Balancing Home and Work

Is four hours enough to wind down, attend extracurriculars, achieve the recommended amount of exercise and get around?

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One of the Sequoyah High School’s selling points is the modular (or mod) system, as it allows for more feedback from teachers and longer, more focused classes. Another advantage to this system, as Sequoyah advertises during its Open Houses, is that students are assigned homework for fewer classes than in a traditional semester system, in which they might have five or six assignments in a night.

It turns out, however, that Sequoyah High School assigns roughly the same amount of homework per night as other, traditional high schools might, according to my anecdotal evidence. For example, at Polytechnic High School I have heard students are assigned 30 minutes of homework per class (of which students have six per day), amounting to three hours per night. In practice, the only effect the mod system has actually had on homework has been the time spent on homework per class.

Considering students’ daily schedules, school and homework take up nearly half of their day, and sleep should be taking up almost half of the day as well. According to the aptly named National Sleep Foundation, teens aged 14-17 should be getting eight to ten hours of sleep per night, and even up to 11 hours can be beneficial to some teens.

School, at least at the Sequoyah High School, starts at 8:15 in the morning and spans seven hours of the day, leaving eight hours per day for students to play sports, attend extracurriculars, complete homework, get ready in the morning, get ready for bed, and get to and from all these activities.

If homework takes up three of those hours (the administration encourages teachers to assign one hour per A, B, and C block class), and eating dinner takes anywhere from ten minutes to a full hour or more, then all of a sudden there are only four hours left in the day for students to wind down, get places, get ready, and do anything extra. Notice how that does not even allow time to spend with family and friends outside of school? The very people who brought these students into the world barely get to spend time with their own children.

A 2013 Stanford study at high-performing college-preparatory schools in affluent communities found that of the students polled, “56 percent …considered homework a primary source of stress. Less than 1 percent of the students said homework was not a stressor.”

Denise Pope, co-author of the study, found that there is “a clear connection between the students’ stress and physical impacts — migraines, ulcers and other stomach problems, sleep deprivation and exhaustion, and weight loss.” You would think that school, which is supposed to prepare you for life, would not be trying to shorten your life.

By not getting enough sleep, teens’ performance in class is greatly reduced. A National Sleep Foundation poll found that 28% of teens fall asleep during school, and about the same percentage fall asleep while completing homework.

Nanci Yuan, MD, director of the Stanford Children’s Health Sleep Center reported via the Stanford Medicine News Center that a sleep-deprived brain “impacts academic performance. It’s harder to take tests and answer questions if you are sleep-deprived.”

And an American Academy of Pediatrics report stated that students who sleep more experience “less tardiness, fewer attention/concentration difficulties, and better academic performance.” If schools want their students to be more engaged and ready to learn, they should consider starting school later and assigning less homework.

Homework even encourages a competitive society and hurts families. According to educational researchers Robert J. Marzano and Debra J. Pickering, citing the book The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning, by Etta Kralovec and John Buell, “homework contributes to a corporate-style, competitive U.S. culture that overvalues work to the detriment of personal and familial well-being.”

It does not even help for parents to help their students with this homework burden. Dr. Justin Coulson, a psychologist and parenting expert, claims that “the more parents help with children’s homework, the more tension children experience. Homework places additional burdens on parents – who often don’t know how to help their children anyway.”

If homework is hurting students’ home lives, perhaps there needs to be less homework and more “home work,” as in, working on students’ quality of life at home.

“56 percent [of students]…considered homework a primary source of stress. Less than 1 percent of the students said homework was not a stressor.”

Should homework be eliminated altogether? Dr. Etta Kralovec, a professor at University of Arizona South, seems to think so. “There’s no evidence that homework is good for reinforcement. If parents are going to give up their home life for homework, there should be evidence that it will produce something,” Kralovec said.

While I am no expert on the issue, I must disagree with Kralovec. I can see how homework can be beneficial to students’ learning, especially when they work on projects that call for creativity, collaboration, and deep understanding, the way we hope Sequoyah’s do.

But homework that is assigned just to meet the quota, or amounts to busywork, should be banned. Students have better things to do than answer 50 math problems when they understand the concept after the first ten, or study 100 words they will maybe encounter once or twice in their lifetimes.

A homework assignment (Barefoot Times Staff)

At the Sequoyah High School I have found that my teachers do not usually assign busywork, which is not to say there has not been the occasional assignment whose benefits have not seemed worth the time spent.

The average Sequoyah HS student’s schedule is pretty jam-packed, and the up to three hours of homework per night is a big part of that. I recommend instead that Sequoyah follow the National Education Association’s recommendation of ten minutes per grade level – 90 minutes a night for freshmen, 100 for sophomores, 110 for juniors, and two hours for seniors. This more reasonable regime would balance the desire for academic engagement and independent work against the more basic need for sleep, family time, and general sanity.

The mod schedule and Sequoyah’s in-depth, student-centered pedagogy naturally leads students to have more homework in one subject in a given night, which is an adjustment for students used to doing less per subject.

High school math teacher Ronnie Bryan said his algebra class skipped an “in-depth treatment of conic sections and real numbers” in part because students were making an adjustment to that deeper homework.

As a result, Bryan said his class spent “a lot of time” reviewing and answering questions students had about their homework, at the expense of “more games and fun in-class activities.”

Laura Haney, physics and chemistry teacher, said she covered “almost everything in physics.” Like Bryan, Haney did not attribute this the mod system itself.  Instead, she blamed “my own scheduling, not the mod system.”

While teachers may not point to the mod system as the problem, students still feel the weight of that deeper homework.

After all, students are spending more time at school and doing more homework than adults with nine-to-five jobs spend working. Students even work on the weekends, too. School is not a job, and no one should treat it as one.