Homework crunch: Is there time to just be a kid?
By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
After a long day of classes, rowing practice, an SAT prep course and dinner, Jenna Kahn finally gets around to her four hours of daily homework.
By then, it's about 8 p.m. She usually finishes her assignments about midnight, then gets up at 6 a.m. to start the cycle again.
"It's an excessive amount of work," says Kahn, a junior at Tampa's Plant High School who is enrolled in several advanced placement courses. The 16-year-old says she doesn't mind the heavy load.
But a lot of parents do.
In increasingly strident tones, they are complaining that their children are being saddled with too much homework. Some cite studies that show U.S. students are getting more after-school assignments than ever before, and at younger ages.
High school students spend hours writing multipage reports replete with footnotes. Middle-schoolers labor to fill poster boards with constellations and planetary systems. Even kindergarteners are required to do nightly assignments.
"Some teachers abuse it," says Joyce Kepto as she helps her 8-year-old daughter graph brain reaction times for a science project.
The St. Petersburg mother has two children at Pasadena Fundamental Elementary School, and twins at Bay Vista Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg.
She says her middle schoolers sometimes spend three hours a night on homework. Some of it, she says, is busy work.
At least one local school board member thinks teachers need to be reminded that students need time for themselves.
Hillsborough School Board member Jack Lamb came to that conclusion after several students at Hillsborough High School, including his granddaughter, brought home 57 different assignments over the Thanksgiving holiday.
"Kids have a family life in addition to a school life," he says. "We're losing sight of educating the whole child."
An unprecedented surge
A century ago, homework often was seen as a form of child labor. Some cities passed laws limiting it. Others banned it entirely.
Then came the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik 1 in 1957, which set off a wave of anguish over America's failures in science and math. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued "A Nation At-Risk," an influential report that documented the nation's many educational woes.
By then, homework was moving to the top of the school agenda -- a rise cemented in Florida by the heightened emphasis on standardized testing and school accountability.
The result: An unprecedented surge here and across the nation in after-school assignments.
In 1997, a University of Michigan study found that elementary school students were spending 50 percent more time on homework than they had 15 years earlier.
Two years later, a U.S. Department of Education study showed that almost three-quarters of the nation's 9-year-olds had daily homework. That was up from less than two-thirds in 1984.
U.S. students now do almost as much homework as their counterparts in Asia, and more than students in Germany.
"When I was in school, I had algebra in the seventh grade," says Jenna's mother, Susan Kahn, who also has a sixth-grader at Wilson Middle School and a freshman at Plant High. "Now they do algebra in the first and second grade. It's sick."
Though increasingly vocal, homework critics are almost certainly in the minority.
A survey done three years ago by Public Agenda, a nonprofit polling agency, found that 63 percent of U.S. parents thought their children were getting the right amount of homework. About 25 percent said they were getting too little, and 10 percent said their children were bringing home too much.
Kay Stout of New Port Richey says her daughter, a high school senior, could use more homework. Hard work early in life, she says, helps prepare kids for the rigors of college and adulthood.
"I don't have a problem with their spending some of their free time enhancing their education," Stout says. "I tell them, 'It's your responsibility to get educated.' "
The 10-minute rule
Unlike in Pinellas and Pasco, where homework decisions are left to teachers, the Hillsborough school district has formal guidelines for how much after-school work students should be assigned.
Elementary school teachers are not supposed to assign homework on Fridays or before holidays, and no more than 30 minutes a night for first- through third-graders. Fourth- and fifth-graders should get no more than 45 minutes of homework.
The guidelines for older children, which are under revision, say only that teachers should "give a reasonable amount of homework."
So the question remains: What constitutes "a reasonable amount"?
National guidelines do exist.
The National Education Association and the National PTA recommend a 10-minute rule: Ten minutes of homework per grade, per night.
That means first graders should have 10 minutes of work per night, and high school seniors should have two hours.
"We have heard some rumblings from parents and teachers about high stakes testing and how it has affected the curriculum at large," says Stephanie Fanjul, director of student achievement for the NEA, the nation's largest teacher's union. "Some of this may be translating into homework."
The impact of homework on student achievement remains unclear.
Some studies show that achievement levels soar for homework-laden students beginning in middle school. But University of Missouri psychology professor Harris Cooper, who has reviewed many studies on homework, says it has a negligible effect on standardized test scores in lower grades.
Still, Tina Simone is pleased to see Delaney, her Ruskin Elementary School first-grader, bringing home nightly spelling words such as February, blue and would.
"A little bit is good," she says, "if just for the discipline of doing it."
Cooper says parents who live in middle- to upper-class communities are the strongest backers of heavy homework requirements.
"It's much more likely from communities with very high standards," says Cooper, the author of Homework, a classic 1989 study on the subject. "Parents are usually professional and expecting the schools to be challenging to their children."
Other parents care, too.
Lena Vera is the mother of a student in F-rated Robles Elementary School in Tampa, where 90 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty.
Vera was delighted this year when her daughter started bringing home more and tougher assignments. She felt the homework last year was too easy.
"I felt like she was learning, but some of the stuff was very easy, like the spelling words," Vera said. "In first grade you teach them cat (and) dog, but not in second grade."
Pasco County superintendent John Long thinks arguments about homework are much ado about very little. He is convinced the majority of teachers assign reasonable amounts.
"If it were too heavy, I'd hear from more parents," he says. "And if it was too light, I'd hear from more parents."
-- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or email@example.com .
One week's homework for Jenna Kahn (this is from the week of Jan. 12, 2003)
* Advanced placement American history, read five pages.
* Advanced placement Psychology, read pages 317-327, complete study questions.
* Advanced placement English, study for test, write essay.
* Advanced placement Chemistry, read page 446, answer questions 33 through 36, complete worksheet.
* Spanish, study for test.
* Pre-calculus, read page 622, answer numbers 1 through 7, 25 through 44, and 46.
* American history, read five pages.
* Psychology, make notecards and read pages 328-334.
* English, none.
* Chemistry, read page 446, answer questions 38 through 42.
* Spanish, study.
* Pre-calculus, complete worksheet and study for quiz.
* American history, read five pages.
* Psychology, read pages 335-344, finish study questions.
* English, read chapter 2 of The Great Gatsby.
* Chemistry, complete worksheet and study for quiz.
* Spanish, complete worksheet.
* Pre-calculus, read page 557 and answer numbers 1 through 12, read page 558 and answer questions 1 through 6.
* American history, read five pages, study for essay-style quiz.
* Psychology, read pages 345-355.
* English, edit essay and read chapters 3 and 4 of The Great Gatsby
* Chemistry, complete worksheet.
* Spanish, write composition.
* Pre-calculus, complete worskheet.
Weekend assignments are given, but Jenna takes the night off.
Homework tips for parents
* Make sure the materials your child needs, such as paper, pencil and a dictionary, are available.
* Help your child with time management.
* Be positive about homework.
* When your child asks for help, provide guidance, not answers.
* Help your child figure out what is hard homework and what is easy homework.
* Watch your child for signs of failure and frustration.
* Reward progress in homework.
Source: U.S. Department of Education
Guidelines on the workload
The National PTA and the National Education Association have guidelines for how much homework students should receive:
* For children in kindergarten through second grade, homework is most effective when it does not exceed 10 to 20 minutes a day.
* Children in grades three through six can handle 30 to 60 minutes a day.
* In middle and high school, the amount of homework will vary by subject. Most older students also will have homework projects, such as research papers and oral reports, that may have deadlines weeks away. They may need help organizing assignments and planning work times.
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