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Families Find Homework Is a Tricky Assignment

Does more homework mean more learning? Maybe - but some educators question the current vogue for piling on the work.

The titles in the bookstore say it all: "Surviving Homework," "Winning the Homework War," "The Homework Monster," "Homework Without Tears."

Over at the Los Angeles Library, the story is the same. Not a single one of 21 related titles suggests that homework might be a child's best friend. On the contrary, a quick perusal paints a picture of parents and children facing off over one of the most problematic issues in family life.

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The explosion of literature drives home the point: Homework is back in vogue. Today, student backpacks bulge with take-home projects, papers, and drills, thanks to increasing emphasis on testing and concerns about educational achievement. But while authors are busily helping families cope with the deluge, many educators are asking whether assigning more homework is really an effective idea.

"When the standardized test scores start dropping, parents go screaming to the schools to give more homework. Is there any relationship per se between the two? Not necessarily," observes Lisle Staley, director of research and evaluation for the Santa Barbara, Calif., school district.

Emphasis on homework as an educational tool has fluctuated from decade to decade, often reflecting a sense of crisis in American competitiveness.

The launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik, for example, spawned a homework frenzy 40 years ago. The pendulum swung back when the country was swept with the liberal education reforms of the 1960s and '70s.

But in the wake of the landmark 1983 report "A Nation at Risk," which said the United States was losing ground in international comparisons, the National Commission on Excellence in Education recommended teachers double the amount of homework at all levels of school.

Skills and revelations

Few question that a targeted research project or interesting term paper can help a student develop stronger skills and spark new interests. Assignments can also help students develop discipline in carrying out a task.

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Martha Wood, a 30-year classroom veteran and former head of the lower school at the Columbus Academy for Boys in Ohio, observes that "there is an important place for something to be brought home from school, both as a means of sharing school with parents and reinforcing schoolwork."

Todd Allan, a father of four in La Canada, Calif., agrees. The family recently moved to the suburb from Los Angeles to be closer to good public schools.

Their new town, Mr. Allan says, "is mad about education, they're really into good schools and homework, so it makes it much easier to emphasize the importance of doing a good job."

He says environment makes all the difference. "It's the home life that separates the kids who are going to make it from the ones who are going to struggle." His two teenagers, Veta and Lincoln, are hot and cold when it comes to homework. "Veta would work till she dropped without us saying a thing. Lincoln just doesn't feel compelled so we have to scrutinize him much more."

Allan says the discipline required to complete homework is important, but not as crucial as what the kids are actually learning. "Homework is only designed to be part of the process, so we stay on the kids for that, not so much each little dotted 'i.' "

All this may sound like Homework 101 for parents, but Allan recalls that it wasn't until he learned how to study and work on his own that he turned his own high school experience around. "That's why we moved here, to make our job a little easier."

In addition to atmosphere, the type of assignment can make all the difference to parents guiding offspring through schoolwork.

Research on the real value of homework, notes Ms. Staley, has shown little beyond the commonsense conclusion that students with the academic muscle and discipline to complete homework are more likely to succeed in college.

More important, she notes, is the kind of homework being assigned. Good homework both reinforces and extends the school experience. But based on her own study and classroom observation, she says, "the homework that would actually do the most good is not necessarily being done. The jury is still out on this whole issue."

But is it really necessary?

Some educators go a step further. William Lenard, a former math teacher in New York state for three decades, says he simply does not believe in homework. "Children learn through an elevation of their curiosity ... this is not done through homework."

Instead, he advocates more laboratory time during the academic day. There, students have an experienced guide as well as the camaraderie of their class to help them better absorb the lesson.

Mr. Lenard, who taught Grades 7 through 12, says ill-considered homework "promotes careless, sloppy work that gives kids and parents the illusion that they're doing something when actually they're learning habits that will have to be unlearned later in life."

Those habits include solving problems incorrectly, rushing to complete work without regard to neatness or accuracy, and, in extreme cases, copying other students work.

Beyond that, his experience taught him that most homework was a waste of his own time. If some students didn't complete homework, which was often, "we'd spend the period reviewing the work for those who didn't." He adds pointedly, "what does that teach the kids who did their homework? That they wasted their time and class was boring because it just repeated the homework."

Lenard says, however, that homework can give students the opportunity to teach parents about what they're learning at school. "Parents shouldn't try to be the instructors. The important thing is that they're involved."

The role of the parent is key to successful homework, says Lee Canter, who runs his own educational consulting firm, Canter and Associates, and is co-author of "Homework Without Tears."

"It's not so much the homework as it is the opportunity for parents day in and out to be involved in their children's lives," he notes.

Pencil it in

Mr. Canter says that parents often miss the forest for the trees when it comes to homework "It's not the work itself, it's the larger issue of values. Families should think of homework as the child's first employment opportunity. What kinds of lessons do you want the child to learn about work?"

Once the larger issues are clear, ways to facilitate them become more obvious. "Families schedule soccer, piano, and ballet," Canter says. "Why shouldn't they schedule time for homework as well?"

How Much Is Enough?

Homework gurus Marguerite Radencich and Jeanne Shay Shumm say first-graders should get 30 minutes a day. That should increase gradually to 90 minutes a day for sixth-graders.

Former teacher Martha Wood suggests that elementary students should be able to finish any homework within an hour.

As for the higher grades, expert Lee Canter points out that the load is heavier in middle and high school and substantial projects can significantly affect the amount of time needed to complete work. Several hours a night would not be unusual.

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