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Homework overload: For certain families, enough is enough

At what point do weeknight assignments, weekend work and vacation reading affect family togetherness?

July 02, 2011|By Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times

As of Friday, homework can account for no more than 10% of a student's grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District — a change that drew national media attention. "The phones have been ringing off the hook," district spokeswoman Judy Elliott said.

She sounded surprised, but many parents won't be. Homework is a hot-button topic, and though the new policy doesn't limit how much can be assigned, some students and parents hope that the change will reduce what they see as homework overload.

The policy is meant to help low-income kids who don't have access to the Internet or who come from chaotic, crowded homes with no quiet place to study. But the shift is cause for celebration among some middle- and upper-middle-income families too. For parents, particularly those of overachieving kids in highly competitive schools, the sheer volume of homework can have detrimental effects on family life: the missed meals, the weekends not spent together, the vacations spoiled. Think of the parents of the kindergartener sent home with a backpack full of papers, or the eighth-grader given college-level work, or the high school student loaded with 25 hours of summer studying for an Advanced Placement history class.

One mother said she found her 6-year-old's homework so stressful — timing his reading, helping him to memorize "sight words" and searching his backpack to make sure he completed all the assignments — that she stopped eating dinner and started losing weight. Emily Dupree, a college student who tutors an eighth-grader, said that her student spent three hours a night on homework and that he's not even in high school yet. Vicki Rank, a grandmother who works in Silver Lake, said she has noticed the professional-level science projects that fifth-graders are carrying into Ivanhoe Elementary School.

"I know what fifth-graders can draw like," she said conspiratorially, implying that some projects look like they were done by someone who's 40, not 11.

Of course it's not all bad. Laura Arrowsmith, who teaches high school history in Santa Clarita, said one of the keys to assigning good homework is to offer kids choice. She has been impressed with the homework that her own seventh-grade son has been assigned and said he has learned time management.

"He likes coming home before us and getting his homework done to show he can do it himself," Arrowsmith said.

Ramin Fayazi, the father of a gifted seventh-grader, said the hours of homework his son gets are necessary to keep him stimulated and interested in school.

But other parents said homework can intrude on family life.

Susan Hetsroni, a mother of three, was enraged when her son's seventh-grade English teacher assigned a five-page paper over winter break. The family had planned a splurge, a trip to the Bahamas. Her 13-year-old wound up writing the paper from the business center of the hotel.

"I was like, 'Step off of my vacation time!'" said Hetsroni.

Laurie Feldman, a mother of three, was frustrated by the amount of time her 14-year-old son's math homework required. She and her husband, a math professor, decided that he would complete any of the math homework that wasn't finished by their son after an hour of "reasonable effort."

The couple reached their decision after meetings with their son's math teacher and "pleading for more reasonable homework assignments as well as bringing him academic articles about best teaching practices re: homework," she wrote in response to a Times Facebook posting. "The teacher flat out refused to modify his homework policy so … My husband ended up doing a lot of 7th grade math!"

Clinical psychologist and parenting expert Wendy Mogel said she understands the frustration. "For children in more privileged families, homework has become the center of home life," she said.

Mogel, who wrote the books "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee" and "The Blessing of a B Minus," said high school students are being assigned more homework than college students are, and at the same time they are being asked to develop a well-rounded transcript that might include community service, sports or music lessons. Because the kids are overwhelmed, parents often step in, whether that means nagging about homework, helping with homework, heavily editing homework or even doing the homework.

"Then kids go to college and they have been so over-managed, they don't know how to survive on their own," she said. "Professors are getting papers emailed to them where the students have forgotten to take off the track changes view, so the professor sees all the edits their parents have made."

No story on homework in California would be complete without a mention of the mission model projects in fourth grade. Jimmy Biblarz, a recent graduate from the humanities magnet at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, laughed when it came up in a recent conversation. He remembered how his little sister's project went down.

"I remember six moms came over to my house," he said. "First, the moms made snacks for the group, and then they sat around the kitchen table and made the mission while the rest of us watched TV."

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