Sunday, August 27, 2000

Homework gets longer, tempers get shorter


Some parents, educators resist overloading kids

By Lori Hayes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Vacation's over, and kids are heading back to class. Could that be pounds of homework inside those bulging backpacks?

[photo] Susan Mustian and her son Samuel,9, help daughter Sarah, 5, with homework while son Nathan, 8, does his math.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
        For thousands of Tristate students, the answer is yes. But an anti-homework backlash has some parents and scholars screaming enough.

        Schools are taking note.

        “Why should (students) prove to you they can be wonderful, repetitive robots?” says Ann Boyles, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Princeton City Schools. She recommends no more than 30 minutes of homework a night.

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        Homework, whether it means hours of hair-pulling stress or a rewarding exploration of ideas between parent and child, is a crunch for many families balancing sports, music lessons and even time for dinner. In today's fast-paced world, homework — and the amount of time spent on it — is the topic of increasing debate.

        A University of Michigan study found that 9- to 12-year-olds spent an average of 3 1/2 hours a week on homework in 1997, an hour more than students did in 1981. During that time, children's free time after school, eating and sleeping decreased from 40 percent to 25 percent of their day.

        “I hated (homework) when I had to do it, and I hate it now,” says Mike Brestel, a parent whose daughter Rebecca, 11, will enter the sixth grade at Carson Montessori in Price Hill this week.

        “When she was very young, it was really a struggle to have her get it done. We ended up doing as much as she did. There was screaming and crying. The homework issue seemed to swell up to fill every moment available.”

HOMEWORK SURVEY
  Parents, students: Use our email form to tell us about your homework experience.
        Parents like Mr. Brestel say schools are pushing kids too hard and homework intrudes on family time. Large amounts of homework for younger students can actually hurt their motivation and cause them to question their ability to succeed in school, homework reformers say.

        Other parents say the nightly assignments teach children responsibility, discipline, time management skills and how to work by themselves. It also allows parents to get involved with their children's schoolwork, they say.

        “To us, it comes first. That's my children's jobs,” says Stephanie Boyd, a mother of four children in Kentucky's Kenton County Schools. “Their first responsibility is to school.”

        Research varies on whether more homework equals more learning. So it's not surprising that some schools have developed policies to limit homework, while others are demanding more.

GUIDELINES
  The U.S. Department of Education suggests these amounts of homework each school day:
  • First through third grades: No more than 20 minutes.
  • Fourth through sixth grades: 20 to 40 minutes.
  • Seventh through ninth grades: Up to two hours.
        On average, children who do more homework do better in school, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And as students move up through the grades, homework becomes even more important to school success, the Education Department says.

        Others say there is no clear correlation between amount of homework and success in school, especially among younger students. Schools rely too much on afterschool assignments, and parents are held captive by the demands of their children's schools, homework reformers say.

        “Drawing a clearer line between the school and the home may enable families to reconstitute themselves as families and help parents pass on to their children something other than the exhaustion of endless work,” say Etta Kralovec and John Buell, co-authors of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children and Limits Learning.

        “Public attitudes have been very cyclical,” says Harris Cooper, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri and author of The Battle Over Homework.

        “A backlash occurs about every 30 years, at least it has in the 20th century. In the alternate years, there's concern that there's too little homework.”

        At Taylor Mill Elementary in Kenton County, teachers follow a homework policy that acknowledges “mixed findings” in the research. The policy encourages up to 1 1/2 hours of homework a week for kindergarteners and first-graders, up to seven hours a week for fifth-graders.

        At Fort Wright Elementary in Covington, kindergartners through third-graders are expected to have one to three hours of homework a week. Fourth- through sixth-graders get four to six hours a week.

        “The students need homework,” Principal Margaret Hoffman says. “Children need to have constant reinforcement if they're going to commit things to memory, and they have to have some of that reinforcement at home.”

        Many national educational organizations advocate the 10-minute rule: Students should have an average of 10 minutes of homework a night for each grade. First-graders should get 10 minutes of homework, second-graders 20 minutes and so on.

        And when it comes to effective homework, it's quality, not quantity, that counts, says Thomas Guskey, a professor of educational policy studies and evaluation at the University of Kentucky.

        Multiple hours of homework “don't serve an educational purpose. It becomes an exercise in persistence,” he says. “Doing more of the same old stuff doesn't just make it better.

        “If a child can do 10 problems right, he can do 50 right. If they can't do 10 problems, they can't do 50.”

        Cincinnati Public Schools have no districtwide policy for how much after-school work the city's 42,000 students get. Individual schools — and in some cases, teachers -- determine the homework load.

        One of the city's more explicit policies is at Anderson Place School in Madisonville, a magnet school for kindergarten through eighth grade. Teachers there assign work every Monday through Thursday. On weekends, students are expected to catch up on missed assignments, work on long-term projects and read books other than their textbooks.

        Second- and third-graders get about an hour of homework each night, while fourth- through eighth-grade students get one to two hours. Students in the school's college preparatory program spend as much as three hours a night on homework.

        In addition, all students are given weekly math review sheets to help them prepare for the Ohio Proficiency Test, and every child is expected to read for at least 30 minutes each night.

        “We only have students six hours a day,” Principal Gerry Moore says. “Anytime you can continue that educational work you can make progress.”

        And doing homework can pay off, Anderson Place teacher Susan Glass found. She monitored her students who completed their homework on a regular basis (about 30 percent) and found those students scored better on Ohio's proficiency tests.

        Princeton City Schools moved away from hours of homework for elementary students about four years ago.

        “Thirty minutes — after a full school day where a kid is productive and engaged — should be enough,” says Ms. Boyle, the district's assistant superintendent of curriculum.

        If kids are learning throughout the day, they shouldn't be required to spend all night doing homework, she says.

        Catherine Raabe, a parent of two Princeton students, says she's pleased with the district's shift toward less homework. Her 10-year-old son, Graham, had about 20 to 30 minutes of homework per night in his fourth grade class at Robert E. Lucas Intermediate School last year. Her daughter, Geneva, now a freshman at Princeton High School, had about 90 minutes a night when she was in the fifth grade.

        “Children need a break,” Ms. Raabe says. “Nine to ten hours of work a day is about the most I can do and do well.”

        If homework is becoming more onerous, standardized tests are partly to blame, some parents say. Teachers are being required to teach more, and schools are being pushed to raise test scores.

        Comparisons with other countries also continue to convince schools and parents that American students just aren't studying hard enough.

        At La Salle High School, a boys parochial, college prep school in Green Township, students are expected to have about 20 minutes of homework a night in every class. Most kids have six or seven classes.

        “There's homework every day, every weekend, every holiday,” says Susan Whittle, a French and English teacher at La Salle.

        Students must practice what they've learned each day or they'll forget it, especially when studying a foreign language, she says.

        For Susan Mustian's children, extracurricular activities, play time or family time take a backseat to schoolwork.

        “The priority will always be homework,” says Ms. Mustian, the mother of a kindergartner, a third-grader and a fourth-grader at North Pointe Elementary in Boone County. Her kids tackle their homework first each afternoon before moving on to sports or music lessons or play time.

        Last year, her two older children each had about 30 to 45 minutes of homework each night, which she said she didn't think was a burden on them or her family.

        “They probably could use a little more homework, but I will probably see that as they get older,” she says.

        That's for sure, says Linda Crosby, mother of a freshman at Dixie Heights High School.

        “When you've got a child who's sat in school all day and the teacher still gives them three, four or five hours of homework, that's a bit much,” she says.

        Last year, her youngest child, then an eighth-grader at Turkey Foot Middle School, had an average of two hours of homework a night. Her 12th-grader, who graduated this spring, had to tackle about three to four hours of homework each night. It was not unusual for the senior to still be up at midnight completing assignments.

        “They try to teach so much. It gets pretty tough,” Ms. Crosby says.

        As for Rebecca Brestel, the homework nightmares have lightened up as she's gotten older, her dad says. The Carson Montessori sixth-grader is better able to handle the workload, especially if she does one to two hours of work a night.

        But is the nightly effort helping her learn more?

        “We always end up doing it over in class, because half the kids don't do it or don't understand it,” Rebecca says.

        Cincinnati Enquirer reporters Andrea Tortora and Jennifer Mrozowski contributed to this report.

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