So are an increasingly vocal legion of parents like Tobias, frustrated over what they see as a dangerously rising tide that threatens to swamp what little free time many families currently enjoy. "Four hours a night is not uncommon in high schools—and it's just ludicrous," says Dianne McKay, 42, CEO of Strategic Television and a mother of four in Thousand Oaks, Calif., whose lobbying spurred her school district last year to limit daily homework to no more than 10 minutes per grade (for instance, fifth graders would have a maximum of 50 minutes). "My two oldest children have grown up in their rooms doing homework."
Plenty of parents, of course, support current levels of work—if not more. Particularly in lower income, higher minority urban areas, parents "believe that the schools are not expecting enough from their kids," says Steve Farkas, director of research at Public Agenda, a nonprofit research group in Manhattan. "They want their kids pushed more." James Bruce definitely does. The Jamaica Plain, Mass., father of three—James, 14, Saunteena, 12, and Semaj, 7—doesn't think his older two children get enough homework. "I'll ask Saunteena if she has homework, and she'll say, 'I did it already'—and I find out she got homework from only one class," says Bruce, 41, a Northeastern graduate who runs a flower shop with his wife, Maritza. "I think homework should be assigned from every class. All that is to prepare for the real world."
But not everyone agrees that more homework leads to more learning. "Research clearly shows that homework is one of the many things that can help children achieve academically," says Claude Goldenberg, a professor of teacher education at California State University, Long Beach. "But like any good thing it can be overused and abused. Once you get beyond about 10 hours a week, the benefits seem to level off. Either kids burn out or teachers don't assign things worth the extra time."
And when it comes to homework, too much can be a very bad thing, believes educator Etta Kralovec, coauthor of The End of Homework. "I think homework is a primary cause of the anxiety and depression our children are feeling," she says. "Kids today can never escape school." Kralovec suggests there may also be strong links between homework volume and the rise in childhood obesity.
Linda Bellew, 45, would concur. "My son was overweight until last year because he would come home and do his homework all night long," says the Piscataway, N.J., mother of Jason, now 17, who as a fifth grader was already spending a daily four to five hours on assignments including 50 to 75 long division problems per night. "I told Jason to start with 10 problems and if he could do them all, to move on," she recalls. "The rest of the problems were Mom's." Bellew began complaining about the load when her son, a straight-A student, entered middle school, but "it was like hitting a brick wall," she says. It wasn't until Jason's freshman year of high school, when the district got a new superintendent, that she found a sympathetic ear.
That new administrator was Ron Bolandi, who'd been watching his own then high school-age son and his friends struggle with hours of assignments every night. "Richard was not a good math student and he spent hours and hours doing geometry and algebra and not really getting it—we used to argue over it all the time," Bolandi remembers. "I don't think it's the parents' job to teach their children the lessons they were supposed to get during the day." After conversations with like-minded parents including Bellew, Bolandi convinced the Piscataway school board to pass a policy to limit homework.
"There hadn't been any rhyme or reason to how much homework was assigned—some second, third and fourth graders were getting three to four hours a night," says David Grossman, who was president of the board that approved Bolandi's proposal. "The new policy put some common sense in place, and it recognized that school wasn't 100 percent of a child's life."
That goal has driven Dianne McKay for nearly a decade, starting back when she was the single working mother of Danny, now 16, and Carly, 14. "I'd pick my two kids up from daycare and, after not seeing them all day, turn into the homework monster," says the California mother (whose family expanded after her 1992 marriage to engineer Duncan McKay to include Jackson, now 7, and Bennett, 5). "It was really stressful." Even with another adult in the house, the work—and the frustration—grew along with her kids. "I went to school in the same district in the 1970s and I didn't have much homework," McKay says. "Yet I have a good education and a decent job despite the fact I didn't spend half my adolescence doing homework."
Around five years ago McKay began "dropping off homework packets at the district office so they could see firsthand the amount of homework children were receiving." Eventually the district asked McKay and other concerned parents to help hammer out a new policy. "In the '80s, with the push for standardized testing, the thinking became, if some homework is good, then more must be better," explains Richard Simpson, the district's assistant superintendent. "But increasingly we heard parents say, 'We don't have any time left to be a family.' "
Janalee Tobias says she still doesn't. After the South Jordan, Utah, mom complained about the assignment that ruined her family's Christmas, she says her daughter's teacher responded—by transferring Lisa out of the class. "Everybody had told me, 'Don't complain,' " says Tobias. "But I've always taught my kids that you have to speak out if you want to make changes."
Undeterred, Tobias found an ally in another mother, Kerry Kemp Dalling, 43, whose two daughters—Jessica, 13, and Taylor, 12—attend school with her girls. Fed up with spending two to three hours every night helping their daughters finish their homework, the pair went before the Jordan school district board of education in September to plead for fewer homework assignments. The board was sympathetic but took no action. "Teachers are being graded, fairly or unfairly, by how well students do on standardized tests," says school board president Ralph Haws, 63, a former educator. "The parents have a legitimate concern, but then so do the schools. With limited time at school, kids are going to have to take some work home."
That answer doesn't satisfy Dalling, who taught middle school English for seven years. "My kids should be jumping in piles of leaves or playing ball," she says. "Instead they're doing homework, and we're up until 11 o'clock a lot of nights just trying to get everything done. Our kids are missing out on their childhoods."
Susan Christian Goulding in Thousand Oaks, Cathy Free in Salt Lake City, Diane Herbst in Montclair, N.J., Laura Morice in Charlotte, N.C., Steve Barnes in Little Rock and Bob Stewart in San Antonio