant. On the other side are parents who have equally good reasons for doing homework. They think it's important, shows organizational skills, holds kids accountable and it's okay for kids to have to do something that they don't like all the time. Most important, it shows economic disparities between kids. Because when you have a special project and creative projects, it really benefits the kids who have the resources to be able to do it. And that's really unfair and it's totally reasonable for less affluent parents to feel that's inequitable and unfair for kids. Rosalind, you're a mother of two kids. How do you feel, homework or no homework? I'm always looking fo hold them accountable but I want them to like homework and see that it's relevant to their learning. You make an important point not only about the resources, not only the money for the projects but a lot of kids can afford tutors when others can't. Absolutely. So this really is a hidden issue that we don't see. So it's really important that our education is fair and equitable for all of our children, even with the best of intentions. Sometimes we can go awry. Rosalind, thank you. Are you into homework, George? There's a lot of homework right now but the point that Rosalind is making is important. We're lucky that we can get our kids a lot of help and not everybody can get that. I like that, George. Chime in there, my friend. That was good. Rosalind, thank you. Next up, if you live in certain parts of the country, you may find some unwelcome visitors in your back yard. You can see right there, alligators. The fish and wildlife commissions of North Carolina and Florida are warning the public that sightings are on the rise. Wildlife expert Ron Magill is joining us live. Ron, what's going on, why is there such an uptick in gator sightings? A couple of reasons. What's happening is basically we're going through a little bit of a drought so prime alligator real estate is kind of a high demand right now so alligators are going to find these areas. Also it's breeding season. So what's happening is the big males are chasing the little males out. You know what happens, females tend to make males a little desperate, sometimes borderline stupid because they're looking for those females and they're traveling every where, okay. These smaller guys especially are trying to find a pond where they can find a female that doesn't have a big guy in it. These alligators will try to go through your screen, your pool. If they see a reflection in the sliding door in your back porch, they'll come at the reflection and think it's another alligator. They're not the brightest bulbs. They're driven by that need to find a female and find some water. That alligator in your arms does not look all that happy right now. I'd be a little careful with it. He's okay. I've got him. He's a youngster. It's not a problem. This guy is only about three years old. It's the big ones. And listen, the best thing to do is leave them alone, let them find their girlfriends and let them be happy. Ron, if you're out there, say you're coming in from out of town or even someone going to work or walking, what can you do to protect yourself from these decembsperate males who are now scattered? Just keep your distance. Just keep your distance, Michael. If you keep 15 feet or more away from an alligator you're not going to be in any danger. That's it. Tell you what, listening to that, I don't know if he was talking about alligators or real men. Here we go.
This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.