Weighing in With Some Facts on the Great Homework Debate

I have been surprised by the depth of feeling and the quantity
of ink released by Nancy Murphy’s initial letter to the editor
complaining about too much homework.
I have been surprised by the depth of feeling and the quantity of ink released by Nancy Murphy’s initial letter to the editor complaining about too much homework.

Since then, The Dispatch has published on the topic: a straight news article saying that some parents want more homework and some want less, a sarcastic put-down letter from Mike McCarthy, a eulogy about the wonders of a private school education at Mt. Madonna School, and a column calling for individualized homework.

Usually, people only write letters to the editor on deeply felt topics, and I have been surprised that homework evokes such a response. But Mrs. Murphy feels strongly that too much homework is detracting from her family’s quality of life. And Mr. McCartney is just as vehement that parents should quit complaining and help with the dang homework. (I think they must be talking about vastly different quantities of homework.)

Re-reading the article, I noticed that everyone who mentioned a child’s age had an elementary or middle school child. This makes sense. A high school student is not given 45 minutes or an hour or three hours of homework.

A high school student has assignments: read “The Scarlet Letter'” write a 1,000-word essay on the character Pearl, study the trig identities and be ready for the test on Monday … A diligent student spends more time and gets better grades.

The whole debate is intriguing to me, because, frankly, when my kids were young, they did not do much schoolwork. Or they studied 16 hours a day, seven days a week, depending on one’s point of view.

In the early elementary years, our family “did lessons” for an hour or two per day, plus an hour or three of nature study once a week with some other families. (Other families “did schoolwork” or “did school” instead of “doing lessons.” Some families even “did school” for six hours a day … but I speak of our experience.)

Of course, lessons did not include piano practice or art class or karate or violin or soccer or broadsword. Nor did lessons include the hours spent jumping on the trampoline or free reading or tree-climbing or writing stories or playing chess or the long elaborate “pretends” of childhood.

My kids were busy 24/7; we had no TV; computer games were strictly limited. Most of their education was acquired during their “free time.” I just did not spoil the magic by calling it education.

Gradually, imperceptibly, the lessons became longer, and more independent. They began taking classes outside the home. More study time was required, until …

At this point in my ruminations, I learned a shocking truth. I had absolutely no idea how many hours Anne spent in class or doing homework. So I totted up my best guess, and then conferred with her. I was high on some estimates and low on others, but the overall was accurate: my 15-year-old homeschooled daughter spends 31 hours a week doing homework, which alas, now means Spanish, calculus, and the like, not climbing trees.

Of course, she only spends 10 hours a week in classes.

By now, I was consumed with curiosity, so I conducted a brief survey of private, public, and homeschooled high school students. I surveyed homeschoolers from a wide spectrum of academic abilities, but only excellent students from public and private high schools.

I found that both public and private high school students spend about 31 hours per week in school. The fewest hours of homework per week were 13, by a private schooler. The average, for both public and private schoolers, was 24. And the highest reported number of hours spent on homework, by an exhausted private schooler, was 38.

The younger homeschoolers spent less time in classes and more time at home than their older counterparts. The average number of hours spent in classes was eight, with a low of three and a high of 16. The average number of hours spent on homework was 20, with a low of 8 and a high of 40.

To over-generalize: homeschoolers spend about as much time on homework as good students in public and private schools. They just don’t spend as much time in class.

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