A foreigner's input...
I grew up in Ireland and only moved to the USA when I was 22. During the Irish equivelant of elementary school (ages 4-5 through 12-13) we tended to work pretty hard on different topics, mainly math and Gaelic, with additional time spent on English, history, geography, etc. On top of that every Thursday evening we had an hour of singing training (basic songs in English and Gaelic, scales, etc), and on Friday evenings after our lunch break we had a ten minute spelling test then the remaining two hours to do at least one composition (often times one in English and one in Gaelic); afterwards we did art and crafts. It was a two teacher school with forty-ish students, each teacher taught four different classes/years but it tended to work out well.
The difference between twenty years ago and today is that back in the 80's we didn't have many mandatory tests - there were occasional assessments but they were 5-10 minute jobs and weren't the focus of our education. Different teachers in different schools tended to focus on different aspects of the varied curriculum, e.g. the teacher we had in the first room was quite well balanced across the board and squeezed in some more music than the other lady, while the lady in the second room focused, as mentioned above, on math and Gaelic so I personally don't have as much knowledge of history, geography, social sciences or, believe it or not, the down 'n dirty syntax of the English language. Having said that I believe I've got a good aptitude to understanding and writing the language, just don't ask me to define the core elements of a sentence or explain the difference between adjectives and adverbs
We had homework from about the age of 6 onwards, when we got into the third year. At this stage we had a few words to learn, which mostly was a case of writing some short sentences. We'd also often have a bit extra, maybe to learn a poem or song, write a short essay (two or three paragraphs) or draw something. As the years progressed the amount of homework increased but it was rarely something that took more than an hour, and honestly I fudged or skipped most of it, being the wreckless youth I was. When we got to secondary school, the equivelant of middle/high school in the USA, the homework load took a sharp increase, but that's for another day.
One interesting anecdote. I tended to do poorly on the weekly spelling tests, in which we had to write out the spelling of maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of the words we had learned during the week. While my classmates would usually get e.g. 8 or 10 out of 10, I'd usually get around the five or six mark. The odd thing, though, was that I tended to be the person my classmates asked for the spellings of different words, and more often than not I was correct.
Regarding homework, yes it is needed, school isn't a daycare, and parents need to be active
in helping their children learn and grow.
So, where was I? Ah yes.
In elementary school we learned a good deal of information and those, like my brother and I and a other students, who were somewhat ahead of the average in some topics were given chances to do occasional more advanced work in-class, e.g. more advanced math problems. However the one difference I feel between growing up then and the USA today is that we were still allowed to be children - we had mandatory play time where we played different sports, we often had an extra P.E. time during the week where we were taught something new (e.g. how to play Gaelic football rather than idly kicking a ball around), and we weren't expected to spend our entire nights doing homework. We also started school after 9am rathern than 7am some schools do, so could get the rest we needed. And you know what? We still grew up to be doctors, lawyers, high-end Java developers (my brother), etc.