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The Return To Homework

If there's anything guaranteed to make families wake up and feel the full brunt of school's return, it's homework.

Now homework can be a good idea. It gives students time to practice new techniques and move forward. It encourages discipline. In the best of cases, it can be creative and prompt a good give-and-take in the family.

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The problem is assignments that unnecessarily frustrate kids and leave parents scratching their heads or helping too much. Homework will not always be terribly exciting, nor does it have to be. But much of it could offer more - more opportunities to see the big picture, more open-ended questions instead of multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank, and when called for, a less-can-be-more approach.

Homework regained cachet after the 1983 report "A Nation at Risk" passed devastating judgment on American education. The National Commission on Excellence in Education recommended that teachers double homework assignments. In some areas, the load is definitely up. In other school systems, teachers report that they actually give less than they used to.

More homework can sound like a good idea - but a lot depends on how it's done. Do first-graders, for example, need homework? Some experts recommend 30 minutes a day. But when many of the tasks assigned these starting students look suspiciously like preparation for standardized tests, is that necessary?

As kids move up the primary school ladder, projects kick in. Often, they end up being a contest between the parents, one that favors those who have an art degree or a cache of power tools. Rarely do they include a helpful injunction against extensive parental involvement.

Then you hit middle school, leading to those nights when the phones heat up as parents and kids try to figure out exactly what the teacher wants. Often, some minor clarification or greater detail would have solved the problem.

I've seen very good assignments, ones that teach kids well - and make an impression. My middle-schooler still remembers a fourth-grade assignment to learn about a historical figure, prepare a dialogue, dress up, and present it. He also remembers tasks with so many specifications that what could have been an interesting experience became a frustrating burden to a young child.

Homework can dramatically reshape family life. Parents can do their part by helping kids to carve out time and learning when and when not to help. Teachers can make evenings much easier by ensuring that students and parents always get the point.

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