Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hazardous High School?

Not long ago, while walking down Yonge Street, I overheard two girls talking. One stopped for a moment and grabbed her friend’s arm: “So grade 11, fuck! I’m actually going to have to work. Every. Single. Thing. Counts.”

My twin daughters have started Grade 11 this fall, so I’m familiar with the anxiety underlying this snippet of conversation. My daughters worked hard in Grade 9 and 10, but they, too, are feeling the extra anxiety of this year’s marks “counting” for their university applications.

As I look back to my own Grade 11 year—a year in which I worked, but not too hard, and managed to find time to read for pleasure and explore my own interests—I can’t help but feel sad for kids entering Grades 11 and 12 in 2015. The workload, the homework, the near-mandatory, resume-fluffing extracurriculars, the anxiety-inducing university application process—all of it is symptomatic of the kind of “rat race” we used to deplore for adults, and now accept as a normal part of modern (middle class) adolescence. The question I find myself asking is this: Do the benefits of the education my kids are receiving outweigh the costs to their mental health and well-being?

A pair of American studies that caught my eye a couple of years ago, and which I recently stumbled on again, suggest that the answer to this question may be “no.” The first is entitled “Hazardous Homework? The Relationship Between Homework, Goal Orientation, and Well-Being in Adolescence,” by Mollie K. Galloway and Denise Pope, from Lewis and Clark College and Stanford University, respectively. The second study, by the same research group, is called “Nonacademic Effects of Homework in Privileged, High-Performing High Schools.” Both are empirical studies consisting of large-scale surveys of kids’ attitudes towards and experience of homework. The authors claim that their research aims to redress a perceived lack of student voice on an issue that affects students directly. Though the studies have slightly different emphases and scopes, their findings are similar and can be summed up by the following points:
  • Students in middle and upper-middle class high schools have too much homework—an average of 3 hours a night, with many doing 7 hours per night or more.
  • Homework adversely affects teenagers’ physical and mental well-being; effects include insomnia, headaches, weight gain or loss, exhaustion, performance anxiety and excessive worrying.
  • Students in Grade 11 have the most homework and report the most distress from their homework load, possibly because (in the US) it is the year of SATs and ACTs.
  • Time spent on homework is positively correlated with higher grades, since homework is often graded, but not with “learning” or “enjoyment.”
  • A significant majority of students surveyed said that they had dropped an extracurricular activity that they enjoyed, due to too much homework.
The researchers draw a variety of conclusions from their work—including the insight that the collected data belie the commonplace notion that “homework is inherently good”— and call for more research into the relationship between homework load and student well-being.

For me, the first question the studies raise is, do the American data reflect the Canadian experience? It’s difficult to answer this question with any accuracy because comparable Canadian studies do not exist. The closest is an Ontario-focussed 2008 study out of OISE that surveyed parents’ views on the issue of homework, but did not consult students directly. The results of this survey suggest that parents in the demographic most heavily represented in the study—middle class parents with incomes between $100,000 and $200,000 per year—believe their kids have too much homework; according to the data collected from parents in the OISE study, students in Grade 12 have the most homework, followed by students in Grade 11. At all grades, parents report, conflicts arising from homework negatively affect home life. A census conducted by the Toronto District School Board in 2011 also uncovered high levels of student anxiety over school work, but questions were worded in such a way that homework worries could not easily be isolated from general worries about school and life.

“Harder” statistics on homework in this country are few and far between and can be confusing to parents. For instance, an OECD report, drawing on data from the 2012 PISA results, states that Canadian 10th graders spend an average of 5.5 hours on homework per week, a statistic that does not jibe with what I have experienced as a parent of high-schoolers who average two or more hours of homework per night. My experience, and that of other parents I know, is more in line with the results of the OISE study, which documented the ways in which heavy homework loads place undue stress on kids and families.

An explanation of the discrepancy between the OISE study and the OECD statistics can be found in the OECD report itself, whose purpose is to answer the question posed in its title, “Does homework perpetuate inequities in education?” The report shows that in every participating country, advantaged students spend more time on homework than disadvantaged students—in countries, like Canada and the US, significantly more time. So the Canadian average of 5.5 hours per week does not capture the reality of students attending schools in advantaged communities (whether the students themselves come from socio-economically privileged homes or not). The authors of the OECD report argue that time spent on homework is positively correlated with results on international tests like PISA; they conclude therefore that measures should be taken to reduce the disparities in homework loads. However, many homework researchers—Alfie Kohn, for instance—have pointed out that the correlations between homework and achievement are weak, that they hold only for older students, mostly for math homework, and only when the homework is not too burdensome. Even the OECD report notes that “evidence from PISA 2009 suggests that after around four hours of homework per week, the additional time invested in homework has a negligible impact on performance.”

Which leads me to a second question that the studies on homework stress raise: given the consensus among both detractors and advocates of homework that more is not better, and given the mounting evidence—explicit in the US studies and implicit in Canadian research—of the deleterious effects of heavy homework loads, why does excessive homework still seem to be the default at middle-class and upper-middle-class North American high schools? Why is it that homework policies (such as the Toronto District School Boards) designed to rein in homework are routinely violated or simply ignored? A charitable answer might be that, while research on homework and achievement is abundant, research on the link between homework and student well-being is relatively new and, in Canada, difficult to find. The less charitable but more plausible answer is that school boards and administrators are aware of the studies on the harmful effects of homework but have chosen to ignore them. For, despite the lip service paid in recent years to issues of student mental health, there has been a conspicuous unwillingness on the part of ministries and school boards to confront the source of much student distress: school itself. Rather than considering the ways in which overstuffed curricula and ingrained pedagogies can overburden students with the sheer quantity of work, while often leaving them under-challenged intellectually (qualitatively), many policy makers and administrators have jumped on band-aid bandwagons such as mindfulness, thereby restricting the discussion to individual, versus systemic or institutional, problems and solutions.

But the American studies also lead me to believe that there is more to the endurance of the homework status quo than simple laziness or head-in-the-sand avoidance on the part of educators. Galloway, Conner and Pope explain their focus on “privileged, high-performing” high schools by observing that it is in these educational communities that the “accepted value of homework appears to be entrenched.” This observation reflects and to some extent explains the OECD statistics on class-based disparities in homework loads. But while the OECD report implies that such disparities are an unfortunate side effect of our socio-economic and education systems, the American researchers offer a deeper, more troubling explanation. In their analysis, unequal homework is not merely an epiphenomenon of socio-economic inequity, but one of its key drivers. They note that homework is itself a socio-economic sorting mechanism: since it is primarily in privileged homes that there are supports available to allow students to survive excessive homework, heavy workloads act as a leg up to the advantaged, while further disadvantaging the disadvantaged. In other words, students who can handle the homework are going to do better in school than those who, for reasons beyond their control, cannot. 

Beyond the immediate context of high school, the authors argue that training in the ability to spend long hours on work of dubious inherent value constitutes another advantage for students seeking to “advance in a competitive, achievement-focused society.” So if, as the authors imply, and as the OECD statistics confirm, homework loads are significantly lighter in less privileged communities, then students in those communities are being denied the competitive advantages that experience with heavy loads confers. The authors suggest that it is privileged parents’ tacit understanding of the ways in which homework advantages their children that renders many of them complicit in maintaining the homework status-quo, despite its cost to student well-being.

But what about the parent who thinks the costs of excessive homework are too high, the parent who would rather that homework not be used as a means of reproducing privilege, even if that privilege is his or her own? What is such a parent to do? For my part, I plan to talk to my kids about the research on the links between homework and well-being, including the fact that Grades 11 and 12 are particularly “hazardous” years in this regard. I will suggest that they do as much homework as seems reasonable to them, and I will advise them not to worry excessively about getting into the “right” university or about losing out on vaguely envisioned longer-term advantages. Such advantages may or may not devolve to them as members of a relatively privileged community. The advantages of less stress and more enjoyment in the here and now are much more tangible.


  1. High school. What a nightmare. I've been thinking recently about the amount of judgement we subject kids to, all the flippin' time. There's nothing remotely like it in adult life. I've never heard of a workplace where every piece of paper you produce comes back to you with a grade on it. No wonder kids have anxiety and depression. And then they begin their adult lives with a stack of rejection letters from colleges! Hmmm ... this could be a blog post ...

  2. Hi FedUpMom!

    I too think (and despair) a lot about the constant judgement and its negative effects on kids. I remember even in elementary school, every single thing the kids produced was judged and graded--even their Mother's Day card to me, one year! And, of course, it's worse in high school because of kids' sense (encouraged by schools and teachers) that the stakes are way higher. I was hoping university would be a kind of escape from this prison of mindless, needless competition, but probably not. Sigh.

    Thanks for your comment. It's great to hear from you again.