Gisela Voss always thought that all the griping about homework overload was way overblown. Her son Luke never got more than a half hour's worth at Mason-Rice Elementary in Newton, Massachusetts. But once he enrolled at Brown Middle School in 2004, Gisela had a rude awakening. Suddenly Luke was grappling with 30 minutes of assignments for each of his six classes, lugging home a backpack bursting at the seams -- and sagging under the strain. "He was at school from 8 to 3, and with soccer practice he wouldn't be done until 5. If we all ate dinner together -- and it's important to me that we do -- he wouldn't even start cracking the books until 7," says Gisela, 42, a toy designer who's also mom to daughter Sydney, 10, and son Rio, 2. "He missed out on sleep, and his anxiety stressed everybody else out. We'd rush through the meal knowing that he had hours of work ahead of him, and he'd start begging for help even before he left the table." Luke, now 15 and a sophomore in high school, has grown more accustomed to his heavy load. But Gisela and her husband, Dan Kernan, a 48-year-old software engineer, are already worrying about Sydney, who starts at Brown Middle School next fall, and how she'll cope with the nightly grind. "This is an insane way for families to live," says Gisela.
She's joined the chorus of complaints about kids drowning in homework. It's not just the marathon study sessions every night, these parents say, but heavy-duty assignments during vacations and summers as well. The massive pileup is causing some serious burnout. With no downtime, kids can't absorb and retain their lessons, and they dread the work so much they have to be nagged and forced to do it. With moms and dads -- and tutors -- routinely stepping in to help, there's growing resentment that they're the ones being held responsible for their children's education instead of teachers and schools. "It's not that homework is inherently evil, but that it has gotten so out of balance," says Nancy Kalish, coauthor with Sara Bennett of The Case Against Homework (Crown). "The first question parents ask when their kids walk in the front door is, 'How much homework do you have?' For many families, everything revolves around that, and it's causing a lot of tension, tears, and fights." And that's just the small picture, Kalish adds. "Night after night, year after year, homework is swallowing up the things that are part of a good, healthy childhood -- like playing, exercising, hanging out with friends, quality time with parents, even getting bored and maybe getting creative."
The dissent is likely to grow in the wake of a recent report by the country's top homework scholar, Harris Cooper, PhD, director of the education program at Duke University, who concludes that more isn't always better. In a comprehensive review of some 60 studies from between 1987 and 2003, he found virtually no link between homework and test scores in elementary school. Once kids hit middle school, there is a point of diminishing returns. Performance improves only among sixth- to ninth-graders who limit homework to 90 minutes a night and high schoolers who stop after two hours; for those who toil longer, test scores actually drop. "The bottom line is that all kids should be doing homework, but the amount and type should vary according to grade," says Cooper. "And no matter what, it's only good in moderation."