Two complaints parents have about homework are: There's too much and there's too little.
In a report released Tuesday from the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., senior fellow Tom Loveless says those who think there is too little homework as having the more common complaint.
But he adds that those complaining about too much homework get most of the attention.
"The homework horror stories need to be read in a proper perspective," he wrote. "They seem to originate from the very personal discontents of a small group of parents. They do not reflect the experience of the average family with school-age children."
And, Mr. Loveless continues, media reports about increasingly overburdened children are real but atypical.
"The homework load has been pretty stable over the last two to three decades," he said in an interview.
Both the National PTA and the National Education Association favor the rule-of-thumb limiting homework in all subjects to 10 minutes times the grade level. Thus, a first grader should have no more than 10 minutes of homework a night, a sixth grader up to 60 minutes, and a high school senior up to two hours.
Some schools have policies, such as the Quaker Valley elementary schools, where kindergarten homework is limited to 10 to 15 minutes a night, growing to 40 to 60 minutes in grade 5.
"I think homework is a good time for kids to practice the skills they've learned in the classroom," said Jillian Bichsel, director of academic services in Quaker Valley.
The actual amount of homework can vary widely. Take these three Pittsburgh Public Schools students, all members of the TeenBloc at A+ Schools.
Imani Downing of the North Side, a sophomore at Pittsburgh Perry High School, said she rarely gets homework and usually in just one class.
"I feel like we should have homework in every class," she said, explaining that would give "more learning and just a better chance to understand things and take advantage of it."
Amma Ababio of Highland Park, an 11th-grader at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School who is taking advanced classes, figures she does homework from about 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on school nights. She said her phone is off, her computer is off except for research and she even does homework while she eats dinner.
"I have homework in every single class," she said.
Jermalle Johns of the North Side, a sophomore at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12, is between the two. He figures he spends "maybe an hour on homework tops."
He doesn't think the homework helps because he learns from paying attention in class. "I get it done because it's another grade that helps me get an 'A.' "
The Brookings report doesn't address homework quality, a topic of many studies.
Alan Lesgold, dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, summarized the studies this way:
"Bottom line is that it depends heavily on the quality of the assignment, the extent of quick feedback, whether the student is motivated to do it, and possibly whether there is support outside of school, especially for the kind of big projects that can be demanding of a lot of parent time that may be less available when the parents are working multiple minimum-wage jobs."
Mr. Loveless based his conclusions on data from three surveys: a student survey that was part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as NAEP or the Nation's Report Card; a MetLife annual survey of parents and students; and a survey of college freshmen by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.
In the 2012 college freshmen survey, students were asked how much they spent per week on various activities in their last year of high school. Nearly two-thirds said they spent six or more hours a week socializing with friends.
But only 38.4 percent spent that same amount of time on studying or homework their last year in high school. Homework came in behind not only socializing but also exercise or sports as well as working for pay.
That percentage is less than in 1986, when 49.5 percent of college freshmen said they spent six or more hours a week studying and doing homework in their last year of high school.
"When I give this talk and show the college freshman data to college professors, they gasp and they all nod their heads, like, 'We thought there was a problem,' " Mr. Loveless said.
The long-term trend NAEP asks students in 2012 how much time they spent on homework yesterday.
In all three age groups questioned, more than a fifth had no homework at all: 22 percent of 9-year-olds; 21 percent of 13-year-olds; and 27 percent of 17-year-olds. For most, that was close to 1984 except for 9-year-olds, whose 1984 results show 35 percent didn't have homework.
Of 9-year-olds, 57 percent said they received homework but less than an hour. The percentages were 44 percent at age 13 and 26 percent at age 17.
As for those receiving more than two hours of homework, the percentages in 2012 were within a point or two of those in 1984.
In 2012, 5 percent of those age 9, 7 percent of those age 13, and 13 percent of those age 17 reported they had more than two hours of homework the previous night.
"The bottom line: regardless of how the question is posed, NAEP data do not support the view that the homework burden is growing, nor do they support the belief that the proportion of students with a lot of homework has increased in recent years," the Brookings report stated.
The homework conclusions are part of the 2014 Brown Center Report on American Education. The report can be found at www.brookings.edu/BrownCenterReport.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.