Last updated: May 14. 2014 2:24PM - 1019 Views

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RALEIGH — Chronic homework overload is producing stressed-out, sleep-deprived teens too burned out to learn. So say disgruntled parents, who increasingly are leveraging public platforms to share anecdotal homework horrors — from The Atlantic Monthly article, “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me,” to the long-running documentary, “Race to Nowhere.” Has homework morphed into a second job — a bleary-eyed slog through problem sets and papers that seldom ends before midnight?

For some high school students it has; for others, it hasn’t. The answer depends on whom (and how) you ask. Several new but conflicting studies shed light on how much homework teens really do, and how they fare when it all stacks up.

Some data show claims of overwork are much ado about nothing. A 2014 report from the Brookings Institution reveals no uptick in homework for 13- and 17-year-olds between 1984 and 2012. In 2012 only 13 percent of 17-year-olds spent “more than two hours” on nightly homework.

These findings are at odds with a new survey from the University of Phoenix College of Education that queried 1,000 K-12 public and private school teachers. Teacher responses show high schoolers taking five classes average 3.5 hours of daily homework; middle schoolers, around three hours.

What gives? One explanation is that an increase in homework has occurred — but primarily among high-achievers who have always led on homework. Such a shift wouldn’t be captured by the federal trend data Brookings used, which unfortunately capped total homework reporting at “more than two hours.” So a student who faced slightly more than two hours of nightly homework 30 years ago would look the same as one with four hours today.

Researchers who ask open-ended questions about homework say students at competitive high schools face an oppressive workload. And it’s making some of them sick. Stanford University’s Denise Pope and colleagues evaluated 4,317 students at 10 top-performing California high schools, public and private. Pope’s 2013 study, published in The Journal of Experimental Education, found many students were experiencing “stress, compromised health, or lack of balance.” Students averaged 3.1 hours daily on homework; some did much more. High school juniors logged the longest hours of all.

These kids were frazzled, anxious, and oh, so tired. Some characterized their workload as “overwhelming” and “unmanageable.” Seventy-two percent said they were “often or always” stressed about schoolwork. A majority had sacrificed outside interests to make time for schoolwork.

Sixty-eight percent said homework “often or always” shortchanged sleep. Students averaged 6.8 hours of sleep on weeknights — far short of the nine hours their adolescent bodies need.

Such a workload is rigorous all right, but in all the wrong ways. As the mother of a hard-working high school junior, I know these hefty homework averages are on the mark. In our house right now, the days are long, and sleep is scarce.

Still, the remedy isn’t to forgo homework altogether. Meaningful, reasonable homework is beneficial for learning. There is a key caveat, however: two to 2 1/2 hours of nightly homework is the maximum amount linked to positive academic outcomes for high schoolers, according to Duke University scholar Harris Cooper. More than that is “counterproductive.”

Certainly, many kids are right where they should be in terms of homework. And some, especially at poor-performing schools, aren’t assigned enough homework (and lack the support to complete it). But for other kids, homework has become a Sisyphean task they must tackle night after night, collapsing into bed only to get up and do it all over again. Instead of training their minds, we’re exhausting their bodies.

So goodnight, homework overload: It’s time for lights out.

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.

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