By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Night after night, 13-year-old Morgan Sarakatsannis labors for two to three hours over homework in her Fort Thomas home.
Last year, the Highlands Middle School eighth-grader estimates her homework load was one hour a night. As her work multiplies, so does her frustration.
"When Morgan gets mad, she's mad at the teachers, mad at the table, mad at the books, mad if the dog walks by, mad at me, mad at the world," said her mother, Jennie King. "I would be stressed out if I had that much homework, too."
Jennie King looks on as her daughters Amanda Sarakatsannis (L), 12, and Morgan Sarakatsannis, 13, do their homework from Highland Middle School.
King was "appalled" when she heard about two recent studies that say the nation's students typically do no more than an hour of homework a day. One researcher said the homework load is not heavy now and never has been.
But King, who also has a 12-year-old seventh grader, Amanda, said this is the worst year for homework. And they have a lot of company.
An informal Cincinnati.com poll showed most of the 150 respondents believe their children have too much homework. Most reported their kids do 1-2 or 2-3 hours of homework nightly.
"Their homework has gotten increasingly harder over the years," King said. "It's been a struggle. Not only are they cranky and rushed, they are not able to do chores around the house. We're lucky if we get one night a week when we can all sit down and eat together."
Teachers, meanwhile, said they don't give homework just to create busy work.
"While I don't speak for every teacher, I do think that I speak for most when I say that I don't assign homework simply because I can," said Laura Hendricks, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Pleasant Run Middle School in the Northwest Local School District.
"I have a child of my own, and I'm not interested in giving up my time with her to grade meaningless assignments, just like these parents aren't interested in giving up family time for their kids to complete them," Hendricks said. "Parents should realize that these assignments are given to help their child master the concepts and, ultimately, succeed. Mastery requires practice."
Vicki Hirsch taught for 30 years at Montgomery Elementary before retiring in August.
"Some teachers and parents value abundant homework as being positive,'' Hirsch said. "They almost feel that it enhances the teacher's reputation, somehow."
Saying no to homework
Nationally, homework is coming under attack.
In 2000, the book The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children and Limits Learning, by Etta Kralovec and John Buell made headlines by challenging the value of homework.
Locally, parents said they have complained to teachers about the amount of homework with some success.
"Our culture is chronically over-stimulated, obsessed with and exhausted by endless activity - even after a good day's work," said parent Susan Glassmeyer of Springfield Township. "The homework issue is really out of balance. ... It's psychologically preparing them for the business world - push, push, push and work overtime."
Glassmeyer and David Fabrey have a son who is a freshman at a Catholic high school. Over the years, they've grown frustrated with the sheer volume of homework, which they feel is largely quantity - not quality - driven.
Bridget Mitchell's 10-year-old son, Andrew, is a fourth-grader at Hyde Park Elementary. Until recently, he had two to three hours of homework a night.
"By the time you come home, get changed, do homework, go to basketball, have dinner, get ready for the next day, it's 9:30 or 10 o'clock, and you haven't even had a conversation with your child about the day," Mitchell said.
"I'm a firm believer that kids need down time just like adults do," she said. "By the time you get to the end of the week, everybody is kind of sniping at each other. Nobody is very happy."
Homework for parents
For some parents, it's not the quantity of homework that upsets them. It's what students are asked to do. Some object to assignments that younger children can't do alone, such as collect items on a nature hunt.
"For younger children, especially kindergarten and first grade, homework is sometimes meant to be 'family homework' so that families may work together and share in their child's school experience," said Katie Barkley, a kindergarten teacher at St. Bartholomew Consolidated School in Springfield Township.Linda Lowe of Liberty Township, who has a fourth-grader and sixth-grader at Liberty Elementary, doesn't mind when homework reflects what was taught in class. She is bothered, however, when homework appears to be new material they don't understand.
"They're fine, because they have got a college-educated mom who can help them. That's not the case in every household. The problem is the way I learned to do it 30-plus years ago is not the way they teach it anymore."
The homework load at Liberty Elementary was heavier at the beginning of the year - about two hours a night, Lowe said. But after parents raised concerns with teachers during a curriculum night in September, the load lightened.
"Everybody's tempers are a lot shorter," Lowe said. "Days are shorter. By the time they get their homework done, going outside is not an option."
Late nights, sleepy days
Many students who answered the poll talked about late nights and sleepy days brought on by homework.
Kevin McDonald, a busy 17-year-old Amelia High School senior, spends two to three hours a night on homework.
"I'm not able to do other things around the house like chores and have any free time," Kevin said.
Some students don't object to heavy homework loads. College students reported a different perspective now that they're nearing graduation.
Christopher Meyer of West Chester is a 21-year-old senior at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind. The Lakota West graduate is majoring in chemical engineering.
"If students are more concerned with socializing with friends and other non-academic endeavors, they will not have the skills necessary to succeed in life," he said. "The eight hours a typical student spends in class is not nearly enough for them to absorb the skills necessary for a successful career."
Back at Morgan's house, she's in the throes of homework. She has so much work this year that she dropped horseback riding lessons.
"I was upset," Morgan said as she worked on her math. "I really like horseback riding. Now, I can't go to competitions anymore because of homework."
After spending seven hours daily at school, Morgan comes home to a pile of homework.
"It seems like another seven hours," Morgan said. "It's all work and no play."
The U.S. Department of Education suggests the following guidelines on how long daily homework should last:
Grades K-3: Up to 20 minutes.
Grades 4-6: 20 to 40 minutes.
Grades 7-9: Up to two hours.
Grades 10-12: Up to 21/2 hours.
Homework tips for harried families
The Enquirer Education Panel, comprised of students, educators and parents, suggests tips for families who feel overwhelmed by homework:
Review how much in-school time is given to complete assignments. If a student is not taking advantage of time in school, a parent might wish to reward a student who completes more assignments before coming home.
Some students do homework better alone in a room; others need the presence of an adult to help them stay on task. An egg timer can be helpful here. Ask the student to do two problems before the sand runs down, then increase the number of problems. The student may be done a lot sooner. Making a game of things is usually helpful.
The best time for homework depends on the student. Some children need to play outside or "decompress" after classes. Others find that it's OK to complete assignments as soon as they get home. Alternate times for homework. See what time slots work best.
If the child can't handle extra-curriculars with required homework, then drop some of the activities. School is the primary responsibility.
Make homework a family event every night after dinner. This way, you do what you have to do, but get to spend time together, as well. For example, have younger children color or practice printing the alphabet while you're helping older children.
Use the "chip method" as your children becomes more independent. Supply chips as they sit down and get started on their own, finish a paper, don't fret during their homework time, remember to bring items home consistently, etc.
Students can accumulate these chips on a chart (four equal $1) and cash them in for a treat. Have the child choose a restaurant or have a friend over to play.
Make sure assignments are clear. If there's confusion - either by the student or parents - contact the teacher.
Establish consequences. If kids don't finish their homework, they need to explain why in a note to the teacher.
The television should be off during study time, but don't rule out the radio. Playing soft music can have a calming effect on students, especially those with "attention" issues.
Would you like to be part of the Enquirer's Education Panel? We are looking for students, parents, teachers and school administrators who can share their experiences, insights and expertise on a wide range of education topics. Our panel meets periodically with Enquirer reporters and editors who are involved in classroom coverage. We also communicate often through e-mail.
If you're interested, contact Bill Cieslewicz, the Enquirer's Education Editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (513) 768-8398.
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