"The popular belief out there, the conventional wisdom, is that homework is rising and becoming onerous. It's just simply not true," said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Most students have less than an hour of homework a night, according to a Brookings analysis of a broad range of homework research. The report is based on data from the Education Department, international surveys and research by the University of Michigan and the University of California-Los Angeles, among other sources.
For example, when asked how much homework they were assigned the day before, most students age 9, 13 and 17 all reported less than an hour, according to a federal long-term survey in 1999. The share of students assigned more than an hour of homework has dropped for all three age groups since 1984.
Only about one in 10 high school students does a substantial amount of homework - more than two hours a night - according to a separate study co-authored by Brian Gill of the RAND Corp., another research group. The figure has held fairly stable for 50 years.
"It's important to acknowledge that this is not true for everybody," Gill said. "All those stories about overloaded kids - we're not suggesting that kids and parents are lying. It's just that it's pretty clear that those stories are the exception rather than the norm."
Given homework's positive link to achievement as students get older, parents and educators must have an accurate picture of what most students face, Loveless said. Cases of excessive homework should be addressed by parents and teachers for individual students, not by district or state policy-makers, he said. The research by Loveless counters media accounts that he says have overstated homework loads.
High school students have an extraordinarily light homework load when compared with international peers, according to the Brookings study, citing a 1995-96 math and science survey. Among students in their final year of public schooling, those in France, Italy, Russia and South Africa reported spending at least twice as much time on homework as American students.
One rule of thumb within education is that students should get 10 minutes of homework per grade per night - such as 30 minutes a night for third-graders, or 90 minutes a night for ninth-graders. Still, the long-running question over how much homework is too much, or too little, is often answered in local terms.
Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Calif., is experimenting with guidelines designed to ensure homework is limited and relevant. Homework over weekends and holidays is discouraged at the high-achieving school, where the vast majority of students have packed calendars and college plans.
In essence, the new studies' findings don't apply at Lynbrook, said principal Mike White.
"We're trying to relieve some of the pressure on them, to teach them to be a real person, and to put some balance in their lives," said White of his 1,700 students. "It's not all about homework."
June Shoemaker, a fourth-grade teacher in Twin Lakes, Wis., tries not to assign any homework. She'd rather contain her math lessons to class, where she can teach students to think about the concepts, than assign work at home, where memorization drills may be encouraged by parents.
"Many of our families have two people working, and the kids go home to empty homes or to day care, so there's just not a lot of support for homework," Shoemaker said. "That's not fair to the kids."
The country's largest teachers union, the National Education Association, supports homework as a means to reinforce lessons, develop study skills and encourage parental involvement. Schools and parents have come up with new ways, such as community hot lines and after-school programs with teachers, to help students handle their homework, said Stephanie Fanjul, director of student achievement for the NEA.
Some teachers are concerned that graduation exams and other high-stakes tests have placed too many demands on their classes, leading to more homework pressures, Fanjul said. But teachers won't be surprised to learn the nation's homework load isn't excessive, she said - they're the ones who assign it.
By Ben Feller