Panel calls for limits on homework
By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- A committee studying the way teachers handle homework has come up with guidelines for middle school and high school educators that suggest limiting after-school assignments while also making them more effective.
The school district already had guidelines for elementary school students based on a "10-minute rule," and the committee used that as a basis for creating guidelines for grades 6-12.
That policy suggests teachers assign no more than 10 minutes of homework per night per grade level. For instance, fourth-graders are supposed to have no more than 40 minutes of homework each night for all courses.
Under the new guidelines, eighth-graders would have no more than 80 minutes of homework, 10th-graders no more than 100 minutes and 12-graders no more than 120 minutes.
The guidelines are just that -- recommendations. They will become part of the teachers handbook next year.
The committee of teachers, administrators and parents made their recommendations after School Board member Jack Lamb questioned whether students were being overly burdened with homework.
Lamb had learned that several students at Hillsborough High School, including his granddaughter, brought home 57 assignments over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Lamb said the new guidelines represent some positive progress, but he did not declare them the final answer to the problem.
"Well, it's got some specifics in there, which we didn't have before, so that's good," Lamb said. "But we have to make sure the teachers follow it. We're supposed to be educating the whole child, and while that's a cliche, I strongly believe it. I want to make sure they have good academic standards, but there's more to life (than homework). The first priority is family."
The guidelines deal with more than the quantity of homework. They also address quality issues.
"The most pressing thing is the appropriateness of the homework," said Mike Grego, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, who oversaw the committee. "Making it somewhat fun and challenging, having them think at a higher level and reinforcing what they learned in the day."
The committee based most of its findings on a U.S. Department of Education study, which came up with the following recommendations:
Communicate expectations early in the school year to both students and parents. Parents should be notified when a student does not routinely complete homework.
Create focused and clear assignments that help students review, practice, prepare or explore concepts in depth. Ensure students understand the purpose. Homework should not introduce new ideas.
Create varied assignments that challenge students to think, integrate and analyze.
Match assignments to the skills, interests, needs and resources available to the students.
Coordinate assignments among departments or teams so not to exceed the recommended amount of time devoted to homework. Special consideration should be given around testing and holidays.
Homework shall be graded in order to provide constructive feedback, praise and motivation.
These recommendations are a collection of "best practices," as defined by a group of about 50 state and national teachers of the year who researched homework issues, said committee member Jackie Heard, general director of middle schools.
"When you read it, it's really common sense," Heard said. "My goal is that they have quality homework. That was the big issue. For instance, in math instead of giving 50 problems that cover two objectives, it makes more sense to give 10 questions in each. What good are the next 20 to 30 problems?"
The guidelines cite an oft-quoted motto that "any homework is not better than no homework at all."
One goal of the guidelines is to encourage high school teachers, who issue the most homework, to collaborate so that students aren't overwhelmed with assignments.
"At the high school level, the departments should work together," Grego said. "If there's a research paper in the English class, we should understand not to have a history paper or a large mathematics assignment at the same time."
Carmen Austin, a former Teacher of the Year candidate at Wharton High School, said that's a tricky balance to achieve. "It's impossible for teachers to know how much homework other teachers are assigning," said Austin, who teaches advanced placement biology and heads the school's science department. "And it's difficult sometimes to say how long it's going to take one student to do a particular assignment versus another."
Austin's two sons came up through Hillsborough County schools, and she said she always monitored the amount of homework they had each night.
"I welcomed the fact that they had homework," she said. "And I would always question it if they didn't have homework."
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