Earlier this week, my older girl and I attended an orientation at the high school for rising 9th graders. No, this post is not going to be a mother’s lament about how her baby is going to high school in seven months and approximately five days (not that I’m counting) and where has the time gone? (Also, I’m pretty excited for her.)
Actually, what I want to talk about is the unbelievable workload placed on today’s students, because if you don’t have a child in middle or high school, you might not be aware of how many hours the average student works in a day and over the course of the week. It’s more than full time, believe me.
My girls have been in the public school system here in our town since kindergarten. The schools are terrific and, as far as I know, they meet the needs of all students, not just the ones who struggle and/or the ones who are the very brightest. I have been impressed with and pleased by the educations my daughters have received.
Have you heard that Lake Woebegon expression “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average? While it has become synonymous with the human tendency to overestimate one’s abilities, I see the last part of that expression as a fitting description of how our school system views our students: All of the students have great potential, it’s just a matter of unlocking it.
I have a great deal of admiration and respect for the educators who work with my daughters and their peers day in and day out. I have no doubts about their commitment to educating those students and preparing them for life. These days, I’m particularly in awe of the middle school faculty and staff, because I cannot imagine what it must be like to spend so very many hours cooped up inside with 600 hormonal middle schoolers. In fact, I shudder a little to even think about it.
Starting in 7th grade, the school system works with the students to think long term about their goals and dreams. It might seem a tad bit early, but I think it’s great. College and vocational prep take time, so it’s good to get the kids thinking about it while they have time to do some research.
The one issue I have with our middle school is the overwhelming amount of homework these kids have. There are no breaks — not on the weekends, not over Thanksgiving, not over the winter holidays. And given that the high school (you know, the one with older students) has had a policy this year of specifically telling the teachers via email not to assign homework over the Thanksgiving and winter breaks, I have a real problem with the middle school’s stated policy of dumping a metric shit-ton of work on the kids for their days off. On any given day, my girls come home from their full day of work at school and then still have another 2-4 hours of work to deal with.
Am I correct in assuming that no one likes to work overtime? I know I don’t. What the middle school is doing is making the students work all day, then do overtime at night and on their days off — you know, those times when they should be relaxing, reading for pleasure, and oh I don’t know sleeping to recharge their exhausted brains.
Experts agree that teens need an average of 8.5-9 hours of sleep a night, but I can assure you that the girls in my house are not getting that. By the time they finish their work and unwind a little, then go to bed, they’re getting around 7-8 hours. And that unwinding time between finishing work and going to sleep is critical for the brain’s processes. You finish a massive report for work, hop straight into bed, and see how quickly you can get to sleep. Not so easy, is it? Pediatricians generally recommend at least 1-2 hours of down time away from computers and other screens before sleep can occur. Pediatricians also recommend a larger amount of time for running around outside, participating in sports, and generally getting away from the stresses of the day, but by the time middle school students finish their homework, there simply is no time.
Allow me to expand on an earlier comment: Over the Thanksgiving break, only one of my two daughters’ combined 12 teachers assigned homework. The rest gave the girls a small break. I told said daughter not to do the work assigned by the one teacher and then I emailed that teacher and explained that I had instructed my daughter not to do the assignment, as my family had had a challenging autumn and we really needed the long weekend to be together as a family, without school and work intruding. I’m not going to share her response here, but I’m pretty sure y’all would have been as unhappy as I was when I read it. She shut down my rational concerns and gave my daughter a zero on the assignment.
(On a related note, this teacher has stressed my daughter out so much that even though this is normally a subject my girl enjoys, she is absolutely hating it this year. The amount of homework is ridiculous. Furthermore, while the teacher does not grade homework for accuracy, she does give zeros if the students do not show all of their work in excruciating detail. Suffice it to say, while my daughter’s test scores are great, her homework scores are not.)
(BTW, the teacher in question does not have children who are old enough for homework. In my experience, teachers who have kids doing homework themselves are far more reasonable about these things.)
(When I’ve tried talking about my concerns about the middle school workload with the principal, he was not receptive to what I had to say.)
For the past week, I have had two extra middle school girls at my house while their parents are out of town, so I have had the opportunity to observe all their workloads. From the first day back from the winter break (a break during which they all had homework), they have been overloaded with work. Granted, tomorrow is the end of the term, so there have been term tests and end-of-term projects, but all of this has taken up most of the girls’ already limited free time.
Most nights, there has been at least one girl sitting at the kitchen table with a pile of books until 9 p.m. or later. Last weekend, they all got up on Saturday, ate breakfast, and hit the books. They worked much of the day and then two of them continued their work on Sunday. And the work is relentless: Just as they reach the top of the load, more is added. These students have no time off, ever.
When I have expressed my concerns to teachers and administrators, I have been told these are honor students, they can handle the work. Yes, yes they can. HOWEVER, just because they can doesn’t mean that they should.
If you are a parent or educator, I encourage you to read The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins. It is an eye opening study of the negative effects of pushing teens too hard.
I’m not suggesting that we allow students to slack off and not do their work, but I do think we need to be looking at how much work is piled on these kids and if it’s merited. Recent studies about Finnish schools show that students thrive when they’re not being tested constantly and overloaded with after-hours work.
I do understand that homework is never going away, even though there are numerous studies that cite the negative impact of homework. (For the record, there are some studies that support homework.) What I do think needs to be done is for schools to ease up on the students. Assign less homework overall (e.g. one page of math instead of two, three, or four) and don’t assign any at for weekends and school breaks.
I know I’m ranting, but this has been building up for months and now I just need to explode a little. I know that it’s possible that the folks at the middle school will see this and I’m fine with it. I also recognize that my rant will have no effect on the students’ work loads, but I think it still needs to be said.