The best times in Karen Brown's house are when her children don't have homework.
"They're happier. They're more rested," said the Louisville parent of a middle schooler and a high schooler. "They have that fun, creative time."
Though not a fan of homework, she said she understands why schools pressured to perform are assigning it. She doesn't mind projects that teach skills like teamwork, but busywork "drives me crazy."
Her views are reflected in new books and research questioning the value of homework and reigniting the perennial debate over how much time children should spend studying.
There are horror stories of young children buried by hours of work, with frustrated parents saying family time has been replaced by never-ending assignments. On the other side are educators who say homework serves a valuable purpose and improves achievement.
Alfie Kohn, author of the new book "The Homework Myth," encourages parents to ask tough questions about homework assignments.
"No study has ever found any academic benefit to homework before high school age," he said. "Even in high school, the evidence is weak. Parents should ask what's the evidence that a child will be at a disadvantage if he or she didn't have to work a second shift after coming home."
He's especially concerned about the rise in assigning homework to the youngest students. He points to a national survey that found that 64 percent of 6- to 8-year-olds reported having homework on a given day in 2002 - up from 34 percent in 1981. And their time spent studying at home more than doubled.
Fifteen minutes too much
Leisha Connors Bauer, who has a third-grader at Boulder's Mesa Elementary, said her son has declared that he hates homework because it takes too much of his time.
She said he has about 15 minutes of reading a night, plus sometimes writing assignments. He typically gets math and science work done in classes.
"When you're 8, 15 minutes is a really long time," she said. "I'm really dreading when it gets to be more as he gets older."
Kohn advocates that schools nix homework assignments except on the rare occasions when it enhances understanding, freeing students from "pointless worksheets and busywork."
"That's the central mystery - why are we assigning homework when the pain far outweighs any possible gain?" he said.
But Lafayette Elementary Principal Holly Hultgren said the recent anti-homework blitz is taking educators by surprise.
The research she's using, from the book "Classroom Instruction that Works," gives an achievement edge to students assigned homework. She said moderate homework teaches self-discipline and organization and reinforces the skills taught in class.
But she also understands the arguments and encourages teachers to minimize student stress. If students don't understand something and get through the assignment, their parents can simply write a note.
"Homework should be fun," she said. "Students should feel confident. They're practicing something and getting better at it."
Homework versus dinner
At Lafayette Elementary, fifth-graders recently completed a writing assessment that required them to take a position on the homework issue. Some complained that homework takes too long and eats into dinnertime and activities. Others wrote that they enjoy completing assignments.
Kyle Guerrero actually lobbied for more work.
"We have to get ready or we're going to flunk middle school," the fifth-grader said.
But researcher Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor who recently updated a comprehensive homework study from 20 years ago, said elementary school homework doesn't make much difference.
He found that there's little to no correlation between elementary school homework and overall achievement. For high schoolers, the academic benefits disappear after more than two hours a night. In middle school, it's more than 11/2 hours.
He said he hears from teachers that homework is a major source of friction with parents.
"It's going to be very difficult for educators to find a homework strategy that satisfies everybody," he said. "They're probably doing the best that can be expected."
Boulder Valley's guidelines are 10 to 30 minutes a night for kindergarten through third grade, 30 to 50 minutes for grades four and five and 45 to 90 minutes for grades six through eight.
Most elementary schools follow the 10-minute per grade rule - a first-grader gets 10 minutes, a second-grader 20 minutes and so on.
Many Boulder Valley parents say teachers are sensitive to the need for family time and generally do a good job assigning higher quality homework, not just repetitive worksheets.
"I've never had a teacher assign too much homework," said Lafayette's Marla Joy Leonard, who has three children at Ryan Elementary and one at Centaurus High.
When soccer or other activities get in the way, she said, teachers are understanding and allow extra time to finish assignments.
But other parents say homework is taking over valuable family time.
Parent Cathy Strausser, whose daughter is a seventh-grader at Boulder's Platt Middle School, is all for a homework ban.
"It's redundant," she said. "It's not only stressful for the kids, it's stressful for me when I have to help figure out what the teacher wants out of the assignment."
Balancing sports and studying
Boulder High School junior Nicki Bailey also finds homework stressful. She often can't start studying until 9 p.m., after she gets home from cross country meets and practices.
"You're in school seven hours, and then you have to do more homework," she said. "A lot of it is just busywork. It just feels like a waste of time."
In high school, the amount of homework depends on what classes students take, with a significant amount of homework assigned in advanced placement and International Baccalaureate, or IB, classes.
Fairview High junior Claire Bovet, who's taking a full load of IB classes, said the crush of homework can sometimes be overwhelming, but she sees most assignments as worthwhile.
"It can really help you solidify what you learn in class," she said. "People say that after doing the homework in the IB program, college is easy."
Fairview senior Alex Grossman added that she's learned valuable time management skills from juggling IB homework, cross country practice and working as an ice hockey referee. She estimated she has two to three hours of homework a night.
"I do a lot of it during off periods," she said. "Homework is really meant to help you."
She credits some of her success to the study skills she learned at Louisville Middle School. She's watched friends who had less homework in middle school flounder.
"They had a really hard time learning how to study every night," she said.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Amy Bounds at (303) 473-1341 or email@example.com.