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Teachers make homework optional

At Northwest Elementary, nine faculty members let parents decide whether an assignment must be done.

By KENT FISCHER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001


HUDSON -- Homework, long the scourge of schoolchildren everywhere, is on the skids at Northwest Elementary School.

At the suggestion of their principal, nine teachers have let students and their parents decide when, and if, the homework gets done.

And there will be no points off if the kids say "no thanks" to the nightly assignments.

"We have families running from one activity to the next in the evenings, and you've got children doing their homework in the car just to get it done," said principal Rene Sedlack. "I was concerned that too much homework could be creating a burden and stress for some families."

So Sedlack put the idea to her teachers last month: What if we didn't make kids do their homework?

Nine teachers took her up on it. They still give their students homework, but now parents decide which assignments get done. All the parents have to do is inform their children's teachers which nights' homework will not be completed.

Students, however, still are expected to study for tests and read for pleasure each night. Teachers also have the option of issuing mandatory homework for important lessons.

"If a parent looks and sees that their child knows their spelling words, and they don't feel like they have to do their spelling homework that night, that's okay with us," Sedlack said.

Judging from the response, the experiment is okay with many parents, too.

"How refreshing," wrote parent Linda Paey. "This appears to be such a sensible approach. I'm sure this will relieve some stress that (her daughter) Catherine feels in trying to finish all her homework all the time."

Quite a few parents, though, have told the school that their children will continue to complete assignments as usual.

Homework "gives them extra study time, which has never killed anyone," said parent Melissa Traham.

Sedlack has been pondering the homework conundrum for years. Too much of it is simply busy work that doesn't contribute anything to a student's academic growth. Large amounts of irrelevant or frustrating homework could actually turn students off to school, she said.

"How much is too much, and how much is enough?" she said. "We all wrestle with that."

One thing, though, is clear: To many parents, lots of homework is synonymous with a quality education. If there is no homework, then kids aren't learning or working hard, the theory goes.

But is that true?

Lots of researchers have studied homework and have found that it is largely irrelevant in elementary school. Yet U.S. schoolchildren are assigned more homework than ever. A University of Michigan study found that in 1997 elementary school children were typically assigned nearly two hours of homework a night, compared with 44 minutes of nightly assignments in 1981.

Third-grader Jennifer Gardner said her parents liked the optional homework policy, although they still encourage her to do as many assignments as she can.

"My dad says I should do it because sometimes homework is worth extra credit, and my mom still reminds me to do it," Jennifer said. "But it can take a long time because we have to write sentences, and we always have either math or spelling homework every day."

Now, Jennifer said, she doesn't have to worry about getting a bad report card if she doesn't finish each assignment.

The school will follow the progress of the 200 participating students to see if their grades slip, go up or stay the same. The policy could become permanent next school year.

"All we're saying is that parents can use their own judgment when it comes to homework," Sedlack said. "Imagine that. What a concept."

- Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6241. His e-mail address is kfischer@sptimes.com. Discuss this and other issues in our online discussion forum at http://www.sptimes.com/pascoforum.

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