by By Debra Viadero
Despite debates in the media over whether American students are academically overburdened, 85 percent of parents believe their children are doing the “right amount” or “too little” homework, and three-quarters of students say they have enough time to complete their assignments, according to a survey released this week.
“This is a much-needed corrective to many current portrayals of homework,” said Harris Cooper, the author of several books and study reviews on the topic. He is not connected to the new survey, which was commissioned by the MetLife Inc. insurance company of New York City.
A perennial parade of authors, newspaper stories, and parents have raised questions over whether the nation’s schoolchildren are doing too much homework, or doing it at too young an age, and whether too much of it is busywork.
In contrast, the MetLife poll uncovered widespread support for the practice among teachers, parents, and students. According to the survey, 77 percent of students and more than 80 percent of teachers and parents say homework is important or very important.
Belief in the value of homework is even more prevalent, the survey found, among African-American and Hispanic parents. Members of those racial or ethnic groups were more likely than white parents, on average, to say that homework is important, that it helps students learn more in school, and that the practice will help their children reach their goals after high school.
“This is in keeping with an existing body of survey research which says these complaints about homework are coming from a small minority,” said Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, who has also studied the topic. “We’re just not talking about a large number of children who are overworked.”
Cracking the Books
The MetLife findings are based on an online survey of more than 1,000 teachers, 501 parents, and 2,101 K-12 students. Harris Interactive, the Rochester, N.Y., polling organization, conducted the survey between March and June of last year. The results were released here during a Feb. 14 press conference hosted by the Washingtonbased Committee on Economic Development.
Overall, the survey found, three-quarters of students say they do at least 30 minutes of homework on a typical school day, and 45 percent spend an hour or more cracking the books each weeknight.
That’s slightly less time, though, than their teachers spend on homework-related work. Teachers said they spend an average of 8.5 hours per week preparing or grading homework.
While many students seem to feel they have enough time to finish their homework, a large majority report that it still causes them anxiety. Nearly 90 percent of students reported feeling stressed about doing homework, and one-third felt that way frequently. Also, a sizable proportion of secondary students—about one-quarter—described their homework assignments as mostly busywork. That’s a decrease, though, from 2002, when nearly three-quarters of middle and high school students described their schoolwork that way in a similar survey.
The study also found that the students with the lowest opinions of homework or those who felt most pressed by it tended to be a more academically worrisome group. They were more likely than other students to earn mostly C’s or lower grades; to have no plans for college; and to rate the quality of their schooling as fair or poor. They also spent less time than A students did on their homework and completed it less often.
The case was similar for parents who were most critical of the practice. As a group, they appeared to be more alienated from their children’s schools, expressing dissatisfaction, for example, with the frequency of contact they had with the school or teachers and the amount of guidance they got on how to help their children with their homework. More of those parents also felt awkward about approaching a teacher about their children’s academic progress and said the amount of time their children spend on homework frequently interferes with family life.
While most parents did not report that homework got in the way of family life, a sizable group did have concerns about the quality of their children’s homework assignments. Forty percent said a great deal of the homework their children do is busywork, and one-third rate the quality of their children’s assignments as fair or poor.
“That’s a signal to our educators that they need to do more parent education in this realm,” said Mary Brabeck, the dean of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University in New York City. “We also need to do more to improve what’s done in these assignments.”
In marked contrast to parents and students, only 16 percent of teachers rated the quality of the homework assignments given out at their schools as low. In fact, the survey found, the percentage of teachers rating their schools’ homework assignments as excellent has doubled over the past 20 years, growing from 12 percent in 1987 to 24 percent last year.
Among teachers, the biggest supporters of homework were those who had been on the job the longest. Teachers who had taught for 21 or more years were more likely than newcomers to say that doing homework helps students learn more in school and that it helps students reach their posthigh school goals.
They also felt more prepared than teachers who had been on the job less than five years to create engaging assignments and to regularly review homework in class and talk to other teachers about how much homework they are assigning.
“Maybe homework is something teachers learn on the job,” said Brookings’ Mr. Loveless. “And maybe our education schools need to do a better job of teaching new teachers about homework.”
The survey also revealed some discrepancies among parents, teachers, and students in reports of the amount of homework that students are doing.
Marisol Williams, a Bethesda, Md., student who spoke at the press conference, said she suspects she knows the reason why. “Students are spending a lot of time ‘IM’ing [instant messaging] friends while they’re doing their homework behind closed doors, and parents don’t always see that,” said the senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
While the survey’s findings were extensive, experts cautioned that they still leave unanswered questions.
“We don’t know anything new from the study other than the fact that most people still believe homework is valuable,” said Etta Kralovec, the co-author of a 2000 critique of homework. “Whether that belief is grounded in research we just don’t know.”