A recent report from the Brooking Institute making the media rounds claims that the homework burden of students today have not significantly changed in the last several decades. Surely the headlines will vary, but from what I've seen already, I expect the narrative will shape itself around a lack of rigor and preparation of 21st century students. Like most issues, I'm sure this one will be treated with simplicity. Here are a few thoughts:
1) Lets assume that students today have less homework and the complaints of so many parents and students are unfounded. What then is different that leads to this perception? Students today have many more expectations than those of twenty years ago. In addition to the pressure of earning a class grade, every student has a battery of standardized tests adding to the pressure of school. On top of it, many others deal with AP testing, ACTs and SATs in their junior and senior years. (and some in freshman and sophomore)
2) The days of "math 9, math 10, math 11, math 12" are over. Every student takes higher level math courses. Most students twenty years ago were taking Algebra and Geometry in 9th and 10th grade or later. Today its more likely to be 7th and 8th grade.
3) At the end of junior year into the fall of senior year of high school, the college application process can seem like an entire additional class worth of work.
4) Graduation requirements have increased. In the time that I've been teaching (since 1996) the number of classes that a student takes have grown from six to eight in a year.
5) Students are expected in many cases and required in others to engage in community and civic service.
6) The number of extracurricular activities available to students has grown, and "travel" sports are much more common today.
7) Because internet. I've been known to spend a little more time getting my work done when working on the computer at home. Twenty years ago we had a single landline in the home and a few dozen channels on the tube if you were lucky for a distraction. I guess we had Mario and the NES by the late 80s. Kids today have many more distractions today that will fit in their pocket than kids 20 years ago had in an entire house.
8) The 21st century value of choice, options, and individual attention: Twenty years ago we might have said "you can't have your cake and eat it too." Today's mantra is "I want it all, I want it now."
Maybe students today do less homework. But they're doing a whole lot of something else. Conversations about 21st century education get stuck on the use of technology, but there's something bigger than that. It's an all out culture shift and we're all struggling to adapt.