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Who needs homework, anyway?

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Mention homework among the parent set, and you're likely to set off a discussion with all the explosive potential of a go-round on gun control or animal rights.

Lots of homework is all the evidence many partisans need of high standards and rigor. But for others, it's the stuff of horror stories about family fights, seventh-graders who don't go to bed till midnight, and assignments that resemble busywork.

Etta Kralovec and John Buell fall among the skeptics. Educators both, they're out to convince schools and parents alike that it's time to reassess the hallowed ground on which homework currently stands. Their new book - "The End of Homework" (Beacon Press) - charges that homework can be discriminatory, unnecessarily burden family life, and actually inhibit the learning it's designed to enhance. What would really help students in this era of higher standards, they say, is to reform our concept of homework, giving less (if any) and putting much of it back into school under the watchful eye of a trained teacher.

The following are excerpts from a recent conversation with the Monitor:

Why homework is a signature issue:

Kralovec: I conducted a study for Maine's Department of Education and interviewed kids who dropped out. All told stories about their reasons that involved homework. Then in speaking at professional organizations, people were very interested in talking about the problems they had with homework with their own kids.

As we demand more from schools, we're going to realize teachers need more control over the learning process. Homework is a black hole - teachers can't monitor who's doing the work, and they have a hard time following academic progress when they don't have complete control over the work kids do.

Buell: With the push for standards, some teachers think homework is a way to fill gaps. If you keep asking a school to deliver higher performance, and you realize you're not going over enough material, an apparent way to fill the gap is to throw on more homework.

On the history of homework:

Kralovec: In the 20th century, there were waves. In the 1920s, there was an "Abolish Homework" society. Again in the '60s. In progressive periods, there's attention to the education of the whole child. Homework is seen as limiting the development of the whole child.

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